Q: The main character in your story, Willow Tyvek, first says that one should never paint a house while also serving as its occupant’s therapist. But then she makes a complete turnaround, striking a deal with businessman Vernon DeCloud to do exactly that in exchange for $200,000 and an apartment in his divided mansion. What is the risk in combining house painting and behavioral therapy? What accounts for Willow’s decision?
A: It’s the narrator, by the way, who concludes the first section of the story by saying, “And under no circumstances did you render both services to the same client.” Yes, it’s the narrator speaking while residing inside Willow’s head, and thus speaking for her; but still there’s that crucial little bit of distance and difference. Anyway, the reason for what you call “a complete turnaround” is to have a story. Willow ends up doing the very thing that one does not do, and this is the main comic irony of the whole piece, the story’s ironic reversal. I realize I’m treading on dangerous ground here, talking about irony, because irony has a bad name these days (actually, it’s had a bad name for at least the last 20 years). Irony’s bad name is a symptom of the mortal blow we’ve managed to strike against literacy in general. Apparently, it is now understood to be synonymous with “sarcasm,” and therefore a cruel, dark, and insincere posture. I don’t agree with the equation. I remember trying, many years ago, to make this point to the late David Foster Wallace, who was railing against irony in a discussion session after a public reading he had given. (It was my only in-person encounter with DFW, who struck me as a perfectly decent, intellectually honest person, and whose writing, at its best, is brilliant.) Wallace was associating irony with David Letterman, as I recall. I said to him that to be ironic was not to be “sardonic,” for example. He agreed, and wondered if we needed a new word to capture a new shade of meaning particular to our moment in history. “Sardony,” he suggested. I let the point drop that evening, but in fact I don’t think we need a new word. I think we need to reclaim the proper meaning of the perfectly good word we already have—irony—which used to be considered not a literary failing but rather one of the hallmarks of serious literature. Shakespeare, for example, was a very ironic guy.
Q: There is something out of the ordinary about the relationship Willow has with Vernon DeCloud. The narrator likens his effect on her to that of a “witch or a warlock whose mind slapped onto your mind like a blood-sucking leech.” Though Willow is ostensibly his therapist, it is Vern who helps her to confront her fear of heights. Does this also have something to do with her ultimate decision to go back on her oath of never rendering both behavioral therapy and house painting services to the same client?
A: Yes, the answer is yes. I’d like to believe that all the elements of this story converge in the ironic reversal I mentioned above. Willow and Vern were destined to meet and blend their lives, and I am the inventor of their destiny. This is the third short story I’ve written (going back to the early 1990s) in which Vernon DeCloud appears, and in each case he is a strange man who meets other strange people with whom he has some strange connection. These facts recently led my 18-year-old daughter to conclude that I am Vernon DeCloud. I replied that she was correct, but I pointed out that I am also Willow Tyvek, which seemed to surprise her. I think it was Goethe who said that all of an author’s characters are actually the author, which suggests that fiction writers write fiction in order to meet themselves. That makes sense to me.
Q: Your story seems to take place in the present. Willow, for example, is an independent woman searching for her identity, making dramatic career changes (I have this idea that people of the past stuck with one career throughout life, whereas the people of today are all over the place), dealing with the evolution of painting supplies into cheaply made products, and the bother of cell phones and caller-ID. Did you make it a point to bring modernity into the story, or was it more out of instinct or habit?
A: If we’re looking for evidence that the story takes place in the present, the flashback set in a hardware warehouse-store resembling Home Depot is probably conclusive. “People of the past” is a pretty big category that presumably includes Buddha and Jesus, both of whom had major career changes. So I guess there’s no simple answer to that one. Anyway, to your question, I do think that setting short stories in the present moment is both an instinct and a habit of mine, and it’s interesting that you phrase it that way. I have written some fiction set in the future, but I’ve only contemplated writing fiction set in the past. If I thought I could do it, I’d probably write something about Jesus—the real Jesus, I mean—but it’s already been done by a brilliant writer named Jim Crace in a novel called Quarantine, which everyone should immediately go out and read.
Q: How exactly did you come up with the idea to write a story about a woman who is both a house painter and a behavioral therapist? Which career do you feel Willow identifies with more? What did you intend to suggest by ending the story with Vern’s comment, “Yes, but especially the money”?
A: I came up with the idea by meeting her, roughly 23 years ago. In real life she was a landscape designer, not a housepainter—a landscape designer known to have a genius for helping people suffering from intractable behavioral problems. Sometimes, when landscape design was slow, and if she felt like it, she would accept tough therapeutic assignments, just like Willow. When I met her, she was working as a bookkeeper, oddly enough, but that’s a good example of the way that fiction edits while life does not. Having Willow be a bookkeeper as well as a painter and a therapist would have been gratuitous and distracting, which art should never be and which life always is. I believe that Willow enjoys both of her occupations equally well but in different ways for different reasons. And yes, the last words of the story mean something (see final answer). Let me add that although it took me 23 years to get around to writing the story, at least I finally did it, which I believe Willow would applaud. And when you think about it, 23 years isn’t bad in the grand scheme of things.
Q: Did you research house painting for the piece? Have you personally compared the stability of wood and aluminum ladders? You are known as an optimist when it comes to technology. How do you feel about the advent of the Kindle and other e-reader devices? Are they changing literature, or perhaps even hurting it?
A: Yes, I did quite a bit of hands-on research for the story, though I did it when I was about 16 years old, working on construction sites alongside the very same old-world Italian painters with whom Willow later worked. (As I’ve said above: Willow Tyvek, c’est moi.) The old Italians told me all those things about wooden and aluminum ladders, the same things they told Willow decades later. Will I ever read a book on a Kindle? If Amazon ever designs a better Kindle, I might. Just yesterday, on the subway, I was reading Madame Bovary on my mobile phone, and that’s no joke. We don’t need electronic technology to help us damage literature and ourselves; we’re doing a fine job on our own with a much older instrument, about which Vern has the last word in the story.