Tod Wodicka has pulled off a tough mix of humor and drama in his debut novel, All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. His lead character, Burt Hecker, has made a mess of his life by running to the past, specifically, his love for medieval history, choosing to eschew almost everything that wasn’t available before 1200 A.D. This makes for some obviously comic moments, but Hecker is no nerdy caricature. He’s a 63-year-old man who has alienated his family in the wake of his wife’s death, and if you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry as he digs himself a deeper hole, do both. They’re both right.
The other amazing trick Wodicka pulls off is making Hecker’s choices seem almost normal in comparison to the other characters. Everyone in the book, and perhaps everyone reading the book, is stuck in some version of the past of their own making. So why should it seem strange that Hecker is stuck in 1200 AD?
I caught up with the Glenn Falls, NY native by e-mail to talk about the book, his inspiration, and his suspicion that Rikki Rocket of Poison wasn’t a very good drummer.
How long was this story in your head before you got to writing it down? Were you a scholar of medieval history before this, or did you have to study it to construct Burt Hecker?
No, I wasn’t a scholar of medieval history, or involved with re-enactment or anything like that. I do have a genuine love and interest in all things medieval though, and the novel, in some ways, was an excuse to submerge myself in that for a while. (In the same way my new novel is now an excuse to get all dippy-headed and esoteric and drive myself crazy with stuff like DMT, shamanism, experimental rock, dream research and … kinky sex.) Like Burt, I’m more of a romantic than your hardcore academic or scholar … I’d rather wander drunkenly around ruins and read weird history books than commit myself to the drudgery of learning Latin or anything like that.
The story of Burt had a pretty long gestation period, and I approached it in a manner I call Method Writing. To write as Burt I spent at least a year only reading medieval books, listening to medieval music, and visiting places Burt was to visit. I had to know what he knows for this to work. It was an immersive and, looking back on it, certainly kind of a sick (and possibly harmful) experience. (My now ex-wife kicked me out just before I started the book!) I took thousands and thousands of pages of notes and to top it off, shortly before I finished the novel, I even made a son of my own. Debatable whether I did this for art’s sake or not.
A lot of reviews have mentioned how you balance humorous and moving moments --what they don't mention is that they are often the same moment. The story of how Burt and Kitty meet, Burt talking to his daughter from a club in Europe -- they manage to be simultaneously funny and sad. How did you approach writing those moments? Was there any accidental humor there?
Primarily, I see the book as one about Voice. That was the hardest and most important thing to nail. Someone once asked me if I would or could tell the story in third-person, and the answer is no, that was never an option. Wouldn’t be interesting that way. For me, it was all about getting this voice on the page, and that voice, through Burt’s idiosyncratic use of language, self-delusion, screwed and myopic perspective, and general unreliability, is essentially a comic voice. He gives away so much without meaning to.
However, the story is anything but comic. It’s a melancholy book, a sad book, but because of the way this guy tells his tale, it’s my hope that it can be a funny book as well. I mean, some of shit Burt says still makes me laugh, but it’s always in the context of this life spiraling way out of control. I really like the humor inherent in a certain lack of self-awareness, stuff like Waiting for Guffman or the UK Office (though I like the US Office too) – these are tragedies, in my opinion, that are incredibly funny. I think Part One sort of sets things up as a picaresque kind of thing, gets the reader comfortable before pulling out the rug and jumping deep down into the heart of this mess of a man. Good times!
Burt often says, when speaking of the things most important to him, that he won't describe them. And that winds up telling us more about them somehow. Was it hard to discipline yourself in those moments, to keep from defining those things in too much detail?
No, it wasn’t hard. By the time I started writing I knew the character, knew so much about him that I simply couldn’t put it all in the book. This, for me, is a good way of working. Once you know the character and the book that well you can start leaving stuff out in very precise ways, and I think the reader can then sense there’s more going on than Burt’s willing or able to divulge and that makes the character and the reading of the novel that much more of a deeper experience. That said, and with 20/20 hindsight, there are a few occasions that I feel I did put too much in, but I won’t tell you where … For every character, and even characters I just mention in passing, I created incredibly detailed histories, I knew their whole life story and knew their family’s history. One of those characters, Howie Katsav, Lonna’s ex-husband, is now going to be in my new novel, actually.
Your descriptions are exacting and unusual -- "plebian trees," "a brass spider of a chandelier," the occasional beach ball floated like a doomed aria." Is there any particular writer or combination of writers that inspired that in your writing?
Oh, I’m sure. But I couldn’t really point to any off the top of my head. I mean, growing up I was a huge anglophile – Evelyn Waugh was a huge influence early on. But then when I moved to England and went to university there I discovered American writers, and it was like suddenly finding a voice that fit, a real epiphany. Pynchon, I’d say, sent me spinning, and mostly for his prose, his rhythm and imagery. Say what you want about his themes and inscrutability, the man is probably the best English prose writer living. I even got a Crying of Lot 49 tattoo when I was 19! Other writers I love and who have certainly influenced me: Philip Roth, Nabokov, W. G. Sebald, Gaddis, Fitzgerald, Bowles, DeLillo … the list is pretty long. Lots of old white men.
There's a strong feeling of impermanence in the book, that everyone is creating their own illusion. Is that something you see in everyday life, that people are doing that in their daily lives?
Yes, absolutely. I was first attracted to medieval re-enactment for its satirical purposes, however I soon began to see the beauty in it, and then I started seeing everything as a form or re-enactment, from family to culture. Again, probably not the healthiest way to look at the world, but there you go. Costumes, masks, illusions, self-delusion, re-enactment … I was also reading a lot of W. G. Sebald when writing the book, and though you couldn’t think of a more different author to myself than Sebald, he’s really sort of the Sad Prince of Impermanence…
Did living in Berlin inform the writing of the book at all?
I started formulating the novel in the US, at the actual Mansion Inn, where I worked as an innkeeper for about a year. Then I moved back to Prague where I did more research and eventually started the novel. I finished the novel in a nine-month race with the fetus that was to become my son, Louis. Is fetus the right word? Anyway, I finished the book in rural Germany, a deadzone of a town called Kleve, and only moved to Berlin after it was finished. I love Berlin but don’t like anywhere else in Germany all that much. So, short answer: Prague and rural Germany and the Mansion Inn influenced the book, but not Berlin.
You described Burt Hecker as an asshole with a heart of gold. To me, he seemed to fall somewhere between Ignatius J. Reilly and Chauncey Gardner. Were Confederacy of Dunces and Being There an influence on your character construction?
No, not at all. I’ve never read Being There - though I’m a big Hal Ashby fan, and like the film – and I’d totally forgotten Confederacy of Dunces when I started writing the book. (It’s an incredible book, Dunces, but I find myself less interested in satire these days – I remember when I read Dunces thinking that, for all its genius, it kind of went on a bit too long…) It was only later that people started mentioning Dunces and the obvious similarities between Burt and Ignatius. Doh! They’re kindred spirits for sure, but there wasn’t any kind of influence there, not overt anyway, and if I had remembered Dunces I probably would have changed a couple of things in my novel that might be seen as too close to the other book.
As a drummer, since you mentioned this in an interview, I will confirm it for you. Rikki Rocket does, in fact, as he told your sister, suck. Even if he spells Rikki with two k's and stands up when he plays.
Ha – you know, I was a big Poison fan in my youth. On the back of middle-school notebooks I used to design incredible sets for Poison to film their signature videos on. Incredible arabesques with drumsets set behind neon green waterfalls, bridges where C.C. could run across pits of lava while drooling out some solo or whatever, towers from which to sing down the Gods of Rock. Cages with women. Cages with toothy neon green animals. Drumsets with fifteen bass drums. Cymbals hanging from mechanical devices that spun around and lit up like that thing from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. AWESOME!
What made you decide to tell this story through the eyes of a 63-year-old man in Upstate New York? What sort of connection did you feel to him, personally?
Well, I’m from upstate NY. Town called Queensbury, which is next to Glens Falls. And the real Mansion Inn - www.themansionsaratoga.com – is in a town called Rock City Falls. Thus my Queens Falls. I’m setting my new novel there too.
As far as a connection to Burt – well, we have a lot in common. (It’s been said that maybe I’m an asshole without that heart of gold.) Obsessions, childishness, selfishness, a romantic disposition, a taste for alcohol … I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I really only totally clicked with the novel when my girlfriend announced she was pregnant and suddenly the whole book became a kind of cautionary tale directed at myself. Don’t fuck this up, being the main thing.
As far as age, I’ve always been more interested in older people than younger people. I’m pretty disgusted with our culture’s obsession with youth.
Are you working on a follow-up book yet? It seems it would be hard to write something that felt of a piece with "All Shall Be Well."
Yes, it’s called The Household Spirit. It’s incredibly different in every way from my first book – because you’re right, there’s no formula to something like Burt, and I have no interest right now in writing another voice-based, first-person, character-based work. Burt’s a one-off for sure. The new book is third-person, and far more straight-forward as far as narrative is concerned. (But far weirder in every other way.) Maybe it’s something like an existential horror novel … with humor and, as I’ve said, kinky sex and psychedelic drugs and gay fathers and failed rock and rollers.