Richard Vine has a day job, a very good one. He’s managing editor of Art in America magazine, where he has written hundreds of articles about Chinese ink art, the Chicago Imagists, photographers from Mali, Korean sculptures installed in the gardens at Versailles, and the way art subsidies work in Singapore. Now Vine has a new entry on his globe-spanning resume: noir novelist.
Vine’s debut novel, SoHo Sins, has just been published by the Hard Case Crime series, and it’s a terrific addition to the pulp tradition, which Charles Ardai, a co-founder of Hard Case, summed up this way: “There’s a body on page one. The cover art is classical realism with a heightened sense of sexuality and menace. The stories are heart-stopping, a wonderful blend of high and low culture.”
SoHo Sins checks all the boxes. The moody cover art is by Robert Maguire, a prolific illustrator who produced more than 600 pulp covers beginning in the mid-20th century. It shows a man in a fedora and trench coat in a darkened alley, looming over a seated blonde in a red dress, a fallen woman in obvious distress. There’s a dead body in the opening sentence: “I slept rather badly the first few nights after Amanda’s murder.” And the story that unspools from there, as narrated by the suavely decadent SoHo art dealer and real estate speculator Jackson Wyeth, is a wonderful blend of high art and low-down deeds, a whodunit with room for de Kooning paintings and child pornography, art biennials and back-room deals, millionaires and mistresses and murder. The novel spins around a question: did the mentally unstable art collector and tech millionaire Philip Oliver murder his socialite wife in their SoHo loft, as he claims, even though he was apparently in Los Angeles when the killer pulled the trigger?
The novel is set during the late 1980s or early1990s, when big money like Philip Oliver’s had begun to infect and distort the New York art scene. The money has gotten even more obscene in the ensuing quarter-century, partly because dealers like Jackson Wyeth have never been inclined to ask indelicate questions. “You can’t deal successfully in art if you dwell on where the money comes from and how it gets made,” the glib Wyeth says at one point. “I concern myself with my clients’ tastes and credit ratings, not their ethics.” The novel’s money-drunk art scene is described on the cover, in suitably breathless prose, as “a world of adultery and madness, of beautiful girls growing up too fast and men making fortunes and losing their minds. But even the worst the art world can imagine will seem tame when the final shattering secret is revealed…”
The worst the art world can imagine — those words are the key. Simply put, SoHo Sins succeeds because it was written by a man with a day job, a job that gives him intimate knowledge of how a subculture works – its personalities and preoccupations, its business practices, its styles, its silliness and occasional beauty and, above all, the ugly money that pumps through its rotten heart. You have to be inside such a world to plausibly imagine the worst it can imagine.
In America today it’s maddeningly difficult to make a living writing books, and it’s just about impossible to make a living writing fiction. That’s largely because the pool of writers is constantly growing while the pool of serious readers, especially readers of fiction, is constantly shrinking — never a good business model. As a result, all but a few writers of fiction have some sort of day job, which most of them view as a time-sucking, soul-crushing impediment to the making of their art.
But as Richard Vine has shown, a day job can be a counter-intuitive blessing to the writer of fiction. Since most people spend nearly half of their waking hours at work, the workplace would seem like natural and fertile ground for setting a novel. We already have more than enough novels, written in flawless, bloodless MFA prose, about a bunch of Oberlin grads struggling to find themselves in brownstone Brooklyn. As Jason Arthur pointed out on this site recently, we need more novels that draw on worlds where people do actual work — like the art dealers and pornographers and tycoons and cops in SoHo Sins, or the metal scrappers in Matt Bell’s Scrapper, the eco-saboteurs in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, the wheat-threshers in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the drug dealers in Richard Price’s Clockers, the admen in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, John le Carré’s spies, Elmore Leonard’s hard-working petty criminals, and the lonely department store clerks in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. These can be worlds the author knows first-hand, or they can be vividly imagined worlds of the past, such as the 17th-century Dutch commodity speculators in Davis Liss’s The Coffee Trader, or the Irish immigrant sandhogs who dug the New York City subway tunnels in Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness.
The point is that a day job — as a commodities trader, say, or a construction worker or an art dealer — can be a way for a writer to admit readers to plausible, fully realized worlds that would otherwise be off-limits. Richard Vine grasps this. In a recent interview in Brooklyn Rail, Vine discussed how his day job informed his novel:
SoHo Sins, you might say, is a lament not for the art world that was, or is, but the art world that is rapidly emerging. By now, its corruption by unregulated wealth is almost complete; this book simply imaginatively extends present trends…My projection goes into the immediate past rather than the immediate future, but that reversal of vectors is just an amusing bit of game-play to help highlight the present.
An argument could be made that the art world today, ultimately dependent as it is on the buying decisions of a few super-rich individuals, is fatally tainted throughout. (Artnet.com reports a new financial scam almost every week.) Do some further digging, and the facts soon reveal that no one can become that rich, or maintain that level of inherited wealth, without being a moral criminal. Such disproportionate lucre is accumulated either through activities that are literally illegal or through the utterly unconscionable exploitation of employees, stockholders, taxpayers, and customers — an economic crime and a moral one.
A world that’s “fatally tainted throughout” — and populated with operators like Philip Oliver, who uses his tech company to both finance his art acquisitions and distribute child pornography around the world. Could there be a richer backdrop for a noir novel? And could there be a better person to write it than someone who has a day job on the inside, deep in the tainted shadows, where the dirty money does its work?
Ivan Doig is dead. Long live Ivan Doig.
A writer who liked to say he sprang from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view,” Doig died on April 9 at age 75 at his home in Seattle. Now we have his posthumous novel Last Bus to Wisdom, his 16th and final book, a reminder that Doig (pronounced DOY-guh) was a guiding light in a loose but hard core of writers who have chronicled and lamented one of our great national sorrows: How the West Was Lost.
Doig was born in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” His father was a ranch hand and his mother a ranch cook — the lariat proletariat personified — and as a boy Ivan accompanied his father on ranch jobs, becoming familiar with the open spaces and the taverns, the bunkhouses and one-room schoolhouses of a western Montana way of life that was already vanishing. It is the ache brought on by this vanishing that was to become Doig’s great subject.
Last Bus to Wisdom is one of Doig’s more autobiographical fictions. Readers of his 1979 memoir, This House of Sky, a finalist for the National Book Award, will recognize some of the new novel’s situations and events. The story is narrated by 11-year-old Donal (“without the d”) Cameron, who, in the summer of 1951, is being farmed off to relatives in Wisconsin by his guardian grandmother, a ranch cook, as she prepares to undergo surgery for “female trouble.” The boy travels alone by Greyhound, “the dog bus,” and in his innocent yet wised-up voice he introduces us to the gallery of colorful characters he encounters on the road. These include a hot waitress, a trio of soldiers shipping off to the Korean War, Jack Kerouac (!), an Indian, oilfield roughnecks, hoboes, a parolee with sticky fingers, and a pint-sized sheriff escorting his own step-brother back to jail in handcuffs. On the return westward journey Donal is accompanied by his great uncle, Herman the German, a World War I veteran with a fondness for Karl May’s Western novels, an iffy command of English, and a fear that the FBI will deport him because he’s an illegal alien. Together, Donal and Herman make their picaresque way west, dodging the law, getting into scrapes, and finally joining a team of hobo hay harvesters near the tiny Montana hamlet of Wisdom.
Donal and Doig, the character and his creator, are both born storytellers. After a string of plausible embellishments roll of his tongue, Donal, in an infectious vernacular reminiscent of characters out of Twain or Thomas Berger, gives us this succinct sketch of what he calls “storying,” the source of all fiction:
I was developing a feel for the perimeter of story that could be got away with. A detail or two expanded the bounds to a surprising extent, it seemed like.
So, there it went, again. Out of my mouth something unexpected, not strictly true but harmlessly made up. Storying, maybe it could be called. For I still say it was not so much that I was turning into an inveterate liar around strangers, I simply was overflowing with invention. The best way I can explain it is that I was turned loose from myself.
It is the nasty little sheriff with the handcuffed prisoner who reveals Doig’s version of How the West Was Lost. Rather than dwelling on the horrors that have begun to show themselves by the mid-20th century — the big dams, big ranches, big highways, big mines, big oil fields, big sprawling cities in places where cities have no business existing — Doig instead paints sepia portraits of the little people who are doomed to be either erased or exploited by these outsize abominations: the ranch hands and cooks, librarians, newspaper photographers, copper miners, and the catskinners who operate the heavy machinery that makes all the “progress” possible. (Donal’s father was a catskinner before he and his wife were forever killed by a drunk driver.) While the Greyhound skims alongside the Missouri River, Donal gazes in awe as the sheriff, Carl, and his prisoner/step-brother, Harv, have a conversation:
The bus suddenly humming in a different gear, it dropped down in a dip and showed no signs of coming out, the road following the Missouri River now. The broad river flowing in long lazy curves with thickets of diamond willows and cottonwood trees lining the banks impressed me, but the sight seemed to turn the sheriff’s stomach. Beside him, though, his hand-cuffed seat partner smiled like a crack in stone.
“There ’tis, Carl. What’s left of the river, hmm?”
“Shut up, Harv, I don’t need to hear about it.” Sounding fit to be tied, the sheriff shot a look over to where I still was taking in everything wide-eyed, and growled, “We’re just past Fort Peck Dam, the outlaw is talking about.” His mouth twisted. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t think the Missouri River worked good enough by itself, so he stuck in a king hell bastard of a dam,” a new piece of cussing for me to tuck away.
In one ingenious stroke, the sheriff is made to simultaneously embody and disparage the source of the West’s ruin: he, along with Indian reservation police, sheriffs, the FBI, and anyone else wearing a badge, is authority, the sworn enemy of individual freedom; yet he also despises the monstrous things authority has visited on the land, in this case the Fort Peck Dam. In the West, this authority has worn many name tags. In the 19th century it was the Central Pacific railroad, cobbled together by Leland Stanford and his robber baron cronies with the assistance of federal subsidies and land grants. In the Cold War it was the “military-industrial complex.” Lately it’s been Big Agra, hydroelectric dams, mining interests, the real estate boys, the federal government, the aerospace industry.
Doig was a conventional novelist, and he was less interested in these big villains than in the troubles they brought upon their little victims, the lariat proletariat. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace wondered if there’s any way out of the suffocating loop of knowingness for contemporary American writers. He concluded, “The next literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching…(w)ho treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”
The operative words in that sentence are untrendy and reverence and conviction, and they beautifully capture Doig’s approach to the writing of fiction. What I liked best about Last Bus to Wisdom is that it’s wise to the ways of the world yet free of the cheap cynicism found in so much writing today, and it’s content with being a conventional novel. Doig’s writing is so post-postmodern that it manages to be both old-school and fresh. That took some daring, and sizable skill.
Sven Birkerts called Doig “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West,” and while that’s certainly true I don’t want to get into the tired question of whether or not Doig was a “regional” writer. He wisely shunned the label and the handcuffs that come with it. As he put it, “I don’t think of myself as a ‘Western’ writer. To me, language — that substance on the page, that poetry under the prose — is the ultimate ‘region,’ the true home, for a writer.”
Few American writers possess a gaze as cool as Joan Didion’s (which is different from calling her gaze “chilly” or “cold”). She has said famously, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Just as famously she has said, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” Something she hasn’t said, to my knowledge, could stand as the guiding tenet of her long and distinguished career as a writer of fiction and journalism: The lies we tell ourselves in order to live are what keep us from being truly alive.
Didion’s 2003 book Where I Was From, a mix of autobiography, history, reportage, and literary criticism, is an unflinching examination of the myths spawned by her native California, what she calls “the local dreamtime.” The past tense of the verb in the book’s title signals that this is to be a work of revisionism.
Didion begins by establishing her California bona fides. Her great-great-great grandmother came west in 1846 with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party, and Didion was born in 1934 in Sacramento, eventually earning a degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley. She will soon turn 81, and she has spent the majority of her life in the state. From an early age she was fed various versions of the crossing stories of her forebears and other early California arrivals, stories built on hardship and danger, loss and fortitude, which would form the basis for something known inside her family as “the code of the West.” Didion, with typically acid humor, distills the code to its three essential mandates: “You were meant, if you were a Californian, to…show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”
When she fixed her cool gaze on the facts, though, she began to see that the bedrock on which the code of the West was built — the nearly sacred notion of unfettered individualism — was actually nothing but sand. “A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Didion writes, noting that it is “a state where distrust of centralized government authority has historically passed for an ethic.” But as Didion’s digging reveals, Californians have always leaned on the largess of the federal government. The leaning began with Leland Stanford and his fellow Sacramento shopkeepers when they put together the railroad, with a generous assist from Washington. The leaning continued with the federal subsidies that brought the water that fed such thirsty, unsustainable crops as alfalfa, cotton, and rice — and, in the bargain, enabled Los Angeles to sprawl across miles of once-inhospitable desert. After the elaborate system of dams and levees came the defense contracts and the aerospace industry (“Star Wars,” anyone?), all of it built not on unfettered individualism, but on the broad back of the American taxpayer.
At a young age, Didion began to sense a disconnect between her family’s myths and its actual circumstances, and, by extension, between California’s “dreamtime” and its actual history. In Where I Was From, Didion recalls asking her mother which class the family belonged to. “It’s not a word we use,” her mother replied. “It’s not the way we think.” This leads Didion to muse:
On one level I believed this to be a deliberate misreading of what even a twelve-year-old could see to be the situation and on another level I understood it to be true: it was not the way we thought in California. We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake and struck the Comstock Lode. We believed in the wildcatter who leased arid land at two and a half cents an acre and brought in Kettleman Hills, fourteen million barrels of crude in its first three years. We believed in all the ways that apparently played-out possibilities could while we slept turn green and golden.
Already at that young age, Didion understood that her family was old California, part of that class known loosely as the gentry. She also sensed that something was lacking from this class, as Tracy Daugherty writes in his new book, The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion: “For all its visibility and influence, the family felt prosaic, muted, sad to Didion, even as a girl. Clerks and administrators: hardly the heroes of old, surviving starvation and blizzards…A whiff of decadence clung to the gentry.”
Eventually, of course, most of the defense contracts dried up and the jobs vanished and the state of California fell on such hard times that it welcomed a boom in prison construction. By now, having dismantled the myths that propped up the bankrupt code of the West, Didion is appalled but hardly surprised by this latest turn of events. “We are seeing one more enthusiastic fall into a familiar California error,” she writes, “that of selling the future of the place we lived to the highest bidder, which was in this instance the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.”
And now, as a final indignity, California — that Eden where alfalfa and cotton and rice once grew, where green lawns and blue swimming pools once carpeted the desert vastness known as Los Angeles — is suffering through a brutal, four-year drought. The New York Times reports that the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Beverly Hills is among the first to be fined for failing to meet the state’s stringent water-conservation targets. On the day the fines were levied, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over an infestation of bark beetles that has killed tens of millions of trees during the drought. He is seeking help removing the dead trees from — you guessed it — the federal government. I’m sure Joan Didion was not surprised when she heard the news.
For all their many differences of temperament and style, Edward Abbey and Jim Harrison could agree with Ivan Doig’s sour little sheriff on one thing: the West was lost through environmental degradation, a direct by-product of human greed, and there is no more potent metaphor for this greed than the very American urge to tame the wilderness by building dams. Dams — or, more precisely, the urge to blow them up — drive the plots these two authors’ most indelible novels: Abbey’s cult classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which inspired a whole generation of eco-saboteurs; and Harrison’s booze- and drug-addled caper, A Good Day to Die.
The novels have telling similarities. Abbey’s titular gang has an equal-opportunity loathing for billboards, construction machinery, barbed wire, coal trains, strip mines, lumber companies, copper smelters, nuclear power plants, and, above all, the massive Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon. Harrison’s trio of eco-saboteurs form a lopsided love triangle — two unhinged guys falling in love with the same sexy girl — as they drive west to blow up a non-existent dam in the Grand Canyon, then set their sights on a small earthen dam in Utah that prevents steelhead trout from moving upstream to spawn.
Here’s George Hayduke, the unruliest of the four monkey wrenchers, likening the degradation of the West to the eco-horrors he witnessed as a Green Beret in Vietnam: “When I finally…found out they were trying to do the same thing to the West that they did to that little country over there, I got mad all over again.” And here’s Harrison’s unnamed narrator, hungover, trying to impress a roomful of strangers: “My voice became tight and humorless as I began a tirade against the realtors, land developers and lumber companies. In a few years there wouldn’t be much worth looking at and if anyone in the room planned on having a son there wouldn’t be any rivers or forests left and our sons wouldn’t have any fishing and hunting. What was needed was some sort of Irgun like the Israelis had when they drove out the British. Some men brave enough to blow up dams and machinery.”
These seemingly single-minded people are, in fact, dogged by doubts — doubts that blowing up one dam, or even 100 dams, will change the world; doubts that their motives are lofty; doubts that they even possess tangible motives. As Harrison’s narrator puts it, “It occurred to me that I should question my motives but found that I had none.”
In other words, the trip west is little more than a lark. A similar sense of pointless futility begins to overtake the Monkey Wrench Gang. While there’s no denying that the West has been scarred by these characters’ various nemeses, it becomes apparent as the two novels play out that their crusades are both feckless and doomed. They remind me of the high-minded Occupy Wall Street movement, with its fuzzy distaste for “the 1 percent” and its equally fuzzy refusal to formulate a strategy to bring about actual change. If you’re going to go to all this trouble and risk — sleeping on the streets, getting maced and clubbed by cops, burning billboards, blowing up bridges and dams — shouldn’t you have specific goals and a reasonable chance of realizing them? Otherwise, isn’t it all just posturing?
In the end, Ivan Doig, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, and Jim Harrison come to very different conclusions about How the West Was Lost, but they share a sense that the loss is as irreversible as it was wrong-headed. The Glen Canyon Dam, a king hell bastard of a dam if there ever was one, stemmed the flow of the Colorado River in order to bring water and cheap electricity to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and other “cities of the plain,” as Abbey called them with a Biblical sneer, putting them on a level with Sodom and Gomorrah. In a crowning irony, the most ardent sponsor of the dam, the arch-conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, eventually came around to admitting that building the $750 million monstrosity had been a mistake. As consolations go, this doesn’t even begin to qualify as small. Lake Powell, with its 1,800 miles of shoreline, still sits there where Glen Canyon used to be. Meanwhile, drought-stricken California is losing tens of millions of trees. No wonder Abbey called Lake Powell “the blue death.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This week, two of our staff writers here at The Millions are publishing novels. California, Edan Lepucki’s debut, is set in the near-future in northern California, where a young couple scratches out an existence after a series of environmental and economic calamities. Thanks to Sherman Alexie and Stephen Colbert, the book has generated a typhoon of buzz, leading to brisk pre-sales. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the novel “ambitious, powerful, frightening.”
Motor City Burning, Bill Morris’s third novel, is set during the 1968 baseball season in Detroit, where a white homicide cop is pursuing a black suspect, a disillusioned former civil rights activist, in the last unsolved killing from the previous summer’s apocalyptic riot. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, writing that the novel displays “acute insight into the era’s fraught climate.” And Kirkus Reviews has called the story “an intense cat-and-mouse game.”
Edan, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, and fellow Millions staff writer Bill, who lives in New York City, recently had a conversation via email about the joys and perils of writing novels and shepherding them to publication. Here is that conversation:
Edan Lepucki: I really enjoyed Motor City Burning! It’s such a deftly drawn character study that also doesn’t scrimp on plot and big themes, like justice, purity of aims, and loyalty. The novel both invokes Detroit in the 1960s and also traffics in some classic crime novel tropes – but without succumbing to those tropes altogether. Do you see this is as a historical novel, a crime novel, or neither, or both? Or, really: how does its historical element affect its plot elements?
Bill Morris: I’m glad you think I didn’t succumb to the old tropes. That was something I was definitely trying to avoid. I guess I see this as a “historical crime novel,” if such a genre exists, because my starting point was the events of the 1960s – the civil rights movement, the pop music, and, especially, the summers of 1967 and 1968 in Detroit – and using that history to tell the story of a crime that actually happened, the last of the 43 killings during the ’67 riot.
I want to get the smoke-blowing out of the way up front. So I’ll just say it flat-out: California is a novel about a dystopian future, somewhere in the middle of the 21st century, when violent weather and economic collapse have divided America into the haves, who live in gated communities, and the have-nots, like the young couple Cal and Frida who live in the wilderness, scratching out an existence. I never would have guessed this is a first novel – because the withholding and revealing of information is done so deftly. Also, at the level of the sentence, there is great assurance. I’m guessing a lot of rewriting went into making such a polished final draft. Am I guessing right?
EL: Thanks, Bill! Reading yours, I could definitely tell you were not new to the novel dance: you write with such control and grace. It inspired me.
Most of the rewriting – and, make no mistake, there was a lot of rewriting! – had to do with plot and world building. I tend to write very clean first drafts, and what I have to work on later is the story. Thankfully, my characters were well in place, so editing was all about clarifying what had happened to L.A.; what the origins of Frida’s brother’s terrorist group were; and what happened to this enclosed outpost before Frida and Cal sought it out. My editor Allie Sommer had me write a timeline to make it easier to see the story more wholly. That helped; I usually write so intuitively, crafting pretty sentences and focusing on characters, that the story, the plot, gets neglected.
What about you? Did you know this novel’s architecture from the outset, or did it come to you as you wrote? How did you decide whose point of view to favor? Were black civil rights activist Willie Bledsoe and white detective Frank Doyle always the major players? What did it take to flesh them out into the complicated characters they are now?
BM: Your question about point of view brings back some painful history. This novel has been in the works, off and on, for 17 years. It has been through four titles, four agents, at least a dozen drafts, and more rejections than I care to count. In one draft, I tried to tell the story through alternating first-person voices, à la As I Lay Dying. This failure confirmed something I had long suspected: I’m no William Faulkner. Once I settled into a third-person omniscient voice – and worked to make myself invisible – things started to fall into place.
As for architecture, I knew my central story was going to be the hunt for the person responsible for the last unsolved killing from the 1967 Detroit riot; but I wanted to frame that story around the Detroit Tigers’ championship season of 1968. The story got a jump-start when I learned that Opening Day of the ’68 season was postponed by two days in deference to Martin Luther King’s funeral. So right away, the civil rights movement and baseball were winding together. I also knew I wanted a young black man from the South as the protagonist, someone who had been in the trenches with the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but got disillusioned with the movement’s leaders. Again, King’s funeral was the ideal way to introduce this character and his dilemma. Sometimes, when doing historical research, you get little gifts for your fiction. And as for fleshing out Willie Bledsoe, the burnt-out activist, and Frank Doyle, the white cop who’s after him, my main goal was to make both men imperfect, confused, and complicated. Detroit’s racial divide is one of the most complicated things in America, and I didn’t want there to be anything simplistic about it in this book.
Speaking of complicated, one of my favorite things about California is how Micah, the leader of the outpost you mentioned, got involved with a terrorist group that conducted suicide bombings Terrorists – especially eco-terrorists and guys like this “econo-terrorist” – make for fascinating fictional characters. I’m thinking of Kelly Reichardt’s new movie, Night Moves, and books like Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, and Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Are those characters interesting because of their moral ambivalence, their willingness to do wrong in order to do right? Or do you think it’s something else?
EL: Wow, the journey of your book is astounding and is a good advertisement for tenacity and revision. And speaking of baseball, I loved the evocative descriptions of Tiger Stadium. I read them aloud to my husband, who is obsessed with the sport.
I love your interpretation of Micah. He was the most difficult character to write because I wanted to give him a humanity that persisted despite his evils, or perhaps was in danger of fading away because of said evils. Some readers have described him as a psychopath, but I don’t totally agree: Micah did at least begin with commendable ideals…and he also started out with something dark and damaged at his core. He is dangerous precisely because he is human: capable of being hurt and of wanting attention; driven by a desire to change the world but also a servant to an unquenchable ego. I wanted him to be a villain, but also a little brother. Frida can and can’t see his flaws because he is family.
Let’s talk about how your book got published after its long road. Who bought it, and how has the path to your pub date been?
BM: The book was bought by Jessica Case, an editor at Pegasus Books, a small independent publisher in New York City. The manuscript had been sleeping in a drawer for several years when I got a magazine assignment from Popular Mechanics in early 2012 – they wanted me to go back home to Detroit, talk to people, look around, and try to imagine what the city will be like a dozen years from now. I was very anxious that the assignment was going to be a bust, but when I got back to Detroit I was astonished by the energy, the enthusiasm, the sprouts amid the rubble. With Detroit so much in the news – and this was before the bankruptcy – I thought the time was right to try to give that old manuscript a pulse.
I revised the manuscript one more time and found a new agent, a human volcano named Alice Martell, who I’d met at the National Book Awards ceremony, where I’d gone to interview a client of hers who was a finalist. She agreed to look at my manuscript, she got it, and she sold it. The people at Pegasus have been amazing – not only Jessica’s editing, but the copyediting, the proofreading, and now the publicity push. Which reminds me, you did a couple of nice interviews for The Millions with your editor and copyeditor. Amid all the grim news about the publishing industry, I think we’ve both had pretty salutary experiences. Wouldn’t you agree?
EL: Yes, I too have had extremely positive experiences with my agent and editor and publicists at Little, Brown. I feel like they’ve put so much time and energy into making my book better, and getting it into readers’ hands. This book in many ways feels like a collaborative effort. I could not have gotten it out there on my own.
What was the editing experience with Jessica like? Allie, my editor, took me through a couple major revisions and she had very high standards. I learned a ton about revision from her. Was your editing experience similar to your previous ones, with your two other books?
BM: Jessica went over every word of the manuscript and made many small suggestions and several major ones – always stressing that they were suggestions, there for me to take or leave. I took almost every one because she’s smart and unbelievably thorough, and they made the book much better. Then the copyeditor, Deb Anderson, found new ways to improve the manuscript. And the proofreader, Phil Gaskill, caught inaccuracies and inconsistencies that never would have occurred to me. My first novel got a similarly thorough editing at Knopf, while my second got virtually none at Avon. Overall, this experience has renewed my faith in the publishing industry. People say nobody edits books anymore. Don’t believe them.
I just got finished reading today’s New York Times, and I was stunned to see a major feature article about you and California and how Stephen Colbert has taken up your cause as part of his ongoing campaign against Amazon on behalf of Hachette writers, including you. You mention in the article that the attention has alternated between being “icky” and “a fantasy.” Which side is winning out?
EL: Stunned is the right word – that’s how I feel! Mostly, the “fantasy” side is winning out; I feel enormously grateful and thrilled to have so much attention on my book. It’s so hard to get press for a novel, and this is just…just…crazy! I still feel badly that my good fortune is a product of this messy dispute between Amazon and Hachette. I wish I wasn’t the only author enjoying this bump; even though my fellow authors have been supportive and excited for me, I know there are many books that are getting a raw deal because of this dispute, and that does feel icky. But, yes, it’s really a spectacular turn of events. It just brings home for me how random it all is: there are tons of good books that don’t get much press. Why certain books take off like wildfire while others don’t is an enduring mystery to me. Right now I am just, again, stunned that California was plucked from the mountain of books. Also: wow, TV is still really powerful!
Now that your faith in writing fiction and publishing has been renewed, what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
BM: I’m back at work on one of the novels I couldn’t sell during that 17-year dry spell. Like California, it’s set in the near future, but in New York City. I don’t want to say much more, but the working title is Garbage: A Love Story. How about you? Are you working on something new, or is selling California taking up all of your time and energy?
EL: I recently returned to Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming where I started California. There, I continued working on a novel I began almost a year ago, but which I only work on in fits and starts (between revisions and publicity and motherhood, I guess). I have about 150 pages. All I’ll say is that it’s contemporary, and there are women in it. I haven’t written much at all for the past month, sadly, but I look forward to diving back in once this publication hullabaloo dies down.
BM: Well, this publication hullaballoo is a necessary evil. I just hope California continues to sell like Krispy Kremes, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
EL: Same to you, Bill!