Your book is coming out in paperback. Isn’t that the literary equivalent of straight-to-DVD?
Are you really going to open this interview by insulting me?
I’m not insulting you, just calling it like I see it. Totally Killer is Private Valentine, isn’t it?
I’ll rephrase. Your book is coming out in paperback. How do you feel about that?
Hardcover has more cachet, of course. And many media outlets, clinging to an outmoded set of parameters, won’t review a paperback at all. But hardcovers are pricy; the new Pynchon ran me almost thirty bucks. I’ve seen Totally Killer on sale for less than $10, and I’m happy about that. The most important thing, to me, is that people read the book. I don’t want anyone to be discouraged by the price tag. I want to be accessible.
So you hold with Melville—
Who said that the primary purpose of the novel is to entertain. Yes, I do, very much so. That’s not to say that a challenging novel can’t be entertaining, but I don’t like difficulty for difficulty’s sake—Eliot with his obscure allusions and Greek epithets, Finnegan’s Wake. Eighth graders can read The Great Gatsby; they may not get as much out of it as adults will, but they can read it.
That smacks of populism.
All great literature is populist. Shakespeare was popular, Chaucer was popular, Dickens was popular, Fitzgerald was popular, Ian McEwan is popular. Not that what I’m doing is great literature, but the same rules apply. I wrote Totally Killer for a general audience. Will you enjoy it more if you’re down with conspiracy theory, 1991 pop culture, lost-and-gone East Village hangouts, human resources, and the strange death of media mogul Robert Maxwell? Sure. But you don’t need to know about any of those things to enjoy the book.
I take it you’re not into modernism?
I don’t know what that means. Is Ezra Pound involved? If Ezra Pound is involved, then no.
Obviously your education is suspect. Where did you get your MFA?
I don’t have an MFA.
Nope. I’m not the sort of writer MFA programs dig on.
So you didn’t get in?
No comment. But I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I don’t move easily in the world of academe. My sensibilities are too pop. I would have done poorly in a writing program. I hate being told what to read, and I hate being told what to write. I would have resisted bowing at the altar of a professor. I just don’t have it in me.
Do you think MFAs are worthwhile? Should an aspiring novelist pursue one, in your opinion?
It depends on the individual. MFA programs are great in that they give you dedicated time to work on the craft, and they also provide a forum for meeting other writers and agents and editors and so forth. Without the MFA program at SC, Brad Listi might not have met Lenore Zion, and The Nervous Breakdown in its current form would not exist.
That said, MFA programs are expensive, and they’re not necessary, in the way that med school is necessary to be a doctor. The two best novels I read this year—The Kindly Ones and Banned For Life—were written by Jonathan Littell and our own D.R. Haney, neither of whom have advanced fine arts degrees.
You’re just saying that because you’re friends with Duke.
I read his book before I was friends with him. The novel I read right after Banned for Life was Revolutionary Road. I know that’s a literary darling kind of book, but it just didn’t hit me like Duke’s did.
Richard Yates didn’t have an MFA, either.
No, but he taught the first wave of MFA students at Columbia and Iowa. You say tomato…
New topic: when you got your book deal, did you go through your rejection letters and gloat?
This business of saving rejection letters…I know people do it, but I never understood that. Everybody gets rejected—everybody. When I get a rejection letter, unless it contains a personalized note of encouragement, I rip it up and throw it away immediately. What’s the point in hanging on to that stuff?
To lord it over your doubters when success is yours.
That’s ridiculous. I mean, this is publishing, not The Count of Monte Cristo. And which doubters, exactly? There was not a secret cabal of agents and editors hellbent on keeping my work out of print, although it might have seemed that way at times. The truth is, my early stuff wasn’t good enough to be published. It’s really that simple.
How much “stuff” was there?
Quite a bit. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words. Maybe even millions of words. I wrote my first novel when I was twenty-two years old…
How old are you now?
I turned thirty-seven on November 13. Anyway, I sent it to a few editors, who sent me encouraging notes of rejection. We can’t use this, but keep trying. That sort of thing. And I’m very, very glad that that book didn’t get published. Or the one after that, or the one after that, or the one after that.
A lousy novel one wrote in college could potentially be quite the albatross about the neck. Or a ball and chain about the ankle. You don’t want to walk the publishing plank with so many unwelcome encumbrances.
“Encumbrances”? Stop using big words, poindexter. You don’t work at Kaplan anymore.
That’s a Dungeons & Dragons word; it doesn’t count. Anyone who played D&D knows what encumbrance means, sure as they know the definitions of dexterity, constitution, and charisma.
You’re such an insufferable geek.
Was that ever in question?
Do you have any words of wisdom for young writers out there—“novelists on the make,” in Nicholson Baker’s phrase?
That’s the line from U & I. Every writer should read that. One of the better writing memoirs out there. Let’s see…words of wisdom? Don’t give up. Keep working. Be patient. The process of becoming a novelist is akin to the process of writing a novel. It’s long form. It takes time. Years and years and years. But that doesn’t mean it’s an unattainable goal. It’s not like you’re a baseball player or a ballerina, where there’s a physical window after which your skills erode. Milton was sixty-five when he wrote Paradise Lost, and that’s about as good as writing gets.
What about this idea of getting short stories published as an entrée to the publishing world?
If you want to be a novelist, be a novelist. Focus on that. Look, anybody can write a short story. Most people can’t write a good one, myself included, but anybody can sit down and bang out three thousand words, just like anybody can run a hundred yards. But eighty thousand words, that’s a marathon. That’s running twenty-six miles. Not everybody can do that. It takes time, it takes training, most of all it takes discipline. You have to want it.
But you’ve written more than one novel.
Well, people who run marathons seldom run one and then stop. They keep doing it. They keep doing it because they can—or because they must.
How does one go about “growing” a novel?
A novel, in my experience, is built on a handful of inspired ideas. One flash of inspiration isn’t enough—there needs to be more than that. And when these inspired ideas are cobbled together just so, you get something beautiful. Or, in my case, something less ugly.
What do you mean by “inspired idea”?
The eureka-in-the-bathtub moments you have when plotting it all out. The ideas that get you unstalled. The ones that, when they hit you, feel like divine inspiration. These aren’t necessarily good ideas, I might add—just important ones to the book.
Take Gatsby. There’s the idea of the nouveau riche guy pining for the blue-blood rich girl, which was probably the impetus for the novel. That’s the first inspired idea. But wait—let’s make her not worthy of his fastidious attention, a real piece of shit; another inspired idea. And rather than make it your usual third-person Victorian thing, let’s tell it first person, and let’s have the narrator be an outsider, a repressed homosexual who’s in love with Gatsby. Inspired idea number three. Without Nick Carraway, Gatsby loses a layer. It’s still good, but it isn’t the Great American Novel. Another example is Romeo and Juliet…
That’s not a novel.
Same difference. The most interesting character in Romeo and Juliet is neither Romeo nor Juliet, nor any of the various and sundry Montague and Capulet family members and hangers-on. The priest—he’s the most interesting character. He’s the inspired idea.
And Totally Killer, how did that work?
Thanks for segueing from Fitzgerald and Shakespeare to me.
It’s not a segue; it’s just the next question on my list.
Oh. TK required four inspired ideas: the initial B-movie conceit; the twist that the heroine, rather than fighting the bad guys, joins them; the 1991 setting; and the use of Todd as the narrator. The good news is that the four inspired ideas gelled in such a way that I got a published novel out of it. The bad news is, it took thirteen years to receive all four of the inspired ideas.
Tell us what the book is about.
I call it a literary thriller. That means that it’s a thriller, and that I’m pretentious. I thought I’d made up the term—just like I thought I’d originated the idea of a book trailer—but no, it’s been around for some time. Alexander Chee just remarked on it in his recent TNB piece about how novels don’t have to be boring.
And how does Totally Killer fare on the Chee Scale?
Is it boring?
Put it this way: I don’t know if it’s any good—that’s someone else’s job—but it’s certainly not boring. In addition to my affinity for Melville, I’m also down with Elmore Leonard, who said, “I tend to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Rumor has it you make an appearance in the book.
Yeah, I’m big on metatext. Nabokov used to do it—his character was called Vivian Darkbloom, which is an anagram of his name.
A pretty cool anagram.
Not as cool as “Larger Ego,” which is an anagram of Greg Olear. But, going back to the question, yes, I appear in Totally Killer, somewhat anachronistically, as the book is set in 1991, and in 1991, I was a senior in high school.
1991 is a big deal in the book. Why 1991? What’s so special about that year?
It’s a turning-point year. And not just from one decade to the next. The Yale historian Eric Hobsbawm uses 1991 as a bracket year for his books; The Age of Extremes he locates at 1914-1991. This is not arbitrary—the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union were huge historical turning points. The eminent astrologer Dane Rudhyar wrote a book called Astrological Timing, in which he pinpoints when the New Age will begin; the final phase of the Piscean Age—or the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, if you will—he locates in 1991. The web browser was invented in 1991. That might not be on par with, say, the printing press, but it has to be in the same league with television, radio, telephone, and telegraph.
There are many parallels between the economic climate in 1991 and 2009.
Then and now, we were a nation recovering from a recession exacerbated by President Bush invading Iraq. Then and now, it was hard to find work. Then and now, it was extremely difficult for a recent college graduate to land that first job. I’ve read a lot about the economy in the last year, and I don’t think I’ve seen one story about the effect the recession has on recent college grads. As usual, the press gives them the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Let me tell you, recent college grads—I feel your pain.
Did you engineer the global financial collapse to create a better platform for your book launch?
Yes. I’m a Bilderberger. Bear Stearns was all me.
What works were influential in writing the novel?
Well, it can be read as a parody of The Firm, which I read in college, when I wrote the screenplay on which the book is based. So that. And Heathers. The Nabokov novel Despair gave me the idea for the narrator. Generation X and American Psycho.
One of the characters in the book, a Gen X-er, has strong antipathy for Baby Boomers. How do you feel about them?
There’s a great line in Pirates of Penzance: “Individually, I love you all, with affection unspeakable. But collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation.” That doesn’t totally convey my feelings, but it’s better than anything I can come up with on the spot.
Answer the question.
What are you, Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men?
I love Tom Cruise.
Me, too. Look, for the entire decade of the sixties, the Baby Boomers made this country a better place. Their record since then is spotty—their presidents in particular have been mediocre—but that’s forgivable.
Obama’s not mediocre.
Obama was born in 1961. He’s Generation X.
He’s a late Boomer.
Totally Killer is set in New York. You lived in New York?
For ten years, from 1995 – 2005.
Weren’t you in Hoboken for part of that time?
Hoboken is the Sixth Borough.
Um, I’m no Rand-McNally, but Hoboken is in New Jersey.
Drop this line of questioning or I will kick your ass.
Why didn’t you write about New York as it was when you lived there?
It was cooler in ’91. I wish I’d lived there then. This is a theme in my life—I have an almost constant feeling that I’m arriving to the party just as the keg is farting foam. I always wanted to write a Gen X book, an answer to Coupland, but that ship sailed long ago. So I created that world for myself in the novel. A lost-and-gone-forever New York. It’s all changed now, even from when I lived there. The East Village just ain’t what it used to be.
You can say that again. What is that hideous monstrosity in Astor Place?
I don’t know, but it was clearly the work of the same mad architect who designed the parking lot at the New Paltz Stop ‘n’ Shop and the on-ramps from the Mid-Hudson Bridge to Route 9 in Poughkeepsie. Call him Frank Lloyd Wrong.
Do you read a lot?
As much as I can, which is never enough. I’m usually reading about seven or eight books at once. I have a short attention span, I guess.
According to Strong Opinions, Nabokov used to do the same thing.
That makes up for your Jessica Simpson jab.
Yeah? Even if I remind everyone that you correctly identified the star of Private Valentine without using IMDB?
Yeah. We’re even.
Do you think the book is going the way of the dodo?
That’s bullshit. People have been saying that for years, and there are more books than ever. I’ve always loved books. I’m a fetishist in that way. The Kindle is not for me. I buy books I already have, if I see a nice copy at a used bookstore. I bought a paperback of The Sun Also Rises the other day, because I liked the cover. I’ve read that book seven or eight times, and I have three other copies of it, but I bought it anyway.
What are your strengths as a writer?
I think my dialogue is halfway decent. I have an okay sense of story, I’d say, and I’m very good at offbeat analogies. In a memoir I’m writing about genealogy, for example, I have this sentence: “Slovakia was the Andrew Ridgeley to the Czech Republic’s George Michael in the Wham! that was Czechoslovakia.” I have a facility for coming up with stuff like that. For better or worse.
You’re Slovak, right?
On my father’s side. Olear is a Slovak name, a corruption of Olejár. People are forever inserting an apostrophe in it and pronouncing it “Oh-LEER.” It’s three syllables, “OH-lee-ar,” and I’m not Irish at all.
Blocking, stage directions. I’m always wanting to write, “She smiled.” I get frustrated that there are so few ways to say smile in English. And it irks me that I can’t come up with a more elegant way of saying, “He went to the table, sat down, and opened a beer.”
How else would you say that?
Better writers know. Pynchon would never allow a sentence like that in his books. I read Pain Killers by Jerry Stahl—he never wastes an opportunity to be creative, even with the stage directions. It’s really something.
I just checked the word count. We’re in the late-two-thousands.
Whatever, man. It’s for the Web. There’s no layout to worry about.
No, we should wrap it up. It’s late, and my kids get up at six no matter what.
They’re the same kids. It’s a self-interview.
See? I’m starting to fade.
What’s next for Greg Olear?
I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. My goal is to write one of everything, so that each book is different. I don’t know that my agent will be thrilled with that plan, but that’s what I’d like to do.
Who is your agent?
Mollie Glick at Foundry Media. She’s the best. I run out of superlatives.
Isn’t she also Jonathan Evison’s agent?
She is, which is how I know Jonathan, which is how I wound up on TNB.
That’s a good place to end—what has TNB meant to you?
TNB was a godsend for me. The most supportive, talented, and downright nice group of writers and readers I’ve ever had the pleasure to be involved with. And Listi is a saint. He really is. I’m blessed to be a part of it. And I hope some day we can have a convention. How fun would that be?
More fun than this interview was.