The Sweetest Debut: ‘Exes’ Author Max Winter on Crumbling Mansions, Francesca Woodman, and Why the Bible’s Both Over- and Underrated

Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and how they explain their books to different people in their lives. 

Today, we hear from Exes scribe Max Winter, whose debut novel NPR deemed “an amazing feat of plotting and engineering, an elaborate puzzle of a book that brings to mind Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests for the intricacy of its carefully calibrated interlocking connections.” The Exes is a collection of fractured narratives and perspectives, and sees a man searching for traces of his brother — who committed suicide — in other Providence residents’ stories. Winter answered our questions about everything from his writing habits (he wrote a good part of the book in playgrounds with his kid son, “in a folding beach chair with a kidney shaped piece of plywood for a desktop”) to the influence of photographer Francesca Woodman, to being a “compulsive rereader,’ and returning to the likes of Pale Fire, Jesus’ Son, and Giovanni’s Room while writing Exes.

Max Winter Author Photo cred Olivia Sauerwein

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

I am not an exception to what just has to be the rule of no author being even slightly good at this. As evidence, I now provide you with

EXES:

“Fifty Shades of Grey Gardens!”

OR

“Ulysses CK!”

What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

Again, I’m not alone, here. So, like pretty much everybody else, I say a guy—who’s not ME, and whose family is NOTHING like you, I swear—who gets in his own and everybody else’s way while trying to account for the last ten years of his estranged kid brother’s life. Mind you, in my case this description has the added virtue of being true, but try telling them that…

(Ha! I’m kidding! They believe me! But luckily and not surprisingly, only the Jews and in-laws ask.)

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

In draft form? Ten years, at least. But the oldest recognizable part of the book just missed its chance to vote in the most recent election. Like the rest us, it’s pretty goddamned pissed.

In my head, though? Jeez… Nearly three times that.

As a teenager, I used to walk across town, and up and down the old-moneyed streets of my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, and wonder where the hell everyone was. All these crumbling mansions and sagging Victorians looked as though they hadn’t been lived-in in decades, if even that recently. Whose houses were these? I wondered. Why weren’t they ever home? Just who were these local Ushers, Havishams, lesser-Bouviers?

And Exes is my best guess, as told from the perspectives of my most difficult video store customers—customers with made-up names or (as often as not, and not for nothing) whose names were identical to those of the streets where they lived. “Do you have any coming-of-age films featuring redheads,” they’d ask, neither removing their dark glasses nor paying their shocking late fees.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

My first instinct is to say the Bible, because Jesus fucking Christ, enough already, but that’s exactly why, if anything, it’s underrated by people like me. As is so often the case with for-better-and-worse genre-creators—Black Sabbath, Duchamp, Hemingway—the Bible manages to be both overrated and underrated, because, above all else, it is misunderstood by believers and heretics alike. We, the latter, cannot grasp the extent to which the Bible continues to be commensurately cherished and misinterpreted to the seeming exclusion of literally all other literature. Pretty clearly, a just-sizable-enough chunk of America is that 63 year-old dude from work who only listens to, like, The Steve Miller Band. And even then only the hits—when they come on the radio, that is, which, of course, he still listens to. But these days he mostly just tunes in for right wing talk, and thinks whatever music the young guys like lacks the pure emotion and raw musicianship and just plain old balls of these greatest hits he lost, or nearly lost, his virginity to.

A book you’ve read more than two times.

To paraphrase Nabokov and James Brown: there ain’t no hell such name thing as reading, only rereading, so any book that I haven’t reread at least once probably doesn’t mean all that much to me. So I am a compulsive rereader.

As for what books I reread extra attentively while working on Exes, while even then there are too many titles to list here, I will say they ranged from the mostly obvious—I Would’ve Saved Them if I Could (Leonard Michaels), Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov), Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson), A Fan’s Notes (Frederick Exley), The Mezzanine (Nicholson Baker)to the perhaps less so—Bad Behavior (Mary Gaitskill), Joe Gould’s Secret (Joseph Mitchell), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Grace Paley), Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin), and Labyrinths (Jorge Luis Borges).

But most meaningfully of all, I’ve reread countless times the work of my former workshop mate and current writing husband, Matt Sumell, whose Making Nice is, without exaggeration, the absolute funniest book I’ve ever read. And as if that weren’t enough, it also happens to be positively heart wrecking. We’ve rendered “I laughed. I cried” virtually meaningless, but still. I actually did, and in more or less equal measure. Jesus Christ. If you’re reading this but you haven’t read Making Nice, then you should.

A book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project.

In 2003, while visiting Cornell, whose MFA program had waitlisted me the previous spring, my wife and I stumbled upon a Francesca Woodman retrospective and, without knowing the first thing about either her or her work, immediately recognized her Providence. We both knew these dusty, haunted spaces intimately. I suddenly had what was at that point the first — but would later become the sixth — chapter of my book, then-clumsily-reverse-engineered from its climax, which unfolded, Woodmanesquely, in the unlit fireplace of an abandoned tenement. And that part remains, virtually intact.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

While I’m pretty mad at TV right now, I’m feeling cautious pessimistic about the new season of Twin Peaks. But that and the upcoming impeachment hearings are literally the only reasons I haven’t cancelled my cable.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

This is making me sad, given how much moviegoing means—or, should I say, once meant—to me. Because, if I’m being honest, it was the most recent Star War. We went for Jewish Christmas. It was fine, I guess. I mean, who cares? All I know is that my son loved it, which is all that matters, because we both know that what really matters about Jewish Christmas is what comes next: the spicy Chengdu dumplings and smashed cucumbers with garlic, and the tripe and pig’s blood in chili oil, and a couple two-three perfectly crappy beers for Papa. We linger at the table, flushed, numbed, the restaurant buzzing happily and non-Xmasly around us. It’s like Thanksgiving, but with better food and less hypocrisy.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Oh, man, all the time—have to, to block out the home and playground sounds. But, as you know, it’s hard to find the right soundtrack, because if you’re not careful, whatever you’re listening to, no matter how subtle, winds up being incorporated into your fiction, like an alarm clock into a dream. So I keep on mixing it up—Fahey, Coltrane, Bill Evans, music I know so well I hardly hear it anymore, like Dylan. Hell, for a while there I was even voluntarily listening to the Grateful Dead, ostensibly because it was what a minor character that I wound up cutting would’ve listened to, but really because doing so forced me to actively ignore so much of what I was hearing (as far as the Dead go, I’ve really only ever enjoyed Jerry Garcia’s fucked-up playing and singing, and even then far from always) along with whatever else happened to be going on all around me, that it enabled a deep focus—sort of like a musical IUD, or that thing where the Zen master beats you with his stick. Only he’s wearing cut-offs and singing cowboy songs and the stick is made out of patchouli.

Who is your fashion icon?

I have too little—or I should say too much stretched-too-thin—skin in this game to even care. Clothes increasingly refuse to look as they are meant to on my ever-weirder body. I guess I used to like it when people told me I looked like John Lurie, who for a while I also kind of dressed like. But right now I’m okay with occupying some mostly invisible spot between Louis CK and James Murphy on the schlubby white dude matrix. You’ll find me in the corner, over by the dip, pulling up my pants.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

If it’s really about getting writing done, then someplace boring, like the mountains. I like writing in places where nothing remotely cool is going on, so I have no reason to ever leave my house, to ever do anything but live inside my mind, or sit and think beside the fire. I like the idea of the woods better than the actual woods—like in those painted cityscapes you see out the window in ‘70s sitcoms or late night talk shows. Except way less enticing.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

Back then, I would’ve said actor, but, in retrospect, what I meant by actor was Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain. I wanted his house, his best pal, his lady friends, his moves, his pants, his kitchen, his seldom-used bar. All of it. I even wanted his milkman, even though, like most Jews, I’ve always hated milk. But Don Lockwood’s milk I would drink straight from the bottle and watch the sun come up. “Good Morning!” my friends and I would sing.

That said, I have no interest in seeing La-La Land. Nostalgia is poisonous.

Did you have a new years resolution for 2017? If so, what?

To resist the Trump Administration.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Silent library, though if I have my headphones on, as I often do, I can work anywhere. I wrote, without exaggeration, maybe a quarter of this book in playgrounds—in a folding beach chair with a kidney shaped piece of plywood for a desktop—watching my son play with his friends. I’d look up now and then to make sure no one was crying.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

Morning’s best for me—fewer off-the-page voices competing with all those on-the-page-voices, of which I clearly have more than my share.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Both? Or, in other words, as inefficiently as possible.

Initially, I totally need to make a huge mess. All these fucked-up, overwritten, digressive pages eventually provide me with the dense mound of clay out of which I can, with luck, eventually shape something vaguely human. Preconceptive modes—outlines and log lines and beat sheets and the like—make it hurt when I swallow. I can only approach writing from a place of not-knowing, of not-understanding.

But, at the same time, as I’m writing all these messy pages, I just can’t help but revise every single sentence—the vast majority of which will never make the cut. Every day I start over at the beginning and not where I left off the day before.

Yeah…

Did I mention that it took me 15 years to write?

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I’m an adjunct. But you’ve read all the articles, so you know that I need something else, which these days means substitute teaching, audio book narration, tutoring, one-off workshops here and there, assorted pedagogical hustles, movie-prop food cookery, leaf-raking, you name it. I will walk your dog and feed your cat. I will mow your lawn and drive your grandma places and cater your departmental retreat.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Oh man, am I ever the wrong person to ask. (See again those 15 years it took.) My wife and I kind of do tag teams, where she’ll overwork while I scale things back to make more time for writing, and vice-versa when she’s working on a body of work. She’s a visual artist, among many other things—and an exceptionally quick one at that, thanks in part to her movie/theater background—and can accomplish in a single week what takes me, without exaggeration, a full year. (When we first met, we used to argue about which artistic discipline was hardest. “They’re all the same,” she said. “Nuh-uh,” I said. But it’s been at least thirteen years since we’ve had this argument. I won?)

But mostly I try to get evening classes at which point I’m mostly useless at the keyboard, anyway. Also, substitute teaching gigs—which are, as often as not, a matter of tests/study halls/in-class writing/etc.—are also great for getting writing done. If I squint, it’s like I’m actually getting paid to write.