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.

American Subversive, 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.




JC: Last week JR reviewed David Goodwillie’s new novel, American Subversive, saying that it picked up where Trance left off, and reminded him of Eat the Document, both of which are good enough to get my attention. Here he is again with a fine interview with the author himself.

Jason Rice: Where did the idea for American Subversive come from? Up to this point you’d written a memoir, Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.  The first novel, was it looming?

It was at least in part because of the memoir that I started writing about two characters completely different from myself (unless you’re David Sedaris, one memoir at a relatively young age is more than enough).  Paige Roderick is an idealistic young woman from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.  She’s from a military family, and when her older brother dies in Iraq, she turns to radicalism as a way to avenge his death.  The book’s other main character, Aidan Cole, is a failed journalist-turned-gossip-blogger, who starts investigating Paige’s group after a bomb goes off in New York.  I saw them as two sides of my generation—a woman who cares too much about the world, and a guy who’s apathetic and barely cares at all (at least in the beginning).  I guess I fall somewhere in the middle.  The book had been evolving in my mind for some time. I wanted to write about serious and often controversial themes—politics and media, apathy and activism, the way people should react to events in the larger world—and do so in a thriller-ish way.


The state of America right now seems perfect for these kinds of characters to spring forward and grab the spotlight.  Do you see someone like Paige or Aidan surfacing, or a Weatherman group forming?  With the past eight years — terrible at best — behind us, isn’t it ripe for something like you describe in American Subversive?

I’ve always been fascinated by American extremist movements—especially The Weather Underground.  Imagining something like that occurring today—an organized group of middle- and upper-middle class students (most of them liberal arts kids or Ivy Leaguers) using violent means in an attempt to stir revolt, and end a misguided war—might be hard to do.  But that’s exactly the problem.  We’ve been so conditioned as a nation—and this dates back to Joe McCarthy and the early rhetoric of the Cold War—to worship at the alter of untethered capitalism, that a dangerous close-mindedness—a bunker-like us-against-them mentality—has come to define our politics.  I’m reminded of a great line from the New Yorker writer, Ian Frazier:  “Capitalism, having defeated communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy.”  Well, I’m not saying there’s a better answer than capitalism—indeed I haven’t found one.  Certainly, The Weather Underground (misguided as they were) didn’t provide one.  But the seeds of their struggle, their idealistic conviction that taking some form of action could not just jumpstart wide reform but change the face of a nation…well, we could use a bit more of that these days.  You can look at what happens to the characters in American Subversive to understand that violent extremism is no cure for what ails us, but neither is burying our heads in the sand.  Collective apathy, silent terrorism (if you will), may be the deadliest form of all.


To achieve the “what happens next” quality of this book, you do two things: keep your action in one or two places, and never tell us anything we don’t need to know.  Do you think that’s accurate? And was that hard to achieve or involve great discipline?

Writing American Subversive was certainly a learning experience.  I was trying to toe that very thin line between literature and suspense (so many books, it seems, fall into one camp or the other).  I wanted to write the best book I could write in terms of language, but I was also quite aware of keeping the story moving, of building momentum.  It was hard at times, especially since the novel is told in (more or less) alternating voices and styles, and flips back and forth in time.  Once or twice I wrote myself into a corner, but I always got myself out (with an occasional assist from my editor).   Now, I think the plot may be the strongest part of the whole thing.


You said you did a lot of research to write this novel, but the book doesn’t seem “fact heavy,” you release details slowly, and make them grow organically.  Where did your research start for this book?

I’m a stickler for facts, even in fiction. It was important that American Subversive “feel” real, that the reader could envision these events actually occurring.  In researching the book, I read dozens of novels and memoirs, from political thrillers to extremist tell-alls–even bomb-making manuals.  I also ended up speaking with all kinds of experts, including an FBI ordnance specialist, and a former member of the Weather Underground.   I wanted, as much as possible, to understand what living underground was really like—not just the issues of movement, technology and assimilation, but the minute-to-minute pressures and anxieties.  Most were helpful, some were wary.  One former Weatherman told me, via email, to stop dredging up the past, and he actually got pretty angry.  When I told my agent, she laughed and asked me what, exactly, I’d expected.  These people blew up buildings for real.  Some of them might not be the most stable members of society.


You mention 9/11 in this book, and you really nail the mood in Manhattan after that awful day.  Do you think it was a watershed moment for our generation? (I’m 41.)  Can things ever be like they once were? There seems to be a level of paranoia in my own life that I just can’t shake, like the government got away with something in the last 10 years. Do you feel the same thing?

I didn’t want American Subversive to be a “9/11 book”—for one, it takes place in 2010—but of course it’s impossible to write about politics and terror without 9/11 looming over the story.  The events that precipitate the narrative—the Iraq war, the mood in New York City—can certainly be traced back to 9/11, and yet most New Yorkers I know feel pretty divorced—or at least separated from that awful day.  Many of us lived through it first or second hand, but we’ve moved on—or should I say pretended to.  We’re aware, of course, that we’re still target number one on most terrorist hit lists, but it’s not something you can think about too much without going a little crazy.


I like to ask writers I interview who they’re reading right now, and who shaped them as writers, asking something silly like what are your influences.  What’s on your nightstand?

I never took many writing classes—I thought being surrounded by so many other (no doubt better) writers would scare me off.  Instead I learned to write by reading voraciously—all kind of stuff, from serious literature to whodunits.   I write about books quite a lot now (for The Daily Beast and other places) so my reading is a mix of books I pick out and stuff that’s picked out for me.  A few recent favorites include Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, (absolutely hilarious), Donald Ray Pollack’s Knockemstiff (absolutely devastating), and—to throw in a little nonfiction—Ian Frazier’s On The Rez (absolutely perfect).


Are you working on another novel?

Yes.  And they don’t get any easier.


Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, David.

My pleasure, Jason.  Thanks so much.




JR: I was keenly interested in American Subversive as soon as I read the profile in Publishers Weekly.  A book about a subversive American, or someone who wants to rail endlessly against the machine known as modern day society, however you slice it, it’s a lonely occupation.

American Subversive picks up where Sorrentino’s Trance left off a few years ago, but this time it’s not Patty Hearst, it’s another girl name Paige who has lost her brother to the fight over oil, known as the Iraq war.  The voice Goodwillie uses reminds me of Eat the Document, Spiotta’s overlooked masterpiece of a few years ago, basically about a woman on the run for something she did as a young woman (the “oh shit, what have I done? Do I really believe in these ideals… enough to ruin my life story”).  Except where Sorrentino and Spiotta carefully examined these singular lives of radicals, Goodwillie broadens the horizon slightly by offering another voice, that of a blogger named Aidan Cole, who is a lazy drinker (are there any other kind?), commenter on society in Manhattan, circa right now, or a few years in the future.  I liked both Aidan’s voice and Paige’s confessional narrative, they seemed extremely earnest and yet naïve, like they really could change the world, Aidan through the internet, and Paige by joining a group of radicals who were planning on taking the fight to the street, or office buildings of major corporations that have, through capitalism (which is your right to pursue, no matter how you look doing it), wronged the world.

I agree with the author, large companies who have interests that don’t seem to fit the idea of democracy, are ruling the world, in a take no prisoners fashion, the rich get rich, and the poor, well, fuck you.  Make money, and squash employee’s souls, or as the old whorehouse ideal goes, either lie down and get fucked, or get up and leave.  Aidan, through his search for Paige, goes through his life, step by step, and finds that he’s unknowingly already involved, and the further he gets, the worse it gets, and to be honest, isn’t that how life is?  Paige’s life on the run might just be how Aidan’s life was destined to become.  Paige, for all her bravery, and willingness to work with two other patriots, Keith, and Lindsay, reminded me of a school girl who got herself involved with a bad boy, and then when the time came to take off her clothes, she decided she didn’t have the balls.  I didn’t particularly believe in Paige, but I was saddened by what she’d become.  Tearing off through the streets of Manhattan, the wilderness of the northeast, places where the world isn’t really her own, and realizing she will never really matter to anyone, despite her best efforts.  She’s part of something bigger in this book, clearly it’s a “Weatherman” situation that should and can go on for your entire life.  Paige wants to fight the injustices she sees in the world, big business being the offender.  But can she? No matter what she does, big business will always be here.  So we’re supposed to believe that by blowing up office buildings that’s going to right the ship? Like the end of Fight Club, where Tyler blows up all the credit card companies? Giving everyone a clean slate?  Then what? It’s feast or famine, no law, no society? Who will teach our children, wash our clothes, pave the roads, create vaccines?  Aidan, tries to wrap his mind around this idea, and seems to offer little help, except by screwing things up.  There is an innocence lost in this book, Goodwillie delivers a duo that doesn’t know just how manipulated they really are, but makes the reader believe there is a chance, redemption, something good waiting for all the bad spots he puts his characters in.  In the end it’s a fresh take on an old story, which is to say, it’s executed very, very well, and has a wonderful “what happens” next quality to the narrative.  Aidan and Paige seemed real to me, and the way the story progresses, made me feel like they’re still out there somewhere, planning the next “action”.  Or worse…because it can always be worse.  Stay tuned for an interview with David Goodwillie, and his take on the essay, When We Fell In Love.

JR