Masthead | Contributors | Submissions | Archives | Subscribe

 

Interviews

KGB Interview:  Andrew Lewis Conn

image

Andrew Lewis Conn is a lifelong Brooklyn resident and the author of the critically acclaimed novel, P (Soft Skull Press, 2003). Following a starred review in KIRKUS, P was chosen as one of the summer’s best books by Nerve, The Oregonian, Salon, and Time Out New York; one of the best books of the year by The Austin Chronicle and The Village Voice; and long-listed as “one of the best books of the millennium (so far!)” by The Millions.

Conn’s latest novel, O, Africa! (Hogarth/Crown), is following in P’s successful footsteps, fast-gaining praise with each read.  For example, The Chicago Tribune recently ran a great review (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-06-06/features/chi-o-africa-andrew-lewis-conn-20140606_1_micah-printers-row-journal-rain-king). And KIRKUS calls it “[a] wildly ambitious and entertaining novel that manages to be both slapstick and deeply tragic.”

Given the excitement surrounding the release of O, Africa!, KGB is delighted to present an interview with this talented and unique author, who generously shares insights into his new novel, his future work, and the writing life. 

O, Africa! takes place at the end of the “Roaring 20’s.” Why did you choose this time period as a setting for the book, and do you feel there are similarities between then and now which you are trying (covertly or overtly) to share with readers?

The seed of the idea for O, Africa! came from an incident in the lives of the Korda brothers, who made several trips to Africa in the early period of moviemaking to create a vault of B-roll footage of the bush—an anecdote that immediately suggested to me a big, freewheeling book that could accommodate many of the themes that most interest me. But I didn’t intentionally set out to write a book set in the 1920s. My goal wasn’t to write an allegory that exploits similarities between that era and our own or that aims to score cheap points about a less politically correct time writing from the perspective of an allegedly more enlightened era.

A good-bad example of that kind of thing: I expected to hate the Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby, which makes explicit connections between the 1920s and hip-hop culture and modern Wall Street extravagances (largely for the purposes, I suspect, of putting over a very good soundtrack). But I actually found myself enjoying that picture, and for all of Luhrmann’s stylistic ticks and throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what sticks visual flourishes, the story came through, the thing was still recognizably Gatsby (and googly-eyed Toby Maguire might be the ideal Nick Carraway).

As fun as the 1920s were to write about, the period mattered less and less to me the deeper I got into the book. And any kind of writerly intimidation factors I might have experienced at the beginning regarding historical fidelity gradually faded away the closer I got to the characters, the more psychological volume they began to accrue.

O, Africa! uses real people and events from the 1920’s to propel the action, illuminate characters, and add historical importance to the writing. How did you so deftly and creatively strike the balance between reality and fiction?  Meaning, did you have a story in mind to write and then selected a time in history to tell it best, or were you interested in this time in history and created a story to tell (the history) best?

History is really an enormous blind spot for me. I’m one of those pretty smart people that don’t know anything about, say, the causes of the first World War or ancient Roman emperors or the wives of Henry VIII. (I’m not bragging about my ignorance, just reporting.) So, I can’t say it was the time period that drew me to the material beyond some basic faithfulness to that original nugget about the Korda brothers, a desire to write about the silent movie era and the birth of the motion picture industry in America, and just a general feeling that the 1920s would be a cool and fun and propulsive period to tackle.

The distinctions you make concerning “reality” and “fiction” really didn’t occur to me when working on the book. My experience of things is that it’s all about sticking close to the characters. It’s about identifying the question that a character is asking of the world (whether or not he/she knows he/she is doing the asking), and then examining if that question is big enough, compelling enough, to sustain the dramatic engine of a big narrative arc (and the author’s own interest in the material) over the several years and hundreds of pages of prose it will likely take to tell the story?

I remember explicitly telling myself something to that effect when I’d boxed myself into tight corners when writing P: “Just stay close to the experience of the characters; keep asking what they’re looking for, and the book will turn out OK.” So, if I had one piece of advice for writers (apart from Saul Bellow’s immortal words: “Don’t worry about writing good.”) it’s be this: demand of yourself to be a perception machine, describe accurately a character’s thoughts and senses and wants, and everything else will flow from there.

So, for me, characters and themes always arrive first. Plot comes later, in the form of the clothesline that’s going to carry those characters and themes from one tenement marked “beginning,” across the alleyway to another one marked “the end.” And character development and voice is always a matter of achieving what I referred to earlier as psychological volume. Meaning, I don’t necessarily have to like or approve of a character’s actions or choices (and I’ve actually had situations where I’ve put myself in a funk for weeks and months at a time because a character I love does something that bothers me), but they do need to appear credible to me. Put another way, when characters demand realization in the present tense of the author’s imaginative experience of them, the time period, I think, becomes incidental. Genre distinctions like historic fiction no longer apply. Stay true to the characters, and I don’t care if it’s science fiction, horror, fantasy, or historic fiction: page by page, scene by scene, beat by beat, what we’re talking about is psychological realism.

Your first novel, P, was an outstanding success. What did you learn from writing this novel that helped you with O, Africa!, and also was there anything about the business of writing and promoting books that impacted your approach to your new novel?

The first lesson is that you can write a novel. And I’m not trying to be glib by saying that: writing a book is a big undertaking, no one is asking you to do it (and, in fact, a lot of people might be asking you not to do it), and it takes a lot of commitment and a lot of simply getting one’s ass in a chair and staying there and internalizing a kind of pacing and patience that you can only learn by doing. (It’s no accident that, considered strictly as a physical endeavor, people often compare novel writing to running marathons, even though one is (primarily) a sedentary activity.)

The experience of writing P also taught me that even if said first novel earns a binder-full of good reviews—for which you are eternally and everlastingly grateful—that even if you do a bunch of readings and a lot of cool stuff happens around the book, it might not alter the fundamentals of how you make your daily bread; or the time, energy, and attention you’re able to devote to your writing. The years’-long aftershocks of that recognition take the form of a period of deep reckoning during which you might ask yourself just why it is you’ve chosen to devote yourself to this rather difficult and monastic and uncertain work. The answer to that question might provide you with fuel enough for your next book.

Practically speaking, though, I agree with Philip Roth, who’s very much a kind of Joe DiMaggio figure to me. The great man recently said something to the effect that he felt like an amateur each time out. Meaning, each book puts its own intellectual and emotional demands on the author; the experience of writing each book might be compared to living in another country, speaking a different language, making a different set of friends. Day by day, page by page, your job is to get this particular set of characters, with their particular set of needs and concerns, set against particular historic forces, into and out of a particular set of rooms and locations and situations. So beyond some basic lessons about storytelling mechanics and muscle memory concerning the pacing and patience described earlier, the issues involved in actualizing every novel are uniquely their own.

I’m equally interested in the second part of your question, however, regarding the publishing business and the work of promoting books, and whether that influences the writing process. I joked with my wife many times through the years of this book’s conception and realization how I was going to drop it to write instead a post-apocalyptic trilogy about fallen teenage angels starring a heroine named Epiphany or Astrid, or a story about a robot plane paired with a renegade cop who plays by his own rules. . .

But the thing is, even if I were to very self-consciously try to game the system in some way, you’re wired the way you’re wired, your obsessions are your obsessions, the tug of your own psychological demands would will out and ultimately I suspect I’d end up with a very weird, likely non-commercial book about a bunch of neurotic fallen teenage angels sitting around asking existential questions and making bad puns, or my robot plane would suffer a crisis of conscience and my renegade cop would decide it’s best to return to his Brooklyn boyhood home to make amends with his family or something. . . That’s a long way of saying no, I don’t think about the publishing machinery at all when I’m working on a book. When I’m writing, I’m too concerned about the immediate challenges involved in getting my characters into and out of rooms in convincing ways.

I have worked in public relations and corporate communications for almost 20 years, however, so I do have some understanding about the realities of the business side of things, which kicks into gear as we near publication. (Meaning, I know just enough about PR to drive myself and my publishing house team nuts.) I’m sensitive about my writing, but not precious at all about this part of the process and what it takes to launch a book into a distracted and overcrowded marketplace and hope it punches its way through.

Releasing a book is like opening a small business. You gotta do everything you can; call in every favor; ask every piece of advice; and bust your ass to make the thing work. For me, there’s also a Judeo-Christian work ethic thing at play: a publishing house is paying me; I’ve signed a contract. As I see it, writing the book is only part of that responsibility. I’m enormously proud of O, Africa! , which achieves about 85-90 percent of what I envisioned for it at the start. But showing up and doing everything I can to get people to buy and read the damn thing is an equally important part of the job. I’ll do weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, cruise ships, the seniors circuit. . .

What’s next?

I always sort of laugh at this question. Like, OK, you’ve just spent the last seven years of your terrestrial existence laboring on a big novel that’s finally coming out, but what have you done for me lately?! So, near-term candidates for what’s next. . .  A nap. . . Some play time with my four-year-old daughter. . . Serious hours dedicated to achieving a deep tan. . . Remaining gainfully employed at my not-uninteresting and not-undemanding day job. . .

But, none of that stuff scratches the existential itch. Or, stated another way, as a writer buddy of mine once put it, “The only thing more miserable than a writer working on a book is a writer not working on a book.” So, the novel I’ve been working on for the past few months is entirely different from O, Africa! It’s a contemporary pitch black comedy set in a New York City office that I am hoping will be savage and hilarious. Imagine a David Lynch movie set in an NYC office. (Why there hasn’t been a kind of Lynchian look at corporate life—as opposed to small town America and lumber mills—is kind of baffling to me.)

I don’t think novelists have tackled in a satisfying way just how much work life has changed over such a relatively short period of time—perhaps ten or fifteen years—and how the work product of most offices has changed. There are serious questions about how do the demands of meeting this constant, never-ending stream of communications loops alter a person’s psyche, attention, sense of purpose, family life? (When I was handed my first BlackBerry at work five years ago, I joked that the device’s invention effectively invalidates 150 years of labor law.) Dramatizing those issues—how we spend our days, how work changes us, how technology alters our relationships to ourselves and to each other—is, I think, the responsibility of the novelist.

Having just started the thing, I feel like it’s the book I’ve been working up to for 20 years—that it holds the potential to be my Catch-22, my Portnoy, my Rabbit, my Corrections; that it promises to be a cancer cure and a peace pipe and a mission to Mars—but, then, I have to believe that. That’s the kind of ego-inflation that needs to occur at the outset of starting a book, which is a very vulnerable and tenuous space to occupy. I’ve found that one needs to convince oneself that one’s chosen subject is of the absolute first order of magnitude, that your vision for the thing is wholly unprecedented, that if you can bring it off, this crystalline conception (before you get into the nuts and bolts of figuring it all out, of getting those characters believably into and out of rooms), that it will be the book of a lifetime.

All that hedging aside, I sincerely believe I’ve landed on a great subject, and I’m determined to test the size of my talent against it. The title of the book is The Dream Life of Corporations and revealing it seems an appropriate way to conclude this interview, which I’ve enjoyed!

image

Andrew Lewis Conn is a Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where he double-majored in English and Film Studies.  Conn attended Mark Twain Intermediate School for the Gifted and Talented in Coney Island and Stuyvesant High School. Intensely loyal to his native borough, he lives in Park Slope with his wife, Kay, their four-year-old daughter, Alyth, and their twenty-year-old turtle, Marty.  Read more at: www.andrewlewisconn.com