Literary Lewis and Clark expeditions contribute a decent amount to America’s heritage, especially within the last century. Jack Kerouac went on the road, John Steinbeck traveled with his dog Charley and, now, Sean Wilsey lets his curiosity get the best of him in a new essay collection. Amassed from his articles for publications like McSweeney’s, GQ and Vanity Fair, More Curious offers a fresh take on our young country.
Paste interviewed Wilsey about the authors who propelled his desire for exploration, his friendship with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers and his amusing level of minor celebrity in Iceland. Check out the interview below, and then read on to learn how you could win a copy of More Curious.
Paste: Your new book is about the impact of places, but it’s peppered with references to literature from Pynchon and Mitchell to The Brothers Karamazov. What are some lessons you think only places can teach us, and what are some lessons you think only books can teach?
Wilsey: Other people’s writing is what makes me want to go out and see new places—and I’m always trying to find ways to explain the world in my own stuff. So it’s impossible to really separate the two. Books and experience are equally integral, and I’m not really sure where one leaves off and the other begins. Do I think it’s possible to have a full life either without books or cut off from experience? Emily Dickinson managed the latter. Seems like many people manage the former. And yet, at times, selectively deep immersion in one over the other leads to some kind of leap in insight, and/or reduction in loneliness.
Eldridge Cleaver makes a cameo in this book, and he’s a classic example of somebody who found himself while forcibly isolated from the world. I’ve split my time for years between the remote town of Marfa, Texas (where I live now) and New York City. I read almost constantly in New York (thanks to the subway) and miss that sense of a standing appointment with a book, which only sometimes happens in bed here in Texas. Whereas, and sort of counterintuitively, I find myself taking in more people and stories in rural Texas than I ever did living in the heart of NYC. The almost limitless possibility of someplace can actually be grounds to shut things out.
Paste: Are there any other authors besides Pynchon and Mitchell you found to be particularly influential over the writing in this collection?
Wilsey: David Foster Wallace and Tom Wolfe. I’ve never been a huge fan of either writer’s fiction, but they taught me that absolutely anything is possible in nonfiction. Also Jennifer Egan, who is simply thrilling and weird whatever she does.
Paste: How did you discover all of the peculiar places and people you write about in More Curious?
Wilsey: Marfa is a recurring subject—probably close to 30,000 of More Curious’s 90-odd thousand words are concerned with Marfa, and the book opens and closes in the town. I came here because my wife, Daphne Beal, took a job with the local newspaper in 1996. I got curious, and that turned into a piece for McSweeney’s. The second piece, about 9/11, was something I just had to write. Skateboarding, soccer and rats were topics Tom Jones and Matt Weiland, editors at The London Review of Books and Granta, asked me to explore. Slagging on John Updike came out of seeing him speak and getting mad at how arrogant and out of touch he seemed—and then reading him and getting more pissed off. The big piece about driving a truck was 100% self generated. NASA and Danny Meyer were straight-up assignments for GQ and The New York Times Magazine, respectively. Craigslist is a fascination that dovetailed with something Fast Company happened to be interested in as well. And then the long piece at the end, “Marfa, Revisited,” started as a letter to friends, which I grafted on to a radically revised piece I wrote with Daphne for Vanity Fair.
Paste: Did you find writing about America made you more optimistic or pessimistic about the country’s condition?
Wilsey: SO much more optimistic. This place is much kinder and less homogenous than I feared it was.
Paste: Tell us more about how you first became acquainted with author Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s. What’s that relationship been like from its inception to all these years later?
Wilsey: We met in a bar in Manhattan through a mutual friend, the writer Ellen Umansky, who was involved in Might Magazine. Dave and I talked about how much we loved and hated San Francisco. Shortly after that he encouraged me to expand a rejected New Yorker Talk of the Town piece into the 10,685 word essay that he published in McSweeney’s 2. This changed my life, as I had previously been convinced that fiction was the path for me. Then he asked me to help out editing McSweeney’s.
We really became close when we traveled to Iceland for McSweeney’s 4 in 2000. Back then if you stayed in Iceland for a week, your plane ticket was virtually free. So we did that. On our second or third day in the country, we were interviewed by the daily paper, Morgunbladid. They thought it was newsworthy that two Americans were in the country printing a literary magazine. Accompanying the interview was a large picture, wherein Dave is sitting behind a bottle of poison (Diet Coke) in an ill-fitting sweater and I am making a really fey cup of tea. We were recognized everywhere after that; people greeted me by making a tea-bag-dipping gesture.
Paste: What does writing about other people and places give you that writing about yourself (as in the case of Oh The Glory of It All) doesn’t? Do you find there to be more similarities than differences between personal memoir and documentation of other people’s lives?
Wilsey: It’s easier to generate momentum writing memoir. I know much more about the events that created whatever I’m trying to write about and can use that knowledge to give the narrative trajectory. It’s just inherently going to be a deeper story. Though, sometimes, personal stuff is so overwhelming that you can’t really see what it all means. And then, given that people love to talk and try to make sense of their lives, it sometimes works out that you can step into another person’s life and make it into a vivid piece of writing—for which they may hate you!
Paste: Are there any places you visited in the course of writing these essays that made more of a lasting impression on you than others?
Wilsey: Yep, Marfa. I can’t get enough of the place.
More Curious Giveaway: Courtesy of McSweeney’s, we’re giving away one copy of Wilsey’s new book! To enter, follow @PasteBooks on Twitter and retweet this tweet by 11:59 a.m. on Friday, July 18 (you must have a U.S. address to enter). We’ll announce the winner on Friday afternoon. Good luck!