Wil Wheaton on THE GREAT AMERICAN READ | ©2018 Nutopia/PBS

Wil Wheaton on THE GREAT AMERICAN READ | ©2018 Nutopia/PBS

PBS brings back THE GREAT AMERICAN READ on Tuesday, September 11. Hosted by Meredith Viera, THE GREAT AMERICAN READ premiered back in May. The series aims to discover “America’s best-loved novel” by means of viewer opinion. To date, two million people have voted, narrowing the list down to one hundred titles. With eight episodes rolling out on successive Tuesday nights, the season finale on October 23 will reveal the top vote getter. (Those interested in voting can do so via pbs.org/greatamericanread, hashtag voting on Twitter and Facebook, an SMS app, and by phone.

Actor/author Wil Wheaton is one of the panelists for THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, discussing his own favorite books. As an actor, Wheaton is known for the film STAND BY ME, playing Wesley Crusher on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, an evil version of himself on THE BIG BANG THEORY, and a wide variety of voice roles for animation and videogames. He has also hosted a number of series and specials, and also was involved in the creation of the Video Toaster. Wheaton has blogged extensively about many aspects of his life, including battling depression. He has penned several full-length memoirs, including DANCING BAREFOOT and JUST A GEEK, the novel DEAD TREES GIVE NO SHELTER, and much more.

Wheaton is featured in the September 11 and October 16 (“Other Worlds”) episodes of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ. He sat down with Assignment X to talk about the PBS series, his own work, his love of gaming, and other related subjects.

ASSIGNMENT X: Are you on THE GREAT AMERICAN READ to talk about any specific books?

WIL WHEATON: So off the list [of the books that made the top 100], I chose DUNE and HEART OF DARKNESS. They asked me to talk about READY PLAYER ONE, because I did the audio book, so I was happy to do that. But we’re encouraged to cheer for the books that we chose to win THE GREAT AMERICAN READ. I kind of feel like any one of these books could pull it off, because it’s not about “What is the most important book?” or “What is the most inspiring book?” or “What is the most challenging book?” It’s, “What is a book that you love reading? What is a book that you love reading that you want to share with other people?” And there are books on the list that I was, “Really? THE TWILIGHT SAGA? Okay …” Right? But I know that a lot of people really love those. And that’s – I think it’s great. Everything doesn’t have to be SIDDHARTHA.

AX: Is there any commonality between the authors that you like? I mean, at first glance, Joseph Conrad, who wrote HEART OF DARKNESS, and Frank Herbert, who wrote DUNE, would seem dissimilar …

WHEATON: In this case, Conrad and Herbert are very different. I don’t think there’s any commonality there at all, except maybe both of the books are considered classics and very influential in their own way. In general, the authors that I like to read are real diverse. I just like to read really compelling fiction, and I love speculative fiction. That’s what I read more than anything else.

THE GREAT AMERICAN READ logo | ©2018 Nutopia/PBS

THE GREAT AMERICAN READ logo | ©2018 Nutopia/PBS

AX: Well, both Conrad and Herbert are very dense, in terms of their world-building …

WHEATON: Yes. That’s absolutely true. DUNE has this great appendix that goes into the geology and climatology of Arrakis, which is really interesting, but kind of dry. And I love that it’s tacked on as an appendix, because it’s almost like Herbert says, “Hey, if this world I made up interests you, here’s a documentary on how it was all built,” which I thought was really interesting and really fun.

A thing that I love about HEART OF DARKNESS, and I think it’s very clever, is that Conrad is writing about British colonialism, but he makes the characters all Dutch. So the Britons who are reading it can hate the villain without not necessarily realizing that they are the villain. And I think that it’s actually very timely right now, that there’s a lot of the arrogance of colonialism and the lack of respect for indigenous cultures expressed in the characters in HEART OF DARKNESS, and there is a definite class divide between the people who send him up the river and the people who are trying to collect ivory out the jungle. I feel like there is a great deal of that happening now, in the economic divide and the opportunity divide that goes with that, and I think that, for people who are willing to see that exposed in HEART OF DARKNESS, it is not a flattering reflection of where we are right now.

AX: Some of the things you write are about gaming and technology and other subjects that might appeal to people who aren’t necessarily big readers. Do you consider that to be sort of gateway writing, to maybe get people interested in that particular subject to pick up a book?

WHEATON: Yeah. I think that part of what I try to do as an author, and an entertainer, and producer, is bring people into the worlds and the hobbies that I have. I want to be like an anti-gatekeeper, and make things as accessible to as many people as possible, so that you don’t feel like you have to pass a test before you can read a book, or watch a movie, or join a television show’s fandom, or whatever. One of the things that I love about the list for this year’s THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, there’s really something on that list for absolutely anyone.

When I write about things, I’m just doing my best to communicate clearly how I feel about something, especially as it relates to gaming. I want to demystify gaming, and share with people that anybody can play games. It doesn’t take a lot of really specialized knowledge and, like I said, you don’t have to pass tests to do this.

AX: There is a certain amount of author-type creation involved in, say, Dungeons & Dragons gaming. You have to think of who your character is, and what you want the character to do …

WHEATON: When D&D is done right, it’s collaborative storytelling.

AX: Would you compare that to narrative storytelling?

WHEATON: Yeah. As a Dungeon Master, I have a general idea of the story that I want to tell, but my job is to listen to the players, and help them tell the story they want to tell, so we’re all telling a story together. My job is to ask the players, “What are some back story secrets about your characters?” And when I do that, I find out from the players what they’re hoping to experience as they explore the fiction of the world we’ve created, and that helps me decide what kind of adversaries I’m going to throw at them, and what kind of challenges I’m going to put in their way. And through the experience of playing for many hours, over many different play sessions, we create a world, and we create characters together. We all become invested. And as a DM [Dungeon Master], I feel a great deal of responsibility to bring that world to life as vividly as I can.

AX: When you’re writing fiction, is that like, you’re also the players, and you’re asking yourself, “Well, what do I want to get out of this?”

WHEATON: Yeah. When I’m writing fiction, and I’m doing dialogue for characters, I hear them talk. And I just listen to them, and I transcribe what’s happening, and I see what’s going on, and I do my best to describe it as if I’m there. In editing and rewriting, it gets a little more technical, and I’m able to find things that I took for granted that need to be explicitly laid out for a reader who doesn’t live in my head. I find the things that I thought readers needed to know, and I can just show it, instead of tell it and all that. But on the first few drafts, as a writer, I’m listening and watching, and I’m just reporting. I’m trying to transcribe what’s coming out of my imagination.

AX: And when you read other people’s books, do you just become completely immersed in the world, or do you ever go, “Gee, I wonder what their process was. Did Joseph Conrad hear his characters?”

WHEATON: I’m pretty good about getting myself out of the way, and just letting the author tell me their story. Sometimes, this happens a lot with science fiction, I will get inspired by something that I have read, and I will start to think, “Hey, what if – it would be so interesting if …” or, “I wonder what’s behind that …,” and I’ll realize that I’ve been reading for a page-and-a-half and I haven’t absorbed any of it, because I’m thinking about how I can take that and maybe use it in my own writing.

AX: Do you have a preference between those two experiences?

WHEATON: I would rather just enjoy the book that I’m reading [laughs].

AX: Do you have a preference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction, writing about gaming …?

WHEATON: Well, the thing about writing fiction is that I get to make everything up. I’m not constrained by the way things actually happened. And Neil Gaiman says, every book teaches you how to write it, and every one is different. I don’t have as much experience as Neil has, but having just finished a novel, and having done a lot of narrative nonfiction before that, that was my experience. I had to learn how to write this particular novel. And I like writing narrative nonfiction. I enjoy the experience of recreating something, and doing my best to put someone in a situation that was interesting enough to me that I feel like recreating it and taking them there. Fiction writing is really fun, because I just get to go, “Hey, what if this happened?”, and then find out. When you’re writing fiction, you’re kind of like a god [laughs], in that you get to run the entire world. And that’s fun. I love that. Writing about gaming is less fun, because the Internet ruins everything, and for every person that wants to tell you that they appreciated it, there are people that just want to complain about the thing that you did. It’s exhausting. And I’ve realized that – we ran up against this with TABLETOP, too – those aren’t the people I’m talking to.

AX: What was TABLETOP?

WHEATON: TABLETOP was my board game show. The idea was that we would have interesting people, who we know from pop culture and from around town [Hollywood], get together and play tabletop board games, not the old games that you would get at the drugstore, but games like SETTLERS OF CATAN and DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and PANDEMIC and TICKET TO RIDE. The designing principle of that show was to share the joy and camaraderie that happens when you’re gaming, and inspire people to play games with the people in their lives, and put more gamers into the world.

AX: Was TABLETOP live-streamed?

WHEATON: No, it was edited. We filmed it like a TV show. Sometimes that happens because it’s interesting and it can be funny, but we take forty-five to ninety minutes of game play and cut it down to somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five minutes.

AX: How do you feel when you’re called upon to do discussion shows like THE GREAT AMERICAN READ? Is it just like a big fun conversation about books you love?

WHEATON: I love it. I like being on an interesting, diverse panel, because I learn something every time. And it’s fun – it makes me feel a little less alone in the things that I love.

AX: What would you most like people to know about THE GREAT AMERICAN READ?

WHEATON: This is a wonderfully diverse group of books. And what I love about it, it has everything from THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER to THE HANDMAID’S TALE to READY PLAYER ONE to the TWILIGHT books. There is this incredibly wide, wonderfully diverse collection of novels and series on this list, and it makes it incredibly accessible to everyone who wants to pick up a book. There’s no judgment in this list. It doesn’t say, “You have to go and pick up one of the really obscure, esoteric Philip K. Dick books to call yourself a reader.” All you’ve got to do is pick up a book, and read it, and talk about it with other people. And that is really exciting to me.

This interview was conducted during PBS’s portion of the summer 2018 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with Wil Wheaton on THE GREAT AMERICAN READ


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