Gary’s best-selling first novel, Sing, Ronnie Blue, appeared in 2007. He has taught fiction and short story writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago. His work has been recommended for a Pushcart Prize, and he was a finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Drue Heinz Literary Prize. He currently lives with his wife in Chicago and is working on his next novel The Narrow Window.
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Welcome to JJ.
Please summarise Getting Right in 20 words or less.
Connie is dying. She wants her brother to write the story of her life. OK. Sure. Simple enough. Right?
What was the idea/inspiration for your novel?
Getting Right opens with this line: “The hole in the crook of Connie’s arm resembled a miniature red mouth going OOO! A Betty Boop mouth puckering for a kiss, a greedy little baby mouth sucking through a plastic tube injection after injection of clear liquids and antibiotics, none of which assuaged her real hunger as she asked everyone who entered her room when and what the next meal would be.”
I saw this image when I visited my sister in the hospital and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It stayed with me day and night, festering, becoming more irritating, until I had to write it down to get rid of it. But I couldn’t stop just with that, and I kept writing. . .and writing. . .and I eventually had a finished novel on my hands.
Please tell us about the characters in your book
There are three main characters in Getting Right—Connie, Len, and Me. The “Me” character is unnamed and is the narrator of the story. Len is Me’s older brother and Connie is Me’s younger sister. There are a whole host of other characters—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, townspeople. But the narrative focuses mainly on the three mentioned above.
Connie is a person who is basically unhappy with her lot in life and takes out her displeasure on others, at times purposely and at other times inadvertently.
Len never recovers from his divorce and sets about to drink and smoke himself to death.
Me escapes the stultifying trap that he sees Connie and Len succumb to (the small town and smothering family) and suffers a strange kind of survivor’s guilt that becomes more heightened as his brother’s and sister’s illnesses draw him back into their lives.
Was there anything about your protagonist that surprised you?
Well, yes, there was. Early in the novel, Connie asks Me to write the story of her life, since he is, after all, a writer. He says he’ll do it on one condition—that he be allowed to tell her story the way he wants to. What ensues is a purposeful (on my—the author’s—part) mixture of memory and imagination that in the end raises a question about whether the truth of Connie’s life, or anyone’s for that matter, can ever be known.
What surprised me about Me, the character, was how sarcastic and mean and judgmental he could be.
What scene did you most enjoy writing? Why?
I was discussing my novel with a friend and mentioned to her that I was having trouble figuring out how to end the story. She thought a minute and said, “Is it supposed to be a comedy or a tragedy? Comedies end with weddings, and tragedies end with funerals.” And viola! the ending popped into my head. I can’t tell you what it is, of course.
Did you do any research for your book?
What resources did you use?
There is a fair amount of medical terminology and practice in the story that I don’t know much about, so I read up on those things and talked to medical professionals to be sure I had things right.
There’s also a section about mowing the grass at a small town airport. I had no idea how detailed the regulations from the U. S. government were to cover such a thing.
At one point, one of the characters, Len, receives communion from a hospital chaplain. I knew only that such things happen but had no idea the details of it, until I did a good amount of reading on the subject.
I would say that every day I did research on one topic or another. It constantly amazes me how much credible information is available simply by Googling a subject.
Do you have a favourite place you go to for inspiration or a favourite activity?
I live in a high-rise condominium building in Chicago. Just across the street from it is a park that has a walkway leading to a dead-end that overlooks Lake Michigan in one direction and a stretch of the skyline of Chicago in another. I find it calming to walk there and let myself be lulled by the waves and the views. I once read that often the most creative moments an artist has come when he or she is relaxed and thinking about other things—or nothing, for that matter. When he or she is falling asleep or waking and is unaware of most anything. I find that when I stand at the lake shore I’m able to lose my “self” and enter whatever contemplative state it is that helps me recharge my creative batteries. A re-energized peace, if you will.
How do your characters come into existence? Do they have a bio?
The characters in Getting Right have their prototypes in real life—my sister, my brother, my larger family, myself. But that’s all they are—prototypes—because in the end they are imagined beings—that mixture of memory (which is always clouded at best) and imagination, as I mentioned earlier. In the end, I would say they become wholly created and take on lives of their own. Even “Me.” I’m often surprised by what one of them says or does. I know then that I’ve succeeded with their creation.
Which authors have influenced your writing?
Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson, Joan Didion, Stephen Dixon, Billy Collins, Nadine Gordimer, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among others.
Do you have a favourite book? Why? What is it about that book Gary that makes it special?
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, more popularly known as Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. It was one of the first books I came across that excited me for its brashness and originality in making an important story out of nothing, really. It’s fun, silly, impertinent, and a towering artistic achievement. I believe it ranks up there with Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov.
What are you reading now?
I am currently reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I love the book. The language. The structure. The attention to character and detail.
Finally Gary, have you done any writing courses that you would recommend to others?
I have taught fiction writing for many years and hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing. I think course work or writing workshops can be valuable in terms of helping a writer focus and hone certain skills, like scene-making and writing a better sentence or dialogue. But to paraphrase another writer, whose name I can’t come up with right now, a teacher can teach certain skills but not something worthwhile to write about.
Thank you for sharing with us today.
Wishing you success with all your writing projects.
Getting Right, Gary Wilson’s eagerly-anticipated second novel, is a masterful fusion of imagination and memory. Although this powerful family drama is drawn from close personal experience, the story that emerges is far more moving than any purely factual account could ever be.
Suppose, for instance, that your more than mildly irritating leech of a sister calls you, as she usually does wanting money, only this time she says she has cancer and in the course of the conversation challenges you to write the story of her life. You say, sure, you’ll do that…but only on the condition that you can tell it the way you see it.
The novel starts with the sister, Connie, and soon involves brother Len and “me,” the sibling narrator who discovers that Connie’s story isn’t so simple after all. In order to tell it, “me” realizes that he has to include the accounts of other family members as well. By the end, the escalating swirl of memory and imagination leaves open the question of whether the truth of Connie’s life – or of anyone’s for that matter – can ever be known.
Getting Right is a tale of love and loss, leavened with humor, that readers will no doubt take directly to heart as they recognize themselves and their own families in it.