Stuart Nadler is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. Recently, he was the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic.
Wise Men began for me with just one image: a man walking after his father in downtown Washington, D.C. This was a few years ago now. I was living outside Boston then, in a house high on the series of hills north of the city. I’d just finished my first book, a collection of stories called The Book of Life, and I’d been looking for something new, some new idea or spark or situation. The beginning of any piece of fiction is always a series of questions. I had no concept of who these people were, only that the father, as he was then, had no desire to speak to his son, and that the son, knowing this would probably be the case, kept on following him regardless. What was it that had come between them? What sin or transgression? Why were they in Washington? Already, from the start, I knew that both of them were wealthy. Where had their money come from? At one point, before he leaves, the father dictates a letter to a bartender nearby, telling his son that he doesn’t want to see him anymore, and that if he ever encountered him like this again, not to follow him. I wrote this scene in one pass. Looking back on it now, it’s interesting to see what stayed and what went, and how these first sketches of my characters compare to who they ended up becoming. Hilly Wise, my eventual main character, has some of the same determined stubbornness that he ended up possessing. And although I’d eventually swap his father Arthur out of this scene, from the start I suspected that there was a difficult dynamic between them, evidence of a strained, shared history.
I don’t remember whether I thought I had a novel then, or whether it took a few more days to convince myself to keep plugging away with these characters. What I do know is that this particular scene remained as the first chapter to Wise Men for over six months, and in those six months, I answered those first questions, and found new ones to ask. Eventually, the whole of the story emerged this way, as a process of answering and asking. Discovering what had happened between Arthur and Hilly enabled me to find the plot of this book, and it led to me the ending, which I wrote early, following a long-held hunch of mine that it’s far easier to write a compelling story when you know where it’s headed. Finally, when nearly the whole manuscript was finished, I wrote what is now the first chapter of the book––the story of Arthur Wise’s money and his fame. It’s interesting now to think about it, but one of the last choices I made was to move that first scene I wrote from the beginning to its place a few dozen pages from the end. By then, I’d written a half dozen drafts, and another hundred or so pages of scenes that I cut or abandoned. But this scene––that first idea––this stayed.