The Coping with Sanity Interview: Frank Wheeler

Like all of the important people in my life, I met Frank Wheeler through the internet. I was looking for a roommate for Bouchercon and his agent set us up. It didn’t take long for me to realize Frank and I were going to have more in common than just writing and crime fiction. We had some cool talks in the room and over lunches at a dive bar by the stadium. We talked the devil topics of religion and politics and literary fiction. Now it’s time for me to exploit all of the good will of that trip to get readers over here. I keep telling Frank this will help him sell more copies of his great new book The Wowzer but between you and me I think it’ll probably be the bullet that whacks his career before it even starts. Enjoy

You’ve got this new book out, THE WOWZER, which reads like it was written by Raymond Chandler after a trip down the river from DELIVERENCE and a beating from the sheriff in THE KILLER INSIDE ME. Where the hell did this come from? What’s with the weird language?

Where’d the book come from? I guess from a short story I wrote for an English class. And from the stories my great uncles told me. And from long walks in the woods in Oklahoma. And from climbing down into a mosquito-filled cave in Arkansas. And from looking in the mirror at the monster that lives in me, and, I’d argue, in everyone.

The language is my attempt at capturing an older, near-obsolete version of a rare dialect. Jerry’s language might be described as an antiquated Southern American Vernacular with a heavy peppering of Ozark idioms. And many of those idioms in Jerry’s lexicon are not currently in use in the region. But then, he was raised by his 90-year-old grandmother in relative isolation. Finding the voice was what made the story happen.  That’s what made Jerry seem real to me.

So we can agree you’re kind of a savant in the rural crime whackadoodle genre. I love it. Is there a field you’re still itching to try? Anything you have no desire to write? Did I hear something about you loving Don Dellilo’s COSMOPOLIS?  

Rural crime whackadoodle. I think I’ll use that. There’s some element of the supernatural in the book, or at least a “perceived” element. I’ve thought about possibly venturing more in that direction in a future book.  No vampires, though.

What don’t I want to write?  Social criticism.  I don’t subscribe to the theory that a good book must be socially relevant and engaged.  A good book is a good book.  So there.

As far as Cosmopolis goes, I liked it so much, I wrote a paper on it in college.  It was more of a book review than an academic paper, but I got a decent grade.  And who wouldn’t love a story about a billionaire who loses his fortune all in one day while he’s stuck in traffic?  I liked how Dellilo showed the isolation that kind of wealth can effect in a person.  And how that, in turn, can make someone lose all sense of direction.

 Tell me more about your social media habits. Why is it important in these days of tweets and privacy-whoring billionaires to have a presence out there?

I’ve got a website. I’m also on Twitter and Facebook. I try to keep up with things, but my social networking is sporadic. Probably, I should pay more attention to what’s going on, but my schedule doesn’t allow me to be constantly present. Also, I just don’t have the patience for a lot of it.

 I mentioned before your stuff has a distinct rural bent, were you born in the sticks or move there later? Have you ever dabbled in moonshining or banjo playing? 

Memphis is hardly the sticks, but I like to say I was born on the banks of the Mississippi. Though, usually, my family lived in small towns. In Portales, New Mexico, we lived right on the edge of town. We were wary of the coyotes that came into town at night tipping over trashcans, looking for scraps. That’s the closest I’ve come to living in the country.

My uncles are another story. We visited my great uncle on his farm in Oklahoma. He used to raise cattle, retired now, but he still lives there on the land.  We’d go back in the woods and fish in the pond, shoot cans in the deep, dry creekbed, or just hike a ways through the trees to the ruins of an old log cabin.

I remember when my wife first went with me to visit him, I asked if she had jeans to pack for the farm. The born and raised Milwaukee city girl looked at me and asked, “Um, there’s a farm?”

Sorry, no banjos or moonshine. But I did enjoy shooting turtles in my uncle’s pond.

 According to most published reports you have a wife. How? What’s being married meant to you as a writer?

Early in our marriage, my wife made a sign and stuck it on the back of my chair.  It said, “Approach with Caution; Writer at Work.” I have to get into some pretty dark places in my brain to write the stuff I do.  I can’t always snap out of it right away.  But the key is that I do come back.  She’s the reason I do that.

For a writing class, I decided to mine an extremely painful experience from some years before, something I’d tried to forget, as the raw material for a poem.   I found out that some things are better left buried.  Or at least, you shouldn’t try to dig them up on your own.  When the constant focus on this pain began manifesting as depression and detachment in my everyday life, the teacher told me, “You can’t live there.”  I took that to mean that you have to come back to your own real world, somehow.  You can’t creep through the dark hallways of your imagination forever.  You need an anchor.

My wife helps me achieve a balance in my life.  One the one hand, she’s my motivation to push harder and to be successful.  On the other hand, she is the anchor to my real life.  She pulls me out of that bottomless pit to remind me to change the cat litter.  And I am so grateful for that.

Finally, tell me one thing you’ve never told any other interviewer.

I mentioned to an interviewer a while back that I’m big on outlining. Can’t write a book or story without one.  But I didn’t say where I learned to do it.

I used to run role-playing games in high school and college.  This was before everyone had computers, so it was the old-school style with pencil, paper, and dice.  That’s where I started outlining.  Planning it all out, but leaving plenty of room for the unexpected.