First off, for anyone who’s wondering, Austin rules. It’s very hard for us to not be in Austin right now. Honestly. As a result of all the awesomeness, we’re a tad behind on the posting. Real world beats virtual world. Sorry. It’s like super-rock breaking tiny, wimpy scissors.
JW: Oof, that’s a tough one. Kind of like asking a single mother which of the children she put up for adoption is the prettiest. I’ll just go ahead and say that this one is my favorite.
Fair enough. So, I’ve said before that we have the good fortune of knowing far too many really, really talented people. You’re certainly a superb example of that. The creativity and inspiration behind the stories you create are truly impressive. I’ve always wondered where novelists get their ideas. I mean, the idea behind this story is something you’ve devoted, what, four years of your life to? How did it or any of the others come about? Is it something that randomly pops into your head one day or more of an evolution? Usually the best ideas pop into my head when I’m slogging through the final revisions of whatever it is I’m currently working on; they start out as escapist fantasies, then slowly become actual flesh & blood projects, then over the course of three or four years turn into hellish drudgery from which I long to escape, and so on and so on, until eventually I get a real job.
I worked at Claire’s Boutique once in the mall. It was no good, man.
In 2005 you set out on a book tour down the Mississippi River in order to promote your last book,Canaan’s Tongue, which uses the river as a sort of spine to its story (NY Times article on the matter). Can you talk a little about that? What was it like to go from the non-stop New York life to what I assume was the rather relaxing, winding pace of river rafting? Were you well-received in the river towns where you did your readings?
It was pure delight, actually. Essentially, a two-week fishing and camping trip with a rotating roster of special guests—friends of mine along for the ride—that my publisher was somehow willing to pay for. We were received with genuine hospitality everywhere we ended up.
That trip actually ended a bit early because of Hurricane Katrina, right?It did, yep.
So god hates you?
I prefer to think that He/She was just working out some issues, and that we’re both in a more centered place in our relationship because of it.
I feel you. Word on the street is that you’re promotingLowboy with a similar idea, staging impromptu readings on the NYC Subway, which acts as a kind of shelter for your main character in the book. How’s that going? Are you still doing it? Should we look for you on a particular line? Do people think you’re totally nuts and try to give you quarters? I did it once, a few weeks ago, and it went so well that I’ve decided not to tempt fate any further. That said, if you see me on the subway at some point, please don’t hesitate to give me a quarter.
How did you go about researching for this character? I go about research in the standard, painfully boring way, and then, at some point, I cut the cord and actually start having some fun. My M.O. is basically to gather information assiduously until the magical moment when I suddenly feel comfortable making stuff up. Lowboy does have the one advantage, from a research standpoint, of being set in the present, in the town that I live in, which means that I was able to get a lot of my knowledge firsthand—by riding the subways, by visiting institutions, by interacting with schizophrenics directly, rather than simply reading about them.
I know you’ve said in the past that you felt you were writing your first two books as tributes to your parents—the first,The Right Hand of Sleep, used Austria as a sort of cultural point of reference, touching on your mother’s homeland; the second, Canaan’s Tongue, centering on the American south, providing a nod to your father’s heritage. Do you feel like this book, focusing so much on New York, is for you? Or is it something else altogether? I enjoyed writing this one the most, so in that sense, I suppose it was for me. I do finally feel as though I’ve caught up with myself, and written a book set in the time and place I live in. That was very different, and a lot of fun.
That’s nice. I like the idea of catching up with yourself literarily. So, I hear you’re “opening” for Vampire Weekend at Joe’s Pub in May as part of the critically acclaimedHappy Ending Music and Reading series, author Amanda Stern’s brainchild that pairs literary and musical talents. Are you excited? I am, actually. I don’t really understand what the VW haters are talking about. ‘Oxford Comma’ is a freaking great song. I also like the fact that VW aren’t trying to disguise the fact that they’re a bunch of preppy rich kids who went to an Ivy League school. Would everyone really rather that they pretend to be all edgy & gritty, like the Strokes?
I consider boat shoes very edgy, actually. I know Stern requires of the readers that they take a ‘public risk.’ Do you know what you’re doing? Can you tell us? Have you considered reading in the nude?…or maybe that’s been done.After giving the matter a great deal of thought, I’ve decided maybe it’s finally time for me to go public about my tattoo. Sorry, mom!
Being designers, we’re always paying attention to things that many might find trivial—wine labels, product photos, really bad logos, and book covers.Lowboy’s cover, featuring a drawing by your friend, graphic novelist Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Summer Blonde), is exceptionally cool in its minimalism. Are covers something you’ve given a lot of thought to in the past? I know, often, authors have little to no control over that sort of thing, but it seems like such an important thing. The first impression of your work for most people, so to speak.
I’m a bit of a book jacket fetishist, but as you rightly point out, authors don’t generally have much input regarding the design of their jackets—publisher’s tend to view them as meddlesome neurotics, and keep them at arm’s length, if possible. With Lowboy, though, I was lucky, in that my friendship with Adrian allowed me to collaborate with him much more than would otherwise have been possible. It was incredibly easy, just a pleasure from start to finish. Basically Adrian drew the illustration at lightning speed, and the font he threw up—intending it to be provisional—just worked so beautifully that we decided to keep it. I’d always hoped for something stark & simple, and that’s exactly what we ended up with. It probably won’t be that easy ever again.
Do you think you’d ever be into any of your work being translated into the film form? I hear people like movies. Less work. Oh, I’m into it, all right. I hear them Hollywood types throw dollars around like confetti.
Yay, movies. So, this last book is being published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. I don’t really know much about publishers, but I’ve heard those guys are pretty classy. Have you had a good experience working with them so far? They’ve been an absolute joy, corny as that sounds. Somehow they seem to have their priorities straight, even though that means they don’t rake in the dollars the way they could if they published even just a couple more vampire sex novels per annum. Come to think of it, actually, maybe I should write one of them vampire sex novels. It sounds like easy money.
Who are some other authors writing today that you’re impressed by, be them vampire sex novelists or not?Joshua Ferris, Orhan Pamuk, Wells Tower, Heather MacGowan, Kelly Link.
You’ve said in the past of heavy-weight champion and known insane dude, Mike Tyson, “That guy is a total pussy. I could take him down in the back alleys, Brooklyn-style.” We’re all a bit older and wiser now. Do you stand by that statement? Mike’s become a dear friend since that time, and I think he’d understand, if I repeated that statement (maybe a couple of times), that it was meant in good fun. He’s a big Vampire Weekend fan, actually.
Reconciliation is a beautiful thing.
Beyond promoting the new book and taking some much-needed time off, what do you have your sights set on for the near future?I’d like to spend some time in Key West, Florida. They have an Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest there in June that I might just take part in. I’ll have to start growing my beard pretty soon, though. Or a mustache, at least.
Dude, two months is nowhere NEAR enough time to grow a great white hunter beard. C’mon. Alright, we’re winding up, so time for the Quickfire round. Favorite band right now?Vampire Weekend, obvs!!! I’ve been cheating on them a bit with White Denim.
Man, it all comes back to Austin…. Favorite vegetarian restaurant in New York and why? The Bedouin Tent on Atlantic Ave. has meaty items, but I only ever get the hummus & tabouli platter. Does that count?
I do hear their falafel is kick ass. Weirdest habit, past or present? For a while, back there in the ‘90’s, I spent eight hours a day in a room with a bunch of people I didn’t have anything in common with, doing something that I didn’t see the point of. That was pretty damn weird.
Hm…Favorite fictional character ever? My dearest boyhood friend, Charlie Bumbles. We don’t see each other so much these days.
Very Sad. Did you see Watchmen? If so, what did you think? Didn’t see it. Didn’t want to.
Amen. Favorite cocktail? Sidecar.
If you ever played Dungeons & Dragons, what was your favorite race/class combination? I like to be a female elf with 18 charisma, and just stare at myself in a reflecting pool for hours & hours & hours.
So very hot, sir. Favorite pair of pants? I’m wearing ‘em. They’re red.
Biggest nemesis? Guitar Hero XIV.
Favorite Brooklyn hang out? Freddy’s bar on Dean Street and 6th Avenue. Right where the Nets stadium was supposed to go (thank you, recession!).
Would you be open to starting a beatbox-harmonica duo? I think we could take New York by storm.I’m sorry, there seems to be some sort of interference on the line. Could you repeat that, please?
~oddly, the line seems to go dead just then~