Wichita, the first novel from Thad Ziolkowski, Director of the Writing Program at Pratt Institute, is a postmodern take on the false binary of the country and the city. New York and the Midwest each trade in the mundane and the sublime as Ziolkowski imagines the late-late adolescent stumbles of one ambivalent Lewis Chopik, a recently dumped Colombia grad, as he contemplates going AWOL on the future the academic side of the family has carefully planned out for him. Gorgeous, trashy Wichita and a general climate of chaos with his New Age mother and volatile brother, give Lewis a space in which to test and recognize his limits. Via e-mail exchange, Ziolkowski and I recently discussed this vibrant, brainy, funny, beautiful novel, his movement from poetry to fiction, and some of the steps in between.
Mindy Cardozo (Rail): You have a book-length collection of poems, Our Son, the Arson (What Books, 1996), many essays of cultural criticism, and in 2002 you published On a Wave (Grove Press),a memoir of surfing and your adolescence in Florida. What prompted your shift to the novel for Wichita?
Thad Ziolkowski: When I fell in love with reading as a teenager and took refuge in it, it was fiction that I read, and from that point on I aspired to write fiction of my own. But after giving it a fairly sustained and serious try as an undergraduate and finding that I tended to get paralyzed by technical problems, and also to sort of hold myself unpleasantly aloof from experience in the persona of “novelist,” I gave it up and concentrated on poetry, which I found came more easily and also allowed me to produce in the margins of living a fuller, less self-conscious life. It was only through writing On a Wave, the memoir, that I worked out a way to approach representing my experience in long-form narration—action and pacing and the rest. And there came a certain moment when I realized that writing the memoir was showing me the way to write a novel and to return to my roots as a writer.
Rail: What were some of the books that you attached to early on? Did they shape your own eventual fiction?
Ziolkowski: At 16, I loved Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, which my mother gave to me, Salinger, Updike’s Couples because it looked pornographic, Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, and various fat bestsellers by Michener and Irving Stone. It’s hard for me to know whether or how that fiction marked what I eventually wrote, but I strongly suspect that it did.
Read More of Ziolkowski's interview