Breaking Time

An interview with novelist Max Winter

by Liam Greenwell

Illustration by Katya Labowe-Stoll

published March 9, 2018

Max Winter does not know why he was fired from the Brown Bookstore two weeks after Exes, his novel, was bought by a publisher.

Or maybe he has a semblance of an idea. “I say I don’t know why I was fired, but I imagine it had a lot to do with my inability to feign any interest in pennants and mugs and teddy bears and shit, which is where they make all their money.”
Winter grew up and has spent over thirty years of his life living in Providence. “The place feels like part of my body,” he explains. He has lived in every part of Providence “other than the Boulevard” and has worked, in addition to the bookstore, all over the city: as a landscaper, substitute teacher, college writing instructor, and a technician in the Brown Facilities department. In the '90s, he was part of the Providence noise music scene, which drew inspiration from punk and experimental rock. He remembers fondly the art collective Fort Thunder, founded by RISD students and a base of operations for Providence noise—and also how it was torn down to make way for a Shaw’s parking lot. 

He thinks, nonetheless, that certain pieces of Providence are fixed in time. Louis Family Restaurant, for one, is one of few places where he has seen the worlds of Brown students and Providence locals intersect. But he warns about the long-term effects of the food. “There was one year I think I ate there once a week,” he says. “My cholesterol numbers skyrocketed. The rest of the week I think I was just eating buckwheat and water because I was a broke landscaper. But that weekly visit was damaging enough.”

Exes, Winter’s first book, is set primarily in Providence and took Winter fifteen years to complete. Ostensibly, the novel is narrated by Clay Blackall, whose brother Eli died five years prior, though his voice only shows up in sections: the majority of the book consists of short vignettes told in the voice of Eli’s acquaintances (and, yes, exes). In one, a man catalogues his chores as a caretaker for a house in the Narragansett Bay while bemoaning a lost love; in “The Quaker Guns,” a man tries to finally expel the Canada geese from his backyard; in “Louder than Good,” a character moves into a neglected storage room in the basement of the Providence Place Mall. Each chapter is followed by a section where Clay annotates each story with bits of Providence lore, personal interjections, and snarky comments in the form of footnotes.

Winter says he’s not sure exactly what kept him coming back to the book for fifteen years. At times, he was working three jobs and raising a small child. He also once had to retype the entire book after a French edition of Microsoft Word, donated by his father-in-law, corrupted his file. But Winter wonders if that process actually made him more likely to finish Exes: as soon as it became a physical rather than creative problem, he says, it activated his “natural stubbornness.” 
“It became an entirely unintellectual endeavor. It was like, I’m going to fucking finish this thing if it kills me. And it felt like at points it was close to doing exactly that.”

The book also changed radically up until the very end, when he was told by his publishing company that he had to remove a character for legal reasons. But at that point, he felt confident that he could do whatever was needed, because it had changed so much during the entire writing process—so he stayed up for two weeks straight to reconstruct the narrative. “I developed such an unsentimental, ruthless, almost brutal approach to shaping it,” he says.

He’s not planning to wait another fifteen years to complete his next project, which he is working on from his new home in Berlin. He says, “Actuarial tables suggest that this is not a good pace for a forty-five year old first-time novelist.”
We spoke with Winter on the phone from his home in Berlin. 

The Independent: I imagine it takes a certain kind of love to write about Providence the way you do in Exes. The novel includes so many different voices, but it seems to me that the main character is the city itself. How did you conceptualize that when you were writing, and how did you balance your fictional Providence with the real one?

Max Winter: I started writing it when I was living in Los Angeles. It came from a place of—I wouldn’t say homesickness, but it was closer to homesickness than the way I miss Providence now. I moved back to Providence when I was still relatively early in the process of writing the book, which was probably a bad idea for a lot of reasons. That made it a lot harder. When I was living in LA, the world around me was different from the world on the page. Memories didn’t cause things to blur or bleed. That was not the case when I moved back to Providence, at which point I started working at a much more deliberate—which is a euphemistic way of saying slow, really painfully slow—pace. 

I agree, the main character is Providence as far as I’m concerned. When I was writing, I wanted to pull it away from reality as much as I could. I wanted to rebuild it in miniature, the way one would a diorama. I wanted its sense of scale to be true to the fictional project. But it was always important for me to know where one ended and one began. Which was sometimes difficult, when I would run into the real live ghosts. In the last year of writing the book, I was almost literally smack-dab in between the house I grew up in and the house I moved to when I was nine. It wasn’t a pleasant reminder. You feel enough like time is standing still or moving backwards when you’re writing a book as it is. But to have the streets confirm that can be—at best—exhausting. And I was definitely exhausted at the end. 

The Indy: Brown does not play a huge role in the book. Is Brown University distant from the Providence that you know? Is it somehow inextricably separate from the city as a whole?

MW: Yes and no. It’s such a huge part of my consciousness, and it’s such a huge part of my experience growing up. It’s interesting, because I’ve always been on the periphery of it. I’m a townie, and there’s the town-gown thing. I remember being hyper-aware of the fact that I was living in an alternate reality compared to your average Brown student; I realized that they had their version of Providence and I had mine. Wherever you work in Providence you can’t help but depend on [Brown’s] presence financially: I was mowing the lawns of Brown professors. I was buying Robert Coover’s used books at the bookstore. That said, I had the petty, superficial resentments that a Rhode Islander does have toward the forces of the college. 

It was perhaps amplified because my grandmother hated to visit us in Providence, in large part because when she had applied to Brown in the '30s they denied  her acceptance because she was a Jew. It’s hard to think of such a time, but there was a time when Brown, like all Ivies, had quotas, and she wound up on the wrong side of those quotas. So she always had this resentment toward the place itself and this understanding of it as an elitist, WASPy, anti-Semitic, old money kind of town, which so wildly contradicted my understanding of my home. I grew up in what was then the Orthodox part of town where the delis were, and the synagogues, and [I did not fit] into that Providence but also [did not fit] into the Providence of the reformed, wealthy, assimilated Jews. 

As long as I can remember I’ve always thought of myself as of this place and outside this place. The town versus gown provides a cartoonish manifestation of that. It’s easy. It provided a sort of relief. It’s visible.

The Indy: I can see some anxiety in Exes about the changing face of the city. What’s the rate of change, do you think, in Providence?

MW: This is the most Providence thing of all: Providence kind of breaks gentrification and breaks time, in a way, for better and for worse. But it ultimately can’t fight money. Especially [in Fox Point], because there are neighborhood equivalents of microclimates. [There are] rainforests of blue collar, hand-to-mouth existence that are still just managing to survive. 
Going to Fox Point feels like going back in time. Apart from Tallulah’s Taqueria, apart from the donut shops that come and go, there are parts of Fox Point that haven’t changed visibly at all since the '70s. And there’s nothing they can do about North Main Street. It almost can’t change. It’s like, this is where we keep our tire shops. There’ll be a barn next to a tire shop in a photo from the 1930s. It was a choice: do you want a horse or a car? If you want a car, you’ll need tires, so go to North Main Street. 
The fact that I could take walks that were identical to the walks I took thirty years earlier—that was a source of relief or angst, depending. Fox Point has shrugged off many iterations of this exact same pressure, for better and for worse. When I would visit [other] American cities, I would look for those qualities: that sort of stuck-in, dug-in, time-breaking feel. Pittsburgh had it, once upon a time, but there were very few cities that met that basic criterion. Increasingly, America is either/or. I loved the many ways in which Providence would break that dichotomy. That’s the one real aspect of Providence that [Exes is] trying to recreate. That rejection of either/or.

The Indy: Have you ever thought about writing about Providence’s former mayor, Buddy Cianci?

MW: He’s a part of so much of my brain. He was a cartoon character. But he damaged a lot of real people in an incredibly intimate way. At a certain point it just feels gross to make any hay out of that. He was a nightmare. Just a total piece of shit. I gave up trying to write about him, because it’s sort of like, how do you satire the self-satirizer? This is someone who cannot be shamed. What are you reconfirming by trying? There’s very little about him that should be treated reverentially. He was just about as gross as the most cynical of us would imagine.

The Indy: Tell me about your process of writing Clay, the novel’s narrator, who inserts his own thoughts in the form of footnotes after each section of another character’s story. What was his role and how did he change?

MW: Clay was there to nag me. I created him as a coach of some sort. A guy who would blow a whistle at me and tell me to knock it off and stop. I knew I needed to create a character who would insist on the page that this was about him. That became interesting to me, the extent to which he takes over the novel and solipsizes the various narrative threads and funnels them back into his consciousness and his experience. I needed to create an enemy. This is probably going to sound like a tortured analogy, because I haven’t worked it out, so it may be sloppy. When you do deep-sea diving… 

The Indy: As one does.

MW: …as one does. You go way, way down. You get kind of high—something about the oxygen in your blood. You get so high that it’s sort of pleasurable to be down there. If you’re training to become a deep-sea welder, which a friend of mine was, to help weld underwater oil rigs, the problem is that you send these deep-sea divers down there and they get mellow and happy and interested in what the flame is doing underwater. So part of your training is continuously refocusing your efforts on the task at hand. You have to remind yourself why you’re down there even though there are so many elements to distract you. I feel like that’s what Clay was doing, reminding me of my job. Because I do have that tendency to get lost in a story, get lost in a voice. 
There needed to be something fascistic about Clay. There’s something bullying about his presence. Only a deeply wounded and megalomaniacal madman would thread these stories together and insist that they added up to this thing. The final stage of the revision process was finding Clay’s humanity, and allowing his various contradictions to exist on the page simultaneously. Because that’s what interests me most: people who are contradictory and uncategorizable.

The Indy: What do you have planned for your next project?

MW: It’s very different. I’m interested in following a straight plotline. It’s a relief. And setting it somewhere other than Providence.

The Indy: Where?

MW: It’s an imaginary town. And it’s a college town, it occurs to me now. Clearly this matters to me. Because I recreated exactly what I attempted to reinvent the first time around the second time around, even though I had every intention of doing everything differently. 

The Indy: You can’t run too far.

MW: No, you can’t.


Liam Greenwell B'20 can't stay away from Providence either.