Daniel Wallace, the director of UNC’s creative writing program and author of "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions," recently finished the draft of his latest novel, titled “This Isn’t Going to End Well.”
The inspiration for his nonfiction novel, Wallace said, came after the death of his sister, Holly. When he was going through her things, he found over 20 journals belonging to her husband, William, who had committed suicide nine years earlier.
“He was a hero of mine,” Wallace said of his brother-in-law. “When your hero kills himself, you have to come to terms with that. I really hated him for a long time for killing himself, for abandoning my sister. I really didn't understand him until I spent years immersed in his diaries.”
Wallace said the journals showed another side to his brother-in-law that he had never revealed to others.
“He was really two people: this exterior world in which he was kind of heroic in a lot of ways. He was brilliant. He was an artist, a cartoonist — I think he was probably a genius,” Wallace said. “But beneath it all was just really, really dark emptiness.”
Amidst William’s journals was also information about his and his wife’s investigation of their best friend’s murder.
“I wouldn't say it was a coping mechanism,” Wallace said. “The book is really about my relationship with William, coming to learn about his secret life, coming to understand why he did what he did and his heroism in trying to bring the murder of our friend to justice.”
The new nonfiction novel is one of several projects resulting from his recent shift from creating works of fiction.
“I had been focusing almost completely on fiction since I was in my mid-20s, so that's a long time to be doing one thing,” Wallace said. “I love writing fiction but I wanted to do something that I didn't have much experience doing, to start learning again.”
Putting himself in a position of learning helps him avoid getting too comfortable and settled, Wallace said.
“It's always healthy to be the worst person in the room because there's such an opportunity to get better,” he said.
But, as with learning anything new, Wallace said writing nonfiction, and this new novel especially, challenged him.
“In fiction, experience is just the starting point. I get to lie so the story becomes a better story,” Wallace said. “In nonfiction, I have to tell the truth so that the story becomes a better story. You're bound by the facts and, ideally, having those limitations will make you dig deeper as opposed to wider.”
While the process was more challenging, Wallace said he is prouder of this nonfiction novel than any other piece of work he has written. It was an artistic, emotional and organizational challenge he had to put together while learning about the people in his life he thought he already knew, he said.
“I think focusing on the people who surround you, who have had the greatest effect on you, illuminates who you are to yourself,” Wallace said. “It is like fiction in a way that fiction is this process of discovery page by page. You would think that when you're writing nonfiction, you're just putting down the words and the stories as you see them happening. As you write them though, you start to discover things that you didn't know before. So in that way, you are a character in a book that you're writing about yourself.”
While this new novel is usually at the forefront of his mind, in the wake of COVID-19, Wallace has been more focused on his role as director of the creative writing program at UNC and helping his faculty adjust in the transition to online instruction.
Alan Shapiro and Randall Kenan are professors in UNC’s creative writing program who have also collaborated on video and visiting writer programs with Wallace. They described Wallace as a dedicated and giving boss with a great sense of humor.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi, a Walker Percy Fellow and associate professor at UNC, said that while most creative writing programs are messy and unorganized, Daniel Wallace makes sure UNC’s is just the opposite.
“Not only is he magical, but he’s also a visionary leader and extraordinary director,” Calvocoressi said. “It’s a really rigorous and serious program, but people also have so much fun. Daniel keeps that balance.”
Calvocoressi said Wallace is able to play both friend and administrative roles, something she is grateful for in a department director.
“I remember getting off the plane at RDU when I came to interview for this job. I saw Daniel for the first time, and I thought to myself, ‘I think I want this job,’” Calvocoressi said. “I don’t even know why but I had this feeling like not only do I want to work here but I want to be lifelong friends with this guy.”
Going into fall 2020, Wallace said he and his staff are looking forward to providing a strong lineup of classes. He expects students in his classes will be writing about experiences with COVID-19 for years to come.
A date has not been set for the publication of “This Isn’t Going to End Well,” but in the meantime, Wallace will continue to help serve the UNC community through online engagement in classes and his association with Arts Everywhere.