Interview: Andrew Wingfield, author of Right of Way

Andrew Wingfield is the author of the novel Hear Him Roar and of the new short story collection Right of Way, winner of the 2010 fiction prize from the Washington Writers Publishing House. Right of Way focuses on the community of Cleave Springs, a fictional world which drew its inspiration from Wingfield’s own Alexandria neighborhood. The stories reflect the complex challenges of quickly changing communities in today’s urban and suburban communities but with always with focus on individual people and specific personal dramas.  In “Lily Pad,” for example, the stories of a young musician and a waitress at the local hangout parallel, intersect, and inform one another — stories of love, loss, longing and redemption (or at least the potential for redemption). Wingfield, an associate professor in George Mason University’s New Century College, will read from and discuss his new book as part of the upcoming Fall for the Book Festival; his talk takes place on Thursday, September 23, at 10:30 a.m. in Dewberry Hall in the Johnson Center on Mason’s Fairfax, VA Campus. In advance of that appearance, Wingfield answered a few questions about the inspirations for the novel — both literary inspirations and lessons from the real world.

Art Taylor: The linked stories in Right of Way are centered on Cleave Springs, a neighborhood similar to the one in which you live now. What was it that inspired you to give this place the Winesburg, Ohio treatment?

Andrew Wingfield: Place has always interested me, as a reader, a writer, and a human being. It was natural for me to tune into what was happening in my neighborhood and maybe it was inevitable that I’d get intrigued and want to write about it. But this project snuck up on me. My wife gave birth to our fist son about six months after we moved in to our place, and I started teaching full-time a few months after that. I became a busy man, a writer whose writing time was very fragmented. I had written one novel and had a couple of ideas for new novels that would require a lot of reading and research. But I had no time for reading and research. As soon as he could walk, my son would stand at the top of the stairs in the morning and holler until someone took him outside. I walked all over the neighborhood with him in the stroller or on my shoulders; and I spent many, many hours with him at the playground down the street. As I pushed him on the swing, I’d watch the action on the slab of pavement nearby, where the mostly black, mostly poor children of our neighborhood’s longtime residents biked and skated and scootered among the helmeted children of the mostly white, mostly well-educated, mostly middle class new arrivals. I might see the tall, handsome chauffer with the three pet whippets walk past. I might be harangued by the old Polish immigrant who was eager to start dropping bombs on Iraq. I might eavesdrop on the construction crew that was working on the house next to the park, renovating yet another of the neighborhood’s dilapidated homes in hopes of a quick and profitable flip. One day it struck me: I’m surrounded by stories here. Thiswhat I’m doing right now— is my research!

To what degree did you have to map out your approach to this community in order to get a sense of completeness to the collection. In other words, did you ever tell yourself, “I have to do a story on ________” — some aspect of the community as you saw it, in order to be representative of the various people and perspectives that make up this place?

What intrigued me about the neighborhood was its diversity, its complexity, and its changes. To wrap my arms around all that, I knew I’d have to portray the neighborhood from many perspectives, some of them familiar to me, and some quite far from my own experience. I was excited to take on that challenge, and I knew that I must approach it as a storyteller, not a sociologist. I was making art, not designing a study. I just wrote about people and situations that intrigued me and let the collection develop organically.

Going back to Winesburg, Ohio, was Anderson’s book or any other collection of linked tales an inspiration in any way?

Sure, I read and learned from Winesburg, Ohio, as well as a couple of other grand old place-based story collections, Dubliners and Go Down, Moses. But I found even more inspiration and guidance in books by living writers. Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago is a wonderful collection of Chicago stories. Lost in the City, a book of D.C. stories by Edward P. Jones, is incredibly powerful. I also liked Maxine Claire’s collection Rattlebone, which is named for the neighborhood where the stories are set.

In the process of exploring the fictional neighborhood of Cleave Springs, did you find yourself learning anything new about your own neighborhood? What — if anything — came into focus more clearly about the people or the place or about larger issues of community or gentrification or…?

Tolstoy says at the beginning of Anna Karenina that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I’ve learned that every gentrifying neighborhood gentrifies in its own way. Gentrification is an abstract term. Like many abstractions, it describes a real phenomenon and has some value because of that. But fiction deals in details. My stories dial down into specific families, specific relationships and lives and places, and in writing them I’ve come to see how messy and complicated and never-finished a neighborhood’s transformations can be. Neighborhoods are like organisms, living, breathing, changing, dying, decomposing, and living again in new forms. I stopped making these stories when I had enough for a book, but I could easily have kept going. Sometimes I think I could write about this place and only this place for the rest of my life.

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