Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Mouth to Mouth, Panorama City, and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, Best New American Voices, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications, and he is a contributing editor of A Public Space. A recipient of fellowships from the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin, he was the inaugural winner of the San Fernando Valley Award for Fiction. His website is antoinewilson.com.
[Kelp Journal] First of all, I loved this book. The characters stuck with me even weeks after reading it—the hallmark, in my mind, of a work that left an imprint. Here are a few questions that I think our readers might enjoy hearing your take on.
[Antoine Wilson] Thanks! [Kelp Journal] First, I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about yourself. Where you grew up and how you came to live in Southern California. I read somewhere that you spent some time growing up in the Central Valley. I did, too. What town did you live in?
[Antoine Wilson] I was born in Montreal to a French Canadian mother and an Anglo-Canadian father, and French was basically my first language. When I was almost seven years old, we moved to Madera, CA, a Central Valley town not far from Fresno. It was like landing on Mars. After four years, we moved to Santa Monica, then Saudi Arabia, then back to Santa Monica, where I lived from middle school onward.
[KJ] When did you know you wanted to write? When did that journey begin?
[AW] I’ve always written stories and poems and stuff, and I was a theater kid in high school. I came into UCLA as a theater major, in fact. Eventually I switched to English lit (and premed, but that’s another story) and decided—under the influence of Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon, and James Baldwin—that what I really wanted to do was write novels. It was very clear to me, more of a coming into being than a choice plucked from the air, if you know what I mean. [KJ] The framing for this book is interesting, and honestly, I couldn’t imagine it done any other way. How did you land upon the framework with our narrator in an airport running into an old friend with a story he’s never told anybody?
[AW] I had been working with a draft of the book in a different form with Jeff telling the story as a first-person narrator, but I couldn’t seem to make it work to my satisfaction. I didn’t like his voice being front and center. Switching everything over to third person wasn’t a viable solution, because I wanted Jeff’s shaping his life story to be a part of the narrative. I was rereading W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz when it struck me that I might try something similar. In terms of having an anonymous narrator between the reader and the protagonist, I mean. They’re very different books, obviously.
[KJ] I love this concept of saving someone’s life, and I also really enjoyed this intellectual journey that follows these characters after this occurs. I surf, and surfers in my area drag drowning people out of the riptide every year. Over the years, I have pulled two people in myself. The fleeting appreciation is something that always stuck with me. How did this idea germinate for you? Was there an event that triggered the idea?
[AW] It’s funny, that fleeting appreciation. As you know, I also surf, and like you, I’ve helped some people out in the water. For a long time, the only constant was that they didn’t thank me afterward. I think they were in shock, probably. I was about to write a little essay about this odd (to me) phenomenon, and then that week I pulled someone from a rip, and she thanked me profusely. Needless to say, I didn’t write the essay. As for an event that triggered Mouth to Mouth, I stopped a guy from stepping in front of a train back in the late ’90s. He was wearing headphones, walking along, air drumming, lost in his own world, and I got his attention just in time. Once he realized what had happened, he said, “You saved my life!” and then, “I’m going to buy you a big steak dinner!” But once the train was finished going by, he kept walking. I never got my steak dinner. I tried to write a version of that story years ago, changing the train incident to a drowning and following up with a steak dinner, a kind of what-if. It wasn’t a good story, but it eventually led to Mouth to Mouth.
[KJ] When the event happened that became the seed for this story? Did you know it would lead to a book or story? How long do things sort of percolate in your mind before you know they need to find a page? Is there any method to that process for you?
I had no idea it would lead to a story. It was fifteen years before I started noodling on that incident, which is to say that things have to percolate for a pretty long time, yeah, before they get to the page. It’s almost like they have to get stripped of their immediate and specific context so they can be manipulable in a creative sense. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out my method, which might, in and of itself, be my method—trying to figure it out.
[KJ] The writing is so wonderfully compact; it’s like a master class in compression. Did you design the story to keep a fast pace initially, or was this something that developed during editing?
[AW] I didn’t design it that way intentionally, no. Early drafts of this project went down any number of rabbit holes, and I can point to some sentences that reflect thousands of words of work that didn’t make it even into the first full draft. A multiverse of false starts, if you will. That said, once I established the point of view with the anonymous narrator listening to (and conveying) Jeff’s story, it became very clear what belonged in the book and what didn’t. The form didn’t invite digression at that point.
[KJ] I love the entrance into the art world. I felt as though I was in the hands of someone with a great deal of knowledge over these experiences. Was this through research that you did?
[AW] In the late ’90s and early 2000s, I worked for a fine art and rare book appraiser in Beverly Hills. I did some research for this novel, but most of what’s on the page comes from what I learned in those days.
[KJ] The novel was a captivating read all the way until the end. And that ending was a delightfully insidious shocker. Regarding the novel, what do you hope the audience garners from reading it? Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
[AW] Reading pleasure. Plus, the tiniest shift sideways in how we look at the world…and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.