Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with our current NER writers in all genres. Editor Carolyn Kuebler spoke recently with author Wayne Michael Winfield, author of “One of These Days,” which appears in NER 36.3.
CK: You borrow characters from the classic TV show The Honeymooners and give them another dimension, a more interior dimension—something that fiction is so good for, sitcoms generally less so. What was it about the show in some way that you felt compelled to keep imagining the characters after the show was over?
WMW: The Honeymooners, first and foremost, was incredibly funny. All these years later, it’s still incredibly funny. But even as an adolescent, it was impossible to miss or ignore all the anger and hostility. (Interestingly, the so-called lost Honeymooners episodes were even angrier, and not surprisingly, less funny.) When Ralph cocked his fist and threatened to send Alice to the moon, it evoked laughs rather than gasps; would the reaction have been different had he threatened to belt her in the jaw? It was a dysfunctional relationship before either word came into vogue. (The Honeymooners was set in the 1950’s, of course; but only after I’d begun writing did it occur to me that their marriage was a metaphor for the Cold War: two adversaries engaged in an ongoing war of words, with the looming threat of a real confrontation.) In part because of my parents’ turbulent marriage, I was particularly sensitive to the conflict and the roles of each combatant, and their inability or unwillingness to find common ground. I debated who was the real villain and who deserved most of the blame. Early on I viewed Alice in a much harsher light: I hated how she callously stepped on all of Ralph’s dreams. But my perspective changed as I got older; I began to recognize Ralph’s culpability. Without exaggerating too much, he was impossible to live with. And if Alice was indifferent to his dreams, well, he was indifferent to her existence. Her stoicism and cold, no-nonsense exterior were a shield against her emotional deprivation.
CK: Did you have mixed feelings about having Ralph hit Alice?
WMW: No, not really, because the story demanded it. It was really the only possible ending. And it dovetailed beautifully with the demolition/destruction of Ebbets Field. Yes, I imagined that some readers, particularly if they were big fans of the show, might be shocked, dismayed, or even angered. That was not necessarily the intent, of course. But if it aroused that kind of visceral reaction, well, I’d like to think it’s a testament to the writing.
CK: You open with one of the most famous games in baseball history, the same one that appears in the beginning of Delillo’s Underworld. Are you a fan of Delillo’s work? What other writers would you cite as influences?
WMW: I vividly remember reading the last line of Hemingway’s Ten Indians: In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken. It touched something so deep and profound; it was probably the first time I ever thought of a sentence as being beautiful. When I began to write, I continually found myself trying to replicate that particular cadence. It was akin to a young jazz musician enamored with a particular phrase of Miles or Lester Young, who attempts to work it into every solo.
Hemingway aside, I’ll skirt the issue of influences and simply list some of the writers/ books that have moved or inspired me: Philip Roth, of course, though my favorite is his lone work of nonfiction, Patrimony. A J Liebling, Robert Caro, James Baldwin, Capote’s In Cold Blood, Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories, Russell Banks, Pete Dexter, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Steven Pinker, James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
Regarding Dellilo, I read what would ultimately become the opening of Underworld when it was first published in Harper’s and really enjoyed it. But no, I don’t count myself as a fan.
CK: Given your comment about that last line of Hemingway, is it safe to say that you love jazz?
WMW: Extremely safe. At times I think there is nothing more meaningful, and I say that quite seriously. If I can express as much feeling in 150 pages as Ben Webster can manage in eight bars, I figure I’m ahead of the game.
CK: Do you ever write about jazz?
WMW: I’ve written a few short pieces and a handful of poems, with varying degrees of success. I described Dinah Washington as a sequined force of nature, which made me feel pretty good. I do think that a good deal of my writing is informed by the feeling of jazz, by ballads like Lush Life, A Single Petal of a Rose, I Love You Porgy, and Someone to Watch Over Me. Most of a memoir that revolved around my younger son’s autism was written while listening to a painfully beautiful Little Jimmy Scott album. (When I first heard it, I didn’t know whether I wanted to cry, make love, or shoot up.) And while lyrics aren’t meant to be read on a page, some would be the envy of any serious writer, or at least this serious writer. They’re writing songs of love, but not for me is a nine word novel.
CK: All fiction is autobiography, in some shade or other—a difficult concept to apply to fiction whose characters are derived from other fictional characters. But do you think there’s any truth to that statement, in your case? Or to put it another way, you seem so familiar with Ralph’s world. Is it your world too?
WMW: To an extent. Ralph, like Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, believes that he could have been a contender. It’s pretty much a universal sentiment, isn’t it? Donald Trump aside, we all believe we could have been contenders, that we could have or should have been better. I’ve certainly wrestled with feeling unfulfilled. I believed I could have been better, and struggled with why I wasn’t. Was it fate or some fatal flaw? And which would be more of a blow? Perhaps more tellingly, for a long period of time I, like Ralph, was much more adept at expressing anger than sadness.
CK: Yankees, Giant, Dodgers, or Mets? Or dare we say, Red Sox?
WMW: As a kid I was a huge Willie Mays and Giants fan. In the fifth grade I actually wrote a poem about him. About 45 years later, I wrote another, which unlike its predecessor didn’t rhyme. When Mays retired (after his short, sad tenure with the Mets) I became a Mets fan, proving I am more of a masochist than an opportunist.
Wayne Michael Winfield is a writer and creative director at a New York advertising agency. He has written a memoir, A Heart Out of Tune, and a collection of essays about golf titled An Eloquence Words Can Only Envy. He has two children and lives in Westchester, New York.