The Late George Apley by John Marquand

John P. Marquand   

John Phillips Marquand, leading American writer of the twentieth century, was born on November 10, 1893, to Philip and Margaret Fuller Marquand, both descendants of old New England families. Although he was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and lived in Rye, New York, until he was fourteen, Marquand considered himself a New Englander. He was educated at the Newburyport (Massachusetts) High School and at Harvard University, from which he was graduated in 1915. From 1915 to 1917, he was assistant magazine editor of the Boston Transcript. After a brief period as advertising copywriter in 1920 and 1921, he became a novelist and published The Unspeakable Gentleman (1922). Marquand was a frequent contributor of short stories to several popular magazines of the day, most notably The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, and Good Housekeeping. Many of his novels were also serialized in shortened form in these magazines. 

A recurring theme in many of Marquand’s works concerns the life and times of the middle and upper classes in twentieth-century New England–particularly Boston—as illustrated in The Late George Apley (1937), Wickford Point (1939), and H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941). Marquand also wrote several mysteries featuring the Oriental detective Mr. Moto. Film versions of the Mr. Moto mysteries enjoyed great popularity. Marquand’s writings were widely received and sold well. In addition, many of his works were successfully adapted for stage and screen. 

In 1922, Marquand married Christina Sedgwick. From this marriage, which lasted thirteen years, a son and a daughter were born. In 1936, Marquand married Adelaide Hooker. Two sons and a daughter were born of this union, which also ended in divorce in 1958. 

John P. Marquand died in his sleep of a heart attack on July 16, 1960 in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Boston Brahmins

The term “Boston Brahmins” refers to a class of wealthy, educated, elite members of Boston society in the nineteenth century. Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the term in a novel in 1861, calling Boston’s elite families “the Brahmin Caste of New England.” The Boston Brahmins have long held the interest of casual and professional historians because of their unique place in nineteenth-century American culture. They were mostly the descendants of Puritans, having made their fortunes as American merchants, and they could not be described as egalitarian. Rather, they were the closest thing the United States has ever had to a true aristocracy.

At Odds with Democracy

In her book Elite Families, Betty G. Farrell writes, “Visiting Boston for the first time in the 1830s, Harriet Martineau noted that it was ‘perhaps as aristocratic, vain, and vulgar a city, as described by its own “first people,” as any in the world.’ What particularly distressed Martineau was the evidence of an aristocracy of wealth amid a new republic, a group whose cultural pretensions and social exclusivity she saw as particularly at odds with the democratic ideals of egalitarianism and inclusive citizenship.”

Several factors, besides wealth, made Boston’s Brahmins stand out as an aristocracy even from the wealthy of other cities. With waves of immigration to America’s cities in the middle of the nineteenth century, the position of the wealthy and elite in every city was threatened. But in New York and Chicago, despite prejudice, the influence of immigrants quickly took root. In Boston, the Brahmins fought fiercely to close immigrants out. While they may have prided themselves on being the champions of abolitionism, they did not actually want black Americans, or any other non-Brahmin group, encroaching on their power or society.

Peninsula City

It was not difficult for upper class Bostonians to shut out their poorer counterparts. The unique geography of Boston, a peninsula city, made expansion possible only by landfill. All of Boston’s new neighborhoods in the mid-nineteenth century were created by leveling off hills and using the dirt to fill areas of water to create new land. These new landfill areas were generally small and largely bordered by water, so it was easy to keep them exclusive. When immigrants did move in to the newly fashionable Old South End, the Brahmins moved out.

Athens of America

Besides money and the right real estate, a self-conscious set of shared values defined Boston’s aristocracy. Boston Brahmins prized culture and education. Boston’s elite liked to think of their city as the “Athens of America.” For Boston Brahmins, Harvard College helped define this atmosphere. The Brahmins who didn’t live in the prestigious Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston lived in Cambridge, near the college. By the 1830s, an elite corporation governed Harvard, and students of elite families filled its halls. Through Harvard, these families were able to teach the next generation the educational and the moral values they held dear.

From: The Brahmin Caste Of New England by Oliver Wendell Holmes

There is nothing in New England corresponding at all to the feudal aristocracies of the Old World. Whether it be owing to the stock from which we were derived, or to the practical working of our institutions, or to the abrogation of the technical “law of honor,” which draws a sharp line between the personally responsible class of “gentlemen” and the unnamed multitude of those who are not expected to risk their lives for an abstraction,—whatever be the cause, we have no such aristocracy here as that which grew up out of the military systems of the Middle Ages.

What we mean by “aristocracy” is merely the richer part of the community, that live in the tallest houses, drive real carriages, (not “kerridges,”) kidglove their hands, and French-bonnet their ladies’ heads, give parties where the persons who call them by the above title are not invited, and have a provokingly easy way of dressing, walking, talking, and nodding to people, as if they felt entirely at home, and would not be embarrassed in the least, if they met the Governor, or even the President of the United States, face to face. Some of these great folks are really well-bred, some of them are only purse-proud and assuming,—but they form a class, and are named as above in the common speech.

It is in the nature of large fortunes to diminish rapidly, when subdivided and distributed. A million is the unit of wealth, now and here in America. It splits into four handsome properties; each of these into four good inheritances; these, again, into scanty competences for four ancient maidens,—with whom it is best the family should die out, unless it can begin again as its great-grandfather did. Now a million is a kind of golden cheese, which represents in a compendious form the summer’s growth of a fat meadow of craft or commerce; and as this kind of meadow rarely bears more than one crop, it is pretty certain that sons and grandsons will not get another golden cheese out of it, whether they milk the same cows or turn in new ones. In other words, the millionocracy, considered in a large way, is not at all an affair of persons and families, but a perpetual fact of money with a variable human element, which a philosopher might leave out of consideration without falling into serious error. Of course, this trivial and, fugitive fact of personal wealth does not create a permanent class, unless some special means are taken to arrest the process of disintegration in the third generation. This is so rarely done, at least successfully, that one need not live a very long life to see most of the rich families he knew in childhood more or less reduced, and the millions shifted into the hands of the country-boys who were sweeping stores and carrying parcels when the now decayed gentry were driving their chariots, eating their venison over silver chafing-dishes, drinking Madeira chilled in embossed coolers, wearing their hair in powder, and casing their legs in long boots with silken tassels.

There is, however, in New England, an aristocracy, if you choose to call it so, which has a far greater character of permanence. It has grown to be a caste,—not in any odious sense;—but, by the repetition of the same influences, generation after generation, it has acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy, which not to recognize is mere stupidity, and not to be willing to describe would show a distrust of the good-nature and intelligence of our readers, who like to have us see all we can and tell all we see.

If you will look carefully at any class of students in one of our colleges, you will have no difficulty in selecting specimens of two different aspects of youthful manhood. Of course I shall choose extreme cases to illustrate the contrast between them. In the first, the figure is perhaps robust, but often otherwise,—inelegant, partly from careless attitudes, partly from ill-dressing,—the face is uncouth in feature, or at least common,—the mouth coarse and unformed,—the eye unsympathetic, even if bright,—the movements of the face are clumsy, like those of the limbs,—the voice is unmusical,—and the enunciation as if the words were coarse castings, instead of fine carvings. The youth of the other aspect is commonly slender, his face is smooth, and apt to be pallid,—his features are regular and of a certain delicacy,—his eye is bright and quick,—his lips play over the thought he utters as a pianist’s fingers dance over their music, and his whole air, though it may be timid, and even awkward, has nothing clownish. If you are a teacher, you know what to expect from each of these young men. With equal willingness, the first will be slow at learning; the second will take to his books as a pointer or a setter to his field-work.

The first youth is the common country-boy, whose race has been bred to bodily labor. Nature has adapted the family organization to the kind of life it has lived. The hands and feet by constant use have got more than their share of development,—the organs of thought and expression less than their share. The finer instincts are latent and must be developed. A youth of this kind is raw material in its first stage of elaboration. You must not expect too much of any such. Many of them have force of will and character, and become distinguished in practical life; but very few of them ever become great scholars. A scholar is, in a large proportion of cases, the son of scholars or scholarly persons.

That is exactly what the other young man is. He comes of the Brahmin caste of New England. This is the harmless, inoffensive, untitled aristocracy referred to, and which many readers will at once acknowledge. There are races of scholars among us, in which aptitude for learning, and all these marks of it I have spoken of, are congenital and hereditary. Their names are always on some college catalogue or other. They break out every generation or two in some learned labor which calls them up after they seem to have died out. At last some newer name takes their place, it maybe,—but you inquire a little and you find it is the blood of the Edwardses or the Chauncys or the Ellerys or some of the old historic scholars, disguised under the altered name of a female descendant.

There probably is not an experienced instructor anywhere in our Northern States who will not recognize at once the truth of this general distinction. But the reader who has never been a teacher will very probably object, that some of our most illustrious public men have come direct from the homespun-clad class of the people,—and he may, perhaps, even find a noted scholar or two whose parents were masters of the English alphabet, but of no other.

It is not fair to pit a few chosen families against the great multitude of those who are continually working their way up into the intellectual classes. The results which are habitually reached by hereditary training are occasionally brought about without it. There are natural filters as well as artificial ones; and though the great rivers are commonly more or less turbid, if you will look long enough, you may find a spring that sparkles as no water does which drips through your apparatus of sands and sponges. So there are families which refine themselves into intellectual aptitude without having had much opportunity for intellectual acquirements. A series of felicitous crosses develops an improved strain of blood, and reaches its maximum perfection at last in the large uncombed youth who goes to college and startles the hereditary class-leaders by striding past them all. That is Nature’s republicanism; thank God for it, but do not let it make you illogical. The race of the hereditary scholar has exchanged a certain portion of its animal vigor for its new instincts, and it is hard to lead men without a good deal of animal vigor. The scholar who comes by Nature’s special grace from an unworn stock of broad-chested sires and deep-bosomed mothers must always overmatch an equal intelligence with a compromised and lowered vitality. A man’s breathing and digestive apparatus (one is tempted to add muscular) are just as important to him on the floor of the Senate as his thinking organs. You broke down in your great speech, did you? Yes, your grandfather had an attack of dyspepsia in ’82, after working too hard on his famous Election Sermon. All this does not touch the main fact: our scholars come chiefly from a privileged order, just as our best fruits come from well-known grafts, though now and then a seedling apple, like the Northern Spy, or a seedling pear, like the Seckel, springs from a nameless ancestry and grows to be the pride of all the gardens in the land.

(from)   A Grandson’s Story

An address, “Fathers, Sons, and Grandsons: John P. Marquand,” by Richard E. Welch III, delivered in the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society (Unitarian Universalist), Newburyport, Massachusetts, February 17, 2002.

One of my early memories rests in this very church. I am eight years old, sitting in one of the front pews, very unsettled because my mother is beside me crying. The casket is highly polished mahogany and seems very large. I vaguely realize that the death of my grandfather is a big deal but I am primarily concerned about my mother’s tears, the sudden tension around the house, and the swirl of activity that has disrupted my summer. Being a typical egocentric young boy, my thoughts are not on the man who, somewhat out of character, had gone out of his way to tell his grandson animated stories of Egyptian thieves, the Serengeti Plains, and Chinese warlords. This was the rather intimidating grandfather, who—even in my youthful ignorance—I vaguely realized was a somewhat famous person. The man who only days before had insisted that just the two of us soon have lunch—one of those intimidating formal lunches served by some housekeeper and replete with watered down wine and finger bowls—and discuss tales of old Newburyport. But, as I say, I was not reflecting on him. No, I am sure my thoughts were more focused on fishing that afternoon in the Artichoke River or considering some appropriate torture for my older sister.

The grandfather was John Phillips Marquand and his childhood was not as idyllic as mine.

Imagine the following. A young boy, age 13, learns that his father has lost almost all of the family’s money. The family will have to move from their extremely comfortable home in the wealthy suburb of Rye, New York. This boy will have to leave his private school classmates and attend a public high school. Even more startling, the mother and father will be leaving their son for an extended and indefinite period. The boy’s father, a failed stock broker with an engineering degree, has found a job working on the new project called the Panama Canal and will be departing for that distant location with the boy’s mother. The boy is to be shipped off to a small town in Massachusetts named Newburyport. And, he is to be raised by three elderly woman in an isolated country house.


This boy was, of course, John Philips Marquand. While born and initially raised elsewhere, he spent by far his most formative years in Newburyport. The sudden dissolving of John Marquand’s immediate family and the resulting upbringing by his three aunts were the defining events in his life.

In 1949, John P. Marquand had reached the peak of both his craft and his fame. He had just published yet another best selling novel, this one went by the title of Point of No Return. The novel was receiving good reviews even from some of his more reluctant literary critics. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his novel The Late George Apley. Every novel he wrote after Apley almost instantly became a best seller. In 1949, his face was on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines with long feature articles that stressed the fact that this talented novelist of manners had become America’s most successful writer of that era. Even the higher brow New Yorker magazine carried a long, glowing and clever profile of the author. John Marquand must have read these complimentary pieces at either his Beekman Place address in New York City or at his country home on Kent’s Island in Newbury, Massachusetts. At either address he would have been surrounded by antiques and art work that would later be displayed in various museums. He was a wealthy and successful man. Given his introspective nature, it is almost certain that he recognized the irony of this fame. Here he was, a famous novelist, who was, at heart, still that young, insecure boy living in that charming but run down house with three spinster aunts, attending Newburyport High School and Sunday services in this church.

It does not take a child psychiatrist to understand that being abandoned as a child in the first year of adolescence by your parents and left with elderly women in a remote location would constitute a dramatic, even a shattering, event in one’s life. But, as with many a Marquand character, the story is not that simple. When John Marquand was left with his three aunts at Curzon’s Mill in Newburyport in his thirteenth year, his feelings were an ambivalent stew of loss, embarrassment and excitement.

He understood, even at the confusing and tender age of thirteen—an age more tender than thirteen is now—that his father was a financial failure. The stock market panic of 1907 had wiped out Philip Marquand’s considerable inheritance. More than the reversal of financial fortune was the fact that the son had come to the realization that his father was an embarrassment. Phillip, his investment banker father having been given a comfortable nest egg, together with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, tried his hand as a stock broker and had failed miserably. Indeed, he seemed to fail at most every professional venture. His father would never be a role model and John Marquand had little positive to say about him throughout his father’s long life.  ……………….

John Phillips Marquand, the man for who he was named. His grandfather was a very successful investment banker in New York who had married Margaret Curzon of Newburyport. As a result, he summered with the extended family at Curzon’s Mill. The author would later recall that his grandfather obviously enjoyed the place but was not above complaining that everyone seemed to be living off him as it was only his money that kept the buildings painted and the gardens planted. His grandfather told young John how he first met his wife Margaret Curzon: “They were sitting under an apple tree, Margaret was painting a picture and they asked me to stay to supper and then they found there wasn’t any supper. I took Margaret down in the carriage and bought some. That was forty years ago. I’ve been buying everybody’s supper ever since. The whole damn family’s supper.” Later in his life, the author—who took pleasure and comfort in thinking that he (like his grandfather for who he was named) had inherited the Marquand trait of achieving success from humble beginnings—found that history was repeating itself only now it was his bank account that seemed to be buying the whole damn family’s supper.

Likewise, Marquand was fascinated by his maiden aunts. His grandmother’s sister, his great aunt Mary Russell Curzon, lived year round at the Yellow House, next to the Mill, and provided John Marquand with a unique glimpse into the past. Mary Russell Curzon was a well educated woman who had been courted by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who would row across the Merrimac to visit the Curzon sisters and write truly boring sonnets about these women, the river, and Curzon’s “bowery mill.” Another poet—William Ellery Channing—and the artist William Morris Hunt both proposed marriage to Mary. But, displaying an early feminist streak and good sense, she turned them all down, preferring her own company. [An ardent abolitionist, she offered her house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Once, a very large male slave was delivered hidden in a wooden crate to her remote home. Upon unpacking the crate she made the tragic discovery that the man had been shipped upside down from Boston and was now definitively dead. With little hesitation, this temptress of poets and artists dragged the quickly stiffening body back to the orchard, buried the slave and planted a pear tree over the unmarked grave, a tree that flourishes still.]

This was a woman who read the classics each morning as she arose early, who taught young John Marquand how to build a fire, how to stitch up one’s own wounds with sewing thread, and who lived only by candle light and kerosene lamps, lighting both with a flint and steel (as she distrusted matches). As he later wrote, after having traveled extensively in every continent except Antarctica and having made the acquaintance of the powerful, the rich, and the famous, this elderly woman impressed him far more than anyone else that he ever had encountered.

During most of the year, John Marquand lived alone with the three elderly women. All were serious Unitarians and accompanied young John to weekly services in this very church. Here he developed a faith—or at least one was drilled into him—that, while not necessarily a comfort, did hold him throughout a rather tumultuous life.

The Mill and Yellow House were at the end of a long, unpopulated road. There were no neighbors. In many ways, it was a life tinged with antiquity, closely resembling the Federalist era, while the rest of America was hurrying towards the jazz age. But, for this brief interval—and perhaps for the first and last time—he felt truly a part of a place and, thus, in the truest sense, secure.

In the summers things changed when his wealthy and more sophisticated New York cousins would take over one of the buildings. Marquand was fond, yet envious, of these cousins who had retained their money, their family, and their casual confidence. These experiences, when mixed with a acute observation and substantial literary talent, laid the groundwork for Marquand’s later gentle yet pointed social satires.

Marquand was hardly the first author to use the pains and embarrassments of youth as artistic fodder. Had his immediate family not been shattered and its wealth lost, the author instead might have become a basically happy, if quietly desperate, member of the upper middle class like many of his fictional characters. And he might never have felt compelled to leave the contentment he found at Curzon’s Mill and Newburyport to seek a life that never provided an equivalent sense of comfort and belonging—no matter how much fame and fortune he garnered. Again, this theme of lost security and happiness and the unsuccessful attempt to recapture it in the rush and mobility of contemporary America runs through Marquand’s novels, and it often is as much an issue today as it was 50 years ago.

One would hope that the author also learned from the weaknesses and selfishness of his father and that he would make it a priority to raise a family that was not subjected to the same sense of abandonment as he had suffered. But that was not always to be. And, given the demands of writing and the psychic scars he may have carried, maybe it was too much to ask.

John Marquand married twice. He first courted and won Christina Sedgwick from a faded aristocratic family in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Two children were produced, John, Jr. and my mother, Christina Marquand. The marriage, however, failed and, as is often the case, both were a bit at fault. Christina Sedgwick, while charming and delightful, was far from practical and could not create the stable, peaceful home for which Marquand yearned. Marquand, wrapped up in beginning his literary career and feeling inferior to the Sedgwick family, was far from the model husband. Perhaps both were too young to appreciate what they had before it was ruined. But, Marquand did remain close to his first two children throughout his life.

Marquand’s second marriage was to a wealthy Connecticut heiress, Adelaide Hooker. While this marriage lasted longer, and produced three children, it was frequently rocked by arguments, affairs, and separations. The result was a chaotic—albeit privileged—upbringing for his last three children. The now famous author’s relationship with these three children was little better than his relationship with his own father……..




And The Mountains Echoed

by Khaled Hosseini

Riverhead Hardcover
(May 21, 2013)
Hardcover, 416 pages

SETTING: Kabul, Paris, San Francisco, Tinos

Khaled Hosseini, the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, has written a new novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations. In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most. Following its characters and the ramifications of their lives and choices and loves around the globe—from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos—the story expands gradually outward, becoming more emotionally complex and powerful with each turning page. [Source:]

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. His father was a diplomat in the Afghan Foreign Ministry and his mother taught Farsi and history at a high school in Kabul. In 1976, the Foreign Ministry relocated the Hosseini family to Paris. They were ready to return to Kabul in 1980, but by then their homeland had witnessed a bloody communist coup and the invasion of the Soviet Army. The Hosseinis sought and were granted political asylum in the United States, and in September 1980 moved to San Jose, California. Hosseini graduated from high school in 1984 and enrolled at Santa Clara University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1988. The following year he entered the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, where he earned a medical degree in 1993. He completed his residency at Cedars-Sinai medical center in Los Angeles and was a practicing internist between 1996 and 2004.

In March 2001, while practicing medicine, Hosseini began writing his first novel, The Kite Runner. Published by Riverhead Books in 2003, that debut went on to become an international bestseller and beloved classic, sold in at least seventy countries and spending more than a hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In May 2007, his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, remaining in that spot for fifteen weeks and nearly an entire year on the bestseller list. Together, the two books have sold more than 10 million copies in the United States and more than 38 million copies worldwide. The Kite Runner was adapted into a graphic novel of the same name in 2011. Hosseini’s much-awaited third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, will be published on May 21, 2013.

In 2006, Hosseini was named a Goodwill Envoy to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Inspired by a trip he made to Afghanistan with the UNHCR, he later established The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. He lives in Northern California. [Source:]

TransAtlantic: A Novel

by Colum McCann

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

From The British Council of Literature

Mohsin Hamid was born in 1971 in Lahore, Pakistan, and moved to the US at the age of 18 to study at Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

He then worked as a management consultant in New York, and later as a freelance journalist back in Lahore.

His first novel was Moth Smoke (2000), winner of a Betty Trask Award and shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Moth Smoke was made into a television mini-series in Pakistan and an operetta in Italy, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2000.

In 2007 his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was published and shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. In 2008, it won the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book) and the 2008 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction). A short story based on the novel was also published in The Paris Review in 2006.

Mohsin Hamid now lives in London.

Critical Perspective

While South Asian fiction in English has been in vogue for over two decades now, and India has been placed firmly (even centrally) on the map of world literatures, India’s northern neighbour, Pakistan, has remained largely off limits.

When novels such as Salman Rushdie’s Shame have dealt with the region it has tended to appear as a site of the archaic and the enclosed, shut off from the rest of the continent and from the contemporary world beyond it. The work of Mohsin Hamid represents a refreshing departure from this (admittedly recent) tradition. Infused with elements of Scott Fitzgerald and the stark, compelling prose of American contemporaries such as Brett Easton Ellis, Hamid abandons the baroque in favour of minimalist brevity. Asked about this in interview, Hamid simply responded: ‘I’d rather people read my book twice than only half-way through.’ More than this though, his self-consciously ‘modern’ writing style offers a vision of Pakistani modernity which breaks with the stereoytype (that has prevailed since 9/11) of the region as fundamentally traditional, backward looking, essentially anti-modern.
His first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), takes place in Lahore during the summer of 1998 as tensions between India and Pakistan spiral. The novel’s anti-hero is Daru Shezad, a young banker who has been fired from his job and who subsequently drifts into a world of drug addiction, poverty, and criminality. Daru kills moths when he’s bored. The bitter jealousies that develop between Daru and his former friend Ozi (recently returned from study abroad, and now a wealthy businessman), and that culminate in revenge, carry an allegorical weight within the context of the broader nuclear rivalries between India and Pakistan. The extremes of wealth and poverty we encounter in the abrupt shifts between Daru’s unlit room and the jet set society which he flutters around, echoes Pakistan’s divided social state as its economy begins to crumble.The central image of the novel is of a moth spiralling around a candle before bursting into flame. The fatal image of seduction echoes Daru’s own dangerous obsessions and desires: with drugs, with wealth, with Ozi’s wife.



The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamish Hamilton
Moth Smoke, Granta


Premio Speciale Dal Testo Allo Schermo (Italy), The Reluctant Fundamentalist
International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shortlist
South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shortlist
Index on Censorship T R Fyvel Award, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shortlist
English-Speaking Union Ambassador Book Award (US), The Reluctant Fundamentalist, fiction
Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book), The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shortlist
Australia-Asia Literary Award, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shortlist
Asian American Literary Award, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Arts Council England Decibel Award, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shortlist
Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
New York Times Notable Book of the Year, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Man Booker Prize for Fiction, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shortlist
PEN/Hemingway Award, Moth Smoke, shortlist
Betty Trask Award, Moth Smoke
New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Moth Smoke



New York Times
March 23, 2013

Mohsin Hamid




Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani writer, is the author, most recently, of “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.” The film adaptation of his best-selling book, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” will be in theaters April 26.

READING I’m often reading multiple books at the same time. They are for different moods. It’s kind of like surfing the Web and having multiple windows open at the same time, only in a much slower fashion. I’ve just begun “Basti,” a novel by one of the great Urdu-language fiction writers, Intizar Husain. “Basti” means village, so I suspect it will have to do with a village as a microcosm for India and Pakistan’s partition and the different religions that used to coexist within them.

And I’m about halfway into “Lightning Rods,” by Helen DeWitt, which is also fiction. It’s a story told in business-ese about a man who comes up with the idea that he should install women in offices whom men can have sex with, thereby reducing the risk of sexual harassment. Thank goodness it’s written by a woman. I think it would be less appealing to read if it were written by a man. It’s just outrageous and really quite unusual. I think and hope that it’s a very sharp critique of sexual politics and market-based economy gone mad.

LISTENING John Lee Hooker is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve been listening to him since I was a teenager growing up in Pakistan and got into the blues. In a weird way, Lahore is a big river city like the various American cities that have to do with the Mississippi. Blues territory, in other words. The blues is pitched with the emotions and resonance and feeling of a lot of Punjabi folk music, which is what I grew up with.

WATCHING “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s a very well-made film. But I didn’t particularly feel there was a humanization of Pakistan and that part of the world. Of course, there needn’t be. So I guess on its own terms, it was a successful film, but perhaps its success was in a direction that was different from my own sensibilities.

FOLLOWING I think it’s one of the most interesting aggregator blogs out there. It puts together stuff from art, science, philosophy, politics, literature. It’s a completely international, cosmopolitan place to get information. It’s become my entry point to reading on the Web.

CUSHIONING I tend to walk a lot — an hour and a half every morning. At some point I developed a pain in my foot. I was in New York and went to this really great shoe store called Eneslow on Park Avenue South, and the salesman recommended these Birko Balance cork inserts to put in my shoes. They are just fantastic — a real walking enabler.

COMPUTING I’m pretty Appled up: iPhone, iPad, Air. Kind of disturbed by that, actually. I fell in love with the underdog and now they’ve become this world-dominant thing. It was like I was rooting for the 13 colonies and somebody handed me the United States superpower.

Kate Murphy is a journalist in Houston who writes frequently for The New York Times.


Beautiful Ruins

A Conversation with Jess Walter February 20 & March 16, 2010

Jess Walter followed a convoluted path into the literary mainstream: He was a newspaper reporter who became a nonfiction author who became a ghostwriter who became a mystery novelist who became a literary novelist who also writes screenplays. But no matter the genre, Walter’s work is stamped with vivid watermarks—prose that blends rapid-fire rants with unerring rhythm, a dark humor that has been called “standup tragedy,” an engagement with the political and social, and a devotion to storytelling. “The idea that plot is this ugly, brutish thing that we have to drape our beauty over is infuriating,” he says, “because to me, plot is this beautiful, elegant shape.”
His essays, short fiction, criticism, and journalism have appeared in Details, Playboy, Willow Springs, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. His nonfiction book, Every Knee Shall Bow, was a finalist for the pen Center West literary nonfiction award in 1996. His novel Citizen Vince won a 2006 Edgar Allan Poe award, and his following novel, The Zero, was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award.
Walter started his career writing for his hometown newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, where he helped cover the standoff between Randy Weaver and federal agents at Ruby Ridge, in North Idaho—work that eventually led to the publication of Every Knee Shall Bow in 1996. His first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, came out in 2001, followed by The Land of the Blind, Citizen Vince, The Zero, and most recently, The Financial Lives of the Poets, which Time magazine called “a small masterpiece, a Wodehouse-level comic performance. But it’s also a deceptively amusing survey of the post-Fannie-and-Freddie American landscape, with a mother lode of bitter truths lying right below its perfect, manicured lawns.”

We spoke with Walter over two meetings at Spokane’s Davenport Hotel, which features prominently in The Land of the Blind. “It’s taken me a long time,” Walter said, “to arrive at a place where I feel like I’m doing the work I set out to do.”

Samuel Ligon How has your writing career evolved or developed since your start as a journalist?

Jess Walter:
It’s evolved accidentally, the way natural selection works in making platypuses. If you decided to become a literary writer by going into journalism and then ghostwriting and then writing mysteries, that’s the worst path you could take. I like to say I’ve taken the service entrance into literary fiction.
I started at the newspaper in 1986 as a junior in college. When Ruby Ridge happened in 1992, I started sending out proposals right away and I took sabbaticals from the newspaper to work on that book. Later, my publisher asked if I wanted to help write Chris Darden’s book on the O.J. Simpson trial. I was compelled by Darden’s Shakespearean angst. I teased him about it later, and called him “Black Hamlet” because I didn’t understand what he was so anxious about.
My publisher at the time said, “Would you be interested in helping him write his book?” In my naiveté, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as ghostwriting. I knew it existed, but I didn’t realize it was an industry, so when she asked me to help him, I just assumed we were going to write it together. We sat down to negotiate, and I didn’t have an agent at the time. I sat across from his agent, his lawyer, and Chris, and they have this contract that says I’m ghostwriting, and I said, “I’m not doing this if my name’s not on the book.” They were like, “How big do you want your name?” I said, “I want my mom to see it from outside a bookstore window.” So that was the agreement, and then there was discussion about what the cover would say—“By Christopher Darden, as told to,” or “By Christopher Darden with”—and I said, “I don’t care about that. I just think it’s a lie to not have my name on the cover.”

Later, when I would do ghostwriting projects—I didn’t want my name on a book once I realized the stigma, and once it became clear to me that ghostwriting was not what I wanted to do. But that was the first ghost job, the Darden book, and again, it wasn’t strictly a ghost project, because my name’s on it. And also, this was a really intelligent guy, and I said, “We’re going to write this book together.” So we had two laptops, and we’d write sentences back and forth. It was collaborative. I moved in with him. And I feel…everything’s accidental, nothing’s planned, but I look at that early part of my career, the ghostwriting, which began with Darden and ended with the Bernard Kerik situation placing me at Ground Zero. I’ve got Ruby Ridge, the O.J. Simpson case, the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I kind of had a perfect fiction writer’s vantage to these cases that, for someone who loves satire and writing about the culture, turned out to be perfect training. It’s not the training I’d advise someone to undertake, and I was miserable through much of it, but it turned out to be a great track to the kind of fiction I wanted to write.

S.L. How have your books changed from Every Knee Shall Bow to The
Financial Lives of the Poets?

J.W. Each book I write is a kind of reaction to the last one. It’s a constant leveling and adjustment to try to make each book complete and full in itself. When you’re in a book, you’re not thinking about the next one or the last one, you’re only thinking about the one you’re in, but you bring the way the last one felt. My starting point is often, The last one felt like this, now I need to do that. Especially Over Tumbled Graves—I was stunned that everyone saw it as a mystery novel. I look back now and see that’s because it was a mystery novel. You put a serial killer in your book, people tend to treat it like a serial killer book. You eat one lousy foot, they call you a cannibal. But at the time I was writing it, I thought I was writing this deep literary novel that happened to have serial killers and cops in it. And then when it came out, that wasn’t the response. So, with Land of the Blind I thought, Well, I’ll nudge it over a little further. And with Citizen Vince, I think I was a little aware of the way these books were landing, the way they were received, the way they were perceived, the way they were put into bookstores.

There are all sorts of indignities along the way that cause you to do certain things. I remember I was excited to have a reading at Powell’s, this amazing bookstore. I told some friends to meet me there. I didn’t really think that two o’clock in the afternoon was a funny time for a reading at Powell’s. So my friends show up and I walk to the desk and say, “I’m Jess Walter, I have a reading here.” The woman at the counter says, “Oh, that’s a drop-in signing. What’s your book about?” And I said, “Well, it’s a kind of literary crime novel about a serial killer—” I didn’t even finish and she grabs the microphone and says, “Genre department.” This guy comes forward and my friends are standing right there and I’m thinking, Oh, this sucks!

S.L. Can you talk about the difference between “literary” fiction and
“genre” fiction?

J.W. I’ve often felt frustrated at the divide between commercial and
literary fiction, because to me, it hurts both. You can have this horrible writing in crime fiction because people only focus on plots, and they treat them like crossword puzzles. “Well, I knew who the killer was on page eleven! I’ve solved it! Why do I need to keep reading?” And when people complain about literary fiction, they say there’s not enough story. So I’ve always felt like there’s got to be some sweet spot in the middle you can hit. With Land of the Blind, I thought, Oh, I’m writing a coming of age novel, and I’m kind of melding it with this other thing, and it’s also a novel of ideas! You have all the conventions of crime fiction that I wasn’t following. There was no murder. It starts with a confession instead of the body, which is where you start with a murder mystery. I wanted someone to come in and confess to a crime that hasn’t actually been committed. And then it was a kind of twenty-five-year-long murder that began when they were children—it’s really about the way he treated this guy as a kid. So it was, in my mind, a coming of age novel disguised. Again, you hit what you think is some sweet spot and no one wants it. People really want crime fiction and they love those books. You mess with the conventions, they don’t understand why. I was making Subaru Brats—you know those little Subarus that were a cross between a pickup and a car? Nobody wanted those or there would be a bunch of them around today. And I made a great Subaru Brat, but I was the only one who appreciated it.

S.L. Do you think anybody succeeds in that kind of hybrid?

J.W. I think Richard Price comes closest. Once he established his literary
bona fides he could write crime fiction. Pete Dexter, because he won the National Book Award, can write a crime novel and have his position. John Banville wins a Booker Prize and can go write crime fiction. But it doesn’t work the other way. You can’t name someone who’s made a career as a crime writer who is then respected as a literary novelist.

Shawn Vestal: But after you won the Edgar for Citizen Vince, the next book, The Zero, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

J.W. When I say no one’s done it, I kind of think I’m the only one.
[Laughs.] And I don’t know that most people want to do that. It’s one of those Guinness Book of World Records things that no one else really wants to do. You stand on your head on a toilet for four years and you’ve done it longer than anyone else. It’s not a path a lot of people want to take.
brendan lynaugh Citizen Vince felt like more than a crime novel. Were you aware that you were turning a corner?

J.W. It felt like the kind of novel I wanted to be writing. I get really excited about thematic elements, probably more than I should, and more than most writers. I kept thinking, This is really about voting. That was the sweet spot I had always imagined between crime fiction and literary fiction—you know, that I could create characters that were hopefully deep and rich. There would be all these ideas swirling around, especially in the character Vince and in his monologues. I like ranting and riffing, and Vince could do that in a voice I was pleased with, and yet, I could still drape it over the conventions of a crime novel. I think it was more the sort of novel I’d imagined I would write all along. And it does feel like I turned a corner at that point. And then I moved on to The Zero and Financial Lives of the Poets.

lynaugh: You’ve mentioned having to teach yourself how to write a novel.
Can you remember big moments in that process?

J.W. I still feel like I’m teaching myself all the time, learning things and in a constant conversation with myself about what it is. The emotions of writing a novel, the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the loathing for what you’ve written—I described it in my journal at one point as the diary of a man living on the ocean who has no idea what tides are. “Oh my God, the water’s going out! It’s a drought! Oh my God, the water’s coming in! It’s a flood!” I couldn’t believe how seriously I took this. With every book I would say, “If this is not the worst thing ever written…I need to just throw this away and start from scratch.” And then the next day, I would say, “I may be writing a new kind of literature here. There’s a very good chance that my grandchildren will have to study this book. I should put a little note in there for them.” The grandiosity was stunning, and the lows were stunning, too

I think of it as this engine, these pistons going up and down. The process that I fool myself with is that I write the last sentence last, and so I’ll comb over the beginning so many times, but I can’t finish if I feel like there’s something wrong early on. I always have to go back and rewrite things. The moment I finish a novel, I always feel the same incredible high. My finishes are phony at first. I always have to go back through dozens of times, but that sense, when I write the last sentence and pull my hands away or clap my hands like a Vegas dealer, it’s thrilling. And then maybe a week later, or two days later, the crashing doubt comes back. I’ve learned now that I love almost every part of that journey. I even love the self-loathing. I think to separate the hypercritical self-loathing writer from the one who dreams of doing something beyond his ability is impossible and probably not even worthwhile. I don’t think you could have one without the other.

I just read David Shields’ new book Reality Hunger and now my debate and argument with myself is also with him. I’m constantly walking around, saying, “Well, take that, David Shields!” or “What about this, David Shields?” Which is great—to have a foil. But that book was remarkable and vexing in so many ways. I found myself walking around arguing with him, which is such a pointless thing to do. It reminded me of some drunk guy on the dorm floor you’re trying to argue with and he just keeps quoting Pink Floyd. You can’t win that argument. And other times, it reminded me of arguing with a girlfriend, because you say, “Well, clearly this, this, and this,” and she says, “But that’s just how I feel.” You can’t win that, either.

But it makes me want to debate those points, because I think it’s a really compelling case, a great read, and really powerful work. Because it’s a manifesto, it wants to make a case, and it’s a case I would certainly argue with. First, that narrative is dead, and that there’s some supplanting of it by a desire for reality. I think the reality that we’re really desiring is far more narrative driven than he’s letting on. We don’t really want reality. We want reality set in a certain narrative frame. What we really want is the Elephant Man. We want freak show. Reality tv is not like the lyric essay, which is the thing he’s arguing for. It’s like the Elephant Man. It’s the freakiest stuff you can imagine. That’s what we want to see on YouTube—glimpses of the freakish.

I find it illustrative that A Million Little Pieces was rejected as a novel, because you couldn’t get away with that shit in fiction, but you can, oddly enough, in this kind of hybrid nonfiction thing. So there’s the idea that fiction and nonfiction have blended in a way. That because history is subjective, that because memoirs only come from memory, because journalism has been proven to be imperfect, there should be no filter between fiction and nonfiction, which I find to be almost insane, almost a kind of academic trick in which you point to a swamp and say, “Look, therefore there is no land, nor water. They are only the same thing.” And you get there through some sort of “if or then” dialogue with yourself, and pretty soon, you’re trying to drive a boat through the desert. You can’t do that.

Just because there are places where there’s swampland doesn’t mean that there isn’t a desire and need and higher form for nonfiction and fiction. So that’s the argument I walk around having. Zadie Smith wrote about Reality Hunger—something like, “All right, Mr. Shields, read better fiction. You’re right. There’s a lot that’s dead with fiction. Now go read the good stuff, because those manipulations and tired conventions are exactly what good fiction tries to overcome and subvert and not fall victim to.”

S.L. You suggested that nonfiction can get away with stuff that fiction
can’t. Like what?

J.W. What was Tom Wolfe’s famous pronouncement? That fiction can’t
keep up with the real world? I think fiction has the responsibility of a kind of universality that nonfiction doesn’t. A good example is Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. His portrayal of Tourette’s is—to anyone who has nervous habits or tics or things—so real that it immediately takes you inside that condition. It’s brilliant for that. It isn’t just someone with Tourette’s spouting dirty words, which is what the reality television version would be. It’s a human portrayal of this thing that may be freakish to people who don’t have it, but through Lethem’s telling is a fully realized and human condition that we relate to.

S.L. You mentioned two North Korean pieces the other day, one fiction,
one nonfiction. What could the nonfiction deliver that the fiction couldn’t?

J.W. The first thing that pops into my head that the nonfiction delivered
was context. Both pieces had to do with the period of starvation in North Korea. Both had people making this sort of paste from tree bark that they would eat. In some ways, the nonfiction was more harrowing for its authority, for its truth, I guess. It provided context. I found out how many people starved to death during this period. And the nonfiction piece was structured almost like a short story, which is really interesting, because it was not a big societal piece. It was focused on one woman who had been a party believer and whose husband and mother and one of her children had starved to death. She’d finally made her way into South
Korea. And it was a narrative of these people starving to death, with the context that this was happening to the entire nation, the politics behind it, the seamless way in which those externalities could be brought in and not break you out of the illusion of the piece. You could come in and out of narrative and pure informative reporting, and I think when fiction does that—one good example is The Known World—it can be thrilling, but it’s also a really tricky thing. It’s an innovation of voice that when I see it, I’m kind of thrilled. That’s what this nonfiction piece was able to do.
The great thing about it, the thing I would probably agree with David Shields about, is that it did not require a movement at the end. It did not require some artful ending. It just ended. The woman went to South Korea. She lived with her daughter and she put on a bunch of weight. There didn’t need to be one last scene in which she goes out to the woods and strips some tree bark and takes it home because she’s acquired a taste for it. It was able to sort of just play itself out.

The short story (which hasn’t been published yet but is forthcoming in Playboy) by Adam Johnson was about an orphan in the same time period, who kidnaps Japanese tourists and brings them back to North Korea—kind of sanctioned by the army. The story is full of starvations, full of all this stuff, and the movement of it, the artful movement is really pleasing and yet you’re aware that that’s where it’s going. When it finishes, you have the sense of release of a story. You’ve been taken to this world and then released from it. And you’ve seen a full movement of character. You’ve seen something that wasn’t required in the nonfiction piece, a reckoning or a surprise or some other narrative turn; the stone was carved into a figure. And I think we know those effects and we know those feelings that we expect to get from both, and maybe that’s what Shields finds so thrilling about the hybrid style that he’s working in. To confuse those effects, to fire off these neurons when you expected those to be fired off, that’s what every fiction writer hopes to do—to not give you what you expect, but something that’s satisfying in some way and which you didn’t see coming.
ligon Do you think that the nonfiction was about a phenomenon that
occurred in North Korea and something systemic to North Korea, and the fiction was about a person?

J.W. It’s funny, because the nonfiction was about a person, and this
person was used to illustrate a condition within North Korea. And so the person was almost a way of viewing the larger context, whereas in the short story, the context was backdrop at most, or was a way to sort of narrow down on that person. You know the world you’re in. You’re in North Korea. It’s this period of hardship and starvation and that telescopes down on the individual, whereas the other one opens up the world that way. I do think those are both intriguing shapes and that they do very different things. Thank God for both.

lynaugh : Often in your books, the main character has some sort of disability the blindness in The Zero, and various characters in other books who can’t sleep the entire story. What does disability do for your novels?

J.W. I think everybody has some disability. I think that’s the condition
of being human. What happens when they’re more visible, more on the surface? You’re definitely putting pressure on. That’s what I like about crime in fiction. I like conflict that’s sharper and higher-pitched. And I like that within—I think it’s another kind of conflict, a conflict within the character, and the way in which the world deals with these people and they deal with the world. I guess it’s heightening that stuff.

I got a stick in my eye when I was five and had to train myself to look people in the eye, because when I was a kid I would constantly look down so that other kids wouldn’t make fun of me—so to me, disability is a very real state of humanity that I think we all have in some way. I think I use the vision and eyesight issues because that’s such an elemental and key way in which we deal with each other. I also think it’s probably an autobiographical desire of mine to try to explore this in fiction.
ligon In Land of the Blind, Clark lost an eye as a kid. In The Zero, Remy has
a problem with detached retinas. How does your experience of getting a stick in the eye when you were a kid move away from autobiography in your work and take on a fictional quality?

J.W. Autobiography is a tool of the fiction writer. I think that Land of the Blind is all about vision, about how Clark sees himself, how the world sees him. And the gaps within there. You become interested in those things in a really personal way, and then I think the thing to do with fiction is refine that interest, refine that sort of thematic push that you have in something until it takes on some meaning you weren’t aware of. I think you arrive at levels of meaning in fiction that you don’t always reach with memoir, that you might not reach with any other kind of writing because of the process, which forces you to go possibly deeper into character than you would with nonfiction or memoir. I think it forces you to create themes that are even more alive than a memoir would be. We’ve all read those autobiographies by generals or politicians, in which you think, “Were they even around for their own life?” They seem to be describing it as this series of achievements that have no motivations connected to them.
vestal You write about the newspaper industry in The Financial Lives of the
Poets. Do you think the decline of journalism’s had an impact on fiction?
walter It’s hard to not focus on the ancillary effects, where the review
is going to come from and things like that. I’ve always thought that journalism has been a great training ground for novelists. I would make twenty-seven percent of our novelists go work at a newspaper, because you learn to navigate these systems.

You cover any sort of politics, you cover crime. You begin to see the difference between public and private, the way people show themselves in public and the way they really are. You learn the mechanisms of a culture, how a courtroom works, how a police department works, how an election works. One of the ghost jobs I did involved a political campaign and these political operatives…. I’ve got these characters stowed away. They’re such great characters because they have insight into the hypocrisies that we know are there, but we don’t exactly know how they work. That precision, that journalistic precision, is something. Like Richard Price. He’s very much like a documentarian in that style. He’s in there, in those cop cars, in those projects. He’s working with those social workers, and to hear anyone describe his process, it sounds exactly like immersion journalism. So in that way, I think journalists can be outward-looking in their fiction; I think they can get beyond the limits of their own experience and imagination more freely because of their training.

Also, you write every day. You lose fear of publication. You know how to work on deadlines. But you also get out of yourself as a writer. You write something that is very utilitarian—people use it. It’s sort of disposable. I remember being in mfa workshops and people bringing their stories in and the angst of that room was almost too much for me to bear. They had so much invested and I never felt that.

At a newspaper someone is going to handle your stuff. They’re going to edit it, they’re going to change things. You learn to keep your stories separate from yourself. That’s valuable for a new writer because the fear of publication stops a lot of people from working, the idea that it’s got to be perfect. No journalist goes in thinking that they know everything at the beginning, and yet, today, as a fiction writer, you almost get more attention for your debut novel than the ones after. You’re expected to kind of arrive as this fully formed artist, and I know I wasn’t. It’s taken me a long time to arrive at a place where I feel like I’m doing the work I set out to do. I used to have an editor at the newspaper who would say, “All right, this is beautiful writing here, but you have three adjectives. We’re going to pick one. What’s the best one?” I was constantly pruning and looking for the telling detail.

Also, because of the constraints on space, I think journalists often write better paced fiction, which is the reason people love crime fiction and other potboilers. It’s not that people have bloodlust. It’s about pacing.
vestal Many of your books have humorous elements. What makes
something funny? And how do you use that toward a serious purpose?
walter One of the tics I’m trying to get away from is tending toward things
only because they’re funny. A few times, I’ll find myself so in love with something I thought was funny that it takes away from the narrative or it introduces something that strains credulity. Some of the humor in Citizen Vince I’m proudest of is the really quiet stuff. It doesn’t come out of absurdity. It just comes out of small character moments. I guess some of it is absurd, two guys in a witness protection program debating the pizza in town, but that’s also a complaint I’ve heard from every New Yorker who ever moved to Spokane, so it seems weirdly grounded, too. You don’t want anything to be a crutch. Plot has been a crutch for me, suspense has been a crutch for me, and sometimes I think humor is a crutch for me.

S.L. Plot seems to be one of the hardest things to talk about, and people
often ask writers, “Do you know the plot before you go in?” What do you know of the story before you start actually writing words?

J.W. There’s a fallacy that the story starts when you’re writing words. I
walk around with the idea, with the characters, with all of that stuff, until I think I may have a clear sense of what that story is—before I start writing it.

I’m going to digress a little bit. One of the frustrations I have with Shields’ book is that he keeps saying narrative is clearly dead, that clearly no one likes narrative. And it’s like, No! People are reading Dan Brown not because he’s a great prose stylist, but because of the narrative. Story is alive and well. People love it. And it doesn’t even have to be a new story. It can be the same old story. That central premise is totally wrong.

I loved reading Charles Baxter’s essay on rhyming action, because to me, there’s an artistic elegance in plot and story. There’s a sense among some people that there’s been an academic movement away from storytelling. There was a great essay—and I call it great because it was infuriating to me in so many ways—that blamed the Cult of the Sentence for the death of literary fiction, the much talked about death of literary fiction, the idea being that somehow, writers focusing only on the sentence as a unit of beauty and on the writing itself, have divorced themselves from what readers want. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but I have heard writers say, “I don’t want any story at all. I just want beautiful language.” And I think, first of all, Bullshit. But second of all, the idea that plot is this ugly, brutish thing that we have to drape our beauty over is infuriating, because to me, plot is this beautiful, elegant shape. And that’s what I get so thrilled about in writing. That’s what I got excited about with Citizen Vince, when I began to see this kind of movement of the character and the way the language and everything would reveal this movement that would take you to this place where you would have a feeling of completion. The plot of that story is inseparable from a kind of motion in which Vince lives in this town. He’s afraid someone has been sent to kill him from New York. So he goes to New York, where he’s assigned to kill the guy he thinks came to kill him. I love that movement.

lynaugh: In the plot of Citizen Vince, toward the end, there’s a withholding of Vince’s plan. Did you worry about that being too “devicey”?

J.W. I love device. When that comes about is when we go in Reagan and
Carter’s heads, the day that Vince comes home. If I’m showing those scenes, he’s on an airplane, he’s thinking, Holy crap, now I gotta go kill this guy. Or maybe I won’t. I’ve got a big decision. It would have been so static. The book is third person and there are plenty of other times in which you don’t exactly know what Vince is up to. You don’t exactly know what he’s doing at that card game until he tells Gotti why he’s there. So if it was the first time it had come up, it would have felt far more “devicey” and I probably would have been too embarrassed to do it. But instead, we’re looking at Carter and Reagan, who are doing a sort of thematic dance around what this novel is about, the idea of shadows following each other, and when we get back to Vince, he’s taking action and his thoughts are in the moment.

G.E. Some readers might feel there’s a kind of withholding in terms of
the vote.

J.W. Who he votes for? Maybe because I initially saw this as a screenplay,
I thought of that scene as a camera shot, like the famous tracking shot in Citizen Kane in which the camera rises and rises and rises. It’s one of the longest shots in history. It rises completely out of where Kane is
speaking. And so I imagined that same shot when Vince is voting, that you’d be centered over him and you’d be seeing the ballot the way he does and then all of a sudden, the camera rises and rises and rises so you could see the act of voting but you could never see who he voted for. I really did imagine that I turned my head when Vince voted and gave him the same privacy we all get.

S.L. What does it do for the novel that the reader doesn’t know?

J.W. If it was just a novel about a guy who became a Republican or
Democrat, what would that be worth? It’s about a guy who chooses as his point of redemption, his symbolic redemption, the process of voting, which is a really corny thing, and I knew it was corny the minute I thought of it. Am I really going to write a civic thriller? That’s what it is, a kind of civic thriller, but no one else gets to choose what our own symbols of redemption are. And for Vince, voting is meaningful. On the most basic level, not telling the reader who he votes for connects with a theme of the book, that it’s about this person choosing this thing we all take for granted and maybe see as empty or corny or whatever it is, and around that creating a new identity and allowing himself to change.

lynaugh Can you talk about other devices you’ve used?

J.W. Fiction writing can feel kind of meek sometimes, and if we’re going to run from device, if we’re going to run from things like that, it’s going to stay meek. Your job is to engage the reader. Sometimes to fool them awhile, sometimes to suspend something that you don’t want them to know for a while. Sometimes it’s to have the action interrupted by an em dash and not tell the reader what happened. Sometimes it’s to write something in first person. There are all different kinds of tools and techniques and I don’t know what makes them devices. But I like to be playful, and I like inventive styles of writing.

The book that nailed me the hardest in the last few years was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is a Russian nesting doll of a book. It’s a device at its very genetic core and I was thrilled reading it. I loved to see what could be accomplished.
I don’t have some bag of devices. But I certainly am constantly looking for something inventive to do with structure, with voice, with all of those elemental pieces of writing that combine to make the whole. So it might be a large structural thing. It might be a voice thing. It might be something that feels as “devicey” as having the action break at midpoint in The Zero and then having the character discover alongside the reader what’s missing. Which feels more blatantly “devicey,” but opens up the thing in a way that you wouldn’t have gotten if you’d written the novel straight. I think those kinds of formal inventions and devices and gimmicks can sometimes lead you to a place to discover not only what’s possible with the language and the sentences and paragraphs, but also what your story is about, what brought you to this. For me, when it works the way it did in The Zero, there’s not a lot of distance between the formal playfulness and the thematic drive that made me want to do it in the first place.

S.L. Why is withholding important to fiction? Can withholding ever
become cheap?

J.W. A lot of times, what makes something work is what isn’t there. We
know that with language, we know that with character, so why wouldn’t it be the same with story? Why wouldn’t the things that you choose not to put in be those things that kind of open the piece up?
When is it cheap? When you’re honestly assessing your own work and you worry about things, what I worry about is that I’ll sell the farm for a cheap gimmick. One of my favorite novels is Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, which occurs in reverse. It’s all gimmick. Does it work? Depends on the reader, but I love the inventiveness of it. And Martin Amis referred to that book in The Information, which is another great novel. In The Information, the novel that the protagonist has just written makes people nauseous and causes them to have strokes. Amis is writing about Time’s Arrow and people’s reaction to it.

You know your weaknesses and strengths as a writer, so I’m probably the worst person in the world to ask when a device becomes cheap, when it overwhelms the thing it’s working on, because I tend to like those. Maybe it’s because I read a great deal and I’m looking for something new and different. But I also think it goes back to the fact that I’m most interested in the elemental things, finding out what exactly makes voice, and then the large things, almost like a scientist. Science is interested in the very tiny and the huge, the universe and the subatomic. So I think that my concern with structure, with the fullness of things, makes me more prone to like those sorts of innovations.
vestal What are the similarities or differences between the Spokane in your
books and the real one? Or have you set out to capture the “real” Spokane?
walter I don’t know if William Kennedy said, “I’m going to capture
Albany.” You just tell those handful of stories that strike you, and then later, if they end up creating a full sense of a place, I can’t imagine it being anything more than accidental at best, because I never set out to create Spokane. I was a crime reporter, so I think I’ve probably created a much more downtrodden, crime-ridden, nasty-ass place than really exists, and yet, I think it’s a very real version of some of those places, too. The Financial Lives of the Poets is set anywhere, and yet to me, it’s so clearly Spokane. People write to me and say, “I think that 7-11 is right by my house! I live in Santa Monica.” “I think that 7-11 is right across the street, except it’s a Piggly Wiggly here.” So I think there’s probably something universal in what I’m envisioning as Spokane in that book.
vestal Vince makes a brief cameo—uncredited as Vince—in The Financial
Lives of the Poets, and it made me wonder if you had a sort of vision of a kind of world behind the immediately present world. Or a kind of network.
walter I think I do, and I think every author kind of does. I don’t mind
those things overlapping a little, but in no way do I think of that as some definitive portrait of the city. It’s just the terrain that I happen to be writing about. Usually when I’m done with a book—I don’t, for instance, wonder if anything else happened to Brian Remy from The Zero. Maybe Carolyn Mabry from my first two novels, I think there might be more to talk about there, but for the most part, I don’t feel like characters deserve a second novel. And though some of my characters have reoccurred, they’ve been fringe characters. I think it’s another kind of playfulness that made me sneak Vince in there. And the fact that I don’t call him Vince—because at the end of Citizen Vince he’s sort of gone back and claimed his early identity, which is Marty. But I also liked the wink at myself that ninety-nine percent of readers won’t get. When people do discover it, though—again, we talked about withholding—there’s a kind of withholding. I could have easily made it Vince and made it clear, but when people get it, it’s like this special thing between me and the couple of readers who have noticed it.

S.L. Does your fiction get anything from the place—Spokane—that it
wouldn’t get from a different town, like Tallahassee or Des Moines or Providence?

J.W. I think Spokane is one of the most isolated cities of its size in the
United States, and that its isolation casts a lot of different shadows. I think there’s a sense of isolation here that’s great for fiction. And yet the place doesn’t have an accent. It doesn’t have a special ethnicity. It’s a really general place, but hours from anywhere, which gives it a kind of lab quality. As if you could have any kind of experiment here that you wanted. There’s a lot of film work here now because it has that quality—it could be anywhere. So I think yes and no. Spokane could be Des Moines. It could be Providence. It could be the Lower East Side in certain ways, and yet, I think its isolation allows a lot of different things to happen. In thrillers, you’re constantly trying to get your hero alone, and if you think about it, cops always travel in at least twos, sometimes twelves, and yet, you’ve got to get to a point where your protagonist is alone facing whatever he or she is facing. I think that isolation from the rest of the world that Spokane has creates story possibilities. You
can have guys from the Witness Protection Program show up here and have everything they need. It’s kind of self-contained. Most cities of two or three hundred thousand are not self-contained. Most are outside bigger cities and this is like Pluto. I guess Pluto isn’t a planet anymore. It’s like Neptune, a small, distant planet. It doesn’t have moons. It’s in its own orbit.

ehrnwald What’s the difference between writing a screenplay and writing a

J.W. Screenwriting is so collaborative. It’s not the writer’s medium. It’s
a director’s medium and an actor’s medium. So that’s the first thing, the collaboration. Also, form is so important and so is economy. Form and economy are the two things you’re constantly battling, and I sort of equate the formal restrictions to poetry, not that I’m much of a poet myself. But I’ll start writing a poem and it’ll turn into prose because I can’t master the economy or the form. I’ve said before that scripts tend to be more external, more action-driven. They don’t have to be. You can have a voice-driven script. You can have My Dinner with Andre, all dialogue. So it doesn’t have to have action. You could have 110 pages of voice- over. It could all be internal. Didn’t they make Johnny Got His Gun into a movie? I think they did, which takes place entirely inside the mind of someone who has been maimed in battle and is unable to communicate with the outside world. Then it’s done through flashback; you still have to show something on the screen. But practically, they couldn’t be more different forms. I like both. Screenwriting I just don’t take as seriously. I don’t think it’s as hard. I don’t think it’s as interesting. I don’t think it’s as rewarding. I think because it takes someone to animate it and make it live that it is beyond my understanding. I can’t imagine ever being fully satisfied with a screenplay. I like fiction better, as a reader and a writer. I like the process of reading a novel far more than seeing a film.
Because my own fiction has flirted with being adapted and made, I’ve had to kind of come up with a mental divorce between a film and the source material—because they are totally different things. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my favorite novels and one of my favorite films, and they are not the same thing at all. You can’t get that paranoia
from the book in the movie. You can’t get the walls, the machinery behind the walls from the novel into the film. You couldn’t get Jack Nicholson into the novel and you shouldn’t try. You couldn’t get Danny DeVito as Martini. Those things are animated by actors.

vestal Were there any trends that you noticed as a judge for the 2008
National Book Award?

J.W. Another judge told me, “You’ll be stunned by how many good
books you read and how few great ones.” And I think that’s probably true of any year you judge. There’s a ton of very good fiction out there, but I finished most of the books with some sense of their failing. And their failing was not necessarily the author’s fault. The thing that comes to every writer as they start to finish something is that they’ve begun an imperfect journey. I don’t think any book is perfect and sometimes things are more interesting because of the imperfections.
The other thing you’ll hear people say sometimes: “Why isn’t anyone writing realism?” or, “Why did postmodernism die?” or, “Why isn’t anyone doing this or that?” And the thing I realized is that everyone is doing everything. I found examples of every literary trend you could imagine. Are we finding our way to those books? Are publishers getting behind those books? Are those books reaching wider audiences? No. But someone was trying almost everything. There were some small things that I noticed, like books with titled chapters. There were a lot of linked story collections. It’s hard to tell what’s driven by the writers and what’s driven by the marketplace, such as it exists. It may be publishers saying, “We need more linked stories.” The collections that I thought worked best, though, often weren’t linked. Those collections that were linked felt like bland novels or you’d make a game of saying, “All right, which story did they write to try to link this together?”

vestal A lot of your work involves an individual with some kind of fraught
relationship with a system. Did your work on Ruby Ridge in any way set that course?

J.W. I think my whole life as a reporter was geared toward seeing how
systems fail us. You look at the systems we love—just the people at this table—we love universities and they’re in a kind of spiral of failure right now that is epic in scale. We love newspapers and they’re dying out from under us. We love literature and it’s not healthy at all. I love movies and that system’s falling apart. It isn’t just the criminal justice system, it isn’t just the government. The kind of systems that we create to take care of us and to take care of the things we care about and love always break down and fail, almost inevitably. You build the machine and the machine is going to fall apart. The thing I always go back to in my fiction is that these systems, in a way, don’t even exist. They’re powered by people’s insecurities, emotions, greed. One example is New York politics. It’s a huge interworking system of all of these different elements, and yet my experience of it was Rudolph Giuliani, who had a kind of Mussolini-like desire for power and acclaim, and Bernard Kerik, who was a figure destined to implode because of his own appetites, weaknesses, and frailties. And the O.J. Simpson murder case, which I saw kind of secondhand, coming into the wreckage afterward, was all about the failings of people, or the way human frailty causes these systems to break down.

There’s a relationship between a jury and the judge and lawyers that approaches Stockholm Syndrome or one of those syndromes. Gerry Spence, in Ruby Ridge, was brilliant at playing juries. He would do everything but crawl in the box with them. “You and I all know that this case is insane….” The most brilliant thing that he did in that case—the prosecution put up all of these rifles. All the Weavers’ guns were on this big pegboard. It was daunting, all these guns. At one point, Spence just strode up there and yanked a gun off and sighted it and then handed it through the jury box. The prosecution objected, and Spence said, “Your Honor, they put them up here. I just wanted the jury to get a closer look.” Knowing that an Idaho jury—everyone’s sighted a rifle at some point. So now these rifles aren’t things on a wall. You’d see jurors looking around the courtroom with rifles, and the prosecution going, “Oh shit, we just lost the case.” That was the kind of thing that went on in the Simpson case, too.
I find the anti-government furor today fascinating in so many ways. Because there is no government. It’s us. And in Every Knee Shall Bow, that was the thing I sort of tried to pull back the curtain from. White separatism was another kind of system. Systems don’t battle. It’s the people within them.

S.L. Do you see common attributes in your characters? Can you look at
your characters and say, “I recognize this character as having this kind of moral code or that set of beliefs, or being stuck in this system?”
walter It’s one of those things that can freeze you up if you spend too much
time thinking about it. My characters can be wiseasses. They can be a little lost, a little out of step with everything going on around them. But that also allows them to be more observant of paradoxes and ironies and of those moments in which the things that we strive for, and the things that we do, don’t connect. Or, to go back to systems, the things that the system’s supposed to do and what it actually does don’t align.
I think the kind of character I’m drawn to is someone who sees the cracks that other people don’t see, Brian Remy in The Zero being one example—he’s the only one aware of his own condition, which he comes to believe the rest of the world shares but just doesn’t recognize. I think the characters’ awareness of the absurdities around them is the main thing. And then there are obviously some surface things—that they don’t sleep, they’ve all lost an eye, they probably order the same drinks. They riff the way I like to riff. I love Marilynne Robinson’s answer when someone asked her if any of her characters were her and she said, “Oh, yes, all of them.” I think there’s that sense when you create these people that they’re extensions, hopefully not only of you, but partly of you.

S.L. You talked about fragmentation in Over Tumbled Graves, but there
was a different kind of fragmentation in The Zero. Did that fragmentation come early for you in the writing?

J.W. wr I had written a short story years ago called “Flashers, Floaters, and Vitreous Detachment.” In that story, there was an insane person who
saw streaks and lines and believed the streaks and lines were connecting people and buildings and ideas and things. I had that piece just sitting there forever. When I was at Ground Zero, we kept not finding bodies. We kept thinking we were going to find more bodies and we kept not finding them. The idea that these people were just gone, that they had been atomized, was hard to get your mind around. I kept thinking about that Maltese Falcon idea of disappearing and starting your life over. So I started mulling a novel about someone who disappears and starts life over.
More than any of the other books, that was a thematic book. There were all these things I wanted to say about the culture, about the way we reacted to September 11th, about the leadership at Ground Zero, about all those things that were bubbling around, and yet I couldn’t quite ever complete those thoughts. I couldn’t get my mind around what it was I was trying to say to myself. And I thought, If I wait for this, I will never get there. I sort of transferred my own confusion and inability to track and process to the character. And that felt right. I can’t remember the first time I wrote one of those sentences where I just ended it with a dash, but oh my God, it was the most freeing thing, realizing that you don’t have to write those transitions. Transitions suck. Transitions are almost always forced. Or if they’re not, then they take you—they transition—to a place you don’t want to go.

I had done some screenwriting at that point, and there’s an old saw in screenwriting that you want to begin a scene as late as possible and end it as soon as possible. And I thought, What if I end the scene way before anyone even knows what the scene is about? The freedom of that was a great discovery once I realized I could just bail out of scenes any time I wanted. Sometimes, the scene would accomplish what I thought it was going to, and other times, it would just hang there, a complete fragment. I was aware, all along, of the larger story I was telling, but the fragmentation kept it so fresh for me, because I was never sure how much of it I was going to reveal. I had almost two versions of the story. I had the full story, and I had this fragmented version I was telling. It made me a little crazy as a writer to be walking around with this kind of insane story that I’m telling myself in my head.

S.L. And that book was also about systems—

J.W. Part of it is that I’m writing in 2003 and we’re all gung ho to get into Iraq, and I’m writing a book that when I showed my wife, she said, “I think you’ll go to jail for this.” And my agent said, “I don’t think I can represent this book.” But I couldn’t stop working on it.
I went back to Kafka and kept drawing in my mind these lines between Kafka’s systems and the kind of overarching sense in Kafka’s work that the state is bearing down on him, on the individual. And in my mind, this was worse, because we were culpable. We were the system that was bearing down on us. We had a part in it by our inaction, by the fact that we kept electing George W. Bush. We were culpable in the surreal nature of our response to this action. We all knew that we weren’t really going to war because Iraq had gotten yellowcake uranium. We knew that wasn’t the reason. We just wanted to kick some ass. Maybe some of us put little “no war” signs in our windows. And I felt a little bit…I felt as if we’d all gone insane, as if the whole culture had gone a little bit insane. Maybe some of us were only a little insane, but it felt like such a big, important thing to be working on and writing and saying. And from a writer’s standpoint, it was thrilling to be dangling these scenes, and to be sort of nakedly saying things that I, as a younger writer, would not have had the courage to even try to say.