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Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Christopher Beha

Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts was published by Tin House Books in early May. The seemingly inauspicious timing of the book’s release, in the midst of our present moment of chaos and uncertainty, was in its way perfect—Beha’s novel is set in New York during our last great moment of political crisis, a decade ago, following the economic collapse. The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a big, rich, complex novel of ideas, and I found it to be enormously soothing to spend time with a serious intellect working through not only a story but through the philosophical problems of our moment. How do we produce real knowledge in an era of overwhelming, infinite information? And how, if at all, might a person live decently in our troubled world? As The Millions’ own Nick Ripatrazone writes, “Beha’s earlier work has been rightfully compared to the work of Graham Greene, and in this new novel Beha does what only Greene and a handful of other novelists have been able to accomplish: make God, belief, and doubt the stuff of serious fiction―even down to the probing dialogue of his characters.”

The Millions: The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a big book, and unlike many big books I’ve encountered lately, it deserves to be a big book—that is, you could not adequately tell this story, which encompasses the lives of seven principle characters as well as the socio-cultural landscape of New York in the late-aughts, in 250 pages. I wonder if you could talk about the expansiveness of this novel, if it began as something smaller, and when it was that you realized the scope of the project.

Christopher Beha: I take that as a real compliment, coming from a known long-book skeptic. The first thing I’d say in response is that my previous books are all sub-300 pages, so I am not someone whose first impulse is always to go big. In this case, however, I did know before I started that the book would be longish, because I knew I wanted to do certain things that you can’t do adequately in a short number of pages. And I might as well just say candidly that I have always had the ambition of writing a big, thick, doorstopper novel. (This book actually wound up being a few hundred pages short of that; but there were drafts that certainly would have qualified.)

That is probably not a very fashionable thing to say. We are in a moment where slim works of auto-fiction are the standard of “seriousness.” Setting out to write a “big” book feels like a very male—or maybe Mailer-ite—ambition, in the worst possible way. “Have you got what it takes to step into the ring with Tolstoy?” and all that bullshit. I get that. But for me the ambition came from what I hope is a purer place: I love long novels. I love a lot of short novels, too, but a disproportionate number of the novels that have had truly lasting significance for me have been notably long: Middlemarch; Anna Karenina; In Search of Lost Time; Kristen Lavransdatter; Dr. Faustus; JR; Underworld; Little, Big; just in the last few years, My Struggle and Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: these are the books that have most nourished me. (And, yes, I might as well just be honest and include Infinite Jest on this list, since so many people have come to view it as the embodiment of all that is wrong with the straight white male obsession with length.) To me, there is no better feeling than being three or four hundred pages—a normal novel’s length—into a truly great seven- or eight-hundred-page book, walking around with it in your head, letting it interact with the world outside the page. This thing that happens when you spend a week or two, rather than a couple of days, reading a book, the way it takes over your life, that is to me one of the pinnacles of what literature can do. My ambition was to write a book that might have a shot at doing that for a reader.

Of course, it doesn’t work at all if it’s a bad long book, particularly if its badness consists in its being long for no good reason, or long because the writer felt the need to prove—to himself or anyone else—that he could do it. So I was excited to hit upon material that I thought could sustain a good long book, and I appreciate hearing that you think it did.

TM: I couldn’t imagine it being otherwise. Remaining on the subject of pulling together a large project like this: I think novels tend to be about a problem or subject that nags you, that won’t let you not write it, or create the imaginative space that allows you to explore it. Did you find this to be the case with this novel? The book covers so much ground—probability, destiny, politics, media, race, and baseball, among others—but was there a central issue or problem that insisted the book get written?

CB: I suppose the nagging problem here had to do with the nature of knowledge about the world and how that knowledge ought to be put into action. One of the main characters, Sam Waxworth, believes very strongly in empiricism, formulating a theory and putting it to the test. Another, Frank Doyle, believes in following your instincts, acting with commitment despite the fact that we never have all of the information. In Frank’s view, we are all, in a sense, 1 of 1, and thus no amount of data can make our choices for us. This is the view expressed most elegantly by Kierkegaard: Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. I was interested in bringing these worldviews into contact with each other. To your point, though, if I’d thought that one of these characters was absolutely right and the other wrong, I would not have been interested in writing a novel about them. It is easy to satirize the mania for quantification that Waxworth exhibits, but its opposite is on its way down the road to the dismissal of experts, the refusal to learn from experience—Trumpism, basically. There is something both appealing and repulsing in both views, which is what makes them novel material.

But I hasten to add that novels—at least of the more or less realist sort I’m trying to write—are built out of people, not ideas. At a certain point, you want your characters to behave as human beings and not just as embodiments of your own preoccupations, which means giving them the freedom to act inconsistently. Then this becomes the nagging problem: figuring out how this particular person (as opposed to a stock character with these particular beliefs) would act in this particular circumstance. This is the hardest part of writing a realist novel, I think, and when otherwise well-made realist novels feel fake and “made up” in the way that realism’s critics complain about, it is usually because this work hasn’t been done.

TM: You are the editor of Harper’s Magazine and were previously the fiction editor. I’m really curious how you think this might impact your writing. I mean, in one sense, all writers are simultaneously writer and editor, creator and critic, so to some extent, I’m sure you work the same way most people do. But I do wonder how the specialized skills you’ve developed might affect process.

CB: My career as an editor has mostly reinforced for me one of the things that aspiring writers are constantly being told by workshop professors and other more established writers, which is that the real work begins once you’ve got a first draft. That recognition, in turn, has freed me up to write looser first (and second) drafts. I used to the kind of writer who really labored over sentences before I had any idea how they were fitting into a larger scheme. I still care a lot about my sentences, of course, but I’ve learned to get something down on the page first and then worry about it making it shapely or beautiful or whatever you want it to be.

You say the all writers are simultaneously writer and editor, but for me the big lesson was to be first one, then the other. Try to turn the inner editor’s voice off while writing, trusting that he will have his say in due course. I think working as an editor, developing a strong editorial sense while working on other people’s writing, has had the perhaps paradoxical effect of making it easier to turn my inner editor off at certain points in the process.

TM: Elaborating on the last question, when you edited a story of mine that ran in Harper’s, you suggested cutting off four pages from the beginning—I was horrified at first, but quickly realized you were dead right. Are you able to bring that kind of editorial mercilessness to your own fiction, or do you have as much trouble killing your darlings as anyone else?

CB: I try to be pretty ruthless with my own stuff. I cut hundreds of pages from this book. This is the flip side to what I wrote above. If you’re going to turn the editor off while writing your first drafts, you have to really give him license once it’s his turn. Once you are in edit mode, you are no longer the person who wrote these words—now that person has been shut off. You don’t even know which ones are the darlings. You’re not thinking about the amount of blood and sweat that went into any particular sentence or scene, you’re just thinking about what’s there on the page. You get to a point where the excitement of cutting stuff is almost as great as the excitement of creation. Because cutting involves a kind of faith that you can do something better. That’s a question I really try to ask myself while reading my own work—almost in a taunting way: Is this the best you can do? To refuse to cut is implicitly to say, Yes, I am incapable of making this any better than it is right now. Which sometimes is the truth! But it is a kind of defeat.

TM: Related, I think the importance of having good readers through the drafting process cannot be understated. Do you have any strategy with this, certain moments when you find reads are most helpful, and certain readers who are best for a particular stage?

CB: I show everything to my wife—who is both a great reader and a great writer—pretty early in the process, and I have a handful of trusted readers I turn to once I’ve got a presentable draft of the whole thing, which usually means after my third or fourth go through. But without exactly disagreeing with you on the importance of readers, I’d like to offer a counterpoint. I’m one of those people who started taking writing workshops the moment I stepped on to campus as an undergrad. I went straight from college to my MFA. I had some really amazing teachers, and I learned a lot, and I don’t regret that time, but I think there was ultimately something a bit damaging to me about it. I developed the habit of writing ten or twenty pages, bringing those pages to a roomful of readers, taking in all their opinions, and going back to rewrite those ten or twenty pages, and that is not, in my opinion, a good habit for a writer to have. Part of it is related to what I wrote above. If you’re trying to write a novel, and you’ve got twenty pages done, you should not be spending a lot of time thinking about what is and isn’t working in those twenty pages, getting them into presentable shape, assimilating fifteen different people’s opinions into a revision. At that point, you should just be piling up more pages.

But there is something more than this. I was a teenager when I started writing fiction seriously, with a real single-mindedness, and I was in my thirties before I published any fiction at all. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first decent thing I wrote was the first thing I wrote entirely outside of the workshop context. I worked for six years on the novel that began as my MFA thesis, a novel that got workshopped to death, and it was very painful to admit that it wasn’t good enough, that it would never get published and didn’t deserve to be published. Once I did admit this, I spent about a year and half writing a draft of a new novel without showing it or even really talking about it to anyone, and there were moments when I thought I might be nuts and wasting time. To do this—to keep showing up at the desk every day, without any real encouragement from anyone else, without knowing whether you’re good enough to do this—you must develop a particular kind of faith in yourself. I came to think that this faith was actually an essential part of being a writer and that, for me at least, the workshop culture was holding me back from developing it. I think often of a line from John Gardner: “A writer must take infinite pains, and finally the pains the writer takes must be his own.”

I should add that of course there does come a time when you have taken things as far as you can on you own, and trusted readers become indispensable. But it’s important to learn how to take your own pains.

TM: I completely agree with this. I remember being so conditioned by year after year of workshop—I also went right from undergrad to MFA, though in my thirties—that it was almost strange to finally graduate my MFA program and suddenly have to answer to no one. Which, of course, is the reality of writing, not the artificial, though often useful, situation of workshop.  As you say, developing faith in yourself and your instincts is a skill you must hone, every bit as much as narrative craft.

Changing subjects: the main character in Index, Sam Waxworth, a statistics nerd who created a predictive baseball model and then successfully turned his abilities to politics forecasting, seems to be inspired at least in part by Nate Silver. I can’t help but ask about this the genesis of this character, as I find Silver to be one of the more continually interesting and amusing figures in public life (going back to my days on a poker forum that he frequented).

CB: A quick caveat: I do not know Nate Silver personally, and I only borrowed the broadest elements of his public-facing life. Indeed, Silver is actually among the more thoughtful of the data journalist—far more thoughtful than Sam Waxworth, I’d say. He is at least as interested in what numbers can’t tell us as in what they can. And he has grown into a fairly high degree of humility about a lot of this stuff, which I admire. So I don’t want to overstate the degree to which Sam is “based” on him. But it would be silly to deny that he was a major inspiration for the broad swathes of Sam’s story.

As far as how that came to be so, there’s a long and a short answer. I’m a lifelong baseball fan, one who has always prized both the romantic, narrative power of the game and the way it allows for a particular kind of precision. And so I was very interested in, to use the common shorthand, the Moneyball revolution. It’s worth noting that numbers have always been important to the game. Indeed, certain numbers—300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts, 500 homeruns—have had an almost magical power to them. Now you had a new crop of people saying we were using the wrong numbers. Plus they were saying that the point of the numbers was not to create this mystical aura, but to cut through all that and arrive at a clearer picture of reality. And that term “Moneyball” is really telling, because the whole point in Lewis’s book was a that small market team that was at a resource disadvantage was using these new-fangled numbers to exploit inefficiencies in the market. There’s so much rich stuff here—metaphysics and epistemology, but also something really elemental about the way capitalism works. So I’d wanted to write about it for a very long time. Then Nate Silver comes on the scene, and he’s such an interesting figure, because he’s come out of this sabermetric baseball culture, but he’s taking those lessons into politics, just as we see the rise of this amazing political figure, Barack Obama, who styles himself as a non-ideologue, a technocrat coming from the legal-academic world, who is going to move us past a lot of the magical thinking about America and its role in the world that had dominated the Bush years, but who at the same time is capable of truly soaring rhetoric and ultimately gets himself elected on the basis of a very powerful story he’s telling about himself and the country. And then in the midst of all that, we’ve got this catastrophic financial collapse that is on a superficial level about the collapse of the American Dream of homeownership and upward mobility, but is really about the evolution of capitalism, and the in retrospect facially absurd idea that you can eliminate risk from the world by way of financial engineering, which is really magical thinking disguised as quantification. So, yeah, a Silver-like character seemed to give me right of the bat so much to play with, which is part of the reason I knew this book would be long.

TM: Finally, I like to end these Q+As with an inane question. So: are you a write every day type that hews to a schedule, or more catch-as-catch-can?

CB: Whenever I’m asked this kind of process question, I think of William Gaddis, who said he didn’t like doing interviews because he didn’t want to be asked which side of the page he wrote on.

I very much aim to be an every day writer, and when things are going well
on a project, I am pretty disciplined about it. For me this is a matter of
necessity: it’s too easy to lose the thread if I go more than a day or two
without writing. So I think of myself as an every day writer. I tend to tell
people that’s what I am when they ask, and I tend to encourage younger writers
to be every day writers. I do believe there is something—something almost
mystical—about the commitment itself.

At the same time, life is life. I’ve got a three-month-old and a three-year-old and a full-time job I’m doing from home and a wife who’s trying to get through copy edits on her own novel—Who is Maud Dixon?, coming in Spring 2021 to your local bookstore! A daily writing routine is so far from my present reality that I would be too embarrassed even to lie about it. At the moment, catch-as-catch-can is definitely the order of the day.

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