>Writer Larry Woiwode: Realistic and Reformed

>Rather than author, Larry Woiwode prefers the identification of writer. That appellation is certainly accurate. Descriptive detail and believable characters enliven his realistic work, while his portrayals of sin and redemption reflect his Reformed worldview. His prose soars with the lyrical quality of his poetry. His wide-ranging work demonstrates exceptional literary excellence.

And Woiwode has written in many genres. His most recently published work is a second memoir, A Step from Death. The title of his first memoir, What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Acts, plays on the title of his successful first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think. His other novels are Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Poppa John, Born Brothers, and Indian Affairs. Two collections of short stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker, are Neumiller Stories and Silent Passengers. Even Tide is a collection of exquisite poems. Acts contains essays on the biblical book, and The Aristocrat of the West: The Story of Harold Schafer is a biography.

In addition to The New Yorker, Woiwode’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s and The Paris Review. He has been honored as a Guggenheim Fellow and a Lannan Literary Fellow, receiving the Lannan Foundation Studio Award. He has received the John Dos Passos Prize, the William Faulkner Foundation Award, the Aga Khan Award, the Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award, and the Medal of Merit from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He has also been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award.

Having lived as a full-time writer in New York City early in his career, Woiwode chose to return in 1978 to his home state of North Dakota, where he has served as the state’s Poet Laureate since 1995. He has taught writing at Wheaton College, the State University of New York, Binghamton, Jamestown College, in North Dakota, and in a variety of other American and international settings. On his farm, he raises horses and bales hay and continues to write. He’s also a Reformed Christian.

For Christian Renewal, I interviewed him via email in 2006 about his work and his views on literature and a Reformed perspective.

GM: You write in your memoir, What I Think I Did, of the mentoring assistance of William Maxwell, fiction editor at The New Yorker, when you first came to New York. How important is it for a new writer to have that type of mentoring, and how might a writer find a mentor in today’s publishing climate?

LW: In What I Think I Did I indeed acknowledge the careful interest of William Maxwell, and the way he served as encourager and editor when my stories started appearing in The New Yorker. I don’t know if I mention that when he read the metafiction I was writing at first, led on by Beckett and Bill Gass and some rather theoretical writing workshops I took at the University of Illinois, he would merely nod and smile or say, as in one instance, “This sentence could be a novel.”

As I came onto my material, centered in the Dakota culture of my birth, he sat me down at the table where he worked with writers and showed me some editing he had done on a piece, along with suggestions about where he felt the story had gaps.
I’m a little uncomfortable with “mentoring,” that noun made verb, and see my experience with Maxwell rather as the life-altering experience of working with a real writer. Workshopers and theorists and mentors aren’t helpful if they aren’t writing and publishing themselves. Beginning writers might be on the lookout for published writers willing to read their work. More important than that, however, is to keep busy writing and sending work off–where it can be published, I mean. Too many young writers feel they need a publishing contact or a mentor. No. They need finished pages. No writer can work with blank pages and you can’t make a purse, as they say, out of a sow’s ear. Well, maybe a roughhewn hairy one that doesn’t hold much. Steady production is the key.

The sentence Maxwell pointed out, by the way, became Beyond the Bedroom Wall. His sterling insight was a writerly one.

GM: There seems to be a lack of literary quality in many popular novels as well as novels for the CBA market. How would you define literary excellence, and how can it be cultivated in readers and writers?

LW: It seems to me that literary excellence went out when accountants and marketers took over publishing. This began in the seventies, with the introduction of the idea that a book should be “targeted” to a specific audience. This was merely a marketing ploy meant to sell more books. As soon as a writer assumes he or she is writing for a specific audience, whatever the genre or category or age level, condescension enters. The best writers attempt to do the best they can with each book, without compromise or condescension, addressing their writing to the single person the book is meant for. This is usually the person named in the dedication.

Readers must become more discerning, and the only way to achieve that is to read the great books of the past. The verbal TV and confections of contemporary fiction do not engage the reader in the effort it takes to cultivate taste. The boundless, borderless confections of fantasy don’t help here. There seems a mistaken conception that the primary genre of Christian fiction is fantasy. No, the tradition has been almost wholly realistic, from Chaucer to Dostoyevsky to Flannery O’Connor, serving as application of the gospel. Fantasy began late last century with the great fabulist, Tolkien. He was not so much an aberration as an original. To imagine his is the only mode or you should try to match his footsteps is aberrant.

GM: How would you articulate a Reformed perspective on the arts?

LW: I once thought I had a fairly well-developed Reformed perspective on the arts. I read not only Merton and C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, but also Rookmaaker and Seerveld and Calvin and other Reformed writers. But as my books appeared they encountered resistance not only in the broader evangelical world but the Reformed community as well. I’ve been told by members of that community they were offended by a word or two a character of mine used, or a descent into sin.

A truly Reformed perspective, I thought, would contain sin, considering the concept of total depravity, if the reader is to get a glimpse of redemption, as we see it in the Bible. There I encounter idolatry and deception and lying and incest and murder, not to mention a warrior telling Israelites they’ll be drinking and eating you know what. I don’t ascribe those sins or the modes of language to the authors and certainly not to God, viewing Him as the inspiration behind it all. Yet the sins and some of the language of the characters in my books are ascribed to me by some in the believing community. Oddly, they aren’t bothered by murder, the necessary engine of most Christian (and other) detective mysteries, but throw a book aside at the “S” word. That seems to me similar to the conundrum of those who want to save the whales but promote human abortion. I don’t have the Heidelberg in front of me but I know the Westminster says some sins are more heinous than others. These mysteries are, of course, another form of fantasy, as most “Romance” novels are. You won’t sharpen your literary taste on them.

GM: What can Christians and churches do to support and promote the creative expressions of artists who have a biblical worldview?

LW: The answer to that’s simple. Buy their work. Encourage others in the Church and the larger community to buy their work. When a plumber does work, you expect a bill. Writers for some reason are supposed to do almost everything for free. The only aspect of the material world that is absolutely free, however, is the invitation to enter the supernatural world of God through Jesus in the Gospel.

The above is an updated version of an interview that appeared in the August 16, 2006 issue of Christian Renewal.

© Glenda Mathes 2006, 2010

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