Books In Conversation
PETER M. WHEELWRIGHT with Scott Cheshire
Peter Wheelwright is now officially a Renaissance man, a real triple threat. This is not to say he’s a song-and-dance man. Then again it seems there is nothing the man cannot do. Wheelwright is an accomplished architect, and an Associate Professor at Parsons the New School for Design, who also happens to have work in the Collection of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. And now he’s written a novel, As It Is On Earth, the story of Taylor Thatcher, a young college professor wrestling with his religious legacy and family history. Wheelwright comes from New England stock, a family of American writers descending from hardy Puritan blood. He is tall, affable, and the sort of guy who wears his intellect well, like an old denim shirt, comfortably, with a cool and unassuming style. We talked over coffee at the Housing Works Bookstore Café about his love of philosophy, Walker Percy, Deep Time, the power of stories, and how designing a building is not so unlike writing a novel.
Scott Cheshire (Rail): First I want to say the novel is just lovely, meditative, and thoughtful. I imagine a book so much about family myth and history might have taken a long time to write.
Peter Wheelwright: Actually it started as a short story about 15 years ago, believe it or not, shortly before I became head of the School of Architecture at Parsons. At the time, I would sneak over late at night to take a class in creative writing. The teacher was the writer Peter Sourian. He read it and said, Hey, this is a novel. That stuck with me for years. And then I resigned as the department head, and was given a sabbatical.
Rail: So this was when?
Wheelwright: I guess it was about 2007 when I started writing it. It’s funny, my niece is a writer, got her M.F.A., and of course she talks about being a writer. But I never wanted to be a writer. I just wanted to tell this story. And the family story, the day-to-day stuff became the clothing around all these other ideas I wanted to write about, too. Conceits of our relationship to the natural world, the biotic versus the social, earth time and human history. If you sat in one of my classes at Parsons you’d have to hear me talk about all this stuff.
Rail: Are there any fiction writers you admire who do something similar?
Wheelwright: Well, there are a number of writers who have been very important to me, my uncle Peter Matthiessen, Bellow, Annie Proulx, but Walker Percy, most significantly.
Rail: The Moviegoer is one of my favorite novels.
Wheelwright: Well, if you’re an avid fan, and you go back through the book, you’ll see the narrator, Taylor Thatcher is a lot like Binx Bolling. The Moviegoer sat on the table for much of the time I was writing this book.
Rail: One of the things I’m attracted to as a reader is the melancholic voice. A sad, funny voice, but also a bit barbed. The voice of someone who knows too much and doesn’t know what to do with that knowledge, tries to spend it in some way. A lot like Binx Bolling. And a lot like Taylor Thatcher.
Wheelwright: Percy is very important to me as a writer and as a thinker. His non-fiction essays in The Message in the Bottle are just wonderful. And in truth, I tend to read more non-fiction than fiction. I read a lot of philosophy. I don’t read it for truth. I read it for the writing, and for what it provokes within me. I learned this from Richard Rorty, the great American philosopher-turned-litterateur who picked up the pragmatist mantle from William James and John Dewey. I teach critical theory to design students and I’ve written a number of tracts for the academic world, but I’ve always felt uneasy about them. Needless to say there’s the limited audience and the abstruseness of it all.
Rail: Well, I’m a big fan of James, so now I have to read Rorty.
Wheelwright: James gets a big nod here in the book, that drunken tirade in Taylor’s apartment.
Rail: I remember.
Wheelwright: Anyway, Rorty was trained as an analytical philosopher and wrote a book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in the late ’70s. It was very influential and a real challenge to analytic philosophy’s utility for everyday life. That book and his subsequent work basically embraced an anti-foundationalist perspective on the world. He said we’re just here as fallible humans beings, and what we do, our values, beliefs, the foundations, and standards we set have no correspondence to anything “out there.” It’s just what we do, together, in the here and now, that counts—the James’s “things in the making” idea—and it’s pointless to try and find God or some other thing by which to measure these things. The long and short of it is he left the philosophy department and joined the comparative literature department, suggesting we can learn more from the Romantic poets than philosophers. The achievement of real social change won’t come from some academic lecturing down to us, but more likely through beautiful imaginative stories. So the idea for me was then, wow, I don’t have to write post‑structuralist tracts anymore. I can just write stories.
Rail: And people will read you!
Wheelwright: And people will actually read me.
Rail: One of the joys of the book is how fearless you are with jargon and diction. I don’t think I’ve encountered the term “Lamarckian” before.
Wheelwright: One writer friend told me the book kept sending her to the dictionary, and she loved that about it. Like Saul Bellow.
Rail: Which is not that it’s laborious in any way. It’s the opposite. It’s great fun and just happens to be how Taylor talks.
Wheelwright: It was sticky in those first drafts, a lot more of telling history rather than embedding history.
Rail: Within the story, you mean? I think that’s difficult for any writer, but especially in a book that grapples with such big ideas. I think you do an incredibly elegant job of it. It’s compulsively readable and packed with great passages. A good novel is an occasion to think, and good philosophy and good writing on religion is the same. James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience is beautiful writing.
Wheelwright: Exactly. It was fun actually trying to figure out just how to make the book work. It took a few drafts before Taylor stopped sounding like he was giving lectures.
Rail: I’m guessing, you had to wrestle with not just how the story works but with the ideas themselves.
Wheelwright: There is the earth and there is the world, the earth as a biotic pre-human entity and there is the world of humans, and there is this tension between the earth and the world. You have the natural scientist trying to dig out the earth’s secrets, and something like religion, which attempts to make a world of social behaviors and rituals that make sense of it all. I mean you could just go read Heidegger. But I wanted to write a story, a novel that deals with these themes. And, of course, at the end of the day everybody is writing about these themes.
Rail: My favorite line of the book is “It’s all religious history,” which is sort of sarcastic in the way Taylor is, but it’s also entirely true.
Wheelwright: I can go on and on about what the book is about, and my wife will roll her eyes and say it’s just a family love story. And she’s right.
Rail: She is. It’s really sort of a romantic book, too. Taylor doesn’t know what he wants, except maybe to leave his job at the college. But he’s also kind of falling in love with Miryam, the Israeli student, without knowing it, and that makes things even more difficult for him.
Wheelwright: He can’t seem to get out of his own head. He’s thinking about all these other things, Time, History, God.
Rail: Time is a real preoccupation in this book.
Wheelwright: [Laughs.] Well, time is a really big thing. We have difficulty when it comes to seeing ourselves within a deep time perspective. We can’t imagine things that don’t relate to our time. And this seems true of our history as much as our future. We can’t go back any further than we can go forward in our imagination. We’re all casualties of history, and there are different time scales, earth-time, societal-time, familial-time, self-time, and each one is nested in the other. Taylor is wrestling with all of this.
Rail: I’m interested in the American notion of time, especially that of apocalyptic millennialism, which your book refers to by being set in 1999. Every generation is convinced it’s the last. Speaking of not being able to truly appreciate how time works, we have such short memories.
Wheelwright: And this comes from the apocalyptic separatists of New England. It’s fundamental to the settling of this continent, and it’s in us.
Rail: We’re all sons and daughters of that American Idea. It’s something we have to wrestle with, too. But eventually there comes to be something of a resignation in Taylor and not just of his job, but of his constant need to interpret the world.
Wheelwright: That’s what he’s doing. He just wants out of his own head. Emerson’s “excess of awareness.” I should also say there was a part of me that wanted to dedicate this to my uncle Peter, who was clearly a big influence on the book. I’ve read everything he’s written, I even did my high school term paper on Peter! His fiction deals with our relationships with the world, the environment, social justice, religion, too.
Rail: I think you write about faith and religion beautifully in the book because you’re unafraid to have Taylor tackle it head on, respectfully and critically.
Wheelwright: [Laughs.] You’re not asking how much of this is autobiographical. You know, there are two questions people ask me about this book: is it an autobiographical novel? Which to me is a sort of tautology. And second, is it about architecture? Neither is true. But then again, neither is false. I can’t imagine being better trained for fiction writing, from the solitary process, to working all hunched over a desk. The issues are the same. How do I enter into the story? What is its structure? How will I move through it? All of the spatial metaphors regarding material, form, and space apply. It’s a design problem.
Rail: And as far as autobiography?
Wheelwright: Just Google my last name and you’ll find Reverend John Wheelwright, a Puritan clergyman, and my 13th generation grandfather. Anne Hutchinson was his sister-in-law. He famously got into a tussle with John Winthrop over their interpretation of the Bible, the religious crisis known as the Antinomian Controversy. He was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and ended up in the Province of Maine. And that was my family. So when Taylor says the Thatchers are rusted right into the state of Maine, I too am rusted into Maine. I grew up in Massachusetts, but spent every summer with my grandparents in Maine. I was also shipped off to a High Episcopal boarding school, an all male school. I was brought up in an intensely Episcopalian world. My father was not an alcoholic, but he was as disciplined as the deacon in the novel, and I was a hard case. I got thrown out of boarding school. Maybe this is why it’s easy for me to write about how it was to grow up in such an intensely religious world. Like Taylor, I’m still trying to be forgiven. It’s in my bones and blood.
Rail: Is this a tough legacy for your family, or just for you. Is your whole family wrestling with this history?
Wheelwright: Oh no, it seems to be just me. There’s been a lot of head-scratching in my family over this book.