Eerie, barely futuristic vision of a gated community in the Driftless haunts new novel from acclaimed author

Q&A with David Rhodes, author of 'Painting Beyond Walls'
On the left is a smiling and bespectacled author David Rhodes and on the right is his blue and floral cover of his new book Painting Beyond Walls
Courtesy of Milkweed Editions.
"Painting Beyond Walls" is the sixth novel for Madison author David Rhodes, and his first in nearly a decade.

It’s tempting to start an article about Wisconsin author David Rhodes with his personal story, which rivals that of any novel. But to do so would steal attention from the book itself, which is, as expected, terrific. “Painting Beyond Walls,” out this month from Milkweed Editions, will be celebrated with only one event: a Wisconsin Book Festival appearance on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. It is the sixth book for Rhodes, 76, who recently moved from Iowa City with his wife to Madison to be closer to family and friends after decades in Wisconsin’s Driftless Region. In fact, “Driftless” was the name of the book that marked Rhodes’ triumphant return to publishing after a stunning, 30-year wait — but we’ll get back to that in a moment.

Fans of Rhodes will appreciate the return to fictional Words, Wisconsin, and the familiar characters that populate the unincorporated village. They’ll recognize Rhodes’ voice, as singular and lyrical as ever, and his distinct style; often waxing profound for page after luxurious page before suddenly punching out a hilarious one-liner. Rhodes continues to explore the human condition in profound but unpretentious ways. But his sixth novel is a marked departure from its predecessors — for one thing, it takes place in 2027. It’s also rife with genetic and evolutionary science and infused with a subtle speculative/magical realism vibe. There’s something deeply unsettling about the fact that “Painting Beyond Walls” is set in such a recognizable landscape only five years into the future. The 432-page hardcover book is weighty in every sense of the word — and Rhodes wasn’t sure what his long-time Milkweed editor-in-chief Daniel Slager would think, so he set up a meeting.

“I was working on a continuation of three books already published by Milkweed, and I thought Daniel needed a chance to respond to the idea of the series leaping into the future and into an entirely different direction,” Rhodes says. “I was unaware of any other contemporary (or historical) trilogy in which the author had made this choice in the fourth book.”

This was back in 2013, just after “Jewelweed” had come out, and Slager puts it like this: “He wanted to meet and be reassured that I didn’t think he was insane.”

He needn’t have worried. “To the contrary,” Slager says, “I believe so strongly in his abilities and his talent and his vision that I offered him a contract before he got started writing the novel, so he would know that we were committed.”

That commitment began 17 years ago, in 2005, two weeks after Slager moved from New York to Minneapolis to run Milkweed, and asked then-assistant editor Ben Barnhart if he was excited about anything in the hopper. “He said to me, ‘There is something that I’m quite excited about,'” Slager recalls. “‘And first let me tell you the backstory.'”

Barnhart had been reading a John Gardner book when he stumbled across a glowing reference to Rhodes, an author he’d never heard of, who’d graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1971, published three terrific novels in quick succession, then vanished. In a sleuthing move that likely would not have happened at a New York commercial publishing house — but for which Milkweed’s “author-centric” publishing model affords and even encourages — Barnhart checked out those books, found Rhodes’ then-agent thanked in the acknowledgements (Lois Wallace, who has since died), and tracked down her phone number. “I’ve been waiting for this call for 25 years,” she said.

As it turns out, in 1977, Rhodes had a motorcycle accident that left him paraplegic. Last she’d heard, he was living with his wife in a farmhouse in Wonewoc, Wisconsin.

Barnhart reached out and Rhodes invited him to visit. Remarkably, he’d never stopped writing, “just lost interest in publishing,” and had a half a dozen manuscripts lying around. He gave what he felt was the most promising one to Barnhart, who gave it to Slager. “I could tell immediately that there was something very special about it,” Slager says.

He was right. “Driftless” was published in 2008 — three decades after Rhodes’ last book — to exultant reviews. In 2010, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to write and publish 2013’s “Jewelweed.” By the time Slager met with Rhodes to hear about his new idea for what would become “Painting Beyond Walls,” Rhodes was on a roll; energized by the triumphant return, eager to take the series in a different direction.

Then he was diagnosed with stage four cancer.

“David Rhodes has seen a wider range of human experience than most of us will,” Slager says.

Rhodes’ new health challenges, which he continues to navigate today and are another reason he’s moved to Madison, slowed his writing significantly. They led to yet another long gap between books — not 30 years, this time, but nearly ten — and yet another triumphant novel that Slager says “is about essentially what it means to be human.”

“In a way, he has kind of disappeared from the public sphere twice now, and returned,” Slager says. “It’s just such an incredible human story, such an incredible literary story, and it’s just been so incredible getting to know him so well.”

Q&A with David Rhodes, author of “Painting Beyond Walls”

Where did “Painting Beyond Walls” come from?
I wanted to address human sexuality and write about how unconscious, inherited instincts become loosely translated into fundamental, ever-present elements of individual identities. And from the initial prompting for the new book, I understood the unavoidable layers of seriousness and hilarity that would accompany the theme, because sexuality is the evolutionary glue that holds together all our distress and ambition. Yet how would it be possible to write about shared reproductive instincts without implying that they were either not really shared, or not instinctual? A further complexity was provided by the question of whether we experience more agency in interpreting our own urges or in responding to the signals we receive from society regarding the best ways to implement those urges.

Without giving anything away, this book is for anyone who is interested in thinking on a deeper level about genetics and DNA, relationships, family, artificial intelligence, government overreach, data collection, power dynamics, wealth disparities, weird science, climate change, violence against women and, you know, the human condition and the meaning of life. Did you know what this book was about before you started? What do you say when people ask what this book is about?
What I did not want to do was begin the book with the new paradigm and follow it in a linear fashion to some arbitrary conclusion. It seemed more important to first illustrate the myriad ways in which our current societies arrange living patterns, family structures and economic values around reproductive instincts before opening up the question of how explosive a change in reproductive habits would have upon both individuals and communities. To avoid giving anything away, I usually just say the book is about people loving and hating each other.

“Painting Beyond Walls” is told primarily from the point of view of 30-year-old August Helm, but then slides into omniscient perspective with some delightful head-hopping. Were those choices intentional, or were you just writing?
I wanted a new voice for the book — something to carry a novel sensibility of time and place — and thought the main characters would to some extent all be informed through it. There were instances, however, when August’s interior voice too closely resembled the overall narrative and I needed to pry them apart. We are, for good or ill, products of our own epoch in one way or another, and I imagined a heightened scientific understanding for the future.

Why did you want to set this book in the future, and why only a few years into the future?
I wanted the freedom of creation that accompanies the future tense, but I was less interested in making up science fictions whole cloth, and much more interested in examining the ways we currently relate to each other and wondering about how subtle reproductive changes might mix things up. I set it only slightly in the future so the reader could still participate fully in the story and themes and experience having her/his time of living dismissed as simple and less stressful — the backward-looking prejudice.

How much of this story did you plot ahead of time, and did anything surprise you? What gave you the hardest time?
Though there were many drafts, much of the story seemed to flow out of the theme of characters converting their unconscious instincts into conscious choices. The most challenging part of the story came from how to deal with the Epilogue material — how to present it, and what tone to set in closing the book out.

I found the idea of The Gate marring The Driftless appalling — but also believable. Where did the idea for The Gate come from? Was there anything in your real-life homeland that helped inform that conflict between The Gate’s residents and the locals of Words and Grange?
Gentrification seems more or less ongoing in an open capitalist culture, and the ensuing fears and resentments are experienced by almost everyone. Setting this social problem at the center of the book was a way of illustrating how important I think it is to deal with it in good faith, rather than allowing the problem to become a political football.

I loved the discussion around truth — what it is, to whom it’s owed — and absolutely loved August’s reasoning for his discomfort around watching his friend lie to spare the feelings of others; he was uncomfortable because “anything short of the truth is temporary.” But then April pushes back with, “Yes, but people are temporary.” I’m captivated by the duality of feeling so important in the world and so inconsequential in the world at the same time, and I think that scene around truth tapped into that for me. How can we be so temporary, yet so powerful as to create an expansive chain reaction that changes the lives of everyone around us?

At the heart of Buddhism beats the concept of impermanence and the liberation made possible through its acceptance in every aspect of our experienced lives. In many ways this central concept seems to challenge our fundamental thought modes. We imagine things remaining the same. It’s how our memories work. It’s how we plan for the future. It’s how we maintain a sense of who we are and our place in the world. Still, I think there’s a lot to be said for the Buddhist goal of limiting overall suffering as opposed to the triumph of any fixed ideology or philosophy. And if truth, indeed, is also on the side of impermanence, well, then, everything becomes more interesting by half.

What is it about Words (and its people) that keeps you coming back? What continues to hold your attention about this place?
Words, for me, is my fictional home.

I wish I’d known as a kid how magical science really was, I might have embraced it in high school and college instead of dodging every science requirement in my path.
I agree.

I learned so much from this book. Things I felt I should have known (like the difference between a donkey and a mule, or how cells actually work) — was that the point? That here we are, absolute living miracles, walking around amidst all this wonder and totally taking it for granted?
The more we understand about the world around us, the better our chances for peacefully surviving in it. The glorious magic is real and unfolding before our eyes … all the time.

As this book enters the world and finds its readers, what’s on your mind and in your heart? Do you release it and let it go, give it up to whatever it becomes? 
My hope is that the book generates discussion along perhaps slightly different lines of thought. I’m already thankful to have had this good conversation with you.

David Rhodes will prseent “Painting Beyond Walls” at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Oct. 13 at 7:00 p.m. at Central Library, find more information at wisconsinbookfestival.org.

Newsletter Subscribe Footer22 Cover Wallpaper