Robert Freeman Wexler Interview | The Painting and the City

Robert Freeman Wexler’s latest novel is The Painting And The City, out from PS Publishing, and it was recently named one of the top 10 science fiction novels of 2009 by Booklist. He has also published a novella, In Springdale Town, (PS Publishing 2003 and reprinted in Best Short Novels 2004, SFBC, and in Modern Greats of Science Fiction, iBooks), a novel, Circus Of The Grand Design (Prime Books 2004), and a chapbook of short fiction, Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed (Spilt Milk Press/Electric Velocipede 2008). The following interview was conducted by Brendan Connell via Skype and e-mail during the month of June, 2010.

Robert Freeman Wexler

Brendan Connell: The Painting and the City takes place in New York. Obviously there are many novels that take place in this particular city, but what was your reason for choosing it as the setting?

Robert Freeman Wexler: I actually can’t remember ever thinking about it being set anywhere else. A notebook entry from when I first started thinking about the story puts it in a quasi Latin American setting, but that wasn’t something I considered seriously. The main reason has to do with an earlier story, The Green Wall, which appeared in Polyphony 5. In that story a man is working in an art gallery in New York. The current exhibit is a painter and a sculptor. Although The Green Wall is older, I started working on The Painting and the City before I found a publisher for the story, so I turned the sculptor from the story into Jacob Lerner, the sculptor/main character of The Painting and the City. I think the way it happened is that I was envisioning Lerner’s art and realized that the art I described in the story was Lerner’s, and then put Lerner’s name into the story. The gallery in The Green Wall is based on a gallery and gallery owner I knew when I lived in New York. Even with such a specific basis I didn’t have to set the novel there, but it felt natural.

Brendan Connell: Is there any specific artist Jacob Lerner is based on?

Robert Freeman Wexler: No. As an artist, he has bits of people I’ve known. As a character, he has bits of me. I knew a sculptor who lived in Manhattan and taught at Rutgers, which was a pretty long train ride—I figured Lerner could do that too. The art I described isn’t from anything that I’ve seen, and I tried not to be too specific in describing the art. I didn’t want to use words to recreate a visual object. I think that would have been confusing, and boring. My first description of what Lerner is working on: “a small bronze with the appearance of a distorted cage, burst open at the top from the inside” is specific because of the word cage, but anything more about how it looks depends on the reader. As an artist, Lerner knows it’s a cage. If it was a real sculpture by a real artist, and people were looking at it in a gallery, some might think cage, some might think something else. The way I visualized the art, and the way I described it, are both abstract enough to allow interpretation.

Brendan Connell: At the beginning of the book you mention that Lerner attended a Zionist summer camp in Texas. Is this from a real life experience?

Robert Freeman Wexler: It is. I went to something called Camp Young Judea. I don’t think my parents realized how Zionist it was—how religious and oriented toward moving to Israel, etc.  None of that interested me.  I liked camp, I liked hiking, playing softball.  I ignored the religion part.

Brendan Connell: That is interesting. Visual art is a bit of a no-no in Judaism, but Lerner turns out to be an artist. Any thoughts on this?

Robert Freeman Wexler: Art isn’t off-limits. I think whatever ban there is has more to do with adornment of synagogues. But I guess I’m not particularly interested in the subject. . .

Brendan Connell: Would you call The Painting and the City a Jewish novel, though?

Robert Freeman Wexler: I wouldn’t. I’m Jewish and the character is Jewish, and I was conscious about making the character Jewish, whereas usually I leave religion out completely. . . . Or rather my background is Jewish. I don’t like or care about religion or believe in God, but it’s impossible to ignore background.

Brendan Connell: Were you originally thinking of Lerner as a kind of homophone, or is that just coincidence?

Robert Freeman Wexler: Coincidence. Or coincidence with subconscious help. I think I must have had another name originally but I can’t remember. And I can’t remember why I picked the name Lerner. But I did realize that it had the other meaning and kept it.  I really don’t like when authors pound you with things like that.

Brendan Connell: I was impressed by the tone of the book. Many passages have a very lyric quality, while others have a succinct, almost journalistic feel to them. None of this is jarring in the least, but it does give the book a sense of almost competing voices, or voices drifting one into the next. I am curious how you achieved this or if it is something that just came about organically.

Robert Freeman Wexler: Thanks, I’m glad you like that. The tonal shifts come out organically, as focused free-writing, sometimes in the process of writing whatever passage I’m working on, sometimes in going back over it, sometimes in my head while I’m doing something else. Using the metaphor of driving a stick-shift: I’m going along through normal terrain, seeing what’s along the way, and then I switch into my reality-bending gear, which is out of phase with our normal reality and must be used sparingly. Too much of it would create a rift in the reader’s consciousness, allowing their subconscious to leak out into conscious space. Using just the correct amount allows me to give the reader a subconscious jolt from time to time, which increases their appreciation for the narrative.

Brendan Connell: Part of the novel is made up of the journal of Philip Schuyler, written in the mid-1800s. Schuyler is a Dutch artist who painted the painting the title of the book refers to. I noticed that at least part of these were previously published in Polyphony. Was it originally your intention to have it as part of the novel?

Robert Freeman Wexler: Yes. I hadn’t planned on having the journal when I started the novel but at some point it occurred to me to have it, and once I wrote the first journal entry I thought it could stand alone.

Brendan Connell: So the journal even as printed in Polyphony was intended for the novel?

Robert Freeman Wexler: Yes. I changed bits between Polyphony publication and novel publication, but it was basically the same thing.

Brendan Connell: You also do book design, which is itself an art form. What are some of the books you have designed and what is your particular aesthetic?

Robert Freeman Wexler: I started designing books in the 1990’s, when I worked for math/science/medical publisher Springer-Verlag. Those weren’t very exciting. And various free-lance jobs. More recently, I did interiors for Carol Emshwiller’s novel The Secret City (Tachyon), John Crowley’s non-fiction collection, In Other Words, (Subterranean), and way too many books to count for PS, including things by Stephen King, Lucius Shepard, Sebastíen Doubinsky, Joe Hill, Marly Youmans, Ian MacLeod, Paul Witcover, Jeff Ford. One of the fanciest things I’ve done was a limited edition of Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things collection, for Hill House, but they went under. I did the design but never had a chance to finish the layout. And I’ve done all of my own books except the chapbook collection. My aesthetic is I mostly keep it simple. I’ve read (and believe) that book design should be invisible. I’m not always sure what that means, but my interpretation is having an attractive, readable typeface, with some embellishments (ornaments, a more decorative chapter/story title/initial cap). I’ve applied some settings that modify word/letter spacing and hyphenation in Quark XPress. I’m attempting to create an environment that invites readers in and helps keep them there. . . . There are ugly things that have resulted from people using desktop publishing without either learning the software well enough or learning design. There are a lot of ugly small press books out there, and ugly large press books too. I believe that ugly layouts hamper the reading experience, and I hope that the kinds of things I do will improve the reading experience. Maybe it’s subconscious—I doubt that many people put a book down because of the design, but they might put a badly-designed book down that they would have read if it had been well-designed. That would be an interesting study.

Brendan Connell: Was the layout for the journal in The Painting and the City section your idea?

Robert Freeman Wexler: Yes. Everything in the book except for the Jason Van Hollander illustrations was mine, including the cover art. I made a purposeful contrast in fonts, using Perpetua for the text and Nicolas Cochin. Many, if not most, text fonts are based on designs of older fonts. Perpetua is supposed to be wholly modern (according to the note in the back of a book that used it, it’s “without any direct historical antecedents”). While the font Cochin dates from 1913, the font I chose (according to the information on the font foundry’s website “was based on engraved letters of the 17th Century artist Charles Nicolas Cochin [their version] kept the irregular details of the metal type which include strokes that cross over each other as if hand drawn.” I wanted the contrast between the contemporary sections and the journals to be complete, down to the fonts. I wish I had made the journal sections larger–keeping the drawings in proportion to the journal meant I couldn’t have them as large as I would have liked.

Brendan Connell: A lot of writers cite influences and other writers who inspire them. But who doesn’t inspire you? Which writer would you least like to emulate and why?

Robert Freeman Wexler: I’m picky about what I read. I don’t like sentences that don’t do the things that interest me.  I have trouble with vague description, things like “threadbare sofa” “torrential rain”; the tired pairings that we’ve seen too much of.  We all have mostly the same words to work with, but some people arrange them in an artful way and some don’t.  Also, I want to believe that the writer cares about the characters and isn’t just putting them in a diorama and moving them around while maintaining a smug distance. A recent book I really disliked was Cloud Atlas. It got lots of praise. But I thought it was an exercise in showing off how well the writer could write different styles and put them in one book. Who cares? (Lots of people, obviously, but will they still care as time goes by and they forget the hype?)

Brendan Connell: On that note, though, your own book does use different voices in it. It doesn’t appear like an exercise, but the old journal is written in a distinctly 18th century voice.

Robert Freeman Wexler: Well, obviously I’m not against different voices. . . . And the novel I’ve recently started is going to have sections that are different styles.  I have reasons for it that I think make it necessary.  And maybe Mitchell thought everything he did in Cloud Atlas was necessary.  But I felt cheated by his machinations.

Brendan Connell: What is the novel you are working on now about?

Robert Freeman Wexler: I was working on a new novella set in Springdale but stopped to write a story.  While away from it I started thinking about the novella as a novel. . . . I’m thinking about how much I want to say.  Don’t want to say too much till it’s farther along.

Brendan Connell: No problem.

Robert Freeman Wexler: I will say it’s set present-day (or maybe late 90’s) but it’s not quite the same as our present; I haven’t yet decided how to show that or whether I even need to show that. It’s about a guy who owns a record store and gets caught up in an adventure. I’m borrowing some bits from quest fantasy, from Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, and such. My character has to do something to save the world, but something happens (as things do) to make it harder. The first part is in first person, maybe a bit Chandler-esque. The second part is (will be) in third person, in 1950s-ish novel style (whatever that is. . . . I’m not sure yet but it’s important to the story). And the third part will be back to first person. It starts out in a U.S. in which things will maybe be better than they are now, goes into something worse, and ends up where we are now. Maybe.

Brendan Connell: Are you working off an outline?

Robert Freeman Wexler: No. I don’t use outlines. In this case, because I was writing it as a novella (and had about 10,000 words), I’m going back and looking at where it needs to expand to make it feel more like a novel. I have some things in my head that happen farther along and need to work toward them. Which is how I usually do things. In this, I know more about the story than I usually do, and I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that.

Brendan Connell: Why is that?

Robert Freeman Wexler: Because normally I don’t usually know so much until I’m farther along, I feel like I either won’t be able to pull off what I’m trying, or will feel too locked into what I’m thinking rather than moving along blindly.

Brendan Connell: So, you didn’t have any real outline for The Painting and the City either before you began writing it?

Robert Freeman Wexler: Nope.

Brendan Connell: For someone who has never read your work before, would you suggest beginning with The Painting and the City, or another book?

Robert Freeman Wexler: If it’s someone who reads short stories (or wants a cheap thrill), the chapbook collection Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed would be good. And it’s only $5. Otherwise The Painting and the City.  It has all my little tricks so now there’s nothing left but writing the same thing over and over.

Brendan Connell: The mood of the work seems similar, but the writing doesn’t really strike me as the same. Jeffrey Ford in his introduction to The Painting and the City said that it is your most accomplished fiction to date. I haven’t read everything you have written, but from what I have read, I tend to agree, at least in the sense of sheer prose. . . . I read a story of yours a few years back in The Journal of Experimental Fiction that I liked a lot. It is by far the most experimental thing of yours that I have read. Have you written anything else like that or do you have any desire to?

Robert Freeman Wexler: There was a story in Electric Velocipede that was similarly experimental. I haven’t felt like writing something experimental, but it depends on how something comes to me. The novel I’m working on/planning is experimental in having sections in different styles/persons, but the sections themselves wouldn’t appear experimental.  Unless they do. . . . Not locking myself down (as I said!). And I’d have to agree with Jeff Ford (and would be stupid to disagree) that The Painting and the City is my most accomplished. It felt like it was doing what it needed to do, both in process and in revision.

Brendan Connell: How long did it take you to write?

Robert Freeman Wexler: The first image (a man showing his friend his new painting) came to me in April 2001. I started writing in early 2002, probably February. I finished the first draft between 3 and 4 p.m., December 31, 2005. So four years. (Is that okay?  If I just say four and then we can delete the next bits?  Or do you prefer the spontaneity?)

Brendan Connell: So, three years?

Robert Freeman Wexler: Call it four, most of 2002, then 2003, 4, 5, although I didn’t work on it constantly.

Brendan Connell: How long did it take to sell it?

Robert Freeman Wexler: No time and too much time. I spent a year looking for an agent, got frustrated with rejection, and sent it to PS and heard back in a couple of days.

Brendan Connell: It was named one of the top 10 fantasy and science fiction books of 2009 by Booklist and is currently being translated into French. That must make you feel good.

Robert Freeman Wexler: It does. I’d still like it to be out in a trade paperback that people can find in stores and afford, but I’m happy with the reception it’s received.

Brendan Connell: Your books are categorized as fantasy. Do you agree with that? I mean, if someone at a party asks you what you write, what do you tell them?

Robert Freeman Wexler: That’s always a hard one. I always feel like I have to provide context. It’s fantasy because it’s not realism. But to someone at a party, fantasy could mean Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, or vampires. I’ve been asked to be on a Dayton, Ohio community access TV show to talk about science fiction. So I’m going to work on my explanations. . . . But even to someone who reads genre fiction I have to give context because my writing doesn’t tuck into a neat little genre chamber.

Brendan Connell: Thanks for the interview, Robert. Obviously I very much look forward to see anything you are going to produce in the future.

Robert Freeman Wexler: Thanks for doing this. It’s been fun.