New York’s Teddy Wayne cut his teeth writing short humour pieces for McSweeney’s, the generous and high-minded publishing brainchild of Dave Eggers. Over the course of six years, he’s become one of the website’s most reliable and hilarious contributors around—one memorable piece, “Feedback From James Joyce’s Submission of Ulysses to His Creative-Writing Workshop,” was widely forwarded between students in my undergraduate modernism course, to our professor’s shared delight. Since then, he’s springboarded into a career as a full-time freelancer; his writing has appeared in lofty places like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The Wall Street Journal.
Now, with the publication of his debut novel, Kapitoil, Wayne’s pedigree as a literary jack of all trades—a Swiss army knife wielding an MFA—is confirmed. The book is about Karim Issar, a curious but reserved computer programmer from Qatar who lands a job on Wall Street in the gloriously naïve days of 1999. In between admiring Jackson Pollock paintings and deciding to record his every conversation, Karim’s idiosyncratic mind comes up with a complex, ingenious algorithm for predicting oil futures based on the number and content of newspaper articles about the Middle East. Before he knows it, Karim is the most sought-after man in the company; but with a limited grasp of English and Western customs, he discovers just how hard it is to tell the wolves from the sheep.
Wayne spoke to melast week by phone about the McSweeney’s formula, the accidental comedy of business jargon, and why he wasn’t interested in writing another 9/11 novel.
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MH: I first heard about you through your work in McSweeney’s, which has been and continues to be an excellent outlet for up-and-coming comedy writers. Do you remember the first piece you got up on the website?
TW: Yeah, it was “Johnson’s Life of Boswell.” A nice little reversal. [Laughs.] That was the first thing I published as a young writer. I was 24, maybe, when it happened. I had dabbled in some comedy writing in college, but very little. I tried out one year for the Harvard Lampoon, didn’t really know what I was doing, and deservedly didn’t make it.
Then, in the fall of 2004, a friend took me to a humour reading event at the New Yorker festival. Steve Martin read there, and a couple other people. I was blown away by them, and remembered how much I enjoyed this kind of writing. So I started writing some things. I sent some into McSweeney’s, and got rejected a few times, but the editor was very encouraging and finally I broke through. Then came this torrent, where I began writing this new genre more and more, and compared to other types of writing, it came relatively effortlessly in terms of output.
After a year and a half of writing for McSweeney’s, other editors started coming to me. It became, somehow, a profession.
MH: A lot of the material on McSweeney’s has a similar sensibility, and in the back of Kapitoil you note that that’s the place where you feel you least have to tailor your writing voice. Do you feel restrained at all by that well-read, liberal, ironic white male persona?
TW: [Laughs.] You’re certainly right. There’s a bit of a formula to a lot of their, and my, stuff. Mix high and low culture in equal parts, shake vigorously, and you’ve got a McSweeney’s piece. It can probably get redundant, but if you look at other stuff out there, it’s still consistently clever and innovative—if it’s getting tired, it’s only because they do one new thing each day, and have been doing it for 10 years. After 3,000 of them, you can probably spot some patterns.
MH: In one of the essays that accompanies Kapitoil, you mention that the inspiration came from a job you got after graduating from Harvard, when you were editing essays for international business school applicants, many of whom did not have a good handle on English.
TW: I was impressed by the fact that their grammar was off, but they knew business jargon, catchphrases, and buzz words that I’d never heard of. They’d learned English in this very specific, narrow way, and were masters of it. So half the fun of the job—and it wasn’t a very fun job—was spotting the humourous lapses into non-standard English.
But after a while, I got the idea that it might be interesting to write a character whose voice was a composite of this—who had learned English through this financial, technological sphere, and everything was filtered through that. In grad school I started writing in this voice, but I had a lot of false starts. At first I made the character from China, because that’s where most of the applicants where from. At first his grammar wasn’t good, but I realized that was not so fun to read, and a guy who is this mathematically rigorous would actually have impeccable grammar. So a running joke in the book is how he’s always correcting the grammar of the native English speakers around him.
MH: How did you eventually settle on the protagonist being from Qatar?
TW: It’s not a country that many people know about it, and certainly doesn’t have the same history associated with that any other country in the region would have—if he was from Iran or Iraq, he’d be too weighed down by that fact. Qatar is also a hyper-capitalized country. Half its revenues come from oil and natural gas. It’s fairly modernized in its treatment of its citizens, relative to the rest of the region. So [Karim] is a character who has a fairly sympathetic attitude toward America and capitalism, without too much to turn him against it.
MH: This next question is the inevitable one: What made you think you could write from the perspective of a devout Muslim from the Middle East?
TW: Yeah. Totally valid question. One of my stock answers is to say that I’ve also never worked on Wall Street, or been a computer programmer. Everything about his basic stats don’t apply to me. I did do some research, of course, but there was as much into the Middle East and Islam as there was into the stock market or math. I didn’t want his religion to take centre stage.
If it were set post-9/11, of course, I’d have to change everything. I’d have to address the xenophobia and persecution he’d encounter. But that didn’t interest me as much. If you see the cover of the book—with the oil dripping and New York City—and you find out he’s a young Muslim male, most readers’ first impression is that he’s going to be a terrorist. And that doesn’t happen at all. It bothers me a little that just about every Muslim male in American fiction or movies in the last 10 years is either a terrorist or a victim. Karim is neither.
MH: Even in the pre-9/11 setting, most of the people Karim encounters want to make his religion the focus, and he’s really not interested in it. The book is a record of his internal dialogue, and he doesn’t even reflect on it all that much.
TW: My rule of thumb was if I were going to Qatar and keeping a diary, would I be writing about the new world around me, or would I be writing so much about my past, and America? I’d be writing about the new stuff, I think.
I had more of that at the beginning, in fact. Every time I would put things in, early readers would point out it looked like I was trying to prove I’d done my homework. A real Muslim character wouldn’t mention his Muslim-ness at every opportunity.
MH: Did your experience with humour writing help you when writing the novel, even if it doesn’t show up in the form of actual jokes?
TW: Definitely. For one, it gives you training writing in different voices. You come up with a character through a unique voice. And I think even small things like comic timing—you learn tricks over time to make a sentence funny. There are some tips in the back of the book. If you’re making a funny sentence, you want the funniest word to be the last word, otherwise you burn it out earlier. Little things like that. But in terms of narrative? No. [Humour pieces] have a set up and payoff, and that’s it.
MH: You wrote your undergraduate thesis on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in 2001—it’s now circulating online—and I understand you met him briefly, on the basis of that thesis. What was your impression of him like?
TW: It was nice. He came to Harvard that year to give a reading. They had me pick him up at the airport. I wrote about it for McSweeney’s after he died: he was a very gracious, nice, self-deprecating guy. My sense from the limited time was he was a guy who’d been burdened with being the smartest guy in the room his whole life, but had learned a way to make people feel at ease around him despite that. And add on to that that he’s a celebrity, and considered a genius. He was as good as you can be at making people not feel like they’re in the presence of an arrogant mastermind.
I re-encountered him years later at a reading. I’d had no contact with him in the interim. He remembered me, and seemed genuinely pleased to see me again—not that he knew me well, at all. It’s too bad, obviously. I’m not the only one to say that. We lost someone who would’ve been producing amazing work still.
Harper Perennial, 320 pp, $15.99, paperback
(interview also appeared in SEE Magazine, July 1, 2010)