Thom Conroy

Returned From the Future: Headland Interview with Bryan Walpert

Professor Bryan Walpert is a poet, fiction writer, essayist and literary scholar. He is the author of four collections of poetry, Etymology, A History of Glass, Native Bird and Brass Band to Follow; a novel, Entanglement, a finalist for the 2022 Ockham NZ Book Awards; a novella, Late Sonata; a collection of short stories, Ephraim's Eyes; and two scholarly books on literature: Resistance to Science in Contemporary American Poetry and Poetry and Mindfulness: Interruption to a Journey. He has been recognised with writing awards in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States.

A Senior Fellow in the Higher Education Academy (UK), Bryan has received a Massey University Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence and a national New Zealand Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award. He teaches creative writing at Massey University. His supervision interests include poetry writing, fiction writing and contemporary poetry and poetics.

Thom: Although I sometimes find it hard to fathom, we’ve known each other since we met during the interview panel for my current position back in 2004. As the only two American ex-pat creative writers posted to the Manawatū hinterland at a time when our discipline raised eyebrows on our vet-and-science-dominated campus, our friendship seemed almost preordained. In retrospect, I recognise that an animosity might also have blossomed from this beginning. Luckily for me, that never happened and I now count you among my closest friends. Despite this long history together—and this is my point at last—we’ve never communicated in this way and it’s a pleasure to meet here on the virtual pages of Headland.

Bryan: A real pleasure for me too, Thom. I remember when we met at that interview, I thought it seemed obvious we’d be friends if you took the job—I enjoyed meeting you right away. Working with you has been a highlight of my time at Massey. Your thoughts on fiction in our courses and our discussions have been very useful to me. So it’s great to be doing this and thanks for asking me to be involved.

Thom: It’s my pleasure, Bryan. Your latest publication, Entanglement (Mākaro Press, 2021), has a long backstory as well, as novels often do. I remember reading an early draft several years ago and enjoying it considerably. When we spoke at an event last year, I asked you to recount the unusual incident that gave rise to Entanglement. Since most readers are interested in knowing where stories come from, can I ask you to begin by describing that incident and talking about the origins of the novel? Specifically, I’m curious about how you came up with the fiercely original three-fold approach to POV?

Bryan: It was an odd incident. I was in the front yard of our home, then in the Manawatū. I suddenly had this strange feeling that I’d returned from the future. I was struck that my family was still young and that I was still young. I thought, “I still have time to do things right.” I don’t know why I felt that—I didn’t actually think I’d returned from the future, I should add. It was just a strange perspective that overtook me for a few minutes, then faded. But it did spark my decision to write a time-travel novel of some sort.

As for the three-fold approach: I wish I could remember when I made that decision and what exactly I was thinking. I don’t plan things out when I write fiction. I have an idea and a character and just take it from there. So it just evolved. I think that gradually, I simply realised that I needed to tell different parts of the story in different ways. And since I was accustomed to writing poetry and to some extent short stories, this also gave me the opportunity to focus on shorter blocks. So partly it was a practical strategy that allowed me to write the book.

I split the sections into three different Word files and when I ran into a wall on one, I’d shift to the other, and I just had to have faith that it would come together when I wove them into a single document. But writing any novel is an act of faith, isn’t it? It’s a long, arduous process that you can only hope will work out in the end. At any rate, as it evolved, it became clearer to me that the three-fold structure was another way to perform the engagement with time that is partly the subject of the book.

Thom: Can I ask you a related spoiler question? Do you see that final section of the novel, Baltimore 2012 as a kind of retelling of the incident that gave rise to Entanglement? I have to ask because if this theory is correct, then—in a classic time travel move—the ending of the novel is, in fact, its origin. Do I have this right?

Bryan: Yes, that’s right. It did present itself as a possible ending. When I started the novel, it was the only thing I thought might be in the book. I had no other vision about how the book would go, who the protagonist was, what the conflicts were, etc. I wasn’t writing toward that ending exactly but it felt like a possibility. After I wrote the ending, I actually removed it for a while, then brought it back.

Thom: Entanglement is a very smart novel. In addition to the three points of view with distinct timelines—which is an amazing structural innovation—what I enjoy about this book is the way you approach dialogue, especially in the journal entries (which are told backwards, of course!). The dialogue is often a playful, fast-paced repartee. Even with traditional dialogue tags (she said, he said) and quotation marks, it might be hard to keep track of who’s talking, but you raise the stakes and omit all dialogue tags, quotation marks and line breaks. Here’s a quick sample:

I finished it today. Finished what. Your book. You read my book. Yes, Shadow Seasons. I see. You sound like you disapprove, I mean it was meant for public consumption, right, not to sit on a shelf. Yes, of course, I just didn’t know you were planning to read it. Yes, it just took me a while to get to it. You mean to find it. That too. I am afraid to ask for your thoughts. Then don’t. What are your thoughts. It explains a lot.

This same approach to dialogue is used throughout the journal entries but no matter how fast-paced the thrust and counter-thrust is, I never have any trouble knowing who’s speaking. This is an amazing accomplishment. Do you think that writers can cheat a bit when it comes to dialogue? That is, do you see authors treating dialogue as a kind of “free space” where they can just focus on something approximating real speech and forget the craft?

Bryan: Thanks! I hadn’t thought of it that way—I mean about authors treating it as free space. In some ways, I wanted the dialogue to be as unobtrusive as possible, which is why I didn’t use quotation marks, though I suppose drawing attention to the dialogue in the block format you mentioned actually makes the crafting of dialogue more opaque—that is, draws more attention to it. But I wanted in those few instances to provide a sense of this as a kind of memory, as the way the narrator of that section thought of it—it’s his take on that scene, rather than a scene presented omnisciently. Actually, I feel the most self-conscious when I write dialogue. My general strategy is to use dialogue only when it is absolutely necessary. I know some writers really embrace dialogue and I enjoy it when I see it done really well.

Thom: We both know that one of the areas in which writers of all skill levels struggle is plot. It sounds straightforward, but the “what happens next” aspect of a story can really be difficult to get right. In a wonderfully cantankerous essay, Writing Short Stories, American author Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Everybody thinks he knows what a story is. But if you ask a beginning writer to write a story, you’re liable to get almost anything—a reminiscence, an episode, an opinion, an anecdote, anything under the sun but a story.” She goes on to define a story thus: “A story is a complete dramatic action.” In Entanglement, you’re definitely playing with plot and the whole idea of “a complete dramatic action.” You do this in a number of ways.

Firstly, the journal section doesn’t tell us what happens next because it’s told in reverse—all this section will reveal, then, is what has already occurred. The Lake Lyndon Writers’ Retreat section doesn’t tell any single consecutive story but recounts a series of writing exercises that narrate episodes from the protagonist’s life at least partially out of chronological order.

Finally, the Time Traveller section, though told in strict chronological order, is (or seems to be) set in the past of the other two stories. Any notion of plot grounded in conventional time then, suggests that this storyline cannot reveal what happens next, as technically speaking, we already know what happens next. How, within these spiralling contortions of time, is plot even possible? Is it? Is Entanglement asking us to reconsider how story works?

Bryan: Plot is hard for some of us. That’s certainly true for me and I don’t create outlines. Things have to arise as I go, so what happens in a story, how things are linked causally, gradually develops. But I do think there is a plot to Entanglement—it’s just not presented in a linear fashion. It’s the difference that you teach in our first-year creative writing course, Thom, between plot and structure.

Structure is the order in which information is released; plot is, in this case, the information. There is a causal relationship of events in the journal/Sydney section—it’s just that we get it in reverse. There are causal relationships between events in the Lake Lyndon section; they’re just not chronologically released. I’d like to think this structure, the release of plot, isn’t arbitrary in Entanglement—that part of the tension involves the gradual release of information and that the non-linear nature of the Lake Lyndon section reflects the writer’s struggle to come to grips with what has happened. But I hope, too, that it plays with the idea, as described in the novel, of “block time”, which suggests that past, present and future all exist spatially.

The idea of block time is that the past doesn’t give way to the future, rather it’s more like geography. Just as New Zealand, France and China all exist spatially—one doesn’t vanish just because you’re not there—so do past, present and future. So the structure plays with that a bit, too. The risk is unnecessary withholding (something I know you counsel against). I can only hope the strategy avoided that.

Incidentally, someone recently asked how I created the journal/Sydney section backwards. The answer is, alas, disappointing: It was originally forwards. It was actually when I was printing out a draft for you to read, Thom, that I realised it would be much more interesting to go in reverse, that the interest of that section was not how it ended (with Anise’s pregnancy) as that would be obvious. So I stopped printing, rearranged the section, then re-printed it for you. In a way, I was taking a lesson from you, Thom. You often suggest to students that they take the big thing they are moving towards and provide that piece of information first. So this was, in a sense, a version of that strategy.

Thom: The process you used to discover the plot of Entanglement is fascinating. I’m also shocked to hear that my adage about putting the big stuff up front was useful to you! In one of the Lake Lyndon Writers’ Retreat sections near the halfway point of the novel, one of the prompts that the narrator responds to is this one: “Write a scene about an important place, describing it from an emotional distance as manifested in a bird’s eye view.” The episode that follows narrates the tragic scene from the perspective of a hawk, in which a neighbour discovers the protagonist’s seven-year-old daughter’s body lying lifeless in the snow. The body is never clearly identified as his daughter’s and yet the context makes this clear.

Another writing prompt much later in the novel says, “Write a set of step-by-step instructions for completing an impossible task.” The episode that follows narrates the protagonist’s repainting of his dead daughter’s room. The scene is affecting for how starkly unemotional and detached it is. In my reading, in these scenes and others, you have gone to remarkable lengths to avoid sentimentality. As we’re both aware, sentimentality is a common feature in much student writing. Can you give us your definition for the term and talk a bit about the risks?

Bryan: Yes, I think you’re right. Sentimentality most broadly, as I think of it, is the expression of unearned emotion—that is, an excess of emotion or sentiment given the context. I think in fiction, though, it can also be an excessive expression of emotion, even if the emotion or sentiment itself is earned by the situation. That is, a passage risks sentimentality if the writing gilds the lily in its tone, figurative language, adjectives, etc., if those things aren’t necessary. The sections you mention are heavily freighted with emotion, so in part, I wanted to avoid adding anything unnecessary to them.

But more than avoidance, there is a positive element to this strategy in that I find distance can often accentuate the emotion, rather than inhibit it, just as an excessive expression of emotion can over-egg it and reduce the impact. It’s a fine line, of course, and people will draw it differently. I worry a lot about sentimentality, so it’s interesting to me that you perceived it.

Thom: This is a Grade A spoiler, as well a wickedly impertinent question that no one should ever ask! If it helps, I’m asking as someone who deeply enjoyed Entanglement. Here goes: What happened? Did the time traveller actually go back in time or is he just in a fugue state? Does he, in fact, alter his timeline or create a new one? Is Daniel saved? Does Ella live? I need to know!

Bryan: Ha! I’ve been asked this question before and I’ve always declined to answer it. I realise this could sound like a cop-out but I really did want the book to be able to be read differently by different people. There aren’t endless reasonable interpretations of what happened—just a few (as I see it). And I’ve had people provide me with opposite readings of the book with equal confidence. Do I have an opinion? Yes. But to give that opinion would, I think, detract in this particular case from the reading experience, which asks the reader to make a decision. How did you read it?

Thom: How did I read it? I didn’t feel as if I had sufficient information to make a definite call. Having said this, I wondered if you were offering us a small clue about a specific outcome. In one of the Lake Lyndon writing exercises near the end of the novel, a young Paul emerges on the ice of the lake where Daniel was assaulted and he notices that someone else is present on that fateful day as well.

“In the distance, an expanse to the further shore, a man is on the surface, too, in his shoes, not in his skates.”

I thought it was possible to read this man as the older version of Paul having successfully returned to his past. This idea is supported by the emergence of a second man on the ice, also not in skates, who may be Dr Wallace in pursuit of adult Paul. Do you want to comment on my guess or are you committed to remaining neutral?

Bryan: Interesting! That’s certainly one legitimate way to think about it, though not the only one. I’ll resist temptation and leave it there, as I’d prefer for readers to come to their own conclusions!

Thom: As creative writing teachers, we have the opportunity to read so much new work from so many up-and-coming writers. I think you’ll agree that it’s a profound privilege. I know this is an impossible question but what do you think is most important for new writers? Thinking as a teacher, what advice or skill or attitude or conception is most significant to start a creative writer on their journey? 

Bryan: It is a privilege. If I had to choose one thing, it would be the importance of discovery. Sometimes students have very clear intentions when they start a piece. Sometimes those intentions involve messages they want to deliver but at other times, those intentions are more subtle, e.g. a determination to use a certain structure. My best advice is to let that go, to discover what a story is about and how what it is about might help to shape the way it is delivered. I think it leads to more interesting work and is a lot more fun for the writer as a process.

Of course, it can be more time-consuming, as it means you go down some blind alleys, write what turn out to be red herrings, and have to deal later with inconsistencies that cropped up along the way as you changed direction. But I would suggest to students that when a story is a journey for the writer, it makes for a more interesting one for the reader.

Thom: I need to conclude with a time-travelling question, of course. I mentioned in the opening of this interview that we’ve known one another since 2004. Nearly 20 years have passed since we began teaching creative writing in Aotearoa. Quite a bit changes in 20 years but what are some of the really key changes that you’ve observed in creative writing during this period? If 2004 Bryan were to suddenly awake and find himself in 2023, what would strike him most about the state of contemporary writing, about his students, about the literary scene overall? Upon being introduced to the brave new world of his own future, how would 2004 Bryan respond?

Bryan: Writing in Aotearoa seems to me even more interesting and diverse than it was 20 years ago—authors, subjects, literary approaches. And there are so many more opportunities for writers to learn as there are more university courses out there, from undergraduate through to doctoral. I think all of that makes for an interesting, thriving literary scene. I think 2004 Bryan would be grateful to see himself within it.

Thom Conroy

Thom Conroy is the author of The Salted Air and The Naturalist (Penguin Random-House) and the editor of the essay collection Home (Massey University Press). His short fiction, widely published in New Zealand and the US, has been recognised by Best American Short Stories and received other awards, including the Katherine Ann Porter Prize in Fiction. He is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University and the Editor-in-Chief of Headland.