is a bit of a departure for you. Why did you decide
to write a literary novel after so many mysteries?
I would like to think that all my novels
are "literary," in the sense of being
well-written, as well as "mysteries,"
because life itself is a mystery. Ideas for books
come the way they come; the problem is to find the
appropriate tone and form for them. Thanksgiving
originally "presented," as doctors say
of a pre-natal baby, as a mystery, but once I started
getting to grips with it, I realized that the issues
it addresses—grief, loss, aging—are
ones that can't be resolved by having someone come
through a door with a gun in his hand.
How did the experience of writing
literary fiction differ from the experience of writing
mysteries? Was it as satisfying?
For me, at least, writing is never satisfying,
because whatever you do is never as good as you
feel it ought to be. Knowing when to stop is a matter
of knowing when to give up. Someone said that a
poem is never finished, only abandoned. The same
goes for novels, whether they're packaged for sales
purposes as "literary" or "mystery."
But Thanksgiving stretched me in a way I've
never been stretched before, and it wasn't altogether
pleasant. Reaching your limits as a writer is like
reaching the top of a mountain where the air is
thin: the sense of accomplishment is rewarding,
and the view is great, but it's hard to breathe
and you start to panic.
Thanksgiving has a clean, cinematic
quality. Do you ever think about your novels as
screenplays or imagine them as films as you work?
Never. Books and movies are completely
different media, and the more the Hollywood crowd
learns to knit their own stuff, the better. Filmed
books bear no more relation to the original than
Berlioz's Les Troyens does to The Iliad.
But we live in a movie-saturated culture, and this
affects the way people behave. Darryl Bob Allen,
in the opening chapter of Thanksgiving, definitely
(and perhaps even consciously) sees himself as the
star of his own movie.
You leave unanswered Thanksgiving's
central plot question (Who killed Darryl Bob?).
Did you always intend to hold that information back
from the reader? And does that in some way underline
the distinction between Thanksgiving and
Of course I intended it. Every aspect
of anything I write is intentional. If it weren't,
I wouldn't be doing my job properly. Thanksgiving
is a first-person narrative, hence all we can know
about what happened is what the narrator Anthony
knows, and he doesn't know how Darryl Bob died.
Or better, he claims not to know. Do we believe
him? On balance, I think we do, but it's a judgement
call. With regard to the last question, this is
by no means the first of my books to have left the
answer to certain questions to the readers' discretion,
e.g. The Tryst and Dirty Tricks, both
to be published soon by Vintage.
Some critics claim literary fiction
has lost its heft these days. Where do you think
contemporary literary fiction stands? And how does
it compare to the best of what's being done in mysteries?
I think we're living in a "Silver
Age," as regards all the arts. In other words,
we're very accomplished, very knowing, and very
ironical, but with a strong understreak of disgust
at our essential shallowness and inability to cut
to the quick. We live in a post-everything culture,
and hate it. And since you get no marks for trying
in art, only for succeeding, maybe it's a good time
to be a mystery writer. Richard Strauss once said
that while he may not have been a first-class composer,
he was a first-rate second-class composer. Maybe
that's all we can aspire to. Raymond Chandler went
to his death with the job description "mystery
writer;" now he's published by the Library
of America. Bottom line: there are good novels—all
too few of them—and bad novels. 'Twas ever
thus, and always will be.
Will we see more literary novels from
you in the future?
I honestly don't know. To me, this is
a distinction made by academics, critics, publishers
and maybe some readers. Writers just do the best
with whatever ideas come and insist on being
You've received critical and popular
acclaim for your Aurelio Zen series. Is there a
drawback to working with a recurring protagonist?
Is it, for example, self-limiting? Or does it, on
the hand, offer liberating possibilities?
It's definitely a challenge, and challenges
can inspire. Keeping the Zen series alive is a bit
like keeping a marriage alive. It might seem more
fun just to have serial affairs, but a long-term
project brings its own rewards. As a writer, I try
to do both, alternating the Zen novels with one-offs
Finally, two related questions. First,
many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer--someone
they think has been unfairly ignored by the general
reading public. Do you have one yourself?
Almost anyone who's dead and doesn't
have an agent, to quote Polanski on why Shakespeare
didn't get a credit in his film of Macbeth.
Writers who can't be interviewed and put on tour
are invisible in our culture. Some names? All right,
Penelope Fitzgerald, Flann O'Brien, Patricia Highsmith,
Lawrence Durrell, Georges Simenon...I could go on.
And second, who do you think is the
best under-appreciated writer working today?
Apart from me, you mean? Actually, I
don't think under-appreciation is what writers working
today suffer from. Rather the reverse.