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tod wodicka interview transcript
Collective: Firstly, tell us a little about yourself…
Tod Wodicka: I'm 31 years old.
Collective: How/when did you start writing?
Tod Wodicka: I've been writing since I was a small boy. My mother has saved much of my early work - there's a really telling one I did when I was five or six called Mr Squiggles. It follows a squiggly line through all sorts of adventures and permutations, as he reacts against his environment of the blank page, makes a friend, loses a friend, eventually falling in a hole.
Collective: Which writers influenced your work?
Tod Wodicka: Hard to say. Recently, some people have said the novel reminds them a little of Pale Fire by Nabokov, which is something I hadn't thought of at all but makes some sense. Not that I'm implying at all that my novel is in the same category, I should say, but Pale Fire is one of my favourite books. I do love the idea of a narrator whose language becomes a part of the story itself, a character created as much by his voice as by the plot he inhabits. My favourite writers are Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Pynchon, F Scott Fitzgerald, WG Sebald... and they've been hugely influential on the way I perceive fiction, though I doubt you'd be able to tell from my own work.
Collective: Is this actually your first novel, or are there lots of not-so-good, or half-finished ones lurking in a cupboard somewhere?
Tod Wodicka: For my own well-being, I make sure to keep a clean slate behind me: all previous failures, of which there were many, have been recycled and are now hopefully serving some other aspirant writer making the same mistakes. That said, this is the first novel that I've actually finished. The other ones were all grotesqueries in both length and subject - none would have been less than 1000 pages if I'd have actually finished them. But my years and years of failures were important: I really believe that this is the best way to learn your craft. I'm still learning.
Collective: How did you come to write All Shall Be Well...?
Tod Wodicka: I actually started the week or so after my now ex-wife kicked me out of our flat in Prague! I'd been researching for over a year before that though: sort of like method writing, trying to get into Burt Hecker's head. I read dozens of medieval history books, drank a lot, listened to medieval music, specifically a lot of plain chant, and even went up to the Abbey St Hildegard in the Rhineland, where the novel begins. I walked around for a few weeks drinking too much wine and taking notes, many notes, seeing things as if I were Burt Hecker. (I don't actually like mead too much, believe it or not.) In the end, before I started the novel, I had thousands and thousands of pages of notes. The book would have been 2000 pages, easily, if I had done all I'd originally planned.
Anyway, this idea for the medieval re-enactor: this came about because, on one hand, I am very interested in medieval history and on the other hand I thought it would make incredible satire. Back when I was first thinking about the book, I saw myself as a satirist, and I thought a novel looking at the modern world through the eyes of a medieval re-enactor would be great chance for a satire. It was to be a more angry and more absurd, goofy book: the modern world ripped apart while showing this poor loony guy and his friends in tunics. Of course, this changed greatly. Importantly, I realized I wasn't a satirist and, moreover, I grew to greatly respect the concept of medieval re-enactment and many of the people that make it their lives. I started seriously thinking about the concept of history, culture, and identity and how different people create and cope with this. And suddenly Burt Hecker had a family, and things sort of took over from there.
Taking it back a little further, music was a major motivation for the novel. I'm a music obsessive, and can only write with loud psychedelic music playing (my private definition of psychedelic being anything ranging from Fushitsusha to some of Bach's choral works), and I was initially blown away by the music of Hildegard von Bingen, which became a sort of obsession with me for a while. Seeing Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie-O Motherf**ker live also had a great effect on certain aspects of the book, namely the band of Burt's son, Tristan.
Collective: Did you research medieval re-enactment societies in any particular way for the book? If so, did you discover anything interesting or surprising? Are there any differences between North American and European re-enactors, considering that America didn't have a cultural 'Middle Ages'?
Tod Wodicka: I did remote research as far as the re-enactment stuff. I read a lot online, basically. Checked out their chatrooms, some of their periodicals, magazines, etc. I've since been told by people who are close to medieval re-enactors that I did a very good job of representing them, which is a tremendous compliment and something I was worried about, never having seen an actual re-enactment! That said, I don't know of any differences between the US and European communities. I may be wrong, but I would guess that the Europeans would be more pedantic and possibly more site-specific: perhaps exploring their own history, possibly the history of their own town, culture, country, in the same way that US Civil War re-enactments are so exacting about everything: they don't f**k around and have a far greater respect for the time and place they're recreating, they really are exploring history in another way. They take on the personas of people who actually lived; they recreate battles, costumes, everything down to the smallest detail. I find this fascinating and true – I have a great respect for this and believe that many of these people are different types of historians, that they understand history when they're retracing these old patterns, feeling it more than one would simply opening a book. Possibly the European re-enactors do more of this, simply because they're closer to the source. In the US, at any given re-enactment there are folks with personas from all across Europe, from many different time periods.
Collective: What did you think of the various countries of Europe the first time you visited, and subsequently? Do you share Burt's view of Germany?
Tod Wodicka: Burt and I have very similar thoughts on Germany, I must say. (My new home of Berlin excluded – but Berlin isn't quite Germany the same way NYC isn't quite Alabama.) At one point I was in love with Prague, I lived there for five years – some things in the novel might be read as my Dear John letter to that particular city.
Collective: What could the medieval period teach us about life?
Tod Wodicka: I think it would be absurd for anyone to honestly wish to live in the medieval period as it was – unless you were some sort of Lord or Lady. That might be wonderful fun for a while. The stag hunts, sexual escapades, the feasts. But it's too easy to romanticize this, the less-cluttered connection to the earth and 'reality'; like people today seeing African villagers or so-called 'indigenous people' as being more 'real' somehow, more in tune to some sort of nebulous truth. I'm not so sure. The Central Europeans, bless them, love doing their African dances, pounding away on bongos in the park with their colourful costumes, etc. It's kind of creepy. Every historical period suffers from its own unique madness.
Collective: Which time period would you secretly most like to re-enact?
Tod Wodicka: I think I wouldn't mind being a monk for a while, high up in some remote monastery. Brewing beer, drinking beer, preparing illuminated texts, chanting and so forth. Mostly hanging out in the cold, stark gothic architecture with beer. The beer's important. I'm not a specifically religious person but I'd love to learn how to pray.
Collective: How does Burt's relationship to the past compare with that of Anna, his mother-in-law? Which, if either, is a healthier one?
Tod Wodicka: That's a good question, and one of the foundations of the book for me. I wouldn't say that either is more or less healthy. They're both fundamentally damaged, stubborn, and lost individuals. Perhaps it was a reaction from living in Europe for so long, with that smug, patently ridiculous assertion that European history is 'more real', for example, than the history of someone who might come from North America or Australia or something - I felt it was necessary to show in what ways culture itself is a re-enactment, to take that to an extreme in the form of Anna Bibko. It's a scary thing, thinking about temporality and life lived perpetually in the present-moment – and history is a comforting, necessary thing. But it's problematic when our relationship with it obscures the 'now' buzzing all around us.
Collective: Is Burt's relationship to the past more than just trying to escape from the present/immediate past?
Tod Wodicka: Yes, this might sound funny, but I actually think there's also a latent spiritual, almost religious aspect to it. That impulse to subsume his ego or thinking self in something greater, something beyond. He wants to be back there with the nuns, ultimately, he wants to turn everything off and give himself to some definition of god. But in the same way that he's too romantic to ever be a 'real' historian, I think that he's too focused on that history to let go and have any kind of religious faith. (This is something that Burt and I share.)
Collective: Was it difficult to get the tone of Burt's speech right, with the right balance of his 'medieval' speak and the fact that he can't help being OOP [out of period] in his speech most of the time?
Tod Wodicka: Very hard, at first. It was a constant balancing act – he has to be pretentious but endearing, an asshole but an asshole-with-a-heart-of-gold. In the first drafts of the novel many people complained that Burt was extremely irritating and unlikeable. Now, OK, sure, he's supposed to be somewhat irritating and even a little unlikeable, especially at first, but I really like Burt and didn't want people hating him! That was a failure on my part. So I had to tone down some of his language and some of his more extreme views. I had to make him more OOP. By the end writing in Burt's voice was second nature, almost irritatingly so. He sort of took over my brain. It's been four years now and it'll be very nice to finally not write as someone totally OOP.
Collective: How much of yourself is there in Burt? His family's B&B The Mansion Inn is mentioned in your author biog. What other real-life details fed into the story?
Tod Wodicka: Myself and my then-wife, Jana, actually ran The Mansion Inn (www.themansionsaratoga.com) which is a 100% real place, even the first owner, George West, inventor of the paper bag! It's all true. My father bought it in 2002 and in 2003 we flew in from Prague to run it for a year. We had no idea what we were doing. Then my father bought some llamas, sheep, ponies, horses – we had the space and the barn for them, being his reasoning, I think. God knows. It was kind of a fiasco and our marriage didn't last too much longer after that either. My sister runs it now and it's doing wonderfully.
There's a lot of me in Burt, I fear. I'm not a medieval re-enactor, but we're both impractical, obsessive, tend to drink a little too much… and love music. Neither of us feels too at home in our own skin. But I don't think this is so uncommon these days.
Collective: Do you consider yourself to have a pessimistic view of families? Do you feel that real life has a similar tragicomic vein to events in the book?
Tod Wodicka: Real life is always more tragic, except, sometimes, in hindsight. Seeing the absurdity in most all things has been a coping mechanism I've always used: kind of an unhealthy addiction, laughing in the face of the inexplicable, etc. One which I'm trying to move away from. Do I have a pessimistic view of families? I don't know. Families, governments, weather: these are things you can have opinions about but it's not going to matter much in the end. I guess I'm pessimistic in the sense that I think that you can't really change them, or yourself. Things are what they are. I do find families scary, though, the collection of intimate strangers, and this might account for why I live an ocean apart from my own. I love them all dearly, but don't feel entirely myself when around them.
Collective: Did the Domenico Ghirlandaio painting [featured on the book's cover] provide you with inspiration before the book came together? It's certainly a painting that seems to be begging to have a story told about it…
Tod Wodicka: Yes, absolutely! When I was researching the novel I saw the painting in a book and promptly ripped it out and put it in my wallet. It's still there. That's Burt Hecker: I knew it from the moment I saw it. I also knew that was the cover of my novel, even then, before I'd written one single word.
Collective: Whose idea was it to give Burt a MySpace? Are you amused at the thought of self-obsessed teens stumbling across it? Are you enjoying "re-enacting" his interests for the internet?
Tod Wodicka: I was asked by my publicist if I wouldn't mind setting up a Tod Wodicka MySpace or blogging. To be honest, I didn't like the idea. I think, like Burt, I'm a little old-fashioned when it comes to these things. But then I thought how much fun it might be to set up an account for Burt, and I just went with that. I think it's maybe OK publicity for the book, and it's also great for Burt Hecker to make friends with Wolf Eyes and Tolstoy and random dead Beach Boys! I was thinking about blogging as Burt, roughly ten years on from the last events of the novel, but I'm a bit sick of him now to be honest and I don't think I will. It was fun at first but now, well, I don't know – it's kind of boring now and takes up too much time. And there's still something in the back of my head that tells me the whole thing is sort of undignified, for me and for Burt! But see: we're old fashioned.
There has been, of course, lots of confusion as to who Burt is. Lots of people don't bother to read the site and think he's for real, lots of medieval re-enactors that Burt's made friends with. But this can happen anywhere. There was just a review of my novel in the Irish Times which confuses ME with Burt. This being my favourite line from that:
'Old Tod is bonkers for sure and a self-absorbed nincompoop, but he is also a grieving widower, sensitive, intelligent and sufficiently likeable to sustain the interest of all but the most hard-hearted of readers.'
I don't know whether to laugh or cry – if not for the 'widower' line, the reviewer could be describing me, I suppose!
Collective: Tell us about your next book…
Tod Wodicka: The Household Spirit. It's about sleep paralysis, gay fathers, the paranormal, failed indie/experimental musicians, sex … and DMT, one of the most powerful psychedelics known to man.
Collective: Last question [one which everyone is asked for the site] – please recommend something 'cultural' (ie music, book, art etc) that you have recently enjoyed.
Tod Wodicka: The music of Richard Youngs. If only because not enough people seem to know of him. I think he's been slowly, almost secretly, building up one of the most impressive, varied, idiosyncratic and jaw-droppingly beautiful bodies of work in English 'song'. I'm a huge fan of most anything he's been associated with. Right now I'm listening to his work with Alex Neilson: 'Road Is Open Life' and 'Partick Rain Dance'.
Also: I should say that the final nine episodes of The Sopranos have almost completely taken over my life this last month; a fantastic and fitting end to possibly the best American story of the last decade.
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All Shall Be Well… by Tod Wodicka, out now published by Jonathan Cape.
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