The Early Works of Ed Wagemann
Ed Wagemann hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years. He might actually be wearing the exact same socks he wore in 1997 in fact. That may sound like an insult, but Sir Edward (as he now insists on being addressed during interviews) takes insults as compliments, and vice a versa. I met up with him on an rainy May day at his favorite burrito place in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood to discuss the revision of his first novel The Panty Thief of Bridgeport.
Me: Sir Edward, You recently decided to revise your 1997 novel The Panty Thief of Bridgeport [PTOB]. Why?
Sir Edward: I use Panty Thief like a priest uses his Bible, kinda…
…long pause… [as I wait for what sounds like the set up to a Catholic Church joke]
Me: And how’s that?
Sir Edward: Whenever I get bored or stuck with whatever I’m currently writing I will go back and start picking away at Panty Thief.
Me: And that helps you get inspired?
Sir Edward: It reminds me that I should be having fun. [chuckles] This time around though I took a different approach. I decided to use the collective wisdom of the Internet to actually give Panty Thief the overhaul it has needed for awhile now.
Me: Tell me how that’s going.
Sir Edward: Great, if you like a bunch of smart ass trolls and Lit snobs telling you what a shit writer you are [chuckles again]. What I did was I started a blog where I’ll release one or two chapters of Panty Thief every couple of days and then I blanketed a bunch of writer’s groups on the internet with these open invites to come and participate in what I described as ‘the historical first EVER Interactive Revision of a published novel’… Then I sat back and watched the train wreck.
Me: Is that true? That this was the first EVER Interactive Revision?
Sir Edward: Hell if I know. But I got some actual feedback that I could use and I even met a couple of folks who actually dug it.
Me: And did you actually make any revisions to it based on that feedback?
Sir Edward: Yeah, some. Not as much as people thought I should though… One thing I did when I was inviting readers, writers, editors, etc to the Historical Interactive Revision was that I included a contest, sort of. I said that I would write two brand brand new characters into the novel who will be based on actual people that contribute comments to the Interactive Revision. But then I didn’t follow through.
[I found out later that more than one person threatened to sue Wagemann if he used their likeness in his novel. This may explain why he bailed on his idea of inserting characters in PTOB based on people who made comments during the Interactive Revision.]
Sir Edward: Next Question! [laughs]
Me: During this Interactive Revision, what were the biggest criticisms of The Panty Thief of Bridgeport?
Sir Edward: You know, the usual. There were complaints about sentences that are too long or complaints about switching from present tense to past tense then back to present tense again. There were complaints of switching back and forth between active voice and passive voice… There was this one Lit-Nazi who actually put The Panty Thief through some computer program that analyzes writing. Oh man, I gave that Puritan an earful!
Me: Oh no, what did it is say?
Sir Edward: Well of course this computer program shot the novel to hell, pointing out that I used the word “that” 500 thousand times and that I made one million and six thousand and 32 word usage mistakes, and this and that. It made me laugh really, because I can’t name one computer that ever wrote a great novel, so why the fuck should a computer be trying to tell anyone how to write a novel?
Me: You’re talking about Grammarly, or the Hemingway Editor. They are computer software, not actual computers.
Sir Edward: Is that what they are? Well yeah, I don’t give a fuck. And I asked this Nazi if they had tried that computer analyzer on Catcher In The Rye? Or A Clockwork Orange? Or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? The stats on any of those are probably a million times worst than Panty Thief… The obvious problem with these computer analyzers is they don’t account for the individual voice of a first person narrator. So I kindly thanked the Nazi for their input but told her that I don’t put much stock in the paint-by-numbers computerized approach to creative writing. I mean WHO programs these computer programs? And what fucking standard are they using? Some elitist, grammar snob literary society standard that Hubert Selby would wipe his ass with.
Me: You mentioned The Panty Thief of Bridgeport was criticized for having sentences that were too long.
Sir Edward: I did?
Me: [looking down at my notes] That’s what I have written here in my notes.
Sir Edward: Oh well, if its written in your notes…
[For the record, the audio playback of this interview confirmed I was correct]
Me: So what is YOUR opinion of overly lengthy sentences?
Sir Edward: That’s just another bull shit criticism. I mean, it might have something to do with the fact that we live in such a short attention span culture and we are being conditioned to process things in these nice little soundbites.
Me: But doesn’t the idea of short, economical sentences go back to Hemingway and his tip of the iceberg approach to fiction?
Sir Edward: Fuck Hemingway. Hemingway can suck the tip of MY iceberg, that no talent hack… [awkward laugh]. I personally don’t count the words in my sentences. And if a reader is distracted by the length of the sentences in a novel, then that means the content must be pretty fucking boring. Plus, you know, there’s the argument that long sentences can actually quicken the pace of the reader. Especially in a first person narrative. It can give the impression that the author is thinking quickly, that he or she is in a hurry and that there is an urgency to what they have to say… Unlike something like Camus’ The Stranger, which has a lot of short sentences and seems like the narrator is really going slow. So, it can be a pacing thing. But mostly it depends on the narrator’s voice. If the narrator I create for a story thinks and talks in long sentences, then I have to be true to that. Also it depends on the situation the narrator is in. Some times the narrator may be thinking in long sentences and some times he or she might be thinking in short ones…
[Wagemann pauses to take a bite of his burito]
And by the way, the same thing goes for cliches. The use of cliches is perfect, if the narrator thinks in cliches… like the narrator in The Killer Inside Me [by Jim Thompson]… it just depends on the narrator’s voice.
Me: Speaking of the narrator’s voice, you once gave me a very unconventional rational for switching back and forth between active voice and passive voice in The Panty Thief of Bridgeport. Do you remember that?
Sir Edward: Well, yeah, a central locamotion that keeps Panty Thief’s story moving is this clash between the narrator and the “mechanism” inside him that is trying to regulate his actions. So to differentiate between when the “narrative reality” is being controlled by this mechanism as opposed to the first person narrator I will slip into passive voice. So instead of saying “I listened to the music” the narrator will say something like “The music came to my ears and invaded my brain” or some shit. But that’s another thing that Lit-Nazi’s gas me with, all this switching back and forth between active and passive voice. Its just not proper they say…
Me: Well, it’s pretty experimental, don’t you think?
Sir Edward: Well, if it is experimental, then the Lit Nazi’s are just admitting that they aren’t open-minded enough to digest it. Which is no reason to criticize me. They should be criticizing themselves! [laughs]
Me: As you alluded to, the plot of PTOB hinges on the development and realization of some mysterious “mechanism” that lies within the narrator. This mechanism sends physical cues to guide the narrator. You use a succession of examples to illustrate how the mechanism does this, most of which are shown through flashbacks. Some are very recent flashbacks, while others happened years prior. So this means you are jumping around in time and space and you have to switch from present tense to past tense and then back to present tense again at the end. My question is, with so much jumping around, wouldn’t it have been better just to do the entire thing in past tense?
Sir Edward. Well, ask yourself why does anyone write anything in present tense instead of past tense? And I think the answer, in part, is to provide a certain real-time immediacy to the narrative. And I wanted that at the time I wrote it. Its the decision I made, so I’m sticking with it.
Me: Why use so many flashbacks though, more than 3/4 of the novel is in flashback.
Sir Edward: Really? That much?
Me: Yes, and after the opening chapter there is a series of flashbacks that for the most part are not in chronological order.
Sir Edward: Right, they are in the order that certain plot points need to be revealed. Then, at the end, when all of the plot points are fully realized, the narrator returns to present tense. You know, I’m a big fan of the flashback. In Panty Thief these flashbacks are there to answer certain questions while at the same time they are there to create other questions. Is this ‘mechanism’ a tool of god? Is the narrator simply insane? Is this mechanism a force of good? A force of evil? Is it all just a psychological trick the narrator has created to survive? Or is it just part of a complicated scheme to win the love of a woman? And so, its these questions and answers that move the story forward… it’s a ‘the more you know, the less you know’ kind of thing…
Me: But isn’t it hard to keep the reader engaged with all of these changes in time and place? Don’t you think it can disorient some readers?
Sir Edward: I really had to work hard on my transitions, to make sure they aren’t confusing. I’ve taken pains to put things into context in a way that keeps the story flowing and coherent… But I also think that all these changes in time and place challenges readers, and that’s a good thing because it keeps their imaginations working. And I admit I enjoy challenging readers because I like being challenged myself, when I read. But of course, this isn’t for everyone – most people want sugary breakfast cereal and bubblegum, Harry Potter and 50 Shades Of Gray shit. But there are those of us who get off on being challenged…
Me: And those are the people that The Panty Thief of Bridgeport was written for?
Sir Edward: Sure.