I Have Always Loved Stories About Losers: An Interview with Ross Wilcox

Interview conducted by Jaya Wagle

Ross Wilcox is the author of the upcoming story collection, Golden Gate Jumper’s Survivors Society. He has a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas. His short stories and poems have appeared in The Adirondack Review, The Carolina QuarterlyNashville ReviewPembroke Magazine, and are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review and Harpur Palate. He lives in Fort Worth with his wife and two cats.

Jaya Wagle: In your stories everyday people confront their challenges with escalating absurdity and the mundane gains a whole new perspective. Can you speak a little bit about how you choose the subjects of your stories?

Ross Wilcox: With short stories, the spark always seems to come from a unique idea, an unusual premise, or a new wrinkle on an existing trope. In fact, if there isn’t something sufficiently odd about the story’s premise, I feel like it’s not worth writing. That’s just me. I envy writers who can capture everyday experience in compelling ways without going beyond the bounds of realism. For example, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina and Corina, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies are three of my favorite short story collections ever. They all write about everyday people living everyday experiences. Their stories are brilliant, their characters are amazing…and I think if I tried to write a story like theirs it would just be boring. So, I must stick to weird things that border on surreal. Although there are a few stories in my collection – “Nora’s Sweatshirt,” “Puddin’ Suitcase,” and “Backwater” – that probably fit the bill of realism.

JW: The main characters of your stories are generally “losers,” (your words, not mine) struggling to make it and failing at it over and over, like the main character in “Symptoms.” What is the attraction to writing characters that seem to be always failing, never succeeding?

RW: I have always loved stories about losers. I have a few reasons. One, I generally have a pessimistic view on life. I think most people’s lives don’t turn out the way they want. I think there are a lot of people who, if given the choice, would do something other than what they’re doing for a living. Do you know what I mean? I’m not saying people aren’t happy. Obviously, lots and lots of people are happy. But I think if people were honest and you asked them: deep down inside, are you doing what you truly, truly love? I think a lot of people would say no. I think people settle. We all settle in some ways. Unless you’re Willy Loman. Willy Loman is one of the biggest losers in all of American Literature. Consequently, he’s also one of my favorite characters of all time. And even though his relentless, even delusional pursuit of his dream is the thing that’s destroying him, I think there’s something beautiful, heartbreaking, but ultimately life-affirming in his refusal to ever give up, even though he’s doomed to fail.

JW: How do you draw the line between writing biographical events into your fictional stories? I am thinking of two stories out of the eleven in your collection, “Nora’s Sweatshirt” and “Puddin’ Suitcase.”

RW: You know me well, Jaya. The two stories you mentioned are the only two autobiographical stories in my collection. Both are based on real events. I did have a great aunt who loved her poodle more than anything, and she asked my uncle to dig the dog up and bury it in her new house. But he refused. And so the obvious question that sparked that story was: what if he would’ve said yes and actually exhumed the poodle? The great aunt is long dead, so I guess I didn’t really think that much about how she would’ve felt about how she was depicted in the story. As for the other story, “Nora’s Sweatshirt,” I’m 100% positive that my two friends from high school would absolutely recognize themselves in the story. But I think they’d laugh. Because it was an absurd event. Just doing stupid stuff in high school because we were in a small town where there was nothing to do.

I guess I will say that I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the idea that these stories were autobiographical and what the morals and other accompanying considerations are or should be. I think part of that is because I don’t think either story is controversial. Do you know what I mean? They are just funny stories that don’t amount to much. If it was something more controversial that could affect someone’s life, then I’d probably have more to say about the idea of including biographical elements into my stories.

JW: Your stories range from first person POV, collective first person and third person POV. How do you decide which POV to employ in your stories? And what is your favorite POV to tell a story?

RW: In general, I like to employ first-person POV for a voice-driven story. There’s just a natural voiceyness (if you will) to first-person stories because the voice is doing so much work in rendering character. Indeed, the voice is the character in first-person POV stories. And my tendency when writing a first-person story is to be funny, because who wants to listen to a character talk about themselves with no sense of humor? George Saunders has some amazingly funny first-person, voice-driven stories. I think the influence of Saunders on my own work is pretty obvious in this collection.

As for first-person collective, that is an unusual POV. I first saw it many centuries ago when, as an undergraduate, I read Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” And even though I love that story, I didn’t think much of the POV at the time. I just sort of shrugged and thought, “Oh, that’s cool.” It wasn’t until I read the work of Steven Millhauser that I wanted to adopt it for my own stories. Millhauser, a prolific short story writer, uses the first-person collective more than any other author I’m aware of. In his first-person collective stories, Millhauser uses the POV to capture the dynamics of groupthink. In many of his stories, the first-person collective is incredibly effective in rendering the way obsession can take root in a group of people and, before you know it, the herd mentality takes over, which almost always functions as a destructive force, whether in the actions of the group or, in the case of the bystander effect, the inactions of the group. I’m trying to employ the first-person collective in a similar way. There are three stories in my collection that use it: “Year of Our Lawn,” “Costuming,” and “Ransom.” The first two stories deal with obsession at the group level. People become almost religiously fervent in pushing some endeavor to its absolute limit, thinking there will ultimately be some revelation at the end. In both cases, I want the reader to see how the collective mindset can function dangerously as a force beyond reason.

JW: Can you talk about your choice to go with a small press like 7.13 Press to publish your first book instead of going the traditional agent and big publishing route?

RW: Ha. Well, I don’t know I’d say it was a choice as much as it was simply what happened. I initially sent the manuscript around to agents, hoping for the dream we’re all chasing: the publishing contract with a big publisher. That didn’t happen. But then again, that’s not a huge surprise. Short story collections aren’t nearly as popular as novels. Thus, they aren’t nearly as sought after by agents and publishers. So, after the rejections (usually in the form of radio silence) from various agents, I submitted my manuscript to different contests hosted by independent presses. That process was heart-wrenching. I came so, so, so close to winning, but never quite did.

I queried other independent presses, and eventually, 7.13 accepted my book. I’m incredibly grateful to 7.13 and to Leland Cheuk for believing in my book and publishing it. The experience with 7.13 has been wonderful. Leland has been great to work with, and the other authors in the 7.13 family are so kind and supportive of one another. I’ve read a few of my press mate’s books, and they’re great writers! I would highly, highly recommend Farooq Ahmed’s novel Kansastan and Josh Denslow’s short story collection Not Everyone is Special.

JW: How do you see the release of your book with the ongoing pandemic?

RW: Well, it certainly won’t go as planned. In the grand scheme of things, us authors affected by the pandemic is small potatoes. There are way more important issues. People’s lives are way more important than our books. I want to make that abundantly clear. That said, I hope to be able to reach more readers electronically with ebooks. I kind of like this approach anyway because I read almost exclusively on Kindle. I don’t know if you’re not supposed to say that as a writer or a book lover, but after moving to Texas from South Dakota and carting along hundreds of paperbacks, the appeal of having all those books on one device became very appealing. Anyway, the biggest potential bummer for me will be if my readings at bookstores and literary venues get canceled. My book comes out the first week in August, and in my opinion, it’s hard to imagine those readings taking place, even with social distancing and sanitation measures and so forth. But what can you do? It’s all out of my control at this point.

JW: What is your next project?

RW: I’m working on a novel! It deals with a guy in Far West Texas who’s trying to uncover a conspiracy behind the Marfa Lights and McDonald Observatory. It also deals with quantum suicide and the many-worlds hypothesis. I’m nearly done with a first draft. I’m very excited about it!

Jaya Wagle recently graduated with an MA from UNT’s creative writing program where she now teaches World Literature and Technical Writing.