Saturday, June 12, 2010

John Wiswell - The Bathroom Interview

The Boonies Of New York, Far From The City, U.S.A.

Looking for John Wiswell? He's in the john.
Buahahahaha! Man, I was looking forward to saying that. John Wiswell? The Bathroom Monologues? Oh never mind.
Seriously though, the guy's in the bathroom. 
He's been in the can since I got here. I drove all day to see him, drank some of the worst roadside coffee imaginable, and now here I sit in the hall talking to him through the bathroom door.
He's been in there for hours.
When I got here the first thing I had to do was have a whiz (whiz? Wiswell? Get it?) but he was already ensconced in the toot suite. I told him about all the coffee and my T.B. disease (tiny bladder) but he didn't come out.
"Sorry," he calls out from the bathroom. "I'm hot in the middle of a great story. If I leave now I'll lose my train of thought."
"John, I gotta pee."
"Cathy, you're just going to have to hold it."
Like that's gonna happen, I thought, going outside and christening his hydrangeas.
"What is UP with your bathroom anyway?" I ask when I get back. "Most people write at desks, John. Thought you might want to know that. You might want to try it some time."
There was silence from the bathroom.
"Kidding," I say, not wanting to piss him off.
He grumbles something that sounds like fine. I take it we're good again so I ask why he named his blog after a bathroom.
"In college I took reading-heavy and composition-heavy courses, and exhausted myself with their work," he says, his voice muffled through the door. "A few years in I was worried I was losing my independent creative drive; that, after college, with no one to assign work, I wouldn't be able to come up with anything. So whenever I got up from the books to use the bathroom, I'd improvise a story or monologue."
Any kind of a story, I ask, or something relevant to your homework?
"It could be about anything except what I was working on," he says. "So if I was reading Chaucer in Middle English, then the story might be about Coca Cola cans, space travel or serial killing children. The improvisation lasted until I returned to my desk. Sometimes I amused myself and typed them up for friends. Sometimes my friends said they were funny.
"A little encouragement was all it took to create a lasting habit."
A little encouragement. Words to live by. I always believe people blossom with encouragement. There are those who refuse to give a compliment, even when it is due. Compliments cost nothing. Encouragement costs nothing. And yet it can be the force that makes a person seek their destiny. 
"Are you still out there?" he asks.
"Sorry, John, I was thinking. Um, what were we talking about?"
"The bathroom?"
"Oh yeah," I say, focused once again. "Your bathroom. What's it look like, anyway? I mean, I came all the way down here to see you and your bathroom and I haven't set eyes on either one yet."
I hear him chuckling.
"My bathroom is a pretty plain place. I like it plain. The inspiration comes from whatever I've lived, seen, read, watched, or wondered about lately. The habit allows me to compose in a lot of places. The other night I spent an hour waiting in the car. I left with an essay."
His writing is pretty amazing. His blog has a lot of followers and everyone seems interested in what this prolific 28-year-old has to say. 
"How would you describe your writing style? Are you happy with it?" I ask. "Would you like to change it? What kind of writing goals do you have?"
"You sound like a reporter," John says.
"Too much coffee," I say. "By the way, I like your hydrangea bush."
"Um, thanks," he says. "I'd rather my readers describe my writing style. I try to convince myself I don't have just one. But my writing approach is to find something – a quirky premise, an overlooked setting, a character or dynamic of characters, a strain of dialogue – dig into it and roll it out until everything essential about it is exposed. I've written horror, political humour, escapist fantasy and character studies. To me, they aren't of the same style, but they get the same faithful embrace. I hope readers think so.
"Now, how would I change my writing? I keep thinking I'll quit the Bathroom Monologues and write a new novel. Every time I get only a few hits or no comments, I tell myself, 'Should have spent that time on a book.' As though I don't spend so much time on longer for-pay fiction as it is. But I have those thoughts. What do you think? Should I do that?"
I dunno. My fast reaction is to say, no. No Wiswell blog? No #fridayflash? 
"No," I say, "of course not. People love you. For such a young guy you have fans who look up to you, who respect you. But then I think everyone should do what they want. Fans or no fans. Everyone at flash would sure miss you though. How do you feel about the fridayflash community anyway?"
I can't see John smiling but I know he is. "I actually wrote an essay about this, Exposure by Community. You might as well just get people to link to it. In short, though, it's gotten me significantly more readers introduced me to many new writers and gotten me to talk to them far more frequently."
One of the things he mentions in that essay is the time he had to have expensive gallstone surgery and didn't have the insurance or coin to pay for it. A friend talked him into putting a Pay Pal account up and blogging about it. He did. And wrote about it just once. That's all that was needed to get the #fridayflash lines buzzing.
"Friends promoted for me," he wrote in the essay Exposure by Community. "I couldn’t, largely out of embarrassment and the inability to sit up. Friends like Jodi MacArthur. Linda Simoni-Wastila. Michael Solender. Laura Eno. They tweeted it, put it on Facebook and added the Pledgie badge to their blogs. They cared. Half the donations I got were from people related in some way to this community.
"I even got a personal check from J.M. Strother, the founder of #fridayflash."
He is quiet. So am I. Humbled by the acts of people we had never met but felt tied to, like family.
"John," I finally say. "You have a whole bunch of health issues, don't you? What's up, bud?"
He sighs.
"My primary illness is a neuromuscular syndrome that I've had since age 13, the result of bad medicine. Constant pain in every part of the body, a crap immune system, slow healing, rapid fatigue, slowing or fuzzing up cognitive faculties (hence writing when my mind will cooperate) – fun stuff," he says derisively. 
"I was crippled by the onset, but taught myself to walk again. I also struggle with asthma and chronic bronchitis; attempting to treat my lungs is what brought on the syndrome. Even today my body is prone to infections and the like. I recently tore tissue in my left knee, which I did performing a routine stretch for exercise (ironically on my first day of exercise after recovering from gall surgery).
"I have returned to exercise and dropped 17 pounds so far. Weight loss does not improve my health or reduce the pain, but it does increase my threshold of pain and it'll help prevent weight-related diseases later in life. That's worth doing, even if my medical history is one long slapstick cartoon."
I wonder how he does it; write so well with such challenges. I can't write when I'm tired or when I'm hungry. He writes when he's in pain. Every chance he gets. 
And he's not just a writer, he's a reader. A big-time reader, who has a lot of thoughts on what he considers to be great American authors.
"Most that came to mind were only English-speaking, not U.S. writers. There have been greats everywhere and I keep trying to catch up on them. But among USers? Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty and Stephen King leap up. I've been catching up on Richard Matheson and Roger Zelazny recently, but can't say if I'll love their canons as much as the few books I've gotten through so far."
I'm getting antsy out in the hallway. I'm getting a hankering for another cup of coffee, something to eat and a real bathroom – something with a better flushing system than the hydrangeas.
So I stand up, all creaky bones and sleepy feet, and I tell John I'm going.
"OK," he says. "Thanks for dropping by."
"Aren't you even going to come out and say hi before I go?"
"No," he says. "I'm writing. And I'm getting to the good part."
"But I came such a long way, John. Don't I even get to shake your hand?"
The door opens, a hand comes out. It's a very nice hand. I shake it.
"Can you hand me a roll of toilet paper?" he asks. "It's in the hall closet."
"Um, it was," I say. "Now it's out by the hydrangea bush."

I leave you now with some of John's thoughts on his favourite American writers.

Mark Twain: Twain didn't found American literature but he supplied its first radical administration. He was funny in new ways. He was as keenly observant as Proust or Orwell, but armed with considerably more accessible prose, and considerably more characters (and caricatures) out of it. He controlled fiction. He was hilarious, very wrapped up in his own observations, but whenever he got full of himself, he'd spit himself out. Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Diaries of Adam and Eve, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Cannibalism in the Cars, A True Story, The Innocents Abroad – short, long, fiction and non-, what a canon.

John Steinbeck: Steinbeck wins with Grapes of Wrath. Okay, you lucky bastard. You wrote a classic. But look at his canon. East of Eden might be better, is at least as personal, and unwraps everything about the Cain and Abel myth that is so profound in our being. Of Mice and Men is a rare sort of deep, deep book that can be appreciated equally by children and adults – maybe only rivalled by Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The Winter of Our Discontent is an American Shakespearean tragedy – muted and forcing the victim to survive it. The Moon is Down resonates uncomfortably loudly in today's Iraq and Afghanistan.

Eudora Welty: Welty wrote fine literary novels that got the praise they deserved. But she should be read even more for her short stories. I've yet to read a short story writer so versatile. Why I live at the P.O. is goofy. A Still Moment is surreal. Where Is The Voice Coming From is what every disturbing first person story, horror or not, is trying to be. She could be sentimental, or depressed, or heartbreaking, or quirky, and if you didn't have her name atop every one of them, you'd never think all those stories were from the same person.

Stephen King: King is the iron man. The champion of every day and writing what he loves. The guy wrote supernatural and mundane horrors that had the religious right calling him Satan. When he had a massive audience that would pay for another bloody tale, he wrote Different Seasons and went versatile. He's written for literary readers who would hate him no matter what, and for mass market audiences who would never get half of his subtext. He gets fiction – On Writing shows the guy grasps it. He expresses what he wants. Sometimes it's bad (Gerald's Game), but more often than not it's the best short story or novel I see that month. Nobody grabs me with voice as quickly or for as long as King. Fans have said his best work was behind him but, as someone who struggles with disabilities, Duma Key resonated profoundly. There are a lot of successful writers. You admire the success. But I admire a lot more in King's writing.

Hold Down the Fort
by John Wiswell

Recently David Mitchell of The Guardian asked foreigners to stop using the phrase “hold down the fort.” He did so at the behest of the Queen. Mitchell and the Queen don’t see the meaning in the phrase; “hold the fort” would mean keeping our location safe, but what was up with “hold down the fort?”

In the spirit of international brotherhood, I would like to explain the origin of this American phrase. I hope it suits newspapermen and royalty alike.

The 1800s were contentious times in the United States. You had the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and they even slipped a Spanish-American War right in before the century ended. There were numerous backwoods wars with Native Americans and lumberjacks, unofficial navel battles with France and the Mer-People, and a completely unsung war against sky hooligans.

Sky hooligans didn’t even have the decency to live on land. As such, they didn’t have a country that could be declared war upon like decent people. They stayed in their zeppelins, trolling over the great American frontier with anti-gravity cannons. One shot and whatever was struck floated heavenward. They stole Grover Cleveland’s one true love, our first two great national monuments, and the original biggest lake on the continent. That lake ascended, evaporated and became a monsoon on the far side of the world while we edited textbooks to say that Lake Superior had “always” been the largest body of water around. That was humiliating.

Davy Crockett was an avid anti-hooligan. He’d never encountered a thing he couldn’t grin out of the sky. Even eagles went bald from his grin, but these zeppelins would not pop. He refurbished Fort Ticonderoga as an anti-hooligan base, but they shot it and away it flew, with half of Crockett’s militia and most of the country’s primitive moonshine technology. Crockett was haunted for weeks afterward by the drunken singing of the sky hooligans, and it wasn’t just a mental thing. They actually followed him around the country singing bad bar tunes.

Crockett hatched a new plan when he refurbished Fort Sumter. There was still enough militia and booze to get a fight going, but he reached out for something more. Crockett invited Paul Bunyan, who was running for the Nevada State Senate at the time, uncontested in his race both because myths are very popular and Nevada wasn’t a state yet. Crockett offered him all the flapjacks he could eat in return for his services.

Now if you know anything about Paul Bunyan, you know the giant had an endless appetite. He ate breakfast for three days before going out to work in the morning. The entire militia had to give up their guns and pitch in on cooking his eternal breakfast.

The sky hooligans inevitably showed up and fired on Fort Sumter. To their shock, it wouldn’t leave the ground. At first they thought they were just wasted – but no, under Bunyan’s reality-bending mass, the fort simply would not leave the ground. It struck doubt into the hearts of their scientists.

While they struggled with the American giant, Crockett climbed the nearest structure and lassoed the zeppelin. A squad of privateers (legalese of the period for “licensed pirates”) scurried up the rope and brought the zeppelin down. The sky hooligans were arrested in short order, with a few getting parole in exchange for working with the space program.

Ever since, “hold down the fort” has been a saying in the U.S. I hope this clears up any confusion.

This one's for you John. I think you're the youngest of the scribes I've been featuring for American Weeks so it seems appropriate. By the way, I still have two more top notch Americans to feature here at the River - up next is Lou Freshwater followed last, and certainly not least, by Tony Noland. For now, here's some Bowie on a Saturday morning.


  1. I first admired Jon's work on Six Sentences and have been glad to see him recovering his health and posting more frequently. He's got talent and personality. I hope he goes as far as he wants to. Nice interview. You've got a knack for this, Cathy.

  2. Ha, I just love it. Poor Cathy having to water the hydrangeas. I can see the whole thing. And John, that's some dedication you have. I respect you even more now.

    Your story here is worthy of Twain. See, I knew we had a good reason for that phrase.

  3. Another great addition to American week Cathy. I'm starting to wish I was American...almost. :D

    John's bathroom monologues are always a treat. He has such easy wit I'm often left shaking my head at how his ideas are pieced together. Always clever and entertaining.

  4. John is one of those writers I've found on fridayflash that I admire for not only the volume of stories that come from his brain, but their insight and honesty. And now I have another reason to admire him--his lovely bathroom! Ha, just kidding. I admire him now for his drive to write, even through illness. Though, I have a feeling nothing could stop him. :-)
    Another great interview, Cathy!!!!

  5. I love John's honesty on my work, his consideration for others, and his beautiful stories and sense of humor. He is a sweetheart. This was a delightful interview Cathy!

  6. I love these, Cathy. They are so much fun. John is a great guy, and a brilliant writer.

    Great interview!

  7. First off why are drapes not drawn in John's bathroom. Is he putting his wares on display? Secondly, where did he get the bear suit and why isn't he wearing the head that goes with it?

    Seriously, John has the most biting wit, dry and sardonic sense of humor going. to keep such a positive outlook when most mortal men would be whining and complaining is nothing short of inspirational. Cathy you've succeeded in bringing out the beast, ah, the BEST in John. Thanks for having this big galoot, what is a galoot anyway?? on your show. An hombre among hombre John esta me hermana or something like that.

  8. A most revealing interview of John. I had no idea about the toilet fetish! That was inspired bit of steampunk vs the Wild West. I could visualize Bunyan 'eating breakfast for three days before going out to work.' That was what you do best John...zany and hilarious!

  9. I adore John -- and his writing. (But you know I'm a fanm right John?) Incredible, quirky sense of humor, one I admire and sure wish I could emulate. And I totally agree with you on Eudora Welty -- her shorts are fabulous.

    Great interview, Cathy. You nail the essence of every one of your subjects perfectly. Peace...

  10. Man, you two make quite a pair. Not sure which of you is wackier - and I say that with great fondness. I love the sense of humor both of you share, and am so glad you liven things up for me each week. Great interview, Cathy. While John's monologues are often quite funny, they also always speak to a greater truth and have depth of meaning. Thanks, to both of you.

  11. I respect and admire John so so much... You know that feeling?? You know ... That feeling that we writers sometimes get when reading another scribe??? Kinda like, "This fucking guy is so smart... Why am I even bothering throwing my hat into the ring."

    THAT's how I feel about Wiswell. If someone deserves a collected volume -- it's this dude.

  12. Welty and Wiswell, how lucky am I to be here right now?

  13. I'm a new-comer to the community, but I've enjoyed John's posts. His creativity and witty humor keep me coming back for more. Thanks for sharing the fabulous interview. Hey John, how are the hydrangeas? :)

  14. The story of how The Bathroom Monologues came to be sounds like an argument against a college education in creative writing - I mean, when you have to look for an antidote to the stifling of creativity... And thanks for reminding us about a little of our history. People forget these things.

  15. Why did I wait so long to read this? Busy week, no excuse. Especially now that I've been reminded how there are no excuses. John is as inspirational as he is witty and insightful. I first came across his name at six sentences, got to know his editing style through a side project and have been a fan ever since.

    John, you should be writing a book, but I would miss your presence at #fridayflash.

    Cathy, these interviews have been terrific. As others have said, you've created a new genre. I am so glad I've figuratively met you!

  16. Cathy, thank you for your wisdom. You have chosen some very talented people to work with. I've been watching John's work for a while now. He is fab. Oh, John, love the photo.


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