One Question Interview: David Whitton

20Jan13

David Whitton is the author of the story collection The Reverse Cowgirl (Freehand Books, 2011). You can find him online at www.dwhitton.com.

Hitchcock said drama was life with all the dull bits left out, while director Jim Jarmusch has made films about the time between events. Of course, a director isn’t a short story writer, but I wondered if any particular fascination motivated your stories? They seem to be about bland characters in extraordinary situations, and involve an awareness of alternatives. One character is aware of a phantom life based on different decisions, and “could almost reach through the electrons and touch it.” 

Remember the story of the love-sick astronaut? The one who allegedly drove hundreds of miles, allegedly wearing a diaper, to kidnap her ex-lover’s new girlfriend? This was a few years ago. A married mother of however many kids who had engaged in a two-year affair with a fellow astronaut? It’s an amazing story. reversecowgirlHer lover had broken off the affair and had started seeing someone else. So Lisa Nowak, an astronaut, a married mother of however many, and an American hero, packed up her car with rubber tubing, pepper spray, a wig, a hammer drill, and a bunch of other stuff, and headed out to Orlando, Florida, to do whatever she planned to do to her ex-lover’s new girlfriend. Wearing a diaper, allegedly.

It’s this kind of story, as awful and tragic as it might be to the parties involved, that fills me full of wonder. The world out there.

The famous pop singer caught wanking in a public restroom. The suburban mom who runs a high-price escort service in her spare time.

I imagine if you asked Lisa Nowak today what she was thinking, she’d say, “Good God, I have no idea. I don’t know what possessed me.” Because that’s what people say, isn’t it? “That wasn’t me. Who was that person?” “What the hell was I thinking?” And this question, for me, is at the heart of my fiction. We might, by piecing together the evidence, have a shot at understanding some small part of someone else, but we have no chance whatsoever of understanding ourselves. Vanity, greed, desire: they pump out a fog of self-deception that will forever keep us from knowing our real motivations.

The quiet Amish man who traffics heroin. The nerdy Ph.D. student who shoots up a movie theatre. What were they thinking? Surely they didn’t want their lives to amount to this. But something inside them made it happen. Character is destiny, the Greek guy said. Extraordinary situations are borne of exotic interior lives.

Why am I a construction worker instead of an aesthetician? What is it about me or my world that made me a security guard instead of a wealthy socialite? The characters in my book ask these (unnerving, torturous) questions. Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone? And wonder when and how all your hard work and planning went wrong?

The shakiness of identity. The randomness of destiny. How little it takes for us to believe our own lies. Most of my stories touch on this stuff. My story “Raspberries”: there’s a line in there about a newly married couple—“a mystery to each other, a mystery to ourselves”—that sums up this particular line of inquiry. Our past selves are fictional constructs, written and rewritten to suit our present needs; our present selves are rockets whizzing headlong through the subatomic particles, without much capacity for reflection or analysis; and our future selves are just a theory based on current models. What a wild situation.

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