Catching up with ‘Wyoming’ author JP Gritton

JP Gritton‘s 2019 debut Wyoming was called “an affecting, richly drawn, darkly humorous novel about grifting siblings, one worse than the other” by Kirkus, where it was named on of the year’s best debut novels.

The novel, which has been called everything from a noir to a western to a mystery, is about a young man delivering drugs for some money he is in desperate need of. The drop is easy, but getting home proves trouble.

I wanted to learn more about Gritton’s novel, his approach to writing, and what makes him tick. We corresponded via email about all of that and more.

When you set out to write Wyoming, what were the first aspects of the novel you remember carving out?

Wyoming began as a short story I wrote in the sort of crappy, knockoff-Roberto-Bolaño style I was perfecting in my early twenties. I was working on a construction crew back then, and when I came from work I’d sit at my desk and write bad imitations of Bolaño, Breece Pancake, and others until I went to bed. I put the journal where I kept that sort of thing in a filing cabinet, and I forgot about it for years—almost a decade, in fact. I was about thirty when I found the journal in a cardboard box I had schlepped from Colorado to Seattle to Baltimore and finally to Texas. I re-wrote the story, but instead of writing it in the third person, I wrote it in the first. It turned out it was the first chapter of a road novel.  

The book gripped me because of how bleak it seemed, but how I personally felt connected to Shelley. Let’s talk about the location. I’ve seen the book called ‘Colorado Noir’ or a western. How important was the getting down the setting and scenery for this novel? How did you approach it?

I think setting and scene-building are big parts of my process. Sometimes I won’t know precisely what a character is thinking or feeling until I’m letting the language or the “voice” of the story describe the physical space that character is occupying. In the case of Wyoming, the landscape of Colorado and the lower plains has been written about a ton, since it provides the backdrop to the Western genre. I wasn’t interested in writing about that landscape in the ways writers of the genre often describe it. Instead of figuring as some beautiful and untamed wilderness that must be conquered, I wanted to write the West as a little down-beat and used-up and sad. Shelley, the novel’s main character, doesn’t conquer this landscape so much as acquiesce to it.

I say I connected with Shelley, who isn’t the most likable character. How did Shelley evolve as a character throughout the writing process?

I’d say there were two stages in Shelley’s development. In the early stages of what became the novel, when a third-person short was evolving into a first-person chapter, I just found Shelley saying and doing really weird, messed up stuff—and then, more surprising still, feeling really bad about all of it. He didn’t evolve so much as gradually reveal himself to be an utter misanthrope, but one who cared deeply about what others thought and felt about him. I’d say the novel’s structure reflects that somewhat: the first half concerns all of Shelley’s misanthropy, and the second is tied up in a need for forgiveness. 

The friendship between Shelley and his best friend Mike is littered throughout the book. Was writing about male friendship always something that Wyoming was going to be about?

Male friendship is something that seems to pop up in my fiction, both in my short stories and in my longer projects. In some ways, the novel I’m working on now is also about male friendships. I guess it’s a fixation of mine. I don’t know where it comes from, exactly, or why it’s the subject I seem most drawn to. When I was a kid, I had one of those best friends that in retrospect you recognize as, well, a sociopath. The stunts he used to pull, especially those involving his older sister’s pet cat, used to appall and fascinate me. He appalled and fascinated me, generally. I remember our friendship, and its inevitable dissolution, with something like horror—but he seems to have given me tons of writing material. 

Shelley is a very direct narrator. Why was this narration style right for the book? Did it start like this?

A friend of mine pointed out that the direct address feels extremely intimate, which is unsettling because Shelley is also a narrator who lies and obfuscates. I think that the voice became the novel, in that way: it’s about somebody wanting forgiveness without being exactly prepared to go to the trouble of telling the truth about what they’ve done. 

The book stood out because it feels different. The grit peels off the pages. Is your next book another noir? At least what you have written so far.

I’d say that Fence-Jumper, which is a sort of sequel to Wyoming, could probably be called a “noir,” as well—though “mystery” might be a better way of putting it. It’s about a murder that takes place about fifteen years after the events in Wyoming and features a few of the Coopers: Erin and Aileen, the nieces Shelley is certain are bound for a wicked fate, are close to both the victim and the prime suspect. It’s a first-person narrative that features a voice that omits important details and has a tendency to lie about others. 

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Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit JP Gritton at his website and follow him Instagram.

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