Bwog Book Club talks to Nathaniel Rich
Written by Bwog Staff
It has been a while since Bwog writers Pierce Stanley and Lucy Tang called to session a recent incarnation of the Bwog Book Club. For those short of memory or perhaps for whom the summer has worn on maybe a bit too long, the Bwog Book Club kicked off several weeks ago with a reading of Nathaniel Rich‘s debut novel The Mayor’s Tongue. Bwog was fortunate enough to sit down recently with Mr. Rich for an interview to discuss the challenges of writing a debut novel. Lucky for Bwog, the discussion took place in the comfort of The Paris Review‘s famed TriBeCa offices. Bwog is grateful to Mr. Rich (and The Paris Review) for hosting us so hospitably and for dedicating time for discussion of The Mayor’s Tongue.
Bwog: We’ll start the interview with the book, The Mayor’s Tongue. It was a great debut.
Nathaniel Rich: Thanks — it took a long time to write, about five or six years. I worked on it in total secrecy for most of that period, and while I was working on it I always had other jobs, and was living in different places. There was never a sustained period where I sat down and wrote the whole novel. It was something like a process of accretion. That said, nothing in the book came about in a haphazard way — for the first two years I worked on the book, much of what I was doing was writing an outline, and planning the novel’s structure. At the beginning there was way too much planning — not enough writing. I blame it on nerves.
Bwog: Is that why there is a parallel structure to the work? It is sort of bizarre how the parallel stories never meet. Which came first? How did it all come about?
NR: There are a couple reasons why I decided to have two storylines that paralleled each other but did not intersect directly. I’m certainly not the first person to use that device, by the way. A lot of books that I love do it. I wanted two different characters to confront a similar problem from totally different stages in their lives. I felt that the two perspectives would allow me to explore the book’s central themes — which have to do with failures of language and communication — in a deeper, more intimate way. I decided early on that I didn’t want the characters themselves to meet. The idea of Mr. Schmitz and Eugene, say, hanging out in Trieste, seemed preposterous to me, a cop-out. I worried that a contrivance like this might distract readers from thinking about why there were two narratives in the first place. My hope is that the two stories interact in a more meaningful way than simply on the level of plot.
Bwog: Constance Eakins seems like a real writer. When you read the book you don’t get the sense that he is a creation of your imagination. How did it seem to be writing in such a voice?
NR: I wanted there to be an Oz-like character lurking in the background, someone like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, who is at the center of the novel and influences its characters in a profound way but doesn’t actually show his face until the end — and then is only something of an afterthought. I imagined a magnetic, huge, intimidating, frightening, exciting force. A dark energy that exerts a pull on all the novel’s other characters. Because of the subject of this novel, this character had to be a writer. So Eakins is a pastiche of every terrifying and great author of the 20th century. I combined all of the most horrifying and absurd attributes of people like Salinger, Pynchon, Nabokov, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Mailer, also Orson Welles and Werner Herzog. Constance Eakins is the monstrous lovechild of all these maniacs.
Bwog: The Mayor’s Tongue is as much about cities and the energy between really different places as much as it is about the energy between two different characters of two different stories. What are the challenges of comparing cities as opposed to characters?
NR: It’s true, a big part of the book is about the relationship between the individual and the city. The novel moves from New York City to Milan and Trieste, and finally to the mysterious mountainous region of the Carso. There is a reason for that. Growing up in New York, I’ve always associated the city with order and rationality. I knew that I wanted the book to move gradually away from those things. In order to do that, I needed the characters to leave the city. So they move from the real neighborhoods of Inwood, Midtown, and the Upper West Side to cities or towns of the imagination. They discover Idaville, for instance, a village ruled by a despotic and ravenously hungry Mayor.
Bwog: Authors who are both your peers and much older than you are saying that your book is well beyond your years, something well beyond what they expect someone your age to produce. What challenges does that kind of praise for your work mean for you and for your career as a novelist?
NR: I just tried to write the best, most honest book I could write. There may be fantastical elements along the way, but the characters’ emotions and relationships seem, to me at least, extremely real. I’ve always been a student of first novels, especially first novels by writers I admire. There are certain conventions that you see cropping up again and again in these books. I knew what they were going into this process, and I tried hard to resist them. But I realized pretty quickly that one of the characters was going to have to be a young man living in New York. No matter how had I tried, I couldn’t get rid of him. What I could do, though, was to resist convention whenever possible and focus on the larger themes and issues of the story I wanted to tell.
I wanted to avoid writing a hyper-realistic, controlled, clean, respectable novel. I wanted to do something strange. I’m sure I’ve got a long way to go to mature as a writer and to mature as a person. But I’d much rather be over-ambitious than conventional, and that’s something that I am proud of with this book. Maybe that’s a mark of youth, but I hope not. I hope that anything I write in the future will live up to the quality of the books that mean the most to me.