February 25, 2010
Over the last bunch of years Craig Nova has been faithfully publishing one novel after the other, each a little different than the last, and every book taking on a different topic. I discovered Mr. Nova with Incandescence, a truly great novel about a man realizing his limitations, and that life is short. Mr. Nova’s writing has expressed wonderful ideas about the human experience and how what we do everyday shapes us as much as it defines us to other people. I was thrilled when Craig agreed to answer a few questions.
JR: I’ve heard that you do a lot of research for each novel, what was involved with a book about Weimar Germany, set in 1930 Berlin? I know you spent time with State Troopers for Cruisers, and some of that novel actually happened. Can you give us a little insight into both books, how you prepared to write them?
CN: When I wrote Cruisers I spent some time with a Vermont State Trooper, that is I rode at night with him. He had been involved in a very bad circumstance as described in the book. One of the most fascinating things for me was to be with someone who had to do it right the first time. Writers, of course, have time for a many drafts, but this man’s work was more intense and immediate than that. He had to go up to a car in the dark. No one knows what is in the car. In fact, I read some martial arts books when I was watching him do this, and he had a wonderful way, almost (almost) spiritual in the way he approached the discipline of being out there and being alone. He was a tremendous inspiration, both for the book and for my own life. He taught me a particular kind of dignity.
For Berlin, well, I went to the city to see what the landscape was like and to look around at was left of the architecture, although most of it had been bombed in the war. But some places were still left. And, of course, the shadows of the dark era were there. For instance, I went to the Lustgarten, which is a sort of grassy green in the city, and then went to a book store where I found a photographic history of Berlin. There, in the middle, was a picture of the Lustgarten filled with a Nazi demonstration. I could feel the shadow.
JR: The Informer tells the story of a several people, but remains in one place, which you and I have talked about, setting and location, how important that is not only for the writer but for the reader. What kind of discipline was needed to keep this story from growing out past your ideas of where you wanted it to go? You’ve talked to me about the Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock as being an important novel for you, and a good example of staying in one place.
CN: I think the key to staying in one place is to remember that the most important things in a novel are story, story, and story. This means that you are stuck with not explaining the action by referring to other places or other times, but seeing what the characters can do, right where they are, to advance a story. For instance, in the Informer, a character has been told to kill a woman, but when he sees her, he falls in love with her, or thinks he does, and so the method of storytelling is to see how this plays out between the two of them. Is he going to kill her, or is she going to sleep with him. She knows he is coming for her, and has always used sex as a weapon. What happens?
JR: Information during the war was very important, and a tool for your heroine Gaelle, what kind of writing and rewriting did you have to do to give that character weight and importance. Nick Laird, an British novelist talks about dialogue being about what’s not said, in a lot of ways Gaelle is telling us a lot, by not telling us anything. Is that accurate?
CN: Yes. I often refer to an essay written by Robert Towne about screen writing in which he says the screenwriter’s job is to stay out of the actor’s way. I think that a writer’s job is to stay out of the reader’s way, that is to let the reader see what is happening. It is what I like to call transparent writing. The reader knows. The character knows what is happening. The writer knows, too, but it is never mentioned.
For instance, in The Great Gatsby, no one ever says, “This is a novel about the brutality of the American class system and how, in a marriage, differences in power can be brutalizing.” But it’s there. Although unsaid.
JR: This isn’t a police procedural in the truest sense, did you fear at times when you were writing this story that people would want that? Did you ever think about the reader while you were working on this book? Do you ever?
CN: No, it isn’t a straight procedural, but it is about people who worked in Inspectorate A, the serious crimes section of the Berlin Police force, and so I always had that to fall back on. Mostly, I was concerned about and am often concerned about in novels the attempt of a character to do the right thing. Usually, I try to find a way to make this difficult, since, of course, in ordinary life, this is what human beings are often up against. How do we know what the right thing is and how do we do it, particularly when it may cost as a lot or everything?
JR: On the other side of things Armina Treffen holds a kind of sensitive power on the story; it was really interesting to watch her progress. Can you tell me how you got to her?
CN: Well, I was interested in an attractive and smart woman who had come into a new job. That is, in the 20s, like today, women came into jobs that they hadn’t had before, and so this is a young woman who was working with a bunch of hardnosed German detectives. So the tension there is that while she is educated and even elegant she still has to deal with these guys. Not easy. And then she is alone and she believes that she is alone because the man that was meant for her was killed in the first World War. Finally, of course, she meets a man, and I wanted to do something that isn’t done much these days in novels.
That is, in novels in the modern era, men and women don’t get along. They have sex, but no romance, and so I thought I would try to be daring and to include romance, too.
And then I wanted to bring a whiff of the erotic to Armina’s work as a cop. She thinks about sex when she is practicing on the pistol range. Or she thinks about being in bed with a man she loves when she is in danger, just to calm down. The idea was to combine the erotic with the dangerous to see what effect could be obtained.
JR: Over the last few years you’ve talked about Cruisers being adapted into a movie, and even The Good Son, (If I’m wrong, please correct me). What’s the status of those projects?
CN: After I did 18 drafts of a script for The Good Son for some Canadian producers, their company merged with one in Los Angeles and that, as far as I know, was the end of that. Still, I learned a lot doing the 18 drafts, and that is very valuable information to have.
Cruisers is being worked on now. One screenwriter has done three drafts and a new one has just been brought in. A young guy in Los Angeles, Jordan Bloch, who seems to have enormous amounts of energy, is behind this, and I am acting as an executive producer. I hope this doesn’t mean that when someone gets hurt on the set, I will be the one to get sued.
Time, as always, will tell. The question is what will it say?
JR: There are scenes of pure beauty in The Informers, and recently I can point to similar moments inCruisers where Russell Boyd, your hero cop, doubles as a kind of wild animal spreading a scent for hunters to follow, can you tell me where you got that idea? I was particularly moved by that and also noticed similar passages in The Universal Donor, and Wetware. Are you consciously trying to build scenes around a profound moment, or does it work the other way around?
CN: I like to bring the natural world into books, if only because in the modern age we seem to forget that it exists, until, of course, we have a hurricane or an earthquake. In Cruisers, I knew a woman who had organized a hunt, and rather than a fox, they used someone to spread a scent over the land where the hunters were allowed to ride. I was instantly fascinated by this person, who has called a fox, and in fact I had planned to write a sort of DH Lawrence novel about the fox, a working class guy, who gets involved with a member of the hunt. Somehow, I didn’t do that, although I might yet, and so I had this notion of writing about the fox, that is the one who spreads the scent, and so it seemed to fit (since pursuit is a part of Cruisers). So I used it. Of course, I also tried to use many, many other things like this (things I had heard or made up) that didn’t fit and so they ended up in the “Previous Drafts Pile.”
JR: Peter Straub for the Washington Post said “Cruisers demonstrates that the boundary between literature and genre fiction, once fiercely maintained, has grown tissue-thin.” Are you trying to write something within a genre, or would you rather function in a literary world?
CN: I think that the writers are in a dog fight for readers. And if the use of some suspense, which writers having been using, by the way, since the beginning of writing, why then I am glad to do it. And, of course, when I look at my favorite writers, Graham Greene, JM Coetzee, Albert Camus, they all use it (what is more suspenseful than the onslaught of a plague, as in The Plague?) I think writers need to remember the reader a little more, just as it is pleasurable to have the feeling the story is going forward and that the chances are pretty good that the reader might come along. Actually, this is one of the most profound pleasures of writing a novel.
JR: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me Craig. As always, it’s been a pleasure. (The Informergoes on sale March 16th)
CN: Well, it is my pleasure. Thanks for the chance. And keep me posted on your own work.