On a dreary Thursday afternoon I ducked into Housing Works in SoHo to meet with Christopher Bollen, novelist and editor at large of Interview. Over coffee, we escaped the rain and casually discussed the panic of Lightning People (Soft Skull Press, 2011), his haunting, ingenious debut.
Joseph Klarl (Rail): Lightning People is a marathon of paranoia. Everyone is on the verge of a breakdown. Your protagonist Joseph is literally counting down to his death. Traditionally people have thought about the city as a place to meet destiny and you think of it in this novel as a place to run away from destiny.
Christopher Bollen: I wanted to trace the negative, like a photographic negative, of the city as the way I was experiencing it versus how it’s often shown in popular culture. New York is offered as this self-fulfilling ad pitch, “Come to New York and all of your dreams will be fulfilled,” but I didn’t feel that at all. I felt it was a very hard city and there were people who try to run away from it as well as to it. People tend to think of New York as this vision of independence, freedom, and possibility, and I think that works well when you’re young or new to the city, but when you live here for a while the other city comes out of the shadows. It overwhelms that.
Rail: Do you feel that sentiment existed before you arrived here in the ’90s, or is it recent, post-9/11?
Bollen: In the past, people probably used New York as a place to escape more often than they do now. What made New York great was that it was a repository for freakish people who sought asylum here. New York isn’t the bellwether of alternative behavior anymore. It’s really quite conservative now. I was looking back at a ruling Giuliani made in ’95 or ’96 when I first moved to New York, where they had cut welfare and the New York Times headline for the story was “With Welfare Cuts, The Poor Have the Opportunity to Leave.” Of course they were just paving the way for the rich, but the spin is great—that it was a great opportunity for people to leave their homes in Manhattan. That was a shift of thinking in the city and now it’s the self-created paradise it’s become because it forced out the rougher elements. [Lightning People]’s a dark novel because I like that darker New York—I think the Sex and the City New York is so vomitous that if I were 18 and watched that show I would run in the opposite direction. When you stop being young here, you can only get excited for so many years about how fun it is to go out, get wasted, and have these crazy new experiences—that lasted, for me, longer than for most which was probably unfortunate—but it starts to become a different kind of place after a while. And the careers that, in particular, actors have are probably the most devastating careers young people can have because there’s nothing worse than slowly becoming less desirable in your field, which is the opposite of how you’re supposed to understand a career.
Rail: While not an actor like her husband, the protagonist’s wife Del is superficially trying to stay in New York on a work visa—she works at the Bronx Zoo—and marrying so she can make her home here, but when things get tough she returns home to Greece. And Raj, Del’s old flame, doesn’t want to return to his homeland, but he holes up in his bedroom, so even they are escaping New York in their own way.
Bollen: Exactly! There are attempts to show people who try to escape but keep routing back. And there are a lot of mothers and fathers in the book—it seems like these are the last people who should be thinking about their mothers and fathers, but everyone ends up repeating their own cycle, exactly where they started in this terrible loop.
Rail: Joseph, most explicitly, because of his doomed family history.
Bollen: Right—in this search to escape his fate, he courts it. You feel like you’ve escaped something when you get here and you can start over—Ellis Island from the opposite direction, for Americans—but history does end up coming after you. When I first came to New York I was so excited to get away from Ohio, I couldn’t stand anything “Ohio” and I thought it was embarrassing. You feel so excited that you’ve made it to New York on your own and then something took over in me about five years gone from Ohio where I started to become obsessed with it, defending it all the time. It’s weird how it creeps back, this interest in the past and your roots—after you’ve severed all ties.
Rail: The novel is obsessed with what people are predestined to become and I was wondering if you had feelings of destiny coming to New York, and—after you became obsessed with your home state—if you ever wanted to leave?
Bollen: I remember when I first drove here in a van from Ohio for college. I got here and I was so freaked out that I wanted to leave that night. I’m sure everyone feels that way on their first night. After that I didn’t ever want to leave the city—I had that terrible compulsion that young people have when they first move here, which is that if they even leave for a week they feel like they’re missing something. So I felt very at home for a long time. The quality of life is hard here, but I never wanted to move back to Ohio. You can say that seems like a good idea until you spend 48 hours back with your family and you realize that you could never build a life there without running out into traffic. But I’ve definitely thought about moving to the country or moving to a different country at certain points.
Rail: You feel that comes with age?
Bollen: Yeah. I finally moved last year—I wrote this book in a small cottage in the West Village, much like Quinn’s home in the book, which was modeled on after it. I could play music, smoke cigarettes, write, I couldn’t hear the traffic—it was wonderful, but too small. So finally I moved to the East Village where I promised myself I would never live, even in 1996 when I arrived, but I loved the apartment I found so much. It’s this great old 1930’s apartment never broken up so it has long hallways and big rooms, but the neighborhood drives me crazy. It’s not the Ramones anymore—it reminds me of Ohio. It’s like Bourbon Street on the weekend and I don’t know if I’m just old now and I can’t do it anymore or the crowd has changed that dramatically—both are right. It’s hard to be around bars and clubs when you’re older and you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep.
Rail: Your characters are indulgent—there are drugs, murders, affairs—but the way you look at this partying culture that’s a part of your 20’s in the city is not quite as sexy or wildly immoral as other well-known New York novels, not like something Ellis would write. Your characters are bumbling, unglamorous.
Bollen: I love those books by Bret and I love the Jay McInerney novels, but I think those are purposefully, artistically rendered to seduce you and make you think those things are glamorous and that’s a very particular, very young position. Maybe you do feel glamorous for the first year that you’re going to parties and doing cocaine in bathrooms and hooking up with foreigners—that’s all very exciting—but it wears thin. The truth of it is most people aren’t extreme drug addicts in this city. It’s like that movie Shame that just came out. That film is supposed to be raw and shocking, but really, what he goes through is rather a mundane, perfectly normal New York experience [laughs]. People are somewhere in between and it’s not all that thrilling. To sensationalize those things makes them sound more interesting than they are.
Rail: William, who is by far the most deviant character in the novel, is still pathetic.
Bollen: The most!
Rail: When he’s at a big raucous party he’s doing cocaine but he has to in order to even converse with the people around him. It’s drudgery. When there’s a noise complaint, he hides. There’s a child-like sensibility.
Bollen: That’s true. He’s pathetic, the way he can’t get his life together. And sadly I think he fails worse every time he tries to intercede on his behalf.
Rail: His friend Quinn, the most easygoing character in the novel, speaks lovingly about the past, but he’s lost in a bygone era and you wonder how realistic his ideas about that partying culture are as well.
Bollen: Oh yeah, it’s romance. I talk about the ’90s—they weren’t that great—but I’ll go on about how it was so much fun because there weren’t cellphones and banks everywhere. That’s a tendency people have when they live in the city so long—the time he’s describing, the ’70s, was of course a glamorous time in New York in terms of what was going on. I have friends who talk about the past as if it recently happened. I think for Quinn it’s because in the ’80s, AIDS killed a lot of his closest friends, so people get locked into the happier time before the worst possible time that followed it.
Rail: He has AIDS himself, so there’s a coping mentality there.
Bollen: Yeah, thank God I didn’t go through that. I can’t imagine living in New York in the ‘80s—to watch all your friends die—
Rail: But as much as the novel’s about nostalgia, it’s contemporary. It’s peppered with elements of the contemporary New York art scene, contemporary New York culture. When one of the conspiracy theorists shows his big diagram, it’s reminiscent of the late artist Mark Lombardi.
Bollen: I loved his work. I never got to meet him. I always wanted to and then he unfortunately died, but he was an amazing artist.
Rail: And there’s an anecdote about an artist who committed suicide because of career failures and the MoMA buys her suicide note in a tragic, ironic twist.
Bollen: And then there was Dash, Del’s first love, in there, but he was actually supposed to be—he was modeled on Dash Snow who was a good friend of mine and he didn’t die when I was writing that. I felt so embarrassed that I was going to have to tell Dash one day, “I made this character based on you and I killed him just for tragedy’s sake, but it’s really an homage to how great you are.” Then he did die and I thought I should change the name, but then I thought maybe it serves as some little Valentine to him, so I kept it. It’s weird, how you can write a novel and then think you’re entering this literary sphere, but most of my friends have always been artists, not writers—I have a few writer friends but I’m far closer to visual artists.
Rail: Most of the characters here are artists, photographers, actors—
Bollen: Tell me, do you think that’s boring? I remember some people had written reviews like “Oh, there’s nothing worse than hearing about artists,” so I thought “Oh my gosh, people don’t like artists as characters?” [Laughs]. It never occurred to me.
Rail: What I did find interesting was that there is also a large part of the novel about conspiracy theorists. While the conspiracy theorists seem slightly pathetic, they also seem genuinely on the fringe, on the outskirts of mainstream culture. The artists, someone like Raj—well, not only him but also the patrons at his exhibition opening—seem comparatively superficial.
Bollen: I write about art, I love art, but I don’t buy art, I don’t sell it. When you’re in that precarious position where you know about art but you’re not involved in its commercial sales, you start to feel like it’s all commercial sales and that there is a lot of superficiality to this supposedly whole sphere based on free, uncommercial experimentation. The reason everyone got involved in art was that it wasn’t a commercial sphere but something expressive—a deeply emotional, thoughtful approach to culture—so I think there is something pathetic about the art world and maybe that’s why Raj, who is also a little pathetic, lost in his own depression, has trouble accepting his own status as artist.
Obviously I have problems with conspiracy theorists because it’s usually a very conservative gesture, anti-big government, except with 9/11, which turned out to be anti-Bush. But I do think that conspiracy theorists are like artists in the way that they read or re-read culture for some elusive, haunting, underside message, so there is that connection there—people who don’t take culture as a given but investigate it and try to see how it’s really playing. It’s easy to attack conspiracy theorists and yes, there’s questionable politics to what they have to say, and “they” is so many different categories of people, but that’s actually what you’re taught when you’re taught to intellectualize, or love literature—to read things closely and to question it. So conspiracy-reading is an art form.
Rail: You play with the idea of every different era of history being interconnected on a personal scale and on a larger, global scale as well—the past coming back. That’s an idea that often informs these conspiracy websites, these conspiracy meetings; they seem to be stuck on how history repeats itself, how there are clues to what will happen in the future.
Bollen: It’s amazing, and I think people don’t realize—first I imbedded the whole 20-year myth about presidents: Every 20 years they die. I tried to put all that in there. When you just isolate it, it does seem kind of perverse, but we all look for patterns or repetitions or coincidences to make sense of our lives. Destiny is so embarrassing to talk about—but people comfort themselves all the time and say things like, “It’s God’s will,” or “That’s the way it was supposed to be.” We’re constantly saying that everything works out for the best. Instead of being an anomaly to human thought, it’s actually the way most people get through their lives. They can say they don’t believe in fate, but I think most humans do.
Rail: Do you see these conspiracy theorists as being tied to a crisis that the country was going through post-9/11, trying to make sense of their lives with the idea that something like that could happen in America?
Bollen: Absolutely. It was a deeply, psychologically disturbed time. It’s hard to tell people now what it was like. I remember living in the years after 9/11 and I’d turn on my radio every morning before I got in the shower because there was this talk about terrorists poisoning the water supply. Now if I were to tell you I listened to the news before I showered, that would sound insane. Maybe the book sounds insane, but I was trying to represent that insanity everyone felt when they didn’t know if they were going to be blown up that day at work—which is all too normal for people in some parts of the world, but for New York, for Americans who feel so protected and isolated, it was a paranoid feeling. That was bound to affect how they saw the government as well. It’s like serial killers—America breeds so many conspiracy theorists, and I think it has to do with a government run by the people. People distrust each other so they assume their government’s plotting against them. I don’t think that in monarchies people are so conspiratorial because they take unfairness as a given in a monarchy, but a democracy is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories because people can’t believe their neighbor who could be elected wouldn’t be trying to pull something over on them.
Rail: If we could talk about the work stylistically for a moment: You’ve been influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald, McInerney you’ve talked about, but you quote David Foster Wallace at the beginning of the novel (“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”).
Bollen: I liked that quote, but Wallace isn’t, in terms of style, someone who influences me. I’m more old-fashioned. I find that in a strange way when I write I’m more attracted to the sound, which I think can get you in big trouble. Some things just sound great but they don’t make any sense when you take them apart. So yes, I was influenced by writers who were good at constructing sentences based on sound.
Rail: For a debut novel, you took stylistic chances. The introduction to the novel is in first person, which is curious. You have a chapter late in the story that takes us to an entirely different time, an entirely different place, with entirely different characters to explain Joseph’s past.
Bollen: Which is weird.
Rail: Which at that point in the story could throw you off, but you’re so wrapped up in the mania, the bizarre, interweaving coincidences, it seems completely natural.
Bollen: I knew that was a risk. I kept thinking, you’re suffering from—someone said it was a male tendency but I think it’s just a first writer’s tendency—to create a book that tries to do everything, “the great everything book,” which this one isn’t. But it was important to me to do the Ohio chapter because in an embarrassing way I was scared of writing a “New York book,” which is ludicrous—I felt tied to the idea of writing about Ohio and the past to break out of the New York story.
Rail: I did think in some ways that it was a radical departure. Though I felt you had written a “New York novel,” I did wonder if you would include descriptions of Ohio or of the past because you were slightly intimidated by the people who had come before you, who had written these old New York novels you had read.
Bollen: My intention when I left school was to instantly write a novel and write a bunch of essays and, having decided not go to a Ph.D. program in literature, writing was going to be my thing. I didn’t write in my 20’s that much. I wrote for magazines and newspapers, but I didn’t write any fiction. I was too young, I realize now. And by the time I started writing this book—I was 30—a downtown New York novel was going to be so obvious from my position: This downtown New York kid that I had become. It’s what you were saying about how I de-sensationalized the young New York aspect—there was resistance on my part to write that kind of book because I felt it was expected of me. I wanted to write a different kind of book and I wanted it to be strange and surprising. So much of living in New York is about escaping the past, but the past of people’s lives before New York is so essential to how they got here and why.
Rail: Lightning People had the working title Animal—and Del is raising a snake, Apollo, throughout the book. I have to ask why you decided to feature a snake so prominently.
Bollen: It makes no sense, which is why I loved it. I was attracted by the idea of the rattlesnake as the ultimate animal of America, and Del was trying to be an American so much. But like all the characters, the animal has nothing to do with New York and probably shouldn’t be there. It’s an immigrant in its own state. It’s in this glass enclosure tucked in the Bronx, but it’s not built to exist in the environment of New York. It’s also the antithesis to the eagle, which we celebrate. Everyone hates snakes. Del was a character I loved because she liked everything you were not supposed to like. A woman that likes snakes is something that generally you’re supposed to run away from. It’s not considered a very good interest for a woman. It was hard to make sense of, but I felt like it was fitting for the other characters that there would be these snakes, that it was repulsive but also biblical. There was this time when I tried to push the snake into the story in different, plot-advancing ways and it just felt so heavy-handed that I actually thought letting it go was more interesting—a symbol that fails to do its work. I really liked the Bronx Zoo—although zoos, in general, are such sad places. In the Bronx Reptile Department, they really do have all that anti-venom in the Whirlpool refrigerator there, so if you ever get bitten by a snake in the city, that’s where your anti-venom is coming from. Someone like Del is driving it to the emergency room. It’s nice to have characters that don’t fit any expectations. An obsession with rattlesnakes is a good start.