Author One-on-One: Antoine Wilson and Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of American Wife, The Man of My Dreams and Prep, which was chosen by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2005. Read her exclusive Amazon guest review of Panorama City.
Curtis Sittenfeld: Oppen Porter is endearing and often insightful, and he also has significant cognitive disabilities. How did you decide you wanted to tell his story?
Antoine Wilson: I wanted to write a novel from the perspective of someone who seemed, on the surface, to be a fool, an idiot, a doofus. I was inspired by Sancho Panza and Candide. But I let Oppen do something those forebears weren’t able to do: speak for himself, in his own voice. As for his so-called cognitive disabilities (he’s illiterate and preternaturally naïve), they provide a kind of detour around two distractions of contemporary life—information overload and mistrust of others—to arrive at something essential and true.
CS: Do you feel as if you know how a doctor would diagnose Oppen? If so, why did you choose not to mention what that diagnosis would be?
AW: I don’t believe in diagnosing literary characters. As useful as diagnoses can be in real life, they tend to reduce even living, breathing human beings into a list of symptoms and treatments. Apply that kind of constricting language to a literary character—who is after all only a cluster of words—and it’s like letting the air out of a balloon.
CS: Oppen has many entertaining philosophies about the world and its inhabitants. Are any of his views ones you especially share?
AW: Most problems can be solved by waiting. People who walk with their arms swinging look like apes.
CS: Much of the book is, directly and indirectly, about father-son relationships. Could you have written this novel if you weren’t a father yourself?
AW: While I was writing this book, my father died and my son was born. Never before have I felt so much like a link in the chain of generations. It’s no coincidence that Oppen finds himself in the same position, with a father just dead and a little boy on the way. I didn’t approach Panorama City as a transcript of my experience, obviously, but without these experiences I would never have written this particular book.
CS: Oppen finds himself in some interesting sub-communities, including as an employee of a fast food restaurant and a member of a Christian fellowship, and you depict these settings very convincingly. Do you have personal experience with them? Did you do research to get your details right?
AW: I have had enough personal experience with those sub-communities that what little research I did came after the draft was done, in the form of a kind of fiction-writer fact-checking. I’m not a research-first kind of novelist, mainly because I have trouble injecting facts into the part of my brain that generates fictional worlds.
CS: On a similar note, did you spend much time in Panorama City while writing this novel? Would a resident recognize the city, or did you fictionalize it?
AW: Any resident of the San Fernando Valley (or greater Los Angeles) would recognize the world of Panorama City, I'm certain. There’s a Babies R Us in Panorama City, so I tended to kill two birds with one stone, parental duties and novel research. The setting is not 1:1 with the real world, though, so there won’t be any Ulysses-type walking tours, I’m afraid. Maybe for the next book.
I shot a lot of photographs, too. Some went into a book, Shopping Carts of Panorama City, by my alter ego Jean-Jacques Arsenault.
CS: In addition to writing fiction, you maintain a few side projects on your website, including the oddly fascinating "Slow Paparazzo," which shows photos that purport to be places celebrities have just left. Is this really, as the site claims, “100% for reals,” and can you explain its genesis?
AW: Slow Paparazzo (http://theywerejusthere.tumblr.com) is indeed “100% for reals!” Basically I kept seeing celebrities while I was out for the day, mostly around my writing office, which is on the border of Santa Monica and Brentwood. I got a kick out of my sightings but didn't want to skeeve out the famous people, so I started tweeting them as #mentalpaparazzo. Then, after nearly walking into Dave Grohl outside our local toy store, I thought I should take a picture of where he’d just been and tweet that. That was the genesis. A Slow Paparazzo book is in the works.
“Clever and wisely funny.”—Ellissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
"A gift . . . An astonishing narrative that offers the pleasures of irony without the sting . . . Nowhere in [Oppen's] purview is there blame or regret. He travels from innocence to experience without falling into disillusionment. The great triumph of the book is that Oppen matures without spoiling. He comes to affirm the integrity of his innocence, which is its own wisdom."—Amy Parker, Los Angeles Review of Books
"A crisp comic novel...This isn't, by heritage, a California book....Panorama City
's spent quality, its ruminative room, recalls some of the best of the mid-century South, New Orleans specifically, The Moviegoer
and A Confederacy of Dunces
, particularly. Those books never mistook time spent seeing through a cracked idea for a loss of urgency. Their absurdism was a claim on the page, a strong-arm of a story from the concluders...Wilson's [novel] is a trot and a treat."—Theo Schell-Lambert, San Francisco Chronicle
"In his second novel, Antoine Wilson brings much comedic grace and a sure feel for Southern California. In spots, Panorama City
is laugh-aloud funny, building toward a slapstick climax that the Marx Brothers might have relished . . . Wilson has said his aphoristic, funny novel is meant to make a case for direct observation over ideology. It does. It is also worth cheering for taking a route rare in serious contemporary fiction: finding a way to a happy ending."—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“As enjoyable a comic novel as I have read all year, a coming of age story that vividly captures the modern world through innocent eyes.”—Largehearted Boy
“Idiosyncratic…Charming…Indelible.”—Josh Mak, Flavorwire
"Oppen Porter is an American original, an innocent who believes he's bursting with wisdom. The funniest thing is that, despite himself, he actually is. Though it takes place in down-at-heel Panorama City with its crappy burger franchises and abandoned shopping carts, The World According to Oppen is full of wonders and mysteries." —Stewart O’Nan
" This funny and wise novel reminds one that the best fiction often treads the subtle line between tragedy and comedy. With ears keenly tuned to the music of language, and a limpid mind slyly hidden behind a persistent soliloquist, Antoine Wilson has written an intricate novel that makes us laugh and cry. "— Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
"God bless Oppen Porter! His innocence and lack of pretense are our good fortune and our delight. Under his observation, our follies and schemes and manias go up in the brightest, funniest, heartrending flames. This is precisely (and artfully) because he does not judge them. Panorama City is charming and absurd, very funny and, best of all, humane through and through." —Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers
"This is a book you will hold in your head all day long, a book you will look forward to when you get home from work, a book you will still be savoring as you drift into sleep. Panorama City is often very funny. It is filled with joy and wonder, and a sort of goodness you had stopped believing might be even possible. Antoine Wilson’s sentences are like diamond necklaces but his greatest treasure is his human heart." —Peter Carey
"Antoine Wilson draws us in to the weird, wonderful world of Oppen Porter, whose advice and lessons are jarringly original, funny, and moving." —Steve Hely, author of How I Became a Famous Novelist, Winner of the Thurber Award
"Wilson’s Panorama City is a candid and perceptive exploration of how families connect and how society’s most popular methods of advancement may not always be the most beneficial. Oppen is an excellent judge of character, and Wilson’s ability to sketch out such an ideal narrator should be commended. Readers who enjoy Mark Haddon and Greg Olear will appreciate Wilson’s authorial voice, which blends Oppen’s good-natured naïveté and humorous asides with incisive cynicism. A funny, heartfelt, and genuine novel." —Booklist
"Wilson’s second novel (after Interloper) is fresh and flawlessly crafted as well as charmingly genuine. Oppen Porter is almost 30, a guileless man who lives in a small central California town with his reclusive father in a house overtaken by nature….Oppen experiments with various roles—dedicated worker, student of religion, thinker—eventually finding his place in the world, framing a classic coming-of-age story in an unexpected way." —STARRED Publishers Weekly