Most coverage of the press around underground poster boy John Wray paints the 37 year-old as a roguish, self-indulgent author. The unorthodox approach he takes to promotion provides his books with talking points beyond their literary laurels. His stunts continue this week with a YouTube video starring him and friend Zach Galifianakis, promoting the paperback release of Wray’s third book, Lowboy. But the inflated treatments of Wray’s endorsement capers don’t give the author fair shake for being a modern literary pragmatist, infusing both his work and promotions for them with only what is required to get his point across. —
“There was a moment when making the video with Zach I was like, ‘is this really necessary? Is this a little goofy, a little silly?’” Wray asked, eating coffee cake and spooning a latte at the Flying Saucer Café in Brooklyn on a rainy February Tuesday. He appeared just a little late, apologetic to a fault, wearing a dripping bicycle helmet. “But if I didn’t think my book needed some kind of out-of-left-field promotion, then I would choose not to do it. Because I don’t want to be typecast as the person who does that. I don’t want to distract from the books themselves.”
Last year, megaphone subway readings and viral videos pumping up Lowboy gave critics esoteric gold to work with. But it was nothing compared to Wray’s earlier marketing folly. After lackluster support from his publisher in 2005, Wray left Knopf deliberately by stretching his second novel’s $5,000 publicity budget across the South: He built a homemade raft for a 600-mile “book tour” down the Mississippi.
Although he’s making a living beyond authoring now by teaching at Columbia and writing for The New York Times Magazine, that was a necessary step to keep his career, um, afloat. Wray said at least half the scant 4,000 copies sold of Canaan’s Tongue, an antebellum allegory for modern corporate America, were due to the river trip. Not something the lanky Austrian-American did only to make waves in his sales, it was also compulsory to accomplish his goal as an author.
“Because that’s not just 2,000 less copied sold, it’s 2,000 less people who have read it,” he said after saying hi to a pair of fans or friends—it was hard to tell which. “It’s not about trying to make bank when I write a novel. Art is about communication, you’re trying to get something across. If you’re just getting it across to yourself, you may as well be wanking off,” he said.
Canaan’s Tongue was trouble for Wray beyond its sales. As his debut novel was also a period piece, the typecast of “historical novelist” was setting in. Critics who loved his first book gave the second passing mention, and that drove him to the river. But it wasn’t obsession with the past that spurned the choice of era, it was—as was the case with his first novel, The Right Arm of Sleep—critical to the story’s dynamic.
“It just happened that the type of book I wanted to write—the tone or the mood or the style—the feeling of the book I wanted to write was best suited by the mid-19th century on the Lower Mississippi and slavery and civil war and old, fucked-up America,” he said.
For Lowboy, he flew forward through time, moving to a contemporary aesthetic to accomplish his story-telling goals. He also shifted voice, somewhat a hallmark of his work. For him to tell the stories as he does, it’s vital to break free of what’s come before, even if he penned the words he’s escaping. Wray has spoken out often against writers locking into a singular style, a traditionalist’s view.
“The era of that kind of ivory tower, cultural mandarin attitude has passed because it has to pass. Authors don’t have the option.”
He’s found more success following his instinct than others’ footsteps, although the clout of his friends doesn’t hurt. Beyond Galifianakis and the video they made, New Yorker cartoonist and illustrator Adrian Tomine drew the cover of the Lowboy paperback release. As for Wray’s next novel, a comic novel about a family of physicists, he doesn’t have anything planned yet. But he’s sure to be met with at least a curious eye.
“Because the book industry in general has been perceived as circling its wagons and under siege, there’s been a lot more generosity about these unconventional ways I’m trying to integrate my novels into the actual daily cultural dialogue,” Wray said.
When leaving the Flying Saucer at closing, Wray straps his helmet back on, although he’s not biking—his back wheel was stolen before he left his Brooklyn office. He left his helmet in place, shielding from the rain. It worked on the way to the café, it would work on the way home. More than anything, to Wray it’s about the practicality of the moment, especially when it comes to his work ethic.
“If you start believing this weird, dated hype about it, that it’s somehow harder or more heroic than writing code for a living or working at Dunkin’ Donuts, then first of all you’re just a jackass and secondly you’re going to fuck yourself up. You’ll end up like J.D. Salinger, totally retreating, thinking you’re too pure to be tainted by the outside world,” he said. “The truth of creativity is it’s both deep and mysterious and profoundly mundane.”