Internet predators, vicious Amazon reviews, and how Mitt Romney's smile inspired a novel

Matthew Thomas, Emily St. John Mandel, Dylan Landis, John Warner, and Lindsay Hunter talk about the writing process

Published September 11, 2014 5:40PM (EDT)

As always, autumn has yielded a bumper crop of new fiction. So I posed a series of questions--with a few verbal restrictions--to Matthew Thomas ("We Are Not Ourselves," a novel already out), Emily St. John Mandel ("Station Eleven," a novel available Sept. 9), Dylan Landis ("Rainey Royal," a novel available Sept. 9), John Warner, "Tough Day for the Army," stories available Sept. 15), and Lindsay Hunter ("Ugly Girls," a novel available Nov. 4).

Without summarizing the plot in any way, what would you say your novel is about?

THOMAS: The persistence of hope in the face of certain defeat; the refusal to despair; a brief moment of triumph; years spent chasing an idyll; in short, an alternate history of the New York Mets.

LANDIS: A girl in trouble named Rainey Royal. Also jazz, sex, cigarettes, New York, 1970s, girls and men, friendships and cruelty, art, and Saint Catherine of Bologna.

MANDEL: It’s about a traveling Shakespearean theatre company in a post-apocalyptic North America. It's also about friendship, memory, love, celebrity, our obsession with objects, oppressive dinner parties, comic books, and knife-throwing.

HUNTER: The "friendship" between two teenaged girls. Acting out of desperation. Nostalgia for something that never existed. The Internet as predator. The assumptions we make and accept as fact.

WARNER: Mankind is a pestilence, bent on destroying ourselves and others, but occasionally we break free from our monstrousness and achieve something like grace. Also has a talking monkey.

Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your novels?

HUNTER: My mother's yearbooks. 48 Hours Mystery. Keith Morrison. Fairy tales. The kind of heat you feel in August when you just get back into your car at 2:00 in the afternoon. The silence of waiting. Ugliness.

WARNER: "Slap Shot," "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," fraternity hazing, Mitt Romney’s smile, small town newspapers, the Double Jeopardy noise, crappy zoos.

MANDEL: Post-apocalyptic novels, a 2010 book tour on the Michigan lake shore, the 1918 flu, the New York Public Theater, an unsettling moment one night in Toronto when I was nineteen and just for a second all the lights on Yonge Street blinked out, the 2003 blackout in New York City, orchestral music.

LANDIS: Mean girls, biology, the language of jazz, specific pieces of art, collage, yearning, the language of seduction.

THOMAS: The scent of bitter almonds. The watery part of the world. Such wonderful shirts. Bernard is thinking of his biographer. Old father, old artificer. See the child.  These fragments I have shored against my ruins. I can’t go on, I’ll go on. The apparition of these faces in the crowd. Only connect. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your lives as you wrote this book?

LANDIS: Loss, death, and caregiving for my parents.

THOMAS: Sleepless nights, two a.m. feedings, growing pains, wailing, burping, babbling, unreasonability—and then my twin children were born.

MANDEL: Day job, book tour, disappointment, happiness, exhaustion. Constant work.

HUNTER: Pregnant. Summer. Winter. Basement. Loss. Change. Home. 

WARNER: Stories span 1997 to 2014: MFA, giving up writing, career (marketing research), first book, marriage, moving, second career (teaching), moving, begin editing McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, moving, second book, father died, grandmother died, father-in-law died, third book, fourth book, failed humor imprint (TOW Books), moving, novel published, novel failed in marketplace, moving, purchase of weed whacker.

What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your book by readers and/or reviewers?

MANDEL:  “Women’s fiction.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing books that are aimed specifically at women. But since I don’t actually write those books, it’s impossible to interpret that label as anything other than “this book was written by a girl.”

THOMAS: Unrelatable [sic], claustrophobic, overlong, boring

LANDIS: "Sometimes challenging."

HUNTER: Gross, hateful, nasty.

WARNER: This book is a little too fresh for any of that feedback, but Kirkus called my novel “smug.” An Amazon reader by the handle of “Harkius” said “No one should read this.” 

If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?

HUNTER: I would be the proprietor of an animal sanctuary, somewhere in the south. Or the owner/baker at a donut shop.

MANDEL: International diplomacy.

LANDIS: Visual artist.

THOMAS: Detective. I would have to change my last name to McNulty or Moreland for this fantasy to be complete.

WARNER: Drummer in a band big enough to play mid-sized theaters. Don’t want to be arena-level because then I’d be a degenerate drug addict and horrible person. Don’t want to play clubs because then I’d be poor. Basically, I want to be in Wilco. 

What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?

LANDIS: I write dialogue first; I can hear it, and for me it's the spine of a scene. Everything else needs work—plot, for God's sake, and structure.

MANDEL: I’m good at structuring books in intricate ways. I’d like to be better at character development.

WARNER: My biggest strength is my biggest curse in that I think I can write funny, but I also sometimes go for funny when there might’ve been another register that could’ve been more interesting. I’d like to be able to trust myself to write straight-up realism.

HUNTER: Precision. I'm good at choosing the right words, though my writing style is generally (and often purposefully) sloppy. I'd like to get those more in line with each other.

THOMAS: I think I can write an effective scene and populate it convincingly with objects and people, but I’d like to incorporate more of the contemporary idiom into my writing, which tends toward the atemporal, the austere. The ferocious vitality of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" comes to mind. Diaz has a wonderful ear and an even more wonderful imagination for what is possible in sentences—namely, anything he wants. His work pulses with the blood of living speech, mixing high and low diction and hitting the vein over and over. Every line of that book catches me by surprise, even when I know it’s coming.

How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?

LANDIS: I believe we could not work without such hubris, yet we must bury the hubris in order to work.

MANDEL: This isn’t something I agonize over. I’ve sold four novels, which seems to me to be empirical evidence that at least some people have an interest in what I have to say. I’ve never claimed that anyone should have any interest in what I have to say. I like to write. I would write whether anyone else read my work or not. I publish my books because, practically speaking, selling my writing allows me to spend more time writing. 

HUNTER: It keeps me awake at night. It keeps my heart racing all day long. Do I deserve this / am I good enough? No. Yes! No. It's why I have a hard time accepting compliments. I try to remember to focus on my family and my home. I try to remember who I really am.  

THOMAS: All I have to do is think back to last March, when no one but my wife and a few indulgent friends had read a word of my book.  Plus, I’m Irish by extraction. We’re not permitted to get a big head about anything. I’m not sure I do think anyone is interested in hearing what I have to say.

WARNER: My agent counseled against trying to publish this book. I just remember that and my friend “Harkius” whenever I feel myself outswelling my britches.

By Teddy Wayne

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