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Monday, March 24, 2008

All Shall Be Well and All Shall Be Well, and All manner of Thing

Interview with Tod Wodicka

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The munificent title of Tod Wodicka’s debut novel, All Shall Be Well and All Shall Be Well, and All manner of Things Shall Be Well hints at the desperate optimism of it’s wretched protagonist: Burt Hecker, a mead-swilling, tunic-sporting 20th century idler stuck in a medieval past. From his home in Berlin, Germany, Wodicka talks about his new book.

How was the experience of writing your first novel?

It’s a very difficult question to answer…this particular novel took a long time to gestate and take the form it’s in now. If you can imagine spending three years with someone like Burt Hecker you can imagine what the process of writing this book was like!

Lots of mead drinking…?

Well actually I don’t drink mead but there was a lot of alcohol drinking involved!

What prompted you initially to write about this character and his uncommon predicament?

Originally I thought it was just a great idea for a satire. I was working primarily with black comedy, really satirical stuff… Ienvisioned a really dark book without the family elements which eventually consumed the book. I wanted to write about a medieval re-enactor …and basically rip apart 20th-century America through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong.

Though you live in Berlin it seems Prague fired your imagination more than Germany

I’d been stuck in Prague for five years, literally stuck. Couldn’t get out of the damned city. It’s funny because one of my mother’s friends had been to Prague and she read the book and she said ‘oh you capture it so beautifully.’ I hated Prague by the time I started writing the book…it’s an interesting city to visit but I was stuck there…so I think Prague is vivid in my memory. I did love Prague back in 2001, but it’s like when you’re married to someone: You love them but when you get divorced suddenly they’re the face of evil. It can be like that with a city; you kind out of fall out of love just as hard as you fall in love.

It’s interesting how your characters literally turn their back on the historic center and inhabit the periphery…

Well actually I was living there in the periphery…And it’s funny because now the historic center is a kind of disgusting, cheapo Disney world in a way and you have an area outside that’s more livable and historic in many ways. And then you have the area where most of the Czechs live which is in the panelaky—the communist housing blocks. And towards the end of my residence I only had enough money to live in that area of the city, which is pretty grim.

You give both your main character and his son Tristan very uncertain roots. They both seem displaced, and neither quite grows up. Was that a conscious decision?

Yes… I can identify with that quite a lot—kind of an American rootlessness. I grew up in upstate New York, in a suburban town in the middle of nowhere. Both of my parents came from more ethnic backgrounds, my mom was Italian, my dad’s Jewish, and they kind of started a new life away from the city. Where I grew up I felt a real disconnect, and no sense of history at all.

Do you feel this disconnection is something Americans feel more strongly? A yearning for a past?

That seems a particularly American thing. It’s the same way you’ll meet some guy who says ‘I’m Polish-going back five generations.’ The idea goes into the territory of what is an American. Everyone tries to form their own niche, to hold onto something, and people can get lost in that.

Sometimes to the point of getting pedantic..!

Yeah that’s the worst. They start saying I’m Scottish-American and start wearing a kilt. And ‘I’m a quarter this and a quarter that’…it is kind of grasping at straws. Everyone is drowning in the present I think. We’re all stuck in a weird present and I think it’s easier for most other cultures to easily trace where they’re from than Americans. Americans are quite nomadic...

Why did you choose to give Burt such a prominent nose?

The nose came from the painting [An Old man and his Son by Domenico Ghirlandaio]. When I saw the Ghirlandaio painting I knew that was my character, and that was his son.

Who in your novel do you feel has the healthiest relationship with the present?

I would say Burt’s wife Kitty, though what we know of Kitty is very tainted by Burt, and he’s quite an unreliable character. Kitty never comes into focus, she’s never allowed to. We see her through Burt and briefly through the children, so I would say she was for the most part a very stable presence and when she was gone everything swirled out of place.

When you chose that title, was it meant to evoke deluded optimism or do you want to leave readers with a sense of hope for Burt?

Yes. Just like the nose I was doing research for my method writing, reading things that I imagined Burt would read. And as soon as I read those words [a chant by medieval mystic Julian of Norwich] I instantly knew that would be the title of the book…I thought this is the title Burt would use. It evokes a desperate, repetitive optimism.

If you were to pick a different period in which to live what would you choose?

I’m quite interested in medieval times though I’m rational enough to know it’s not the best time to live of all the historical time periods. I’m also really interested in Roman history—it’s absolutely fascinating

What’s next? Are you working on another book?

Yes. It’ll be called Clowns at Night.

So what do Clowns do at night?

Well, have you heard of something called sleep paralysis or night terrors? It’s an extreme sleep disorder and I’ve had it since I was a kid and basically you wake up at night and your body is paralyzed and you feel the presence of something else there and it often feels like some kind of evil spirit…I’ve had it since I was a kid and always thought I was literally crazy; how do you tell someone about that? Then I read symptoms about it that other people had experienced and thought ‘holy shit! I’m not crazy.’ So it’s going to be about that and be kind of an existential horror/comedy…anyone who likes my first book will probably not like the next one…!

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