The Penmen Review: Anthropologist|Ethnographic Novelist John Colman Wood

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

wood headshotThe author of two novels, “When Men Are Women” (1999) and “The Names of Things” (2012), anthropologist John Colman Wood incorporated his field research on a group of nomadic, camel-herding Africans into his writing.

“The Names of Things,” a story that deals with love and grief as well as studies the nomadic African group, has received much praise from fellow writers, along with Huffington Post Books and The Los Angeles Review. “The Names of Things” won the Ethnographic Fiction Prize of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology and was a finalist for the 2013 Chautauqua Prize.

Have you always written?
Only since I was about five. I’ve been a reader as long as I remember. Even before I knew how to read, I thumbed books and magazines. Later, as a teenager, I dropped out of school. But I continued to read, and at some point around then decided I wanted to write as well. At 16 I read a book about Ernest Shackelton’s extended expedition to Antarctica. The book clarified for me that I wanted to spend my life having experiences and writing about them. I became a journalist, and then, a dozen years later, an ethnographer. In youth, writing was a vehicle to the world. Odd, then, that writing has now become introspective. It is a daily meditation. Perhaps the turn from outward to inward is developmental. Your question, I think, is developmental.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
Not sure there is a process. Certainly no formula. Whatever I’ve written usually starts as an image, or a scene, or an event that returns and returns to thought. Then I wonder, what happened next, or what happened before. Then there’s a lot of tinkering.

I don’t know how to do any of this. The image of monkeys in a room with typewriters comes to mind. I bang away. I read over what results. Usually it’s no good. Now and then, as if by accident, a phrase or sentence works. I start over from there. Three steps forward, two and a half back. It’s slow going. But I’m usually glad to have done it.

It’s less a process of development and more one of recognition. A sentence smells good. A character moves in an interesting way. Then I sense that it needs something else, a voice or an event or an interaction to make it more convincing, or to fill a hole in the story. What I’d emphasize is the accidental quality of the work, trying always to make the best of what happens.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Time. There’s never enough. It helps to get up every morning early and write first thing. Trivialities intrude if I don’t write right away. Even one page a day adds up. If I wait until later there’s not enough energy or will to make much. The best time to write is 5 a.m. when the coffee is hot and it’s dark outside and most everyone is asleep.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
For academic nonfiction, there’s a path: submission to a journal or press, peer review, revision, eventual acceptance. There’s no money, so stakes are small, the process relatively straightforward. There’s an industry to support academic nonfiction. For fiction, there’s no road, no map. None that I’ve found. At most, a dry river bed with rocks. It’s a mystery. I’m lucky I don’t need to make a living from writing. It helps that I’ve reached a time in life when writing itself is satisfying, regardless of publication. I get a lot from writing, just sitting at a desk and scribbling. I don’t get much in the way of meaning from selling work to a publication, so I don’t do it, and consequently I don’t know how to do it, and it doesn’t happen very often.

How do you market your work?names cover
See above. I don’t do marketing. I prefer to sit at my desk and tinker.

I do, however, enjoy talking with readers and writers and would-be readers and writers about what I do and what they do what we read and so on. So I’ve done readings to book clubs and in college classes here and there, and these have been useful to get the word out. I suffer from the notion that if a work is good, readers will find it. I don’t really believe that. But I persist in the notion. I’m sure there are plenty of perfectly good bugs under rocks that have never been discovered. I suspect my strategy is deluded.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
That the act of writing itself is not something to get past but to do, simply to do. It seems to me – and here I am speaking as an anthropologist more than as a writer – that the main task of living is to learn how to live, and the best way I have found to do that is to write about life, and in the writing to discover something new about the living.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, Saul Bellow, Henry Green. In addition to what they’ve had to say, I’ve enjoyed their rhythms.

Truth is, not all, or even most, of the influences on my living or writing are literary. When we were eight and nine, my brother and I were enraptured one summer by our father reading from a shoebox full of letters he’d written home, and his mother saved, during a year-long walkabout he and a friend made out West with a couple of rifles and a Model A Ford.

The letters included accounts of building a fire beneath the car to get it started on a frozen morning, of shooting a bull elk on a cousin’s ranch in Wyoming, of later, in San Francisco, a con artist stealing the antlers. All that remained of the elk were a few photographs.

I remember tales of mustard gas in WWI told by a granduncle, my grandfather’s older brother, who brought out his old gas mask, which smelled of rubber and made whoever wore it look like an insect. During the war, he’d put it on once a little too late. Ever since he’d had a hard time breathing.

We heard these stories and others at picnics in my grandparent’s backyard, beside a garden of tomatoes and corn and a hayfield and a huge bank of lilacs.

There was another story of a German farmer who’d bought the grandparents’ farm, all but the farmhouse, where we picnicked, and when he was moving the old barn down the road a beam fell and broke his leg, and now he walked with a limp, like Walter Brennan in the movies.

I suppose those stories, and others like them, led me into life, gave me a sense of curiosity about the world beyond my own room. All stories do this.

And it hasn’t always been in the reading. I have been moved by Virginia Woolf’s writings, but even more by the story of how she wrote: the hours writing in long hand, then typing, then editing and retyping, then more editing, more typing, then setting type by hand and editing proofs and correcting type. Writing was physical activity. It was total. Her hands were blackened by ink three times, writing, typing, printing. It was aesthetic and athletic. Even if I have not felt moved to buy a printing press and learn the craft – yet – I am reminded by the story of Virginia Woolf’s practice that writing involves doing something. It’s work in the best sense of that word.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Though it is cliché to say, I’ll say it anyway: The Bible, all of Shakespeare, and “Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.” I can imagine those books lasting.