I’m getting down to the deadline wire for book four, spent yesterday giving a talk to fifty awesome eighth graders at the Gray New Gloucester Middle School in Maine (thanks to the ever-fabulous Michelle Guerard, AKA Ms. G)
took my daughter Grace on college tours last week, got my website updates finished, figured out my Southwest itinerary for the book tour that kicks off March 29th (Seattle, LA, Corte Madera, San Mateo, Houston, and Chester, Vermont) and generally turned into a giant ball of confusion–and therefore hope it’s okay that I reproduce here my answers for a questionnaire for the Powell’s Bookstore website that went up this week.
Describe your latest book/project/work.
Invisible Boy is my third crime novel chronicling the adventures of Madeline Dare, a foul-mouthed cynic with a dark and twisty worldview who still secretly yearns to be Batman when she grows up.
She’s now escaped both rust-belt Syracuse and the clutches of a gothically culty boarding school in the Berkshires, finally having clawed her way back to Manhattan. This is 1990 New York, pre-Giuliani and well before the Disneyfication of Times Square: it’s brutal and it’s sketchy and everything reeks of piss, but it’s still her spiritual homeland.
Her sense of relief is, of course, short-lived. She volunteers to clear brush in an abandoned Queens cemetery and discovers the skeleton of a brutally murdered three-year-old.
When she starts fighting for justice on this little boy’s behalf, Maddie gets slammed with the revelation of a gut-wrenching secret at the heart of her own fractured childhood, upending everything she thought she knew about her family.
I was tremendously honored that Tana French described Invisible as a book in which, “the victim isn’t just one person, it’s all the world’s broken and betrayed children, and the danger can never be safely locked away.”
1. If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
They can call it whatever they want, but if it’s going to be an authorized biography, I insist that the epigraph be what my Sarah Lawrence classmate Ptolemy Tompkins posted as his Facebook status last weekend:
“The first rule of Wacky Childhood Club is that you must always talk about Wacky Childhood Club.” –Emily Zinnemann
This is mostly because I feel that quotation affords me some blanket forgiveness for the number of times I’ve been slightly lit at cocktail parties and launched into the story of my ponytailed dad showing up at my boarding school
unannounced one year for Father’s Weekend
wearing a t-shirt that said “FRY BRAIN” in red iron-on velour letters (gift from his fellow short-order cooks at The Neptune’s Net in Malibu),
his Marine Corps blouse (tie-dyed by these opium-freak bicycle mechanics in Marin),
boot-cut Levis belted with a ten-speed tire innertube (see above, opium-freak bicycle mechanics), and a pair of Gokey double-bullhide snake-proof boots held together with duct tape
—whereupon he proceeded to do continual massive bonghits while sequestered in the guest bathroom of the headmaster’s cottage over the next forty-eight hours, in between catching up with all the other dads he hadn’t seen since his days working on the floor of the NYSE or discussing Atlas Shrugged at The Brook.
2. What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
Since the series I’m writing is hugely autobiographical and there’s about a twenty-year time lag between when what I’m describing happened and the point at which I’m actually writing about it, I’m now stuck having to portray the guy I just divorced as the kind of person I would voluntarily hang out with (an attempted mental contortion at which I always fail miserably for at least three drafts, to my editor’s increasing despair.)
This means I can’t say anything about my former spouse’s o’erweening latter-day Rush-Limbaugh fixation, his increasingly delusional claims that we should mistrust The New York Times while keeping the faith with bloggers who still seem to keep discovering briefcases full of “proof” that Saddam Hussein was meeting with Osama Bin Laden at every third falafel joint in Baghdad throughout the Nineties,
or his wearing of camo army hats around Berkeley despite the fact that when he had to register for the draft back in college he gave his name as “Siddhartha Gautama” and his address as “under the Bo tree.”
But I’m not bitter.
I do, however, henceforth plan to give the whole fictional dating thing a VERY wide berth.
3. Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Right now I am most totally loving the following from the sublime and lapidary Joshilyn Jackson’s forthcoming Backseat Saints:
Rose was the one who hooked Dana Ostrikes’s copy of Forever and took it to the Baskin-Robbins. With a smooth sleight of hand, she deposited it in Esther Jenkins’s purse. Esther was head dog in the small pack of homeschooled Pentecostal Holiness girls that marched through Fruiton’s tiny mall in formation, wearing a uniform of white Keds and long denim jumpers. The ends of their hair were ratty and fine. It was their baby hair, never once cut. They were a wedge of ignorance and virtue that pushed through the Fruiton Baptist kids in a viceless unit, except that every single one of them was addicted to orange-flavored baby aspirin. The weight of so much uncut hair gave them all near-constant headaches…. They probably had no more than an inkling about what went where before that book, but lucky for them, Dana had dogeared the sex parts.
At first glance it seems so effortless, but she’s made this entire rich world—complete and poignant, oddly but achingly familiar—unfold within what’s basically an aside. You never see any of these girls again (except for Rose), but so much of what the book is about resonates through that passage in this Joseph-Cornell-oblique kind of way. Right down to Rose’s hometown being almost “fruition,” but not.
The woman is a goddamn genius.
4. What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
My preferred shoes are an appallingly expensive pair of old-school men’s black Gucci loafers, purchased with a meaty swath of my first-ever royalty check. They’re social Kevlar/Kryptonite: I can wear them with my most blatantly ratty Goodwill-crap clothing and still strike a resounding chord of fear in even the most pompous Midtown maître d’,
which gladdens my tiny black heart.
As my alter-ego Madeline once said, “I wondered anew why some women were so desperate to wear ‘fuck-me’ shoes. I have long preferred ‘fuck-you’ shoes.”
If I’m going to pay the big bucks for footwear-subtext, I don’t want that subtext to be “OMG! I sooooo think I’m Sarah Jessica Parker!”
I want a shoe with gravitas, a shoe that says “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” in no uncertain terms.
5. Describe the best breakfast of your life.
I still yearn for the plate of red papaya chunks and large cup of killer-intense “kopi susu” (market-Indonesian for coffee with milk—literally “coffee with tits”) delivered free to our doorstep every morning at this funky Balinese guest house my sister Freya and I crashed in for two months in 1988. Seven bucks a night with a perpetual racket of geckos in the palm-frond eaves and a plethora of totally hot Swedish surfer dudes in batik sarongs: awesome.
Barring that, an H&H salt bagel bedizened with Barney Greengrass Nova certainly wouldn’t suck. Something wicked about the succulence of that salmon, in a “Modest Proposal” way.
6. Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I spent my junior year at Trinity College Dublin because I had a bit of a Joyce fetish during the better part of my misspent youth. It took me less than a week to comprehend why he split for the Continent. On the bright side, the Guinness was excellent and cheap, I read The Basketball Diaries a bazillion times,
and I can still speak Hebrew with a County Kerry accent (useful amusement to proffer when you’re the seder’s token Episcopalian chick.)
7. Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
Let’s just say that Mary McCarthy’s famously scathing summation of Lillian Hellman
(“Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the…”) in fact accurately describes all writers who’ve ever lived—not least Mary McCarthy.
Then again, I’m a writer and I’m writing this, which makes my assertion pretty much like that thing in the book of brainteasers from Stuckey’s you read in the station wagon’s way-back oubliette while driving across Iowa forever on summer vacation in third grade—the one where the generic cannibal chief in the hula skirt and Sioux headdress tells the pith-helmeted missionary dude that he’s allowed to make a single statement and if it’s a lie they’ll boil him to death in a big pot but if it’s the truth they’ll just shoot him with a poison dart.*
And can I just point out here that pursuing scenarios of this hypothetical ilk to their fullest ramifications can only ever end with a blinding ice-blue flash and a noxious bang before—hey presto!—there we all are swanning around on the bridge of the Enterprise in that dopy alternate universe where Spock has a beard. Again.
I mean, maybe if you want to know whether or not writers are liars—accomplished or otherwise—you should ask a former Lehman Brothers executive or a closeted Republican senator with “a wide stance”
or, God help you, a good tax lawyer. Anyone else, instead of a writer. Especially a writer on deadline.
Because we poets and prose-hounds lie like rugs. We lie like Astroturf and wall-to-wall carpeting. We lie like faux-hardwood laminate flooring from IKEA, for chrissakes. In our sleep.
Or do we?
Oh, the mendacity!
* The missionary said, “I will die by being boiled to death in a big pot” so they couldn’t actually kill him, since if that’s a true statement they had to take him out with a poisoned dart, which obviously makes what he said a total lie once they did…. And, yes, I only know that because I totally peeked at the answers printed upside down in the back of the book. I also suck at algebra.
Five Books That Best Explain What it Was Like Being a Little Kid at the Heart of the Counter-Culture in Late-Sixties California:
1. Living On Earth, by Alicia Bay Laurel
The commune handbook of choice, with tips on everything from why it’s important to use LOTS of incense when you’re cremating friends at home to optimal methods of organic delousing and surefire ways to craft weather-proof fashions out of second-hand army blankets and old tires. Bonus: a really good recipe for “Digger Bread.”
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
Nothing captures the mid-Nixonian zeitgeist like Thompson’s “wave speech” at the end of chapter eight, which reads in part:
[…]You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
3. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
Purportedly the diary of a fifteen-year-old girl who died of a drug overdose in the late Sixties, Go Ask Alice was my very favorite childhood read. I first raced through it when I was eight years old, and I’ve reread it an average of once a year since.
When I was a kid, the cool grownups all got stoned, only narcs wore ties, and Republicans were the people who drove down the freeway in their Cadillacs throwing just-emptied bourbon bottles out the window while they told jokes about poor people.
Alice totally got all of that, especially after she ran away to Haight-Ashbury.
Still today, I think of her as the big sister I never had—even though she was probably the pastiche of some snarky Williams guy working at Prentice-Hall, patched together from a few issues of Seventeen and some chick he sat next to at a Jefferson Airplane concert.
I don’t care. Alice is family.
4. A Child’s Garden of Grass, by Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene
From the original jacket copy:
“When you finish this book you will know all there is to know about the use of the weed from first joint to final effect.”
Includes two recipes for “Grass Tea”: the kind that makes you throw up, and the kind that doesn’t.
5. Be Here Now, by Ram Dass
“That’s it, then you’ll know, that’s the whole trip man, and you gotta get in there, in that state of knowing man, to be really free, but you cant think about it, because then you wont know.”
And here’s a bonus thingie… I remember being in the audience for this (my first and last time at Esalen–the whole hippie thing cured me young of any interest in public nudity):
Okay, guys… your assignment for today is to pick one of those seven questions above and throw me an answer, okay?
Back to hanging out with the arson investigator in Boulder in 1995 (fictionally). Please wish me luck!