William Wallis, Creator of Worlds
By Nuala Lincke-Ivic

"I write the books I can write. They’re mine, and I’ll have to write them as best I can, in this world I’ve discovered, in this mind of mine."

Nuala Lincke-Ivic: What was the first literary piece you wrote; do you remember? Did you feel a sense of awe during and after you crafted this piece—understand that you were a writer, a creator of worlds?

William Wallis: I became viscerally aware of the power of words to command transformative, even transcendent power—a kind of metaphysical grandeur—when I was sixteen. I was caught up in a complex emotional crisis, the circumstances of which are too complex to go into here. (They serve as the climax of my novel Warrant Glen.) The expanding universe of language appeared to me for the first time—“a world beside this one” (Crazy Horse, Lakota Holy Man). Once you know this Dimension exists, everything changes. After that, I understood that that dimension waited for me if I had the gifts and skills to be worthy of it. I began, in my own way, to work toward entering it as often as the real, concrete world allowed. I got sidetracked by a performance career in the 1970’s and early 80’s, during which collage replaced my writing; but I’ve been productive in the genres of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction from the late 80’s till today.

NLI: I remember an Irish writer explaining to me and others how intimidated he felt by the great Irish writer James Joyce—how Joyce’s literary greatness stopped him from writing for a long, long time. You’re from the South, a region that boasts such great American writers as Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. As a Southerner, you must be conscious of this impressive literary heritage; does it intimidate you?

WW: Joyce inspires me to write; Faulkner doesn’t. Of course, I admire them both tremendously. Considering them as examples, I don’t kid myself: these guys are royalty and I’m a field laborer—a happy one. I don’t see it as a competition; I study them to learn how to do things. As writers we can only stand in awe of genius and emulate it as best we can. Welty is totally admirable. She captures the South I knew with humanistic understanding. Faulkner was more critical, caustic. I study the great man for his plot and grammar of motives; but I study Welty, whom I had the honor of meeting shortly before her death, for beauty of form and aesthetic truth. I prefer Welty’s fine watercolors to Sir William’s dark oils. I don’t consider myself part of their great heritage. I’m more of a footnote, a footnote that moved on to the Midwest, the Great Plains, Germany, and then the West Coast. I write about all those places, not just the south. Of course, the source of my motivating agony of expression is the American South. It is the smithy of my soul, as Joyce says.

NLI: Three of Faulkner’s works— The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, begun in 1940 and finished in 1959—feature the famous Snopes family of Yoknapatawpha County. Do any of your novels feature the same characters or family?

WW: The hero of my (incomplete) quartet of novels was born in Florida and raised in Arkansas. Will Falke and his family are the basis of the quartet, but Will is a traveler. In the third and fourth novels he leaves the nightmare of his semi-rural childhood and restive adolescence in Arkansas for the greater worlds of higher education and professional accomplishment in the Midwest and Great Plains. I was more influenced by Joyce and Durrell in my conceptualization of the quartet than anyone else, it seems to me; but the great Faulkner is always there telling me to “Go home and write, you Son of a Bitch!”

NLI: Faulker is reputed to have made a very witty (and still shockingly crude) joke about his 1931 novel Sanctuary, which includes the rape of one character—by a corncob. Asked once what character he was in his works, Faulkner allegedly replied: “The corncob.” Let’s ask you the same question—and hope you don’t find it as irksome as Faulker did. Who are you in your works; where do we find William Wallis, in which character?

WW: I am my hero, Will Falke, for sure—and this in a visceral sense. I am also very much the Whitman-esque architect of the close third person/omniscient point of view assumed through a large number of supporting and secondary characters who share a Jungian collectivity with the reader: “You shall know what I know.”

NLI: According to many writers, it’s impossible for a writer not to be self-referential, not to use his or her own life as the main ingredient of the works he or she authors. However, in “The Modern Essay,” Virginia Woolf contends that “it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.” What are your thoughts regarding Woolf’s contention? How is a writer to “never…be yourself and yet always [be yourself]”?

WW: Wolff was a genius, but a psychotic. She split herself so violently. I’m not brave like that. I write best out of my subconscious, then edit with strict craft; I’m not nearly as perfect as she is. If I deny or divide myself like Wolff, I’ll split down the middle. No thanks. I understand what she’s saying and what western civilization seems to want. That kind of dissociation stymies me. I write the books I can write. They’re mine, and I’ll have to write them as best I can, in this world I’ve discovered, in this mind of mine.

NLI: Tell us about your many different incarnations in this life. Begin with the Southern boy, please. What became of him? Is it possible to chart his progress in this life through your literary works?

WW: Will Falke is Bill Wallis abstracted and recovered, but still far from perfect. (Will’s father, Ray, is a better father than mine was.) Will develops along the lines of a gifted American lad in mid-century America. The quartet pits his destiny—an individual, volitional conceptualization—against a cruel but ultimately generous Fate. The challenge and joy of creating this being, whose impulses and dreams are shaped by diverse environments and characters, is in choreographing the shaping of his psyche and soul by the wrestling of internal and external forces of his life for supremacy. Finally, the world decides, of course. External forces are supreme. As for the opera singer I became and the actor and teacher I am, they are primary sources of inspiration and grist. I have designed a second collection of stories about my European operatic career. That collection will probably appear between the third and fourth novels, i.e. in 2015.

NLI: To which of your works do you feel most connected? If someone truly wants to know William Wallis, the writer, which work should that person read?

WW: I am most connected to the persona of the Sonnets. I’ve written over 200 of them. I am contemplating a novel of sonnets, along the lines of Eugene Onegin. I don’t know whether there is world and time enough to accomplish that, but it’s a goal.

NLI: In a 1903 letter, the writer Franz Kafka wrote: “We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.” As a writer, you seem to feel the same reverence for the individual that Kafka does. Like Kafka, do you also think that language will always be an imperfect medium for exploring the worlds you introduce your readers to?

WW: Yes, I feel the same reverence for any individual who defines himself, as Kafka did, by extraordinary acts. I am at present creating Franz Kafka as a ghostly character in my third novel, so I feel quite close to him in some ways. He is the ultimate individual. I feel he is saying that we must create characters who are singular, unique. More important, as honest writers we must produce singular visions of the worlds we create. How to do that? By envisioning naked characters in a concrete universe. Language is the only magical material we have for creating new worlds.

NLI: You are a poet as well as a novelist, short story writer, playwright, and screenwriter. How do you think that being a poet has influenced the way you write works that are not poetry?

WW: Sure. O’Neill speaks about how desirable “a touch of the poet” is. I imagine he means taking the risk of imbuing a scene with metaphor and risking a certain density of sound or patterning, perhaps even allowing for word sound and rhythm to complement text and subtext. O’Neill lets symbol and metaphor emerge from his characters’ interaction with environment. Genius creates these images, but craft recognizes their importance to story and character.

NLI: Every poem you write seems to tell a story. When you write a poem, do you make a conscious decision to tell a story?

WW: In my mind, it is more a matter of a line of emotion than story plot that allows the poem to manifest. This line or curve emerges as the persona interacts with the environment of the poem.

NLI: You once told me that you are isolated as a writer—in the sense that you don’t belong to writers groups and have never partnered with another writer to produce a literary work. Why are you this kind of solitary writer? Do you think that this state of solitude has perhaps stopped you from experiencing notable commercial success (i.e., earning lots of money as a screenwriter)? Has it also ensured the quality of the works you produce: You don’t have to compromise your ideas, your writing style, your convictions when you write?

WW: I have recently begun sharing drafts of stories with a writer I admire. I try to practice “Silence, exile, cunning” as a writer— though I am not very cunning. Writing is of necessity a solitary act, and creation is so delicate and critics so blindly egotistical at times, that I simply choose to be—think, dream, create—alone. I greatly value thoughtful criticism, like that of Jim Krusoe, who teaches at Santa Monica College.

NLI: During their lifetimes, many great writers did not earn a fortune for the literary works the produced; sometimes they earned nothing. As a writer, do you think that you know how to market your literary works?

WW: No, I do not. Nor am I interested in the kind of attention that commercial success brings. I have never sought an agent and am, for the most part, self-published, i.e. I pay for the design and printing of my own works. (I do work with an editors and publishers.) Like any writer, I have certain goal I wish to accomplish; I have dreams. I am at work in the classroom full-time, to pay the mortgage; and I am at work in the smithy of my soul because I want to leave something beautiful behind me. I’m too busy living life and creating mirrors of that life to scramble after an extra buck.

NLI: For whom do you write?

WW: For myself, first. Then my family—they read very little of what I write, but I’m thinking of the long run—and friends, of whom I have very few sadly, and students. Also, I wrote Hawk for the abused, who often have no voice. I wrote Warrant Glen for the gifted young, who are often misshapen by the struggle to shape their gifts.

NLI: Do you have favorite writers—writers to whose works you return again and again?

WW: Welty, John Gardner; Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Ibsen; Kafka, Mann, Joyce; Dante, Dickinson, Whitman, Amichai.

NLI: Many writers—Chekhov, Welty, Baldwin, Joyce, Hemingway, Steinbeck—shared their wisdom about the art of writing: their do’s and don’ts. Please share some of your do’s and don’ts.

WW: Trust the flood of the unconscious. Connect with it whenever possible. Trust the dream-like creative state and fight for its survival. (I don’t advise the use of drugs or alcohol.) Also, a writer must know the craft of the discipline. Find your unique method. Be patient with yourself, less so with the world.

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