“My novel, Nightwolf, was released on July 31st. The genre, I suppose, is literary fiction, with elements of mystery and adventure. A mysterious tagger and occasional vigilante named Nightwolf is stalking Lexington, Kentucky. The narrator—a seventeen year old dropout and part time drug dealer—is convinced that Nightwolf is his brother who ran away ten years earlier. His obsessive search for Nightwolf brings him into all manners of criminals and danger.”
Crazy Author Fact:
As for a crazy fact, I don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, but this strikes me as pretty crazy. I’m named after my great-grandmother, Willie Snow Ethridge, who wrote a lot of books in the style of Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry. As part of her work, she traveled around Europe and wrote about her experiences. A few years ago, my father in-law (who at this point, I’d just met) was cleaning out his house and found a copy of my great-grandmother’s book. In it, she casually mentions meeting up with her friends Bill and Cynthia Baxter. Bill and Cynthia Baxter were my wife’s grandparents. So thirty years before either of us were born, in a foreign country, my great grandmother and my wife’s grandparents met and befriended each other. The families had no more contact until my wife and I got together.
SR: What’s your new book/work in progress about?
WD: Nightwolf is about Milo Byers, a seventeen year-old dropout, dealer, and aspiring car thief. His mother has dementia, and his brother has run away ten years before the opening words. The only thing that keeps him going is that his hometown is being hit by a tagger and incompetent vigilante named “Nightwolf.” Milo is convinced Nightwolf is his runaway brother. He sees it as his job to find Nightwolf and return him home to save his mother’s mind.
SR: Was there a specific issue or incident that really motivated you to write this particular story? What was the prompt?
WD: I’m interested in the way people grow up. Specifically, I’m curious about the way they grow up in impossible situations. On one hand, Milo has so many strikes against him, it feels impossible that he can survive. Then again, people grow up in these situations all the time. How many kids grow up in war-torn countries, under dictators or warlords? Kids grow up in impossible situations all the time, and they deal with it the same way that kids in happy homes deal with it: they make jokes, they tell lies, they kind of just work it out a little bit. I wanted to see just how many terrible situations these characters could shrug their shoulders and joke about. That felt true to how people grow up.
SR: How do you think your protagonist would respond if aliens landed in the center of town on page 57?
WD: Would he notice? On page 57, he’s talking to a friend who lives in a house with a yard so full of stray animals and road-kill that Milo and his friends call it The Ark. (This was based on a hippie brother and sister pair I knew growing up. We would watch new stray animals gather around the carcasses from the night before). A few pages later, he steals a car with a child in it. I get that aliens landing in the middle of town is much stranger than these things, but it’s a difference of degree, not of kind. The impossible happens all the time. How many people casually say they saw a ghost? So much of the world feels impossible, particularly when you’re young and reckless that reality feels like a dream.
SR: Is your protagonist more likely to go insane or end up in prison?
WD: Both are on the table. He fears insanity and sees prison as an inevitability. So I’d guess insanity because he has bad luck.
SR: Is there something you hope the reader carries away with them after they’re done reading? An insight or philosophy that you wanted to come through in your work?
WD: There are no bad guys. No one wants to be the villain. Have empathy for your enemies.
SR: Cage match between you and your protagonist. It’s a fight to the death. Which one of you will be left standing, and why.
WD: In a fair fight, he’d whip me. He’s bigger and works part time as a bouncer. I’m an English teacher who drinks and gets physically tired after watching a basketball game on TV. But why do we assume this fight is fair? I created him and am now picking a fight with him. Look at it this way: if you meet God in a darkened street corner, and He challenges you to punch Him in the face, you’re going to hold something back. He’d be the favorite, but there’d be some late money bet on me.
SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?
WD: I read John Irving’s The World According to Garp the summer before high school, and I remember feeling it was different than other books I’d read. Not better or worse, but different to where I felt I’d crossed a threshold in understanding what books can do. The short stories of Mark Richard are a constant presence in my head when I’m writing. Primarily, there’s a Kentucky writer named Gurney Norman whose work absolutely floored me as a child (and continues to as an adult). It was the first time I heard Appalachian voices in intelligent literature that came across as something other than caricatures of intolerance or as symbols of goodhearted oppressed folk. I remember thinking, “This sounds just like me if I were interesting.”
SR: What’s the best thing about writing?
WD: The dental plan.
SR: What’s the worst thing about writing?
WD: A few months ago, a friend (a successful, published writer) told me, “The difference between being a published writer and an unpublished writer is nothing.” It’s been about a year-and-a-half since I got word that someone wanted to publish my book, and I don’t know what these eighteen months would have looked like if it hadn’t gone my way. Practically, my life wouldn’t have changed at all. But I feel a tremendous emotional difference because somebody somewhere gave me a thumbs up. The worst part of writing is knowing that I am the same person who didn’t get published. My publisher, Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books, is incredibly talented and made Nightwolf a much better book, but the reason I submitted to 7.13 Books is because my son was born on July 13th. Without that coincidence, I’d maybe have to pursue such degrading and pathetic pursuits as being a good husband and father.
SR: What detail in your writing do you obsess over the most? Character names? Locations? Description? Dialogue? Research?
WD: Character names are an absolute thorn in my ass, and I don’t know why. When you meet someone in life, and they say “Hi, I’m Sally,” you never think, “No, you seem more like a ‘Rosa.’” Many of my background characters share names with Kentucky Wildcat basketball players, and that’s not a coincidence. For this book, I had to invent band-names, which is a whole other bundle of nonsense. What’s the difference between a good and utterly ridiculous band name? If you knew nothing of KISS, Destiny’s Child, R.E.M., The Rolling Stones, Funkadelic, or The Clash, could you tell which one made the best music? None of those feel unusual because we’re used to them, but if you tell me that Thin Lizzy is playing at the coffee house down the street, I wouldn’t think “Wow, such an adequate name! They’re going places.”
I called one of the bands in this book “Surrender Dorothy” because I rewatched The Wizard Of Oz when I was twenty and thought that’d be an awesome name. The other band was called The Violators, but on a whim, I changed it to “Senior Low-Penis and The Violators.” I’m sure there’s a reason, and I’m sure I’ll never know.
SR: Are you drawn to things that are really popular or wary of them? Do you find it helps you to market your work if you’re familiar with what’s currently selling or do you ignore all of that and focus on what you’re interested in?
WD: I have way too much contrarian in me. Sometimes it is useful, but in the age of Twitter fights and hot-takes, it is absolutely not interesting to lay back and say, “That thing everyone likes is just okay.” Still, it’s often how I feel. I don’t actively seek to rain on anyone’s enthusiasm (this is a relatively recent development over the last few years so let’s see if it holds). I distrust popular things, but I also distrust the backlash to popular things. We’re in a bit of an odd moment for popular culture, because there’s no central culture anymore, and we are all looking to restore it. So too often critics start their reviews by asking “Do we need…?” “Do we really need another season of Arrested Development?” “Do we really need another holocaust movie?” The answer is always no. But the question is dumb. We don’t need movies, books, TV, music, dance. We want it. Some people want it at least. But we’re trying to pare everything down to what society needs. There is no one society anymore. If it doesn’t speak to you, that’s cool. Let others love it. What I hate is that we are now pretending is there is a moral reason for our tastes. People say the word “problematic” like it means something, like the natural state of things is perfect. When we say, “We don’t need”, we’re saying, “I don’t particularly like”.
During the recent Royal Wedding, I saw a lot of leftists gush over the event, and then either apologize or attack other people for caring about some sporting event. But why apologize? Public weddings are an art. Why attack? Sports are an art. If an art moves you, great. Who cares if it’s popular? If an art does nothing for you, then fine. Know it does something for others.
That’s a long way of avoiding saying the truth: I pay too much attention to what’s popular and I care about what sells. I wish I didn’t.
SR: Do you relate more to Sherlock Holmes or Professor Moriarty? Why?
WD: I absolutely love the Sherlock Holmes series even if, when you take a long look at it, it’s pretty thin. Moriarty is in something like two stories, and the actual tales of Holmes get pretty ridiculous and a little racist. But what we remember are the characters. Holmes lasts. Watson lasts. Moriarty lasts, or at least the idea of him lasts. There’s a reason why these stories get updated for every generation. That’s what we want intelligence to look like. You don’t have to work at anything, and you don’t have to care about the person you’re dissecting. Everybody’s story is hidden on his or her face. Geniuses don’t have to work at genius, and they can’t be bothered with human decency.
Sherlock Holmes’ style of intelligence is a way of saying he cares about you. All accounts seem to show he does not, but really he is chronicling your every move. Moriarty does the same, but for an opposite purpose.
Which do I relate to? Holmes and Moriarty can tell whether my grandfather had eczema by the number of threads in my t-shirt. It takes me six times of meeting someone to remember what letter their first name starts with. Whatever intelligence I have comes slowly and methodically, and I’m dependent on the good graces of others. I love both of these characters because I’m nothing like them. I side with Holmes because I understand him a little more. Moriarty deciphers all of human nature just to promote anarchy? What’s the point of all that study? Holmes promotes reason. I’m not particularly optimistic, but I oppose nothingness.
SR: What’s your personal life motto?
WD: Oh, come on, it was just a joke. You know I didn’t mean it that way. Come on, really?
SR: Is there something you’ve experienced that’s affected your view of life? Tell us about it and how it changed you.
WD: No, nothing I’ve experienced has affected my life.
SR: What movie or TV world do you wish you could live in? Why?
WD: Most Hollywood universes would be pretty easy to navigate. Agree with the most attractive people and distrust the swarthy ones who enter the room to a minor chord, and you’ll be fine. Personally, I’d love to live in the Twin Peaks universe. Even the High Schoolers look like beautiful 30 year-olds, and the rules make so little sense that I may as well be living in my own world. It would be terrifying—the evil lurking in the woods would terrify me every time I look in the mirror—but I’d be fascinated, and I’d know the food is good.
SR: What factors influence you when you’re choosing a book to read?
WD: Book covers mean way too much. As do titles. And if I read “emotional turmoil” or “powerful” on the back cover, I tend to put it back down. So many book covers are smudges or people’s feet, that if you see something striking, it makes the story more inviting.
SR: What’s one thing that you and your protagonist have in common?
WD: We both tell elaborate stories to avoid talking about our feelings. Neither of us admit to our anger roiling beneath the surface. Both of us are betting on it going away.
SR: Tell us something about you that isn’t common knowledge.
WD: I’m pretty sure the fact I exist isn’t common knowledge. But it’s true. I exist and am a carbon-based life-form.
SR: Do you have any special events coming up? Where can people catch up with you in person or on a podcast?
WD: I will be reading in Lexington, Kentucky at The Wild Fig on August 16th and then at Brier Books on August 30th. I have a podcast up on The Other stories and I’ve done one with my favorite podcasters, The Trillbilly Workers Party. I hope to do a repeat affair with the Trillbillies.
Willie Davis’s work has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, The Kenyon Review, The Coil, The Berkeley Fiction Review, and Cleaver among other places. He is the winner of The Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize (judged by Zadie Smith) and The Katherine Anne Porter Prize (judged by Amy Hempel) and he is a fellow of the Kentucky Arts Council.