Interview with Alex Wilson


Where did the idea come from?

A story contest two or three years back was based around a prompt like “begin with a punch in the face.” For this I attempted to write the prose equivalent of a manga-style fight sequence, with just a dash of justification for the violence. You know: class warfare for the critics, booster club fundraising for the plot, anatomically correct salt-and-pepper shakers for… I don’t know… spice?

That early, 1,000-word draft of “Spoils of Springfield” made the top five in that contest, but thankfully it wasn’t one of the published few. So I put it away. It was just a silly little exercise, after all.

How did the story change as you developed it?

Mostly it got longer.

About twice a year, between projects and sobrieties, I’d remember “Spoils” more fondly than it deserved to be remembered. I’d flesh out the darker stuff–the subtle threads just under the surface humor–and very slowly it started to circle the type of story I liked to read. For a long time, I resisted tipping the drama/comedy balance any further in the comedy direction, largely because the central conceits were so ridiculous from the start. And enough was enough, right? I guess I worried that the nuances I cared about would get lost under all that theoretical funny.

But something was still missing. I’d send it off to an editor, who often said s/he loved it in all the ways it’s possible to love a story without actually buying it or recommending that anyone else should ever read it, ever. Most comments were of the “Jolly read! I think I like this, but I’m not sure I understand it! And what’s that smell?” variety. So back into the trunk it would go.

This went on until just before I submitted to Shimmer. That’s when, as an experiment, I left subtlety with a sitter and went to town with the zombie-protagonist’s voice. And I think that’s what largely salvaged the story. Instead of the other threads getting lost, this allowed me to clarify what was too abstract, according to anyone who didn’t have access to my head. Which turned out to be a lot more people than you’d think. And submitting electronically took care of the smell.

You know the advice “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings.” Was there a scene or line that it really hurt to cut, but cutting it made the story stronger? May we reprint that scene or line? Or link to a very old version so that we may marvel at how much it changed?

I cut a few of the more cringeworthy curses and vitriol from both booster club girls, mostly because few people share my faith in the pottymouths of children. It added little to the voice anyway, and I couldn’t justify losing people over it. I try to pick my battles.

Looking over my early drafts and outlines, I’m surprised at how almost everything is still in there: title, dialogue, most sentences, proper names, full paragraphs, dollar amounts, failure of every other line to follow iambic tetrameter, etc. It does, however, follow my usual habit of writing outwardly. “Spoils” started with a seven sentence outline. Each of those sentences became paragraphs for the zeroth draft, and then those got fleshed out into scenes for the first draft.

And that typically continues long after a story’s been around the block. Some tweaking, sure, but mostly just fleshing it out (over 2+ years for “Spoils”). The original prompt contest received a 1,000 word draft; the story submitted to Shimmer was 2,600 words, and probably contained the entirety of that earlier draft.

So not a lot of cutting. If I’m ever convicted for something horrible, you can say: “That’s so strange. He never murdered his darlings on paper.” But don’t worry. I have a plan to keep from getting convicted for something horrible.

How is this story like your other work? How is it different?

Like most of my stuff, “Spoils” struggles between comedy and drama. Elements of both, but kinda-dominately in one camp once the final draft finds a publisher. (Maybe it’s trying to be a Vonnegut piece, without all that annoying excellence he threw in for like no reason. Showoff.)

The most common critique I get for my work is along the lines of: “You have to pick. Is this a funny or serious piece?” And though it makes it easier for me to fail, I just can’t choose. Neither interests me by itself. My stories work for me only when they find the right balance between the two genres.

The differences? The humor in “Spoils” is a bit more broad than what I usually go for. I rarely write in first person POV. I think this is my first zombie story, if you can call it that.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

On and off as a kid. On and off as an adult. I’ve been taking it seriously, writing and submitting, for about nine years now. I’m thirty-one.

Who do you write for? Yourself or someone else?

I don’t really think about it until it’s too late. Maybe it’s because I’m still finding my voice, and because most of my work still requires some sort of experimentation/something I’ve never tried before. But I’m always trying to be at the service of the story. Serve. The. Story. I think I’m more likely to ruin a perfectly good work by deciding its audience before it’s finished. Of course, when I say I want the story to work, I only know what works for me as a reader, so maybe….

Eh. I’m overthinking the question. I write for William Shatner.

Who’s your favorite living author?

Probably Tim O’Brien (who I hope isn’t superstitious, because last time I answered “Vonnegut” to this question).

Favorite book read when you were a child?

Ooh, I know this one, because my mom just dug up my tattered old copy and gave it to me: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. Also I remember fondly this short record called Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel. My sister and I used to listen to it over and over, and I recently found it on iTunes for $1.95. Good times.

What is your darkest secret?

If by “darkest secret” you mean “favorite bagel sandwich,” then it’s taylor ham and egg on cinnamon raisin, thanks for asking.

Do you believe in ghosts or the supernatural? Why?

Kinda. I’m fairly spiritual, so I guess I do give plenty of thought to the unseen. No particular belief in ghosts, but one man’s religion is another man’s superstition, eh?

Favorite restaurant?

Hmm. Whenever I go back to my hometown of Akron, Ohio, it’s a tough decision whether I hit Swensons (Burgers) and Aladdin’s Eatery (Middle Eastern) first.

Do you have a secret skill that you never get to show off?

Musical theater. I’ve done a lot of shows, been in a musical review group, and even had some lead roles in some big productions. Problem is I’ve never learned to read music properly, which means all the theater I’ve done post-college has to be of the non-musical variety, (I’d need too much extra help with a pianist). I guess I could sing in the shower more, but that’s my Sean Connery impersonation time.

Watch much TV? What’s good these days?

Not a lot. More old stuff than new. Didn’t have a television for a long time. I think I might have finally caught every Seinfeld.

Do you check your horoscope?

No. Why, does it say something about me?

Quiz: How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb? Please explain your answer:

One, and he will get started on it right after he checks his email one more time.

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