Wesley Wildman on the Challenges and Joys of Writing Fiction after Work for Academic Audiences
Theology and computer and data sciences professor publishes first novel
Over a career spanning three decades, Wesley Wildman has written a number of scholarly books, none that would be considered light reading. A professor of philosophy, theology, and ethics at the School of Theology and chair of faculty affairs for Computing & Data Sciences, his academic volumes feature titles like Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry and Effing the Ineffable.
But now, Wildman has a novel in his writing portfolio: The Winding Way Home (Wildhouse Publishing, 2023).
The process was at times arduous and refining for an academician whose scholarship centers on how and why humans, as individuals and in groups, make meaning through religion and spirituality and whose work frequently commingles with computational social science and the ethics of new and emerging technologies. (His undergraduate degrees are in mathematics, physics, and computer science.) Last academic year, Wildman’s Data, Society & Ethics class at CDS worked on writing an ethical blueprint for the academic use of artificial intelligence chatbots such as ChatGPT.
In his debut novel, Wildman tackles the problem of suffering through the lens of a fictional family that is enduring a traumatic event. He sat down to write it nine years ago while on sabbatical, with the hope of reaching a wider audience than he does with his headier nonfiction volumes.
BU Today asked Wildman about his new book, how he began novel-writing, and what he hopes readers take away from it.
With Wesley Wildman
BU Today: What started you down this path of writing a novel?
Wildman: I write a lot of complicated books that not many people read—highfalutin philosophy of religion. They are part of a conversation with experts in a certain group of specialties, but I feel as though what I’m writing about should be relevant to other people as well. So I’ve made two attempts in my career to reach a broader audience through writing. One is nonfiction books that are supposed to be accessible to a general audience. But even those turned out to be a bit too scholarly for the average person. I just can’t quite shake the scholarly training, I guess. The second approach is to try and create fiction, which is even further from what I normally write as a scholar. So I’ve written a bunch of short stories and some novels, and the first is just published. That was my last best hope of communicating to regular people about my philosophy of religion, about my humanistic existential perspective on the depth dimension of reality.
When I started, I had a little iPad, and I found that I could actually write on it comfortably using a portable keyboard. It felt lovely under the fingers, in a coffee shop, on a train or a plane, on my back deck at home, in bed, wherever. I was doing a lot of traveling, so whenever I was on the road I would work on the novel. I produced a completed draft of it eventually, but it had to go through the wringer many, many times. I wrote it and rewrote it, with advice from patient friends, until it was ready to send to a professional editor, who kicked my rear up and down the street all over again.
BU Today: What was the biggest hurdle for you about writing fiction?
Wildman: So many things were difficult. When we’re writing technical nonfiction, we’re trying to juggle a lot of information and to get it properly organized on the page—systematically arranged so that people can follow what the information is and what you’re arguing in relation to that. It’s a really important and interesting skill, and I enjoy exercising it. By contrast, a lot of what’s going on in fiction is not on the page. It’s happening in the imagination of the reader. So, you have to evoke in them feelings or inferences rather than just telling them what’s going on. I had to learn to be more indirect in my prose.
Then there are challenges such as voice. Choosing a voice and sticking to it, in nonfiction—that’s easy. But in fiction, I found it difficult to stick to a voice and hold a perspective rather than jumping around and trying to tell some other aspect of the same story. In the case of The Winding Way Home, there’s one voice for the whole book. It’s one particular perspective. That means there’s a lot of things the character doesn’t know, and there’s a lot I as the author can’t say. Learning to be true to the perspective is a critical skill.
And then of course there’s the “show-don’t-tell” thing, a maxim of fiction writing. That was difficult for me as well. When I got exhausted, instead of narrating a scene, I’d try and explain something. Big mistake. And I found it difficult to root out. Explaining was and is a very strong instinct for me, and I had to learn to diagnose it and resist it.
But I’ve enjoyed the process of learning to write this way—despite the pain that’s involved and the feeling of being a complete duffer, an idiot. You’re used to being an expert at something, and all of a sudden you take up something else and you find yourself to be just the worst in the world. Then you fight your way out of that honest recognition to create something that actually can be recognized as high-level writing. It was difficult and painful. But overall, I enjoyed the learning process.
BU Today: What inspired you to write The Winding Way Home?
Wildman: My very first motivation was the idea that writing fiction might improve the clarity and force of my academic nonfiction writing, so it was a kind of training exercise. But once I started in earnest, I discovered another, deeper motivation.
I have developed in my nonfiction a philosophical-spiritual worldview. It is potentially valuable to a small but growing number of people who need support, who don’t have many people speaking for them or about them. This worldview is humanistic, existential, and naturalistic, so it has no supernatural beings or gods or anything like that. It’s also highly attuned to scientific ways of understanding the world. And it’s deeply resonant with things like poetic and artistic visions, beauty, and aesthetic complexity. This worldview is not just ideas, it’s actually a way of life. But it’s difficult for people to move from facts about the metaphysics or the epistemology of a worldview like that to really feel what it’s like to live it out in practice.
I had in my mind this character who lived that worldview, and through telling his story, I’d be able to illustrate what it’s like to live practically with a worldview like that, without having to do the normal thing that a philosopher would do—the metaphysical explanations. Explaining metaphysics doesn’t work in a novel. Everything has to be done through the story, through experiences and reactions to experiences, through relationships and events, scene by scene by scene. The motivating fire in my belly was something like trying to show people what it’s like to live this way. Of course, I live that way myself, so writing the story was a personal journey, in more ways than merely learning how to tell a story. The main character is very much not like me in most ways, but we do have similar worldviews.
I sometimes meet people who get to know my worldview and feel completely baffled. Often that reaction has to do with suffering. Everyone in life suffers—that’s a fundamental Buddhist principle. People in Western cultures often think about suffering in terms of just bearing it, or if they’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim they might think in terms of a God who will protect them or will at least establish justice and make the suffering masses feel better in a blessed afterlife. Supernatural approaches to dealing with the problem of suffering really work for many people, especially the belief in life after death, but in my naturalistic worldview, that’s not available. So when people hear about the naturalist worldview, they might challenge me: “Well, how are you supposed to deal with suffering?” To them, a worldview just seems utterly hopeless if there’s no supernatural world, if there’s no afterlife to resolve everything; it all just sounds miserable. Famous BU sociologist Peter Berger, blessed of memory, reacted in precisely this way when our conversations exposed my existentialist humanism, aka religious naturalism. But I contend that a naturalist worldview doesn’t need to feel miserable—it can be intensely beautiful. Now, I can say that, and I can write technical books about it. But having regular people, or even the Peter Bergers of this world, understand the beauty and see it for themselves requires a story. And that’s really what motivated me to write the story in the first place.
BU Today: What is The Winding Way Home about?
The main point of tension is this horrible thing that happens to the family of the person who’s narrating the story. It is a massively disruptive event, long-lasting and traumatic in its consequences. The story shows how the family adapts, including especially the narrator. His attempts to deal with it are complicated by a psychiatric vulnerability, a serious anxiety disorder with unusual symptoms. And the family finds a way through because they love each other despite all of the complexities.
The problem with sketching the story of The Winding Way Home is that the fundamental event that causes the disturbance, the critical pivot of the novel, is a scary thing, a crime. People will have to read the book if they want to find out what actually happens. But there’s a couple of things in the book that I would mention apart from that.
The first thing is that it’s a love story between the narrator, Jesse, and his wife, Alexandra. And it’s a family saga, telling the history of their family as they desperately try to navigate the aftermath of tragedy. That means there’s a lot of relationships: between the children and the parents, between the two parents, between the children. Those interactions are interesting and complex. I found it fascinating to write about a family that was not my own.
The second thing is that there’s a theme of transformation in the book. The story’s main characters reject the idea that suffering can somehow be triumphantly eliminated or overcome; that’s not possible in a naturalistic context. But there’s a kind of healing that’s possible, despite that. It’s a kind of healing that leaves scars, to be sure. That part of the story is told through Jesse and his family, of course, who are horribly scarred by what’s happened to their family, but also through another person, Maddy. She and her family enter the story partway through, and both families go through a profound process of healing. The reader sees this imperfect transformation slowly take hold as the two families forge a united single family for the sake of mutual support and comfort. That’s the hope here: even if you can’t reverse a terrible wrong, even if you can’t solve the problem, you can heal. Not perfectly and not without scars, but you can heal. If you’ve got the right kind of social support and the right kind of resources, it is possible to make something beautiful out of something that’s ugly.
BU Today: How did you approach creating the characters?
The characters grew as I wrote. For example, at the start I didn’t know what [main character and narrator] Jesse looked like. He turns out to be tall, broad-shouldered, with a fairly hairy chest, a large man with a deep, resonant voice—a gentle-giant kind of guy. I discovered aspects of these characters in the book as I was writing. Lots of people that I’ve known and loved and learned from have helped to inspire some aspects of the characters. For instance, I can see how little snippets of a mentor from earlier in my life fed into my way of thinking about Jesse. He was a gigantic man and had a temperament maybe a little bit like Jesse’s. But there’s no easy correspondence to any one particular person. The characters are mapped onto a network of experiences I’ve had, as well as realities I’ve never experienced. Jesse’s wife, Alexandra, has little things in common with my wife and some of my sisters-in-law. Jesse thinks religion is mostly nonsense, but he goes to church because Alexandra wants to, and there he makes friends with the local priest, a Nigerian Catholic. This guy is a bit like a West African friend of mine in terms of his characteristics and wit. So, yes, I can see little traces of influence from friends and family.
I’ve enjoyed the process of learning to write this way—despite the pain that’s involved and the feeling of being a complete duffer, an idiot. You’re used to being an expert at something, and all of a sudden you take something else up and you find yourself to be just the worst in the world. Then you fight your way out of that honest recognition to create something that actually can be recognized as high-level writing.
BU Today: How do you approach writing a story that’s based around a specific worldview or way of living you want to showcase without being preachy?
Despite my original motivation, once I started writing I immediately had to give up the goal of presenting a worldview, convincing readers that it has value. That motivation got in the way of telling the story. So I just surrendered that completely and focused on the characters, on telling the story correctly, in a way the story itself demanded. I actually found that easy to do. In fact, it was kind of a relief to give up what I was aspiring to communicate and just focus on the characters and the scenes and the narrative arcs. In the end, I guess the characters in the story did communicate what I care about because, judging from the endorsements, people who share Jesse’s naturalistic spiritual worldview tend to respond to the book in an extremely powerful way. It deeply affects them, so the book is probably doing what I originally aspired for it to do, but I was only able to get there by giving up that aspiration and just following the story. The book isn’t preachy at all. Lots of people disagree with Jesse. They just don’t understand his way of thinking. “This horrible thing happens to you, and here you are just trying to adapt to it and accept it and even love the world in which this horrible thing happens. Are you nuts?” they’re telling him straight out. So, his worldview is heavily contested inside the story by people who care about him, but just don’t understand why he feels drawn to cope with the miserable thing that’s happened to his family in the way he does.
BU Today: You’ve written two more novels since The Winding Way Home. Do they pick up on similar themes?
Not so much. The second novel tells the story of a particular type of medical technology that’s used to cause harm, and traces the aftermath of that harm. The main protagonist is a brilliant young scientist, and much of the book traces her actions and states of mind, both her insights and her sometimes roiling emotions. It is very near-future science fiction with body-horror themes, action elements, and an unusual love story. I had to learn a lot of physiology to write that one. The third novel focuses on humans who have unusual power to peer deeply into complex systems, predict the near-term future, and influence social conditions, all while remaining nearly undetectable. The protagonists in that story are two children who grow up together as next-door neighbors. It’s a young-adult novel, an unusual kind of superhero narrative with a cool love story and some light action themes. I’m currently working on a sequel to that novel, as the protagonists move from high school into college.
I guess I’m doing different things in different books, but there are some patterns. On the one hand, the stories reflect elements of what I work on in my academic research. For instance, I wrote the second novel when I was also writing nonfiction about the ethics of new and emerging technologies. And I wrote the third novel when I was deeply immersed in building computational social simulations and nearly in despair about how bad we are as a species at making sense of complex systems, which is why we are so slow to solve wicked problems such as climate change, extreme poverty, economic and healthcare inequality, extremist religious violence, and mis/disinformation spread within media bubbles. On the other hand, the novels always seem to include a note of transformation, as the central characters confront profound challenges that stretch human adaptive capabilities to the limit. I suppose that’s where hope lies in a religious-naturalist worldview like mine.