20 Years in the Making: An Interview with Clay Byars

Clay Byars is the author of Will & I, out today from FSG Originals. Here he talks with Drew Broussard about twinship as collaboration, his reluctance to sugarcoat, and what it's like to be irrevocably changed by an event.

DB: I read Will & I in just over 24 hours - every time I put it down, I found myself finding excuses to come back to it (including sneaking pages at my desk at my day job). One thing that really struck me was how, every time I thought of a question to ask you or something I was generally curious about, you circled back to it later in the book and fleshed it out. It made me wonder: were you thinking about the reader as you wrote, or did this start as a project just for yourself?

CB: I’m extremely glad the book made an impact, and even more glad that you found the questions you had getting answered. So yes, I had the reader in mind. As I say in the book, I first tried to make this a novel and the main reason I knew it didn’t work was because there was no pay off for the reader. I usually write stories and naturally think in terms of a story, so I knew that what I’d written at first wasn’t that. It was just an account of what happened.

It’s taken almost twenty years of attempts to get it to where it is now."

But I also knew there was a story there. It’s taken almost twenty years of attempts to get it to where it is now. In 2014, my dog (Daisy) and I moved over to Wilmington, NC for three months to go through my manuscript line by line with John Jeremiah Sullivan, who I knew from undergrad. John is as good an editor as he is a writer, and we stripped the manuscript down to it’s core–– even more than it is now–– but he knew the parts that were either reiterating what was already there or that would take the reader off on a distracting tangent that really had nothing to do with the overall story. Emily Bell and I later added back some of what we took out, but the manuscript I originally took to Wilmington was about eighty pages longer than it is now.

DB: I had the John Jeremiah Sullivan thought in my head even before I turned the book over and saw the blurb - so it's very cool indeed to know you were working with him. You talk a lot about solitude in the book so I'm curious to know what it was like working on the book - or even just living - in direct contact with someone, as opposed to just doing it on your own. Beyond the obvious editorial voice, did it change how you interacted with the story?

CB: Like I told John, I couldn’t have done this with anyone but him. I’m not just giving praise to a well-known writer, either. We weren’t that close in undergrad, but we knew one another, and he was the editor of the magazine that published my first stories. Still, when I went back to Sewanee after my stroke and was disillusioned at the suddenly different treatment I began receiving, I remember thinking, “My life would be so much easier if everyone treated me like John Sullivan.” My accident and the consequences of it never came first for him. So working with him–– I didn’t live in his house; I rented one nearby–– wasn’t strange at all. What was strange was that we were so in agreement on most things, and when we didn’t agree on something I had to remind myself that he wasn’t another Will. In the end, however, it was the perfect objective/subjective balance. Because he was able to see the story objectively, it pulled me out of myself and made me do the same.

DB: Speaking of Will: the book is called Will & I - but it's much more your story than any shared narrative. And yet, Will is . . . not exactly in the background, which would imply he's not there, but he's constantly present even when he's not in the action. You touch on this throughout the book: is it ever possible to separate yourself from your brother or is he truly always there, even subconsciously? And would he say the same about you?

CB: Easy answer. When we were growing up, people would always ask us, “What’s it like to be an identical twin?” (Fraternal twins don’t have as much genetic overlap.) My response was always, “What’s it like to not be a twin?” As for what Will would say, on the whole, he’d say the same, although he also had to come to terms with the possibility that I wouldn’t be around. Even then, he still would be a twin, though.

DB: I've been trying and somewhat failing to come up with a perfect analogy for this - but the way you talk about music and covers in the book made me think of twins and the idea that you and Will are versions of the same song.

Will and I are collaborators in tune with each other . . . I've always had the sense that I was more than myself."

CB: Instead of versions of the same song, it’s more like Will and I are collaborators in tune with each other. I’m trying to avoid the line, “He completes me,” but in a sense he does, although I wouldn’t choose “complete." Like I say in the book, I’ve always had the sense that I was more than myself.

DB: That sense of being more than yourself strikes me as speaking to the artist life as well. I came into this book expecting a recovery memoir but in the end I found it as much that as it was the discovery of an artist's voice. Did you always imagine yourself an artist? And do you consider yourself an artist now?

CB: I think you’re 100% right that the sense of being more than yourself speaks to the artist’s life as well to the identical twin’s life. Because I know Will feels that way and he doesn’t consider himself a creator at all––though he is the funniest person I know. About considering myself an artist: no, I’m a writer. That’s what I do. “Artist” to me has a whiff of pretentiousness––when applied to yourself at least–– and seems like an excuse to be an asshole. I’m fine if other people want to refer to me that way, though. I just hope “man” is in there somewhere.

DB: "Writer. Artist. Man." I gotta say, that's a damn good tagline.

This actually leads to my next question nicely: You're so wonderfully up-front about everything in the book - you don't sugarcoat, you don't waffle. Even here, just now, I'm struck by how forceful (not in an aggressive way but in a you-know-your-own-mind way) and self-aware you are about your self (spacing intentional) and your work. Were there moments that you wanted to hide from or change, in writing your story?

CB: Yes. I’m thinking specifically of one sentence, or fragment, that I went back and forth on. It’s at the end of the journal I wrote just before I left for surgery in New Orleans. It reads, "So, now faith and hope are heavy upon me; what else do I have? . . . what else does anyone have for that matter? Maybe Alaska.” I very much wanted to take out that last part, “Maybe Alaska.” I still cringe and feel like a moony, romantic punk when I read that. But I left it in, not only because it was in the original, but b/c I think it speaks to the age I was when I wrote it.

There are other examples of that kind of thing throughout, but that’s the one that sticks out in my mind. And after I chose to leave that in, the others were easy.

DB: That's actually one of the quotes I wrote down in my notebook while I was reading - because that moment felt so raw. As moony and romantic as it definitely is, I knew exactly what you were saying. It spoke to the universal in a way that sometimes, I think, only moony romantic young punks can do. Which is to say, I'm glad you left it in.

I've got one final question that I've been trying to think of how to phrase, because it's sort of an immense one. You've said that you tried this as fiction a few times—and the book is peppered with references to storytelling devices, be they from novels or plays or music or film. I marked many of them, because I am fascinated at the whole "truth is stranger than fiction" thing. "I didn't want to attach some reason to why I was still alive and ruin the play" is an early example, the first I marked while reading. And near the end, you talk about "the work of an outside hand" and "a perspective that lies outside of the action." All the while, you wax philosophical throughout the book, too. You start not wanting to "ruin the play," but you wrap up as an author—both of other stories and of your own. You turned your life story into a story (for this is a “story” now, even as nonfiction). How, if at all, has it changed you?

CB: The easiest answer is that it has made "me" more me.

The short second-to-last chapter is what ties the whole thing together in my mind. When I went back to Sewanee after the stroke, I knew something had changed besides the obvious physical changes. I hadn’t declared a major before but I think I’d been leaning toward Economics. After I came back, however, I declared philosophy as my major. I thought I could somehow replicate the experience I describe in the book through philosophic study. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was reading something on Eastern philosophy, first texts on Hinduism and then on Zen Buddhism, that I stumbled upon what I’d been looking for. The experience I’d had was not only real, it has happened in varying degrees to people throughout history. Zen even has a name for it—satori—and without it, Zen wouldn’t exist. Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki said, “Satori is just like normal everyday experience, except two inches off the ground.” There is a lightness that accompanies “my” existence.

I'm fine with being alive, too."

So really, it’s all about identity, which, being an identical twin, I already had a head start on. And although there’s no way to prove this, I think it was this freedom that allowed me to begin to move in the first place. As I say in a letter I wrote to Will after I first read about such experiences, when I was trying to articulate my own, I used to feel strange after I’d made it through all that I have, that I don’t care if I die. I’m fine with being alive, too. Basically, I’m going to do everything I have to do to make “me” continue, but I’m not caught up in doing so. That’s one result of this active, physical experience, and it’s not something I can choose to turn off. I also say in that letter that the experience was both me and not me. It came out of me like I willed it, but it also seemed to come out of nowhere. A heightening of what I already felt as an identical twin, which goes back to your earlier statement about the sense of being more than yourself speaking to the artist's life as well to the identical twin’s. I came to realize that what had happened was active and not conceptual, and I wasn’t finding it in philosophy––my brain just isn’t wired that way. So when I discovered writing, I found the security I’d been looking for––or a sense of it at least. Once I discovered I could do this, writing became the central focus of my life. It gave everything purpose, which has been crucial b/c most people tend to avoid me, and all the other stuff I do is in service of that.

It helps that I’m naturally stubborn, too, as persistence is key.

willandi

Clay Byars attended the Sewanee School of Letters in Tennessee and is an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. He lives with his two dogs on a farm outside Birmingham, Alabama.

Drew Broussard has been called a "creative polymath" - he is a writer, a reviewer for Raging Biblioholism, a musician with Evelyn and Future Dead Guys, a sometime performer, and a producer for Public Forum at The Public Theater and with The Bellwether. He is also a lifelong reader.

Author photo courtesy of Sewanee