Stuart Nadler is a writer and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2012, the National Book Foundation named him a “5 Under 35 Honoree”. Wise Men is his first novel.
At one moment in the novel, young Hilly Wise wonders if race, lust and death are connected. Are those the subjects you wanted to deal with in the novel?
The short answer is yes: these are subjects that fascinate me, and trouble me, and remain endlessly compelling. I didn’t however start off with the idea to write a book like this. The book, as books do, evolved slowly and over time, from one tiny scene that I wrote while finishing up my story collection. It was a scene where a young man happens to see his father on a street in Washington, D.C., and follows him into a restaurant. Writing that scene left me with a set of questions. Who were these people? I knew they hadn’t seen each other in years-but why was that? I had been preoccupied in my first book with issues of familial alienation, especially between fathers and sons, and I had thought, maybe foolishly, that I was done with the subject. But the book simply evolved from this one scene, which appears now in the last third of the book, albeit in a different shape, with Hilly walking after Savannah, rather than her dad. For the longest time-maybe a year-this was actually the very first chapter of the book. These central subjects, though, are so often the big subjects in our culture, and they were, when I wrote the book, the big subjects that were bothering me. In a lot of ways, this is often the best place to find the energy of a novel; books are reflections of a writer’s preoccupations. It’s been a few years since I finished this book, and when I look at it now, this is what I see: the time in my life when I was alone in a room thinking about all of this.
You previously published The Book Of Life, which is a collection of short stories. Are you more at ease with the short or the long format? At what point do you know that your story will take the form of a novel or a short story?
Writing stories and writing novels involve different muscles. In the simplest, crudest terms, the story requires an economy of language and a compression of narrative that the novel doesn’t. During the few years it took to write the stories in The Book of Life, I often desperately wished for a bigger canvas, more space, less economizing and compressing. And because this is the way it always happens, or because I am who I am, when I was working on this novel, and also the novel I’ve just finished, I wished desperately for the confinement of the short story. I think on some basic level I’m more inclined to longer material. I had and continue to have a lot of difficulty writing that perfect ten or twelve page short story. All but one of the stories in my collection are long and unwieldily. This novel however was always a novel, right from the first scene, the first day. I knew I wanted to write a big book. I knew I wanted the book to have a wide scope. In that sense there was no great mystery as to what was happening. Right now, though, I’m working on new ideas, which may become stories and may become a novel, and I love the sense of possibility in that openness. Writing something, whether big or small, requires an inordinate amount of privation and doubt and often I’m trashing things and reimagining and torturing myself with draft after draft, and these first few days and weeks where everything is new and messy, this is the most exciting time.
Without giving anything away, there is something at the very end of the book which makes us consider the story from a different perspective. How meaningful was it for you to include this at this point in the story?
I wouldn’t say it was terribly important to include it at the very end of the book the way I did, rather than to include it, say, a few chapters earlier. But the point of the ending as I see it as that this is the moment when Hilly learns the information. Novels like this, which is to say, retrospective novels that encompass a huge swath of time, are artifacts of fiction of course, and require some degree of suppression and revelation, and some obvious artifice. These were dramatic constructs I was aware of-constructs I sometimes enjoy as a reader-but they were modes of storytelling I wanted to play around with. Hilly after all is writing this book as a letter to his granddaughter, so he too is leaving this information until the very end. There are certainly lots of clues to the ending throughout the book. I say this to people who ask. In some way, although I knew it would be a surprise to most readers, as it is to Hilly, I also wanted to make it clear that had Hilly been able to really know his father, or had Hilly not been so assured of the substance of his father’s character, he may have known. All of this of course is just a fancy way of saying that it’s fun to have a surprise at the end of the book.
Throughout the novel, women outnumber men, and yet Hilly and Art end up being more resilient than they are, even if they seem stronger than them, and actually wiser. Are there also women in the “Wise Men”?
I would definitely agree that the women in this book are certainly wiser than the men in this book. This is part of the pun of the book’s English-language title-Wise Men-which is a reference to the ridiculousness of men like Hilly and Arthur having a last name like Wise. As Hilly says in the book, a name like that always sounded like a joke or a taunt. I’m always interested in men like this, men full of a stupid kind of confidence and delusion. Because this book is written in Hilly’s voice, you only get what Hilly sees. This was the great fun of this book-getting to age a character from a boy to an old man-but also the great challenge, because all the other characters needed to be filtered through his eyes. I could only write Savannah the way he saw her, which is not the way she actually is. He remains an endearing character to me not because of his perceptivity, or his lack of perceptivity, but because of the guilelessness he shows at times, or the willful suspension of sanity he takes with him throughout his life as it relates to Savannah. Even he knows that obsessing about a woman like this for this long is a crazy thing, a thing maybe a man picks up from TV or the movies; it’s something that makes no real sense. That kind of false idealizing is of course condescending and patronizing. This is something you get to see as the reader, and something he doesn’t. I love that.