Wells Tower, Fiction Writer, Is Looking for Joy

Opportunities for this in North Carolina were slim, but Mr. Tower flew to the one beacon of light in the vicinity like a mosquito, and got himself hired at DoubleTake, the now defunct but beloved literature and photography magazine run out of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. “I just went over and gave them my resume and pleaded with them to give me any sort of job,” Mr. Tower said. “They gave me a job as night manager, which entailed going over there and locking up and watering the plants. From there I started writing some of their press releases.

Printed on beautiful, heavy stock and featuring work from such writers as Tobias Wolff, Ian Frazier, and William Maxwell, DoubleTake was, according to Mr. Tower, not just the only game in town but a truly hot commodity. He was ecstatic to be anywhere near it, regardless of his actual duties.

He rose quickly, though, and by the time the magazine was stripped of its funding and relocated to Boston, Mr. Tower was overseeing its Web site and sitting in on editorial meetings. Instead of following the magazine to Boston, though, he followed one of its former editors, David Rowell, to The Washington Post Magazine and pitched him a piece about what it’s like to work for a traveling carnival. Though Mr. Tower had exactly zero reporting experience, Mr. Rowell took a chance on him– in part because of their shared affection for Joseph Mitchell, Richard Yates, and Raymond Carver– and in so doing, set the stage for a run of richly reported long-form pieces that are knuckle for knuckle on par with Mr. Tower’s fiction stylistically and emotionally.

According to Mr. Rowell, the magazine pieces Mr. Tower wrote for him unmistakably informed many of his short stories, and share with them some central preoccupations.

“Wells is great about taking you into these worlds that you’ve never really considered before, whether it’s long-haul trucking or the people who work at Walmart or a classical music piano competition,” Mr. Rowell said in an interview. “His characters have these great visions of how things should be, and it’s very difficult for them to get to that place. These are characters who are often down on their luck—there’s a kind of disappointment that spills into their lives that they are trying to rise above.”

For the four or so years that followed Mr. Tower’s stay at the Columbia MFA program, he all but forgot his fiction, and spent almost all his time traveling from place to place reporting pieces for The Washington Post Magazine and Harper’s. At one point he and his agent, Heather Shroeder at ICM, were even thinking he should do a non-fiction book, possibly one about the Mexican border.

By the spring of 2007, however, Mr. Tower decided once and for all that his heart was with the stories he’d written before journalism took over his life—a number of which had been published, in the meantime, in magazines of varying prominence. His agent sent out his materials shortly thereafter, and two weeks later, much to his surprise, the editor Courtney Hodell of FSG came back saying she’d love to work with him.

These days, Mr. Tower has been trying to focus, and with the exception of dinners and the occasional book party, he spends his time in solitude working in his apartment either in front of his non-fiction desk, which is hooked up to the internet, or his fiction desk, which isn’t. Sometimes he works at the main branch of the New York Public Library, which he recently discovered has a secret room reserved for people with book contracts.

“I’m trying to be better about jotting things down and being more writerly about everyday stuff that goes on in my life,” Mr. Tower said. “But when you’re spending 80% of your time just holed up in here, it’s like, oh, there’s a new smell in the hall today.” He said he feels kind of guilty for being such a hermit. “I tend to really cut myself off. It’s not a good thing. You wind up getting sort of crotchety and pissy. Your friends call up and just want to get together for dinner and it’s like, ‘oh Jesus,’ and you feel so put upon. You get really obnoxious and particular about your time.”

He does have rather a lot on his plate: in addition to the novel in-progress that FSG acquired with his stories (which he wouldn’t comment on, other than to say it’s about family), he is also writing a film script, a reported piece for Harper’s about the Homeless World Cup, a story set in the year 2024 for an upcoming issue of McSweeney’s, and a feature for the travel Web site Outside Online about inner-tubing inspired by John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.”

This last thing is funny actually, as Mr. Tower has been rereading Cheever lately and thinking how weird it is that his fiction is so often life affirming while his journals are so inconsolably gloomy. “With the short stories he’s sort of laboring to deliver a generosity of spirit– it seems like he’s really groping for these moments of joy,” Mr. Tower said. “His journals are just a much, much bleaker portrait.”

Flipping through his own journal recently, Mr. Tower said, he found a note he wrote to himself several months ago cautioning against “using real life’s horrors too literally.”

“The ugly things we tend to deal with,” Mr. Tower said, “they’re just too gruesome for fiction.” 

Wells Tower, Fiction Writer, Is Looking for Joy