An Interview with Wells Tower

Tower chats with us about final edits, the best piece of writing advice he ever received, and moose suicide. Enjoy!

1. We don’t really hear about Northwestern writing or Southwestern writing. Why do you think Southern writing is such a distinctive regional category?

Well, there’s probably some truth to the old bromides about the Southern oral tradition, a heritage of porch talk, that sort of thing. I do think Southern people find a particular pleasure with words, and perhaps more than in other regions, that there’s maybe a bit more play and bleed, fewer boundaries, between the way between working- and high class vernaculars, which means lots of rich, distinctive life in the language. Though there are all sorts of Southern traditions out there, a particular sort of word-glee seems to be a common bit of DNA.

2. How many stories do you send out to literary magazines? Can you describe your personal process of selecting stories for specific magazines to send off for possible publication?

Lately, I haven’t been doing much sending out. These days, it’s more that I’ve got relationships with a few editors I like and trust, which has diminished my purchases of manila envelopes.

3. Do you reread your story once it’s in print? If so, what is your reaction upon reading it?

Oh, no, never. Couldn’t bear to. I know I’d see things I’d want to change.

4. How many revisions on average does it take until you feel a story’s complete? Can you go into, specifically, your experience with “Retreat” and its appearance in New Stories from the South, 2010? Do you feel this story is finished, or perhaps there’s even more to the two brothers and their relationship to each other?

Usually it’s three or four big revisions before first publication, and then for most of my stories, I did three or four more biggies before I included them in my book. With these brothers, I am, thank god, finished.

My only real regret [about “Retreat”, Towers’ story that has been published three times now, with major edits each time] is that I wasn’t able to slip in another fine piece of moose lore I picked up in Alaska. One day, as I was getting ready to push off on a kayak trip across a big cold lake on the Kenai Peninsula, a park ranger came over and told me to beware of swimming moose. It was rut season, when the bulls go crazy. They’ll put a hoof through your boat in a second, the ranger told me, just for the fun of it. But the really interesting thing he said was that when he’s in rut, a bull moose standing on one side of the lake might suddenly get a very strong hunch that a cow moose is waiting for him on the far side of the lake, which might be as much as two or three miles away (these are big lakes). Off he’ll swim. But when he’s just about gotten to the distant shore, he’ll take a contrary notion that actually, all the ladies are probably on the shore he just swam from. So he does an about-face and paddles back the way he came. Just as the moose is finally reaching terra firma, he doubts himself, and again with the U-turn. A lot of moose, the ranger said, killed themselves this way.

As I was revising and revising this story and others, I thought often about those uncertain, waterlogged creatures. As much as I believe in the radical rewrite, I hope that someday I’ll get better at picking a single course and sticking with it. The pond is always bigger than it looks.

5. What’s the last book you loaned out that you regret giving away?

Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison.

6. What is the best piece of writing advice that has ever been given to you?

Get in and get out.” The late Barry Hannah on the short story.

7 What is your favorite personal memory of the South?

Brown ponds in summer, the cool layer you had to swim hard to get down to.

8. Do you have any favorite contemporary Southern writers?

Allan Gurganus, Charles Portis, Padgett Powell, Mark Richard, Mary Robison, Karen Russell.

9. In her introduction as guest editor to New Stories from the South, 2010, Amy Hempel writes, “Much of what I read from the contemporary South has a soundtrack.” As a North Carolinian resident, what is your current Southern soundtrack?

Bullfrogs, crickets, dogs. If I had to pick music, Vic Chesnutt’s “West of Rome” and “Is the Actor Happy?”

10. * And the bonus q: You are stranded on a desert island with any celebrity, living only. Who would you choose?

I would drown myself rather than be stranded on a desert island with a celebrity.

Interview by
Megan Fishmann,
Publicist at

From Wikipedia: Wells Tower  is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, the 2002 Plimpton (Discovery) Prize from The Paris Review, and a Henfield Foundation Award. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Tower’s first short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned in 2009. The book was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by Edmund White and in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani. Kakutani picked it as one of her ten best books of 2009. It was also a finalist for The Story Prize. In June, 2010, Tower was named as one of The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40” luminary fiction writers. On June 10, 2010, he was presented with the Tenth Annual New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a $10,000 prize for an American writer under 40. His work was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2010.

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