David Goodwillie is the author of the acclaimed novel AMERICAN SUBVERSIVE. Hailed as “genuinely thrilling” by The New Yorker, and “a triumphant work of fiction” by the AP, it was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010, and a Vanity Fair and Publisher’s Weekly top ten Spring debut. He is also the author of the memoir SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME, for which he was named one of the “Best New Writers of 2006″ by members of the PEN American Center. Goodwillie writes about books for The Daily Beast, and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including New York, Men’s Health, Black Book, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and The New York Post. He has played professional baseball, worked as a private investigator, and been an expert at Sotheby’s auction house. A graduate of Kenyon College, he lives in New York City.
I enter Café Loup–late, as always–and find David patiently waiting with martini in hand. He claims he’s on a two-month martini kick. This month he likes the way plain vodka tastes. I think he’s drinking it because H.L. Mencken called it “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” It’s a cute french bistro in the West Village, with “hommes” and “femmes” on the bathroom doors and David’s book propped on a ledge in the corner. The place is, according to Goodwillie, an old literary haunt. Seems as good a place as any to grill him on writing, New York and American Subversive.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?
I always had a vague idea that I wanted to write. I always read voraciously. I have a lot of friends who are writers who did it since they were like six, and that wasn’t me at all. It seemed really difficult, so for the longest time I never did it, but I always had that feeling that I would eventually.
I came from a non-artsy family–both my parents were lawyers–but I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. I went to Kenyon College. I didn’t realize that I’d never really written anything. At Kenyon, I couldn’t get into any English classes–everybody goes there to be a novelist, so I was a history major and I played sports. Then I moved to New York and had a series of crazy jobs…
All of a sudden seven years had passed in New York. I’d written one article and nothing else. And I’d been going around town calling myself a writer. The totality of my writing career had been sitting at the bar at Cafe Loup reading The New Yorker and listening to other people talk about books. I had some money from the dot-com days, so I rented a room at the Chelsea Hotel–they had these old tiny maid’s quarters that were too small to rent as hotel rooms and there was this really amazing floor we were on (Rufus Wainwright was down the hall playing piano, Ethan Hawke was writing his book next door, great kind of Bohemian environment). So I sat down and thought ‘Well I don’t know how to write a novel yet and I don’t really have the confidence to, but I could write an interesting memoir about coming of age in the city.’
I also felt like I had a generational story to tell–about this generation I’m in now where nobody knows what they’re doing, even when they’re thirty years old. Nobody’s settled down, everybody’s wandering around ten years later than their parents did. So it was this episodic, job-by-job, coming of age story in New York called Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. It was an absurd book. You’re not supposed to write a book about trying to be a writer. It’s the worst book to write. And mine was 500 pages because I didn’t know how to write.
But you sold it.
Well I found out where the agents were, went out for their monthly cocktails and went up to this female agent sitting at the bar. I introduced myself, made such a fool of myself. Thought she took my manuscript just so I would get the hell out of there. But she called me back two days later, wanted to represent the book, be my agent–and she’s still my agent. But we cut about 200 pages so it was down to size. That was my memoir. It didn’t do very well, but it got great reviews and it got me into the writing world. Then I was like “Okay, I’m here, now I have to write a novel.” That was American Subversive. I tried to write a book that was as far away from me and my memoir as possible. The main character was everything that I haven’t been. I’ve always been attracted to writers that go and write a different book every time–Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan–that, to me, is one of the definitions of a literary writer.
So you always wanted to write a novel.
Yes. Even when I published a memoir, I had the distinct feeling–and I know a lot of people disagree with me–that I wasn’t quite there yet, that a novel for a writer is still the gold standard.
Is that the direction you want to continue in?
I still do some reporting and investigative writing, but novels are what I really love. So yeah. And American Subversive has been a lot more fun to tour with and talk about than the memoir. A novel, something you’ve created yourself, almost feels more worthwhile than the real thing.
It’s harder to write. For the very simple reason that you don’t have the story. You know, writing’s hard enough as it is, when you have the story, but when you don’t? It’s a real challenge. And more fun to write when it’s going well. In writing a memoir, the art comes by what you leave out, not what you put in. Even though a memoir is your story, a novel is wholly yours. It’s purely you in the book.
So where did the idea for American Subversive come from?
The novel was also a generational story, but in a political way. And it was also a direct result of the Iraq war. My generation was sitting on their asses not doing anything. But also, what could they do? And that feeling of helplessness, I wanted to play out in these two main characters. I wanted them to be char who were about the same age, one of whom cares too much about the world, Paige, and the other one who doesn’t give a shit about anything, lives in this bubble of downtown absurdity, all the stuff that can wrap you up in New York. I wanted those two to start at absolute opposite ends and bring them in to meet in the middle somehow–both in life and politically. So yes, it was very much a generational story as well, but a different kind of shiftlessness.
Your main character, Aidan, writes “We never believed in anything, which, as I write now, seems as good a generational epigraph as any.” Do you agree with him?
Yeah. Not because everybody just doesn’t give a shit, but because, if you do believe in something, how then do you change it? How, in this day and age, can one person make a difference?
Have you always been interested in radicalism?
Yes. Because, I think, my family was so completely non-radical until my mother ran off with another woman and became somewhat radicalized. So all of a sudden, instead of just living in a boring suburb of New York–Montclair, New Jersey, I was living in a household of radical lesbians. Turns out she wasn’t quite as radical as I imagined, but still, it interested me in it.
I also wanted to toy with the idea that people don’t really think about an issue unless it happens to them. The big example is Dick Cheney’s daughter being gay–he’s the most cons guy in the world and all of sudden he comes out for gay rights. If you stop waiting for stuff to happen to you and actually think about it on your own, I think it would be amazing how different the world would be. It could get rid of prejudices.
But I wanted to toy with that with Paige, too. It takes her brother’s death to open her eyes to who she is. Yes, she’s already very liberal and she works at a think tank and she’s already political, but she finds herself, eventually, through tragedy. It happens in politics all the time. Something has to happen to someone before they actually think about it.
Why do you write?
Because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I think. It’s endlessly challenging. It’s an absolutely absurd profession, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. And I’ve tried a lot of other things–office jobs, non-office jobs. Also, I get bored very quickly and I like the idea of being able to dive into a world for two or three years and then get out of it and go into another world. American Subversive was my political book and now I’m writing a love story that has nothing to do with politics at all.
Fun. Nice to do something radically different. Now that you’ve got your thriller out of the way. Or maybe that’s not the right word.
In literature, everything is pegged as very literary or a thriller and I tried to go right down the middle line. My publisher didn’t quite know how to market it, because everything gets pigeonholed. It’s too bad.
How do you feel about it being called a thriller?
Not that great. I’d like to call it a literary thriller, because it’s about the writing and it’s about ideas, but “thriller” sells books better than “literature” sells books. They thriller-ed up the cover with a big bull’s eye and a hot chick, but all the reviews treated it as literature. Hopefully you can tell a good story and also write a good book. Hopefully.