William Walsh is the author of Without Wax: A Documentary Novel. His fiction and derived texts have appeared in New York Tyrant, Caketrain, Juked, Rosebud, Quarterly West, Lit, Exquisite Corpse, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other journals, including Word Riot. Walsh’s new book, Questionstruck, is a collection of question-based texts (one each derived from the twenty-five books of Calvin Trillin) compiling all of Trillin’s interrogatives—the rhetorical, the political, and the poetic. Echoing Trillin’s food and travel books, his reports in The New Yorker, and his political verse, Questionstruck is an inventive and experimental text that begs to be defined. Before the interview, William Walsh agreed to restrict himself to answering all of my questions only with other questions.
Michael Kimball: How did you come up with the idea of only using questions?
William Walsh: Have you ever come across a book by a writer that is completely out of character with your concept of that writer? How do you approach reading a book like that? Would you be able to just read it like you would any of his or her other books?
MK: Wouldn’t you have to approach reading a book like that with a lot of questions, a kind of re-evaluation of everything you thought that writer to be?
WW: When I discovered a forty dollar first edition of Killings by Calvin Trillin at a used bookstore, I had to ask myself: Could Calvin Trillin have written such a book on murders, accidental deaths, and suicides? I’d been reading his work for years in The New Yorker, but had I read anything like these older field reports that appeared in The New Yorker back in the sixties and seventies? Why didn’t I buy the book? Is forty dollars just too much to pay for any book? But how lucky was I to find a paperback version of Killings for only a dollar about a year later at another used bookstore?
MK: What if Gertrude Stein wrote a book about weightlifting? What if Raymond Carver wrote a book about nutrition? What if Cormac McCarthy wrote a chick-lit novel?
WW: But again, how should I approach reading a book like this, which is so far afield from what I knew about Trillin’s typical subjects (family, and food, politics)? Should I make notes in the book every time the voice of the Trillin that I knew emerged in the text? Would I get lucky and find a connection to each of my notes—like, the sentences that sound like myCalvin Trillin were all interrogatives? And then shouldn’t I type up all those interrogatives and plan some derived text writing exercise? And shouldn’t I send the product of that exercise to Opium magazine to see what they thought of it? And after they sent me a note telling me that they would run the piece online, wouldn’t it be natural for me to decide—while I was at the library with my kids—that I should check out all of Trillin’s books and do the same exercise for each book? And wouldn’t I be surprised to learn that Trillin had published, at that time, twenty-five books?
MK: So in Questionstruck, it’s one piece per Trillin book, is that right?
WW: Could I have done more than one piece per Trillin book? Don’t you think one question-based derived text per Trillin book is enough? No? Are you noticing that I’m taking a very Trillin-like tone in this response? Don’t these sentences sound like Trillin during his curmudgeon phase (With All Disrespect and If You Can’t Say Something Nice)? As a side note, did Trillin’s era as a curmudgeon coincide with the time in the mid-eighties when Andy Rooney was popular?
MK: What if Andy Rooney and everything he ever thought or said never existed? Would we all be just a little bit happier than we are?
WW: Should I tell you that I also did this exercise for a number of Trillin’s uncollected magazine pieces, like his 1996 columns in Time magazine that covered the Presidential Primaries? Should I mention that those texts are not included in Questionstruck, but can be read at http://questionstruck.com under the link: Bonus Questions?
MK: Were there any other constraints that you imposed upon these pieces?
WW: Was it a constraint to type every question from every Calvin Trillin books only after my kids went to bed? Was it a constraint to type every question from every Calvin Trillin book as I sat on the sofa with a pillow under my laptop and a stapler holding the book open as I watched the Boston Red Sox every night one summer?
MK: What if Freud wrote a book about baseball?
WW: Would Freud say, sometimes a baseball bat is just a baseball bat? What do you think Freud would make of all the spitting in baseball, the use of chewing tobacco and all of the bubble gum? Are baseball players orally delayed inveterates?
MK: Are you working on any new work based on derived texts or constraints?
WW: Is it work? Isn’t it more of a compulsion, text deriving? Why did I have to track Joyce’s talismanic use of the potato in Ulysses? What kind of a person reduces Camus’ The Stranger to only those sentences containing the word mother? Why don’t I stop? Why did I excise FAQs from the Today Contraceptive Sponge website and pair them with dialogue from the “Bubblestand” episode of SpongeBob SquarePants to derive suggestive titles for the latest album from Beyonce? Was it irreligious to comb through the synoptic gospels of The New Testament for exclamatory sentences (Matthew! Mark! Luke! John!—all still unpublished, thank God)? But shouldn’t someone extract all sentences containing the word can’t from Chaucer ‘s Canterbury Tales? Why haven’t I done that yet?
About the author:
Michael Kimball’s first two novels are The Way the Family Got Away (2000) and How Much of Us There Was (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. His third novel, Dear Everybody, has just been published in the US, UK, and Canada (http://michael-kimball.com/). Time Out New Yorkcalls the writing “stunning.” The Los Angeles Times says the book was “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” He is also responsible for the collaborative art project–Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).