Having been a fan of David Goodwillie’s excellent 2005 memoir, Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time, I was a bit apprehensive when I heard he was publishing his first novel, American Subversive. I feared the worst: the dreaded second book bomb. It’s almost a cliche, to follow a great book with a flop. Then I read the book.
a tale of contrasts, is no disappointment. The book’s main characters are Aiden Cole, a self-absorbed entertainment blogger in NYC, and Paige Roderick, a southern Belle turned eco-bomber. They meet after a bomb explodes in Midtown at the Barney’s on Madison Avenue. The intended target, an oil company, is not immediately discerned; the bomb has been detonated on the wrong floor by mistake.
The usual suspects are reigned in. Aiden receives an anonymous email, along with a photo of a woman fleeing the scene. The woman is identified as Paige Roderick. This is the woman behind the blast, the email tells him. But who in the hell is Paige Roderick? Should he go to the cops or break it in his blog?
What follows is the melding of two lives, in what struck me as a cross between Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.
I caught up with Goodwillie as his book tour came through Ohio and asked a few questions. I followed up later on the phone.
What attracted you to this subject matter?
I was interested in the idea of people with a broader view of society. Americans grow up with a somewhat narrow mindset of how to proceed in the world. There’s always a good guy and a bad guy, and capitalism is the only way to go. I grew up in Europe, and when I was in Paris there were always Communist demonstrations and nobody was ever alarmed. I think in America we grow up filtered from political events and sheltered from democracy.
Communist was a bad word when I was a kid. I didn’t even know what it meant until I grew up!
Exactly. I wanted to explore this theme via Paige and Aiden and bring two sides of their generation together.
Was there any autobiographical aspect in the character of Aiden?
No, not at all. I saw myself as neither of the characters in the book, but rather somewhere in the middle. I’m not apolitical and tend to be an avid news watcher, but I tried to keep the book agenda-free. I didn’t want it to be any kind of a liberal screed. I wanted readers to make their conclusions.
In your book, Aiden works for a fictional website called Roorback.com, a sort of Gawker-like venue. Are you going to be putting up a real life Roorback soon?
Yes, I hope to have it up and running in a few days. It will have the same name and be run by professional NYC bloggers who will be assuming the identities of the characters in the book. It’s part experiment, part promotion. We don’t know where it’s going yet.
You’ve been accumulating some accolades lately, including a nice mention in Vanity Fair. I was reading David Lipsky’s recently published conversations with David Foster Wallace, and Wallace speaks often about how praise and publicity really put the pressure on him to make every word he wrote bear the mark of a genius. Do you feel any similar pressure when your work is praised?
I don’t feel pressure in the sense that David Foster Wallace did. Wallace was in his own realm of genius and I can see him feeling the need to live up to that. My pressure comes from simply getting my book read and having it out there. Writing is my career, so I have to make sure readers know about my work so I can keep on writing. I think Wallace felt that art should speak for itself. The writer needs to be in the wings and let the world focus on the art and not the artist.
Did you have trouble switching from memoir-mode to fiction?
Novels are harder to write. You have to pick and choose your characters. You have to invent their world and keep the suspense going. Part of being a literary writer is to challenge yourself over and over—unlike a guy like, say, Dan Brown who basically writes the same book again and again. Joshua Ferris, who’s a friend of mine, recently came out with a new book [The Unnamed] which was completely different from his first novel, Then We Came to the End, which had a lot of comic schtick. And people were surprised when his second book was nothing like his first. But I think in the long run Ferris will be much more appreciated for making this move. It took a lot of courage.
Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to know when to stop writing, too. I think Harper Lee knew she had said all she had to say in To Kill A Mockingbird.
That too. Salinger included. Hard to stop though, if you are a compulsive writer!
David Goodwillie is working on another novel while he follows the Mets in what he hopes will be an amazing season of victory.