April 22, 2010
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.