Wilton Barnhardt: “I’m nervous about being in any camp”
Wilton Barnhardt, an associate professor of creative writing in NC State’s Master of Fine Arts program, is about to publish his fourth novel, Lookaway, Lookaway. The summer issue of NC State magazine includes an interview with Barnhardt and an excerpt from the novel, which focuses on a Southern matriarch who is trying to preserve her family’s name and legacy. The book will be available Aug. 20.
Here is more of the interview with Barnhardt. The following is an edited transcript.
How would you describe yourself as a novelist? I’ve eluded categories. I’m not a naturalist, I’m not a romantic, I’m not a realist. I would probably say that I’m a classicist. I hope I’m writing sort of the classic novels of the 19th century. I’m nervous about being in any camp. I have a New York novel. I have a religious novel. I have a Hollywood novel. This is the Southern novel.
When did you know you wanted to write these types of classics? I was in New York trying to make it as a freelance writer or in journalism — anything that was near publishing — and I bought Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. It’s the story of a young man’s life over a period of about 25 years, through all the ups and downs; and in the end, he doesn’t get to do many of the great things he thought he was going to get to do and the love of his life turned out to not be so wonderful. And I just thought, “Yes, yes.” It struck me as this was how you wrote. It started something in me, and I started reading the classics of the 19th century novel. It started my love and my sense that I was going to write very grandly.
What appeals to you about the grand novels? It’s the completeness of the world. I like the world I live in just fine. But one of the great pleasures of novel writing is that you get to escape entirely into a world of your own making. You get to decide what happens, and I like to disappear into that world. I’ve often said that it’s a good thing that people value novel writing. Otherwise they would probably commit us to an asylum, because we live five or six years with alternative universes in our heads and these characters are as real to us as people we know, sometimes more real. You live with them so completely.
How do you decide what to write about? It’s a combination of what I’m drawn to and the thought that someone ought to write a book about dot, dot, dot. I often think I’m writing books I would want to read; and, sadly, I have to go ahead and write them because no one has or is writing that particular book.
Describe your writing process. I don’t have a good work ethic. I will answer every email in the inbox and do everything else in order to not write. At the same time, when I get dug in, I’m unstoppable. I can produce tremendous amounts in a small amount of time. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I have doubted each and every one as to whether I’ll finish it. I’ll say, “Maybe this is the one, Wilton, where your career is over. Three books isn’t so bad. It’s not the end of the world to have written three.” And then the fourth one got finished, and I’m sure I’ll say that with the fifth one, too. Well maybe four is it for you. Maybe that is the sum total of your work. Maybe you should just walk away since you don’t seem to want to write anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m tortured, but I’m certainly not productive.
What are you working on now? The European novel is next. It’s set around the time of the financial collapse, and I’ve got some comedy around it. After that, I better get back to work on the western novel before I forget what I was going to say.
What do hope your students learn from you? “If you do anything,” I tell them, “please read and read and read some more. You can’t read enough, and that’s how you get better. The absolute best seminar that you will ever have in writing is to read really great writers. Don’t read the award-winning flavor of the month. Go back and read Tolstoy and Dickens and James and Austen. Go back and read the greats and see how they did it.” Also, the 17 students I’ve taught who have gone on to publish in my 11 years as a teacher all have one thing in common: they work really, really hard. They work like dogs, in fact. If the first 200 pages of the novel are wrong, they throw away 200 pages and start again. And if you’re not that kind of person who can do that, if you’re fighting to preserve every precious paragraph you wrote, you’re probably not going to make it. You have to have some amount of ego to write, but you have to have almost no ego to edit.
Why do you write? I think it changes as you get older. As young men, you write for self-assertion. You write to say, “Hey, here I am, I’m not just a number. I’m not just another face in the crowd. I have something to say.” But as I get older, I’m not so interested in telling the crowd, “Here I am.” Maybe I’m more sure that I’m here already and don’t feel the need to get up and yell it. I now write, and this may sound like a strange answer, but I write because I get to hang out with other writers. It’s a tree house. I don’t think you get to climb up and be in the tree house unless you’re a writer. Some of my very best friendships and some of my very best conversations and nights on the town have been with other writers. I know that is a romantic view of writing; but for the most part, particularly down South, writers are some of the most interesting people you’ll meet. So I will keep writing to keep hanging out with other writers.
— Cherry Crayton ’01, ’03 MED
We previously posted excerpts from interviews with two other NC State authors whose novels are also featured in the summer issue of NC State magazine. Click here to read excerpts of our interview with Jill McCorkle, professor of practice of creative writing and the author of Life after Life. Click here to read excerpts of our interview with Elaine Neil Orr, a professor of English, and the author of A Different Sun.