Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Oh, the story behind it all, Q&A with Sean Wilsey

Oh, the story behind it all
Sean Wilsey gives an inside look into his memoir, talks about his Texas ties.

By Edward Nawotka
Sunday, April 30, 2006

I had the type of childhood — one that included eight years of Catholic military school — that prompts people to say after too much wine at dinner parties, "You should write about that!" I think, recklessly, "Yeah!"

Then I read a book like Sean Wilsey's "Oh the Glory of It All," a voluminous tell-all about growing up the scion of a San Francisco butter magnate who tooled around in helicopters and a narcissistic gossip-columnist mother. And it sobers me.

Wilsey's book is, in a word, Joycean. Generation X Joycean: Portrait of the Artist as a Young, Rich Screw-up. Just like Joyce's coming-of-age masterpiece, Wilsey's book features a long, harrowing stint at an elitist boarding school, St. Mark's in Southborough, Mass., and a God-like figure of dread: his wicked stepmother Dede, whom he finds himself fantasizing about sexually.

It's creepy and compelling and oh so tantalizing.

An editor-at-large for McSweeney's literary magazine, Wilsey is also co-editor of the forthcoming essay collection "The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup" (which includes a contribution about Ecuador from Austin's Jake Silverstein). He comes to town this week as part of the publicity tour for the paperback edition of "Oh the Glory of It All."

Wilsey spoke with us by phone from his home in New York City.

Austin American-Statesman: Your memoir is mostly about San Francisco, but don't you also have some strong Texas connections?

Sean Wilsey: My mom was born in Texas, but grew up over the border in Waurika, Okla. As a teenager she wanted to get out, and her brother-in-law, who had all the concessions for jukeboxes and peanut machines in Waurika, emptied them out and gave her the change. She used the money and ran away to Dallas, where she modeled for Neiman Marcus, until her mother came and got her and then moved the family to California.

Didn't you also live in Marfa for a time?

Yes. My writing career kind of started in Marfa when I wrote about a conference of architects that was being held at the Chinati Foundation. Herzog and de Meuron were there, Frank Gehry and Claes Oldenburg. I wrote it as a Talk of the Town piece for the New Yorker, but they killed it. Then I met Dave Eggers in a bar, and he told me to write it for McSweeney's, which was originally founded to publish stories that were killed by other magazines.

How old were you when you started writing this memoir?

I started in 1998 when I was 28. I'd been working on a novel for six years, but hadn't been able to get anybody to take an interest in it, and was doing some book reviewing. Actually, the first book I reviewed was Duncan McLean's "Lone Star Swing" — I just loved the book, it was so lighthearted, Scottish, funny, well-researched and he really knew his stuff. But my wife had heard me talking endlessly about these weird reform-style schools I had gone to and she suggested writing about them. I started interviewing people who I'd gone to school with and my agent David McCormick . . .

There's another Texas connection...

Yes, he's a former editor at Texas Monthly. He sold the book as a memoir. I did a lot of interviewing for this book, including a couple of people who worked for my dad and ended up in Seguin. If I think about it, this is a perfectly legitimate Texas book.

Was it awkward to interview people you knew in high school?

It's weird because you're not really friends with them anymore. That said, people really do like to talk about their past. Most of the people I write about from that time don't come across very well, but a lot of people have gotten in touch with me and said they really liked the book. People are endlessly surprising.

Your father died, but your mother and stepmother are alive and well-known in San Francisco. How did they react to the book?

The newspapers in San Francisco had a field day. It was as if it were the sauciest thing that anybody has written in years. That provoked everyone to start behaving badly. I weirdly thought that my stepmother Dede would enjoy it and revel in the image I portrayed of her. But she gave an interview to The New York Times that couldn't have been more like the way she was portrayed in the book. If you want to take the high road, that isn't the way to do it at all. My mom, who was in some ways (ticked) off about the things that I wrote, was very stateswomanly about it.

You now have a 2-year-old son. How does your crazy childhood affect your parenting style?

I try to take more cues from him. I was buffeted around a lot as a child. For example, Mom would take me out to a fashion show. While that was a fun day for her, and somewhat for me, it was totally part of her program.

Last year, some critics compared your memoir to James Frey's. This was before his downfall. As it turns out, you actually spent more time in jail than Frey did. He only spent three hours in jail.

Yes, I spent two whole nights in jail, though that first night started at 4 in the morning. Actually, you may not find it surprising, but I think there are a lot of writers out there who've spent more time in jail than James Frey did.

Batali's Clogs, Couch Potatoes Hit Shelves: May Book Preview

Batali's Clogs, Couch Potatoes Hit Shelves: May Book Preview

May 1 (Bloomberg) -- Orange clogs, lazy loafers and places named Absurdistan and Kutar vie with Philip Roth and Anne Tyler for a spot near your reading lamp in May. Here's a selection of new books this month.


``The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast'' by Douglas Brinkley (Morrow): The Tulane University professor assesses the aftermath of the hurricane that devastated 150 miles of Gulf Coast in just five hours.

``The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities -- From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums'' by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini (PublicAffairs): The story of Giacomo Medici, the head of a crime syndicate that brokered hundreds of millions of dollars of illicit Italian antiquities, many of which ended up at Sotheby's and some of the world's top museums.

``Confessions of a Municipal Bond Salesman'' by Jim Lebenthal (Wiley): The chairman emeritus and former president of Lebenthal & Co. reflects on his long career, which saw him morph from Hollywood reporter to Wall Street legend. He offers tips on how to make it big in municipal-bond sales and life.

``Guanxi (The Art of Relationships): Microsoft, China, and Bill Gates's Plan to Win the Road Ahead'' by Robert Buderi and Gregory T. Huang (Simon & Schuster): A behind-the-scenes look into Microsoft's Asian Research Center in Beijing and how globalization has affected the world's biggest software manufacturer.

``Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present'' by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins): Vignettes by the New Yorker's Beijing correspondent and author of ``River Town'' eloquently depict the rapid social changes taking place among China's 1.2 billion budding capitalists.

``Reporting: Writings from the New Yorker'' by David Remnick (Knopf): The editor-in-chief of the New Yorker collects some of profiles he has written for the magazine in the past 15 years, many focusing on Russian and Israeli politicians and fellow writers.

``The Mighty & the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs'' by Madeleine Albright. (HarperCollins): President Clinton's secretary of state argues that religion has now become the single most important issue threatening global stability.

``Strange Piece of Paradise: A Return to the American West to Investigate My Attempted Murder -- and Solve the Riddle of Myself'' by Terri Jentz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): In this chilling true-crime story, Jentz recalls how in 1977 an unknown man tried to kill her and a friend while they were camping in Oregon, driving a truck over their tent and then assaulting them with an ax. Years later she tries to find out why.

``Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home'' by Nando Parrado (Crown): A survivor of the 1972 plane crash made infamous by the book ``Alive'' recounts how he has coped with the memory of the crash and the decision to resort to cannibalism, which kept him and other survivors alive.

``Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America'' by Tom Lutz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): A discussion of the work ethic or lack thereof throughout U.S. history, including the couch potato, New York bohemians and Lutz's own good-for-nothing son.

``Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War'' by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking): The National Book Award-winning author of ``In the Heart of the Sea'' revisits the pilgrims' uncertain sea voyage and the vulnerable early days of the Plymouth colony.

``Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different'' by Gordon S. Wood (Penguin): In eight profiles, the respected Brown University historian tries to distill the qualities that made the founding fathers, including Washington, Paine and Burr, such effective leaders.

``Possible Side Effects: True Stories'' by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin's): These essayistic flights of fancy, from the author of the bestseller ``Running With Scissors,'' cover topics from incontinent pets to eBay addiction.

``The One That Got Away: A Memoir'' by Howell Raines (Scribner): The ousted executive editor of the New York Times blamed for the Jayson Blair scandal follows up his bestseller ``Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis'' with this disquisition on life lessons learned at the Times and at the end of a fishing pole.

``Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany'' by Bill Buford (Knopf): The former New Yorker fiction editor documents his three-year stint in the kitchen with chef Mario Batali of the orange clogs.

``What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating'' by Marion Nestle (North Point Press): The popular food-industry analyst and New York University professor provides an authoritative guide on how to avoid getting duped into stuffing your supermarket cart with junk food masquerading as nutritious edibles.


``Absurdistan'' by Gary Shteyngart (Random House): The author of ``The Russian Debutante's Handbook'' returns with a hilarious farce about 21st-century greed in which a would-be Russian rap impresario finds himself appointed minister of multicultural affairs in the tiny, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan.

``Everyman'' by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin): The unnamed, self-reflective, thrice-divorced septuagenarian male narrator looks back on his life and finds it wanting. He won't please the new readers Roth won with 2004's alt-history thriller ``The Plot Against America,'' but he is the latest in a long line of Roth's bitter, all-too-human, sex-obsessed antiheroes that extends from Portnoy to Zuckerman.

``Digging to America'' by Anne Tyler (Knopf): Two couples, the white-bread suburban Donaldsons and the Iranian Yazdans, meet at the Baltimore airport while waiting to pick up the Korean babies each family will adopt. The two families soon grow intertwined in this passionate meditation on what it means to be and to become American.

``Theft: A Love Story'' by Peter Carey (Knopf): A two-time winner of the Booker Prize, Carey remains in top form with this tale of two Australians seduced into running an art-world scam by the sexy, beguiling daughter-in-law of a famous 20th-century painter.

``The Whole World Over'' by Julia Glass (Pantheon): Characters from Glass's National Book Award-winning ``Three Junes'' reappear in this multilayered romantic saga, in which a Manhattan pastry chef in a troubled marriage moves her 4-year-old son to New Mexico to cook for the charismatic, conservative governor.

``The Foreign Correspondent'' by Alan Furst (Random House): Furst continues his exceptional series of World War II-era thrillers with this yarn about Carlo Weisz, a Reuters reporter who takes control of an underground newspaper in Paris and becomes a target of Mussolini's secret police, Stalin's NKVD and Hitler's Gestapo.

``The Stolen Child'' by Keith Donohue (Doubleday): In this virtuosic debut novel inspired by a Yeats poem of the same name, Henry Day is 7 years old when fairies switch him with the son of a German piano teacher. If the two children can find each other, they might get their lives back.

``Killer Instinct'' by Joseph Finder (St. Martin's): Thirty- year-old salesman Jason Steadman has stalled in his career at a Boston consumer-electronics company, when his new best friend, a troubled Iraqi war vet working in security, starts offering unwelcome assistance up the corporate ladder.

``Moonlight Hotel'' by Scott Anderson (Doubleday): U.S. diplomat David Richards has what he thinks is a cushy job in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Kutar. When rebels try to overthrow of the government, he is soon trapped in a dilapidated resort hotel with the few remaining expatriates and forced to fight for his life.

``The Possibility of an Island'' by Michel Houellebecq (Knopf): The provocative French writer's nihilistic magnum opus concerns a Parisian shock-jock who, after his marriage disintegrates, joins a cult promoting free love and cloning as a path to immortality. The chorus of soulless ``neohuman'' descendants narrating the novel proves his plan worked, at least somewhat.