I first met Colin Winnette at a literary festival in Iowa, where we were both reading from recent novels. A tall, cleanly rugged man with hair that makes you want to use the word towheaded, Winnette speaks in an even-keeled and friendly manner that might be mistaken for Midwestern—though he hails from Denton, Texas, a college town north of Dallas. Thoughtful and precise, he gives the impression of a person whose dreaming mind does not shut off completely when he wakes and whose imagination leaves vivid traces even in his descriptions of mundane bits of life.
At a time when the boundaries between literary fiction and genre fiction are being tested by writers frustrated with the traditional subject matter and restrictions of the realist novel, Winnette is hybridizing genre tropes with poetic focus. His language is taut, visceral and precise—at the sentence level, it packs a punch. At the same time, his depictions of worlds we recognize, whether from our TV screens or our pulp fiction, shelter something stranger beneath their surface (a husband searching for his missing wife, a mother who can’t remember having had a baby, a bandit brother who gives birth).
Winnette is the author of five books of prose that range from chapbooks to novellas to Haint’s Stay, a stylistically dazzling novel that author Brian Evenson has said “takes the traditional Western, turns it inside out, eviscerates it, skins it and then wears it as a duster.” His writing has been published in McSweeney’s, Lucky Peach, Gulf Coast, The American Reader and, of course, Playboy. Schooled at the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA program in fiction, Winnette now lives in San Francisco.
I love your surreal, quietly hilarious story Whereabouts. Could you tell me about the inspiration behind it?
I’d just given away my car to a friend when Playboy approached me about writing a story. I was taking rideshares (probably more than I should) to and from a writing workshop I was teaching in San Francisco. One day in the writing workshop we were talking about Amelia Gray’s story “Gutshot” and Robert Coover’s “Going Out for a Beer,” looking at how those particular stories use escalation and repetition as a kind of structure. Something just clicked in that class, and I rode home with the shape of the story in mind. I knew it was going to be about the distance between what someone means to do and what they’re able to manage. I come from a long line of easily distracted people, so I’m used to the feeling of one task splintering into 10 and then 20 and on and on, and I’m always interested in the ways that assuming you have the “best intentions” can really fuck things up or at least create a big blind spot.
Whereabouts takes place in a dreamlike setting, but if I had to guess which city it most resembled, I’d say San Francisco—because of the mountains and the bay and the Uber. Did you intend to allude to a real place? How did you go about constructing your dis-place?
I guess one way of thinking about is that I don’t want to include a detail unless it’s essential in some way to the story. Spending a lot of time establishing a setting that asserts itself as “real" doesn’t really interest me right now. It can make a story feel strangely vast and empty to give so few details, but if you really focus on the details you include, rather than just using as many "correct" (or seemingly correct) details as you can, it opens the story up a lot more. I am very interested in the readers’ experience, and in activating them as semiconscious participants. I think of it as an invitation to enter the dream: giving them enough to build on, but without ever letting them be in control of the story. I’m interested in stories that can be read very simply, very plainly, and that reward that reading, but also reward a reader who pauses for a moment to take a closer look. So maybe I want to appeal to a reader’s sense of reality just enough to get them to start assuming things. Or just enough for them to accept the parts of the story that feel unreal, to get them invested. So, how to do it? Choose very few details, and choose ones that have trapdoors built into them in order to make the world of the story feel both familiar and unreliable.
This story is strange, but it has an emotional, humane core. Why did you choose to access that core through a dreamlike narrative rather than a more straightforward realist one?
I just wrote a story that felt close to my experience of the world, and I tried to keep it tight. It makes me squirm when people talk about realism because it’s a term that's often used to negate or simplify experiences that can’t be accounted for psychologically or through an accumulation of specificity. Knowing the name of every street in a city doesn’t make that place feel alive to me. A story like this, or stories that are often labeled strange or dreamlike or surreal, those stories tend to feel more alive to me, and truer to my experience of the world, than a lot of the work people refer to as realistic.
Stories that are often labeled strange or dreamlike or surreal tend to feel more alive to me and truer to my experience of the world.
Are you married? If so, did your wife read Whereabouts, which is about a husband looking for his wife? Is there a connection between this story and your experience with marriage?
I am! My wife is fucking awesome. She’s the final reader on everything I write. She’s often the first as well. Something that often comes up in conversation with her is the fact that as a man I cannot and will not ever be able to understand what it is like to be a woman. My experience on this planet is fundamentally different from hers. Though we live together, though our lives are intertwined and it often feels like we are as close to one another as two people can possibly be, we are still, at best, experiencing one another at a distance. In some respects, an unbridgeable one. I guess, in this oblique way, my wife is like the wife in the story. Although, as she said when I ran this question by her, "I’m right here. You can’t miss me.”
You mentioned Amelia Gray and Robert Coover, two of my ride-or-die favorites. Who else do you consider an influence, and are there any influences that would really shock or surprise a reader like me?
Influence is a hard thing to talk about, because I’m not totally sure how to track it. Some work or writers might have a direct influence on a work [of mine], but it’s more often the case that things just get absorbed and atomized. I might hate a piece of work but then it just lives in my head forever and influences the decisions I make in another. It’s sort of like debris working its way downstream, and a novel or a story is one of those spots along the river where all these bits and pieces get stuck and start accumulating. It’s not always clear why certain things are stuck there and others aren’t. But I did just finish a new novel that I’ve been saying is influenced by a handful of writers and filmmakers, and in this case it means I encountered their work and it knocked something loose in me, or gave me courage to try something, or I’m trying to engage in a tradition of ideas I picked up on through their work. Those influences are people like Patty Yumi Cottrell, Henry James, Stephen King, Kafka, Guillermo del Toro, Charles Schulz, Jane Bowles. It’s a really different kind of book than the last one, but those were some of the voices swimming around in my head when I was writing it. I’m not sure if any of those would be surprising…. Jerry Spinelli made a huge impression on me. I’d like to one day write a book for young readers with that much joy and sadness and humor, that much emotional complexity.
What about nonliterary influences? What else in the world has contributed to the DNA of your writing?
Randy Newman. I learned more about telling stories, and all that a story can do, from him than from most of the short fiction I’ve read so far. Also, artist Scott Burton.
Haruki Murakami advocates writing very early in the morning so that your mind is still close to its dreaming state, and I write extremely late at night for the same reason. When do you write, and what do you do to get your mind into the proper state?
I write whenever I possibly can. It’s my main gig right now, so I try to write for as many hours a day as I can make myself. Some days it’s easy to keep going, others it’s more difficult. I used to write in the early morning, but I noticed that the work I was making then was really different tonally from work I’d make in the afternoon or in the evenings or after a drink or two. Not different in a bad way, but noticeable. I work on a lot of stuff at once, so it’s nice to have some variety to when and where it’s done.
I don't have any rituals or tricks I use to get into the right headspace. Or, I guess, I’m a firm believer that sometimes there’s nothing doing and other times you just have to get yourself going and things will start to click. I used to have very strong feelings about how much I needed to produce each day, each week, each month, each year. Now I’m a little more comfortable with the idea that I’m going to keep writing, keep making work, and at the end of my life there’ll be something to show for it. Whether it’s 8,000 words a day or 500, the writing is getting done, and I’m on my way to somewhere new.
When you hit a block in a piece, what do you do to cope?
I’ll let you know when I’ve found a way to cope. It’s painful to feel like you want to be making work but it’s just not happening. Part of trying to write full-time meant accepting that sometimes not writing is as important as writing. I could spend all day trying to make myself write something great, and it could never come. Or I could go for a walk, or go teach a writing workshop, and just listen. That said, I’m a firm believer in writing terrible shit and throwing it all away as a means of getting to something good. I like the feeling of writing, so I’m not necessarily concerned with making everything perfect the first time around. The majority of stuff I write never sees the light of day. The stories and novels that do come out are almost like found objects salvaged from the dump.
Your most recent novel, Haints Stay, plays on the genre of the Western–I’ve even heard it called an “acid Western.” What drew you to that genre?
At first it just seemed like a lot of fun, maybe the closest I’d ever get to actually visiting Westworld, spending a year or so in my own private Western. But once I start writing it, all these engaging questions came up—about masculinity, violence, the draw of ideas like good and evil as well as their insufficiency—and those questions carried me through to the end.
Coyote, your book before that, is also steeped in Americana: A daughter disappears from home in the middle of the night, and over time the tragedy recedes into memory—the TV news coverage stops, the search is abandoned, life moves on. Do you think of the stories you tell as American stories, specifically? Do you identify as an American writer, or are you simply a writer who lives in America?
Maybe after they’re told I can see them that way. It’d be hard to argue that my experience so far has been anything but distinctly American, and the writing all comes from the interaction of imagination and experience. But, similarly to Whereabouts, in both Coyote and Haints I wasn’t concerned with trying to write something distinctly American, or to depict a particular place or time in America. I was trying to use enough of the familiar to get people invested in a space that I viewed as distinctly its own. I think, on some level, we each live in a world that is distinct from everyone else’s, and I’m just as interested in that as I am in the ways in which our experiences overlap.
You were raised in Texas and currently live in California. Do you feel that Texas has shaped you as a writer? Do you write differently in each setting?
Five years ago, I might have said no. But it’s hard to deny it at this point. A few years ago I wrote a novella called Gainesville, when I was spending a week in Gainesville, Texas. Writing that story opened a lot of things in me that I’ve been exploring ever since. Coyote feels related to it (quick sidebar: when I was imagining the house that most of that story takes place in, I was thinking of my mother’s house in Denton, Texas), and Haints Stay feels related to some of the absurd masculinity I encountered growing up in Texas. Remember, Texas used to be a concealed-carry state and is now an open-carry state. There’s no real hunting in places like Denton or Dallas or Austin, which means, unlike people who grew up in states that are traditionally associated with hunting, the guns I casually encountered in my youth—at the supermarket, at a restaurant, at the gas station across from our high school—were meant for humans.
As far as setting goes, it impacts my mood, which can impact my writing. But when the writing is going really well, everything else vanishes. There’s only the world of the story, the voices of the characters. I think that’s the whole reason I’m still writing after all these years: I love that feeling of falling into a waking dream, where the story is just kind of happening and I can hardly write fast enough to keep up with it. When your mind is just singing at you. There’s really nothing like that feeling. My bones ache a lot, because I’ve worn down the cartilage in my knees and hips, and my knuckles are always begging to be popped, but when I’m in one of those writing trances, I lose track of my body completely. Sometimes it takes a screaming headache to wrench me out of it, which I assume happens because I’m dehydrated or…losing my mind.
I always wonder if that’s what it’s like for other writers.
I just taught the Surrealist Manifesto to my students, and whatever critiques one might have of that document, the manifesto seems like a fun and sassy form that I’d like to see more of. What would a literary manifesto penned by you look like?
We actually had to write manifestos when I was in grad school. I got an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, primarily so I could study writing with nonwriters (performers, painters, musicians, etc.), and in one of my art history classes we looked at the Surrealist Manifesto and a handful of others and were tasked with writing our own. Mine was terrible. I think the opening line was: “Fiction is fiction.” Just awful. I don’t think I’m really a manifesto guy.
If you’re not a manifesto guy, what kind of guy are you?
I’m still trying to figure that one out. Which I guess is why I shouldn’t be writing any manifestos.
Alexandra Kleeman is winner of the 2016 Bard Fiction Prize. A New York–based writer, she is author of the new short story collection Intimations and 2015 novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, as well as many other works of fiction and nonfiction.