TROY JAMES WEAVER DOES A LITTLE CHATTING WITH GRAHAM IRVIN

Troy James Weaver is the author of Wichita StoriesVisionsMarigoldTemporal, and Selected Stories. His work often centers around young and vulnerable characters from rural areas struggling to fit into the world. He writes with an unparalleled rawness in quick, powerful bursts. A Troy James Weaver novel is quick and slim, but will change the way you think about writing and people both.

In a blurb for Temporal, Scott McClanahan wrote, “[Troy] is our Witold Gombrowicz.” For Marigold, Michael Bible wrote, “[he] is the poet-laureate of Midwestern absurdity with a heart a mile wide.” Dennis Cooper wrote, as a blurb for Selected Stories, Troy’s collection out with Apocalypse Party, “There is something weirdly perfect about Troy James Weaver’s stories. Perfect because they are, down to their syllables. Weird because what they do feels so broken it hurts.”

These statements drew me to Troy’s work years ago when I first began wading into the indie lit waters. Last fall, through a groupchat of writers named the $illyBoy$, I became close friends with the man himself. Troy is an amazing writer and an honest, loving person. I am lucky to know him through his words and kindness.

Visions, Troy’s first novel, was reprinted by Apocalypse Party in March of this year. We recently got drunk over Zoom and talked about the book. Below is the transcript:

G: In that scene in Visions when the narrator is at the graveyard with Jessup, trying to contact the dead, Jessup says, “He died by suicide,” but it’s a one-year-old baby. That seems to nullify the idea of ghosts or spirituality or whatever, but it’s working on these different levels. It’s an incredibly spooky situation, it’s insanely haunted that they’re doing this, that this person is trying to push energies onto the other person, that they’re in the graveyard, that they’re drinking, the age difference in general. That Jessup is trying to convince the narrator of something and the narrator is aware, and critical, of Jessup’s attempts, but also wants Jessup to like him. The narrator is aware of what Jessup wants to convey with his attempt at tricking him about the Ouija board, and lets him believe he is successful. It is a scene with a lot of spiritual energy and spiritual vibes, but it ends with a slapstick image of a baby hanging itself. 

T: I’m glad you found that. No one has ever asked me about that part. They gloss over it. I think it’s the funniest part and also it kind of has the entire thesis of the book all in that moment. Power trying to grab power, or understand power, or manipulate power. It’s a book almost entirely about manipulation, or grooming. From all angles of life. That’s why the bible and masturbating are almost inextricably combined. They’re symbols of two different things, but also the same thing, but also completely the opposite. You can get pleasure from both, and great dissatisfaction. You can be controlled by it. 

G: Like asceticism. Punishing yourself because of inherent sin. The gold chain wrapped around the narrator’s penis is a really interesting thing because when that comes up in the book I think of Wise Blood, the dude with the shoes filled with glass, but it’s only in the first instance when you describe the gold chain digging into the skin that you use negative language. Afterward it becomes pleasure. It made me question the purpose of the image, because it seemed like asceticism at first, but it’s about finding pleasure in pain, how close they’re tied. 

T: Yea, there is a lot with that symbol of that chain, unintentionally. Mostly, I was going for what we were talking about: pain and then pleasure out of the pain. But then when I started thinking about it more after Visions was published, reviews pointed things out, or had ideas about the meaning behind the images, which is awesome. A lot of times I’m like, “I didn’t intend that, but I think it’s great that it’s there.” 

The chain was Marilyn’s mom’s gift to her and then her mom died in a car wreck. He finds spirituality in it, but it’s also a desecration of a sacred object from someone he loves. There’s a duality throughout the whole thing with, I think, all the characters. Like Jessup is this horrible dude, really horrible, and you sympathize with the narrator when he experiences the horribleness. But by the end Jessup is almost sorry about what he’s done. 

Each character arc kind of inverts and crosses others. The arcs are making an X throughout the whole story. The whole story almost negates itself because it’s about a horrible person who realizes how horrible he’s been, kind of, toward the end, and the main character going down and becoming drawn to evil behavior. I don’t think any of it’s evil. I think it’s these conditions that are set for people. They do evil things. Or they choose not to anymore. That was my goal.

I’m kind of bummed it’s tagged as a book about a David Koresh-like childhood because he was part of my research but I think he was murdered unjustly and those people were too. Honestly. I think he had bad intent, but I think there’s a better way of going about handling that than burning down a compound with seventy people in it. I had a lot of thoughts on that. I wanted to build around that. But it’s all fiction. It’s not based on his life at all. That shit didn’t happen. I was leery of the tag. But whatever.  

G: It’s a coming-of-age story. In those intersecting arcs, the narrator becomes less innocent and knows his power. And it ends with him wanting a break. He understands he has a power, but he isn’t ready to use it yet. So, it still ends in this moment of hope. It doesn’t seem like things are going to be going well for anybody. Marilyn is going to be killed or have her baby killed or be a single mother. She’s fucked. She’s got this relationship with her uncle. That’s fucked. It ends on this moment of conflicting hope, but it is hopeful because the narrator realizes his ability to control energies and he doesn’t jump into it yet. 

When I think about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, I don’t think about it ever in a hopeful way. That might be my problem with the tag. David Koresh as a name is such an end stop and this book is not an end stop. Leaving it where you ended it allows the reader to have hope or maybe rewrites the guy’s history. Things didn’t have to go that way. They could have gone differently. Just because someone has this ability doesn’t mean they’re going to use it for bad behavior. 

T: When I wrote it, I thought the visions were products of mental illness from being neglected and abused. That’s how I saw it. But when the narrator realizes his power is when he sees other people being neglected and abused and that’s where the power lies. Like, “this happens to all of us.” And he says, “I can do this too.” But he doesn’t understand. 

It’s not really a cycle of abuse story. That’s not what I mean. I was trying to comment on religion. I feel like there is good in religion, but at the time I wrote it I felt like when you’re taught this shit from birth you don’t have an option in what you believe. A lot of these people are trapped in religion. They can’t think outside of it because it’s what they’ve known since birth. So, if you did the same thing with abuse, the abused person would think it’s normal too. And accept it. Not to make it too simplistic or too general. 

I think certain people can love their nonfreedom. They can love being told what to do. And certain people have to break away from it, in whatever way that is. But some people accept religion and abuse as a part of their life because they don’t want to hurt the people they love. 

G: Related to cycles of abuse, maybe outside of the story, I had a thought. If you experience something when growing up, that becomes an option for experience. Even if it’s the most horrible thing in the world, it becomes an option for experience. So, to continue living you have to make an excuse for it. You had to have it happen, no matter how young you were, then continue onto the next moment until you got to a point where you were in a position to do it to someone else. You don’t think, “that person doesn’t have that experience, I shouldn’t give them that experience,” you just think, “that’s an option for an experience.” So, it’s easier to act that way because you might not have the empathy to know everyone is a blank slate and it’s best to not have that experience. The person, possibly, thinks the experience exists as an option. I experienced it, who’s to say it’s bad, I dealt with it, why can’t someone else?

T: What I’m saying in the book is everything is a choice. And, at the end, I think you’re right. The reason why the last part is written in italics is because it doesn’t really happen. It’s hopeful because he walks out into the desert to contemplate everything that came before and sees this vision of the house on fire. I think he’s trying to fight it off. And I think he does do that at the end. I think you’re right. I think there is kind of a hope at the end. 

It’s also pretty fucked up. A lot of people were like, “This is a very uncomfortable, dark book.” I’ve never seen it as uncomfortable and dark, but that’s because I wrote it. It came from my mind. 

G: I don’t think it’s dark. I think there is hope and I think the narrator is a good person. 

T: Yea, I do too. That was the point, really. I think as it goes on, he gets ideas of control, but he also rejects it. Peggy tries to get him to preach and do his sermon and he says, “I’m not ready; I don’t want to do this.” 

G: He says, “I know this is my destiny, but at this moment I would like to not do it yet.” 

T: That was really important to be in there. I rewrote that last section the most. Everything else came pretty quick. At one point it was bad in the middle section. I rewrote that a couple times. Like where the narrator killed Ray. Then I took that out and rewrote it where Ray fell and hit something because he was drunk, and he was just dead. I thought that was really important because I didn’t want the character to seem like he was lashing out but, he was definitely fucked up. 

G: Covering up Ray’s death is an ethically grey area, but you build a world where he could be tied indefinitely to that moment, legally speaking, or he could be free from that moment. He alone could make that choice. He had the vision to see the two options. Even if Jessup wouldn’t have seen that, or no one else would have seen it, he—I think—understood that. 

I wanna get to a thought I had. I think it is difficult to talk about meaning and symbols in books. You go into it; you have your certain things, but they just give you the energy to continue the story. You don’t chart symbols and their meaning. Most people don’t write that way. Overall, what I take from the book, is this person is in a really fucked up place, but they’re able to find good in the world. I think the narrator and Marilyn are good. Their relationship is good. I think it’s beautiful that in such a small book the narrator calls her, “Mare.” 

Also, I think there is something about the narrator’s loyalty that is important. Even though Marilyn kind of loses interest in him and is drawn to Jessup. Almost by destiny. Jessup is going to be her destiny. Jessup is a fucked up dude and the narrator knows it and tells it to his face and still has the power to say, “I’m not going to give you what you need to feel better” but he doesn’t tell him to fuck off. 

T: It’s also how the narrator manipulated Jessup into moving the body. 

G: Oh yea, he knew he had done fucked up stuff. 

Maybe I’m a dumb ass for trying to find the good in this character. 

Hmm, why bring Jessup? I guess he has the car. You need the car. You see Jessup rape Marilyn and you still bring them together on this journey that is just for you. 

T: That is the complexity of my feelings about people. How you can love and understand them and know that they’ve done horrible things. And use that to understand yourself better. It’s complicated. I agree that there is good here. Not in the actions of the characters, but there’s hope, there’s delight in the darkness. It’s like the absence of light in some of those moments. And a voice comes through and gives them hope. 

I found it completely absurd, but understand it more now, when I asked Juliet Escoria and Brandon Hobson and Brian Allan Ellis to blurb it, they said it was beautiful. It kind of blew my mind. I was like, “Really?” Because it’s a fucked up and kind of strange and weird book. But really beyond religion and the abuse stuff, I was talking about a kid feeling how someone might feel in response to less dramatic things. Like when you’re bullied in school, or whatever. That feels way bigger in the moment than a couple years later. Those experiences stop mattering later. I was talking about bigger things, but those things are involved in the themes. 

It’s the only book I’ve ever written where I was really heavy on symbolism. I don’t know if it’s heavy, but it’s there. Like the fish, the Jesus symbol, and relating it to a cock molesting you. Trying to reconcile those two things. 

I don’t want to sound like I’m anti-religions. I’m not. My wife’s a Catholic school teacher. I don’t believe it myself, but I don’t discourage people from believing it. I have my own brain and it works a certain way and I grew up in a very oppressive religion. That’s probably where my aversion to being attached to a religion comes from, but mostly I want people to be happy. That’s really it. 

I don’t see my books as downers. I think they’re hopeful. There’s a lot of complexity in being human and I think a lot of people find that depressing. 

G: I think it would take a very cynical mind to say this book is a 100% negative view of religion. That would be a bitter, resentful, reading of this. I think as hard as this character’s life is, as dark as this book can be, a lot of hope does come from seeking something bigger. The bible is more of a representation of something larger than the self in the book. 

To go back to the graveyard scene, the Ouija board scene. That scene made me feel the way I feel when I have a shitty interaction. Even now, like when I text you about having to hang out with someone and it being bad. Later on, when I’m able to break down how they said something or did something shitty, I feel better. I can say, “it was weird they ate the pizza we ordered and didn’t offer to pay,” or “it was weird they made gin cocktails for themselves but didn’t offer Kaitlin or I any.” That moment in the graveyard in Visions feels like that. Because the narrator is thinking, “He’s trying to fucking trick me. He’s trying to do this to push a certain emotion on me, to make me endeared to his ideas. I’m immediately sensing it, and it doesn’t mean he’s evil, it just means that is how he is trying to endear me. I’m endeared to him for wanting to endear me, but I’m not tricked by the Ouija board.” I still want people to like me, I still want to be friends with these people even though bullshit happens. I’m not trying to compare my life to your book, I’m just saying that scene felt so real. 

T: I think those feelings in day-to-day life are what I write about. I just made it more fucked up in that book. But I don’t think it’s that fucked up to compare puberty and sexual awakening to coming up in religion. The character was interested in becoming religious because his dad was dead. He was just looking for something and what he found was a friend who basically molests him, convinces him to jerk him off because he says it’s in the bible, but the dude’s never read the bible. So, I compared the dick to the fish later on. 

I’m glad you picked up on the Mare pet name. A mare is a horse. It carries people. I thought that was a good choice of a nickname because the narrator is following her. At first, it seems like she’s following him, but it’s always been her dragging him. 

When they walk by Joe and his girlfriend perched in the tree like stooling owls, Marilyn says, “Do you think we’re like them?” Later they’re up in the tree doing the same thing. 

G: I think when Marilyn asks that, the narrator says, “No,” then later says, “Yea, probably.” 

We haven’t talked about Peggy at all. Peggy’s very interesting. 

T: Yea, I named her after the King of the Hill character. All the names are funny. Jessup’s named after the grip tape company. Ray is named after the book Ray by Barry Hannah. I kind of imagined him pre-narrator of Ray. But, he was kind of doing that same shit in Ray too. And Marilyn is named after Marilyn Monroe. That was an easy one. 

G: The mom is just Mom. She didn’t have a name. 

T: Yea, I didn’t give Mom a name. 

G: I think Peggy is great. She’s such an interesting character. She comes in late, but that works with the intersecting arcs of the story. 

T: At the start of the book, these horrible things happen to the main character, and you think it’s going to be this slope toward redemption, but what he starts doing, as a defense, is using the things he learned to help himself. In the opposite direction, Jessup, who had probably learned the same things, before you meet him in the book, is doing these horrible things. By the end of the book, he’s like, “I can’t bury a body.” He tells Marilyn to be proper in front of Peggy. He’s starting to gain a conscience. I don’t think the main character’s conscience is degrading over time, but where he was used and vulnerable at first, he’s not anymore. He’s learned from that shit. Sometimes it gets ugly, but he questions those things too. 

What’s interesting about Peggy is she’s the only person the kid had known who showed him love, but she’s abusing him too. He’s about it, though because she’s showing genuine care. He’s willing to accept it because there’s this element of actual belonging.

G: She has more power than Marilyn. She might be offering something that looks like what Marilyn could offer, but she has more power. She understands that what she is offering means more, therefore it means more. Marilyn is just trying to fill a space for the narrator; Peggy knows what she’s giving him. 

T: What I realized happened is Peggy is giving him love. She’s still abusing him but she’s showing him love. So, there’s a divergence when they get to Peggy’s house because Marilyn’s drifting toward Jessup, who’s manipulating her, and the main character is drifting toward Peggy, who’s manipulating him. They’re both showing love in the ways the others couldn’t. At the very end, when Jessup leaves, that allows the main character to bring Marilyn into the fold. He invites her into Peggy’s bedroom. He shows them their family. 

G: That moment is so wild. It makes sense as a symbolic gesture, and it also makes sense for the narrator’s journey in learning how to bring people together. Also, it makes sense because he is an intensely loyal character and never gives up on anybody. Him recognizing that Marilyn and Jessup have a relationship and he’s not judging them. He’s not jealous. The moments they have together when he knows she’s pregnant and he knows it’s not his baby, it’s her uncle’s baby, are intense moments that make a lot of sense. I feel like you could pitch that scene in a way that is very slapstick. “There’s a threesome between a geriatric woman, a pregnant 13-year-old girl, and a 14-year-old boy. This book’s crazy. You have to check this shit out. It’s so cool!”

T: The holy trinity, dude. 

G: Exactly. 

But it makes sense, and is a loving moment, while also being a moment of manipulation that shows he has an agency he hasn’t used before. 

T: I really wanted this fucked up ending where religion was intertwined with all of it. Marilyn trusts the narrator and he trusts Peggy because they’re the only people who have shown each other warmth and love. They’re the only ones who have cared for each other, but they also are fucked up and manipulate and abuse each other. That’s what I was going for with the ending. I wanted it to be three people and I wanted it to symbolize religion. Because it fucks people up. 

The amount of guilt people carry due to what they were taught when they were young is unbearable. I’ve witnessed too much of it. Nobody should be taught shame and guilt for doing next to nothing when they’re kids. You don’t teach morality; morality exists inherently in the world. 

All the friends I had who grew up with atheist parents, they were the most moral, forward-thinking, awesome people I’ve ever met. I can’t say that about atheists who became atheist when they were 30. They become moralistic and weird. When it becomes a doctrine that’s when I turn off. 

G: I think that’s why it’s such a hard thing to write about religion in a way that doesn’t paint it good or bad. There are obviously problems with religion, and it’s painted into this book, but it also seems like the bible for this character means a lot. It brings him pleasure in ways that is valuable. 

T: I didn’t want to condemn either side. That was the whole point. If you’re a human, you’re looking for something that gives you comfort whether it’s good for you or bad for you. Then you latch onto those things. I don’t think that’s bad. But, yea, It’s complicated for me. 

I know what I was thinking at the time, but I also don’t know exactly what it all means. 

G: When I first got your books, Visions and Marigold, but I read Visions and I thought you were doing something with fiction that I didn’t expect from a writer in the indie world. Then I read Marigold and even though I didn’t know you, I felt that Marigold came from a lived experience. And Wichita Stories is very lived, real experience. 

Visions seems, to me, a tone poem for the stuff that you’re interested in. It is autobiographical in another way. The way you lean toward symbols, the way you lean toward ideas in philosophy. There’s obviously philosophy in Wichita Stories but it feels like a collection of things you would talk about when you talk about where you’re from, whereas Visions is about your ideas on moods, tones, religion, good vs. bad. 

T: I think they’re complimentary. Wichita Stories is the surface stories, the emotion, and Visions is the brain component. I was filtering the traumas in my own life through other people. Visions is 100% fiction, at least I hope so for anyone in this world, but that’s how my brain was processing how I was writing about my own life in another book, because I was writing them at the same time. 

I think I even used the same line about my little friend with the rattail getting fucked up in a trailer park. 

G: The dirty shredded ribbon. 

T: I used that line in both books. It wasn’t because I was cannibalizing the writing, I was just writing both books at the same time. I do that in all my books. 

I look back on Visions and Marigold and everything and think I could have fixed certain parts, but I stand behind the work. They’re not all perfect sentences, but I think I’m getting better at that. Some of the best shit I think I’ve written is in Selected Stories that Ben DeVos put out. I think I come at the same things from different angles. Or try to. 

Sometimes I’m super annoyed with myself because I’m rewriting the same thing I wrote and published six years ago, but it’s different. 

G: I think that you write about similar things is good. Especially because I know you as a friend. The writing is information about your mind, a complex and interesting mind, capable of telling these different stories, and I am extremely privileged and happy to have read these things and know you and everything. 

T: Thank you, dude. 

G: I love you, man. 

T: Love you too, brother. 

Find Visions by Troy James Weaver here.


Graham Irvin is from North Carolina. He has writing in BULL: Men's fiction, Back Patio Press, Punk Lit Press, and The Nervous Breakdown. He wants to cook liver mush for the whole world.

Troy James Weaver can be found here.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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