Daniel Wallace: This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew | Algonquin Books | Tuesday, Apr. 11
Daniel Wallace has written fiction about many things: morose magicians, quirky romances on the Florida Panhandle, and, of course, most famously, fathers who turn into surprisingly big fish.
But until now, he’d never published a nonfiction book before. Due April 11 from Algonquin Books, Wallace’s memoir, This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew, wrestles with the complex impact that his friend William Nealy had on his life.
Wallace, a longtime professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill, was introduced to Nealy as a 12-year-old kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. William—“achieving the single-name status of a rock star”—was the boyfriend (and, later, husband) of Wallace’s older sister, Holly. He was “brave, fearless, skilled at everything,” as Wallace describes in the beginning of the book, open to almost any type of thrilling experience.
As adults both William and Wallace ended up in Chapel Hill, where William established himself as a singular figure in the kayaking and whitewater world. His talent as an illustrator led him to draw river guides that are still used by rafters today, as well as cartoons that lovingly mocked his fellow nature lovers (Wallace features many of them throughout the book). In 2001, in a devastating turn, William died by suicide, forcing open questions for Wallace that had long been suppressed.
This Isn’t Going to End Well serves as a guide, in its own way, but of a relationship as shifting and winding as the mountain terrains that William spent so much time in. “Every book is a process of relearning how to write,” Wallace says. “But in this one, I had to invent myself as a different writer without the ability to make anything up.” Ahead of the book’s publication, INDY Week spoke with Wallace about why he had to tell William’s story, the impact the relationship had on Wallace, and the resonances this true story has with his fiction.
INDY Week: You grew up idolizing William and write, at one point in the book, “Sometimes I felt I was stalking him.” What drew you to William at the beginning?
Daniel Wallace: He was the opposite of me. And he was an example of a kind of person that I never would have had access to otherwise. So without a mentor like that, even if the person doesn’t know they’re a mentor, it’s difficult to imagine what a different life would look like on your own. The life that I knew before William, and would have known if it hadn’t been for William, was a good life. It was an upper-middle-class professional sort of life. My father had his own business and had created something truly incredible on his own, and that probably would have been the direction that I would have taken if it hadn’t been for William. He demonstrated the possibility of a life that was less mainstream, or on the fringes, and it turned out that it suited me. People are often unhappy in their lives because they’re doing something they were never meant to do, but they have no idea what it could be otherwise.
William is remembered by many in the nature and rafting community in North Carolina and throughout the country. What was his impact there?
To this day he’s iconic in the adrenaline sports world but specifically in the kayaking world. His books are posed as instructional manuals, but his skills as an illustrator take it to another level. His skills as a humorist endowed these maps with a one-of-a-kind feeling. There’s nobody that’s come after him that’s been able to do what he’s done, being a humorist, an artist, and a cartographer all in one. People can use his books to see where a Class III rapid is.
Many of the cartoons have to do with characters in the outdoor world with that fake machismo so many of them had. He had a lot of fun with that. So while he was alive, and then years after his death, his presence was keenly felt. But there are still really young kayakers who have his books as keepsakes and little bibles. I’m really looking forward to seeing the reaction of the whitewater world to this book.
You learned a lot of stuff after his death that changed your perception of William. Did your sense of yourself change, too, because of that?
When you have an idol that you are attracted to, and when he made that devastating choice, I did question the foundation of what I believed and who I was. It definitely affected my feelings toward him. As the book describes, I changed dramatically. It then made me start to consider what the nature of influence is in our lives. And how we become who we are, either consciously or unconsciously, based on our experiences.
Also, how you build your own sense of self from bits and pieces of other people. I always knew I wasn’t William. And I never wanted to actually be him. Because it was impossible. I was smart enough to know that there’s no way I could ever be a polymath, walking dictionary, outdoorsman, and icon in the whitewater world, etc., etc. But there were bits and pieces that aided me. And once I realized that, I was able to actually appreciate him and the self that I was stuck with more than I did before.
You write at one point in the book that “sharing pieces of who you are is a muscle.” How did you feel writing the book? Was it harder to write than your fiction?
Absolutely. In fiction, it is drawn from experience and from people in your life; how can it not be? But the character of the writer or the author is clothed in his imagination. Even though I am in all of my books, I’m also hidden behind them. And so for this book, it was necessary for me to be in it and to be in it as the person I am.
There are a lot of challenges with this book, but that was one of the hardest ones, because writing about myself is something that I’ve never been interested in doing. And it’s very hard for me to write or reflect on my own experience in a way that’s making it direct. One of the reasons it took so long to write was that in early versions, I was not in it at all. And in each successive version, I had to include myself as a character in the book. It didn’t work without that. Talking about myself is an anathema to me. So it was super difficult for me to put myself in this book, but in the end, I don’t think it could have been the book it is without it.
I was wondering that while reading. I thought: “I don’t think he likes writing about himself.” [Both laugh]
One of the themes seems to be that no one is ever who you think they are, or even who they think they are. That could also be a theme of many of your novels. Does writing or building a narrative help you with understanding yourself or others, or is it ultimately just a beautiful trap that we put ourselves into?
First of all, I don’t learn anything from my books. I don’t have epiphanies or life lessons or anything like that. Things that happen on the page stay on the page. Sometimes I will be reading something that I’ve written and I wonder where that came from. My books are smarter than I am.
I think we all know that we don’t all know all that much. We don’t know anyone else in ways that are complete. William’s story is just a great example of that. It’s rare that you have an intimate experience of somebody’s public and private life and the discrepancy between the two.
You’re also right: in Big Fish, this is a very dominant theme that runs throughout it. Not purposefully, again; I don’t write about anything consciously or believe, when I’m coming into a story that I’m telling, thinking, “I really want to write a story about how fathers and sons are a mystery to each other.” I’m just telling a story. But I didn’t understand This Isn’t Going to End Well until long after I was done with it, that it functions as a kind of prequel and sequel to Big Fish. Even though it’s with a different person. William, in reality, parallels the fiction that I wrote about my father or the story inspired by my relationship with my father.
You do drawings as well. I was wondering if you had any future books planned where you’re going to incorporate some more of your own illustrations.
That’s my dream.
Yes! I would love to write or publish a book that features my illustrations. And believe me, I have put that idea out there for somebody to pick up but nobody has.
Alright, we’ll put it out there and at least it’ll be out there in the ether.
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