Interview | Teddy Wayne on “Loner”, Literary Creepers, and Sexual Assault
Photo: Kate Greathead.
If you want to hear a scary stalking story, you could ask a female friend about her experiences. If you want to understand the mindset of a stalker, however, you’d have to read Loner, Teddy Wayne’s much-buzzed-about new novel. The story is told from the point of view of David Federman, a Harvard freshman who seems harmless on the surface. He’s quiet, studious, risk-averse, lactose-intolerant, and unschooled in the art of seduction. He reverses words for kicks. But there’s something sinister simmering within him, an ugliness that doesn’t emerge until he becomes obsessed with Veronica Morgan Wells, a classmate and prim Manhattanite.
To describe the novel’s plot in any further detail would ruin the suspense. Suffice to say, if you enjoy twisted tales of sexual tension, fixation, and manipulation, you’ll find a kindred (if wicked) spirit in Loner.
Teddy Wayne is the author of two previous novels, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and Kapitoil. He lives in New York.
Crave: The word everyone uses to describe this book is “disturbing.” Was that your intent — to disturb?
Teddy Wayne: The phrase I’ve been using to describe it—and it’s not my phrase originally—is that’s there’s art that comforts the afflicted and art that afflicts the comfortable. The intention was to be art that afflicts the comfortable.
Why did you situate this story in college, and specifically at Harvard?
For college: in part because that’s a place that romantic obsession can very easily bloom. Also, it’s a place where, more so than high school, there’s a vast stratification of wealth. I wanted to explore the effects of social class in America. The character—who is actually from the upper middle-class—sees someone from the one percent and wants to be in her world. As for specifically Harvard: I went there, so research was easier, but it’s also because it’s a place where highly ambitious people go and often that’s connected with status consciousness and David is incredibly status-conscious and power-seeking.
Did you encounter anyone like David during your time at Harvard?
No one that I know of who actually was feeling what David was feeling, but in high school, and Harvard, and later, I’ve seen a certain kind of meek, mild-mannered young man who is so benign on the surface, you have to wonder if there’s something else going on beneath it. There’s an Onion headline I’ve always liked: “Quiet Guy Mistaken For Nice Guy.” I’ve always found that very funny because it’s true. You sort of assume that if someone is quiet and meek, they must be nice, but I feel like there are plenty of men like that who have violent, aggressive thoughts that they’re not acting out on…yet, at least.
What was behind your decision to write the book exclusively from David’s point of view?
If it were third person, he’d be so repellent in what he’s doing that there’d be no partial sympathy in the reader. Making it first person creates complicity for the reader in that you’re forced to, at least partially, identify or relate to what he’s feeling and thinking. If it were third person, we’d probably be wanting David to lose much earlier than we do, whereas right now, what I hear from readers is that they can’t turn away. They want David to get caught but also want to see what happens.
At one point, Veronica is discussing Alphas and Betas and she suggests that Betas are a “lower-value male.” Where did that idea come from?
David has a highly transactional view of relationships. It seems that he’s a romantic at heart. He thinks that he wants Veronica because she’ll fall in love with him when she gets to see who he is, but he’s not really honest with himself in acknowledging that he wants her because she’s higher status than he is, whereas Sara [David’s other love interest in the book] is a much better fit for him, and a much better match, and a much better person, is, in his eyes, below him, or on his level, and that won’t do. It was interesting to me to make Veronica very aware of this herself and be more disturbed by this idea than David is.
There’s a twist at the end where Veronica is revealed to be not entirely innocent. Is that so readers will feel like she “deserved” what happened to her?
It’s so David can feel that way. I think any sane reader would come to the conclusion that although what she does is not right, it certainly does not merit David’s response. It’s there to complicate things. If I made her completely innocent, it would be too easy, it would feel like an after-school special. I feel like the more interesting, complicated route to take for this work of fiction is: he’s terrible, but she’s not so great, either. In no way, again, does it justify his response, but it forces the reader to think about it more deeply than if this anti-hero, this villain, perpetrates a savage act on a completely innocent victim. It’s too easy and wouldn’t be interesting to write about or to read about.
The consequences that David receives for his actions are—unfortunately—very realistic. Do you think he received a just punishment? Or were you trying to represent the way our justice system tends to work?
Representing the way our justice system works. If you’ve seen the Brock Turner case—and I just saw something else in the news about a really horrific sexual assault case where the perpetrator got off very lightly—this is unfortunately how it is. Not only that, most of these things don’t even come to light. At least Brock Turner did get punished, somewhat. But very often, there’s no case even brought to court, which is—without revealing too much—close to what happens here. It’s not a system for victims.
What was your wife’s reaction when she read Loner for the first time?
She read it when we were still dating, a few months in. She liked it as a work of fiction. She told me later she did find it more upsetting than she let on at first. But she’s a fiction writer as well.
She understands that writers tend to go to darker places and that not every book is a heart-warming, feel-good experience.
Who is your favorite literary creeper?
Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He’s fairly close to David in terms of his social ambition and his remorselessness and his cheating and his ability to manipulate. I thought of this as sort of a Tom Ripley, Humbert [Humbert, from Lolita], and Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver mash-up. “Imagine if those three guys go to Harvard” is how I was conceiving of it.