Author Photo Credit: Carrie Pratt
Willie Davis’s Nightwolf is a novel of mystery, wonder, sarcasm, and tragedy. Just out on July 31 from 7.13 Books, Nightwolf is set on the seedy side of Lexington, Kentucky, but these characters aren’t what readers might expect. Yes, there are bar fights and long conversations in old cars—scenes teeming with tension and dark humor—but Davis also brings an ineffability to the prose, something like a philosophy, but coarser and truer. I grew up in Kentucky, and I fully enjoyed the subversion of my expectations as I worked my way through this enigmatic yet earnest story. What at first feels like a romp is actually more like a religion in this novel—a way to be, or not. Willie Davis and I discuss the “philosophy” and “religion” of his novel more thoroughly below.
CH: Let’s talk about the core genesis of the novel, if you don’t mind. In the acknowledgements, you mention a true-life DC tagger named Borf who served as inspiration for your title character, Nightwolf. What initially intrigued you about Borf? More than the mystery, what spoke to you?
WD: I was living in DC at the time, and everywhere you turned, you’d see the word “Borf” scrawled on every flat surface. I thought, there’s no way he can keep doing this without getting caught, but you’d go get a drink at 7, come out at 9, and he’d have hit the bar you were in. He was fearless, but that alone didn’t make him great. What I liked best about him was this sense of playfulness. He was imposing enough to put his name everywhere but you’d be hard-pressed to find a less threatening four-letter word than “Borf.” It reminded me of when David Letterman tells a bad joke, and then repeats it over and over until it suddenly becomes hysterical. I remember passing a newspaper box, where he’d written “Yup, Borf writes on newspaper boxes too,” and just laughing to myself like a lunatic. The weekly paper did a story about a local who took his own paint and painted over every Borf tag he saw. I liked him, too. All these people were remaking their city in this very childlike way.
The Washington Post did a great interview with him where he showed up wearing a mask, throwing a fake accent, trying to hide his identity. Of course, they figured out who he was, because they’re talented reporters, but decided not to reveal his identity until he got arrested. When the story ran, it was brilliant but sad at the same time. He’s saying things like “Age is just a social construct,” and he’s talking about his friend who committed suicide, and it just hit me, like “Oh God, he’s a kid in pain.” There’s a tremendous YouTube video of this handful of high school kids, all wearing masks and addressing the camera. One’s playing this beautiful accordion song and they’re reading a Borf manifesto, and they’re ridiculous, but they’re also dealing with real pain. Their friend committed suicide, and they’re trying to make sense of the world. Many years later, when I was first toying around with these characters, when I was living in Baltimore, I walked out of my apartment, and someone had written “Let’s Be Friends” on the sidewalk. It felt friendly and threatening, and it made me imagine someone trying to communicate via graffiti.
CH: Your narrator, Milo Byers, seems the quintessential lost boy, but with a complex intellect that forces him to further complicate his own personal and moral codes. He relies upon two pseudo-spiritual characters, Thomas the Prophet and Father Compost, for guidance, but is often left even more confused and frustrated. I guess this is the “philosophy/religion” to which I refer, a sort of handbook for the lost. But, despite his many missteps, Milo is on a rather specific path. How did Milo’s journey present itself to you? Or, how did you build your relationship with Milo, both from the technical perspective of craft, and maybe more so, the personal goal of empathy?
WD: Originally, this book wasn’t about Milo, as much as it was about a group of friends. More than that, it was about a group of friends in their early thirties, which was my age when I started writing these people. The story was fine but it felt a little bloodless. But when these characters talked about their childhood then the story felt more vital. The goal was to have them as kids for a while and then show them as thirty-somethings, but the story never felt like it needed that check-in on them as adults. Because I first knew Milo as a contemporary, I felt like I had more freedom to show him as a reckless kid. So if I was to tell you the most degraded and degrading story about when I was seventeen, you may like it or hate it, but you’re not scared for me, because you know I survive. As far as craft goes, so long as he was a wiser person looking back, I felt like it was okay to show him as being stupid. There are certain stupid things he does that Milo, the narrator, doesn’t realize. There are probably certain stupid things that I, the author, don’t realize. But he can show himself honestly.
As for building empathy, I’m beginning to think empathy may be the meaning of life. I get that that is a grandiose, pretentious statement, but pretension is an occasional side effect of novel-writing. Maybe it was the process of writing this book about lawbreakers, punks, and casual bastards, and maybe it’s living in stratified political times in a state where I’m outvoted 3 to 1, but I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about “the bad guys.” Our morality is largely a byproduct of our brain chemistry, and we need to stop congratulating ourselves for receiving what the cosmic lottery dealt us. The moral correctness of Milo doesn’t bother me, and honestly doesn’t much interest me. I’m not endorsing carjacking or anything else Milo does. People are more interesting than they are good or bad. I like stories that reflect that reality.
CH: I could say this book is about families, about belonging, but I think that would be reductive. Let me instead quote Milo: “I believe the dark spots of our imagination are more real and more powerful than our ability to know what happened” (236). As Milo struggles to find answers, his friends and family—like “dark spots”—become more murky and elusive. He speaks of story, but also of the very human search for what’s lost. Milo’s story seems to seek out other stories—true or false. Would you, as Milo’s creator, speak to the way fact and fiction collide in this novel, and by extension, in our world? For example, I’m thinking about the word “narrative,” and how it has been appropriated by the media of late. Also, I’m thinking about Milo as a lost narrator—about the inscrutable layers of his life, and how they burden him.
WD: I really love reading mysteries. Or rather, I really love reading the first 2/3rds of mysteries. At the 66% mark in the book, we have brilliant people trying to solve an unsolvable puzzle. That is tremendous fun. The last third is always such a bummer. As soon as the detective cracks the case, this whole mystery feels so small. We’re supposed to feel happy that goodness prevails, but to me it feels like I’ve watched the author turn into a birthday magician, pulling a very long tissue out of his sleeve. That led me to the idea of writing the first two-thirds of a mystery. I wouldn’t resolve the mystery, but the plot and characters would be so intriguing that the reader wouldn’t care about the mystery. Right now, you’re immediately thinking what it somehow took me about two years to realize: that is a stupid fucking idea. All I was doing was creating an amazingly frustrating plot for the reader, just a gigantic middle finger for anyone who made the mistake of enjoying the premise of my story.
My mistake (let’s temporarily overlook my notion that I only made one) was in structuring the plot like a mystery. Mysteries imply that the answers exist for anyone hardworking enough to find them. The questions to which we have no answers often act as a hinge to the rest of our lives. We tend to flood those dark spots with stories, our light, in order to see them better. When confronted with the unknowable, we tell ourselves stories, which of course become real to us. The drama of this book—and to be frank, the drama of my life and most my of the people I know—depends on the major stories we don’t know and will never know about our lives.
In that way, we live in mystery. We are a storytelling animal. In place of answers, we have stories. Whoever tells the best story, tells the truth.
by Willie Davis
July 31, 2018