Richard Powers letter about ‘The White City,’ circa 2003

I was recently at home in Chicago and came across an email I received from the extraordinary encyclopedic novelist Richard Powers. I forget, exactly, but I think I emailed him cold out of the blue, to ask if he’d blurb my then-forthcoming first novel, The White City. I also wrote to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, but that’s another story for another time.

Richard was kind enough to write back, even if he wouldn’t officially blurb the book, and we did an interview together a couple years later, which appeared in The Believer and The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. Since enough time has passed, now, and not to toot the book’s horn, I wanted to share a bit of what he said in the correspondence dated September 30, 2003:

I spent the weekend reading through your finished work. You have written a very gripping story with some remarkably chilling scenes. What begins as a realistic, mimetic fiction gradually changes, by degree, against that remarkable historical backdrop that you portray so adeptly, into a resonant allegory of light and darkness, enlightenment versus degradation, the public glory and private horror of humankind. It’s a terrific set of images and events, very atmospherically depicted. I wish you all the critical success and many readers that your well-spun tale deserves.

Unfortunately, a certain other book written about the same subject hogged all the spotlight, and the novel didn’t get much attention, critical or otherwise. But the approval from one of my writer-heroes still brings a chill up my spine. So, all you aspiring writers out there, don’t hesitate reaching out to your heroes–they might write back.


The Rumpus Interview w/ David Mitchell

The Rumpus has an interview I did with the brilliant British novelist David Mitchell. Read it here.

After the interview, he pulled a slim volume from his rucksack and read me his favorite poem in the world, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright.

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

About the poem Mitchell said,”It’s quite possibly impossible to say what’s transcendent about the transcendent, because that’s why it’s transcendent. I could spend eight hundred words why that poems gives me goose bumps every time I read it, but the ambiguity of the last line—that he has and he hasn’t wasted his life, because he realizes it, at least—I’ve felt that too, but I could never have said it. It reduces you to bumbling, stumbling inarticulacy.”

More about the poem: “I gave a lecture once on the imagination at the University of Leuven in Belgium, at which the mayor of the city and the British and Japanese ambassadors were all present. Without giving them any warning, I invited them up onstage to read from three poems in their own languages about the imagination, and this was the poem I made the British ambassador read.”

“You made the British ambassador say, out loud, in public, ‘I have wasted my life’?”

“It was my finest hour.”

On Reality & Its Discontents

Quite possibly the most brazenly insubordinate and thought-provoking book I have read since Walter Benjamin‘s landmark essay “The Work of Art In the Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” is David Shields’s highly hyped “manifesto,” Reality Hunger. (Inverted sentence structure intended, BTW.)

I don’t know if I am yet prepared to follow Shields into the novels-are-not-really-novels wilderness, but I do share his frustration with the reading and writing of fiction nowadays. This frustration, it seems, is infectious: see Zadie Smith‘s bracing Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, in which she questions the purpose of the novelist in today’s world.

As Shields has it,

[Writing fiction] feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in a costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody.


Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real.

and even

I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.

A deserved slap to the side of the faces of storytellers, perhaps. A conversation starter, at least.

What is more real? So-called nonfiction (“reality”) or so-called novels (“imagination”)? What is the relationship between reality and the imagination? Why would anyone read–or, for that matter, write–novels in this day an age, when oftentimes the reading public will gravitate toward the nonfiction tome over the novel? These are trenchant, age-old questions that harken back to that perennial candidate for the first novel ever, Don Quixote. For me, the fiction/nonfiction debate (“throwdown”?) strikes a personal chord. It’s no secret my first novel came out in the overwrought shadow of that other book about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and, as Shields and Smith would have it, it’s also no secret readers devoured the nonfictional version of the story with more ferocity than they did the fictional version. (I don’t mean to imply my book is any better than the other, I-still-cannot-bear-to-utter-its-name book.)

As I feverishly read Reality Hunger–and, earlier today, a frolicsome chat with Shields over at The Millions–I was frequently reminded of something Richard Powers said to me in our Believer interview:

A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

As I’m once again lost at sea with a longer fictional project, I sure hope he’s right.

Richard Price

Originally published in The BelieverMay 2008.

Richard Price published his first novel, The Wanderers, in 1974, when he was just twenty-four years old. With his youth, his floppy, Pacino-esque mane, and his schizoid deadpan dialogue, Price was an instant lit “it” boy. Price continued to publish novels (Bloodbrothers;Ladies’ Man; The Breaks), but for the most part he stuck with screenplays, writing The Color of Money (“The ball rolls funny for everyone, kiddo”) and Sea of Love (“Come the wet ass hour, I’m everybody’s daddy!”). He even scripted the Scorsese-directed Michael Jackson video for “Bad.”

In 1992, Price published Clockers, a massive, self-conscious, and wry page-turner set in the fictional slums of Dempsy, New Jersey. Here was something new: a novel about life in the projects, told from the perspective of both sides of the law, written by an Ivy League–educated Jew from the Bronx. Clockers landed Price on a memorable two-part special edition of Nightline in which the writer escorted Ted Koppel to the Jersey City projects where, as research for the novel, Price had hung out with cops and coke dealers—a dangerous endeavor for any writer, even one who cut his teeth on the streets. “I got out of the car and I heard, ‘He’s a cop!’” Price said of that time. “I thought, Oh, oh. This is it. I have two daughters and I’ve finally gone too far.”

Price followed Clockers with two more massive books, Freedomland and Samaritan—a kind of straight-from-the-streets trilogy totaling 1,673 pages, set almost entirely in Dempsy. Since then, aside from writing a few teleplays for The Wire, Price has kept busy researching a new novel. Lush Life, out earlier this year, contains some of Price’s most poetic and emotional writing to date. Now fifty-eight, he says the book caused him to look in the mirror and see what’s what as he slips deeper into middle age. “There’s nothing worse than an aging enfant terrible,” he told me.

I met with Price at noon on a winter day, in his spacious townhouse located on a noisy street near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. When he opened the bright red front door, he poked his head out, looked right, looked left, scoping out the street scene before chinning me inside.

We talked for two and a half hours straight, sitting side by side on a lumpy sofa in his office, near a wall-to-wall filing cabinet. When I asked after the contents of the drawers, Richard rolled his eyes. “Just some crap,” he said.


ALEC MICHOD: I’ve heard you call place a third character.

RICHARD PRICE: It depends. For me—for this book—the Lower East Side is the main character. The whole point was: how do I write about the Lower East Side in a way that hasn’t been done before? I mean, you can’t write about it historically. It’s probably the most well-documented literary-historical neighborhood in the world. Guys got off the boat, the first thing they did was write a novel about getting off the boat. You can’t top Henry Roth. And half the pulpy gangster movies from the ’40s and ’50s were based on these “shocking” Lower East Side novels about tough Jews, tough Italians from Essex Street or Delancey or Mulberry. I mean, that place has been stomped on. But the way it is now—it’s like nobody really has written about the whole phenomenon of the last ten years or so.

AM: Did you run around with a lot of cops for Lush Life?

RP: I always run around with a lot of cops, but I run around with everybody. I hung out with a lot of restaurant people, a lot of people in the housing projects, a lot of community-outreach people. Basically I did what I usually do—I just hung out with whoever would hang out with me.

I mean, I don’t like or dislike cops. I’m not pro–law and order. I’m not Republican. I’m not a gun buff. I’m not any of that shit. What I like is what I can see when I’m with cops, which is something you’d never be able to see if you weren’t with cops. It’s kind of like a backstage pass for the greatest show on earth.

AM: So you just go down there, to the Lower East Side?

RP: Yeah, without agenda. I don’t have a list of questions. I don’t have a goal. I just go down there and trust in osmosis. I don’t even know what questions to ask, I don’t even know what I don’t know until I see this, and then I go, Wow, I didn’t know that. What’s that about?

Go to Ludlow Street. Go to Rivington Street. This is where clubs are. This is where you’ll go into a coffee shop and you’ll see people just like you pounding on their laptops, working on their maverick entrepreneur proposal or their short story. This is the place for “us.” And then the “us” keeps moving farther out, because the real estate catches on to the “us”-ness. You know, you moved to Williamsburg ten years ago, now you can’t afford Williamsburg so you go to Red Hook, and then you can’t afford Red Hook—pretty soon you’re going to be in the ocean. It’s like the artists go in there first because it’s a beat-down neighborhood and you can get dirt-cheap housing. Then the artist community starts to grow. All of a sudden there’s a few places where you can get health food or a cappuccino or swap your paintings for a bar tab. More people come. More business comes. And then here come the developers. Real estate shadows art.

AM: Is that what you always do when you’re between novels, hang out somewhere in the hopes of discovering a story?

RP: Well, I write scripts too. I write The Wire. But right now I’m not writing anything, ’cause of the strike. But yeah, that’s what I do. Basically, I like hanging out and I don’t like writing, and by hanging out I don’t mean socially hanging out. I like to soak stuff up. My first four novels were sort of autobiographical, and I was so fucking bored. I mean, what am I going to write about next? What I had for breakfast? I can’t write this, I can’t read this.

And then I ran into screenplay work, and screenplay work forced me to get out of myself, because now you’re writing about pool hustlers. That’s what the story demands. I don’t know about pool hustlers. Well, go out and learn about it. And I had to go down to Kentucky and Alabama and places where pool tournaments were, and I discovered that I could learn about the world, and that talent and personal experience are not Siamese twins. You can take your talent and go off and learn something, and then you can write about it as well as if not better than the stuff you know from personal experience. So, I got kind of hooked on going out. Going out. Going out. Whatever you write is autobiography, because every kind of character hits a crossroad and has to make a choice in life, and that choice is informed by your sensibilities and your sensibilities evolved out of your life. So it’s sort of writing about yourself without the self-consciousness.

I have to be a little intimidated by what I’m writing about. I have to feel a little bit like I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can master this, I don’t think I can get under the skin of this, because when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table because you’re not sure you can do it unless you bust your balls and really, really get into it. Terror keeps you slender. I need a sense of awe. Oh, shit! I can’t believe I just saw that! But then what do you do with what you saw? That’s the bottom line. That’s the novel.

AM: You mentioned that you don’t like writing.

RP: I find it incredibly anxiety-producing, and I get incredibly antsy. I get ADD, like,instantly. If I can, I’ll put off starting for months. If I’m hanging out on the Lower East Side, I convince myself I don’t know enough yet, whereas all I’m really saying is I don’t want to start. The most difficult thing is making the transition between hanging out and writing the first sentence of the novel.


AM: Writing both novels and screenplays like you do, I imagine it can leave you a little scatterbrained.

RP: Oh, well, I only do one at a time. They’re like different rhythms, different ways of thinking. With screenplays, there’s no writing, there’s no author—it’s just dialogue and stage direction—a big memo. Writing novels is four-dimensional. And if you do both at the same time, they’re both going to get fucked up. I think the best novelists make the worst screenwriters, and the best screenwriters make the worst novelists, because the requirements are so different. I try to write a screenplay like a screenwriter, not a novelist. But the problem is my instincts are novelistic, so my screenplays always go on too long, and they’re all, like, dialogue-heavy. I’m not a filmmaker, I’m a writer. I always go overboard in screenplays.

AM: You’ve mentioned the Lower East Side as being a ghost town, and you talked about all the history there, the ghosts. Were you ever tempted to write a historical novel?

RP: It’s just too much work. I mean, how did they hold their knives on Rivington Street a hundred years ago? How did they fold their napkins? What was the etiquette in communal toilets? It’s just too much stuff. I’d have to learn everything—like a baby has to learn everything. It would never get done.

AM: Do you see your work as particularly urban, written in the shadow of the great urban writers?

RP: All I can tell you is the writers, the two or three urban writers who inspired me. Hubert Selby, Last Exit to Brooklyn. It’s a book that’s totally stylized. People were so overwhelmed by the material, what was lost was that book was written in a bebop style. It’s written like a jazz riff. That thing was crackling! It’s like John Coltrane wrote that book. Then I’d say Richard Wright, Native Son, and James Baldwin. I responded to a lot of the earlier African American literature because it was grounded in social realism. But also Henry Miller. You don’t normally think about him as an urban writer.

AM: Well, he was hanging out in Paris every day.

RP: Yeah, sometimes people who influence you are not people who are obvious, because you don’t really write like them, but there was something they did that made you crazy and you can’t forget it. Henry Miller had that effect on me, being this great adman for himself—like, “I have the most enviable life, I don’t have a pot to piss in but I’m fucking everything that moves. I don’t have to answer to anybody.” That’s very seductive to a young writer living at home… and when I was just coming out of college, and I was working in the post office, which is just the most droning world of all worlds—you’re just sitting there in this giant Dickensian… you want to die and it’s like the bureaucracy from hell—and I was just readingTropic of Cancer, just sitting on the main steps of the main post office right there on Thirty-fourth Street, and in the book there was a passage in which Miller had to deliver a package to Brooklyn, and he was thinking two things: I can either go to Brooklyn and deliver the package, or I can screw it, go to Paris. I mean, sign me up.

AM: What are you reading now? You’re a busy guy, you write screenplays, you write forThe Wire, and your novels take up years of your life—do you still have experiences like that when you’re reading?

RP: Yeah. Now it’s more like I’ll read stuff and it’s like, Wow, man, if I’d read that when I was younger, this would’ve flipped me out. Now all I do is enjoy it. But I’m past the part of being formed. I’m already formed. I think timing is really important. If you read a book at the right time in your life, it’s the book of Revelation. But if you read a book at the wrong time, it’s like… so what. Like, if you read Catcher in the Rye when you’re twenty-five, it’s whatever. But if you read it when you’re fourteen, it’s like Jesus came down and slapped you. You know, having gone to public schools in the Bronx, the problem—which I’m sure is endemic of public schools everywhere—is the canon, the public-school canon. You read what you expect to read, but a lot of times you’re reading stuff and you’re not ready for it. I had to read Pride and Prejudice when I was thirteen, and it was, like, the most boring thing in my life. But on my own I read Last Exit to Brooklyn and it was like, Oh my God! Or I read transcripts of Lenny Bruce’s comedy routines, and it was like the sun coming through. It all depends when you read it.

AM: When you’re writing, I imagine you pacing around, talking to yourself, acting out your dialogue.…

RP: Yeah, that’s very funny. Basically I do improv with myself—that’s how I get my dialogue. Sometimes I’ll do it quietly, other times I’ll be mouthing it. And I used to have a loft on Great Jones and Broadway, right next to Tower Records. We got that loft a month before Tower Records opened, so we got it for a song, and then it blew up, that whole NoHo thing. But it was, like, a pretty deserted area. Anyway, so we had that loft, and I rigged myself up this office, and my daughter was four years old, five years old, and you know how they have playdates? Well, I was in my office—I think I was writing Clockers—so I’m sitting there going, “Fuck you, motherfucker, I’ll fuck you up, I’m-a fuck your ass shut.” And I look up and there’s my daughter with her little playdate, this other five-year-old girl, and they’re holding hands, they’re gripping each other’s hands, with their mouths like [mouth in O], and I’m like, “Hi there…” The next day, I got an office in the Flatiron Building. Can you imagine a five-year-old girl going home and going, “Mommy, what does ‘fuck your ass shut’ mean?”

AM: Wow. Yeah. That’s one thing about your dialogue which isn’t always pointed out—it’s really fucking funny.

RP: I think that all good dialogue is funny. And it’s not funny by design, it’s just funny because anything that’s dead-on is funny—it’s in the nature of dead-on-ness to contain wit. You look at The Wire, and some of that shit is just like grindingly, monotonously detailed, but when you nail shoptalk, there’s a certain singing quality that borders—it’s not comedy, it’s not humor as such, but there’s a certain joy in just, like, bang!

Did you read Tree of Smoke? I thought that book had the best dialogue. I didn’t think there was one uninteresting line of dialogue in that book. It was so sardonic. Now, I don’t particularly think of that book as a funny book, but that dialogue was a scream. And it was a scream just by virtue of having that dead-on quality.

AM: How do you know if you’re just talking to yourself or actually, like, channeling a character?

RP: I’ll tell you another book I just read that I thought was really good was Then We Came to the End. I never read a book that so captured the American office culture. The book was about generic middle-class work. Somehow he made it riveting—these long-winded bull sessions they had, the stuff they talked about. It was great dialogue. And it was funny without being funny. It was just how people talk. How they kill time. The art of verbal thumb twiddling.

AM: A lot of people read it, I think, in the shadow of The Office, that TV show?

RP: Yeah, but The Office is different. The Office is mannered hyperrealism. It’s sculpted. It’s using all the gimmicks of documentary to make something that’s very scripted look very “captured.”

AM: Do you watch a lot of TV?

RP: I’m actually supposed to do a pilot for FX, but obviously I can’t do it now because of the strike. But it’s in the hopper. So, I mean, just writing a pilot’s nothing—it’s sixty pages, they might or might not do it, and you don’t get as much money as a screenplay, but you don’t work as hard. And TV is structured in steps, so it’s not like you kill yourself on a script—seventeen drafts, and then they don’t do it. You do a pilot, you do a second pass, and then they say we’re going to shoot it or we’re not going to shoot it. It’s like buying a lottery ticket. Because with a big-ticket film director, they have fifteen projects they’re cultivating, and they can only do one at a time and each one takes two years of their life, so you got to know going in, OK, I’m going to spend a year of my life writing something that odds are won’t get made. That’s a freaky thing, and it gets freakier the older you get.


AM: How do you pick your non-novel projects?

RP: The allure of screenwriting is that it’s the antithesis of writing a novel. When you’re at your desk, it’s just you all day. Whereas screenwriting, there’s a bunch of people, and you have to go and you actually have to say good morning to people and you actually have to make sure your dick is inside your pants. The thing about Lush Life is—thank God it’s finally done, I mean, four years of banging my head against the wall, I was really miserable—but every word is mine, it’s all mine—all the praise, all the blame.

AM: Do you continue to write novels out of some kind of moral propulsion?

RP: I write novels because it’s what I do. I’m a novelist. I always consider myself a novelist. And finding my story is like finding love, falling in love. That’s why it takes me forever to find the story I want to write, ’cause it’s a little bit like, OK, I need to be in love.

AM: Do you wake up every morning and write right away?

RP: It depends. It depends if there’s anybody waiting for it. If there’s not anybody waiting for it, I can get slack. That’s also the good thing about screenwriting, is that there are other people involved. If you’re writing a novel, once you sign a contract and have a couple years to write it, that’s it. You’re on your own. You can have cobwebs, you can look like Miss Haversham’s wedding cake before anybody gives a shit.

AM: Yeah, your editor on Clockers—you used to call him every day, right?

RP: Every day. I was shameless. I had been out of fiction writing for eight years because I was doing screenplays, and the problem was I had an editor that would put up with that shit. He was extremely dedicated. He would leave his house at four in the morning, get into Grand Central station at six in the morning, and sit there, surrounded by sleeping homeless people, to work on Clockers so he could have a chapter at nine o’clock to give me to rewrite. Then at nine o’clock he could do what he also did, which was be editor in chief of a publishing company. He was just insanely dedicated. And he made me feel like, well, if he’s breaking his balls doing this, the least I can do is break my balls, too. And I did. But I don’t know why he put up with this. I would read to him, every day. Basically, what an editor does with a writer is handle them. Whatever they think it’s going to take for this writer to come to the wordsThe End of a draft so that they, the editor, can actually do what they get paid for, which is edit. So in order for them to get to the point where they can do their job they will tell you everything you want to hear if they think it will keep you moving forward, because all this reading to them on the phone, stuff like that? It was just psychiatric nursing. “Ah, that’s great, that’s great, yeah, keep going with that.” I was like a lunatic, while he’s running five different things from his office.

I mean, with Clockers, I spent a year hanging out, a year working on the first draft, until I had 1,100 pages but no ending, then he took it, then he said, Well, we need to go through this on a whole bunch of different levels. First of all, sentence structure, then character development, then the shape of the story. It wasn’t like I was Raymond Carver and he was Gordon Lish or anything. It was like, All right, man, let’s get the machete. Let’s tear it down. Then let’s build it back up. Let’s go.

AM: Is that what happened with your new book? You just got it out and then worked with it?

RP: With this book, I saved the editor for the end, but when I had to turn it in, it wasn’t a submission, it was an intervention. He had to come to the house and it was there on my computer and he had to sit next to me and talk very softly, like, “Come on, just push the send button, just push the send button,” and I’m like, “But I don’t understand the transition between the cop and the synagogue….” “Oh, that’s OK, we’ll work on it, come on, just push the send button.”

I mean, I remember when I was young, in my twenties, I had Richard Yates as a teacher. He’d published Revolutionary Road in 1960 or something like that, and this was 1974. And he was living out on Staten Island—and, um, we started out, we had pretty rough encounters, because I had just published The Wanderers, and I was the flavor of the month, and I was also twenty-four to his forty-eight and he did not like that. But we straightened things out and became really good friends after that.

AM: How did that happen?

RP: I just went up to him after one class where he was really going after me, “Oh, so you’re our billion-dollar bonus baby.” He says, “Well, I’d like to do a writing exercise. You’ll probably think this is Mickey Mouse, Price.” And I said, “What?” And then he did his thing, and he looked at me and he said, “Pretty Mickey Mouse, right, Price?” And I said, “No, not at all.” And he said, “Oh, good, thank you.” And after class I said, “Look, I think you got a problem with me. I don’t know you. I think you’re taking stuff out of me and I’m coming in here, I’m paying, and if you want, I’ll transfer to another class.” And he completely backpedaled, because he was an incredibly kind and generous man, at heart—and then we started going to the West End bar after every class. It was 1974, I was twenty-four years old, and I had never even heard of Revolutionary Road, and then he left Columbia and publishedDisturbing the Peace the next year, and I was like, Wow, this is really good. And then they reissued Revolutionary Road, and I finally read it and I was mortified. I couldn’t believe I knew this guy, had him as a teacher, and I wasn’t even curious enough to read his stuff.

But I do remember one thing he said to me, he said, “You doing a lot of movie stuff, you doing a lot of Hollywood stuff?” And I said, “Well, actually, yeah, I got offers.” He said, “Yeah, I had offers once, too. Now I just feel like at this point in my life I don’t have time for that.” When he said that, I was like, What the fuck are you talking about? But that’s the way I feel now. I’m fifty-eight. I don’t want to waste time, I don’t want to waste a whole year. I don’t care how much they pay me, I’m not spending a whole life working on something nobody’s going to see. I’m not going to spend my time coming up with this guy said this thing and that guy said that thing then this happens…. And none of it ever sees the light of day. You can do that in your twenties and thirties because you can get your payday and you’re happy, but the older you get, the more careful you want to be with what you commit to. You want to make sure it’s something that’s going to go all the way.

Richard Powers

Originally published in The Believer, February 2007; reprinted in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

The enigmatic and prodigious brainiac novelist Richard Powers tries to avoid flying, so when it comes time to visit his mother in Arizona, as he does at least once a year, he sometimes drives, normally overnight, from his home in central Illinois. Making his annual trek seven years ago, Powers was driving through central Nebraska near sunset when he became captivated not by another Gas ’n Go roadside attraction, but by a carpet of sandhill cranes, three feet tall, spreading in all directions over a barren field alongside Interstate 80. “I thought I was hallucinating from highway hypnosis,” he says now, “and I almost drove off the road.”

The Echo Maker, which just won this year’s National Book Award, tells the story of Mark Schluter, a twenty-seven-year-old meatpacker whose truck careers off an “arrow-straight” Nebraskan country road into a ditch on the banks of the Platte River. Mark recovers slowly from a fourteen-day coma only to learn later that he suffers from Capgras syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that leads him to believe that the woman who visits him every day in his hospital room claiming to be his sister Karin is, in fact, an impostor. The only person Mark seems to believe, for a while at least, is the famous neurologist and best-selling author Gerald Weber, whom Karin convinces to fly to the flatland to examine her brother. As Mark (kind of) gets better, Weber begins to disintegrate. It’s highly intricate and complex, but Powers juggles his manifold narrative threads with ease—as much a philosophical meditation on the mysteries of the brain as an emotional plea about the environment. Best of all, The Echo Maker’s a page-turner that finds its forty-nine-year-old creator as comfortable in the trenches of neuroscience as he’s previously been writing about molecular biology (in The Gold Bug Variations), artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2), and virtual reality (Plowing the Dark).

I first met Richard Powers in the summer of 1998 at a bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois, which happens to be the hometown of Ernest Hemingway and not far from where Powers was born. At the time, he was on the first book tour of his career, in support of his novel Gain. Though never a recluse in the Pynchon vein, Powers hadn’t done much press and rarely granted interviews for his first five novels. In fact, after the publication of his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, he moved to the Netherlands to write his next two books; his fourth book was written while in residence at the University of Cambridge. I don’t know what I expected, but it probably had something to do with disheveled clothing and unkempt hair—and almost certainly a stammer. The real Richard Powers, however, was a charming and amiable, smartly dressed fellow who spoke in person as he wrote in prose—in beautiful, intricate sentences, paragraphs at a time.

These days, Rick’s a professor at his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Because of his academic commitments—or maybe because he’s newly married and perfectly at home in Champaign-Urbana—Powers didn’t tour in support of The Echo Maker, so this interview was conducted almost entirely via email, one question at a time, starting in mid-July. Which, after all, seems appropriate, since Rick wrote The Echo Maker on a tablet PC using voice recognition software. “I’ve always wanted the freedom to be completely disembodied when I’m writing,” he has said, “to feel as if I’m in a pure compositional state.”

ALEC MICHOD: The first thing that struck me reading The Echo Maker was that it’s filled with a lot of high-level neuroscience, yet the sentences never feel overburdened by the science behind the story. How did you resist the urge to cram the book with all your research?

RICHARD POWERS: Since The Echo Maker is about the intuitive and emotional foundation of cognition, I’m especially pleased to hear that the book’s intellect and emotion felt fused to you. We often assume that novels of ideas and novels of character are mutually exclusive. My entire writing life, I’ve wanted to suggest that all novels are to some degree both and that some novels try to erase that artificial boundary in order to show the links between thinking and feeling. We’re all driven by hosts of urges, some chaotic and Dionysian, some formal and Apollonian. The need for knowledge is as passionate as any other human obsession. And the wildest of obsessions has its hidden structure. Our theories about the world are deeply emotional, to us. Voiced idea is character.

My books have all tried to explore different ways of connecting past and present, fact and fiction, induction and intuition, essay and narrative. Each book has tried to hybridize those disparate elements in different ways. The Gold Bug Variations, with its themes of pattern-making and pattern-breaking, was necessarily a highly structured, idea-crazy book, although hopped-up with sexual desire. The Time of Our Singing, on the other hand, with its concerns of race, cultural ownership, and individual identity, was necessarily more character- and story-driven, although underpinned by a formal, musical structure.

From the start, The Echo Maker was a departure for me, with regard to storytelling. The gist of the plot hit me long before I sensed the general theme: a twenty-seven-year-old slaughterhouse worker suffers an accident and descends into a world of doublings, imposture, and estrangement. This plot slowly broadened into a story of how the brain cobbles up a highly provisional and improvised sense of self, one that, completely makeshift, still feels solid and continuous from “inside,” even when we are completely dismantled by outside experience. One part of this story needed to dramatize a glimpse of all the new, accelerating discoveries in neuroscience about how the brain works. But even more importantly, from the viewpoint of its protagonists, the story itself had to unfold inside the maelstrom of what Antonio Damasio calls “the feeling of what happens.” Such a plunge from the empirical to the emotional felt exactly right, given the deep, tangled networks of primitive processes that consciousness floats on.

My solution was to make the book itself a tangled network, to make every theory about the self—from sophisticated neuropsychology to old folk descriptions—part of some distinct character’s arsenal for surviving the world and keeping his or her own precarious sense of self intact. So all the scientific material that I researched for a couple of years—the endlessly bizarre and frightening neuropathology that initially structures the story—became just one jumping-off point for treating the characters’ private hopes, terrors, and beliefs. Brain science launched the book’s plot events, provided material causes, and shaped the characters’ conscious understanding of their crises. But neurology is just the start of those narratives that collide against each other in the larger narrative arc. Most of the resulting story (like most of the brain) is really subterranean.

The hardest part about doing the research for this book was hitting on an appropriate way to bury it. It takes one hundred billion interconnected cells to conjure up a coherent story of the world. But if neuroscience concludes anything, it’s that sensing and feeling and thinking and perceiving and hundreds of other seemingly separate processes are all conjoined in a huge, dynamic, and continuously revised narrative network. The brain is the ultimate storytelling machine, and consciousness is the ultimate story. Our neurons tell our selves into being. So any novel on the subject clearly had to tuck that insight back into a similar, self-narrating network.

For the first year of working on this book, I read as much about neural impairment and deficit as I could find, sometimes venturing downwards into neuronal and synaptic chemistry, sometimes rising into higher speculations about integrated consciousness. A lot of the reading revolved around case histories. At the same time as I read the technical material, I began to develop a very intuitive, primal sense of my central characters. During the second year of work, I composed scenes and unfolded a plot, while continuing to read a lot of associated neurological material, although that reading was much more directed now by the specific needs of my characters and their actions. The research continued for the following eighteen months as I revised the initial drafts. Only now, I was reading the science not only to continue refining and verifying details, but also because I’d become addicted.

In this way, I stumbled toward a form that would embody all the processes at the core of the brain’s story-making. Mark Schluter suffers an accident that disastrously unhinges his cognitive processes from his emotional intelligence. At the same time, Dr. Gerald Weber, the cognitive neurologist who comes out to study Mark, begins to sense things with his emotional intelligence that his cognitive processes have previously hidden from him. Ultimately, the science gets absorbed into the stories the characters desperately tell about themselves and each other…

AM: If The Echo Maker has a guiding spirit, it’s the cranes—cranes haunt the characters in your novel, but they also are woven into the structure of the story. What about the Nebraskan cranes appealed to you? Do they figure prominently in the neuropsychological literature or something?

RP: In fact, “echo maker” is the Ojibwa-Anishinabe name for the sandhill crane. My obsession with the primitive processes that underpin cognition began when I discovered these birds. I wasn’t able to tell a sandhill from a stork until spring, seven years ago. I was making the long drive from Illinois to Arizona, where my mother lives. I’d been driving for a full day and was passing through central Nebraska near sunset, when I looked out into a barren field along the side of Interstate 80 and saw this carpet of birds, three feet tall, spreading in all directions. I thought I was hallucinating from highway hypnosis, and I almost drove off the road.

The sight was absolutely thrilling, partly because I didn’t know what I was looking at and partly because the gathering was just so primordial. They really did look like some prehistoric remnant, something absolutely indifferent to human time.

I pulled off at the next town—Kearney—and got a room at a motel along the interstate. Asking around, I discovered that half a million birds—80 percent of every migratory crane in North America—staged on this short section of the Platte every March, like clockwork, as part of a migration that could cover thousands of miles. I got up before dawn the next morning to watch the morning ritual—the city of birds dispersing for a day of foraging. The experience was as spiritual as anything I’ve ever felt: these huge bipeds dancing and singing in an enormous, weirdly intelligent, communal act.

I began reading everything I could about the birds. It’s a long and haunting literature, with lots of great prose by writers from Peter Matthiessen and Aldo Leopold all the way back to the ancient Greeks. I learned that cranes mate for life, that a crane will sacrifice itself for its young, that they learn by example how to fly across an entire continent, that they navigate the route by very particular local landmarks, and that they are largely solitary, until this annual gathering. I began traveling to see them—up to Wisconsin and over to the Jasper-Pulaski preserve in Indiana, where greater sandhills will stop in the late fall on their way south. And I began seeing representations of cranes everywhere I traveled, from Central Europe to Japan.

Cranes became eerily human to me, and at the same time, totally alien. I wasn’t surprised to discover stories in different folk literatures about cranes and people turning back and forth into each other. Later, when I first heard about Capgras syndrome, and how its sufferers fail to recognize only those people closest to them (while having no trouble at all recognizing everyone else), something clicked, some story about familiarity and strangeness, and the book started to take shape in me.

By then, I had become an amateur birder, learning basic identification and starting a life list. I began thinking completely differently about other species, and began paying attention to creatures that had been largely invisible to me. And in one of those confirming coincidences, as I read deeper into contemporary brain research, I learned just how smart birds really are. Apparently, for a long time, science has greatly underestimated the intelligence of birds, partly because the cerebral cortex of birds is relatively small. But it turns out that birds use an entirely different part of their brain as the seat of their intelligence, and the brain-to-body ratio of the most intelligent birds is comparable to higher primates. Birds have elaborate social behavior, and they display lots of discriminating intelligence about clans and pecking orders. Hunting birds can cooperate with each other. Birds can even be deliberately deceptive—in other words, they are smart enough to be able to lie. Recent work on bird calls suggests something like grammatical structure. Alex, the famous blue parrot, seems able to make simple but meaningful and appropriate sentences. There’s an astonishing short film that you can hunt down on the web of this New Caledonian crow, Betty, who actually creates a hook by bending a straight piece of wire, then uses the hook to lift a cup of food out of a hole. That’s true tool-making, something we used to think only primates did.

So here we are, sharing the planet with these creatures who are weirdly intelligent, smart in an alien way that we’re not quite smart enough to see. And yet, the core parts of their brains are still contained in ours. Our estrangement from them, then, struck me as somehow analogous to our estrangement from our own subcortical selves. Setting the story in this little town in the middle of nowhere, whose central claim to fame was this annual massing of birds, gave me a way to open up the story to all kinds of neurological and ecological traces.

AM: Landscape too plays a huge part in The Echo Maker—more, perhaps, than it has in any of your other books, with the possible exception of Gain. Yet it’s not just “this little town in the middle of nowhere” and its environs—it’s not just the Nebraskan prairie—but, more importantly, the imperfect labyrinth of consciousness against which Mark and Karin and Dr. Weber are all graphed. Can you talk about the role “place”—be it the Midwest or the medial cortex—plays in your work, particularly in this book?

RP: Place has been important to me before in other stories, but never quite like it was for this one. I think you’ve put your finger on the reason: the book is about memory and recognition, but those mental skills are themselves deeply linked to the brain’s spatial abilities. The hippocampus—that portion of the brain that orchestrates the formation of new memories—seems to have developed in large part as a way of mastering place. Animals with the greatest navigational requirements also have the most developed memory. If I can return to my bird obsession for a moment: a Clark’s nutcracker, which possesses a well-developed hippocampus, can remember more than five thousand separate places where it hid seeds the year before. Remember that the next time you can’t find your car keys.

Some neuroscientists have even proposed that the hippocampus may have originated as a processor of relations in space, a “spatial cognition machine,” as it’s been called. In some strange way, our capacity to form and retrieve memories—and with it, our ability to shape stories and construct a sense of self—may be a happy by-product of our sense of orientation. (Think of all the mnemonic systems that involve fortifying memories by placing items in an imaginary “memory walk.”) Social intelligence—our ability to calculate and analyze complex interpersonal relations—may also be related to our spatial sense. Even our social vocabulary reflects that connection, when we talk about who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, who’s at the center and who’s marginalized. For that matter, our vocabulary for the elements of storytelling itself is also highly spatial: exposition, situation, plot, reverse, arrival…

If stories about recognition and memory rightfully begin as stories of place, my story about Capgras quickly homed in on one particular spot out of the entire possible map. Kearney, Nebraska, is close to the geographical center of the United States, although it’s probably close to the edges of terra incognita in many readers’ mental landscapes. More importantly for my story, the town sits right on the crosshairs of two intersecting migratory corridors. On one axis, it lies on or near the great historical American east-to-west routes: Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, Pony Express, transcontinental railroad, Lincoln Highway, Interstate 80. And on the other, it lies on the choke point of the Central Flyway, that continent-size hourglass used by hundreds of millions of migratory birds, with its narrow waist lying along a sixty-mile stretch of the Platte.

So all of these creatures who are navigating north and south through the changing seasons cross paths with humans—the animal perpendicular to everything—in this town of thirty thousand people. This town has completely shaped the mental imagination of Mark Schluter as well as his sister Karin, who has spent her entire life trying to escape it. Kearney is also the complete antithesis of the New York of Dr. Gerald Weber, the cognitive neurologist who comes out to examine Mark, only to discover, in this colossal emptiness—the Great American Desert—a foil for his own geographical estrangement, post-9/11.

I worked much more visually for this book than I ordinarily do, and I had great pleasure visiting the landscape of central Nebraska, and inhabiting it again later, in memory. I even took to sketching scenes and situations, mapping out their locales—trying to come closer to a spatial sense of the story’s secret, internal logic. In fact, the mystery elements of the plot—what actually happens to Mark on the night of his accident—depend on a working out of very local, specific events in time and space, and that kind of physical triangulation and cartography was something entirely new for me.

Geography may be destiny, but Kearney and the Platte, like every place else on earth, have been virtualized—completely transformed by broadband and its networked bits. The book explores that derangement, too: the total defamiliarization of place in the digital age. Beyond that, the story also circles around the underpinning ecological question of who owns this long river that flows through three separate arid states. What happens when faraway, upstream water use forever changes life downstream? Who gets to drink from the limited flow? Do other creatures merit a share?

For me, the prairie-crossroads setting of the book ultimately became a material emblem for the provisional, distributed, improvised, even fictive nature of the self. If space is the field for memory, and if memory is the basis of our narrative self-invention, then we must live in some seam between inside and outside, some corridor between the place we make and the place that makes us. That’s why I went to this crossroads, the empty, remote center of the Great American Desert.

AM: I want to ask about the place of the novelist in today’s “Great American Desert”—where does this “seam between inside and outside” exist with respect to the novelist, post-9/11? I’m thinking particularly about the loosely Oliver Sacks–ian character of Dr. Gerald Weber, who undergoes profound transformations once he starts “treating” Mark. There’s a huge mystery here—maybe even the mystery of the entire book—and I’m wondering if it has more to do with what it means to be a writer than it might at first seem.

RP: If Weber is like Sacks (or Ramachandran, Feinberg, Damasio, Broks, Gazzaniga, or any of the other outstanding writers of narrative neuropsychology), it’s only in his attempt to locate, inside empirical clinical description, the same kind of empathetic leap that lies at the heart of fiction. Story is the mind’s way of molding a seeming whole from out of the messiness of the distributed, modular brain. At the same time, shared stories are the only way anyone has for escaping the straightjacket of self. Good medicine has always depended on listening to histories. So any attempt to comprehend the injured mind naturally inclines toward all the devices of classic storytelling. Neurological case histories exist in a hybrid place between descriptive science and reflective art, a halfway place much like the narrated self’s.

Many brain-injured people suffer from anosognosia—the total lack of awareness of any symptoms. When Weber comes to examine Mark, that’s just what he finds: a man completely unable to see how his accident has changed him, who insists, rather, that something has changed in everyone around him, something that no one will tell him about. But Weber’s examination occurs just at the moment in his own career when readers of his work have begun to accuse him of exploitation. The public has begun to claim that Weber has failed in precisely the kind of compassion that he has always prided himself on and that his work has always professed. And in his scrupulous attempt to understand Mark without turning the man into a self-serving story, Weber makes a frightening empathetic leap: if Mark still feels familiar to himself inside, despite all outward evidence to the contrary, how reliable is Gerald Weber’s own sense of internal consistency and decency, in the face of the chorus of outside reappraisal?

Once you lose the bias that exempts you from the shortfalls you can see so easily in others, you also lose any internal authority for restoring your sense of solidity. After years of trying to see others from the inside, Weber at last commits to seeing himself from the outside. The effect on the neuroscientist is as totally estranging as Mark’s brain damage. Emotional kinship—true empathy—is a bottomless well.

But weirdly, that act of bottomless, estranging kinship is probably the main goal of reading and writing novels. We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? We can survive the disorientation; we even love immersing ourselves in it, so long as the trip is controllable and we can return to our own lives when the book ends. Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. As the pioneer neuropsychologist A. R. Luria once wrote, “To find the soul it is necessary to lose it.” To read another’s story, you have to lose yours.

The prevailing explanation for Capgras posits some kind of disconnect between high-level, cognitive recognition and low-level, emotional ratification: She looks and acts and talks and behaves like my sister, but I’m just not getting that sister feel from her. (Perhaps that explains why sufferers fail to affirm only those from whom they expect a deep sense of connection.) And simply by caring for Mark, Weber suffers that same estranging disconnection. In effect, you could say he contracts contagious Capgras.

Estrangement seems to have become the baseline condition for life in terrorized America. After November 2000, after September 2001, after the Patriot Act and the detainee bill, after Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, our stories—public and private—keep scrambling to keep America whole, continuous, and coherent, to place it. The basic outline of life here still looks familiar. But for a lot of people, the place no longer feels recognizable.

It seems to me that evil—the word of the hour, again—might be the willful destruction of empathy. Evil is the refusal to see oneself in others.

I truly don’t know what role the novelist can play in a time of rising self-righteousness and escalating evil. Any story novelists create to reflect life accurately will now have to be improvised, provisional, and bewildered. But I do know that when I read a particularly moving and achieved work of fiction, I feel myself succumbing to all kinds of contagious rearrangement. Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty.

AM: The stories you inhabit have been packaged as novels, yet many novelists of your generation also publish essay collections or memoirs. I find that interesting. Is there a reason you haven’t published a nonfiction book? What does fiction do that other kinds of writing can’t?

RP: I’ve published a handful of nonfiction shorter pieces over the years, not to mention a trilogy of Borges-like fictitious essays (factitious stories?) that are neither fish nor fowl. I suppose I have a small volume’s worth of short pieces by now, but these days, when existing print and digital versions of everything circulate so freely, collating and publishing these pieces as a separate volume (a form they weren’t really conceived for) seems superfluous. I do have a topic for a contribution to Norton’s terrific Great Discoveries series that I’d love to get to before I die. I have several ideas for volume-length meditations (for instance, an aesthetic and narratological look at computer coding), but the impulse to write fiction has never abated long enough for me to consider any of these nonfiction projects seriously. Memoir? That would require way too much imagination for me!

Neuroscience has recently turned up evidence for these extraordinary circuits in the brain populated with “mirror neurons.” These things fire both when we perform an action and when we merely see someone else perform the same action. Other experiments suggest astonishing evidence that doing and imagining share the same circuitry. The primary visual cortex requires more blood when we merely imagine a scene than when we actually see it. Heart rates rise in subjects told to imagine running. Subjects who merely visualize physical exercise over an extended period can gain two thirds as much muscle strength as those who actually perform the same exercises. So fiction may be a far more potent thing than we think. Natural selection must have favored a love for fiction. Clearly, it has some survival value! Life is a complex and dangerous enterprise. Of course we’re going to love taking the thing out for a spin on a completely safe practice track where we can try out any threatening or thrilling maneuver whatsoever, without any consequence except experience.

But our need for fiction also betrays a desire for kinds of knowing that nonfiction can’t easily reach. Nonfiction can assert; fiction can show asserters, and show what happens when assertions crash. Fiction can focalize and situate worldviews, pitching different perspectives and agendas against each other, linking beliefs to their believers, reflecting facts through their interpreters and interpreters through their facts. Fiction is a spreading, polysemous, relational network that captures the way that we and our worlds create each other. Whenever the best nonfiction really needs to persuade or clarify, it resorts to story.

A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

Something truly interesting is happening in many basic sciences, a real revolution in human knowing. For a long time—centuries—empiricism has tried to understand the whole in terms of its isolated parts, and then to write out precise and simple rules about the controlled behavior of those parts in isolation. In recent decades, with the explosion of the life sciences and with a new appreciation in physics and chemistry of emergent and complex systems, a new kind of holism has emerged. Researchers, coming up against the limits of old-style reductionism while studying large, dynamic systems, have found that the whole can sometimes best be understood in terms of the whole. New attempts to describe richly interacting real-world phenomena have turned increasingly to complex models and simulations as valid scientific tools.

But that’s the way that fiction has known things for a long time: through complex, connected models. Through massive simulation.

AM: Since the beginning of your career, you’ve garnered a lot of critical praise, and you have a passionate, possibly even cultish fan base, to be sure. Then The Echo Maker, deservedly so, received the National Book Award this past year. I’m wondering, for someone who has always blazed his own literary trail, so to speak, how such a mainstream accolade—and the increased attention it will place on you—might change your writing, if at all.

RP: Since the award was announced only two weeks ago, I’m not really sure what effect it will have on the reception of my books. I’m grateful for whatever increased reader interest such a prize might generate, and delighted that a somewhat offbeat book has been brought into a broader public conversation. As for my own writing life and process, I have always treated prizes less as certifications of the past than as licenses for the future. To paraphrase Larry Bird: scoring earns you the right to miss from anywhere on the court. All in all, the award is just a wonderful encouragement to forget about winning and, in Beckett’s words, to “fail better.”

AM: So what happens now? What’s your next simulation?

RP: I’m embarked on a novel about whether the human race can have a happy ending.

Michael Chabon

Berkeley, CA.

Writers ask about other writers’ working habits, maybe to gauge one’s level of looniness.  You don’t strike me as being particularly loony, but are you? This is a passive-aggressive way for a younger writer to ask a more experienced and indeed famous writer what his work habits are, in other words.

I have a very regular schedule. I work five days a week, Sunday night to Thursday night, ten p.m. till three in the morning.

I’m a night person. As soon as I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted to, I stayed up as late as I wanted to. I just concentrate better at night. It’s quiet. The phone doesn’t ring. No distractions. I have a lot of distractions. My kids are asleep. I mean, that was my schedule before I had kids, but it’s turned out to be a really good schedule if you have kids.

I heard you sold your first story to the New Yorker at age 24.

His wife, Ayelet, not at all boastfully: He sold his first novel at age 23.

Sold your first novel at age 23. Most writers are still learning how to use a semi-colon at that age.  What was it like being…famous?

I didn’t really feel like I was famous. No one that I was running into on a daily basis—like dry cleaners, people—knew who I was, so it’s not like there were people coming up to me and bothering me. I just was living an ordinary life. Pretty safely anonymous.

Has it changed now that Wonder Boys is out?

Yeah, I mean over time, and with this last book it seems like it got a lot of attention. Especially locally in the neighborhood now…

So if you’re in the grocery store people come up and hound you for autographs?

Only in Pittsburgh.  Yeah, this one time in Pittsburgh—

Ayelet, perhaps a wee bit boastfully, now: That’s the only place he’s really famous, Pittsburgh.

So I was walking down the street, and this woman comes up, she came up along beside me and said, “Oh, hi. I just wanted to tell you I really like your book.”  And that was weird, actually.  I didn’t really like it too well.

Ayelet: The only place we can get a restaurant reservation using his name is Pittsburgh.  I always try in San Francisco, and it never works.

What was it like, the transformation of Wonder Boys from paper to celluloid?

It depends which time you’re talking about.  The first time I saw it the two of us were in the screening room on the Paramount lot, all alone.  And we (one of Chabon’s offspring calls out, “Where are you?”) didn’t know if any of the jokes were going through.  We were clinging to each other in fear—more of what other people would think of it, and we had no way of gauging that, because there was nobody there but us. So that was sort of a weird experience. But then the second time I saw it was at the premiere.  There were a thousand people, and they were all laughing, and that was really fun.

Were you involved in it or…

Not at all.  Not at all.

Ayelet: That’s not true. You had some—

They sent me the script every time the screenwriter turned in a draft. And I gave some feedback. But. I had no authority.

Were you on X Men then?  How did that come about?

I wrote a treatment that was not, uh, used. At least that I was not paid for.

But now you’re writing the screenplay to Kavalier & Clay, right?

I am trying to adapt it right now.

Right now?

Not this instant.  Well, maybe unconsciously.

Is this the only thing you’re working on now?

Yeah. I’ve been trying to get this thing… I want to get a full draft in before the strike.

What’s it like writing a screenplay? I mean, your novels aren’t completely dialogue-heavy.

It’s a challenge trying to adapt this one. It’s lot of cutting, mostly. Leaving stuff out and trying to find ways of—just trying to boil it down to a coherent story, a simpler story.

Speaking of cutting things out, Kavalier & Clay is a huge, epic book.  You must have done years of research.  What was writing it like?

A lot of research. A lot of reading. A lot of work in libraries. New York Historical Library. We spent a month in New York City, just walking around.

I researched it for about a couple months before I started working, and then I researched continuously while writing.  Stuff would come up that I never would have dreamed of but that I better be writing about—like Antarctica or the Golem or the Empire State Building—and I’d go do research.

Was there an image that started off the whole book?  How did it start?

Mostly I just wanted to write about this time in our country’s history.  I’ve always been really fascinated by this period, and I just wanted to write something set in New York in this time.  I guess casually I’d been looking for a story, and then I read about Siegel and Schuster, the two guys who created Superman, and it just clicked in my mind. I could write about comic book guys. This is something no one had written about.  It would be during this time, and that would be my way of dealing with that material. It also seemed like a likely subject for me because it was a partnership.  It was about two guys, and I’d written about the relationship between two guys a lot, and it appealed to me.  It wasn’t that I started with an image so much.

You stand out among other literary novelists of your generation in the sense that you’re not so preoccupied with postmodern, well, games. You write really strong, gripping stories. When you get to the end of a Michael Chabon chapter, you have to turn the page and read the next. What’s your secret?

Well I really like plotting novels. I do. As a reader, I prefer novels that are fairly plot heavy.  I don’t read a lot of purely plot-heavy work, I don’t read a lot of mysteries or thrillers, I also like language, so if I find writers who combine the two, that’s my ideal, and that’s what I try to do in my own work, too. It’s old fashioned, perhaps.

I don’t really have any desire to be…long pause…new or different. I don’t feel a lot of pressure to be new or different, and I don’t think I’d be particularly good at being new and different, so I just try to write the kind of books I’d like to read. I mean, I’m sure that’s probably what everybody does, but in my case I like more traditional narratives.

Are there other writers here who you hang out with on a daily basis—like play poker, shoot hoops?

Locally, in Berkeley, there are a lot of writers but I don’t know any.

Ayelet: There’s the Writers Round Table.

Oh yeah, I belong to this thing in San Francisco called the Writers Round Table.  It’s…

Ayelet: Cute.

It’s very cute.  Yeah.

Ayelet: It’s a bunch of old writers of a totally different generation.  These guys are like all in their seventies and they get together once a month for lunch.

You…fit in?

It started in the early sixties.  I definitely—

Ayelet: He loves it.

It’s very enjoyable.

Both you and Ayelet being writers, is there any flow back and forth between you? Comments? Criticisms? Maybe…pillow fighting?

Totally. We rely on each other for all kinds of support. Critical. Plot stuff. Conferences where we just try to say, ‘Well, I’m stuck. I can’t think of a way to get him from here to there,” and she’ll say, “Why don’t you just … whatever.” “Oh my God, thank you!” And I try to do the same for her.

And that working energy, when you’re both working—do you get that?

Ayelet and Michael: We work at different times of the day. Just Michael: She works in the morning, and I work at night.

Ayelet: We’re each other’s first readers, and then we also…a lot of it is plot. Michael relies on my for plot, and I rely on him for style.

How long did it take to write Kavalier & Clay?

Four years.

Ayelet: Four years, four months, four days.

So you had to wait that long to read it?

Ayelet: No, I read it throughout. Six drafts!

You were pretty sick of it in the end.

Ayelet: I don’t even know what the final version is like. I mean, I read the final version, but I can’t distinguish between the drafts.  Neither can you….

Sometimes I forget.

Ayelet: What’s in it.

There are little things I think are still in it that aren’t in it.

What’s the one book you have absolutely nothing to say about?

There are a lot of books I have nothing to say about.

Ayelet: Pick someone dead.

You know, I don’t finish a book, I don’t even read more than a couple pages of a book if I don’t care for it, so I don’t think there’s ever been a book that I hated that I finished.  Unless, that is, I was assigned it in college and had to.  I don’t tend to like books that are about lowlifes and, like, junkies.  The same goes for films.  I’m just not into movies where people’s arms are falling off because they have so many track marks. But I did like Requiem for a Dream.  Perversely.

Ayelet: Free spirits.

Or like the whole Bukowski, Charles Bukowski School—the whole post-bohemian, post-beatnik thing. And the Free Spirit thing. I don’t like Jack Kerouac. I don’t like William S. Burroughs. I don’t like Allen Ginsburg.

What writers did you admire, growing up?

When I was a kid I was really into science fiction, and Ray Bradbury was the first writer I totally adored for his writing. This was beautiful writing. At least it seemed that way to me when I was eleven.  I was really into Henry Miller when I was in high school. Which, I guess, was verging dangerously on Jack Kerouac territory.  But it was a whole lifestyle thing with Miller, like the idea of running off to Paris and drinking a lot of wine and having sex with prostitutes.  That was kind of appealing to me when I was seventeen.

Did you ever run off to Paris?

I did, yeah. It was a lot duller. My life was a lot duller. Then there was Marcel Proust, John Cheever, Nabokov. Borges. I really liked—there’s a pretty unknown, at least in this country, ghost story writer named M. R. James. I keep adding… S J Perleman. John Collier.

Was S J Perleman a big influence on the humor in Kavalier?

I think so. Indirectly. S J Perleman definitely helped me shape my notion of what—what that time was like.  And I think Sammy’s notions of humor are directly shaped by Perleman. Generally, though, I do think there’s a Perlemanian tone to the writing.

Do you collect comic books?

I did as a kid. I had a big collection. My dad used to supply me with the comics, and I loved them and read them for probably a ten year period starting when I was six.

You grandfather worked in the business, right?

He was a printer. But he was retired by the time I came along. No. He still worked when I was really little. That was back in the thirties and forties. He worked in a plant, in the movie-poster side, I think, and he’d bring home bags filled with free comics for my dad to read when my dad was a kid. So my dad really was sort of indoctrinated. He felt like it was his duty to do the same for me. And I’m doing the same thing for my kid. I’m trying with my daughter but she’s not really interested.

So somewhere here in this house there’s a huge, mythic trove of comic books?

Well I have some out in my office, some of my old collection, a small fraction of it. He’s starting to acquire his own collection. He’s always telling people, “Be careful, it’s very delicate!”

Have you been asked to speak at a lot of comics conventions?

Yeah. It’s just…all of a sudden. I’ve become Comics Guy.

Do your parents read your work?

This book, yeah, especially this book—I dedicated it to my father. He was really touched. And my mom is obsessively checking my ranking.

Ayelet: At least you’re not!

Oh, yeah, I know! I rely on her. She says, “Well, you’re at three hundred and seventy five, honey.” Probably they’re relieved it’s not about either of them.

Ayelet: That’s always what they’re… Michael likes to torture them. Whenever he has a book coming out, and they’re like, “What’s it about?”  “Oh, it’s about a doctor…who cross dresses.”

I always say it’s about a crossdressing pediatrician.

Your dad’s a crossdresser?

No. But he was a pediatrician. He’s always afraid of anything I say about any father I write about. He thinks people will automatically assume it’s about him. No matter what. And they do.

Ayelet: Like my grandmother is totally convinced his father’s a gangster, and she tells people that.

You have to watch what you say around writers.

I know. I love that…

Our neighbors—I went over there, and something was going on, something crazy in the house. And the guy, the husband said, “I don’t want to see this in any of your books.” And I said, “Too late.”

Where do your ideas come from?

My ideas are just… I can hardly stop them. They’re just—

Ayelet: At this point he has enough for both of us. He’s Idea Head. Every day he has a new idea for a novel he thinks would be great.

I just— Something will strike me. I don’t know. I just…I don’t know. I’ll hear stories sometimes. I’ll remember something that happens to me, and I’ll think wow, that’s a great idea for a story, or in the case of this book I just wanted to write something set in New York in the 1940s. How am I going to do that? Other books have started more with a picture in my mind. Wonder Boys began with an image. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh—I just wanted to write something about summer. Something that would take place over the course of a summer. That was it. As vague as that. Sometimes you just get these What If? ideas.  What if I decide to write that story about the woman who was raped and gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby?

Ayelet: Where did you get the idea for that?

It just came into my mind. I don’t know. I just wrote this very weird horror story, this What If? story, where clowns were real. What if clowns are just pretending to be people wearing white makeup.

You write on the computer?

I write on the computer.  I had a teacher in college—one of my first writing teachers—and she was a really staunch…she was a tough teacher…and she set a lot of rules you had to just obey.  And one of them was that you had to write at the typewriter.  Not longhand.  She said that your handwriting would disguise your writing, and because it was your handwriting you would tend to be much more forgiving of things.  When it’s in a neutral typeface, you can be much more critical.

As soon as I heard of a personal computer, I bought one.  It was called an Osborne.  It was an early portable, more like a luggable, really.

I can’t keep up. My hand can’t keep up, and I find that very frustrating.  If I have a complicated sentence in my mind but it’s going to take me five minutes to write it down longhand, I may just not bother in the first place.  I might write something easier.  I mean, as soon as I started writing at the typewriter, I was very comfortable.

Now I write at the computer. I think it encourages you to rewrite much more. It’s so easy to take the first sentence of your paragraph and move it to the last sentence, and then you suddenly say, “You know, this might work better.”

What’s the one writing lesson you’d give out every time?

To me it’s all about the schedule. It’s about discipline.  Keeping waking hours. That’s what I try to hammer home with student writers—to fix and maintain a very regular work schedule.  To work a set amount of hours every day, five days a week, even if it’s only an hour a day. To me that’s what it’s all about.  To me it’s all about putting the time in, generating the material, and the only way to consistently do that is by working every day.  And then, if you do have a steady work schedule like that, it removes a lot of the pressure, because even if you have a horrible day, you know you’re going to be back there the next day.  It’s not like you’re like, “Oh, I finally managed to find a seven hour period this Saturday.  I’m not going to do anything but write.”  But then you have all this pressure on you to perform.  I had this teacher, and the way he formulated it was, If you want to write a novel, you’re going to have to sit on your ass.

Are there times when you’re blocked?

No. I’m always either working or taking a break.  Maybe when I finish a project—if it’s a small project, I’ll take a few days; if it’s a big project, I’ll take as many as two weeks off.

No writing at all? Just listening to music?

Sometimes. I tend to like power pop.  Melodic with an edge.  That’s me.