A brief interview with Joseph Dobrian
How does the character Willie Wilden figure in the book?
He’s an icon, not a real person. He’s the sports mascot for the football team at Van Devander College, in the town of Wildenkill, N.Y., where this story takes place. As the story progresses, he becomes an inspiration for the book’s protagonist, Roger Ballou, who’s a professor at the college. Ballou comes to identify with this cartoon Indian who looks kind of clownish and ineffectual, but Ballou sees him as a stand-up guy who won’t take nothing from nobody.
What is the main idea of Willie Wilden, and why did you write it?
You might call Willie Wilden a “comic epic.” If there’s a single overarching idea, it’s that as our society modernizes, it becomes more regulated, more uniform. We become less enlightened, less tolerant, and less respectful of other people’s right to do things that we don’t like. As a result, we gradually lose much of the pleasure of living life. It’s horrifying to me that when I was a little boy, first learning to read, the villain of a story would often be the busy-body, the minder of other people’s business, the Grinch, the control freak. Today, people of that sort are portrayed as the good guys, as often as not! They’re called “reformers,” or “crusaders.” In this book, you’ll notice that some of the stodgy, old-fashioned characters are actually more broad-minded—and perhaps kinder, more considerate—than some of the supposedly forward-thinking, “progressive” characters.
What sort of person will want to read Willie Wilden?
Willie Wilden should resonate with people who know about college towns, who are interested in music, literature, politics, and sports. But it’ll be enjoyable to anyone who enjoys getting lost in a good story. It isn’t an intellectual novel—it’s got its share of sex, and poopie humor, and people behaving badly—but I hope readers will be able to take at least one idea from the book and say, “Yes, Dobrian captured that, perfectly.”
How did you come to write Willie Wilden?
I had all these great characters in my mind: some of them very loosely based on people I’ve known; some simply imagined, out of whole cloth; and even two or three who came to me in dreams. I didn’t have a plot in mind, at first; I just had a big handful of characters. I asked myself, “What would happen, if these people all lived in the same town, and knew each other?” And from that, the story evolved.
How did you plot Willie Wilden?
By asking, always, “What would this character do, in this situation? And when she does that, how must this other character inevitably react?” To write a decent story, you have to consider how your characters will act—how they can’t help acting—and imagine the consequences that will flow from their actions. If I wanted to write a book that I was proud of, I could never force a character to behave in a way that would produce a pre-conceived outcome. I had to let the outcome evolve organically from the people I had to work with. I had a basic idea of my setting, and I had to invent characters who would fit plausibly onto the canvas. But they gave me the story: I didn’t give it to them.
What surprised you about the process of writing Willie Wilden?
Just that: the realization that I’d have to let my characters do what they would do. I could not commit to a certain story line, early in the process. Many writers make that mistake; that’s what comes of being exposed to Hemingway at an impressionable age. In the early drafts, you’ll come to a point where you have a character doing A, and you have to say to yourself, “Wait a minute: Would that character do that? Would he really, now?” And frequently you have to say to yourself, “No, he’d do B.” And you have to let him do B, even if that leads to a different outcome from the one you had in mind. This can be difficult at times, especially if you delight in creating characters who are a little wacky, as I do. It’s a challenge for the writer to create characters that are strange, quirky, without making them absurd or melodramatic.
So, you apparently did not use Hemingway as a model. Who were some of the writers who influenced your style in this book?
My strongest influence for this novel came from Walter R. Brooks, who wrote the children’s novels about Freddy the talking pig in the 1930s and 40s. He had a way of presenting bizarre or ridiculous situations in such a way that you were glad to suspend your disbelief. William Makepeace Thackeray is another of my favorites. I love Thackeray’s habit of showing the good and the bad qualities—and the foolish qualities—in each character: showing the warts on the good guys, and the occasional flashes of decency in the bad guys. I’ve also learned a lot from reading Herman Wouk, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, and Vance Bourjaily.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always loved to write. I learned to write as soon as I could so that I could tell stories. But I realized I wanted to be a professional writer when I was about 20, when one of my professors advised me quite emphatically to make writing my career. That was an epiphany: Here was someone who knew her stuff, telling me that I had the stuff!
The ending of Willie Wilden is unusual for a novel, isn’t it?
It’s abrupt. It’s ambiguous. Deliberately so. I want some readers to go “Yaaaay!” and some to go “Ohhhhh, noooo.” That’s all I’ll say.
Are you working on another book?
I’m on a five-year plan to have four more books completed by my 60th birthday, which will be October 12, 2016. Right now I’m compiling a book of essays. A book of short stories, and two novels, are in the wings—all of them partly written at this point.