We thought it would be fun to do something a little unusual with this interview, as befits Craig Nova’s inventive fiction. In short, we suggested Nova ask himself whatever he wishes interviewers would ask. This interview was conducted in Paris, where Craig Nova, both subject and interviewer, was staying this spring.
What do you like best about writing a novel?
Disappearing. Or, I should say, the sense I have of vanishing while working. If the magic of fiction for the reader is that the chair the reader is sitting on disappears, why then, the magic of writing fiction for the novelist is that the chair, the room, everything vanishes as the novelist finally gets to work. The sensation is sort of like Alice going down the rabbit hole, but whatever the right comparison might be, I feel as though I have suddenly reappeared at my desk after a long trip to a distant place. This moment is one of profound fatigue and regret, since I can remember where I have been and wish I was back there.
Does this happen suddenly? Do you just sit down and, as you say, vanish?
Oh, no. If it were only that easy. I have often thought that the entire business is a sort of Zen discipline, and that whatever the ceremony, each writer goes through a kind of chant, or something like that, to get in the mood.
What is your, as you say, ceremony?
I start with newspapers, online, as far away as I can get—and this means the Hindu—and then I start moving closer to where I am—that is, westward. The next stop is Der Spiegel, then the French papers—which I struggle with in French—then the New York Times, then the Raleigh News and Observer … and then I am in my room in my house in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Of course, the idea is a sort of psychological approach to myself, getting closer to the room where I am alone. But the odd thing is that I often read about things I know nothing about. The Hindu has a lot of news about cricket and I read a lot of it, but I have never seen a cricket match, never seen fast bowling, and the like, but that’s where I start to try to get into that mood. In a way, it is a matter of making sure that the world is still functioning and so I can go to work.
What is the worst part of writing a novel?
There are many. Many. In fact, the entire business is one long train wreck, and you can hear all the rivets come out of the steam engine, the particular squeak that rails make as they bend, and every other detail. But here are two specifics. I will have a day when what I write seems, when I come out of the rabbit hole, so good as to leave me astonished. Why, I think, Ford Maddox Ford on a good day couldn’t have done that. Move over all you heavyweights. Take that. Then, the next day, I will look at it and think, My god, was I really so deluded as to write such a piece of … well, I will leave the pejorative noun to anyone who wants to fill one in. Could I really have been so dim, so unaware, etc.? It is the sine curve, the up and down aspect, as seen here, that is really appalling. And, of course, as time goes by, I know that this feeling of having written well is to be suspected, but I am still seduced by it.
The best work comes on those days when I am mildly depressed. After the Hindu, etc., I will look at a sentence from the day before and think, Well, maybe, just maybe, with a lot of luck, I can do something with that. Maybe. Christ, what a mess.
What do you think is wrong with serious—or legitimate—fiction these days? It seems to be having trouble maintaining an audience.
Writers, after publishing a book or two, begin to think think they are important. They are not. The most important person in a novel is the reader. Then the characters. Then the world in which they operate. Then the unstated beliefs that are behind everything that happens in a novel. And then, maybe, just maybe, on the caboose of that wrecking train, comes the writer.
What do you mean by “unstated beliefs”?
Well, in The Great Gatsby (on my mind, I guess, because of the movie), Fitzgerald never says that this is a book about the brutality of the American class system or how toxic a marriage is when power is not shared equally. These things are just there.
What are the unstated beliefs in your new novel, All the Dead Yale Men?
Can I say, To find out you have to read the book?
I have to say there are a lot of them and that it is hard to talk about them since I wrote tens of thousands of pages trying not to say them and to build them into book. It is also difficult since it is like being in love with someone for a particular quality, but if you mentioned it, you might not be in love so much anymore.
But, having said that, All the Dead Yale Men is about how fathers love daughters, how fathers resist becoming their own fathers, how each family has a series of secrets, carefully hidden, and when they emerge, they can be and usually are explosive, how one maintains a moral—in the sense of being decent—attitude in the complicated, throughly compromised world in which we live, and how, at certain times in our lives, we crave making contact with a previous and now gone generation. We want to turn to them for advice, but can’t. In All the Dead Yale Men the main character actually does make contact with a relative who has died.
By some sort of spiritualism?
Oh, no. I am such a rationalist. No. A main character finds the notebooks, which contain family secrets, of his dead grandmother.
All the Dead Yale Men is a sequel to a book of yours, for which you are best known, a novel called The Good Son. Why did you write this sequel?
Drama, and how American society has changed. In fact, I think it has changed more and done so more dramatically in the last forty years than at any other time in our history.
And so I wondered what happened to a relatively well off and well-connected family from the period right after World War II when it and its descendants hit the modern age? Or the post-postmodern age, or wherever we are now. And what is the drama of this change? For instance, in the original book, the drama comes from a fighter pilot, who returns from the war and takes up with the “wrong woman.” Here, in All the Dead Yale Men, the drama comes from a young woman, who has done everything right, and who decides to make her own decisions, one of which pulls her and her father into very dangerous circumstances. That’s one thing that has not changed one bit. Danger. Also, some of the characters from the previous book appear, but from a different perspective.
Can you give us an example?
In The Good Son, one of the most compelling characters—judging from the mail I have received—was a woman who kept a naturalist’s diary, which was included in the book. Here, in All the Dead Yale Men, in newly discovered notebooks, this character, Mrs. Mackinnon, tells her own story, reveals her own romance and pregnancy, after being married. And, of course, this story has an impact on the family right now. In the modern age.
If you had sum up All the Dead Yale Men, what would you say?
I often joke with my friends that this book shows that all happy families are same, but in each unhappy family, everyone wants to sleep with wrong person.
What would you say is the critical element in being able to write a novel?
The ability to tolerate imperfection. No one, no novelist ever gets it right the first time, and where most people who try to write a novel give up is in the first draft. It is so far from being clean and polished as to be discouraging. The truth is that the early versions of almost all novels were messes.
Do you have any other advice for young writers?
Publishing is having a sort of gran mal seizure, but it will come out of it. Many people talk about the end of brick-and-mortar publishing, but no one, no one at all, is talking about the end of writers or the end of the need for storytelling. There are few immortals, but one I am sure of is the gravity, the compulsion to hear what comes after this: “I have a story to tell you …”