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A Talk with Peter Wheelwright, Architect and Author of As It Is On Earth

Rural Intelligence ArtsPeter Wheelwright, a former dean (now associate professor) in the School of Architecture at Parsons The New School for Design, has just published his first novel, As It Is On Earth. Wheelwright grew up in Lenox, MA., and he and his wife, the photographer Eliza Hicks, have a house in Columbia County. This Saturday, September 1, at 3:30 p.m., as part of the Spencertown Academy Festival of Books, he and publisher Ardal Powell will discuss new directions in publishing. On September 22, 4 - 6 p.m., Wheelwright will read at Johnnycake Books in Salisbury, CT.  He talks here with RI co-founder Marilyn Bethany.

RI: As It Is On Earth [Fomite Press, $15.95] opens as the second millennium is winding down. Your protagonist, Taylor Thatcher, a tenure-track what? philosopher? comp-religion prof? a cross between the two? at the University of Hartford, has two immediate concerns: his recent break-up with a pregnant girlfriend who may or may not have gone through with the abortion he’d pushed for; and a report that his younger brother Bingham, who also lives in Hartford, has taken to sleeping outdoors on his fire escape.  Three hundred pages and many flashbacks later, it looks as if Bin, the brother, might have merely dozed off while happily stargazing, and the girlfriend may yet be pregnant with Taylor’s baby, though the presumed padre forevermore will be a Mexican anthropologist whom she had thrown over for Taylor some time earlier. 

PW: Taylor is a professor without portfolio. He teaches “multi-disciplinary” courses because he can only see the connections between things; for him, any given discipline is always related to another (Emerson’s “excess of awareness”... or, as the Deacon [Taylor’s father] says of him…he is “undisciplined”). As for Bin, no one really knows what he was doing on the fire escape. As Taylor says: “Plots within plots, histories within histories, nested like matryoshka dolls and scaled just beyond recognition. Too small, or too big—atomic or cosmic—no middle ground, where I can see things without optical instruments.”

Rural Intelligence ArtsAll of this unfolds as Taylor ponders his history; not just with Bin, but also his more distant forebears, and the land and rivers that set the stage for his life, the geological time that produced these lands and rivers, the stardust from which everything derives. The trope of the ‘river’ is key to everything… not just Taylor’s mother’s death, but the collision between the watersheds of the American continent flowing down into the sea and the Europeans sailing up those watersheds to take over the continent, creating the turbulence that ensnares Taylor and his history. The idea of “chance” or “contingency” is also a big theme. The unpredictability and unreliability of history. I suppose that’s how the academics’ poker playing at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods figures in… ”history is just a pack of different lies, and we each pick the one that suits us best.”

RI: You are an accomplished architect, a successful academic, and, with Laurie Simmons (the artist featured in her daughter Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture), co-designer of The Kaleidoscope HouseRural Intelligence Arts, a dollhouse that is in the collection of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. And now old friends and relations discover that you also write really well. Annoyingly well, some might say. Among those who could be forgiven for seeing it that way would be your uncle, the writer Peter Matthiessen, and your older brother Jeff Wheelwright, a science writer. Why did it take you until now, age 60 plus, to come out as a writer? 

PW: I have to say—even though I now give myself permission to call myself a writer—my original motivation was not so much to become a writer as to write this story. It had been with me for quite awhile. Somehow, it felt important. Initially, there was some skepticism. After all, it’s a cliché to hear someone say late in life that they’d like to write a novel. But, after the book was written, both Peter and Jeff read it and became boosters. Peter, who is normally quite nepotism-averse, even recommended me to his agent.

RI: Just how autobiographical is this novel? Your protagonist’s forebears came over on the Mayflower. The family then settled in Maine and have more or less stayed put, “rusted into the state,” as you so deftly put it, for 13 generations. Taylor and Bin’s father is a small-town doctor; Taylor is an academic; his brother is a science buff. To those of us who know you, these details have a familiar ring.

PW: One writes what one knows, and it is true I have drawn quite a bit on my family’s history. The bit about Zerviah Thatcher in the book is actually the story of the Rev. John Wheelwright, who was banished from Boston in 1636 along with his more famous sister-in-law Anne Hutchinson during what was known as the Antinomian Crisis, a dispute with the elders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony over what constituted proper godliness. My forebears lost that battle but went on to win the war for New England. Taylor’s story, in a way, is trying to figure out proper godliness for himself.

RI:  Though your extended family is from Maine, you grew up in the Berkshires. Which Norman Rockwell painting was it that you and your father posed for?

PW: My father was a doctor in The Berkshire Medical Group; Norman Rockwell was one of his patients. We posed for a number of Norman’s paintings that were used for The Brown and Bigelow calendars of 1961 and 1962. They were known alternatively as the “The Four Seasons” and “Father and Boy” calendars.

RI: As It Is On Earth is no sissy first novel—a hugely ambitious first stab at fiction. What writers, contemporary and otherwise, have influenced you?

PW: My uncle Peter Matthiessen is a big influence. His interest in and depiction of the natural world, Native Americans, earth time, etc. are also themes in As It Is On Earth. I greatly admire Annie Proulx for her cranky oddball characters. Bellow for his head-scratching but erudite existentialism. But, I think Walker Percy has been the most important fiction writer for me. He captures the humor, pathos, complexity, and meaning of small things better than most. As for non-fiction, the American neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty is my hero, a Walker Percy for academics. In fact, I just named one of our horses Rorty.

RI: Rorty famously views religion as “a conversation stopper.” So what’s Taylor’s problem? Lots of people give it up without a backward glance. Taylor seems inclined to let go, yet he struggles. 

PW: Poor Taylor, he’s badly tangled in his religious history, from Zerviah Thatcher to the Deacon and the hometown faithful. He knows better, but he gets his buttons pushed easily. There is a part of him that wants to believe, to have faith, anything that might make the ‘implausible, plausible” and perhaps provide redemption. And forgiveness.

RI: There are several characters who look at things obliquely, as if stealing furtive glances. For unrelated reasons, Bin, Esther, and Angie share this oddity. And, of course, Miryam, the photographer of bridges—not their exhilarating spans, but the literally earthbound places where, on either side of the water, they meet solid ground—her vision is oblique in its way, too. But the Deacon, Bin and Taylor’s father, sees straight and can even grab a glimpse around corners. All these optical quirks; what do they mean?

PW: I was interested in two aspects of seeing: one literal and the other figurative. In the former sense, typified by Miryam’s telescopic lens to see stars and Esther’s microscopic lens to see Angie’s minute red spot, I was thinking of our (humanity’s) inability to literally see big and small things without the aid of instruments and, in the figurative sense, sometimes looking right at things does not necessarily reveal their truth; we have to look to the margins, to look askew, like Angie “as if she sees the slant of things better that way.”

RI: You seem to have internalized the guilt of 13 generations for the harm European settlers did to Native Americans. Indians—so many different tribes, I cannot begin…—figure in the background of your story from first to last. I can’t think of another modern novel that melds the WASP experience with that of the Native American. Where did that come from?

PW: I suspected early on that something was off in all the cowboy and Indian movies and TV I was addicted to as a kid. Peter Matthiessen likely provoked an interest as well. Either way, I don’t think the story of the Pilgrims, or for that matter the European settling of the Western Hemisphere, can be fully understood without a deep understanding of the ‘first’ Americans that were encountered. The interconnectedness and mutual assimilation into each other’s history is indisputable but often overllooked. It’s a timeless lesson in the so-called clash of civilizations.

RI: In the end, isn’t this novel about guilt and its pointlessness?  Throughout, Taylor feels guilty about a childhood injury he inflicted on Bin, who, in his cheerful way, deftly overcomes its consequences. No biggy, Taylor!   

PW: Yes, personal guilt as well as WASP guilt which is so embedded in this country’s history… as Taylor says, “... backing away with a little theater, hands up and head down. Just don’t blame me for it.”

Peter Wheelwright appears at Spencertown Academy’s Festival of Books on Saturday, September 1 at 3:30 p.m. He’ll read from his novel at Johnnycake Books in Salisbury on September 22 at 4 p.m.

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