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Interview: Will Dowd on exploring nuance in ubiquity

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

Raised in Braintree, Massachusetts (a fact, he says, he has never really gotten over), Will Dowd is the author of the prize-winning collection of essays, Areas of Fog, and a dexterous sketch artist. Will obtained his MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, where he received a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship; an MS from MIT, serving as a John Lyons Fellow; and a BA from Boston College, as a Presidential Scholar.

Apart from his book and many merits, the multi-hyphenate has recently risen to prominence over Substack, where he publishes a monthly newsletter (The Lunar Dispatch) about our sole natural satellite--the moon. Will shares his drive for finding the notable in pervasive, everyday events in this interview and discusses his writing, authors he follows, and books living on his nightstand.

Picture courtesy: Will Dowd

You said in one of your interviews, you are attracted to subjects so ubiquitous they are often overlooked—like how you write about the moon in your newsletter. What inspires you to write about recurring events that almost register as nonevents?

Freud would probably say it’s because I often feel overlooked, but let’s ignore that Viennese madman.

So much writing today is polemical. Even poems sound like they’re running for political office. But I like talking to the reader in a different register. There’s something immediately disarming about noticing a cherry halo around the full moon or researching what kind of dreams astronauts report having in space. These cut right through our ironic posturing and bitter tribalism and tap into some older, stranger part of ourselves.

I’m not asking people to gaze up at the moon with drooling wonder. It’s an invitation to reflect on the passage of time.

Maybe that sounds sentimental, but with The Lunar Dispatch, I’m not asking people to gaze up at the moon with drooling wonder. It’s an invitation to reflect on the passage of time. If we stop to notice them, the cycles of the moon and the whirling seasons remind us of our mortality. So maybe Freud wasn’t totally mad.

Do you ever worry you might be accidentally rehashing pre-existing takes on the subject in doing so?

In my opinion, it’s the effort to be topical that leads to repetition. You only need to lift the social media rock to see 10,000 versions of the same joke about whatever current event has just transpired.

As a fan (and amateur practitioner) of haiku, I’ve learned that certain things in this world— a tree full of crows at dusk, the cracking of pond ice on a winter morning—never lose their eerie magic. Nature is inherently charged. It’s the writer’s job to channel this potency onto the page.

Plus, writing about familiar subjects absolves you from explaining, and exposition is dull to write and usually dull to read.

Your collection of essays, Areas of Fog, takes the mundane, like the weather of New England, and connects it to anecdotes, poetry, artists, and history. How easy or hard was it establishing convincing and rich connections?

My brain is associative to a fault. I don’t search for connections. I just start writing, and they jump all over me like the neighbor’s dog. This is one reason why my essays are short. I could keep pointing out the world’s elaborate interconnectedness long past the point when the reader wants to strangle me.

There’s no “one line” pitch for my kind of writing.

I think it was Isaiah Berlin who divided writers into hedgehogs, who have one big idea, and foxes, who have many ideas. I wish I was a hedgehog. I imagine they have an easier time self-branding in this overcrowded culture. There’s no “one line” pitch for my kind of writing. If someone on an elevator asked me to describe what I write, I’d rather hand them a free copy of my book and be out $15 than stammer some nonsense about pulling the threads of the mundane to reveal the stitching on the other side of reality’s tapestry.

Which essay took you the longest?

The last essay, which I wrote on New Year’s Day, took me well into the evening, probably because I felt reluctant to end the book and because I didn’t want to say goodbye to my imaginary reader. This unrequited correspondent had been my companion for a year. And you can only say goodbye once, so you have to get the words right.

How do you interweave fact and humor in your writing? Is there a deliberate balancing act?

I can’t say I think about this while writing. Perhaps, somewhere deep in my unconscious brain, a neural accountant is keeping a tally of fact and humor, or at least a nuclear technician monitoring the levels of whimsy.

I find real events to be funnier than anything I could possibly invent.

I will say that humor is tied to factuality, at least for me. I find real events to be funnier than anything I could possibly invent.

Are there any authors you closely follow?

I mostly stalk the dead, but I do keep a close eye on some breathers: Kevin Barry, Anne Carson, Zadie Smith...

Lastly, which books one can find on your nightstand?

I have a terabyte worth of audiobooks and e-books on my digital nightstand. People from My Neighborhood by Kawakami Hiromi. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright by Michel Fabre. Natural Supernaturalisms by M. H. Abrams.

Readers can follow Will on Instagram (@watershipdowd) and Twitter (@watershipdowd). His book, Areas of Fog, is available on IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Those interested in the audiobook read by Will, can find it on iTunes and Audible.

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