Tony Wolk and The Parable of You
ony Wolk is the author of The Parable of You, the fall 2013 title from Propeller Books. He is also the author of the novels Abraham Lincoln: A Novel Life, Good Friday, and Lincoln’s Daughter. He has taught writing and literature at Portland State University since 1965, and lives in Portland, Oregon. —Dan DeWeese
Dan DeWeese: Where did this story collection come from? How many years did you work on it?
Tony Wolk: The collection came thanks to your urging, as publisher of Propeller Books and Propeller magazine.
DeWeese: But I mean—
Wolk: Well, backing up a step, a couple of years back you asked if I might have something for the magazine. Nice invitation. I suggested two stand-alone parables, “The Nameless Ones” and “Two Black Swans,” each an excerpt from a recent novel, House of Day, House of Night. As the novel unfolded I realized I had on my hands a variation of the story of the Robber Bridegroom. I happened onto it not thanks to the Brothers Grimm or Eudora Welty or any number of other writers. I spotted it thanks to Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, where Benedick calls it an old tale, which makes it really an old tale. In the novel I have my principal character, Alice Morgante, teaching European lit at a university in an imaginary alpine country nestled between France, Switzerland, and Italy, its name “Gullivere.” It’s late at night and she is reading Much Ado and thanks to a footnote sees a connection to Carlo Guardamagno, a predatory linguistics professor just down the hall—the old tale writ anew. And we’re off and running.
Pretty soon other old tales (the brothers Grimm later on collected them) began to manifest themselves: Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Grethel and others. It’s as though come midnight there’d be a knock at my door; not the Little Shoemaker but The Teller of Old Tales. All I had to do was take dictation. It was strange, my story suddenly going sideways instead of forward. Like a That reminds me of. Call that Step One.
DeWeese: What’s Step Two?
Wolk: Early in 2013 you asked if I had any more stories. I replied that I was a novelist, not a short story writer. "So write some stories," you said. At which point I asked why you were asking, and you described how Propeller Books works, by asking one writer per year for a book. I was this year's victim—Stand and deliver! So I began sorting through old files. Like most novelists, I began with short stories, a few of which were published. Then one day a story became “Chapter I” and a novelist was born. Finis short stories? Not quite.
Because I treat every class as a writing class (what if there’s a Shakespeare in a class?—must she always write about and not tell her own stories?), and because I write along with my students, I’m always writing, especially when the class actually is labeled “Writing.” You get the picture: No matter what I teach, the students and I are writing. Which adds up when it’s a twice-weekly basis for decades—there I’m speaking explicitly of writing classes. What I bring to a group is the next moment in whatever I have going. That’s how I’ve managed to write more than a dozen novels while teaching full time. Of course stories come to an end and new ones begin. The upshot is that occasional short stories happen, discontinuities. Like one-night stands, though I don’t know what that phrase refers to. The more I dug in my journals, the more I found. Over time it adds up.
I also wrote a few new stories per your suggestions, though you didn't choose any of those.
Wolk: They didn’t fit a pattern you saw emerging.
Wolk: Or maybe they were too much like memoir. I think what you recognized was how unexpected each story was. Especially when you sequenced them in what looks like random fashion, but isn’t. When the collection was complete and at the printer, I went back for my own sake and dug back to the roots. The toughest one for me to unearth was "The Informer" which was thanks to a dream, though instead of writing down the dream I wrote a quick story about living in fascist times in Italy. Were Italo Calvino alive I’d like to think he wouldn’t remember having written it.
DeWeese: I’m glad you’ve mentioned Calvino. Could you say more about what literary tradition you feel these stories are working within? Are there other writers who particularly influenced your thinking about the pieces in this collection?
Wolk: I should be shy about naming particular writers, so I’ll begin with the notion of a literary tradition. I remember back when Doris Lessing spoke in Portland at the Congregational Church. What struck me then was her saying that what we’re used to from fiction writers is realism, stories about here and now, coming of age in warped families. But the long tradition goes back to the story of Troy, to Homer and beyond and never has quit. Lessing called it Fantasy. I call it Story. My favorites growing up were Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Verne’s Mysterious Island, and the one, being Jewish, I called Swiss Family Rabinowitz. I was also reading an unexpurgated version of Robert Burton’s translation of A Thousand Nights and a Night, in particular the voyages of Sinbad. I still read shipwreck novels. What is Shackleton’s tale of the Endurance or even Scott’s of the Terra Nova but a tale of shipwreck? Even the Patrick O’Brien Master and Commander series, which I’ve read three times, can be called “shipwreck” stories. Of course Shahrazad tells all kinds of stories—except for what we’d call mainstream. Mind you, when the Arabian Nights first were translated into European languages, they took the continent by storm, no matter that the Eighteenth Century was labeled the Enlightenment. I guess what I’m saying is that when I sit down to write what comes out has a kink in it.
DeWeese: What do you mean by “a kink”?
Wolk: I have a vague memory of Lessing saying all you need is to have your characters glance out a window and see a spaceship fly past. This is how I see Ursula Le Guin’s writing. Rare is the story without the kink.
About the only thing I remember from grade school is the library shelf with book after book of mythology: Roman, Greek, Norse. The names that stick in my mind are Odin, Baldur, Perseus, Medusa, Atalanta, and Hercules. The title of my doctoral dissertation at Nebraska was “Hercules and The Faerie Queene.” It’s as though I never escaped from those shelves. “The Death of Danco” is a good example: it’s based on an historical Antarctic Belgian expedition in 1898 where the ship’s doctor was an American, Frederick Cook. I had read the books by the commander, Adrien de Gerlache, I read Roald Amundsen’s diary, I read Cook’s own account. But I undid Cook and inserted a woman as the ship’s doctor. It so happens she is a double (a doppelgänger), her other self being a student at Northwestern in the 1950s. Kink and double kink. Mostly the scenes in the ice come straight out of my research, but of course the change of gender makes a difference. But what really makes a difference are the shadow figures, cast by each persona. Mythic figures, scary. They have their own agenda. So what’s mostly historical fiction (1898, 1955) becomes fantasy.
Explorer Frederick Cook.
But I’ve not named enough names. For this collection, Borges and Calvino, for sure. Other writers I love to read, everything they’ve ever published, include Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Haruki Murakami, and Molly Gloss. Then there’s Alice Munro, Willa Cather, William Stafford, Charles Darwin, Ted Kooser, Primo Levi, Stephen Jay Gould, and John Crowley. Mustn’t forget William Shakespeare. And then there’s Dante Alighieri. When I tell a class that I don’t rule out that Dante is referencing an actual journey, I’m surprised the class doesn’t fold there and then. When editors like Robert Hollander write in their introductions that “of course no one believes the journey real,” I want to reply, “You forgot about me.” I’d like to add, “you ignorant slug!”
What harmonizes all these writers? Good writing. That’s the club I’d like to be a member of. The Good Writers’ Club. The Kinky Good Writers’ Club.
DeWeese: I will let that stand without comment.
Wolk: Here are quick answers limited to The Parable of You. Where did the collection come from? You, Dan DeWeese. How many years did I work on it? From 1950 till now, with the exception of 1958-1975, when English departments had me in their death grips. What literary tradition do I feel I’m working in? Real fantasy. Or, to quote Molly Gloss when I thanked her for her blurb: “I had no idea you were working in the other brief-and-strange form.” I guess that’s it: Brief-and-strange.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
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