A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Sour Grapes and Roasting Almonds does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Antoine's most recent novel, Panorama City.
Release no. XI:
Sour Grapes and Roasting Almonds by Antoine Wilson
Antoine asked me to meet him at Zuma Beach, which I thought was a bit much—was he just trying to prove how cool he was, being a writer and a surfer? But after I got there and we chatted, he asked to walk down to the water, where we waited six, seven, maybe eight minutes. Then he bent down, reached into the water and pulled out a piece of glass, its edges rounded by the ocean, its substance clouded. ‘This is glass,’ he said, mostly to himself. ‘Or perhaps I should say, this was glass.’ Below are excerpts of our recorded conversation.
I'm here with Antoine Wilson, in discussion of his newest novel, Sour Grapes and Roasting Almonds. Reading this book was like being socked in the goddamn stomach with a fistful of humanity, and then slapped across the cheek with a whole palm of hilarity. His past work has been a showcase of balancing wit and pathos, but SGaRA is a whole different ballgame, a ballgame in which Antoine is on the mound, throwing a slider with a spin of humanity, and then right after throwing a knuckleball of hilarity. Let's see here what the critics have to say...Okay, here's one. Shelby Gamboa at the Cleveland Plain Dealer said the book is "a roman a clef of sorts, if roman means 'humanity', ameans 'mixed with', and clef means 'hilarity'." Romeo Trinidad at Flavorwire, agrees: "Humanity and hilarity," he said. Antoine. How do you do it? What is it about your process that enables such a well-rounded portraiture of the human(ity) experience?
Hi Andrew. It’s a pleasure to be here with you. I’m not sure about the baseball analogies, since I’m Canadian, but I’m happy you responded to the book so kindly. I hadn’t seen that Shelby Gamboa review. She’s my new favorite writer.
As for how I do it…I suppose I don’t see a distinction between humanity and hilarity. The second essential question (after whether one should immediately commit suicide, pace Camus) is does one laugh at the pain of others? I think no. But fiction allows us to transform the pain of others into our own pain, thereby allowing us to laugh at it.
There’s one other element. Every day I park my car near a local elementary school here in L.A. and watch the parents pick up their children until there are only a few left, those whose parents are late. On their faces I find my muse.
Rich, rich material here. Your elementary school method is brilliant, and I'm sure knowing it's all for art could help alleviate some of the stress felt by the parents by seeing the same lone man watching their children every day. Oh, but I know you're being coy here. There must be more. What are your other methods for harvesting life's minor tragedies?
Yes, I had some problems with the parents at first—weird looks. But now instead of driving my own car I Uber, so I’m not in the same car every time. The added bonus is that the Uber driver usually has a story to tell.
For Sour Grapes I had a fairly well-outlined concept, that of a glass-blower’s rise to fame and eventual acceptance into the world of fine art. Which is a gloss on Dale Chihuly. But I wasn’t interested in pure roman-a-clef. I wanted to ask: what if Chihuly had been destroyed by his own success? Not to be formulaic about it, but if you want to write a novel, a good formula is: 1) pick something that everyone wants, and 2) give it to your protagonist, then 3) watch him self-destruct.
It’s a long form version of “careful what you wish for.” I watched a lot of Fantasy Island as a kid.
Oh, Uber—ingenuous. You must be able to write most of that off as a professional expense.
You do a wonderful job of exposing all of the frayed edges of the glass-blowing industry—the less savory aspects the public knows must be there, and those which we tell ourselves aren't. The fact is: you don't rise to the top of that industry without shattering a few twirly chandeliers. I wondered throughout reading it: how much research went into this? How much of the story is actually based on Chihuly?
Chihuly was a starting point—his biography/existence is what made the concept possible for me. I did an early draft which hewed closer to his career as a gaffer, with the car accident and all that, but I realized fairly early on that his story already existed, you know? I didn’t need to tell it again. Rather than providing source material, he provided a sort of psychic space. Permission, if you will, to create an alternate universe in which Chihuly himself doesn’t exist (or is not acknowledged) and in which Phil Comte occupies that space, as king of art glass.
The weird thing is that in my research I came across Daphne Du Maurier’s The Glass-Blowers, which is a historical novel but provided inspiration for a lot of the family intrigue I included in my book. She’s got this great line: "If you marry into glass, you will say goodbye to everything familiar, and enter a closed world.” A CLOSED WORLD. Very appealing concept, in our day and age, when everything is out in the open.
Other than that, much of my research took place with actual glassblowers and gaffers. In their studios, their homes, and their favorite drinking holes. I probably spent six months with them before even starting the first draft of the book. I saw lots of things shatter: hearts, plates, relationships, bowls, flutes, minds.
A detail which didn’t make it into the book: The annual award for highest achievement in glassblowing isn’t made out of glass anymore. It’s marble. They had to change it because when it was glass, the winner would go up to the podium and immediately insult the craftsmanship of the award itself. Some things you just can’t make up.
"Shattering" does seem to be the irreversible theme of SGaRA, as pages moved from right to left, the pieces that composed the book seemed to move farther and farther apart. And yet, we do have the feeling of a closed space, one which is impenetrable from all things outside, and one in which nothing inside can escape.
There's that thought of New York as centripetal and Los Angeles as centrifugal, and I know you're an LA guy. To me, this books feels like a perfect combination of both; pieces moving away from the center, but bound to it all the same.
I imagine writing such a novel might have taken an emotional and mental toll on the writer. True?
I like to think of things getting sucked back to the center after an explosion, you know, like a smaller implosion happens. These things oscillate as they settle down. But I fear this image is about as useful as the old chestnut about dropping a pebble into a pond and watching the ripples spread, i.e., not at all.
Writing any novel takes a toll on the writer. But you’re right in highlighting the emotional and mental aspects—this one almost killed me. It’s one thing to inhabit your characters when they’re experiencing standard human travails, but to fully get at what was going on with Phil Comte after he lost his vision—that was a whole other level. I spent a week blindfolded, day and night. I couldn’t practically do this with my family around—we have young kids, and I didn’t want to confuse them or step on them inadvertently. So I did this at a writers’ colony—which shall remain nameless. People were surprisingly cruel about it—“who is he to go so far in pursuit of his art” kind of stuff. But there was one very nice young writer who was quite supportive. I still don’t know what she looks like!
At the risk of a faux pas, let's talk film adaptation. I mean, being an LA guy yourself, I'm sure you already have a studio picked out. So what are you thinking: a big budget Michael Bay production, or an even bigger budget Joss Whedon sort of joint?
I wouldn’t call it a faux pas, but you’re right to feel reluctant to ask the question. Probably because I work in LA, shoulder-to-shoulder with a half-dozen screenwriters at any given time, I do my best to write fiction which is unfilmable.
But I wouldn’t kick Baz Luhrmann out of bed.
Who would, really?
We're nearly out of time, so I'll go with the theme of faux pas for my last question: What do you want the reader to take out of the book? How do you want your words to change them?
Wow, you’re hitting me with a doozy here at the end.
I suppose what I’m looking for with Sour Grapes and Roasting Almonds is to fuse laughter and pain in the reader’s mind. Not in a simplistic way, so that one laughs through tears or cries with laughter (though I’ll take those any day) but on a deeper level. I want readers to experience, as simultaneously as possible, the presence of another human’s heart and the sense that we are like funny little ants on an anthill in a void. The twin strands of romanticism and nihilism braided.
In more concrete terms, I would like the reader to feel that Phil Comte’s journey is their own journey, with glassblowing standing in for whatever they hold dear, artistically speaking.
Also the idea that success is destructive.
The idea of a little Phil Comte inside of all of us is poignant, blowing our organs out of glass, with twirly little orange and yellow braids. Thank you for your time and words Antoine, you've been marvelous.
Thank you, Andrew. It’s been refreshingly real.