WTF: An Interview with David Shafer, future USPS Novelist Laureate
I was ‘introduced’ to David Shafer over email by his publicist near the end of the day, and before I’d found the time to write to him he wrote to me, subject line HOWYA, text in its entirety: “So, where do you get your ideas from?” I bring this up as evidence of the playful boisterousness of Shafer, author of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a book I’ve talked about elsewhere and for which plenty other folks have gone gaga as well. I’ll spare you here the details and say only that those books that hit on lots of satisfying cylinders—good story, good characters, some seriousness in the thing’s plot to make the book feel like something more than an enterprising cleverness—are rare, and WTF is one of them. You’re wise to pick up on it presently.
Below are some emailed questions and answers between Mr Shafer and I. I didn’t ask where his ideas come from, simply because I trust he gets his same as the rest of us get ours: from the whispering tape dispenser at the edge of that one desk.
How long did the book take to write? Use whatever metric you’d like–kernel of initial failed idea that led to second failed idea that led–eventually–to a workable idea, or first keystrokes to last edits, whatever. (that’s a lame first question. I’m not even asking because of some deep concern for the number; the amount of time’s mostly interesting because of how *dense* the book is, how much work it feels must have gone into it to provide the satisfactions it provides [which satisfactions are, to be clear, both linguistic (I’ve got too many pages dog-eared to go through at present; the first bit that knocked me sideways was page 7, bottom: “The menace was present in everything here; it was like walking by a man holding a stick, the man silent, the stick raised above his head.”) and plot/structural.]).
I’m going to say seven years. It was in late 2006 that I began WTF in earnest. I thought it would take about two years to finish. That seemed like an honorable amount of time to spend on a novel. This was was nonsense of course. I probably had a finished first draft four years later, but by ‘finished’ I mean that I had a highly polished first third of a good book. The meat of it, and the ending, was still chaotic and author-indulgent and way too long and all that. My wife, my literary agent and some few early readers found a way to say to me, This is really good, but it needs a lot of work. Luckily I heard both clauses of that sentence. It was grueling to have work so much longer on a thing than I thought it would take (I know: writers have maybe less claim to “grueling” than, say, miners), but it also turns out to have been the making of the novel. I came through so much in those years (as anyone would in seven years). So when I was writing a character who was disillusioned or depressed or desperate – or elated, energized, in love – I didn’t need to bluff those; I had that stuff in very recent files.
This is always a dreaded Q but I end up finding it super useful: what are any of your ‘influences’? Or even just: folks whose work you read/listen to/consume and get intellectual/emotional sustenance/calories from. I know, I know: toxic, limited and -ing, impossible in all ways. Still.
The Influences question. So hard to answer because one doesn’t want to come off sounding like a jerk. Who is as erudite and well-read (and able to recall what he has read) as he wishes to be/appear? I had excellent, formative teachers who exposed me to Important Works, and I’m sure those influenced me. Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens and George Eliot and Nabokov. Those all got in there somewhere. But to call them ‘influences’ is a bit wankerish. Those works rocked my world, but back when my world was more easily rocked (c. 18-30?). They were lodestars; great books I needed to read to get a sense of scope, a sense of how much of life a novel might try to take in. But I was instructed to read those books. It’s the books we choose, the ones we seek out – or rather that we come to on our own, sometimes by accident, or by a circuitous route – that are more fairly called influences.
So. When I was an adolescent, I read a lot of spy fiction and thrillers. Forsyth, Ludlum, Follett, Clancy. Those guys. I tried to read Le Carré, but most of it went over my head until I returned to him a few years later. College brought me more Great Works, but also Ken Kesey and Frederick Exley. Then, in my mopier twenties I found the writers who work on a smaller scale, with finer tools and keen, keen eyes. Tillie Olsen and John Cheever and Marilynne Robinson and James Baldwin (and twenty others I am not recalling now, but will in an hour or a day). So then I wanted to be able to do that. Around the same time, Infinite Jest dropped into my world. That altered the landscape as far as I was concerned. (Just like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas did a few years later.) I think after that it was the essayists and creative or long-format nonfiction practitioners who got to me, and some of the memoirists. Barry Lopez and Mary Karr, and even George Orwell when he’s in that vein. (Maybe Cheever falls into this last camp, because I’m thinking mainly of his journals.) But somehow I have failed to mention here Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem and Peter Matthiessen and Karen Russell and George Saunders. And from my Stoneybatter days, Anne Enright and John Banville and Joseph O’Neill and Sebastian Barry.
At a very very personal level: was this book written while you yourself stopped smoking cigarettes? (ed note: I only asked the Q because the book read to me, a former smoker, as just 100% fuck-me true about the poisonous but wonderful and make-it-stop and please-just-one-more addiction of that particular drug.)
Cigarettes. Really, you gotta ask that? My parents will probably read this. And I have two children now, children whom I so intensely hope will avoid self-destructive anything. That’s must be one of the pains of parenthood – your inability to protect your children. And the mean shape of the curve on that – every day you can do less protecting. By now I find it embarrassing to admit that I smoked cigarettes, or at least so many cigarettes, especially the pointless ones, because they were just as poisonous. And then I stopped. And then I stopped again. So, yeah, I know Swain’s pain. Likewise Mark and Leo. I have never been as crazy as Leo or as drug-addled as Mark. I’m boring-er. But I do know these states and ways of being. I have access to them. I am not faking that part.
I can seem to find very little about you just through searching (other than that there are several folks with yr same name, all of you involved in radically different lifetasks); you don’t need to answer this for the purpose of an interview or anything, but can you sketch more bio stuff? Again, don’t have to, but, like: why Argentina and Dublin? Why Portland, aside from Powell’s (which, in fairness, I’d argue is reason enough)? Do you miss New York? If all this is radically insignificant and totally outside the realm of yr interest in talking about the book, totally fine. Just curious.
You can find out very little about me online because a) To avoid persecution at the hands of the security state, I work only from the Deep Web. b) I am an impostor. c) I am a novelbot.
Sorry, my adolescent impulse to gag answer is so automatic. Real answer is that I have not been professionally committed to (and therefore have not been professionally successful in) any particular field. I am a decent journalist, and I did some of that, I am a journeyman carpenter and I have done some of that. I cast about, and sometimes flailed. But. So. I grew up in Manhattan. Loving family. Every advantage. I came to Portland in 1991 and I thought it was Valhalla, though I never meant to forsake NYC and the east coast. I guess I imagined that I would return home some day. Then a life grew up around me here, a good life, with good friends, in this beautiful land that still seems somehow wild (by which of course I do not mean Portland, but Cascadia, which enfolds Portland). I returned east for graduate school at Columbia and I after that I went to Buenos Aires. This is 2003-4. I had romantic notions of being a foreign correspondent. Mainly those did not work out. But that city is dreamy and gritty at once; I fell for it. I also fell for the Irish woman who would one day be my wife. A writer, but when I first saw her she was behind a bar. Myanmar was luck and initiative and a friend who is an actual foreign correspondent friend (The Economist). We traveled in Myanmar for a few weeks, and even in that short time, and even as tourist, I could feel what it might be like to live under a true tyranny. That’s the source of that line you picked out, The menace was present in everything here; it was like walking by a man holding a stick, the man silent, the stick raised above his head. (I’m so gratified that that line took you.)
In 2007, I found Fiona again. By that time she was a journalist at The Irish Times. I wasn’t going to let her go by a second time, so in 2008 I moved to Dublin. I suppose I wasn’t completely prepared for the foreignness of Dublin, either, but it has no problem with tyranny. Fiona and I were married in 2009. She came back here with me in 2010. Our daughter was born that year, and a son was born to us this year. Sorry for all the pedantic chronologizing.
This is absolutely a bit of a wanker q: did you find yourself more drawn toward/resembling Leo or Mark, and why, for whoever it is you choose? Is that bullshit? I don’t intend it to be a BS question (who does?).
Mark or Leo? Total admixture. See above re. mental health / addiction stuff. I guess more Leo, though, in shape of life. But Mark in terms of some of that [unwarranted] self of grievance, and, at my worst, that self-centeredness and bullshittery.) I mainly aspire to be Leila.
I really like that you aspire to be Leila. It also brings up something that I so, so like about this novel that I don’t feel like I often get that much from novels: this thing’s so clearly engaged in Huge Questions about Being Good. I don’t know how to ask much about that other than asking: how conscious/intentional was that, or was that development incidental and the result of the book’s writing happening over crucial periods in yr own life? Was that one of the book’s aims or goals (given the number of things happening—smart insightful stuff in general, funny/scary/good stuff on tech stuff, the obviously-necessary stuff about how the Post Office will always be where the government’s goodness begins [was the Swain stuff because of Crying/49? I adore the post office in a not-remotely-ironic way, so having them be the Good Guys was awesome]—it seems possible the grander, big-issue-questions were just ancillary, though that seems maybe a bit much).
Yes, that was very intentional and conscious. The book may have even started out as a sort of self-help book, but a self-help book written by confused young men, which would not be a very helpful self-help book. Leo’s writing one of those diaries of mental illness that turn out to be so full of useful information. Mark is writing a bullshit aphoristic market-feeding thing. But at least Mark knows he’s full of shit (the stage name he gives himself in the airport lounge is “Devereux the Baffled.”) Leo is confused. He has his hands on something, but he can’t hold on. And then there’s Leila over there, just trying to get shit done, not journalling about getting shit done.
I look for some useful morality in fiction. But I also read and enjoy material that doesn’t need to go there. I was about to say humor doesn’t need to go too near morality, but maybe that’s not true. Humor contains morality, very well at times. But what humor can’t be is instructive, right? Because there’s no funny there. I guess Mark and Leo both find themselves being instructive. But then they both find a way out of that – Leo needs to hold on tighter; Mark needs to let go a little. And, jeebus, I hope the book itself never fell into any moral instruction. If it did, it apologizes with its title.
Yes the USPS is dear to my heart. They carved their beautiful, poetic (and not short) motto, in stone, on the front of the top of their building. You gotta love that. I will be very sad to see them go, and I worry that its decline in the next decade will be precipitous. Apparently, the core business model – you paste one of these tiny, fifty-cent paintings onto the corner of an envelope, and we will carry that envelope to your friend, though she be three thousand miles away – has been unsustainable for the last twenty years. That why there’s all that crap spilling through your door now. (I don’t think Ben Franklin was thinking pizza flyers and gutter cleaning come-ons.) I have a ragtag cast of letter carriers, only three of whom I found excuse to mention in the book. Let’s please send all the mail we can in the next while here. We will miss the postman when we no longer hear the shushle of letters in the hall. Somewhere in The Journals of John Cheever Cheever is sketching an imaginary, longed-for weekend away (with a lover maybe? I forget. If so, one of those lovers who is only ever called “C” or something), and he writes of going to the mailbox and finding only “checks, love letters, honors and invitations.” !!!
That would be a nice trick of love to play on someone: rigging mail delivery for one blessed day. In that case, maybe, to “checks, love letters, honors, and invitations”, I would add magazines and a couple of the more intriguing catalogs.
And the USPS still issues capes! And pith helmets! Your employer have those? The USPS has those right-hand drive Jeeps. The have those double-panniered rolly carts. They have all the rubber bands a man could want. Some of them have wizard-grade key chains, ringing with 200 mailbox keys. Plus, Letter Carriers have a not undangerous job, and all they get is a can of mace. It makes me feel as though I live in a more reasonable America. (Went back home to NYC earlier this summer. TBTA Toll Collection officers at tunnel entrances wear sidearms. (Just as Robert Moses would have wanted?))
I did read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Back in college. I remember nothing about it except for stamp auctions and that it blew my mind. Sadly, No one from the USPS or the office of the USPS Inspector General has contacted me, to ask for my service as the USPS novelist laureate. I’d do it for stamps.
And if you’re at all comfortable wearing the wankery speculate-on-other-books hat: do you happen to think the sort of questions or concerns—about goodness, being a good human, doing the Right Thing—are not addressed enough in contemporary fiction? I think this a lot—or, anyway, wonder about it—and we can obviously dive right into a rabbit hole on this just one Q, so maybe this is already too much. Anyway. Take it as you wish, if at all.
I am not well-read enough to comment on “contemporary fiction” – the whole thing, like. I read a lot of boxes these days. But I think that in the last couple of years I have read a few novels that do take on Essential Questions. Just one of those is The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shachocis. I would call it a magnum opus except that that makes it sound like a hair salon or a chocolate cake. Its vast tale that takes in bolts and yards and swaths and tranches (shit – metaphor smoothie – sorry) of moral figuring and consequence. Bob Shacochis gave me a blurb. (a funny, slightly gross word, yes?)
BTW, in ten years of writing and not showing, I may have been, at times, unjustly and unappealing embittered about the world I wanted to enter, and I remember suspecting that this whole blurb thing must be somehow lubricated or quid pro quo-ish. I am relieved that that seems not to be the case. Here’s how it happened with Bob Shachocis: someone I do not know asked/convinced him to start WTF (maybe thirty pages? Fifty? How long would you give a book that came to you this way?). He liked it enough to finish it and then he rapped his knuckles on the table and lent his good name to the back of the book. I had not read his work, but I ran out and bought it and did so. Turns out I admire it, and found time to read all 700 pages in three weeks of my scattered life.
What’s the view out your window? (a note: this is my where do you get your ideas from q: I just stupidly keep asking it, interview after interview, because I woman I loved years ago said it was the Q she’d ask folks if she interviewed them. She certainly doesn’t even remember mentioning it.).
I work in an abandoned lighthouse at the end of a rocky spit of land that juts out into the hurling Pacific, so I see mainly the waves crashing furious and ceaseless upon the walls of my bright tower. (I use the old signaling light to order lunch.)
No. Is good question, but the view from my desk these days is kinda meh. Desk is in the attic. Smallish window takes in mainly the roof of the house next door, perhaps 120 degrees of the street and sidewalk, power lines, the tiny and multiple and poorly-ordered piles of scrap that pock my desk. But if no one’s home, like right now, the head of the dining room table is nice. From here is’s just a big green hedge.