Christopher Bollen is a writer who lives in New York City. He regularly writes about art, literature, and culture, and his first novel, Lightning People, will be published in September 2011. He is currently the Editor at Large at Interview Magazine.
We meet for coffee in Soho. He orders a salad that we are assured is “incredible.” We are reassured several times before it comes that it will be incredible. In the meantime, we sit down to talk about Lightning People, writing and being in New York.
CV: I was totally immersed in this book. I loved it. To the extent that I was reading it with a pencil in my hand, covering up the lines below so I wouldn’t skip ahead. I just don’t trust myself.
CB: Isn’t it weird that instinct to look at the next page, just for a few seconds?
CV: Yes! And the more I fight it, the more I do it.
CB: And then you become obsessed with it. I need to look now! And then you just allow yourself, and then your eyes go back to that page with a little bit of disappointment in yourself. It’s very weird.
CV: It is. So I gave myself no room to falter with Lightning People and covered it up.
CB: That’s great. I wanted it to be a little bit of a thriller in a way. You think a literary book is supposed to be about everything but the plot, but I’m such a fan of plot-based thrillers and mysteries, murder mysteries particularly, I love something that makes the pace go faster.
CV: Well it definitely did that. I read somewhere that you didn’t have an outline. You worked from a few plot points that kind of guided your way, but you didn’t sit down and outline this.
CB: I didn’t at all.
CV: Knowing how complex and interwoven it all is–how did you do that?
CB: I don’t know. The only thing I can say is that I’m writing a second book that I want to be a murder mystery. I’m starting, again, not knowing quite what the mystery is. But I thought, for this one I do need an outline, I do need to know exactly where I’m going. And then I realized, even in writing the first chapter, that you don’t really know your characters until you write them. I don’t. I know they’re going to be Type A or B or I have some ethereal vision of them, but I don’t know their particular quirks or characteristics until I write the line. If I like the line, I keep it. If I don’t like the line or it seems false to me, I cut it. I don’t really know how to make them go forward unless I know what comes of them while making them. I think it’s somehow ossifying if you go by an outline and you stick to it and there are no opportunities for huge detours.
CV: It felt to me as though you had lined up a bunch of dominoes going in a bunch of different directions and weren’t sure which ones were going to fall until you tipped over the first one. I don’t know if that’s how it felt to you.
CB: Totally. That’s how it felt to me. And it was always awkward at the beginning of writing the book, because I kept bringing in new characters and back story. And there was even more back story which I had to cut.
CV: I liked the back story.
CB: I’m actually a huge fan of back story. A lot of people think that back story really gets in the way of a book, but I always love setting people up, finding out their histories.
CV: Well you care about them so much more when you learn their histories. It feels like a balancing act of what holds the narrative back and how much you want people to care about the characters.
CB: It’s such a balancing act. I hate when you read a book and you feel like the characters have just entered the world along with you. I want to know that these people have already been damaged a little bit, been knocked around. No one comes down a staircase with no previous history, hasn’t already been wrecked a few times. But it was a little daunting when I was writing the first few chapters, because I didn’t know exactly how it was going to unfold. And I didn’t even think that some of the characters would plummet so far or that the body toll would be so high.
I think all of us who live in New York are so susceptible to a few bad turns. There is, I think, a constant fear of falling to a level where you can’t get back up. In New York you always feel like you’re just a few breaks away from epic disaster. New York is much more brutal in so many ways. There’s such a limited space for people that it’s not a really good place to fail and then mellow out and comfortably live. You are kind of brutally shoved out in front of everyone.
CV: It’s a very public place to fail.
His salad arrives. He thinks it looks like breakfast cereal.
CV: I kind of saw the whole book as framed on two opposing poles of chaos and order. There are the lightning strikes, that frame it from one end, which would suggest that everything is random and we’re all susceptible to chance. And there’s the Guiteau family history which unfolds along with the present-day story, suggesting the exact opposite, that a pattern can be made from anything, that there’s no such thing as coincidence. Do you ascribe to a particular camp?
CB: This is a great point. To be honest–except during air flights and medical scares–I really believe in absolute chaos as the controlling factor of our lives. That said, whenever there’s a medical scare or an airplane flight, I become a born-again Catholic. I constantly clutch the St. Christopher medal around my neck, appeal to some higher order that I thought was extinguished. You kind of assume in this time period, that no one believes in the predictive hand coming in and changing things. I was worried when I wrote the book that it would seem a little heavy-handed to even suggest that. And it is. The family history is a little over the top, but when you actually look for it, there are messages around us all the time, telling us that there is destiny or a higher power, that there are reasons for things. I do believe mostly in chaos. But I am susceptible to those ideas that things happen for a reason.
CV: There’s a scene in the book where two characters are having a conversation at a party and one of them is convinced of the imminence of a virtual reality. The other one dismisses that idea on the basis that ‘No one would do anything if it weren’t for the threat of death.’ Is that how you got the ball rolling as far as plot? Put this threat of death over pretty much everyone and then so much will go down…
CB: Well, it’s interesting. I don’t think of the book as a 9/11 novel, but I think it got branded as that. Which I don’t think is a good thing. But I do think ever since 9/11, those who live here are constantly living in this feeling of ‘At any moment, a bomb will go off,’ or at least, for years I think people felt that way, that at any moment something will happen. Death was introduced as an every day peril of the city. And before that, when New York was so much more dangerous, in the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, it was an every day peril. But I think that’s definitely the tenor, that’s it’s a very desperate place. Even Del, if she doesn’t get the green card, she leaves the country, which is like a death. Obviously death stalks this novel pretty heavily.
CV: You use some pretty beautiful words–not in the sense that they’re flowery, but in the sense that they’re creative and very precise. Your prose is very precise. Did it take you an eternity to write this? Did you spend hours on thesaurus.com?
CB: No, I try not to look up words, because it becomes too crutch-like. But it did take hours. I don’t write fast. Just like I don’t read fast. I actually read quite slowly and I write quite slowly. I do probably a paragraph and I reread it and reread it and reread it and then I go forward. Then I come back later and reread it and I change things. So it’s hard to know. I remember when I wrote certain scenes, but I probably rewrote them about 8 times. Everything was rewritten and rewritten and rewritten because I wanted it to be precise. I have this weird thing–I’m sure it could be diagnosed as something–but I don’t like to repeat words unless I want to repeat words. I actually write by sound more than I write by anything else. I think poetry is much more of an influence on me than journalism, in that regard.
CV: You were the editor of Interview for a long time.
CB: I’m Editor-at-large now. I was Editor-in-chief and then in 2010 I stepped back because I wanted to write this novel. I’m still heavily involved.
CV: You’ve interviewed people for a long time there. And you were in New York to write a novel. Did you see that as an entry point into fiction? A practice at studying people? Or was it just a job you were good at and enjoyed?
CB: Both, I think. When I graduated I wanted to do something in publishing. I certainly wasn’t ready to write a novel. I thought I was. I thought at any moment one would just sprout off of me. It didn’t. I couldn’t do it until I was thirty. I don’t think I was ready. All the time I regret not writing more in my twenties. I wrote a lot of pieces for magazines, but I didn’t write what I wanted to write. Part of me really regrets that, part of me realizes I just wasn’t ready to do it. But I did see these opportunities to interview people as character studies. Also, I was fascinated with certain people, as characters and as people. I think as a writer, you have to be fascinated with your characters. So it was, in a way, trying to unearth or pick over or understand the complexities.
CV: Did you see it that way when you started out or is that how you see it now in retrospect?
CB: I did see them as related. Some of them were just superheroes of mine, so I wanted to meet them. I actually think that can be very dangerous to do. Because, for one, the old saying that ‘Heroes don’t fall a little.’ But there comes a time when I think you have to let go of other people. I’m glad I did it, it was an amazing experience. But it might endear you too much to an older generation and not enough to your own. There’s something nice about not having that constant contact with your heroes that makes you go your own way and come up with your own voice. But I do think it was helpful in so many ways. And probably the best thing it ever did for me is it taught me how to write dialogue.
CV: I bet. Your dialogue is one of the most compelling parts of the novel. I was happy there was so much in it, because I was always excited when it got there.
CB: Some people think dialogue is very throw-away. That it’s the work of screenwriters, that it’s a different genre, or it’s bad. But I actually think you can get so much out of dialogue. I like how dialogue can overthrow the description of a character. They kind of take over their own identities then.
CV: Speaking of identities–you moved here from Ohio awhile ago. Had you always wanted to come to New York?
CB: I wanted to be a writer ever since I was very little. I wanted to be a mystery writer for many years. I think I believed all that stuff about the cliche of the writer in New York, how I needed to build up experiences. This is what 101 Creative Writing teachers teach you. I think that’s all just untrue. Obviously experiences are important, but it’s not everything. But then, maybe I did. I thought this was the smartest place to do it.
CV: So what took so long once you were here? Were you trying to write?
CB: I don’t know. I wrote a lot when I was at Columbia because I took a lot of classes for creative writing. And I wrote a lot of poetry. It’s all really embarrassing stuff now. But in my twenties I really went out a lot and lived it. I made a few attempts. Every year or so I would start off with high spirits for two weeks writing something. And it would just kind of fail or disappear. I was working so much and going out so much, I didn’t really have the discipline to stick with something like a novel. I should have written short stories or essays, but I just didn’t because I thought I needed to write a novel. I think you eventually get so sick of not producing enough that you hit that point where you think ‘Okay, I’m either not going to write anymore or I’m just going to do it.’
Unfortunately, the market is saturated with people looking for that youthful marketing strategy. I mean, if someone can write a novel at 22, they should, and that’s wonderful, but it shouldn’t disqualify those who need a little more time. I think there are a lot of young people feeling like they have to produce when they’re really young or else it’s not going to work. I felt that way. I watched every year slipped by… I remember when I turned 25 and I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m not gonna be a literary wunderkind.’ I always thought I was. That was the best part about turning thirty, I was suddenly like, ‘That didn’t happen and that’s fine.’ It was kind of freeing.
CV: That reminds me of the first time I got a B in high school and I realized I wasn’t going to be valedictorian. I was finally free to do school without an obsession with grades.
CB: Reality can be a really wonderful antidote to bullying yourself about your own dream. There’s this part at the end of my book where I tried to address that. I think Joseph says it, that we’re told that we have to fulfill these dreams or goals we made for ourselves at 18. And now a 34-year-old is still trying to live up to the idea of what life was at 18. But you don’t owe your 18-year-old self some fulfillment of these dreams. They’re not who you are anymore and you don’t have to be them. It’s amazing how committed we are to our own very immature ideas of what being an adult is.
CV: I feel like a lot of the book is about doing something because you think it should be done that way. Even the littlest details–people in New York wearing what they’re wearing or going where they’re going because it’s their impression of New York. Not necessarily because it’s what they want, but because it’s how they think it’s done here.
CB: You’re exactly right. New York gives you this set of ideals that you’re spending your whole time living up. As opposed to just living and finding your own place in it.
CV: Having come here from Kansas, I loved reading this book as an outsider. I thought you captured the city, in all of its highs and lows and glamour and grunge. I don’t know if you could have done that quite as well had you been from New York.
CB: I agree.
CV: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like it’s something you can only see having come from somewhere else.
CB: Completely. We’re so lucky. We get to come to New York as young adults and see it for the first time. Even a banal walk to work is filled with so much magic when you’re first here. Everything is so intoxicating and exotic and unfamiliar. There are a million worlds breaking all around you. I love that feeling and you get addicted to it, which is probably why I can’t live anywhere else. Which is upsetting, because eventually it does start to wear away, that excitement and thrill. It has to, I suppose. You can’t live in wonderment at age 70, maybe.
CV: Why do you write?
CB: There are a few reasons. I think that writers are very greedy about life. Our one life isn’t enough so we have to be constantly inventing these other realities to take part in. There’s almost this obsessive urge. Or perhaps it’s because we can’t handle our own reality that we have to escape to other ones. But I think it’s this obsession with actually having more lives.
CV: In the sense of immortality?
CB: There is some of that feeling, the sense that when you put something down on paper, it’s immortal. But really, I think you’re just fascinated by stories that you can’t live yourself. Also, it’s very hard for me to make sense of things when I’m speaking, so I do think it helps make sense of the world, to write it down. I think in so many different wheel-ways at once that writing is a really helpful way to cement it. Also I’m such an addictive personality that I need something to be obsessed with. I would probably be a herion addict if I didn’t write. I need an outlet for all of my urges and it does that perfectly.
CV: Well Fiction Addiction sounds perfect for you. I’m glad you’re coming.
CB: Exactly, it is like an addiction. And so is reading. There’s a high I get from reading something amazing that I don’t get from anything else. And writing. Although writing actually hurts like hell, I don’t think it feels good all the time.
CV: Does it ever feel good?
CB: I think it can feel good. I think most of the fun is in the doing rather than the finishing. When you feel like you’re contributing a great sentence or idea or character to the world, it feels great. It’s a mystery to me, why it’s an addiction. You get lost, but you also claim more of the world. It’s amazing.