Daniel Wallace: Teller of Tall Tales



Roam wasn't built in a day. It took time for Elijah McCallister, with help from the man he kidnapped out of China, to locate what he was looking for in America: mulberry trees. It took hard work too to carve out a settlement and build a factory — a factory to produce the sheerest silks — so that Roam the town could thrive for a time — a town, who knows where (or when) it is, but it's deep in the woods, with dark mountains and a dangerous ravine nearby and another town, Arcadia, miles away and down a road — the Silk Road — and there are miracle waters in a subterranean river and brute lumberjacks in the forest and a congenial but tiny man (don't call him a midget) tending the town bar and a lovelorn mechanic who can fix your broken car and there's every manner of magic to go with it, all of it.

And now, only a few generations into its brief history, Roam is reduced to a few inhabitants. Vegetation is returning to reclaim the ramshackle houses emptied of families. Animals — deer and dogs and swallows — are returning to reclaim the streets and skies, but just as mysteriously they disappear too. All to leave Roam to the ghosts of the dead (there are many) and to those who survive — and among the living, two sisters, great-granddaughters of Elijah McCallister: Helen, who is 25 and hard to face, what with her off-putting looks and lying ways, and Rachel, who is 18, beautiful, and blind.

Welcome, then, to Roam and to the world of The Kings and Queens of Roam (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) by Daniel Wallace, and today, Wednesday, May 8th, Wallace is in Memphis, the first stop on a Southern book tour. Wallace will be at The Booksellers at Laurelwood at 6 p.m. to discuss and sign The Kings and Queens of Roam. But he was on the phone last week from his home in Chapel Hill — where he teaches and heads the creative-writing department of the University of North Carolina — to talk about his new book, a fabled book much like Wallace's debut novel, Big Fish, the basis for Tim Burton's film in 2003 and the basis for a musical headed later this year to Broadway. "No. I let the people who know about making a Broadway show handle that," Wallace said when asked.

On the subject of Roam, though, Wallace had more to say, prompted first by how in the world he writes a story so grounded in realism but so spirited as fable.

Daniel Wallace: There are always different prompts that lead to a story or novel, and The Kings and Queens of Roam was prompted by the first paragraph I wrote. It's still the first paragraph in the book, but I wrote that paragraph many years ago, having no idea what it was about or where it was going. Yes, there's a lot of information there, but I didn't know what it meant. So I didn't get beyond that paragraph for a long time. I kept going back to it, though, feeling there was something in it.

That's one of the weird things that happen when you write all the time. You can sense when something is going to be a story and when it's going to be a longer piece, and I realized this story is going to be the latter. That's frightening — to start something you know is going to be your theme for a number of years.

But I returned to that paragraph again and went for it, which is scary. But it's exciting. I don't plot out my books. I know as much about it while I'm writing it as readers do while they're reading it. And while writing it, there's a fear you'll get to a wall and can't break through. All the work you've done could come to nothing. That could happen after a month or a year or more. So yes, it's scary but exhilarating. That's the chance I take.

This book is about a world that doesn't exist outside the book. It references our world but doesn't happen in our world. I think of it as a parallel universe. The details are specific, but I don't like to be too specific.

And I don't want to get too spacy about it, but I do think of Roam as being very real.

It's real according to the Roam Historical Society.
I had somebody help me with that. My designer read the book and was able to visualize the world I'd written about.

But you're also an illustrator too. [See the self-portrait.] You once designed greeting cards for a living. Your strong visual sense contributes to the vividness of your writing?
It does, but I think of myself as one step up from a napkin scribbler. I don't bring the critical facility to drawing that I do to writing. I do, though, draw maps of the imaginary places I write about.

Your writing doesn't come with an autobiographical component as well?
I think essentially all writing is autobiographical but not always or necessarily based on actual things that happened to you or specific events. This book, though, is really the first I've written that I can't figure out what part of my world or my own history it comes from.

Your working once in Japan for your father's import business didn't inspire you to imagine the silk trade?
That's a good point. That's a story point I perhaps wouldn't have written about had I not had the experience of working for that company.

But this theme in the book of great men versus good men: I do think it's drawn in some way from my father and his ambitions in the world. You're helping me figure out what my book is about. I appreciate it.

Your father didn't exactly appreciate your wanting to become a writer. Your mother did.
My father wanted me to go into business. And I wrote for quite a while … I shot the ball off before I ever scored a basket. And if I had a son who played basketball for 10 years and still nobody wanted to play with him, I think I would have encouraged him to maybe find something else to do too.

What is it about tall tales that appeals to you?
A writer eventually settles into stories and themes and a style that is his or her own. Before that, writers take a lot of wrong turns. I know, because I did when I was learning to write. I was going through the process of discovering what not to write. And when I hit on this style of writing, I realized I was good at it. I wasn't as good at writing realistic fiction, and one of the tricks to being a writer is avoiding those things that you're not good at … as much as you'd like to write those things, as much as you admire someone who writes that way.

The freedom that a fable gives me is this limitless ability to be imaginative but to create scenes that are believable. That's important to me. Even when the fantastic happens, that world must be believable. You must believe that a goat, for example, could fall in love with a cat. If you get too abstract, the reader starts to feel lost.

Teaching too helps to remind me what writing is all about: the fundamentals of telling a story. It's possible to forget those fundamentals — to get lost in the story you're telling. When my students do something that I may be trying to do in my own work, I can see, from what my students have done, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing.

One last thing: There's a hotel, the Peabody, in Memphis, where ducks parade through the lobby and splash in its fountain. That's a scene you could have written.
I've stayed at that hotel. If there weren't those ducks, you're right, I'd have to invent them. •

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment