AN INTERVIEW WITH WILHELM SITZ
by Caleb Berer.
Wilhelm Sitz, whose story “Release” appears in the spring 2023 issue of Potomac Review, writes mostly at a white desk in his bedroom. The desk, as Wilhelm tells me, is “not extremely large.” Its surface and its immediate surroundings are crowded with life’s essentials: wallet, keys, tissues, good books, “tiny babies and frog necklaces” from the sidewalk, “some unframed pictures, drawings, old visitor passes, crew tags for when I pretended to work at the Hollywood Bowl.” There are other things as well. On the wall there is a poster for House on Haunted Hill, wherein Vincent Price is “always unhappily looking down.” This was all a little like hearing a description of the neighborhood I grew up in, offered by another person who grew up in the same neighborhood, but with a slightly different view. My desk is extremely large, and not white, but black. Still it is crowded—there are drawings, books, unframed photos, things I found on the pavement, happy recollections of various deceptions. And I am, as I write this, looking up at, and being looked down on, by a photo of a frowning man, though he is not Vincent Price. We tend, as Wilhelm says, to keep our memories “close and in-sight.” In the conversation that follows, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discuss the presence of the past, the drive “to become formally and structurally unbound,” and the libidinous delight to be found in shit-talking other people’s art—respectfully, of course.
How did this story begin for you? With an image, a phrase, the first line? More generally, do
your stories tend to originate in similar ways?
I started this piece after I saw some parents/Internet people on Twitter sharing their stories
about teachers not letting kids go to the bathroom during class—justified outrage, I think. But I enjoy a little controversy in my work and I thought about possible reasonings that went beyond pure discipline. Kids are great but also very weird, and so the idea of poor compulsive masturbating Richard came to my head. I liked the idea of writing a domestic story and thought this incident would be a good starting point for some great unraveling. From there, I threw in all my generalized anxieties and complicated feelings about fatherhood as a gay man, and then it was off to the races. This was a fun and relatively easy story for me to write—most of the time I give up halfway through, restart, then begin the cycle all over again. But my stories generally always come from some small things like that—something I witness in person, see online, or some thought that bubbles up while I’m walking and not thinking about much else.
I liked your first sentence—“There was trouble at the school.” It immediately puts us in a place, and a predicament, yet it leaves the door open, so to speak. We could go to a lot of places, hit lot of notes, and we do. Was this always the first line? More generally, do your first lines tend to remain the same—minor edits notwithstanding—in the course of drafting, or is it common for them to change entirely? Are there any opening lines from other writers that have really stuck with you?
Thank you. That was always the first line. I’m a big proponent of having a distinct and
memorable sentence to start things off. I like to show readers immediately where we’re going, then try to subvert that later on. Because of that, I really need to get that first sentence right before I dig into a story, so what I have drafted usually stays.
Lorrie Moore is amazing at opening lines that instantly feel loaded with meaning without trying too hard. Her first sentences in Self-Help are especially masterful.
I was struck by the phrase “strange, electric discharges.” The words refer to Chris’s hope that
“One day, Richard’s brain would spark in the right part of the cortex”, and he would be
“overcome” with love, or at least guilt, but Chris’s visceral memories of cocaine—not to mention the high itself—are also certainly a strange, electric discharge; in a manner of speaking, so are Nina’s incomprehensible 3 AM emails; perhaps even Richard’s compulsive masturbation. Do you see this as a major motif in the story? How did it first appear, and how did it grow?
That was unintentional, or unconscious, but it does seem to be a bigger theme now that you
bring it up. I think most of us writers have brains short-circuiting in a variety of weird and
maybe malignant ways—I am constantly questioning the things I do and trying to track down how they can be the result of a little spark inside me. I first wrote that line because, while it’s true to some extent, it’s also a desperate excuse. Chris is so lost at sea that the only way he can hope for love or acceptance is through somebody else’s brain glitch. So I guess that idea, of how governed we are not only by our own horrible thoughts but the ones of the people around us, started coming out more in other characters until, as you say, it became a kind of motif.
Throughout the story, increasingly agitated with his “perfect life,” which is of course not so
perfect, Chris gravitates towards the Chapel Hill breastfeeders. I was particularly drawn to the
scene—funny, and wrenching—where he asks Leandra if she has any coke. It seemed to
represent a wonderfully complex confluence of desires and perceptions. Could you unpack that dynamic a little? Why is Chris so drawn to these women? What do they represent for him? And, in the Leandra scene, are we witnessing a deliberate act of self-sabotage, and alienation? Or is this an attempt to connect?
Leandra and the gorgeous Chapel Hill breastfeeders are where all of Chris’ misplaced hopes go. He sees these women as wives who’ve figured out exactly what their station is and how to navigate it. They’re “real” mothers, with kids who came from their bodies and, presumably, love them unconditionally. They aren’t scared or lost in this world of wealth like Chris is. They’ve reached domestic transcendence. Chris especially fixates on the breast-feeding because, to him, it’s something so natural, loving, and nourishing which he will never be capable of. As a gay man, he knows he will never be able to have a child in this way, even as he’s reduced to Harry’s “wife.” I think the scene with Leandra at the dinner party is a mixture of insane hope, deliberate self-sabotage, and learned behaviors. He wants acceptance so badly, but doesn’t know how to assimilate—back in LA, I imagine he mostly connected with people through drugs and alcohol. But this isn’t his LA. He knows that, but hopes that Leandra is some magic fluke who will shatter his own illusions about North Carolina and this new world around him.
Building on that question: what is it that attracts Nina and Chris to one another? Of course
there’s the Harry/Richard connection, but what do you see as being at the very center of their relationship? And what is the reader to make of Nina’s final email, “clearheaded and perfect,” promising to run away with Chris?
I think Nina and Chris are, to some extent, friends by default. They’re caught in the stuffy
languor of their lives and using each other to try to figure themselves out. At first, I think they’re only talking at each other—depending on your outlook on the ending, maybe they still are. But I think a switch happens, when they both realize that they are not the people they’ve been pretending they are. They’re trapped in something beyond them. When Nina realizes this—spurred by Chris’ relapse—she escapes her email purgatory and is finally able to say: we can escape this. Maybe it’s short-sighted, but I do believe it’s the first time both of them finally take their lives into their own hands.
The flashbacks in the story, which have to do with Chris’s former (or not-so-former) relationship with cocaine and the single-life, occur in present tense, as the rest of the story occurs in past. I have my own theories, thematically speaking, for why that might be, but I’m curious to know if you had a conscious rationale for that choice. More broadly, how do formal and structural decisions like that tend to work their way into your composition? Are these planned moves, spontaneous, little bit of both?
In every story I write, I’m looking for some moment to become formally and structurally
unbound. So, a kind of planned spontaneity, or one that I hope to find. I switched to
present-tense flashbacks here when I was feeling stuck, and it immediately made the way clear. There’s a variety of reasons why I changed tense (and am happy that you have your own theories): firstly, I liked the idea of making a flashback feel more immediate and vivid than the actual present, because that’s exactly how Chris feels about his life at this point. The past is more real and, in a way, still happening to him. I also like the idea that he’s reciting these memories out loud to somebody—maybe Nina. And lastly, I wanted the ending to feel ambiguous and out-of-time. Maybe Chris has snapped into the realness of his life and is really seeing, as he says, that what’s in front of him is in front of him. Whether that’s through his escape with Nina, or with Harry and Richard who he’s returned to, I’m not sure (but have a guess). Or maybe he’s still caught in the slipstream of the past and this is just another memory giving him hope that he can achieve some great revelation, or confirmation that he never will.
This is a story that doesn’t shy away from big themes: class, sexual orientation, addiction,
parenting, and (naturally) compulsive masturbation. Big, nationally pertinent themes. Yet it
handles the subject matter nimbly; it’s never didactic. It’s very funny. I’ve heard writers talk
about constantly correcting, or balancing out these questions of tone, as they revise, and I’m
curious to know what your revision process looks like. Does the basic tone and shape appear in the first draft, or do things change drastically? Or does it depend on the story?
Tone is where I feel most confident as a writer. I am insecure and whiny about a million other
things, but when I start writing a story, I have a very good handle on the tone I want to achieve. Or, if I find that I’m not achieving it, I abandon the story like a coward. So maybe it’s not that I’m across-the-board good at it, but I have hit the mark enough times for me to believe that there’s some capability there. In any case, I’m glad you thought it wasn’t didactic, which is one of my big fears as a writer. I don’t like prescriptive things, and even with the most gut-wrenching sorrow—my preferred subject matter—I need a little bit of humor.
This may sound conceited, but actually it’s lazy: I don’t do huge revisions. I will start and stop a story a million times over, but once I finish a story, I usually only go back to fiddle with
paragraphs, cut unnecessary scenes/sentences, and try to make everything shine. I don’t often do major rehauls. Again, I think that’s partly laziness but also partly because I’m in revision mode as soon as I write the first sentence. I need a good scaffolding of words to build off.
In your unofficial bio, you mentioned growing up in rural Oregon, working as a ranch-hand,
drag queen, and muralist’s assistant. Can I ask what the best and/or worst day jobs you’ve ever had were? How has writing fit into your working life? Do you have an MFA, or do you consider yourself more self-taught? Do you have any advice for young writers out there, trying to pay the bills while cultivating a so-called literary life?
My best day-job, which was only a week in college, was working as a receptionist for a Batman virtual-reality game. My professor hired me as a ditzy secretary character to check people in and prime them for the experience. I got to concoct a beautiful backstory for this idiot secretary, dole it out in pieces to different guests, and play Enya on a loop all day.
As far as worst jobs, dishwashing sucked. I lost my fingerprints for a few months from the water and heat. I’m a caregiver now, which has been a good, steady job that gives me time to write. It’s hard: I need these jobs and experiences to feel like I have something to write about (not to mention finance my life), but it’s a struggle to find the time and energy to actually do that writing. Usually, I end up working in fits and starts and sporadic bursts. The idea of a routine appeals to me but I haven’t been able to nail one down yet. As far as schooling—I don’t have an MFA, but I do have a BFA in Screenwriting from USC. I wrote prose as a kid, then fell in love with the idea of writing TV, then graduated college and couldn’t get a job, and returned to prose through a writers’ group that one of my professors was a part of. (The same professor who hired me as the receptionist, in fact. Maureen is the best.) That screenwriting experience helped hone my prose writing, and when I get tired of one, I go back to the other.
For advice, I don’t have a lot. Find jobs with lots of downtime. Try to live in areas with other
young artists who also feel lost. Experience as much strangeness as you can. Make different
kinds of art. For birthdays and Christmas, ask for subscriptions to literary journals. (Like the
Potomac Review!) Try to engage with art as much as you can, and try to make it good art.
Although, I never feel more literary than when I encounter something I despise and can shit-talk it with my friends. Respectfully.
Who are the writers that are really exciting to you right now? We could be talking dead,
contemporary, whatever you’d like.
This story was heavily influenced by Lorrie Moore, who I mentioned before and love. Lately, I’m ecstatic about Helen DeWitt and Kathy Acker (RIP), whose The Last Samurai and Blood and Guts in High School blew my mind in surprisingly similar ways. I just read amazing stories by Addie Citchens and Kate Riley in the winter issue of The Paris Review and promptly ordered Riley’s new book, Miriam. And Jennifer Egan, Annie Proulx, Kelly Link, and Derek McCormack are perennial favorites.
Do you have any projects you’re excited about at the moment? Anything you’d like our readers to know about?
I’m in a bit of a flux state right now—working on a bunch of stories I can’t nail down and
desperately trying to figure out how to write a novel. Me and my friend Emily are currently
making a zine, so if there are any readers in Los Angeles, stay tuned for the launch and maybe even a release party with cake.
Wilhelm Sitz is a writer from rural Oregon. Now, he lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southeast Review, Sycamore Review, and Sundog Lit.