By Christine Sneed
I first became acquainted with Milwaukee native Mark Wisniewski’s writing when I read his excellent short story “Straightaway” in the 2008 edition of “The Best American Short Stories.” The story’s main character, Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, is also one of the two main characters in “Watch Me Go,” Wisniewski’s compelling and suspenseful third novel.
“Watch Me Go” is a work of literary suspense set in multiple locations in New York State, the story focusing on Jan, a white woman from Arkansas, and on Bronx-born Deesh. Their involvement is risky; the secrets they’re privy to both endanger them and can save each other’s lives. The book takes on weightier themes, racial and economic injustice among them, than Wisniewski’s earlier novels, “Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman” and “Show Up, Look Good.” As Wisniewski told me in an email, his new novel “puts American hatreds in front of readers’ faces and says, ‘Come on—we can do better than this.’”
“Watch Me Go” takes on questions of race and class with sensitivity and psychological acuity. How did you first get interested in writing this novel? Is Deesh based on someone you know, for example, or Jan?
Deesh’s voice was inspired by free writing done by one of my students back when I used to teach. You know how that goes, Christine: sometimes a student’s writing voice strikes you as clear and strong and story-laden, and you feel lucky to be able to read it. And when that student hangs out with you during your office hours (and has interests in common with you—in this case basketball and horseracing), that voice can stay in your head long after the semester. And then, one day, there this voice is, pouring out in your own journal, narrating a long story that feels like it’s coming from both you and this student, as well as everyone else who has struggled like that.
Horse-racing and jockeying are of course key parts of this novel; did you research them extensively?
At pretty much every racetrack in America. I’ve read far more daily racing forms than novels. Because there’s no better underdog story than the horse race.
Did you begin the novel with the current structure of the interwoven narratives of its two focal characters, or did the structure evolve as you wrote?
There were years there when whichever agent I had at the time treated Jan’s and Deesh’s narratives as separate novels. At one point it was clear to me (but only me) that the two narratives were undeniably related, and that structuring them as one novel would speak volumes thematically. I mean, if this “hybrid” novel could show how Jan and Deesh not only wanted but also needed to spill their guts to each other so they could survive—well, wouldn’t that remind today’s gun-toting, argument-bent world that attacking each other will simply make it more likely that ninety-nine percent of us lose? But as you know, publishing puts people in boxes, too. I’m not going to say that all agents discriminate (because some I’ve known certainly don’t), but there is this tendency of agents, or at least of the agents I met while trying to get “Watch Me Go” published, to categorize narrative voices with respect to gender and race. Experts will tell you this has to do with how marketing needs to group books on shelves and on webpages in order to maximize profits, but let’s face it: in some ways the publishing industry operates the way nuns did in my Catholic school—boys on this side of the playground, young ladies stay over there—and Sister Principal zones out with her prayer book in her office while the five Irish kids beat the hell out of the one kid with brown skin.
There’s a strong feeling of place in this novel; along with the racetrack setting, you take readers to the economically depressed New York countryside, the Bronx, the Finger Lakes—are these places you know well or got to know well while you were writing “Watch Me Go”?
Back when I wanted to be a writing professor, I spent a year teaching comp in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where people struggled with economic depression as well as—how can I put this?—thickheadedness about race and gender. I fled that job to adjunct wherever I could in the city, and for a stretch of years I taught hundreds of people, of all ages, from the Bronx. Given what adjuncts earn, summer vacations then meant the Finger Lakes and Saratoga Springs racetracks, though sometimes at dawn I’d hike deep into the woods to fish. So, yeah, you are right: these places and I have a familiarity that probably enhanced the feelings you got from the book.
Who are some of your favorite Midwestern writers?
Andy Mozina, Rebecca Makkai, Tim Johnston, Lori Ostlund (who lives in San Francisco but whose fiction conveys her Minnesotan sensibility).
If you don’t mind telling us, what are you working on now?
Another literary suspense novel. The only question is whether I flavor this one with a comic tone or go all out toward the goal of a plot that urges readers to turn pages. I have two versions so far. Readers who liked “Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman” and “Show Up, Look Good” would probably prefer the one that came out loaded with punch lines. But in the past month or so, one of my characters has been sort of pulling me aside and saying, “I know a few things that could make readers choose to read rather than sleep.” This character keeps proving to be loaded with fight.
Watch Me Go
By Mark Wisniewski
Putnam, 320 pages, $26.95