Tarn Wilson tells us:
When I was in my twenties, I joined a writing group of more experienced writers, which, for fifteen years, felt like having my own creative writing graduate program. Mike Karpa was a founding member of that group, so I was thrilled for him when he published his newest novel, The Wealthy Whites of Williamsburg, which received a strongly positive review from Kirkus and won this year’s San Francisco Book Festival’s LGTBQ+ novel of the year.
As I read, I was full of admiration for his plotting and pacing, his thought-provoking themes, and his complex and believable characters. I also felt sorry I no longer had a backstage pass to his writing process: to the false starts, moments of insights, and countless decisions on the way to a final draft. I started jotting a list of questions I wanted to ask him–and then realized that his answers could be meaningful, not just to me, but to other readers and writers.
In our conversation, Mike shares the surprising origin story for his novel, reveals secrets for writing compelling characters and settings, gives some counterintuitive advice for pacing a story, and reflects on the ethics of being an artist and the value of reading your own work as if you were watching a movie.
She begins her interview here:
How did you come to write The Wealthy Whites of Williamsburg?
Like a lot of people, my first exposure to writing as a serious project was a class. For me, it was a local community college class. We read and wrote short fiction. And when I got better at it, I wanted to get published. So I sent out short stories to contests. And lost them. Like, all of them. (I was “almost a finalist” once.)
A side effect of this process was that, in exchange for my entry fees, I got subscriptions. So literary magazines began to pile up around the house. I found myself surrounded by more than I could read. But at the same time, I didn’t want to just get rid of them. So the summer of 2018, I decided to read them. All of them.
I gathered them up, particularly Missouri Reviews and Mississippi Reviews and some Tin Houses. Maybe a couple Crazyhorses. I read in bed, I read in the living room, I read in cafés. I read in the hot tub. I read in the bathtub. And soon I began to notice a sameness.
Wanting to win a contest, or get published, or be a Pushcart nominee, or experience any of the wonderful things that can happen to you as a writer for short fiction, I began thinking about writing specifically toward that end. So I began to write down what that would be, describing all the things that go into contest-winning short fiction, as published by the literary magazine of today. And the past. And the distant past.
Winning stories would often feature someone of substantial financial means, someone who might live in New York, especially New York City. Maybe Canada. They would often have prestigious jobs. And difficult marriages, probably marriages that were failing but not actually failed. They had complex families, maybe blended families, and they often had a dead child (for winning stories) or a missing child (for a finalist story), or a child in serious jeopardy. Tasteful jeopardy, though. Think car crashes, cancer wards.
Before I knew it, this description I was writing of what it would take to win a Pushcart nomination turned into a metafiction piece of its own. I workshopped it, I read it at some readings locally in the Bay Area, and I sent it out. And the Tahoma Literary Review published it (in issue 15, under the title Because of Course: An Award-winning Story). Readers who are writers probably had a knowing laugh or two.
The funny thing is, though, that as I assembled all the standard pieces, I came to really like the story. Embarrassingly so. No wonder stories with these elements win contests. So I started writing it.
I discovered, as I wrote, however, that snarkiness that works in short fiction does not work in a novel. My metafiction piece was unsustainable. I knew people would get impatient and frustrated with it. I softened the edges, I took out the affairs (sort of), and I had the characters treat each other better than they had in the metafiction piece. And before you knew it, I liked my characters. And I didn’t want to cause harm to them. And with that, the novel The Wealthy Whites of Williamsburg came to be. Because, in the end, if you want readers to love your characters, you kind of have to do the same.
Some of your characters have a biographical element. For example, like Casey and Ihsan, you are a translator. However, most of the characters are not directly autobiographical, yet feel so believable: Roger is an NYU film professor who in his youth wrote a well-received screenplay and now fears he has become irrelevant. His wife, Casey, is consumed by her desire to be accepted by the wealthier mothers at the private school their daughter, Abby, attends. Five-year-old Abby is obsessed with the singer Lizzo. Demmy, Roger’s daughter from his first marriage, is a high school senior in a Japanese immersion private school, worried about her applications to Ivy League colleges. In the second half of the book, we meet Ihsan, a gay French-Libyan navigating racism in Paris, and Sarah, a young woman who works at a souvenir shop in Memphis. How did you make your characters feel alive and believable? What did you have to access inside yourself? Did you do research, as well? Which characters were easiest and most difficult for you to write and understand?
I drew on being a linguist to create the through-line of the role of language in society: Casey studying in Mexico, Ihsan living in three languages, Demmy with her immersion school and tutoring Marie, and dialect differences between characters of different ages and geographical locals. As a language learner, I had fun with Roger’s language struggles in Europe.
I did connect with some character details. I’m obsessed with Lizzo, and while not a professor with a Ph.D. and tenure, I am an adjunct instructor in an online MA program, though that’s a very recent thing. Honestly, they were all easy to write. And fun. It was wish fulfillment: Ihsan has no insecurities about his body, and Sarah’s got the emotional equivalent, inborn hopefulness. Roger tries hard and is so sincere, though he takes much for granted. Demmy has this high-school experience of friends and insider knowledge I never had but wanted. Even the loss and grief parts were satisfying because I got to express emotionally tough feelings in a more complete way than is possible by talking. The toughest person to write was Casey, because I thought people would look down on her choices even though those choices were motivated by care for her daughters. I didn’t want to give away too much too soon, but I worried readers would give up on her if I didn’t reveal something. Hence the prologue.
Among the minor characters, Ihsan was a burst of unapologetic joy in being alive who lets you know the second half will be a different experience from the first half. I’ve spent a lot of my life in Asia, including when very young, so I sometimes feel like a foreigner in the US even though I’m not. For that reason, I like characters who belong and don’t at the same time. A gay character accentuates that because no matter how accepting the world is of gay people, we will always be a tiny minority. Ihsan was like, So what? I’m me. And happy with me. I don’t need validation.
I am particularly obsessed with Sherbeam, Roger’s dramatic and narcissistic mother who is a painter of some renown. I love-hate her. I am mesmerized by her confidence, ambition, sense of drama, and ability to use the media to promote her ends. She can have a wacky kind of wisdom, even generosity. At the same time, she is unremorseful, maybe even gleeful, about the suffering she causes her family and friends as if their pain is her performance art. I’d love to hear more about how she came to be and your relationship to her.
The core emotion behind my writing Sherbeam is guilt. Writers draw on life, which is filled with people, so you risk exploiting and harming them. Sometimes I regret what I write. I try to be respectful, but I write about my life, and I live in relation to others. So when I charge ahead, I see Sherbeam in myself. But I’ve also been on the receiving end of artistic willingness to risk causing pain. I kind of hate it.
I wanted to showcase both the pain and the art. And to give alternatives: Sherbeam’s artist friend Maude gets along fine not harming people. Roger (it is revealed) is willing to harm himself through art. He knows how to survive being harmed. I don’t know if it resonates, but toward the end, Roger’s film buddies say something like “Please tell me the new project is not about your mother.” That’s an acknowledgment of the temptation to exploit and a suggestion that we can leave it behind by getting better at art.
Books about writing often advise us to limit the number of locations in our fiction and memoir to help create a sense of focus. Your book takes place in a wide range of locations–New York City, Barcelona, Paris, Memphis–yet it still feels focused. How did you keep that feeling of unity while navigating so many settings? And how did you make the different settings come alive?
In my mind, the setting is the social status of the core family. Part of that is the freedom to travel, including a vacation home, a summer internship in Spain for Demmy, writing retreats for Maude, gallery shows in Europe. These people inhabit a world of wealth, even while thinking of themselves struggling financially. This stands in contrast to the claustrophobic poverty of Casey’s past. I handled that contrast by having her look away from her past in the first half. Then, when Casey’s former settings enter the story, she flies back and forth whenever she feels like it, not even noting her freedom. That way, I could have my cake and eat it too: Casey becomes a tourist in her past, viewing her former haunts while remaining rooted in her new prosperity. In the end, she sets out to restore a grandeur in the past that never was and isn’t her own. I wonder how that will work out for her. In real life, it’s hard to live in more than one place. You have to have multiple sets of dishes, for starters.
The New York of the book is the product of my American consumer-culture imagination of that ever-present city. I had vowed to do no research but then started really getting into New York and thus wanted the details to not be grossly off. I wanted them to be a little off. You may have noticed some details are incorrect or conflated, like the 21st arrondissement, or combining Yaddo with the MacDowell Colony (no longer a “colony”), for example. But I kept deliberate satire light to convey that this was an imagined world without being distracting. Some of the settings, though, are more personal—my grandmother was from the Ozarks, an uncle worked in Memphis and he and his family lived in Arkansas, I’ve been to Cholula and Puebla—but I’ve never been to Barcelona or Stowe and only spent 20 hours in Paris, of which eight were asleep. Now I really want to visit Barcelona, Paris and Memphis.
Roger, the film professor, teaches the film Babel, which he describes as “hyperlink cinema,”or “a scriptwriting style that fractures the structure to gradually reveal connections between seemingly disparate storylines.” The structure of your book echoes hyperlink cinema: you have quite a few point-of-view characters and carefully pace the revelation of backstory and the connection between the characters. How did you decide on the structure of your book? At what point in the process did you decide that Babel would be a motif? What were the special challenges of writing a book with a complex structure?
I have a direct answer—I needed a professor, therefore NYU, therefore film, therefore film topic (hyperlink cinema), therefore Babel—but in truth, Babel wormed its own way in. When I started writing the film class scenes, I began researching potential lesson content and stumbled across hyperlink cinema. Then I needed some example films. I had earlier decided to drop the bitterness of the metafiction piece, so I was drawn to having Roger teach the films that I liked. And one of those was Babel. It was an emotional process, not an intellectual one. As the writing progressed, Babel had the most to say to this book’s characters. The connections—woven into the plot throughout the novel—evolved naturally. It’s a storytelling style I gravitate towards, both in films (Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, Christopher Nolan’s Memento) and in fiction: Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, which make you wonder which character is the “main” one.
The style created challenges in when to reveal information. I learned a lot from the process of structuring the book, mainly that when readers want to have questions answered, my responsibility is to NOT satisfy them. Not superficially, anyway. Saving the reveal for later is more satisfying, if you can hit the right beats. For that, I relied on my sense as a reader. When stuck, I shifted from writer-mind into reader-mind to ask myself is this suspenseful or just annoying? Purposeful or manipulative? Motivating or merely confusing? It was like watching a movie of me reading a book that I had yet to write.
Thank you, so much, for describing your writing process, Mike.
It was a pleasure to find my way back to how I wrote the book. Your questions were very thought-provoking, and it was so much fun to put down in words some of the mania that went through my head as I tried to figure out the book. Which I’m not sure I ever did, but hey, that’s not a bad thing.
Mike Karpa is also the author of the novel Criminals, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2022 (Indie) inspired by his years as a young adult in Japan, and the gay romance sci-fi novel Red Dot. A sequel, Green Dot, is in the works. His short fiction and memoir have been published in Tin House, Foglifter, and Oyster River Pages, among other magazines. He teaches Japanese translation in the online Masters in Translation program at Kent State University in Ohio. Learn more about Mike and his work at his website mikekarpa.com.