Online Fiction Interview: Cam Terwilliger

camterwilligerSQUAREOur September web exclusive, Cam Terwilliger’s “Five-Star Bangkok Hotel” laser-focuses on that critical moment when we take a gamble on a burgeoning notion of self and freedom, and aren’t so certain of the win. We emailed Cam to investigate how he comes to his stories, what jobs best fit a writing habit, and to go into that heart of darkness that is self vs. selflessness.

Erin McReynolds: “Five-Star Bangkok Hotel” struck me as a close-up on the struggle to determine what it means to be true to yourself—is it a matter of finding the self or losing the self?—and to understand what freedom means. What made you choose this setting for such an exploration?

Cam Terwilliger: Shortly after I turned 26 I won a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and used a lot of the money to take a six-month backpacking trip to Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia. To this day, I still can’t tell if that was a great idea or a completely foolish one. Whatever the case, it’s become part of my identity, and something that has been fruitful to write about.

The experience of traveling in Thailand—and of backpacking culture in general—struck me as very strange. Everyone who does these trips—including me—sets out on their big adventure in pursuit of both outer worldliness and inner self-knowledge. We all hope to be unique and to “find ourselves,” and to somehow uncouple from the matrix: the daily rat race of maintaining a First World life. However, when you get out on the backpacking circuit you run into hundreds of other young travelers doing the exact same thing. The “hotel” described in this story is actually based on a place I stayed in Bangkok, where I met many such people. After meeting all these folks, you have to realize that no matter what you do or where you go you will never be truly unique. It’s liberating in a way to realize that originality is a myth, and that you shouldn’t worry about it. However, it’s also a bit troubling.

EM: The narrator is in limbo, not knowing whether he wants to leave his girlfriend or not, and what kind of person that would make him, given her illness. Its no wonder hes tempted to remain right where he is, in another world, not really dealing with it. And then her Col. Kurtz reference, combined with her sort-of premonition that something awful is happening to him, is hauntingis freedom (or self-orientation) the new the horrorthe horror?

CT: I definitely think so. Or at least we can add it to the long list of horrors we find in the world. “Freedom” might even be part of what Conrad meant when he wrote that line, since the “horror” always appears when there’s a lack of social responsibility, or “restraint” as he calls it. In the case of my story, I just think that the more explicitly you concentrate on gaining your own happiness and self-realization the less empathy you have for others. I think it’s only by focusing outward rather than inward that people get a sense of satisfaction and connection. Of course it’s possible to go too far in that direction as well, and people become quite monstrous when they deny their own needs and wants for too long. However, I think our consumer culture focuses a lot on persuading us that we deserve limitless choices and self-realization. It sounds good, but I think those things are often hollow.

EM: Can you talk about the use of “you in this piece? Addressing the reader has kind of a similar effect to second person POV because we are asked to inhabit a role, that of the person on the other end of the line. It feels properly sneaky, voyeuristic.

CT: Certainly! I chose to write the story this way to create a sense of intimacy in the reading experience, the same one-on-one intimacy that takes place in a long phone call. Though the callers are in different places, you create a completely isolated world within your phone call, a world where the only things that exist are “you” and “me.” With only two major characters in this story, using “you” seemed possible to get away with. However, if there were many other characters I think it would get confusing quite quickly.

EM: Where and when do you write?

CT: For a long time I wrote for an hour every morning before going in to work. However, when I left my office job in 2011 to start teaching that got a lot harder. I always worry about how my classes will go, so it’s hard to focus on writing when you know you have a class coming up shortly. Recently, I’ve started binge writing whenever I have free days from teaching or freelance work, and then not writing much otherwise. It isn’t the ideal thing to do, but I’ve been working on the same novel for a long time, so it’s not too hard to come back to it after time away since I know it so well.

EM: Thats funnyI bellyache that having an office job is disastrous for a writer, that I should have gone into teaching. Really, though, waiting tables was the best for writing: you got loads of new material nightly, employed a totally different part of the brain so there was no burnout, and you never took work home with you. (Take heed, MFA students)

CT: I do think teaching is a great way to go if you can avoid the adjunct/lecturer trap, which seems to be getting harder. That level of teaching is a mentally demanding job for not much money—though if you can find a way to make it work it’s very rewarding. The service industry seems like a good alternative especially if you’re really burrowing into a big project for a couple years. My impression is that you can always quit for a while to do a residency or a fellowship, then come back and get a similar job afterward without much disruption. With office jobs you often feel like you can’t really leave, and you get numbed by the routine.

EM: What motivates you when you’re writing?

CT: I find doing historical research very inspiring—which is why I have a pair of historical novel projects going. The one I’m almost done with is called Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart, and it takes place in New York and Québec during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). A big inspiration for it was a travelogue written by a Swedish naturalist named Pehr Kalm, who visited America during the 18th century and wrote these beautiful descriptions of the flora, fauna, colonists, and native people of the northern colonies and Canada. He writes about many places I know well in their current state, so the details are an amazing mix of the familiar and the very strange. I’ve loved using my novel as an excuse to spend time with that text.

EM: And what distracts you?

CT: All the usual Internet stuff distracts me: social media and email and the news. What may be a little more unique is that while I was in Montreal on a Fulbright researching my novel I became surprisingly obsessed with Montreal’s hockey team, the Canadiens. I’ve never cared about sports in my life, but for some reason this one hit me pretty hard. So I end up spending more time than I should checking up on my team. I often have to resort to the program “Freedom,” which blocks the Internet, to get away from all these things.

EM: Thats ironic, considering that, in this storys end, freedom seems a lie. As does the possibility of getting away from anything. Should we just accept distraction and fold it into our narrative, or ?

CT: You’re right! I never thought of that “freedom” connection. I guess I’m torn about this idea, though. On one hand, I do think distraction and connection are a very plain feature of life today, and not to write about them is somehow disingenuous. I think that the new direction of literature will focus more and more on interconnected groups of people and their tensions, rather than on explorations of individual consciousness (which seems like a 20th century thing). There’s lots of great writers doing exactly that. However, I love old books and their perspective on life. And I often find the conveniently accessible world of the Internet to be ironically oppressive: its constant pace of change and consumption and new things you want (or have) to do. I like to escape it in the ways I can—for example, I’m a staunch flip phone holdout. Reading and writing, however, are probably the best ways to escape it. So in that regard I’d like to keep the two things separate.

The 2015–2016 Tickner Fellow at Baltimore’s Gilman School, Cam Terwilliger‘s fiction and nonfiction can be found online in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and Narrative, where he was named one of Narrative’s “15 Under 30.” In print, his writing appears in West Branch, Post Road, and Mid-American Review, among others. His work has been supported by fellowships and scholarships from the Fulbright Program, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.


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