You’ve interviewed writers like Jonathan Letham, Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody for this very magazine. What’s it feel like to be on the other side of the mic?
Pretty surreal. I mean, those guys are major writers who have written many great, great books, they’re the writers of their generation, and I’m just some dude who’s written a first novel.
Well aren’t you 28? It seems like you’re off to a good start.
Yeah, I was recently in Detroit at a book convention and it took people a while to realize that I wasn’t just some young book freak, but a “writer.” But I’m nowhere near as young as some writers coming out these days, and I’m glad it’s taken a while to get the book out—it was sold almost two years ago—because I think it’s important to struggle a bit and not take yourself too seriously. I’ve always approached writing as a job, even during my black-turtleneck phase. (laughs) I don’t think it really matters if you’ve published one book or twenty—you still have to approach the act of writing with the same diligence. For me at least, publication’s never been the goal. Writing a good book is the goal. After all, there’s a lot of crappy books out there—just because a book is published doesn’t mean it’s a good book. And I’m not saying I haven’t written any crappy books, because I have. They’re just hidden and nobody will ever find them.
I’m intrigued—but let’s talk about this one. You could have written about a guy living in New York who goes to bars and chases skirts, and then all your drinks and your condoms would have been tax deductible. What made you write about a serial killer at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair?
Well, people drank back in 1893, so I think the drinks might still be tax deductible. I think there are probably too many semi-autobiographical books about living in NYC and hooking up with damaged women in uber-hip bars, and the prospect of writing about myself kind of repulsed me, so I tried to avoid that any way that I could. For many years I did write about someone I didn’t think of as me but who was in fact me. But then I went to college on Chicago’s South Side, right by where the 1893 fair took place, and as soon as I heard about this fair, man, I was captivated. While I was still in college, I started to do some research on the sly.
At the back of your book there’s a “Note on the Distortion of the Historical Record.” How much is true here and how much is false?
I think my inner geek comes out when I’m researching a book. There’s a part of me that loves going to libraries and looking at old books, reading first-hand accounts, putting on the white gloves and looking at old damaged photos. I guess it satisfies my secret desire to be on Law & Order or CSI, but when all is said and done it’s not about the research, it’s about the story. So I tried not to let the research overwhelm what I was doing. I mean, there were two ways to go with this book: write a thousand-page behemoth, which is what most historical novels tend to be, or write a slim, hopefully streamlined story. And since I’m not a big fan over over-researched books, I tried to avoid letting the research detract—or distract—from the story. All in all, I found the little things to be of the most help—you know, advertisements of the day, a Montgomery Ward catalog of 1895, and the map of the fairgrounds I kept handy.
What drew you to the fair as a subject?
It’s strange, but even now, the 1893 fair still seems so modern, so current. It was the first time the common man saw electricity—not to mention Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat, Pabst, Juicy Fruit and the hamburger. And the Midway was like this mile-long trough of titillating exotica. I didn’t start writing about it for a few years—I didn’t know where to begin, plus I had to write my unreadable semi-autobiographical book that’s hiding in the closet—but when one day it just kind of came to me. I don’t mean in some spooky like magical way or anything. I just had this image of this boy lost in the White City in my head, and here comes a stranger who could be a really bad guy, a murderer … and everything pretty much flowed from there. When I started writing the book, for better or worse, I didn’t even know about the serial killer.
The narrative alternates between the gorgeous and the gruesome, the civilized and the barbaric…
I think the opposites come, at least in part, from the fact that Chicago—like America—is a place of opposites. It’s the archetypal American city, and it’s emblematic of the complications inherent in the American dream. The weather is shifty, the politics are shifty, the city’s racial make up is really, really shifty, and it’s far and away the first city of serial killers—which all makes it great fodder for fiction. I like to think of the hero of the book being Chicago. It’s the first word of the book, and its spirit infects every page.
The fair is like another character in the book, too, then one that looms over everything. And a lot of your characters are sort of extravagant and perverse, like the fair itself—not just the serial killer, either.
I think the perversity comes from a very dark place in me, and I’m afraid to unlock the box. I guess writing The White City was an attempt to get a grip on the dark side. But I think you’re right: the extravagance and perversity of the fair does loom over everything (and for the record, I think the serial killer is one of the least perverse characters in the book). I suppose that only makes sense, though. I mean, if you start from a fascination with something that’s so extravagant on the outside but fucked up on the inside, your characters are going to be extravagant on the outside but fucked up on the inside, too. In life as in the book, I’m intrigued by characters who are slightly strange, who hide their fucked-upedness. But part of the thrill of being a writer is that you can really probe each person’s darkness, whereas in life … let’s just say that if I met any of the characters in The White City on a street in Brooklyn, say, I’d run. Fast.
A dark place in you? But you look so wholesome!
Looks can be deceiving.
–Conducted by Emily Chenoweth