This Isn’t Going to End Well Explores Influence and Identity

Much is made of an author’s literary influences, the writers that help shape their vision, who show them what is possible, and sometimes what to avoid. In his latest work, Daniel Wallace shifts away from fiction to memoir in This Isn’t Going to End Well to tell the story of his brother-in-law, cartoonist, author, and adventurist William Nealy. Wallace explores his love for this mysterious figure excavating the formation of his own identity as he goes.

AUTHORLINK: You’ve written six novels and a children’s book. What was the impetus to delve into memoir?

I never wanted to write a memoir, and the truth is I never thought of this book as a memoir, although it is, of course, technically. As I’ve gotten older though I’ve become more interested in “true” stories, my family, weird things that have happened to me or people I know. I wrote an essay about my mother’s first marriage when she 12, one about me killing a chicken, one about a book my father wanted me to read all of my life and I never did. But this book is more than that. It’s tries to be an examination of the totality of the life of someone who did everything he could not to be examined, my brother-in-law, William Nealy. He took his own life in 2001, somewhat mysteriously, and in 2011 I happened to find his journals. The divergence between the William I thought I knew and the William I discovered is what made this book happen. And I wrote the book believing that’s all it was. But as I wrote draft after draft I found my own self sneaking into the narrative. I realized I couldn’t tell his story without telling one about me as well. That was challenging because I’ve never wanted to write about myself; I thought it was unbecoming and dull. So it became a memoir almost by accident. I’ll never do it again.

AUTHORLINK: This is the obligatory question about the interplay between fiction and nonfiction. What skills from your fiction writing did you use to tell this story? What makes the two different?

They are different in so many ways! When I’m writing a novel it’s just me and the laptop. I don’t do a bit of research, even when I’m writing about historical events. I make every word up and hope the reader believes me. My wife might read an early draft and say “Well, I don’t think they had airplanes in 1742,” and I’ll have to work on that.

But in nonfiction the story has to linger around the facts. You try to tell the truth, but it’s the truth as you see it, the truth as you remember it, but eyewitness testimony is never enough to go on, it’s always skewed. A memoir is a true story written by an unreliable narrator. And even though you can’t make things up on purpose, you have to structure the story into a narrative that’s more compelling than day-to-day life, because life, when you take a look at it over time, isn’t really all that interesting. Real people become characters; happenstance becomes a plot point. So, to contradict to myself: as a writer telling a story, they are basically the same thing.

AUTHORLINK: In writing this book you did a lot of exploration into the life of your brother-in-law and friend William Nealy. Talk about how you decided to structure the book in order to have maximum impact when revealing what you discovered about his life.

Though it seems obvious now, realizing the structure of the book was challenging. I had so much material that I was, for a while, very overwhelmed, and in a reaction to that just threw things at the page, hoping something stuck. Over the course of a few years I realized that the first section needed to be about the side of William we all knew, and then, in the second part, delve into the shadow-William. This book is structured the way William structured his life.

AUTHORLINK: This Isn’t Going to End Well is an exploration into the nature of influence and identity. What did you discover about how influence works?

I discovered that it’s more subtle than we know. Who we are is a pastiche of people and experiences we may never know. We are too close to ourselves to ever figure that out.

AUTHORLINK: How did William’s influence shape your identity and did what you learned about him change the way you saw yourself?

This is a tough one to answer in this space because it’s what most of the book is about. Copy-and-paste memoir here.

AUTHORLINK: You say being a writer is “in a way, not like living” but is better than living. Tell me more about this idea.

It’s not living because as a writer you’re detached from the moments life happens in order to understand them enough to explore them in your writing. You’re never completely here; part of you is always there. Engaged detachment.

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing This Isn’t Going to End Well and how did you overcome them?

There were so many challenges. This was my first book of non-fiction so I had to figure out how to write one, which was done over years of hit-and-miss revision (and reading other memoirs that were adjacent to mine). Then, I was writing about the intimate lives of people close to me as well . . . I was torn about that. How would they feel about me sharing these personal moments and writing from their life? Which was in a way a ridiculous question because if they were alive to ask me that this book would not have been written: it’s their deaths that made it possible. I got over that by trusting myself, convincing myself that this was an important story to tell, and that I would do right by them in the telling. On the professional side, there were people in the publishing world who told not to pursue the project, who didn’t think there was anything to it, and I had to believe in myself and the story I was telling, regardless of what anyone said, and, happily, it all worked out.

AUTHORLINK: You’ve experienced what many writers dream of, having your book made into a movie and later a Broadway musical. Tell me about the good and bad of that experience. 

There was nothing bad about that experience. Everyone was kind, talented, and allowed me access to all facets of both productions. They (the movie and the musical) allowed me to live the kind of life I never thought was possible, to do things many other people I knew (who were not writers) took for granted. Like putting a down payment on a house or buying a car less than ten years old.

I was not involved in either project in a professional capacity. I had no responsibilities. But since I had written the source material I was allowed to be a part them in a civilian capacity. It was an adventure, and a lot of fun.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

I’m working on two books, a novel and something else I’m not even sure what it is yet. But it has pictures.

Daniel Wallace is author of six novels and a children’s book. In 2003, his novel Big Fish was adapted and released as a movie and then in 2013 the book and the movie were mish-mashed together and became a Broadway musical. His novels have been translated into over three-dozen languages.

His stories have been recognized in Best American Short Stories, Best Stories from the South, and read by Levar Burton on his podcast, Levar Burton Reads. His fourth novel, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, won the Sir Walter Raleigh Prize for best fiction published in North Carolina in 2009. Extraordinary Adventures was chosen as the best fiction published by a native Alabamian in 2018. In 2019 he won the Harper Lee Award.

Daniel Wallace is the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his alma mater.