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.

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DAVID C. BREITHAUPT was born in the heart of the Cold War, in 1959. He grew up in central Ohio, the youngest of four brothers. His mother was an artist; his father, a political rabble rouser. He studied fine arts in college. Lived in NYC in the 1980s where he worked in various bookstores, including the great Brazenhead on East 84th street. He was an archives assistant to Allen Ginsberg and worked with his amazing staff. Did some part-time work as a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone. Quit drinking in 1987. Fell in and out of love. Kept moving. Moved back to Ohio with his family, Christa, Kate and Jo - worked in a college library. Snuck his work into various magazines like Exquisite Corpse, Rant, Main Street. Wrote bio-lit essays for the American and British Writers Series (Scribners) on James Purdy, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch under the editorship of Jay Parini. He edited a book on the works of writer poet, Charles Plymell called Hand On the Doorknob (2000 Water Row Press). Buy it now, please. His work is in the anthology, Thus spake The Corpse vol. 2, Best of the Exquisite Corpse (Black Sparrow Press, 2000). (Please buy that, too.) Breithaupt currently lives and work in Columbus, Ohio, for a sports newspaper while making occasional contributions to his federal restitution. He just finished a memoir with the working title Dada Entry: Picasso, Proust and Federal Prison as well as a collection of short stories, My Curves Are Not Mad with an intro by Jonathan Lethem. He is looking for publishers. Thank you.

17 responses to “American Subversive: Talking with David Goodwillie”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Lovely interview, David and David.
    I’d never thought about Harper Lee like that. Makes a lot of sense!
    Off to order ‘American Subversive’ on Amazon…
    Thank you both for this.

    • Thanks Zara, I often wondered if Harper Lee is sitting on a pile of manuscripts, I suspect not tho. I guess we will find out when she leaves this world!

      • Zara Potts says:

        I remember reading somewhere that Truman Capote had hinted that he had, in fact substantially written ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and that was the reason why she didn’t write another book. But I don’t believe it.

        • That’s quite a story, tho who knows, sounds like something Truman might have said when he was drunk. Pretty arrogant thing to say. They certainly looked like each other when they were kids, check out the early dust jacket photos. Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, does have a sort of Mockingbird feel to it. Who knows.

        • Zara Potts says:

          If I recall correctly -he was drunk when he hinted at it. I don’t know that he actually came right out and said he had written it, but he certainly gave the impression that he had. It’s an interesting concept though..
          I love the fact that Capote is a character in Mockingbird. I don’t know why, but it always makes me happy to think about that.

        • Now I’ll have to reread their early books. I worked in a Womwraths bookstore in the mid 80s in NYC. We were on Madison Ave and East 85th Street. During the summers Harper Lee would come to NY and visit us, I think she had an apartment nearby. She was a wonderful woman, somewhere I have a picture of her I took, holding a copy of Mockingbird. Those are precious memories.

        • Zara Potts says:

          That’s fantastic! What a great memory. Did you ever meet Capote?

        • No, never met him but I saw him now and then walking up 1st Avenue by the UN. I think he had an apartment down there. He’s hard to miss and I had the impression that he liked being noticed on the street but maybe that depended on his mood and alcohol blood level.

  2. Great job David B. American Subversive sounds like a fine read. You also mentioned The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. Second time this week I’ve heard that book come up in discussion. Monday, I was listening to interview on ESPN Radio. Phil Jackson, on a flight to an away game earlier in the season, gave all of his players books to read. Luke Walton got The Monkey Wrench Gang. I actually ordered it Tuesday. Will have to add Goodwillie’s tale to my ever-growing list of books recommended by way of TNB.

    • David Breithaupt says:

      That’s a great story about Phil Jackson, I hadn’t heard that. I’m sure you will like the Monkey Wrenchers and if you do, you should check out the sequel, Hayduke Lives! which is also great. Ah! Another book to read! Better too much than not enough. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Great interview! Thanks for posting this. Regarding Lee and Salinger, do you really think they thought they said all they needed to say? I think there must have been other forces at work there: fear, desire for privacy, greater fear, greater desire for more privacy. I read somewhere that Salinger was writing to the very end. I wonder if Harper Lee is secretly writing as well.

    • I have heard rumors that Salinger left a pile of manuscripts behind but haven’t seen it confirmed. I’m anxious to know. You raise a good point, there are many things these writers could have gone to write about but maybe they said all THEY had to say? Maybe they wore out their muse? I was just tossing it out there. Maybe JD became sick of the Glass family. Maybe he had other interests. Maybe we will find out shortly. Anyone hear of any surfacing Salinger scripts? Must find out!

  4. Joe Daly says:

    Thanks, David- very cool interview! Exactly the kind of questions that interest me as a potential reader. I especially enjoyed the dialogue about the pressures of writing as applied to DFW and David G. Well done!

    • Check out that David Lipsky book on Wallace. I think it could have been edited better but it does have some gems in it for the casual and hard core Wallace fans. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, nice one, David! I’ll have to check out both of the books now.

    Curious that the weight of expectations gets mentioned in the interview – do you think that has anything to do with sophomore syndrome?

    • I think the bigger the hype, the bigger the expectation. I really liked Goodwillie’s memoir, I thought it was so good it would be hard to repeat. But he made a good transition into his novel and the more I spoke with him about it, the more I appreciated the book and what he was trying to achieve. Sophomore syndrome? I think that’s part of it. I mentioned David Foster Wallace because he was a classic example of pressure and demands, he was hyper aware. I think he thought too much. Let me know what you think if you read them.

  6. Judy Prince says:

    Thanks, David. This was a straightforward and engaging interview. So glad you asked Goodwillie about switching from memoir writing to fiction; his answer was a helpful look at the mechanics and spirit of fiction-writing.

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