The Backstory: John Wray

While much of the U.S. shut down this spring, construction on the barrier wall with Mexico actually accelerated. In late June, President Trump celebrated 200 miles of new barrier in Yuma, Arizona, where he signed the wall and declared, “It stopped Covid. It stopped everything.”

John Wray’sStatus Report takes the long view. He imagines the border wall not this year or the next, but in 2056. What it looks like, what remnants remain, what graffiti adorns it will tell historians a story of our time. A story in artifact.

Below, Wray discusses his approach to the story, as well as what the wall has come to mean both in the U.S. and in Mexico, where he now lives for much of the year.

John Wray

Interviewed by Ashley C. Ford. July 20, 2020. Mexico City, Mexico

Chronicles of Now: “Status Report” imagines the wall in 2056. It’s now 2020. In your imagination, what’s happening there for the next 36 years?

John Wray: What was fun about imagining what might happen over the next three or four decades was really just sort of taking Trump’s basic conception of the wall and his dream version of the wall and what it should be like—really just basing it on things he said himself—and just imagining how this preposterous setup would play out over the course of years and years and years.

Because, especially in the political realm, things are built, even things less absurd than this ridiculous wall, are built with no thought to the future. For how they will age, or We have X percent of a budget put aside for maintenance, but how much of that budget is still going to be around when there’s a regime change or 20 years down the road? And the things that Trump was imagining in his initial press conference and in private conversations that were then leaked—about what the wall should look like and what features it should have—were just so batshit crazy that it was already in the realm of science fiction before the first dollar was spent on this project. So it’s easy.

CON: So when you read the news late last year that Trump had privately talked about fortifying a border with a water-filled trench stocked with snakes or alligators, which prompted aides to seek a cost estimate, where did your mind go?

JW: Well, as a fiction writer and also a news junky, the frustrating thing a lot of times with fiction is you think, Oh my god, this is such an amazing story. But part of what makes it amazing and plausible is that it actually happened. It’s true. And you have that reaction that a lot of fiction writers have, which is Ah, I could never put that in a novel. I could never put that in a story because everybody would be like “C’mon please, build me a grave, this is ridiculous, this is just not washing with me.” And with Trump, literally every single day he does something that you at least theoretically could never put in a novel or story because it’s just too preposterous and, frankly, just too stupid.  

If Trump had never existed and I wrote a story about a would-be dictator who decides that the best way to render his country secure is to build a wall—and then make a moat with poisonous snakes and alligators living in it—my editor would just say, ‘C’mon man, you’ve gotten complacent here.’

In this case, I was able to write fiction that actually has that cool aspect of nonfiction, but which as stupid and crazy as this seems—check the article in The New York Times. So all I had to do is basically take the given facts of the story and just extend it by another 36 years or however many, and it’s like putting germs in a petri dish and walking away and just let them react and create a super-mutant strain of something awful and evil and that is, that was the story.

CON: Construction on the real border barrier has continued even during the pandemic. What do you think the wall means to Trump but also to America and the rest of the world? This wall is no longer just a barrier, clearly it has become a symbol of so many things.

JW: Well, I think for Trump, the vast majority of the declarations he makes he’s never called out on. I think on both sides of the partisan divide, no one really expects most of these things he says to ever take on any sort of concrete life. The wall, though, was so central to his campaign and was one of his first big symbols, that he can’t just totally bail on it.  And it’s an ongoing project that in theory would take many many years to complete. So I think it’s become a private nightmare for him like a lot of the things have that he’s been held accountable for over time.

CON: You’ve lived most of your life in the U.S., but now you’re chatting from Mexico City, where you’ve been living on and off for the past couple of years. How has living on the other side of the border changed your view of the wall? And how do Mexicans see it?

JW: Well, I don’t think my opinion of the wall per se has changed. It’s certainly interesting to see a different perspective on it because no one talks about the wall in Mexico. No one takes it seriously. It’s just not one of the topics that people debate very fiercely, even when they’re debating U.S.–Mexican relations. It’s just not something that is even really on most people’s radar.

What is very much on the radar, though, is the relationship between the Mexican president in the current Mexican government and Trump, and the enormous resources that Trump is insisting on the Mexican government diverting toward the border to keep migrants from crossing. And that’s actually been fairly successful in the sense that Mexico is not paying for the wall, but they are diverting enormous financial resources toward keeping the border secure. In a way, it’s an acknowledgment of the fact that the wall is kind of bullshit and that it’s not going to work and that the only thing that might work would be just a ton of armed police and military presence along the border.

But the tragedy is that because of the various ways in which the Mexican economy is beholden to the United States, Trump really can bully the Mexican president into doing his whim as far as the border is concerned. So that is pretty frustrating and pretty tragic. Because these were resources that were initially meant to combat the various Mexican drug cartels and to maintain some kind of semblance of law and order in Mexico, which as we all know, has significant problems. But instead of using this funding on various police and army facilities to keep towns that are basically dominated by the cartels safe to walk down the street, instead these forces have been diverted to keep mostly Central American migrants from making it across the border to the United States. The wall is kind of completely redundant; it’s just completely beside the point. But in many other ways, Trump really is successfully bullying the Mexican government into doing his bidding as far as immigration is concerned. It’s a bummer.

I decided that I should make the wall itself sentient and to use the point of view of the wall itself as an entity with emotions. You know, it feels lonely. It feels neglected. It has self-esteem problems because it’s not what it was supposed to be.

CON: Do the people who you speak to there think he’ll be reelected?

JW: I think the people that I’ve spoken to here sadly have less optimism about the coming election than most Americans I’ve spoken to. And I would say less optimism than I do. I’m feeling pretty guardedly optimistic that the United States will not in the short term commit mass suicide. I think that it will at least delay our kind of cumulative national suicide by a few odd years by electing Biden and whatever comes after Biden. The Mexicans I’ve spoken to have actually been pleasantly surprised when I’ve told them that I think Trump might not get reelected. What that means is that they’ve been through so many disappointments that they really just don’t expect very much of us. The occasional glimmer of rational thought and maybe voting in our best interests, I mean that’s enough to surprise them. They would be delighted if Trump got voted out, but what’s interesting is that they don’t necessarily see Trump as the sum total of the problem. There’s been bias against Mexico and misinformation about immigration since well before Trump got elected. The sad truth is that Obama was pretty harsh with his deportations as well. And before Obama, never mind about the Bush administration. So they would be delighted to see Trump go, but they wouldn’t expect everything to just be lovely and equitable overnight.

CON: Your story has this amazingly weird moment when a man scratches the famous lines of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” into the barrier. But get this, in late June of this year, Time magazine reported that “in the blazing summer heat, Trump briefly stopped to inspect a new section of the concrete and rebar structure, where the president and other officials took a moment to scrawl their signatures on the wall. ‘It stopped Covid. It stopped everything,’ Trump said.” So did Trump just outwrite you and Shelley?

JW: Yeah, well, clearly Trump has been a close reader of mine for many years and I feel honored to have contributed in my small way to a footnote to a footnote of history...

But the parallel was just so obvious between at least a small section of wall that Trump had visited already by the time the story came out and that poem “Ozymandias.” It’s all about a solitary traveler in a desert region visiting a monument that this unbelievably hubristic and at the time powerful ruler had built to himself. But in the passage of the centuries, the monument had been completely destroyed by erosion and weathering. It was just this kind of pathetic, shattered head lying in the middle of the desert with this unbelievable self praise etched into it. It’s just such a perfect parallel to this arbitrary hunk of aluminum barrier that this would-be despot is building to himself also in a desert, in the middle of nowhere. It was just too easy to imagine a few decades from now someone observing this wall or passing by and just realizing how preposterous and childish that gesture is. It just immediately made me think of Shelley’s poem, which is really all about male hubris when you get right down to it. It was perfect; it couldn’t have been better. And then Trump himself kind of dotted the “I” on that poor thing. He sort of underlined it with that ridiculous gesture of signing his name on the wall.

CON: You know it seems all of your books have a distinctly different voice and approach to language depending on the topic. What was your approach to this story? Where’d you find that voice?

JW: The biggest challenge was finding an approach that was absurd enough to feel appropriate to the absurdity of the basic situation, which is kind of the challenge I think that all writers face in the Trump era, no matter what they’re writing about. I asked myself, What would be the most ridiculous approach to this story? Who would the most preposterous narrator be for this whole situation? And I decided that I should make the wall itself sentient and to use the point of view of the wall itself as an entity with emotions. You know, it feels lonely. It feels neglected. It has self-esteem problems because it’s not what it was supposed to be. It’s not what it was meant to be. It did not turn out to be that cool and the future’s looking bleak. So all it can do is take comfort in the occasional companionship of the odd alligator. 

That’s what I was talking about earlier—you can’t make that up.

If Trump had never existed and I wrote a story about a would-be dictator who decides that the best way to render his country secure is to build a wall—and then make a moat with poisonous snakes and alligators living in it—my editor would just say, “C’mon, man you’ve gotten complacent here. You’ve gotten fat. You need to work harder. Come up with something a little bit less bone-headed than that.”

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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John Wray: Status Report

In late June, President Trump visited Yuma, Arizona to celebrate 200 new miles of...

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