Sunday, February 26, 2012

1/2 Dozen for Thomas Mullen

I had the pleasure early on
of reading
It's a genre-blurring
I think you might just love it.
But first,
a 1/2 Dozen
with Mullen himself.
(I like the title Mullen Himself
for something memoiresque
actually -- by Mullen, of course,
not me; a memoir by
Baggott called Mullen Himself would
be weird.)


I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

This one both had discrete, singular moments of inspiration as well as more vague, accumulated ones. Because I was living in Washington DC during the post-9/11 years, a time of scary Orange Alerts and anti-war marches and news stories about government surveillance and CIA black sites, there was a lot of paranoia in the air. The right was paranoid that another 9/11 would appear unless we started new wars first, and the left was paranoid that Bush and friends were becoming totalitarian leaders. I had to do something with this attitude, this new vibe, that seemed to pervade American discourse.

Also, a few stories about journalists or civilians who broke stories of government corruption, and were then punished for it, struck a chord in me. I wanted a character in a similar predicament. Finally, the local NPR station covered a story about foreign diplomats who bring their maids and servants to DC, keeping them imprisoned in their homes as slave labor. That gave me another character, and a way to link a few stories I'd already been toying with.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love writing. The best feeling is to be in the middle of something, when it's really going well and the pages are flying. I sometimes juggle multiple projects, which can be confusing but is overall a good thing so long as I'm not blocked on any of them.

My least favorite part, by far, is right after I finish a book, and I have to figure out what to do next. It's always tough to decide, and as the days go by without my actually writing something, I feel like a loser who's frittering away his time.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

It really is very difficult to hear negative things about your work. The Internet age makes this much worse because a) I can instantly read any negative thing a newspaper says about my book, even if the paper in question is in, say, Edmonton, whereas back in the day I only would have known this if I badgered a publicist into sending me every clip she had, and b) the Internet allows anyone at all to post their opinion, even people who aren't at all diplomatic or professional or kind about their negative opinions, in the way that a critic (you hope) would be. There's no way around it: it's tough.

Two things help. One is the knowledge that I have been, by all rights, very lucky in this regard. My books have been widely reviewed and critics have largely applauded them, which is so, so fabulous. The other thing to remember is that no one, ever, will have universal acceptance. I recently read a Hemingway bio, and he was always fuming about negative reviews and evil critics. Hemingway! So if even he was knocked, clearly I will be too.

I'm a big sports fan, and I hate how an athlete will vent how "nobody respects me!" when in fact thousands of people respect him, but there just happened to be one columnist who predicted he'd lose the game. The athlete treats that one measly criticism as a sign of massive disrespect. Which means that when the athlete claims he wants respect, really what he's asking for is complete and universal praise. Well, that just ain't gonna happen, not to Kobe Bryant or Tom Brady or me. Phrasing it that way makes an occasional negative review or mean Amazon comment go down easier.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

I'm far from an anti-elite populist, since I went to a prep school and then a pricey private college. But when I took Contemporary Literary Theory my junior year and had to read impenetrable essays by the likes of Foucault, Derridas, and Barthes, I found myself getting increasingly enraged. The weird in-jokes and jargon, overly obtuse writing, and clear attempt to make their arguments dense and unreadable for anyone who wasn't also an academic made the whole affair seem like some awful intellectual chain letter sent amongst tweed-coat-wearing, tenured professors, happily detached from the concerns of real readers. I've always enjoyed odd novels, even difficult novels, but the experience of reading these postmodern "masters" of the critical essay provided me with a well-timed reminder of what I do not want to be. I want my writing to be smart and challenging and I want to push readers, yes, but I don't want to repel them, and I certainly don't want to erect barriers that only those possessing certain clubby degrees can get past. I'm one of the few people left who believes it's possible to write things that MFA-holding academics can admire but that non-academic readers can enjoy too.

What's your worst writerly habit?

Baked goods and caffeine. I had a job with a very bad office culture, and the office was in a bland office park with nothing interesting nearby. One year I won a bunch of gift certificates to a coffee house a short drive away, so even though I wasn't a coffee drinker, I would take breaks there just to get out. My love of scones and bagels and croissants eventually led to me getting a coffee, and eventually it became a habit. Now that I have two kids I NEED coffee, but I frequently find myself putting off a certain task "until I have a coffee," or maybe a scone. Which means I spend too much time and too many calories by procrastinating. A few years ago, I laughed out loud during the opening narration of the movie, "Adaptation," when Nick Cage's character has that exact debate with himself: write now and get coffee later as a reward, or have a coffee first? The eternal dilemma.

But, as bad habits go, I guess that's not so terrible.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

My new novel, "The Revisionists," was by far the hardest. I put it aside twice, once thinking it was totally dead. Only the chance meeting with a new editor helped me figure a way out. Part of the difficulty was the fact that it was my first novel set in the present, and I wanted to make sure it had a strong plot (unlike some contemporary fiction) without seeming so plot-based as to be a straight thriller. And I wasn't sure how to handle the politics. Finally, because it has elements of espionage and sci-fi, which are two genres I don't read very much, I had to read a lot, and wrestle with how to structure the book. It finally worked out, but, man, it was tough. Never would have thought my third novel would be the hardest (my next one, in contrast, has been a breeze!).

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Get a good job, with health insurance.

Thomas Mullen is the author of “The Last Town on Earth,” which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize, "The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers," and his new novel, "The Revisionists." His books have been named to Year's Best lists by such publications as The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The San Diego Union-Times, The Onion, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and by He lives in Atlanta with his wife and sons.