“More and More Desert”: An Interview with Joshua Wheeler

Acid West, the debut book of essays from Joshua Wheeler, is, to put it in the simplest terms, one of the most incredible collections I’ve ever read. Rooted in the landscape of Southern New Mexico, a land his family has called home for over seven generations, Wheeler tells the story not just of his home state but the story of America, charted from Old West myths to 20th- and 21st-century innovations that transformed our understanding of ourselves and literally reshaped the desert landscape. Populated by cowboys and Hollywood cowboys, conspiracy theorists at minor league baseball games, UFO enthusiasts and big-business space industry tycoons, Acid West renders a heat-drenched reality that warps your vision, heat waves roiling off the page and distorting like a funhouse mirror. So many times I had a visceral, physical reaction to what I was reading: an exhalation of breath, a furrowed brow, a shift in my reader’s posture.

Part of this comes from my inherent interest in what Wheeler is writing about. Deconstructing conventional myths of the Old West, the existential terror and dread of potential nuclear apocalypse blooming at any moment, the sleek wonder and romanticism of space travel: all my boxes are being checked here. But in more than just subject matter, Acid West is dense, encyclopedic, and so full of information and insights that aren’t immediately apparent or often overlooked in major news headlines. Wheeler weaves dates and times, figures and diagrammatic focus, and personal accounts and testimony into a tapestry of history that shimmers even in its darkest moments.

For Wheeler, this process of research and composition is a major balancing act. As he puts it, “One of the things many of the essays struggle with, often overtly, is how much information one needs about any particular issue in order to truly understand that issue, much less begin writing about it. An essay like ‘Before the Fall’ is definitely an information overload... there was so much data from all the scientific instruments used in the attempt to get that guy to successfully fall from the stratosphere.” Here he’s referring to an essay about the highly-publicized 2012 Red Bull Stratos space diving project, in which Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner engaged in a record-setting free fall from the stratosphere that was broadcast worldwide.

“Obviously, it's not about the amount of information, so much as the kind and quality. So, for that particular essay, I only felt close to understanding why a man might decide to fall from the stratosphere when I started researching the place he lands, the actual land, getting geological, or whatever you call it. That came about simply because, of all the information this aeronautics crew provided to the public about their outrageous stunt, I could find nothing that pinpointed the exact place this guy landed. So, naturally, I got obsessed...used satellite imagery, footage from the body cams, wandered more than a few times (trespassed?) onto private land looking for the exact spot his space-booted feet hit our sand. I might have written a whole essay just about that search. But anyway, the initial interesting thing to me was just him standing there in the stratosphere, looking down before jumping, pondering his landing. Then my obsessiveness about finding the only information that wasn't readily available (the landing location), led me down a path I didn't expect.”

Many of Wheeler’s essays take the reader down unexpected paths, and throughout the book he raises important questions about what information matters. What most people would probably consider the most important part of Baumgartner’s stunt, the fall itself, never actually happens within the confines of the essay; we never get to it. Another essay that appears early in the collection, “Children of the Gadget,” is a chronicle of the events preceding and following the first time a nuclear bomb was detonated on earth, before the bomb was The Bomb and was merely a test, an experiment, an idea. Eyewitness accounts, newspaper articles and other propaganda from the time, and a variety of relevant media populate the essay, creating a labyrinthine sprawl that constantly engages. But, also, tucked in as a footnote is a weird anecdote about The Conqueror, a Howard Hughes-produced failed blockbuster starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Although only tangentially related to the main focus of the essay, Wheeler devotes his attentions and writes an endnote that ends up spanning pages and pages, and things move toward the surreal.

It's a technique that Wheeler uses throughout the collection, and one that came about pretty organically: “At some point, a few years back, when I really started writing essays, readers would get sort of upset that I didn't spend a lot of time clarifying where my information was coming from. This constant citing of sources in-text is a real drag and totally messes with the flow of an essay. When I think through something—have a good old fashioned ‘process of thought’—that process does not include ticking off all the places from which I gathered information. But, angry readers are no good. So I began to use a lot of endnotes to alleviate some of their anxiety. Over time, some of those endnotes start to create their own gravity, and you realize they're more than a citation...they're another dimension of the essay. When I feel that pull, I give them attention, then drag them into the main text as sort of mini-essays that parallel the main essay, but in another dimension. And sure, because I'm rescuing them from the oblivion of endnotes, I maybe feel a bit more license to get weird. I do not know if there are, in fact, in physics, parallel dimensions…but if there are, stuff over there is probably pretty weird…. Peer into the other dimensions, y'all.”

That tendency to rescue endnotes from oblivion is a formal choice that speaks to one of Wheeler’s larger concerns in Acid West, a kind of allegiance to those often overlooked by the big story of America. Whether it’s the “downwinders” of Southern New Mexico—who have yet to see any reparations from being exposed to the fallout from the first time America nuked itself—or conspiratorial “patrionoiacs”—patriots who love their country but are overtly suspicious of its government—the lot that Wheeler throws himself into includes those affected by America’s own mythmaking but with little power to write themselves into those myths. Wheeler’s own efforts are a testament to the power of storytelling, that when you turn that stone over there’s always more to see. Especially in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the easily-digestible headline, it’s encouraging to see a writer taking such care to write comprehensively in a humble, honest effort to gain a better understanding. For Wheeler, that seems to be a pretty natural impulse.

“Most often, I ‘stumble’ across a story…and then in an effort to make that story come alive, I do the literal stumbling through the desert in search of the people or places I've read about. But also, like all of us, I was just born into this particular story, and never had to look too far from home to begin telling it.”

Acid West is available now. Join us in-store on April 26 when we host Joshua Wheeler for a reading and audience Q & A. More details here.

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