“Only Before and After”: Courtney Harler Interviews Philip Dean Walker, Author of READ BY STRANGERS

Author Photo Credit: Robert C. Walker

Any book that begins with a blurb by Wally Lamb, a dedication to a beloved grandmother, and an epigraph by William Faulkner automatically gets my attention. And that’s even before the actual stories begin! Furthermore, having read and reread Philip Dean Walker’s dazzling first collection, At Danceteria and Other Stories, I fully expected to enjoy Walker’s newest offerings. Read by Strangers, just out this April with Lethe Press, more than exceeds those expectations, I am happy to report. Walker and I first met at a writing conference a couple of years ago, and given our acquaintance, he’s kindly agreed to chat with me here about his work.

CH: As you know, Chicago Literati is dedicated to inclusivity and diversity, but it’s also dedicated to emerging writers who aspire to express their diverse voices. For the sake of our readers and contributors, would you mind discussing your writing process a bit? Specifically, how did your process evolve from your first book to your second book? For example, in “A Cup of Fur,” you write, “It was possible that she’d sculpted so many pieces of Yan Fang that she really did think of them as pieces of herself too.” This line struck me particularly poignant, especially within the immediate context of artistic process.

PDW: Because my first book centered on real events and real historical figures and celebrities, there was a lot of research involved. I didn’t feel like I could write the story until I had located the “character” through primary source materials, video, audio, biographies, etc. It was an extensive process at times. Read by Strangers, on the other hand, is populated with my own original characters so the process of writing these stories was a little bit different. I’ll tell you about the process of writing the story you cited in your question to give you an idea.

While I was living abroad teaching English in Tokyo in 2002, one of my students came into class one day rather upset. He explained to me that a co-worker of his, who had been transferred to Singapore the year before, had just committed suicide because he had deigned to use a women’s bathroom in his office building. The strict laws of Singapore meant that he was going to be fired and sent back to Japan in complete shame, so he took another way out. I was so dumbfounded and affected by his almost absurd and unnecessary death that I began to imagine the circumstances that might have led up to that moment when he used the bathroom. Of course, other pieces began to come into place: an office affair appeared, a clingy mother back home made herself known, a vengeful roommate inserted herself into the story. The climax of the story was pretty much already in place—I just needed the support structures of the story to get me there. Of course, as you know, once I got to the actual scene in which the man jumps out of the window, I realized that my character, as I had written him, would make a different choice. I had developed an affection for him and just couldn’t go through with it, so I chose a different ending, which, as the writer, is my prerogative. Theodore Dreiser used to do things like this. He would find a little snippet of a real news story in the newspaper and then expand the anecdote into a full novel. One of his most famous novels, An American Tragedy (1925), was based on a small story he read in the newspaper about a man who had drowned his girlfriend in a boat and was sent to the electric chair in 1908. Dreiser had his climax and his ending and then developed the novel around those established elements. “A Cup of Fur” is very much my “Dreiser story” in this collection. It’s inspired by a real event, but that event is just a jumping off point (so to speak – yikes) in the creation of an original story populated with my own unique characters and narrative. Dreiser was not the most elegant writer, but he was a huge literary influence of mine during my formative years in undergrad at Middlebury.

CH: I did not know you taught in Japan, but that little fact inspires my next question. Let me take a step back first and say that I adore stories that destabilize the reader, like your “Why Burden a Baby with a Body?” The story is set in a real Japan or a fake Japan—I’m not sure which, because I’ve never been—but as a mother, I spent the whole story worried about the baby left in the crib. I was reminded of country stories set on farms, when the baby just had to cry to herself all day because the family had to work the fields to survive. But then I was struck by the way my mind had equated a long-gone rural landscape with your contemporary, or even post-contemporary, urban environment. The neon pink lights, the perpetual gaming—oh, the sex inside the game!—all made me feel so untethered, but the baby in the crib kept me rooted amidst the surrealism. To get to my question—and I promise it’s connected—did your time in Japan change the way you conceptualized setting in a story? This story both captures Japan and reinvents it, and I am still pondering the ending. I want to know—how did the parallel girl babies, the embodied one and the “alterna” one, reveal themselves to you? I see both the daughters as a function of setting, more like props than characters, a move that allows Hiromi her spotlight. What do you think?

PDW: I really love the ways that you’ve unpacked “Why Burden a Baby with a Body?” in this question. The babies/daughters. The function of setting. I think stories set in remote locations that rely on that fact for “story” (like, “okay, let me throw in a bunch of uber-specific, geographically based details and hope that covers up the lack of narrative”) are boring and usually unsuccessful. I’ve read plenty of them. I’ve always tried to avoid that and find a balance of story with setting. Too much detail of place can overwhelm a story (and its reader). If you’ll recall, in an earlier story, “Hester Prynne Got an A,” I used a baby in a similar way as the way you noted in your question. Coral offers a familial disruption to the illicit staging of Joan’s affair and is almost sacrificed in order for her to climax at the literal climax of the story. Like in a soap opera, though, where if there are two female characters who are pregnant you just know that there’s either going to be a baby switch storyline or one of the babies will not survive, I approached the collection the same way. One baby would have to die (and I think you can guess which one doesn’t make it even though I left her death off the page…). But you’re absolutely right in pointing out how the baby Kimi tethers the reader in the real world as the more surreal aspects of the story take up more and more prominence in the narrative which is consuming Hiromi. Which makes Hiromi remembering that she even has a child back home all the more urgent and terrifying when it becomes like a slingshot, catapulting her back to her home in Motohasunuma. Hiromi’s memory has effectively been erased by the game in the beginning and middle sections of the story. It’s only when she starts regaining those memories of her “real” life that the story kicks into high gear. For some time, I saw this as a classic addiction story (with a kind “Perils of Pauline”-style narrative in the latter half). However, I’ve now come around to the idea that it might really be the story of a woman who should never have had a child in the first place, a woman who lacks the mothering instinct. What does it say about a society or a world when a person can feel more attached to an inanimate object or an avatar than they do to their own flesh and blood? I think of this story as a kind of Black Mirror-style version of a Japan of the near-future. Although it’s scarier to just state that it might be present day.

CH: I just examined “Verisimilitude.” This line felt like coming home to me: “Being published in The New Yorker is like when Jesus was crucified: there is only before and after the event.” Ever since freshman honors composition, I have felt this exact same way. What would you do—what would anyone do? and I’m absolutely thinking of the author of “Cat Person” right now—after getting a story published in The New Yorker? I hope you will indulge this what if? scenario to its fullest creative extent.

PDW: That line about The New Yorker was actually a very late edit in that story. It just came to me one day and made so much sense for that character and the way she thinks about her career, and these supposed milestones of writing. “Verisimilitude” is a cautionary tale, in a way, for writers, which is partly why I think it was so easy to write. These are universal fears and desires that unify us all. Getting a story in The New Yorker is sort of the “White Whale” of almost every fiction writer, I think, whether or not they’d ever actually admit that. I’m not sure anymore whether I even write New Yorker-type stories. Jennifer Egan is such a literary hero of mine and I know they’ve published her work many times, so I can only hope. What would I do if it happened to me? I would completely freak out and probably immediately take the rest of the day off from work to go get some drinks with my best friends. I mean, that is just such a huge deal. At the end of the day though, I think it’s just really important to set high goals for yourself as a writer and to work toward making them happen. My big goal used to be to publish my own book and then be able to walk into a bookstore and find it on the shelf. I’ve now already achieved that goal two times over, which thrills me, but like Deirdre in my story “Verisimilitude,” there is this irksome feeling of “Okay, so what’s next?” And the answer to that question can only be more writing. Better writing. The best writing. Every new project is an opportunity to use the skills you’ve picked up since your last work and to weave those skills into your craft. I love starting a new project because of all the fresh possibilities in my expanded arsenal. I’m working on my next two books simultaneously (because I can never just do anything easily – haha) and even though I don’t know what the ultimate products will look like in the end, I do know I’m absolutely up to the challenge of writing them. And, The New Yorker will always be there.

Read by Strangers
by Philip Dean Walker
April 15, 2018
Lethe Press
216 Pages

Want a copy for your very own?
Check out these great indie bookstores:
Women & Children First in Chicago, Illinois
Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C.
Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.Read by Strangers

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