Bryce Emley talks to Good Men Project contributor Chris Wiewiora about his new book, Riding Solo.
Chris Wiewiora and I met while working for the same literary magazine in Orlando. Shortly after, we began exchanging poems we were working on, which later became exchanging essays. Then, we shared leads on where to publish our writing online for a larger audience. Chris found The Good Men Project and began submitting his nonfiction almost two years ago. I started sending to GMP, because of Chris. And now, several of Chris’ GMP pieces are being published in an e-book titled “Riding Solo,” which is available from Thought Catalog, where it is summarized as:
After a motorcycle crash, Chris ricochets into an interracial relationship with Kisha. In her dorm room and under an Obama HOPE poster Chris loses his virginity to Kisha. Unable to ride his motorcycle until he completes months of physical therapy, Chris replaces the excitement of riding with the craving for more and more sex, while Kisha still yearns for her ex-boyfriend—also named Chris. Chris-the-narrator considers a pornstar career, but instead posts to Craiglists’ casual sex encounters. When multiple women, couples, and even men respond, Chris must choose which danger is worth the risk to pursue.
For this interview, I didn’t “sit down with” Chris as much as I sat down in front of my computer as he simultaneously bounced on a yoga ball in front of his, but our conversation was no less enlightening as we discussed his new e-book’s explicitness, online publishing, and Chris’s “fucked-up” past self.
What do you think makes the e-book an appropriate format for “Riding Solo,” particularly on Thought Catalog?
First of all, Thought Catalog only publishes stuff online, and a lot of my writing, like everything for Good Men, that has been online has gotten a better audience, especially with my relationship writing or sex writing or whatever you want to call it.
As for an e-book, originally I would have thought, “No, e-book won’t work well.” (Laughs.) But the reasoning behind that was that somebody had to have an e-reader or something. Nowadays people can read anything on their phones, basically anywhere. More long-form-type writing is really well supported—at least in nonfiction—online like this, such as stuff on Byliner and Longform. Byliner has had good results with long essays.
Also Thought Catalog was really accepting of the crafting of “Riding Solo.” I’ve found that acceptance of content more in the online medium. I don’t have to put on an academic hat for my essays. Many times essays can be boring, or too self-aware, which can take away from the narrative. I know I don’t want to be reading an essay and wake up from the narrative dream by hearing it say, “Hey, you’re reading!”
So do you think there’s a definite separation between stuff that’s online versus in-print?
I guess I would precursor all this by saying this is my own experience. From sending “Riding Solo” out everywhere, I can definitely say that its length and explicitness got it rejected many times. I can say that typically online—not that it’s the Wild West—but typically it’s more exploratory, and I would say confessional and real. Maybe it’s the younger audience.
With print literary magazines, it’s not that they don’t want more memoir, but they might read my writing and think, Oh, that’s violent or sexually aggressive. On the other hand, I’ve even submitted my writing to online places where editors have rejected it because it was too explicit.
And one thing about explicitness, it’s not about just confessing, it’s not a gonzo experience without any reporting. It’s more about life lived and then revealed and investigated through writing, and there has to be some kind of meaning there, too. The writing is about being gritty about things. I remember it said best by an editor at a panel who said that when he gets a piece of writing, his job as an editor isn’t about smoothing the whole piece out. He said that sometimes there’s lots of rough parts and then a smooth part, and his job is to work on that smooth part that needs to be roughed up.
Most narrative essays revolve around this thing that happened and then the writer tells a narrative based on that, but you have a more overarching story and seem to take whatever specific memories you want and then tell the story. What effect does this pooling of memories to tell a broad story have on those memories themselves?
Typically, the nonfiction that I write is constructed more along the way that fiction is crafted. Not that it’s untrue, but that it focuses on the story. While the timeframe might seem to be a collage, it’s more that it was made with bookending: Here’s where I’m going to start, and here’s where I’m going to stop, and everything that’s going to fit into this is going to be in here. The distinction of where to start and where to stop is a little blurred.
So how do you decide what to include within those boundaries?
“Riding Solo” doesn’t start at the linear beginning. It starts with a crash. This essay doesn’t rise like that typical narrative arc. Rather, I think it’s like, just (imitates crash) Pwow! I think the essay’s ending maybe floats up a little bit, but overall it just dive-bombs, like kamikaze. This essay was about when I was maybe the most self-destructive… I can’t even imagine myself as that person now.
During one of the Craigslist encounters sections the speaker even says, “Here, I don’t have to be me,” and I think readers might be led to trust that the speaker’s identity is virtually the same as the writer’s. What do you think is the role of identity for the memoirist?
I don’t like to think of myself as a memoirist, because that’s really focused on memory. It’s more about mining my experience, or writing my experience into a narrative. The narrator is a character in the sense that it’s not entirely me. It’s a 2-D image. It’s not going to be 3-D, it doesn’t have my soul, it doesn’t have everything that is me. It’s a piece. There’s just so much that goes into a person.
With Craigslist, you don’t have to have an identity, you can make up a new self. It’s fucked-up, it’s really fucked-up… I don’t even know if I want this in the interview—I’ll tell you. This isn’t in there, but during the casual encounters, I lied. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. I didn’t want to be known, which is really weird because it’s like this most intimate of physical moments and you don’t want someone to know you besides that, which makes it very hollow. You can just lie, and it’s almost fun to think, I can act any way and say anything.
I don’t think it’s an identity issue at that point, it’s more like a mask. It’s saying this is only going to be about sex, and you can’t have anything else of me. It’s a mask to be able to say, “I’ve got some kind of protection,” even though you’re really vulnerable. That’s something I edited out of the essay because I didn’t know how to write that. Also it’s pretty fucked-up.
It’s in the interview now, at least.
Yeah, and there’s also another part I considered taking out. I wrote about a woman’s “nectarine ass.” As I wrote that I was super self-consciousness and thinking, This is so ridiculous. I thought about Steve Almond’s “How to Write Sex Scenes” article, in which he advises writers not to compare a woman’s anatomy to fruit, and I was just like, “No, it’s like a nectarine. It’s shaped like that, it’s juicy.” (Laughs.) I had to keep it in.
That’s interesting, too, going into what Steve Almond says. Is it necessary to avoid cliché if that’s just what it is?
Well, I believe you can break a rule if you know a rule. Like, I had a student in my public teaching lab who ended a commemorative speech about her grandmother on a cliché—“she turned toward the sun like a sunflower”—something awful. It felt so trite that it didn’t mean anything. Afterward she came up to me and said that that was her grandma’s favorite flower and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool, but I didn’t know that as I was listening to your speech.” In “Riding Solo” I climb over the cliché with the ass being like a nectarine. The narrator thinks about its shape and acknowledges it. On one hand, it could be a lame image, but it’s really accurate, and also it’s so lame that it works.
I think we’ll wrap with a question about “Doppelgänger,” the excerpt essay that recently appeared on The Good Men Project. It’s not a strictly chronological excerpt; it skips some narrative and leaves sections out completely. So how did you go about not just whittling it down, but reshaping it into a brief standalone essay?
In relationships, I was always—I guess—the second batter, like the rebound, but during the events of “Riding Solo” I wasn’t the rebound, but rather the replacement, which was really odd. The excerpt I think stands alone. It came around because Justin Cascio, Good Men Project’s Managing Editor, sent a calls for submissions on the prompt of “quitting.”
I self-contained the excerpt by thinking about Justin’s theme of “quitting.” I pulled a narrative thread out of the essay that could stand-alone. As I did shaped the excerpt I thought in terms of what could be enough to work.
It’s interesting, there’s three things that thread the essay together and all of them center around the theme of “quitting” really well: the romantic relationship, the Craigslist casual encounter, and the motorcycling all kind of overlap together into this trifecta: Three things going wrong. (Laughs.)
RIDING SOLO is now available on Amazon for preorder:
It is also available in the iTunes bookstore.
Photo: Alejandro Hernandez / flickr