The interview was conducted at the Central Library, in the area of Los Angeles known as downtown. When I arrived, the writer was already on the second floor perusing scores of old piano music. After quiet introductions and an awkward handshake, we went up by escalator to a spacious, well-lighted hallway on the top floor that overlooked the massive interior of the library. From where we sat, three levels above ground, we could see four more levels below and the networks of escalators that formed the spine of the building. We were discussing the merits of this magnificent view when we recognized we should not be speaking in such a quiet space. Each of us was afraid of disturbing those around us, and so the interview commenced in silence, using handheld devices to send each other the following.
Please tell me that you wrote The Paper Man on paper.
Sure. Not only was it on paper—it was composed of paper.
I cut words from old American newspapers and glued them onto sheets of acid-free paper, constructing one sentence at a time. Eventually, we had a book about a man made of paper written entirely out of paper words.
If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you made that up.
I’m glad you can trust me. My only regret with that technique is that there were so many other words I wanted to put in the book, but the newspapers didn’t have them. That’s why there isn’t any contemporary technology.
I’ll go along with this. And so if you needed to make revisions, that must have been a challenge.
Not at all. Some pages became very quilt-like, with layers of revisions on top of each other. The manuscript is quite beautiful.
I can’t wait to see it. Do you think the choice in writing tool affects the writing?
It must. I know that when I write by hand, the sentences tend to be written more slowly, and thus more thought out, so less editing is needed afterward. On a computer, the writing happens very rapidly, but often requires a lot more revision. I’m very curious how reading tools are changing the way we retain or absorb information. E-books are probably consumed more quickly than print books, and I wonder if their texts are retained better by readers. And there’s also this new technology that apparently displays one word at a time very quickly, that is supposed to let us read faster than ever before. But will we remember what we read?
Only time will tell. Back to the book—there’s quite a variety of characters. In addition to Michael, the paper man, we have a one-eyed radio host, a dead mermaid, an infamous artist, a bunch of masked citizens, an accountant who aspires to be a playwright, and a not-so-sweet former high-school sweetheart. There’s also the setting, which is arguably a character, of the anonymous city by the sea. As their writer, did you have any favorites?
I like them all equally, for different reasons, for all their strengths and flaws. I grew very attached to their stories as I worked on the book, and will miss them. But I wouldn’t want to return to any of them in a future book. I think the most interesting moments in their lives happen in the novel.
The city by the sea could be a stand in for so many international cities that are next to a large body of water. Was there one city that was your inspiration?
I read a lot of translated literature and picked up so many small details about different cities from around the world that made their way into the book. I also looked at several old city maps, and added different shops and generic landmarks to the book because of that. I didn’t want any specifics that tied to the setting of the book to one particular city in the world, though, and so I hope readers bring a variety images of their own to the story.
Was there much research involved for the book?
Not until the very late stages of writing. Most research was for the situation of the setting of the book. In The Paper Man, the city by the sea is at the top of a peninsula that connects to a northern continent, and the north is threatening to annex the city and make it part of its own territory. So I found a book by Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms, extremely helpful for understanding the fate of various nation states in the world that no longer exist. Also, I was fascinated and inspired by Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man, which gives the history of our modern concepts of public and private selves. Not until the late eighteenth century did humans develop the idea of a private, non-public, persona. This gave a lot of material to consider for the city by the sea, where strangers were experiencing a lot of anxiety about being a united front against the north, and fighting amongst themselves for their individuality.
Yes, there’s a lot of tension between fitting in and standing out. There’s also a lot in the book about art. Did you look at or study a lot of art for the book?
I am big fan of modernist and contemporary art, so most of the art details were just from observations over the years. Reading interviews with artists were helpful for the character of Doppelmann, an artist who becomes a kind of mentor for Michael. I wanted Doppelmann to make grand statements, sometimes over-the-top statements, about art, and to see the world as art.
One of the other characters to undergo a significant change is Maiko, the unemployed fur model.
An interesting fact: she originally worked on a cruise ship, but was gone for many parts of the book. As her character developed, I wanted to have her present in the story more, and so she somehow became unemployed, and I thought there might be some interesting tension if she was unemployed due to a piece of art. That is how she became a fur model, put out of work because of mannequins.
Interesting origin story. Well, even though this is not written by hand, I am tired of typing all of this on such a small device. Shall we adjourn to the rooftop bar?
Do you know the password to enter it?
Of course. Lean over now and I shall whisper.
But what if those around us hear?
Fine. Let’s switch to paper. Have you a pen?
GALLAGHER LAWSON is a graduate of U.C. Riverside’s Palm Desert M.F.A. program. He has worked as a travel writer and technical writer, and plays classical piano. He lives in Los Angeles. The Paper Man is his first novel.
Author photo credit: Martin Rusch