Chris Wiewiora is the author of Riding Solo and My Life is a Soap Opera. His writing has been published on the Good Men Project, the Nervous Breakdown, the Rumpus, and many other publications beginning with the definite article “the.” He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University and still lives in Ames with his wife.
I first met Chris Wiewiora in 2008 when he was still an undergraduate student at the University of Central Florida. I was the managing editor at The Florida Review. Chris came on as our assistant editor on work-study and quickly proved that he was one of our hardest working staff members. His work ethic and editorial chops were one thing, but soon I got to see some of his stellar early writing and we started exchanging comments on each other’s fiction and non-fiction essays.
In the years since, we’ve grown in different directions. I’ve gone on to pursue a career in information security, and Chris has ventured onward bravely to see his non-fiction anthologized in Best Food Writing and The Norton Reader, and non-fiction essays about things like marriage, bus driving, killer whales, good pizza, and the water supply published in all sorts of excellent places.
So it’s a pleasure to get the opportunity to revisit this interview I did with Chris regarding “Riding Solo,” one of my favorite essays that I’ve had the opportunity to help Chris work on.
EB: “Riding Solo,” your essay just published by Thought Catalog, brings together a lot of disparate themes: motorcycle riding, recovering from an injury, a failed relationship, pornography, casual sex encounters. How did you start writing it?
CW: There was an epigraph from another creative piece I was using as a diving board, a jumping off point, about motorcycling. The epigraph was from “Novorapid” by Tyler Enfield, from The Florida Review issue with the underwater woman’s face on the cover.
“… death is sexy when you are twenty-one, when you are invincible, when your skin is electric with the glory of youth and you are clueless, vital, assured.”
I have a folder an inch thick of all the drafts. I outlined the essay too, which was weird, because I don’t think I had done that before. Originally this started as a story, I think it was first called “Riding Solo,” and then it changed to “Now,” and finally it went back to “Riding Solo.” It was first written as a mid-length essay that primarily had to do with the relationship and motorcycling. Then it brought in more of the casual encounter and the pornography and those different worlds. And as those sub-worlds expanded the narrative world, that made the essay longer. At one point it was nine thousand, ten thousand words. Then at one point I cut it down to fifteen hundred words, when it was just about monikers of casual encounters. At another point I cut out all the Kisha stuff, all the motorcycling stuff, which was very weird. So it’s gone through a lot.
EB: You described stories to me as pearls before, where there’s a grit at the center. What do you mean by that?
CW: The grit is the little piece of sand that an oyster creates this nacre around, and that’s called mother-of-pearl, and it hardens. I’ve thought of that as the origin story of essays. There’s always a little piece that rubs against you, like a pebble in your shoe, and then you’re creating this protective layer, and out of that comes this pearl.
EB: So after you had said that to me so long ago I went and read about pearls.
CW: Oh, am I way off?
EB: No, no. The story we tell, of course, is that they are grits of sand that turn into a beautiful pearl. But I read that it’s most often a harmful parasite, or an infection, and the oyster creates the pearl to quarantine itself against it. It’s an immune system response.
CW: I like hearing that it’s not sand, that it’s a parasite the oyster makes a pearl around. The best writing that I’ve written is when I feel uncomfortable. I’m getting at those things that need to be discussed.
It’s uncomfortable and it takes work, but it’s necessary because at the core of it there is this thing fucking feeding off of me. And I think that’s many times what essaying is about. It’s cathartic, like recovery.
EB: So what was the thing at the center of this essay that set it off?
CW: Well, the story isn’t the traditional inverted checkmark of rising action, climax, resolution. It’s this mirrored, opposite checkmark. More like a plummet. Everything gone bad: My relationship with my girlfriend Kisha, gone bad. Addiction, gone bad. Using people, gone bad. Motorcycling, gone bad. The despair of this empty situation, everything is being destroyed and then just at the end it’s maybe redlining, topping out on the motorcycle. No recovery, it’s just survival.
I remember driving with my buddy DJ a few months before I wrote this essay. I think it was when Kisha and I were sleeping together, fucking each other. DJ and I were stuck in traffic, and he said, “Sometimes I can’t wait for a relationship to be over so I can write about it.”
And it was just such a fucked-up thing, where you can steer your life to be able to make that into a story that later on you’re going to write about. For him, it was fiction. For me, I was a nonfiction person, and I could say, “Wow, I could change the way I interact with somebody because later on I could write about it and it would be better.”
So later I asked myself, “Did I end the relationship so I could write a story about it?” And the answer is no. But those are the grits that rubbed me a little wrong.
EB: I remember in an earlier draft we talked about the difference in the diction in the sex scenes, between “sex” and “fucking,” the words themselves.
CW: Yeah. That was an eye opener for me. I think I was just writing whatever, put “breasts” there, put “sex” there, put “fucking” there. And then I realized through the drafting process that the language is defining the action, and this is seeping in. Why not just say what it is? Fucking each other.
The draft changed, then. You know, Kisha and the narrator fucking each other, they’re not having sex. When sex changes to fucking, and “I love you” means “Thanks for doing that.” What’s spoken is not true to the actions in the way that language has to be accurate to portray what’s going on truthfully.
EB: The story begins with the search for a casual sex encounter, one you eventually find with the character Ashley. What was it that pushed you toward seeking out casual sex, and how was it that you came to use Craigslist to search?
CW: Right. There’s a plummet from porn and the relationship to the casual sex. From the beginning there’s an awareness that there’s another world out there. I don’t believe the theory of evangelical groups, like Focus On The Family, when they said that Jeffrey Dahmer had used porn when he was younger or maybe even as an adult and that that had led to tendencies that then led to the murders.
I don’t know if porn leads to behavior. It does affect people, for sure. It’s something that people do when they’re wanting to find something, but it’s not a substitute.
I remember the relationship was over and then being a young American male—it’s very accessible. You can just search “casual encounters” and see the photos and the possible thrill. I thought, being in a college town in a big city, that maybe I could do this activity without anybody knowing and find somebody else, maybe not like me, but in the sense that they want the same thing. It’s inherently wild and dangerous.
The question is when you cross that line: When is it that you transition from looking at the photos to setting up an e-mail account and trying to find somebody? And then when you do find somebody, how do you react?
In the essay there are four responses: There’s “Zorro Couple,” there’s “Barb,” there’s “College Girl” with the black bar over her eyes, and there’s “Ashley.” And then there’s a lot of fake ones and spam. There was even one that I thought was funny, a posting that turned out to be a suicide hotline number. And at the time Craigslist was having trouble with prostitutes. They’d be vague, and you have to call to set up like it was a dentist’s appointment. Instead of your annual teeth cleaning, call for your blowjob. And sometimes I got responses that were women saying how much it costs, and I would say that I’m not going to pay for sex, and they cursed me out, saying I wasn’t going to find sex for free. It’s almost a challenge.
It’s way more difficult for a man to find a woman. Let’s say you do a post, in about a day your post is cemented down by a hundred other posts by other people. So you have to constantly repost. And you want to have a catchy post, you don’t want to be like everybody else. So you’ll look at the others and say, “Okay, everyone’s just putting up a picture of their dick.” It’s like marketing yourself.
One of the eeriest things was, and I didn’t write about this in the essay, I actually saw some guys I knew on the men looking for women list.
CW: Yeah. I was like, “Holy crap, I don’t want to put a picture of my face on there.” Still, there is a certain security in place. You’re not going to talk about somebody who’s on it because if you say that, then they know you’re also on it. It’s like, “You don’t talk about Fight Club.” Well…not quite.
EB: You mentioned that when you do something like a casual sex encounter, it’s because you’re looking for something.
CW: You’re looking for something that you think is there and that you can’t get elsewise. There’s a cost to that.
EB: What’s the cost?
CW: The cost is that it’s not real. You’re putting on a mask and you’re protecting yourself. Think about the names, the usernames. You’re not Chris Wiewiora. You’re verbChrisverb. You’re not Ashley. You’re “Black BBW.”
EB: The black boxes over College Girl’s eyes.
CW: Yeah, you’re hiding yourself. Not only are you not showing yourself truly to somebody else, you’re also deconstructing yourself to a certain degree. Breaking yourself down to “I am this: ____.”
EB: Sounds a little like writing nonfiction, doesn’t it?
CW: Right. It’s like, “I am this, this physical characteristic, and that’s it, that’s all I have to offer. That’s all you want. That’s all I’m going to give you in this moment. If I give you more than that, then this moment is not what it’s supposed to be.”
EB: What do you think Ashley was looking for?
CW: You know, there was a certain sweetness, I guess, to the moment. I think everybody wants to be found this way, be accepted, even despite their faults or perceived faults. And what happened was that moment changed from being an encounter, a desire, to being more. Ashley asked if I wanted to make it a regular thing. And I said, “I don’t ever do this more than once.”
I think for her she wanted to find some kind of acceptance of who she was. But that’s not the way to it, that’s not a moment of love.
EB: One of the most striking things about “Riding Solo” is its uncompromising honesty and intimacy. For example, the sections on your relationship to pornography might have been glossed over by a more timid author. What is the impulse behind being so honest with the reader, sharing things that are not so sterile or flattering?
CW: Writing in this kind of shockingly honest way, it’s not confessionalism. Even though I talked about it being cathartic, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have to write this.
I write about these explicit things because it’s what happened. People won’t necessarily be in those situations. Not everybody rides a motorcycle or has an interracial relationship that fails or goes online to find casual sex. So you write it as is, because you want it to be like they were there. Writing is constructed. It’s like a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional object. I know it’s three-dimensional. And I’m saying, “Hey there’s things creating this image on the wall with fire behind it and there’s shadows, I swear to you it’s three-dimensional.” That’s my contract with the reader. This is the best way that I can tell you how it was and what happened. That’s what I’m doing.
EB: So you’re recently engaged, soon to be married. Has Lauren, your fiancé, read the essay?
CW: She has read this essay as part of a larger collection. And we’ve talked about it, just briefly, to say that this is something wild that I’ve done before, and it doesn’t perturb her that much. It’s just kind of one of those passes you get for being younger.
One of the reasons I wanted to marry Lauren is that I love her for who she is but also that I love that she allows me to be who I am and I don’t have to hide that. She respects me. She’s the first person I’ve been in a relationship with that has read my stuff and is also just fine about being written about. I wouldn’t be. I’d be pissed. I’d be like, “Don’t put me in that, I didn’t say that, I didn’t think that, this isn’t written well.” I’m the worst person to turn the tables on. I’m a pushy editor, and I push back against editing.
EB: “Riding Solo” occupies an interesting place in your overall body of work. This essay is about struggle and so it takes us to some darker places. We get that plummet and then it ends on disconnection. But many of your other works, on The Good Men Project and in literary magazines, show a return to a connected life—stories that talk about love, Lauren, spirituality, and family. How does “Riding Solo” fit into that?
CW: A lot of what I write now is about being younger. It’s not as much about who I am immediately now. I rarely have written about things that have happened in the past two years. This essay “Riding Solo” is from a collection called Toro! which is about failed relationships, masculinity, illness, faith, all things that happened to me when I was younger.
There are other stories in Toro! that are moments of failed or failing relationships where the narrator recognizes the start of that plummet, and that recognition stops him from going down again. It’s a reminder to myself of making it through. It’s a survival story, and that needs to be told. Constantly saving yourself, getting out.