What’s up with the raft tour for your second novel? Was there any precedent for offbeat book tours like that? Or did you talk them into it at Knopf?
I’ve got nothing against wine and cheese, or parties, but a book tour is intended to sell books. I had the ridiculous notion that if I did something outlandish enough, people might pay attention to my novel. I’m not altogether sure whether it worked or not, but we sure had a great time on that little raft. It was like floating unhurriedly out to the ocean in your living room, surrounded by friends. The name of the raft was ‘Donuts’, after our favorite Brooklyn diner. I think I’d like to have ‘Donuts’ engraved on my tombstone. That trip was one of the few really good ideas I’ve ever had. Even the good folks at Knopf saw the light after a while.
How come Lowboy didn’t get a subway tour? Riding up and down the 4 train, selling copies in Union Square—it could have been fun…
I gave a few readings on the subway–I think one of them even got filmed–and that was more than enough. It’s one thing to float down the Old Muddy with a book in one hand and a beer in the other, and something altogether different to convince a carload of commuters that you’re not just an asshole with a megaphone.
What kind of research went into writing Lowboy? A lot of schizophrenia-related books are cited at the end. Did you spend any time with schizophrenics while writing this book, or do you know anyone who suffers from the disease? Or was most of the research you did reading about the illness?
I did any and every kind of research that I had an opportunity to do. One of the more questionable privileges of being a New Yorker is the near-constant availability of mentally ill people to interact with, especially on the subway. So yes, I did spend a fair amount of time with schizophrenics.
Did you do any writing on the subway?
I wrote the bulk of the first draft of Lowboy on the subway. The A, F and C trains mostly. And a bit on the G.
I take it you’ve been to the old City Hall subway station.
I have. It’s one of my favorite places in New York. Hopefully they’ll open it to visitors one day. Until then, the downtown 6 line turns around there. Just stay on the train and you’ll roll through it.
Where did the idea for Lowboy come from? It almost reads as an adventure novel tainted by illness. Did it start out as something very different than what it is now?
Someone pointed out that each of my novels feature a mentally ill character, which I’d never noticed before. I’m clearly drawn to the subject for some reason, but I’m not sure what that reason is. Why does Haruki Murakami write about disappearing lovers? I asked him that question once, and he nodded at me and smiled at me while I waited for him to answer. ‘Aren’t disappearing lovers interesting?’ he said finally.
How would you describe your relationship with New York City?
It’s very hard to form an objective judgment about the city that you live in, I think. Certainly New York is the city I’ve felt most at home in, but that has more to do with the fact that my friends are here than any other factor. New York is unconscionably expensive and regrettably self-obsessed. On the other hand, I sure like knishes and egg creams!
What are you working on now?
The book I’m writing now is turning out to be something of a comedy, which is scary to me. I’m not sure I’ll succeed, to be honest. It’s a multi-generational family saga about a family of crackpot physicists—but a playful, sort of (gulp) meta-fictional, darkly comic take on it all. It’s loosely based on my own family, which fortunately contains a bounty of crackpots.
Which authors most inspire you or have most shaped your writing style?
I’ve been lucky enough to meet, or exchange letters with, a number of my literary heroes, and it’s unquestionably one of the very best things about my job. It’s also been profoundly important for my development as a writer–there are things I learned from Haruki Murakami, for example, or Shirley Hazzard, or Elfriede Jelinek, that have helped me to avoid a lot of pitfalls that can befall a writer at the beginning of the his or her career. Unfortunately, I’ve managed to find other pitfalls.
You started an MFA in poetry from NYU. What swayed you toward fiction?
That’s easy. I was much better at it. My poems were all about childhood and breakups. I hate poems about childhood and breakups.
Why do you write?
I have no idea, to be honest. It passes the time. I’ve also noticed that although horrible things happen in the books that I write, the horribleness doesn’t depress me or terrify me, for some reason. I suppose that’s because I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I’m in control of the situation.