Interview with Lance Weller, author of Wilderness
Jaime Boler: Lance, thank you so much for letting me interview you. Did you always want to be a writer?
Lance Weller: For as long as I can remember, yes. My maternal grandmother had dreams of being a writer and always had the accoutrements of the craft lying around—pens, pads of paper, a really excellent typewriter—and some of my earliest memories are of monkeying around with all that wonderful stuff.
JB: How did you come up with the idea for Wilderness? How did you come up with the character of Abel Truman?
LW: Abel Truman came to me well before I had any notion whatsoever that Wilderness would become what it ended up becoming. I wanted to try and write a really excellent dog story and, to that end, started writing a short story about an old man and his dog and what became of them. Before I really knew it, they were living on the Washington State coast and the old man was an American Civil War veteran and I was beyond the point where it was a short story by a good number of pages.
JB: The story behind Wilderness is inspirational because you never gave up. You were very ill and did not write for months yet one thing made the difference for you. Can you talk about what happened and how that gave you hope?
LW: I’d had Wilderness finished for some time but no one wanted it. I couldn’t get anybody interested and it had been a long time since I’d seen my name in print on anything. My illness, when it came, was nothing life-threatening, nothing dire, but fundamentally changed the way I thought about myself because, suddenly, I’d lost the use of the left side of my face and I felt awful, truly awful right down to my bones, all the time. It forced an existential crisis wherein I started questioning everything I was and had been and on and on.
At any rate, I didn’t do anything creative for a long time but, at the back of my mind, I knew with Wilderness I’d done the best I knew how. Eventually, I sat down with the manuscript and started to rework it—not because it needed it (though it did) but because I wanted to relearn the discipline it took to get it done in the first place. And, eventually, I saw an ad for a magazine looking for stories of the type that Wilderness was full of and, eventually, I got a tiny portion of the manuscript accepted for publication in that magazine. It felt good and I felt good getting it ready and realized that, even though I’d lost faith for a time, was lost for a time, maybe what I’d managed with Wilderness was a thing that should not be let go so easily.
JB: You conducted extensive research for this novel on the Civil War from generals to conditions for soldiers to battles. Did anything that you discovered surprise you?
LW: Nearly EVERYTHING I discovered surprised me. I came from a place of vast, deep ignorance about the conflict and what I did know was pretty well sanitized. The more I read, the more amazed I became; amazed at what the country went through, amazed at what was borne and amazed at the common soldier’s experience amidst the mud and blood.
JB: You were born in the Pacific Northwest and you write about it. I am going to pose a question to you I previously asked Jonathan Odell (The Healing): I’ve always heard authors should write what they know best. Is that why you set Wilderness in the Pacific Northwest?
LW: Partly. I’m actually of the opinion that some of the best writing comes from stuff that lies outside an author’s everyday experience because, sometimes, you get some good insight; thus my plunge into Civil War history. That being said, there doesn’t seem to be an overabundance of contemporary fiction set in the Pacific Northwest, at least not out on the coast where I put Abel, so it was a real pleasure and a challenge to dig into it.
JB: I’ll be honest. At times, it was so difficult to read your story. It stirred a wide range of emotions in me (in a good way). But how hard was it for you to write about the racism, the brutality, and the violence? Did you ever have to stop to collect yourself?
LW: Not really. I’d read so much history, so many soldiers’ letters and diaries and thought so long and deeply about what their experience must have been like that I think I became a little inured to the idea of the violence. There were many times, though, that I came up for air—especially in the battle scenes—and worried I’d gone too far and then, after reading what I’d written, worried I’d not gone far enough to get it as right as I could.
JB: My favorite character in the story is probably Hypatia. Do you have a favorite? Or is that like asking a mother who her favorite child is?
LW: I really don’t have a favorite (but I will tell you I was pretty nervous writing Hypatia because I so wanted to get her right; so it’s really gratifying to hear she resonated for you). I do really love Abel’s dog though…
JB: How do you feel when readers and critics (this one included) say Wilderness is better than Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain?
LW: I’m in a really happy position to find Wilderness often compared to a modern classic like Cold Mountain but, beyond their shared landscape of the American Civil War and their stories of men walking toward uncertain destinies, they are two vastly different books. To tell the truth, I’m constantly surprised and humbled to be mentioned in the same breath as Frazier who is one of my big literary heroes.
JB: What is your writing process like? What is a typical day of writing like for you?
LW: I have, I think, the very worst process it is possible to have. It’s slow and methodical except for when it is not. It’s overburdened with me being critical with myself except for when it’s not. I average, maybe, a page a day except for when I do more (or sometimes less). But I’m very lucky to have a dedicated space filled with stuff I love and (and this is important) I always, always have a dog at my feet.
JB: What is the last book you read?
LW: The last book I read that really bowled me over was Jeffrey Lent’s In the Fall—I’m very lucky NOT to have read it while I was working on Wilderness because it would have taken the heart right out of me it’s so grand and giving a book.
And, lately, I’ve been rereading a lot of the pulp fiction I loved in my youth; so, a lot of RE Howard and Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Kenneth Robeson. I’ll always have a soft spot for that sort of wide-eyed adventure story.
JB: Do you have any favorite authors? If so, who are they?
LW: William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and it more or less stops there. I can read and reread them any number of times and get something new.
JB: What advice would you give someone working on a first novel?
LW: I don’t know that I’m best guy to answer that question considering how long I worked on Wilderness but I think the best advice I could offer would be to just keep working it and working it and working it—sentence after sentence—and worry about what you’ll end up with after you’ve ended up with it.
Also, if at all possible, have a dog at your feet.
JB: Are you working on anything new?
LW: Always. Right now, I’m trying another period piece set in 1846 that’s gone from being the story of a marriage to becoming a sort of buddy/road novel about two friends who go to very dark places on the new frontier.
JB: What do hope readers take with them after reading Wilderness?
LW: If there’s one thing I’m learning from this first novel process, is that I need to be prepared to be constantly surprised at what people take away from the book. I had little in the way of agendas when I wrote it and now, having seen it published, all I can hope for is that folks enjoy it. There’s really nothing more I can ask for.
JB: Thank you, Lance, for a great interview.