Chatting with Urban Waite (the Terror of Living)

28 Jun

On any given day I spend some time trying to make sense of my living quarters, organizing this, cleaning that, disposing of the obsolete, the no longer useful, and the clap trap that has affixed itself to my life like barnacles to the hull of my little boat. For instance I have a number of suits and a few handfuls of ties that linger yet from my days of ambition. I think the last time I wore anything approaching civilized apparel besides basketball shorts and hoodies, was my father’s funeral. Nonetheless, I haven’t been able to part with
that stuff.

I also troll the piles and shelves of books that are in willy-nilly array about my space, some in apparent organization, some blooming like wild flowers. What has that to do with young novelist Urban Waite, you might (or ought to) be asking. Well, simply that on one of those forays into the vast unknown of unheralded books that collect on my tables and chairs and floors and shelves I picked up Waite’s debut The Terror of Living and proceeded to read it with enthusiasm. Later, I read of comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, which had read beforehand, I would have soured me on Waite’s fresh new opus.

The Terror of Living is set in Washington state , as Phil Hunt, a ne’er do well horse rancher, takes on retrieval and delivery of drugs and finds himself in a precariously dangerous situation. The terrain is well described, the characters vivid and the drama tense. Waite has written a fine story which one of his heroes, Daniel Woodrell commends:

The Terror of Living is a smart, swiftly-paced and bloody Western for our moment. Urban Waite is a writer who won’t let a reader wander away–he keeps you reading, and reading, and rewards all your attention with a powerhouse story and prose to match.

This conversation took place in my kitchen on the 1st of February 2011. Since that, Waite has published his second novel The Carrion Birds, which sustains his promise as a gifted young writer.

The Terror of Living by Urban Waite

The Terror of Living by Urban Waite

UW: This is the first time I have done an interview.

RB: Really, so I should make this a benign experience.

UW: (Laughs) Yeah.

RB: What kind name is Waite?

UW: Its Welsh.

RB: Know any Welsh words?

UW: No.

RB: Can you sing like Tom Jones?

UW: (Laughs)

RB: I scanned some of the review attention —which mentions Cormac McCarthy. Had you read No Country for Old Men before you wrote your own novel?

UW: Yes, most definitely.

RB: Does it bother you that reviews feel compelled to mention McCarthy’s book?

UW: It’s flattering to even put me close to McCarthy.

RB: I don’t think the reviews are comparing your prose but more comparing the storyline. Given the finite amount of plot lines, why do reviewers feel compelled to mention such similarities?

UW: Not every reviewer mentions that when it comes up. I have gotten some Robert Stone references—which is also flattering.

RB: Referencing Stone makes more sense to me—as in Stone’s novels, everyone in your story is in the weeds.

UW: Everything is built off everything else. My education as a writer is reading. Reading is where you get a lot of your information.

RB: In your acknowledgments you mention 4 or 5 writers.

UW: Yeah, Robert Stone, definitely Dog Soldiers. Cormac McCarthy, No Country. Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory—I love that book. Spartina by John Casey and Poachers by Tom Franklin.

RB: Poachers was a story collection?

UW: Yeah and the last part of it was a novella. Honestly, he [Tom Franklin] changed the game for me. Reading this collection and then he writes a crime novella—that was really cool. He was pushing the limits. I felt that he freed me up to write a novel like The Terror of Living. I didn’t set out to write this novel.

RB: What had you set out to do?

UW: I was interested in the character—Phil Hunt. A character with all this history. A history of being in jail and messing up and doing something that he regretted for the rest of his life. That’s more of a literary idea.

RB: I thought one of the themes was visitation of the sins of the fathers on the sons.

UW: A lot of stuff I write about is father- son history and issues. Things carrying on down the line. And its funny —people think I have a horrible relationship with my dad.

RB: Why do you think readers make assumptions based on one’s fiction?

UW: I don’t know. You know, its fiction.

RB: Well, there is the belief that writers don’t escape their life stories.

UW: Oh yeah.

Urban Waite (photo: Robert Birnbuam)

Urban Waite (photo: Robert Birnbuam)

RB: Its up to you to declare what is autobiographical.

UW: The whole experience of having the book come out, everything seems like it’s a first time. This is amazing.

RB: You grew up in —

UW: —Seattle.

RB: And aspired to be—

UW: I wanted to be —I wanted to do something in the sciences. I had a really strong education in math and sciences and that was what I was going for—maybe a marine biology degree. And when I got to the University of Washington, I took some English classes, just requirements. I took a Shakespeare sonnet
class and it was fascinating, having it explained. What was going on and what he was really writing about.

RB: You hadn’t previously harbored an interest in writing?

UW: Oh no.

RB: After graduating you went to Western Washington?

UW: It was sort of like a scholarship; the first year was paid for. It was in Bellingham, north almost in Canada. Beautiful, beautiful city. Seventy thousand people and right on the water. I had graduated UW in 3 years, so I was getting my Master’s fairly young. It was comfortable for me to go there — I had friends from high school there.

RB: So the big move was coming east?

UW: Yeah

RB: Was it a foreign experience?

UW: A little bit. I had always wanted to go to Emerson. I can’t pinpoint it but for some reason it was a school I had always wanted to go to. I had a professor who told me it would be a great fit for me and he wrote me a great recommendation. I got in. So…

RB: And you lived in Boston how long?

UW: 2004 to very recently, 2010.

RB: When did you start submitting to publications?

UW: Right after I left Western Washington and the first year I was here [in Boston]. It wasn’t even on my mind but when I got t o Emerson it was definitely—people around me were submitting and the literary journals seemed more in your face.

RB: What were your intentions in going to Emerson?

UW: I don’t know— I would be completely happy to go back to working in restaurants and just writing. I don’t think of writing as a way of making money. I just don’t. Its nice if you do. But at the same time—

RB: Who alerted you to that appropriate/realistic expectation? (both laugh)

UW: You come across it as you start seeing publications. I still have my first check form the University of Idaho up on my wall. It’s 30 bucks. That was like a high one—usually you just get paid in journals.

RB: You have a high-powered agent. How did you come across him?

UW: He found me and dragged me into the fray.

RB: Really? What had he read?

UW: A story called “Everywhere There Is Water”. In the University of Virginia’s Meridian and he just write me a letter and said, “I really like this story what else are you working on?” I was like, “ I am doing this, this and this but I am trying to publish a collection of short stories and win a prize.” At that point I really wanted to win the Mary McCarthy Prize or the Iowa Prize—one of the major short fiction prizes. He was like, ”OK, I respect that.” I didn’t hear back from him for a little while. He got back to me and said, “ If you want to keep working on the prize thing I will submit for you.” And I was on board—it’s so expensive to submit all these stories. It would take me a day and a half to print these stories—I would send 15 copies to 15 journals.

RB: You didn’t have to go through the stressful search for an agent—I imagine it is like looking for a shrink.

UW: Oh yeah. I have friends who are doing it now and they found some really great people but I am the only one who has done it this way. I get that question —“how do you get an agent?” “I don’t know, they call you apparently”

RB: Right. “Ok, I ‘ll just wait (‘til I’m 80)” (both laugh). Your book has been reviewed in Entertainment Weekly, how is it doing?

UW: I don’t know yet. I stay out of it.

RB: Good for you.

UW: Nat mentions things. At this point I don’t care so much. Maybe in a few months when I am starving I’ll be going, “Hey what’s going on?” The nice thing about Nat and my relationship with him is he makes really good decisions. It has been sold in 20 countries by now. Its nice because it feels like I could probably do this for a few years.

RB: You broken some big ground. Do you have a movie person in Hollywood taking this book around?

UW: I think so. I don’t know.

RB: Is Nate James Ellroy’s agent?

UW: Yes and he is also Tom Franklin’s agent. He’s done some good stuff. He has Richard Russo and sold Empire Falls.

Urban Waite (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Urban Waite (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

RB: When I met Russo, the movie of Nobody’s Fool had just come out and there was a paperback tie in with Paul Newman on the cover. He joked around that in the future he wanted all his books to have Paul Newman on the cover.

UW: The first time I met Nat he was staying with Richard and he called, “Hey, I’m going to be in town, do you want to meet?” This was 2 or 3 months into our relationship and went down and met him. He said that Russo lived right around the corner. (Whispers) “Really?” What wonderful world did I just step into?

RB: Russo’s fiction is great but he has written 2 things that caught my attention— a commencement speech at his daughter’s graduation. On a par with David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon College speech [This is Water] And then Russo did the Introduction to 2010 Best American Short Stories, which included a charming story about when Isaac Bashevis Singer visited the Southern Illinois University campus where Russo was teaching. Once you took it up, has writing been hard? Easy?

UW: Uh, hard to understand how it works. Once you understand that you could use this scene— finally I can put this into place. I can draw from a lot of history, a lot of books I’ve read and conversations I have had, in situations that come up. “Yeah, that works with this.” In that way, yes, it’s been easy. It comes easy to me, which is more important.

RB: Now that you are big time novelist you are expected to continue. Have you started another novel?

UW: I have. It’s done.

RB: Really?

UW: Yeah.

RB: Wait, how long did it take to do The Terror of Living?

UW: It was a miracle. I had a grant to pay my mortgage and a fellowship for a month in Vermont and sat down…so it took 30days, with it being half bad.

RB: And then how many drafts?

UW: A lot. I’d say in the teens, probably.

RB: How long did it take to do those?

UW: Another 10 or 11 months. And it was a long process. It hard to say how many drafts because sometimes you go though and change one page and then you read it through again and you change 40 pages. I ended up coming from the fellowship felling like I had something really good on my hands and through the year started cutting back the hours and work and then eventually, quit. It happened that we moved back to Seattle that same year so I had a ton of time on my hands to work on this. It needed the time.

RB: At what point in the writing was it sold?

UW: Just before Frankfort…

RB: —was it finished?

UW: Oh yeah. I hadn’t worked on since it was sold—maybe one scene. I could have kept at it again and again but the main ideas and the main plot were there and in good places where I like them.

RB: When you do a reading what’s your own reaction?

UW: I am happy with what I am reading. I definitely self edit when I read. I’ll drop an “it” or “that” and I’ve always done that. I don’t think this is the book I set out to write but I am proud of the book I did create.

RB: How do you know?

UW: For me, books are—it’s very important that the book is entertaining. It ‘s extremely important to me. And secondly that there are major ideas —

RB: To quote Bashevis Singer, “to entertain and instruct”

UW: Exactly. I was worried when I was writing— I wanted to talk about sins of the fathers and the American drug culture today and talk about the penal system and the idea of guilt. Those are ideas, off the top of my head that continually get replayed in this book.

RB: Do you read a lot?

UW: At least a book a week. It’s had to keep me away from books. It’s hard to write because I want to read so much. I like contemporary writers and 19th century writers. I like Hemingway. I am huge fan of Raymond Carver. Richard Ford. Ron Hanson. I’m in love with this book, the Bone People—have you heard of it? By a New Zealand writer, Keri Hulme. It won the Booker Prize. It’s a story about things I like—nature. There is some violence. It’s a book about the Maori and when it was published she was admonished for telling the tribal stories.

RB: I just read Joseph O ‘Connor’s recent novel Ghost Light, using John Synge the playwright (The Playboy of the Western World and The Tinker’s Wedding) as a character. How about Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison?

UW: I have a few Harrison books and I read McGuane’s recent Gallatin Canyon. I love stories. Usually if a writer has a story collection I will read that first.

RB: Harrison writes novellas as well as novels-he has 3 or 4 novella collections. 3 in each book. And usually he has one novella about a character named Brown Dog [Brown Dog a collection of 6 novellas will be published in the fall of 2013]

UW: Harrison is on the list of guys that I’ve come to late. And I don’t know how it s possible that I could have missed him.

RB: Harrison’s poetry is also worth reading—his most recent is In Pursuit of Small Gods. He considers himself a poet first.

UW: That’s what I’ve heard. I am fascinated by him. I have seen interviews. One of the first guys to move out to Montana and form that clique.

RB: You have already written your second book?

UW: It done, its just like—

RB: Done in the same way The Terror of Living was done? Or done and now you have to revise?

UW: Yeah, now I have to work on it. I am a little past the deadline but what I love, love love about my publisher is that hey know I where I am at with the book and I want more time to make it better. And they are totally supportive of that.

RB: There is a commercial imperative of creating a pipeline of books—you still have the paperback to work on if you choose. And then maybe a movie to add longer life. This book seems ripe for being filmed. Except maybe the view that it’s too much like McCarthy’s story.

UW: I was a little worried about that as it went out into the world.

RB: Is your life just about writing? Is that all you do?

UW: No, not really. It’s been so long since I’ve had free time. When I was here I was 5 nights full time at the restaurant and then 2 nights at Emerson and that was it. And I would write during the day. It’s been an amazing gift to get this book published.

RB: Sure.

UW: Because I have been able to write full time now. I am kind of in this weird place of like rediscovering what I can do with spare time.

RB: Bike riding. Sky diving.

UW: Fishing, crabbing, clamming—

RB: Sounds like you spend a lot of time outdoors.

UW: Yes, a ton. I love hiking and camping. I am not a car camper. It has to be like backpacking into the woods.

RB: No big RV?

UW: No, no no. That’s more my wife’s style but she’s a sport—

RB: What is her relationship to writing?

UW: More like a reader. We didn’t meet at an MFA program. We met in 6th grade. She’s in the medical field. Which is really nice because I can ask her lots of medical questions.

RB: And when you are having a heart attack she’ll be right there.

UW: When I am a having a heart attack from the stress of writing, hopefully. (laughs)

RB: You live in Seattle.

UW: Live in Seattle. Green trees everywhere, surrounded by water. I can’t say anything bad about it. I go back to Washington, work on the book.

RB: Do you have any interest in teaching? Or making movies?

UW: At some point I will teach. I’m doing something at a festival in the UK.

RB: What is the literary scene like in Seattle?

UW: Really strong.

RB: Elliot Bay bookstore is there. Is that a locus of literary activity?

UW: It is –there are readings there most nights. Right up the street is another place called the Richard Hugo house and they have a lot of readings and classes and its local guys like me that have one or two books and want to teach.

RB: Writer’s softball teams?

UW: I wish. I’m not sure how we’d play.

RB: Do you know Pete Dexter?

UW: Sure

RB: Does he do stuff in Seattle—I know he lives on one of those islands off the coast?

UW: Vashon, Bainbridge…

RB: Bainbridge.

UW: There are actually a lot of writers out on Bainbridge.

Urban Waite (photo; Robert Birnbaum)

Urban Waite (photo; Robert Birnbaum)

RB: Nice isolation.

UW: Jonathan Envison who wrote West of Here [and…] is from there.

RB: I like that book.

UW: I haven’t started it yet but he is a really, really nice guy.

RB: Have you read Pete Dexter?

UW: I haven’t read Spooner. I have read Deadwood, Paris Trout.

RB: Spooner is hilarious. To my older reader friends I say, you might want to put in diapers on. And he is the most decent guy.

UW: He is an old newspaper writer?

RB: Yeah. Most of Spooner seems to conform to the general facts of Dexter’s life but the story of how he left newspapers to become a novelist is pretty much straightforward and it’s very darkly humorous. He’s a great storyteller.

UW: He is another one of these guys I got turned onto late.

RB: Dexter is still pissed off about Deadwood [the HBO series] and its producer [David] Milch’s claim that he never read Deadwood [the novel].

UW: It followed it to a t. I was like now I need to get this Deadwood book to see what happens.

RB: Sad. Did you see Winter’s Bone?

UW: I haven’t seen it.

RB: It escaped me that John Hawkes, who plays this gentle Jew in Deadwood, plays a malevolent dangerous character in Winter’s Bone.

UW: He was actually nominated for a Best Supporting Actor.

RB: He was great.

UW: I only watch Netflix these days. It’s [Winter’s Bone] been on my Netflix cue for months. I’m like, “C’mon give it to me.”

RB: Its funny how writers start to get known by the movie adaptations. Look at Charles Portis who hasn’t published in years, now with True Grit ,people are traveling to Arkansas to talk to Portis. And he has definitely eschewed the limelight. And now Daniel Woodrell who wrote Winter’s Bone —actually he did go out to the Oscars.

UW: I’ve heard from writers who do know him that it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.

RB: He wrote an intriguing piece for the Mulholland Books website called “How Much is the Ozarks in Me?”

UW: Its one of my favorite pieces of non fiction that I’ve read—its just a short piece

RB: Woodrell has this kind of honesty that he presents in original ways—he doesn’t echo anyone else.

UW: I admire him very much. He’s has a wide success and he still lives in the Ozarks.

RB: Has he had a wide success?

UW: Well, he had a movie made of Ride With The Devil. And that pushed him into limelight.

RB: One writer I spoke with pointed what he claimed was the “dirty little secret.”

UW: What?

RB: University of Iowa.

UW: Oh yeah. I am a little fascinated by him. I read that he said, “They really didn’t like me. If they could have they would have kicked me out.” But obviously, he’s a great writer. His books are fantastic.

RB: There is a line in this movie that really got to me. Some one asks why she didn’t ask for something. And she replies, “You should never have to ask for what should be easily offered.”

UW: Umm. That get’s right down to the basics, right there.

RB: Your book tour involves a few west coast cities and here it doesn’t get crazy?

UW: Not at all. At some point I realized I was in San Francisco one afternoon and then Seattle that night and Portland the next day. But that was as crazy as it got. I was tired out. I did Bellingham where Western Washington is —there’s a great bookshop there, Village Books. Now out here to Boston and then back to Seattle and then back to New York for another week—reading at KGB, a very nice venue.

RB: Sitting for 30 minutes listening to someone read is not my idea of fun. Why not just have on stage interviews?

UW: Actually, you are right. I like to hear people talking about fiction more than I like hearing them read. I like hearing them read if—

RB: —they are really good.

UW—if it’s in a casual setting. A bar and I can have a beer and maybe I’m meeting some friends and I can listen to some fiction. You just want some simple entertainment sometimes.

RB: I do like occasionally to listen to the audiobook if I liked a book. I did that with Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight—loved the book and the movie.

UW: I liked that one—the sympathetic criminal.

RB: Would it matter to you if your books were made into movies?

UW: Um, it would be nice. Of course it would be nice. At this point I don’t have an interest in writing a screenplay. I don’t know enough about it. As far as I can see, is to the next year the next book will be either done or coming out. And that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

RB: Ever think about if you hadn’t sold this book?

UW: I’d still be writing, finding a restaurant job. I am very happy working in restaurants

RB: You were prepared for the long haul?

UW: I would have published this book even if they gave me only 500 bucks. That would have been fine.

RB: What was Adam Sorkin quoted as saying recently, he would have done it for nothing?

UW: Oh yeah, that was at the Oscars, yeah. It’s true about a lot of artists. You would have done it anyway. I can this a million times and a million times it will be true—you need passion in your life. You can’t just keep going to a job that you hate

RB: Think about how many millions do.

UW: Think about if they had than tine thing they are passionate about in their lives. Like Sunday football something that gets you through

RB: 2 six packs and a TV. Do you think writing is important?

UW: Oh yes.

RB: Are you doing something that’s important?

UW: I think so, yeah. For me, obviously I am passionate about reading and writing and those are the thing s that gets me going. So yes, it’s very, very important.

RB: How important can it be, literary fiction has such a small place in the world. Ostensibly, it makes a small mark. On the other hand you could say, you never know what does what.

UW: It does make such a small dent but it’s a dent that matters. Its maybe the favorite dent in your car.

RB: One thing, this is not the book you set out to write, what is the carryover from that?

UW: Carryover?

RB: When you started the second book is that the book you started to write at first.

UW: I think the answer to that is no. The book became this and that’s it. In a way it transformed me. I didn’t see myself writing a crime novel. But in the process of writing this I fell in love with it, how it moves, what the characters discuss—

RB: The only thing that I think may reflect badly in the crime novel genre is that so many books are series. And they sooner or later get tiresome. For instance, Michael Connelly has written a bunch of Harry Bosch and some Mickey Haller. But I think his best book is a stand alone, The Poet [he then wrote a sequel to that book] Robert Parker same thing—dozens of Spenser books but his best book was All My Tomorrows.

UW: I understand bringing back the characters—people like to feel that connection with a character. I haven’t considered it for myself until recently. People are asking if I am going to bring these guys back.

RB: Well, you never know

UW: My second book is similar ideas that I am still wrestling with and trying to put them in a new light.

RB: Oh good, thank you.

UW: Thanks for having me. Thanks for the tea.

The Carrion Birds by Urban Waite

The Carrion Birds by Urban Waite

Currently reading Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner (Scribners)

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