The Conversation: Sean Wilsey

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A Zealot and a Sybarite

A conversation with Sean Wilsey

By Ben Schneider

Sean Wilsey is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Oh the Glory of it All, which details
his at once charmed and traumatic childhood among the eccentrics of San Francisco high society. His
most recent book is
More Curious, a wide-ranging collection of essays about rats, soccer, skateboarding
and America. He is currently working on another memoir, this one about his salacious family history.
Since 1999, he has been Editor at Large at
McSweeneys. Wilsey also spent five years at the New
Yorker, where he was Managing Editor of Fiction, among other positions. Benjamin Schneider, CC ’17,
spoke to Wilsey—for whom he has recently begun interning—over rosés at Mekelberg’s in Clinton Hill.


The Blue and White: How does it make you feel knowing that your readers have such an intimate picture of your childhood and other personal experiences you’ve had throughout your life? Does that ever make you uncomfortable?

Sean Wilsey: Not really. I think what would make me uncomfortable is the reader who has a really keen eye for errors in terms of sentence structure and grammar and would call me out on bad writing. That would make feel really uncomfortable. That would make me feel really exposed and vulnerable. But talking about stuff that’s happened to me when I was a kid, when I’m forty years past all that—it’s like who cares? I’m not really writing about stuff that’s intimate and confusing. And I think confusion is kind of the key there. I think I get embarrassed when I don’t understand something. Embarrassment for me has its root in error and mistake and misreading a situation.

B&W: So it’s all about the writing?

SW: Yeah. I feel like there’s such a convention in reviewing where you have to just synopsize the book. It’s so boring. It doesn’t tell you anything in terms of whether you want to read it. Is anyone like, ooh I really want to read a story about this or that? No, I want to read a story that’s told well, by somebody who cares and has something to convey. I’ll read any story about anywhere, and I don’t know who that reader supposedly is who only wants to read stories set in Maine or that involve whales, or anything like that.

B&W: That’s not how it works.

SW: No! So when somebody would review [Oh the Glory of it All] and talk about it as a piece of writing and when it worked and when it didn’t work and how certain things were shaded in such a way to reveal other things, that’s when I was like, yeah, cool, that’s what I want. Because I feel like everybody’s got interesting stories, but if you can figure out a way to tell them that will be edifying and hold someone else’s attention, that’s when it’ll be worth all the work.

B&W: So has your creative process shifted between your first book and your subsequent book of essays and your forthcoming book?

SW: I wrote a novel before Oh the Glory that never got published. I worked on that book so hard on the level of the sentence and I remember it got rejected by every agent. Really I think I tried every single person who was a literary agent in New York at that time. And they all said, “Great writing, but I don’t understand what the hell is happening in the story.” And it pushed me to be a non-fiction writer, because I found myself incapable of making up a story. I didn’t even understand how people make up stories. But I think the more you learn about writing, the more you realize that most people don’t make up stories. Most novels are collections of thefts from people’s lives that are stitched together in a satisfying way.

B&W: Like the saying, “Write what you know.”

SW: Yeah well I just felt really wrong stealing things, which is kind of strange, because of course writing something where you use actual names can be seen as a huge violation, because those people didn’t sign up to be turned into a character in a book when they did the stuff that they did. I think I have a lot more consciousness about that now. In Oh the Glory, I was like, I have every right to tell this story. I was just a kid when this stuff happened. And I believe very strongly in that still. I have pretty much no right to write about my kids except in the most innocuous, “this is how cute my kids are” way.

B&W: Are you saying there’s an element of karmic retribution in some of the things you’ve written about your family and your childhood?

SW: No, I’m just talking about power. I think that the people who have a right to tell their story are the people who have less power. And I think it balances the scales. You always have to be aware of that stuff. Now that I have a certain amount of power as an adult, I think my responsibility to what I say is really different.

B&W: I want to hear more about the relationship between writing and power. You write a lot of skateboarding, and at least during your youth in the ’80s and early ’90s, skateboarding was a sort of outsider identity.

SW: So outsider.

B&W: So how do you feel looking at the history of skateboarding or other outsider identities that you have an affinity with, and seeing them become mainstream and commodified, and yet, at the same time, they’re more accessible than they once were?

SW: I don’t like what’s happened to skateboarding that much. But I don’t think it’s that different from what’s happened to a lot of activities outside of the mainstream that have now been snapped up by people who can make money off of them. That’s all that’s happened to skateboarding; there’s a parasitic corporate culture attached to it. I think you can say the same thing about soccer, but to an exponentially greater degree. It used to be so small time. Even in the World Cup there used to be amateurs, people who had day jobs. And now it’s just a global juggernaut. I don’t think skateboarding’s ever gonna go that far.

Skateboarding is so homegrown, it’s so American. It’s really difficult to skateboard in a lot of places outside the US because the pavement quality isn’t as good. You can’t skateboard in Italy. You hardly see anyone skating there, because it’s all cobblestones. And I feel like skating in a skate park is a totally different pursuit. What I love about skating is laying that skateboard down when I walk out my front door and never picking it up. And I guess I got attracted to gondola rowing because it’s kind of the same idea. It’s even a similar stance; it’s kind of weird. And it allows you to the see the city in a new way.

I love the relationship to your environment that comes with skating. All the stuff that’s fucked up about America is suddenly great when you’re on a skateboard. You’re like “Ugh, it’s so paved, it’s so ugly,” but you get to have these gritty, intimate, beautiful experiences in this ugly landscape. And to me it’ll always be a California thing.

B&W: Going back to soccer… In your second book, More Curious, you embark on some pretty esoteric projects. You write about watching the entirety of the 1970 World Cup on VHS, which, interestingly enough, is also your birth year. And then there’s your journey from Marfa, Texas to New York City in a 1960 Chevy Apache, which had a max speed of forty-five miles per hour. Do you have any more of these journeys on the docket?

SW: Well I did one for the book I’m working on now, which was to row around the Venetian lagoon in a Venetian boat and camp out on all these abandoned islands. Those are the parts of Venice that nobody knows anymore, but are just as Venetian as anywhere else. I guess that’s what I’m always after—I’m after some sort of intimacy, and that felt really intimate. I’m actually building a boat in my backyard—in fact I need to keep working on it tomorrow—and the idea with that is to row it around the New York harbor, and camp out on all these abandoned islands out there.

B&W: That’s so cool.

SW: Yeah, except that it’s going to result in an immediate confrontation with the cops. Although there is an artist named Marie Lorenz who built her own boat and has done a lot of similar rowing around, and she always gets away with it. There’s something about a rowboat that’s so stripped down and kind of harmless. It’s like a skateboard. It’s nothing to be too concerned about. Although what I’d really like to do is, a lot of the bridges have these amazing anchorages that go down into the rivers. That would be a great place to spend the night.

B&W: Your World Cup project was an intimate experience with a mass media spectacle. But I’m really interested in this idea of intimacy with the city—with skateboarding, with this rowing adventure. What compels you to nestle into the dark corners of the city?

SW: I guess just the desire for a genuine experience.

B&W: Is that hard to come by these days?

SW: Yeah. Don’t you think?

B&W: Yeah [laughter]. It was a leading question.

SW: It’s really hard to come by. Really hard. Everything is so predetermined now.

B&W: I like the word “curated.”

SW: Yeah, you’re just expected to do things one way. And as soon as you step out of that way, there are a lot of impediments, but it’s suddenly much more interesting. Like driving that truck from Texas back to New York. Just the simple act of driving lower than the speed limit was so subversive. Of course it makes no sense that we’ve decided to base our economy on cars. There are so many ways cars could go wrong, because they’re all driven by people. Trains make so much more sense. There’s the track, the driver, nothing’s going to get in the way of it. The margin of error with cars is so great. And I got really curious about how much money I had cost the economy just by slowing down the roads with one car. I did a lot of talking to various bureaus of commerce, and at the very least, I cost America $500,000. At the most it might have been $30 million.

B&W: I think there’s definitely a burgeoning potential for these seemingly benign forms of civil disobedience, looking for glitches in the system. Especially when our society feels so much like some sort of internet-enabled machine.

SW: “Seemingly benign” is a really good phrase. Because no one’s really going to be attracted by seemingly benign, but it’s actually effective.

B&W: But what is it accomplishing?

SW: I think there’s a growing awareness in our society that none of what we’re accustomed to and take for granted is actually sustainable. We’re probably living in a very unusual moment when it’s just okay to throw out tons of trash. And it’s okay to have an internal combustion engine. None of that stuff can last.

B&W: To have a university with an endowment in the tens of billions of dollars just sitting there—what is that doing for anybody?

SW: Right. And so I think once people become aware, I think there’s this revolutionary potential. But I think people are super freaked-out. I’m afraid. I like cars, I like taking out the trash [laughs]. I’m like, well, what’s it gonna be like if I don’t get to do that stuff? It’s funny because Venice is this place that I’m really obsessed with, and Venice is a really interesting example of a place that kind of came out of an apocalypse. The Roman empire collapsed, and the Barbarians were coming down and wreaking terrible destruction. And so the people who lived in the Roman city on the edge of the lagoon fled into the lagoon. And it was really primitive, they were just living in mud huts and they had boats. But no one came after them. And then it grew up into this glorious place.

B&W: So is that a potential metaphor for future America?

SW: Well I guess so. When you look at Venice, it’s kind of a city based on fear. It was a place where people fled. It was probably really miserable living in Venice for the first hundred years. But now, that city is the ultimate human accomplishment, it’s so beautiful and surprising and strange; it rivals nature. But that’s not how it started out. No one wanted to leave their comfortable, protected, Roman situation and go live in some mud hut in a lagoon. So something has to change, obviously, in our country.

B&W: I think there’s something to be said about the contemporary American city being built on fear.

SW: I always think of the suburbs as being built on fear.

B&W: But as the city suburbanizes, creating spaces that feel safe for the types of people who live in the suburbs, I think it’s a similar logic. And then I think the threat of terrorism is really boosting that whole ideology.

SW: What are people most afraid of? They’re afraid of violence and poverty. Those are the things I’m most afraid of. I don’t want to be hurt, and I don’t want to be destitute. And I guess purposelessness is something people are afraid of. There was one throwaway line in More Curious, where I volunteered at this support center for 9/11 victims. And we were getting all worked up, like, man, why do we have to be fighting against Islamic extremism? Why can’t we be fighting a value system like the one in Spain? They would be like, “Take more naps! Stop working so hard!”

B&W: If they were after us they would have convinced everyone to join.

SW: It’s the difference between a zealot and sybarite. And we’re kind of zealots in America, too. I mean look at the way Donald Trump has been able to work the population into a total froth with a bunch of bullshit. And I think the supposed tenets of Islam that are used to incite violence are total bullshit. But they’re effective. They’re easy answers to complicated questions. And sitting around, eating a nice lunch and taking a nap—that’s not an easy answer to a complicated question, that’s enjoying your life. Some people just aren’t able to do that. This is a bit of a stretch, but I’m sure there’s a certain type of personality that would way rather crash a plane into a building than have to sit and communicate and enjoy and take other people into account.

B&W: Or at least they’ve been inculcated into an ideology that makes them feel that way.

SW: Well it makes me think about masculinity. There’s a certain moment when you’re full of testosterone and you don’t know what to do with it [laughing]. There used to be a lot of opportunities for war and mayhem. In a weird way this comes back to what we were talking about with skateboarding. It used to be this thing that you could do that was outside of the mainstream. And I think the more the mainstream co-opts and monetizes desire, the more frustrated desire becomes. You’re like, “Oh I just want to go out and raise hell! But somebody is making money off me raising hell.”

B&W: I can think of so many places where that idea applies—when young people’s energy is directed in socially acceptable, monetizable ways.

SW: Yes! And it’s fucked up. That’s why I hate San Francisco as it now exists, with its internet identity. I find it disgusting. It’s all about monetizing desire, but it’s so empty, it’s so banal. But it’s really seductive. One of the pieces I didn’t put in More Curious was this piece about Steve Jobs and Apple for Bloomberg Businessweek. I remember watching a speech that he gave, I think at Stanford.

B&W: Is that the famous commencement speech where he announces he has cancer?

SW: Yeah, but it’s terrible. It was completely shallow, and just full of applause lines and platitudes. Whereas the famous Foster Wallace speech [“This is Water”]—there are speeches that make you feel good and there are speeches that make you think. And that speech doesn’t make you think it all. It makes you think Steve Jobs is really cool and it makes you feel really good about yourself for going to Stanford.

B&W: So if you were to give a commencement address, what would you say?

SW: [Laughs] Thanks for the softball question. That’s a good question to ask somebody with a lot invested in the status quo. And I do have a lot invested in the status quo. I like to have my fun and I like to subvert the status quo in my way. But I also have an established career and I have children in school and I have to pay their private school tuition. So how much do I want to upend the status quo? To be really honest, it’s not in my self-interest to do so. But I would never say that to a graduating class. I would want to completely urge them to upend the status quo. It’s an uncomfortable paradox for me.

And I actually think the very idea of targeting a piece of thought to a specific age demographic is a little elitist. I would never ever agree to give a commencement speech because I would just not want to segregate people based on age. We’re all in it together. Among people my age, and I’m forty five, there’s a lot of hemming and hawing about getting old; your body, your weight, your hair—it’s all so shallow. And I think it’s all sold to us. I think the whole idea of generational segregation is a total corporate concept. So there, that’s my commencement address. I would address it to everyone. It’s such a cop out to just tell people who are graduating college to go change the world. You’re still alive, you go change the world.