Talking shop with Callan Wink
by Nicole Rose Gomez
I first came across Callan Wink’s work in the fall semester of my MFA at the University of Montana, in a class on character development in which we analyzed his short story, “A Refugee Crisis” (The New Yorker, 2018). Now on campus as the William Kittredge Visiting Writer and my instructor for a Special Topics Creative Writing class that explores the world of work for inspiration, Callan Wink sat down with me in his office last Wednesday to discuss stripping away the artifice from fiction, the daily grind of writing and the struggle to keep the spark alive, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and his new novel, August, due out in spring 2020.
Nicole Gomez: You’re from Michigan originally right? How did you end up in Montana?
Callan Wink: The first time I came to Montana I got a job on a dude ranch when I was 19 years old, working as a fishing guide. I was there for the summer and I kind of never left. I ended up coming to school in Bozeman at Montana State for undergrad. I took time off and fishing guided, worked a bunch of weird jobs, construction mostly. But that’s how I ended up in Montana, for fishing.
NG: Did you grow up fishing?
CW: Yeah. I grew up in northern Michigan in a tiny town out in the woods, nothing there. I spent a lot of time outdoors. No TV in my house as a kid.
NG: I want to get back to that, but first, fishing is a big part of your life—you’re a fly-fishing guide for part of the year. Who was it that taught you how to fish?
CW: My mom took me fishing a lot when I was a kid, before I learned how to drive. My dad was never that much into fishing. I learned a lot from books, believe it or not. Fly-fishing is what I do, and I didn’t know anyone that did that. It’s interactive– you’re always doing something, even if you’re not catching anything. Where I’m at with it now is that it’s a good excuse for me to go outside and mess around and be in a river. The fishing side of it is fun, but it’s more about the broader experience for me.
NG: Tell me more about this childhood without television.
CW: My mother was a school teacher and when I was young, and she thought that TVs were rotting the brains of her students.
NG: Sounds like my mom.
CW: I think it was one of the best things my parents ever did for me, actually, because I read a ton. I would go to the local library, especially in the summer when we were out of school, and get a stack of these really horrible western novels. I wasn’t reading the classics or anything, but I was consuming a lot of narratives, and I guess if I have any writerly skill it’s because of how much narrative I’ve ingested, of all kinds. When I started writing it’s like I had that foundation without even having to think about it.
NG: Was it also your mom that got you reading?
CW: Actually my dad probably reads more than anyone I know, but they’re both big readers. My whole family is, even my extended family. For Christmas, we always gave books, things like that.
“Where I was raised, it’s very working class and people are practical that way. Trying to make money in a creative way is not something that there was a model for.”
NG: Do you remember a formative book from your childhood?
CW: I was a big re-reader of books. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was ten or so, maybe a little younger, probably about ten times. Roald Dahl is a hell of a writer. As I got a little older, I did the Hemingway Nick Adams Stories, which are set in Michigan, and that was cool to read a Michigan writer because I could understand the places he was writing about. Jim Harrison for the same reason. He was another Michigan guy.
NG: Is it strange for you now to have your family read your work?
CW: They’re really supportive, but sometimes if I veer into a more biographical stuff, it’s a little uncomfortable. But for the most part it’s good. I think it’s important when you’re first getting going to hide it away, though. I didn’t tell people I was writing much until I got into grad school—then people wanted to know what I was doing there. But it wasn’t something I was readily sharing at first.
NG: Did you know you always wanted to be a writer?
CW: Not really. My dad worked construction, my mom was a teacher. I was writing from a very young age, but I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know that was something you could do. And if you’re a young person and you tell someone you want to be a writer, you’re immediately confronted with the question of what you’re going to do for money. Where I was raised, it’s very working class and people are practical that way. Trying to make money in a creative way is not something that there was a model for.
NG: What did you start out writing about? What interested you at first?
CW: I wrote poetry until I was twenty-four or twenty-five. It wasn’t very good. Most of my poems were stories I was too lazy to write. I wrote a lot about work, especially construction, which is what I did for most of my early twenties aside from fishing guiding. I wrote poems about working with my dad on these construction sites, and then at a certain point I turned a couple of those into stories.
NG: Was there ever a sort of watershed moment for you when your work took a big leap forward?
CW: That’s one thing in the Saunders’ essay [“Process and Spirit”, The Writer’s Chronicle, 2018] that we read in class that really resonated with me, because we like to think there’s a slow progression, that you just gradually get better at writing, and that’s true to an extent. But I feel like there are points where you take this great leap ahead, and for me that happened when I was in grad school. I was writing a certain type of story before I got to the MFA, and I got some of these early stories out of my head in my first year. Then I wrote the title story of Dog Run Moon that was in The New Yorker, and at that point I had this baseline of what I wanted my stories to be like. I still write a lot of bad stories, but at least I can recognize them as the bad ones and then either try to fix them or abandon them. So maybe it was more like how Saunders could recognize his own particular area of ability and then dwell in that zone instead of trying to write like other people.
NG: So did you have your version of Saunders’ “Hemingway boner”?
CW: I was probably more of a Cormac McCarthy impersonator as a young writer. I went through a big period of Cormac McCarthy that lasted through grad school. That was probably my version of the Hemingway boner—the Cormac McCarthy boner, which I’ve just gotten over in the past four or five years.
NG: You had your first publication in CutBank right? [For “Wolf Goes Down for a Cup”]
CW: My first fiction publication.
NG: Where were you at when you wrote that one?
CW: I wrote it right before I went to grad school and then it got published during my first year.
NG: How would you say your writing and interests have evolved since?
CW: I’m less interested in really nice descriptions. That is what I was interested in at that time, in lyricism and novel metaphors, in the way things sounded. Now I’m more interested in what the story is about, in meaning. I read a couple of the Rachel Cusk books and I couldn’t get them out of my head—I was like, you can do that as a writer? I wrote “A Refugee Crisis” after reading that novel [Outline] and I think that’s the way my writing is going right now, that’s what interests me a lot: unabashedly having more of myself in the story as some way to approach honesty in writing, as opposed to just pretending that everything is fiction. I love fiction and I used to love purely entertaining stories, which I think Dog Run Moon mostly is, but now I’m increasingly interested in the creation of a more personal narrative, one that draws heavily on my own understanding of the world and doesn’t try to hide that fact by calling a character “Dale” if he is mostly me. I’m interested in stripping away that artifice that’s there for no other reason than to distance the writer from the story. I think that raises the stakes for the writer. Personal stakes are almost zero for me in stories like the ones in Dog Run Moon, and I’m interested in ones where the stakes are higher. That’s what’s exciting me about writing right now. That’s one of the beautiful things about what we’re doing. If you put the label fiction on it, it can contain all sorts of truths and mistruths, untruths—it’s a freeing mode to write in because when it comes down to it, most of us are writing as a way to figure out our own stuff. It’s cool if someone else reads it, but ultimately writing is a process of self-examination, making sense of your own experience.
NG: In “A Refugee Crisis”, which is a meditation on honesty and truth, I was wondering if you were suggesting something about the invented nature of borders, how as arbitrary lines drawn in the sand they create refugees and immigrants, and I wonder how you apply that to current events, the fight over a border wall and a migrant caravan, etcetera.
CW: It does seem to be so arbitrary, the concept of borders. Just the fact of entitlement, that certain people have the ability to move around. How simple movement around the world in this global society is a right that some people seem to have more of than others. But it’s not something I was specifically getting after in the story, although the upwelling of culture and current issues is going to appear in your writing whether you mean for it to or not.
Another thing that story is concerned with is that there are so many injustices in the world and there have been since time began, and how much do you concern your writing with that? To what extent does your writing need to be about current injustices or is there some way you can reach some greater, more universal discussion of injustice? These aren’t things I have answers for. Or if we’re actually concerned with these issues, is writing some little short story about it the way to create any change?
NG: And is that your responsibility as a writer, or is that the purview of journalism?
CW: Exactly. And I go back and forth on all of these things.
“When it comes down to it, most of us are writing as a way to figure out our own stuff. It’s cool if someone else reads it, but ultimately writing is a process of self-examination, making sense of your own experience.”
NG: The west and rural areas feature strongly in your writing. Do you feel that there’s an added value to writing about a particular place?
CW: I’m not super imaginative in that I can’t write convincingly about places I haven’t spent a lot of time. I’m kind of bound to set my stories in places I have a good working knowledge of. Maybe that will change at some point, but I can write about Michigan well, Montana because I have been here for a long time. I’ve been trying to write some stories about California because I’ve been spending more and more time there over the past five years, but I haven’t done that successfully yet, although I think I’m close. I’m interested in it, because I’m getting sick of describing the mountains. In my book [Dog Run Moon] I did it a lot and now I’m kind of bored with it. Having a new environment to talk about is interesting to me.
NG: The last story in Dog Run Moon, “Hindsight”, was written from the female perspective, but that collection came out in 2016. A lot has happened in the past few years. Given the current cultural climate and as a male writer in 2019, do you feel an uptick in pressure to represent additional perspectives in your writing, particularly with regards to gender, and how do you negotiate that?
CW: There’s no way to keep what’s going on in society out of your writing. “A Refugee Crisis” is me grappling with this very issue. It’s me responding in my own way to my previous stuff and thinking about how to go ahead with new things. But I’m probably going to continue to write fiction that is concerned with the male experience in the world because I feel like that’s a valid perspective.
NG: Can you talk a little about your new novel, August?
CW: It follows the characters of one of my stories from Dog Run Moon, which was part of a broader narrative. It’s a coming-of-age story that follows the boy August from young age to early twenties. It follows the timeline of my own growing up, the era it’s set it, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in certain parts of rural Michigan.
NG: What was it like in parts of rural Michigan after 9/11?
CW: Right after the attacks there were friends of mine joining the military, some of them dying. That sort of thing is part of the book. It’s also a book concerned with how to become a man and doing it badly. The term “toxic masculinity” will no doubt be thrown around in discussion of this book. But for me it’s a pretty real representation of a certain time and place that happens to be one that I grew up in, and a character who is trying to find his way out of that.
NG: I look forward to reading it. I started college in September 2001, just weeks after 9/11, and it colored absolutely everything around me. I got my first cell phone because I was leaving to college and war was starting. That’s part of why I studied political science, because when I got to college the whole world was in an uproar about counterterrorism and the rise of non-state actors. It was a fascinating and frightening time, especially for a young person.
CW: I remember the day it happened. I played football in high school and we were supposed to have football practice that day, and our coach called us in after school. We’d found out about it in the morning and had spent the whole day in class watching the news, and our coach called us in, cancelled practice, and was like, “This is gonna be your guys’ Vietnam. They’re probably gonna bring back the draft, some of you guys are gonna go,” and we were all like seventeen, eighteen year-old kids, like oh fuck, what’s gonna happen? I remember that feeling pretty vividly, and it’s a scene in the novel.
NG: What was the jump like from writing short stories to novels?
CW: For me it was hard. Part of it is my personality. I get bored with long projects, I like seeing an end in sight and having it be achievable. I like beginnings and endings. With a novel you feel like you’re shackled to it for so long and then you have these periods where you think, this isn’t any good. If it were a short story you could just start something new, but with a novel you have to stick it out. It gets a little dismal. That being said, there are some nice things about it. Something I did enjoy was having this on-going project; normally when I’m in short-story mode I’m always thinking of short-story ideas and how I can form stories around things I read or see or hear, but when you’re at work on a novel, you already have the story you’re working on and you can just pull things you come across and plug them into to what you’re working on, even if they wouldn’t have been enough to hold up a whole story. I have noticed that once I go into novel mode, short stories I try to write just keep turning into novels too. Once you get used to it, it’s hard to stop.
NG: How long did it take you to complete the novel?
CW: It’s kind of hard to say. I started writing a long time ago when I wrote that story, and I wrote three or four other stories that had the same character and then I realized, “this is probably a novel.” But from when I first considered it to be a novel to where I am now, which is sending it to the copy editor, two and a half years, I guess. Some people take a lot longer than that, but I figured this out pretty early: I would rather have a greater body of work and have some of them be not very good than have just three really good stories. I like output, I like producing.
NG: You said you’re at work on a new novel.
CW: I always have a number of different things going on. This one I’m very early on in. I’ll show up in this one a lot more directly. I’m in the one I’ve finished as well, but in the traditional fiction model where we write about a character that’s our proxy, and in the one I’m working on now that’s done away with.
NG: How does it feel to have achieved success relatively young? Do you feel any kind of pressure on what you do next and how do you manage that? Where would you like to see your career go?
CW: The good thing about writing literary fiction is that very few people really care about it, which is a good thing to keep in mind. It occupies such a small niche of an already shrinking sector of human consciousness. I mean, the number of people reading the sorts of things that you and I are writing is small and shrinking, which you can get depressed about or you can view as kind of liberating—like, I don’t have to worry that much about making a career as a writer, because what does that even mean these days? I don’t know. Most of the time I still tell people I’m a fishing guide.
I had this conversation with Tom McGuane, who’s a really great short story writer. I interviewed him, took him fishing, and he said he loves short stories. And I said you can’t make any money writing short stories, and he said you can’t make any money at all writing the stuff we write. He loves short stories because he feels they are this true distillation of the heart of fiction writing, because they are almost divorced from any ability to generate income. You don’t have to tailor your short story to some sort of perceived audience because there is none. They’re like a purer form of the art. And it is kind of true—they’re more like poetry in that way. And I would say you could expand that to include all literary fiction. If you’re writing your novel and career is something you’re thinking about, then yikes. There’s a lot of other ways you can make money that require less effort.
NG: It’s got to be for the love of it, right?
CW: It really does.
NG: So what keeps you sitting down at the computer?
CW: I definitely have periods of time where I’m less interested than others. Occasionally I still get excited about what I’m writing. I remember when I was in grad school, I got that feeling way more often, and I think that’s because it was new, I was spending so much time on it for the first time in my life. I remember being really excited about the stuff I was writing—some of the stories in Dog Run Moon I wrote in grad school. Now I think much of my writing is an attempt to recapture some of that initial excitement that I don’t often feel anymore. Sometimes that bums me out, that writing isn’t as exciting as it once was. You could compare it to a relationship: that initial burst of feeling you have for this other person when you first meet and it’s very exciting and fresh, and then that’s done and you’re in this other place where it’s maybe deeper—
NG: But there’s the daily slog. The daily, unglamorous housekeeping of sitting down at the desk.
CW: Exactly. And you miss that excitement, but you still get glimpses of it occasionally.
NG: When it’s flowing.
NG: So what is your process? Are you a morning writer, a night writer?
CW: I used to always write from the middle of the afternoon until it got dark. I can’t write when it’s dark out, I just can’t. That’s always been my best period, when I’m the smartest, when I’m the most athletic, able to go running or surfing, from 2:00-4:00. When I was in grad school, I would write later on because I was really enflamed by it and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Now at about five I want a cocktail or I want to go to yoga or do something different.
NG: I want to ask you about being at Stanford University for the Wallace Stegner Fellowship.
CW: It was a great experience. The other writers there were extremely impressive. The level of dialogue about stories in our workshop was phenomenal, and reading their work—some of them are going to be household names. It was amazing, and humbling, to see what they were coming in with. And the faculty, too. Adam Johnson was maybe the best workshop leader I’ve ever worked with. He’s won every writing prize you can win and yet he’s still really generous with his time, his teaching. He’s one of those people who loves narrative and literature and talking about stories, it’s a true passion of his, what he does. It was really inspiring to be around people like that.
NG: How was the move from Montana out to Silicon Valley?
CW: I’d never been there before. I thought I was going to live on this houseboat out in Redwood City. It seemed like a cool thing when I found it on Craigslist. It turned out to be not so cool. Then I just started driving south, and I had a friend from Livingston who grew up in Santa Cruz and he told me to check it out. And I was like, yeah, this is a real place I could live. It’s really cool, it’s kind of weird. Like a lot of places, it’s going through an identity shift—it’s about to be something different than it is now because there’s so much wealth encroaching, but for now it’s still got its grittiness. There’s this surfing culture there I really liked. It reminded me of the fishing culture out in Livingston. There’s a similar vibe, where people’s main concern is not just employment, getting ahead financially and monetarily, like it is in a lot of places. In Santa Cruz it’s about surfing, and where I live in Montana it’s about outdoor recreation. I understood that and I liked it.
NG: Are there any writing lessons that you absorbed from either your MFA or your time at Stanford that you want to pass on to your students or other writers?
CW: The one bit of writing advice that I always liked and I always give out—I think I put it on the syllabus for my undergraduates—Isak Dinesen said you should write a little bit each day without hope and without despair. That made sense to me: not getting too excited about it, not getting too down about it when it’s not going well. Just trying to do a little bit every day.
NG: One final question. In this program there’s a decent amount of human drama, and the idea was floated that it’s because everyone is approaching things with a narrative mindset, constantly writing stories in their heads about what is happening on a daily basis. Do you feel like you look at the world around you through a narrative lens?
CW: Yeah, absolutely. That’s how you make sense of what happens to you right? After the fact, you make the story out of it. If you’re at an MFA for writing, you’re a sensitive person, open to human possibility, and your mind is working at a certain level. I don’t see how it could be any other way.
Callan Wink is the author of Dog Run Moon: Stories and the novel, August (Dial Press/Random House, Spring '20). He has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. His stories and essays appear widely, including in The New Yorker, Granta, Playboy, Men’s Journal and The Best American Short Stories Anthology. In the warm months he lives in Livingston, Montana where he is a fly fishing guide on the Yellowstone River. In the winter he surfs in Santa Cruz, California.
Nicole Gomez is a writer from El Paso, Texas and Granada, Spain. She received her B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University, worked as a reporter and columnist at The El Paso Times and is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. She is a teacher with Free Verse and is Managing Editor of CutBank Online.