Images provided by Anna Crowe, Bantam Dell Publishing Group, Random
House, Inc.; Cover Art © 2007 by Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Picturequest; Cover
Design by Lynn Andreozzi. Photo of author Robert Wilder © 2007 by Jennifer
Esperanza. All rights reserved.
On Thursday, September 13, QuoinMonkey and ybonesy interviewed Robert Wilder, author of the recently released Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Part 1 of that interview can be found here. Part 2 begins below. We’d like to thank Robert Wilder and Anna Crowe for helping make this happen.
Interview With Robert Wilder – Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge: An Irreverent View of What It Really Means to Be a Teacher Today
red Ravine: So, Rob, I want to talk a little bit about your voice. In your writing, it’s edgy, humorous … have you always written with that particular voice?
Robert: No. You know, I wrote fiction for 16 years before I started writing non-fiction, and when I wrote fiction I always wanted to be the smartest kid in the class. I wanted to be a luminary like all those writers I loved. So I would write, wanting to be something that I wasn’t. I’d put on a voice that wasn’t really authentic.
What I found in my teaching, talking to students as well as telling stories to people, was that those two voices were really different. And I really liked the voice I used telling stories and being in the classroom. But I didn’t give myself permission to use it in my writing.
I felt I had to be smarter than I was, and what I realize now is it hurt my writing. I didn’t trust my own voice and it made my writing really watered down. There wasn’t a lot of energy in my fiction, I see now. But once I started writing stories about my family, where I didn’t really think anything was going to happen with (the stories), I wrote them for the pure joy of writing them and because I thought they were funny and I was interested in some of the tensions and interesting complications in them. Because I didn’t really think they were going to go anywhere, I gave myself permission to use all the parts of my voice that I used during the day.
I’m going to have a reading … and one of the things that’s interesting about writing is that, obviously, I use profanity and irreverence and things like that, and for me that’s sort of like a painter. I allow myself to use a lot of different colors and some of the colors that a lot of people would not use in their painting.
I’d like to use a wide range of language. I would like to be able to quote Shakespeare and make a potty joke if I think it’s funny or relevant. It’s the way I experience the world. During any given day, I hear very low humored, low language, and very high, and I like that juxtaposition. I don’t like the same note over and over.
I like complications of low notes, high notes, and all in-between. The voices in the book are closer to my voice in real life and the way I really think. And when I was writing before, that was the way I wanted to be rather than the way I was.
red Ravine: I was going to ask you — Are you that way in person? — but I actually just finished the Sub-Par chapter where you’re talking about taking your daughter, Poppy, out of the sleazy substitute guy’s class and it sounds like … you’re pretty funny in real life.
Robert: There are a lot of writers who write funny … like Augusten Burroughs … but if you met him, you wouldn’t think he’s funny at all. There are a lot of writers like that. Humor’s been part of my life ever since I was a kid, and it’s the way I deal with situations. It’s the way I put my daughter at ease and my son at ease. It’s the way I put my students at ease.
I think a lot of times, things for me are funny. A lot of people, maybe they get angry, but I think life is funny. I really do. I think there are a lot of things that we can stop and look at and say, “Isn’t that nuts?” But also that’s a celebration of how wonderful life is, you know.
I do joke around in class a lot. I use humor as a way to bridge the kids from their movie situations to books or a way that if there’s awkwardness in high school, which there is on a daily basis, I just say it’s funny, we’re all in it together, it’s okay. So it is more like who I am.
Some of the stuff, obviously, I don’t go that far in the class or with my children. I’ll think about how nuts or irreverent it is; obviously there’s a time and a place for all that. But in my writing, as you guys know through writing practice, I will allow myself to go where I need to go. And not to be editing or censoring myself as I go because that will kill any art.
What’s fun is I can go as far as I want and then … my editor and I eventually have a conversation about how far is it and, for a piece specifically, is this too far? Or do I need to push it a little bit? Those are great conversations to have.
red Ravine: When did you know, Rob, that you were a writer?
Robert: (laughs) That’s a hard question. It’s hard to answer that question. I still doubt it, you know. I think a lot of writers still doubt it. I still have to remind myself that I’m a writer. People meet me and ask me what I do, and I always say teacher first, just because it’s a more easy-to-understand profession.
That’s a really hard question. On some days you wonder whether you have more in you and other days you think you could write about something every day of your life. So I think I struggle with that identity, even with the books.
I think I’m slowly realizing that writing is my profession, it’s what I profess. But I can’t say I ever feel like one. I think a lot of writers feel this way, that the other guy is the writer (laughs). The other person has got 3 books or the other person is in the Times instead of this magazine.
But what I’ve done is give myself permission to say, “I’m going to write the rest of my life, no matter what the situation is.” I’d rather look again at writing as a practice that I like to do and that I want to keep doing for the rest of my life, no matter what happens, rather than earning the nameplate or the faceplate title “writer.” I’d rather say that I’m a “practitioner” and that I’m going to continue to practice no matter what happens.
That feels better to me because then I don’t feel like I have to live up to anything. Which I think if you say you’re a writer, sometimes, for a lot of people, they feel like they have to hit a homerun every time they step up to the plate.
red Ravine: Do you remember the first thing you wrote?
Robert: I wanted to do stuff like that as a kid, but we didn’t do those things. My dad was a banker and my mom was a stay-home mom. I remember trying to write stories as a kid and not being encouraged to do it. I took a cartooning class, I remember, when I was really little and it was fun. But I didn’t have talent in terms of drawing, so I was assigned to do the bricks in the back of the cartoon (laughs).
I was a pretty late bloomer. I wrote in high school; I had a creative writing class that allowed me to write. But you know there was no place for it, and I can say that honestly, it wasn’t until graduate school or when I moved to Santa Fe to write that I was ever really encouraged to write.
When you grow up in the suburbs of New York in the 80’s like I did, they didn’t want young boys to be writers. They wanted you to be a banker or a lawyer or a doctor, right? Or a soccer player. Or they weren’t looking at boys to be anything artistically inclined.
Even in college, I felt like I wasn’t included. A lot of these kids came from high powered boarding schools where there was great writing going on and they were starting these magazines and I wasn’t really included in that. I would be the kid with the soccer player hair cut in the back of the reading when Richard Wilbur came to Wesleyan. I’d be the kid in the back of the class. So I can’t say until I was almost in my 20’s and 30’s was I actually encouraged to pursue any art form at all.
Whereas my own children and friends’ children, especially living in Santa Fe, are. A friend of mine whose kid, they live in NYC, … came to visit us and we took (the son) to ride a horse and we said, “Wow, you’re going to be a cowboy.” He said, “No, I don’t want to be a cowboy! I want to be an artist.” I thought that was so cool that he thought at 3 years old that one of his professions might be an artist.
That never would have occurred to me at his age. My son and daughter both feel like they could be artists or writers or painters or musicians or whatever. I never thought that as a kid. I think it’s great now, but that wasn’t the truth for me.
red Ravine: Who were your writing mentors?
Robert: Natalie (Goldberg) is probably my main mentor, just because being with her and teaching with her has taught me so much about, not only writing, but also how to be a writer. In other words, how do you deal with all the “stuff” that comes with writing. She’s been an unbelievable ally and mentor and teacher. I can’t say enough about what she taught me and what she continues to teach me as a friend.
I have other writing mentors: Kevin McIlvoy in Las Cruces is a terrific writer but an unbelievable teacher. And Antonya Nelson and Robert Boswell who are a writing couple, which is unfathomable to me how they can get so many amazing things done and be married and have children. So those people are all great writing mentors for me.
And also I think it’s important, not only writing mentors teaching you to talk about books and syntax and all this stuff, but I think it’s important to have mentors who have a lifestyle that’s similar to your own. So in other words, if you’re a writer and you have children, it’s great to be around other writers who have children. Not to say if you don’t have children, you can’t be around them, but it’s nice to know.
A lot of people now come to me and say, “How do you get all this done?” I like sitting down with other writers. I met with a graduate student, (former student) of mine who’s about to go into elementary education and early childhood. She said, “I’m so concerned about not being able to write.” I like showing her how to do it, if I can do it, she absolutely can do it. And to give her permission to do that.
I think it’s important to have people who have similar lifestyles who can show you where they get their work done and that it’s possible to be a really good parent and a good husband and a good community member and a writer. That you can do all that and there’s someone there cheering you on.
I always tell my students, my adult students, to email me if they’re ever getting down … you know, I’m not getting the laundry done, whatever it is. I’m happy to give them a little pep talk and say, “Here’s what I did today. I’m totally with you but, maybe if you try to do this. Or it’s totally okay that you take an hour a week to go write. It’s fine.”
It’s great to have people in your corner who are like that. And I’m lucky to have them as well.
red Ravine: That’s great. And you’re publishing with one of the best major publishers, Random House. How did you break through with this particular publisher and not some small publisher?
Robert: I’m almost hesitant to tell the story. It seems unreal and it’s not typical. What happened was, as I said, I was writing 16 years as apprentice writing and then I started writing the Daddy Needs A Drink stuff and it got a lot of attention. My current agent saw this piece in “Salon” from Daddy Needs A Drink and basically convinced me there was a book in it. I didn’t believe him.
Ultimately, he found me. And convinced me that I had a voice that needed to be out there. That there was a book in this. … He saw in me, or in the work, that there was something going on and that I really should pursue that.
Once he showed me how you write a proposal and how you do all these things, he showed all these people and convinced them, too. We ended up going with Bantam Dell. … We signed on with them for two books because I did tell them about the idea for the teacher book which they liked even though I hadn’t written it yet.
It just happened that way. And you know, it’s hard because it sounds like the old Hollywood where you go out and you get discovered. But I want to remind everybody when I tell that story that I was working for 16 years before that. It wasn’t all of a sudden I thought one day, “Wow, I’d love to sell a book.” I had an apprenticeship for a long time before I actually even thought about putting together a book.
red Ravine: Well, I’m watching the clock. We have about three more questions and I think we can get to them.
Robert: No worries, I’ll tell you when I have to go.
red Ravine: Okay. We’d like to know what you’re working on next.
Robert: What I’m working on next, which is going to be a big hard project, is: I’m going to work on what it was like growing up with my dad and my brothers, you know, living the Wilder life. What it was like for me to lose my mom at a relatively young age and then move into the clan of men. You know, what is it like to live with a dad and three brothers without a female figure in the house.
I think it’s going to be a little, uh, obviously it will be funny, but funny in a more poignant way, I hope. So I’m mining a lot of the early stuff with my family. A lot of people love it when I write about my dad and my brothers, and there’s a lot there. So that’s my next project and I think it’s going to kick my ass to be honest. But, I’m sort of looking forward to it.
red Ravine: Has there been anything you’ve been afraid to write?
Robert: Yeah, there are some things you’re afraid to write … like some of the darker stuff from teaching. … I would love to write sometime what it’s like to be a teacher and have your students die. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit over my years.
I’ve had a few students who’ve died in car accidents and so forth, and it’s a very interesting thing as a teacher. I know a few people have talked about it, how you’re not their friends and you’re not their parents, but you’re really close to them.
I read pages and pages of intimate things from these kids that their parents never get access to. I also spend a lot of time with them. I get to know them in ways a lot of people don’t. And then when they die or they leave or they get in trouble, you don’t know really where to place that in the emotional file cabinet.
I’d like to write about that. I haven’t figured out a way to do that yet. But it’s something I’ve been a little afraid of, and I haven’t figured out the right way to tell those stories. But I know a lot of teachers who have suffered like I’ve suffered with losing students.
You’re standing by yourself at the funeral. You’re not with the parents and family and you’re not with the buddies. You’re somewhere else. I’m interested in that. And I’m not sure how to do that yet but it’s something I would like to do.
Those are the kinds of things I need to write. As well as, I haven’t written a lot about my mother dying and what that was like being thrown into that. And I’m going to take my own advice and throw myself into the next project.
red Ravine: Do you struggle about revealing any personal information about your family or even students, sort of worrying that they might see themselves somewhere?
Robert: I do. I think about it quite a bit and my goal is, I’m never trying to hurt anybody’s feelings. If I think it’s going to be embarrassing to them, I’ll change a few details to protect their privacy. I think that’s fine. I don’t think that’s a James Frey thing.
If I think they’re going to be embarrassed, the other thing I’ll do is check with people. I’ll check with people and say, “Look, I’d really like to write about this and how do you feel about that?” Most of the time, they’re okay with it. In fact, I always think people are going to get upset. Nine times out of ten people ask me why they weren’t in the book (laughter).
Or I wrote something about a former headmaster who’s a teacher and a colleague of mine. I wrote a description of him and he loved it. It’s interesting; it wasn’t complimentary, but he thought it was right. Most of the time when people struggle a little bit, and then they read the book or they hear they might be in the book and they read it, everyone has said I’ve gotten it right. Even if they say it reminds them of something they didn’t want to remember, I don’t think anyone thinks I’m out to get them.
I don’t write tell-all books. And as for myself, I try to risk as much as I can without embarrassing my family. … The other thing is, I’m not trying to reveal stuff just to shock people. It has to fit in what you’re trying to write about. Is it organic to the piece? I think if it is organic to the piece, and you want to write about your sex life, write about your sex life. Great writers have done that.
We as readers can figure out when things are gratuitous and when they’re not. If they seem essential, even if they’re shocking, you say, “You know what, maybe I don’t want to read that kind of stuff but it’s part of the deal.” Versus “Wait, I don’t understand why this fits into this piece, I don’t get it.”
As a writer you always have to ask yourself, is this vital to the piece you’re writing? Where does this fit? How does it fit? If it fits, you’ve got to go with it. If it doesn’t, you can’t. You learn that over time. You learn that from writing, not from listening to other people.
red Ravine: We have two last questions. One is, for you, what does success as a writer look like and are you there yet?
Robert: I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit. For me, success means I would love to continue to get published and get paid a little bit. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a wealthy man from writing. So success for me is the ability to continue to write, to have time to write, where I feel like I can get away and write. That is success.
Most writers will say, when it really boils down to it, if they can continue to write for the rest of their lives, they’ll be happy. That is success for me and I think, as of now, I have it. Though I also have to fight for it.
So even though you have a book, you have to be careful not to get carried away. I mean look at Junot Diaz, who wrote Drown. It took him 10 years to write a novel … that’s a long time. And obviously he had a lot of fame and a lot of success, … a lot of speeches.
I would like to continue to be able to write for the rest of my life and have time to do that. I’d love to have more time than I have now, but I’m hoping eventually to get there. As of today, I feel like my life is pretty good. I’ve got a healthy family, we’re not in great debt, we enjoy a beautiful blue sky in New Mexico, I’m making a difference with my students…that for me is pretty successful.
I think if you start wanting all the things that you can’t have, that’s a really bad thing to do as a writer. But if you get some work done every day or every couple days, I think that, for me, is success.
red Ravine: What advice do you have for new and emerging writers?
Robert: Learning about writing practice is one of the keys. My idea for a new writer is to get your work done. I know it sounds really simplistic … and a lot of writers have said this, if you can get 500 or 1000 words done a day, that is a great thing.
Be careful if you think publishing a piece in a magazine or book will make you a happy person. Or will save your life. It won’t. It really won’t. What may help you as an artist is actually producing and writing every day. Or every couple days when you can. I think that’s the best advice people can give you.
Don’t listen to that Monkey Mind. Don’t listen to everybody telling you you can’t do it. Or you’ve got to produce something too quickly. If you can find time to do your art, then that will actually lead you and take you where you need to go. Be careful not to put the cart before the horse. I think there’s no other way to write but to write.
red Ravine: This is an excellent interview and it’s very inspiring, Rob, thanks so much for your time.
Robert: Oh, no it’s my pleasure. There are a lot of harder things to do in the world than to have people ask me questions. I appreciate you doing it.
- Chapter 1 of Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge
- USA Today interview: “Author Takes us inside the Teachers’ Lounge”
About the Author: Robert Wilder currently teaches high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is inspired daily. He has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and has a monthly column for the Santa Fe Reporter called “Daddy Needs A Drink.” He has been published in Salon, The Greensboro Review, The Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and regional magazines and newspapers. He is a Frank Waters fiction prizewinner and two of his stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives with his family in New Mexico. Visit him online at www.robertwilder.com.