John Wray.

“There’s a desk in my studio somewhere–probably under all the crumpled up balls of shitty writing and sundry other forms of refuse–but I’ve stopped using it altogether in the last year or so. I now generally write with my laptop on my knees, sitting or lying on one of the two sofas, which works pretty well until I fall asleep. I’m not sure what it says about my work ethic that I have two sofas in my studio and only one desk. Actually, I am sure. Maybe if they called portable computers ‘desktops’ my whole life would be different. All that really matters about the space I work in, though, is that there’s enough wall space to tack up a book’s worth of notes and pictures and so on. I don’t use most of them in the end, but their presence is crucial, in the early stages, in tricking my brain into thinking that a book is happening. That’s my only trick. That and almonds. I eat lots of almonds.”

John Henderson (born 1971), better known by his pen name John Wray is a novelist and regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine. Born in Washington, D.C., of an American father and Austrian mother, he is a citizen of both countries. He grew up in Buffalo, New York, attended the Nichols School for his high school education, and then graduated from Oberlin College. He currently lives in Brooklyn. Wray’s first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, was published in 2001 and received a Whiting Writers’ Award. In connection with his second novel, Canaans Tounge, he did a 600-mile tour by raft on the Mississippi River in 2005. In 2007 Wray was chosen by Granta magazine as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists”. His third novel, Lowboy was published in 2009. Wray was also frontman of the Brooklyn band Marmalade, which released the album Beautiful Soup in 2003.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
JOHN WRAY: Mostly I don’t. I spend unpardonable stretches of time in full-bore work avoidance. I consider that my actual, full-time job. Writing comes in tiny kicks when I have no other option.

FYD: What is your favorite sentimental object at your workspace and why?

JW: For some reason I feel downright connubial with a life-sized, hand-carved, anatomical wooden skull that I bought for $5 in a flea market in Santiago, Chile. It sums up my feelings about writing perfectly.

FYD: What is your favorite or most required work tool?

JW: I’d have to say self-loathing. And other people’s books.

FYD: Describe your writing habits.  Are you a creature of habit?

JW: Habit it essential to writing a book of any kind, as every writer will tell you. Unfortunately, I hate habit. I move all around my office to try to keep things seeming slightly novel in some way. Lately I’ve abandoned writing at a desk altogether, and write best while lying on the couch, with my laptop in my lap. That’s where a laptop is designed to be, right?

FYD: You wrote your first draft of Lowboy on the subway.  Does that book seem like a long time ago?

JW: Lowboy does seem like a long time ago, because it was a long time ago. People are still reading it, though, which makes me extremely happy. And the subway has actually remained a place that I associate with productivity and promise. I know that sounds insane.
I’ve never seen a film of Kubrick’s that I haven’t found interesting. How many directors can you say that about?

FYD: You wrote Canaan’s Tounge  when you were down on US affairs.  Do you feel we are making any progress? I’m struggling with the hope thing.

JW: The more you hope, of course, the greater you open yourself to disappointment. Our country has sunk so low in recent decades that a genuinely ethical administration would appear downright freakish to most Americans. Maybe we’ll get there one day.

FYD:  Perhaps one can muster courage to write badly as long as they are getting words on the page. What’s your advice when you think a book isn’t going anywhere or your tapped mentally?

JW: It’s certainly a mistake to expect too much from an initial draft—what matters is that some progress is made, no matter how clumsy. That’s why revision exists: to allow the writer of an initial draft maximum freedom from fear.

Unfortunately, I hate habit.

FYD:  Talk about your writing process.

There’s an interview I did with comedian and book-lover Zach Galifianakis that addresses this issue. (see below)

FYD:  Where did you film that piece?  You held your own in that interview by not laughing until the end, which I’m assuming was tricky.

JW: We did that right in my studio–I actually have that binary typewriter on my (broken) ping-pong table. Zach came over, we told him the deal (him pretending to be me, me pretending to be him) and he proceeded to be funny for exactly 45 minutes, which was the length of our tape. And yes, the biggest challenge in editing this down was finding a few 5-second stretches in which I wasn’t cracking up.
FYD: Do you hold any books close to the vest while you write? 

JW: Every book I write has its own little constellation of precedents, books that I like to keep close by when I’m working. For me each project is a triangulation, basically, between three or four novels that I love, and that I’m shamelessly pillaging to my own nefarious ends. (I guess it couldn’t really be a triangulation between that many books. A trapezoidalization? A bumble?)

FYD: Could you name some names?
JW: For the last book—as far as I can recall—it was Harold Pinter, Shirley Hazzard, Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Chandler. For the current book I’m still trying to figure it out.

FYD: You are a Kubrick fan. What are your three favorites?  

JW: I’ve never seen a film of Kubrick’s that I haven’t found interesting. How many directors can you say that about? I’d even go to the mat for Eyes Wide Shut, though I probably wouldn’t get up again. The greats, for me, are Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove and 2001.

FYD: Your Twitter handle incorporates a character called “Citizen.” What is the premise and is it easy for one to become familiar with his comings and goings?

JW: The idea was to write the type of story that would function in the Twitter context, not to simply plug a preexisting story into the mold. So the conceit of Citizen couldn’t be simpler: eccentric, opinionated and occasionally violent guy wanders the city, gets into trouble and hijinks. And every tweet should ideally be a self-contained little piece of entertainment.

For me each project is a triangulation, basically, between three or four novels that I love, and that I’m shamelessly pillaging to my own nefarious ends.

FYD: What are you currently working on?

JW: I’m writing a long novel. A very long novel. My goal is to finish it while I still have my teeth.

FYD:  When you aren’t working; what are you doing out in the world?
JW: I spend a lot of time eating–eating is the one thing that consistently makes me happy. Which is lucky, when you think about it, since it’s something that happens at least three times a day.
As mentioned, John Wray is on Twitter and don’t miss Lowboy.

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