LAist Interview: Author Christopher Bollen on the Debut of 'Lightning People,' the Allure of Big City Life, and the Anti-Social Reality of Writing Your First Novel
To say first-time novelist Christopher Bollen 'knows' New York City would be an understatement. The author is one of the most well-connected Manhattanites in the publishing world; he’s currently the editor-at-large of Interview Magazine—where he’s interviewed cultural icons including Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Michael Stipe and Brad Pitt—and he’s written for numerous publications, including V Magazine, ARTFORUM, and New York Times Magazine. His writing runs the gamut from interviews, art reviews, fashion profiles, short-stories and a peppering of off-beat features (I’m especially fond of his review of a hangover for The Fantastic Man). And last month, Bollen’s first novel Lightning People was released.
Lightning People is set in post-9/11 New York City, and follows the story of Joseph Guiteau, a Midwestern transplant in pursuit of an acting career in the Big Apple. Lightning People navigates Guiteau’s eccentric circle of acquaintances, his growing interest in conspiracy theories, and his search for meaning in a city rattled by fear, anxiety, and loss. Bollen’s debut novel has received critical acclaim from just about everywhere: The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Edmund White have all sung the book’s praises. Even counterculture ambassadors like Douglas Coupland and Miranda July gave the book rave reviews.
After years of grilling some of the world’s biggest stars, Christopher Bollen has suddenly found himself in the interview hot seat: the author spoke with LAist about writing his first novel, the troubling state of the publishing industry, Occupy Wall St, and the kind of LA novel he would most like to read.
LAist: What inspired you to write Lightning People?
Christopher Bollen: In a vague sense, New York and the people I came in contact with here inspired me to write a novel that wove so many hysterical lives together. But in a very real sense, what inspired me to sit down every day and write for hours was the constant fear that if I didn’t try to write it at age thirty, I might never find the nerve and energy. I was spooked that my twenties hadn’t produced the kind of writing I was expecting it to, and I didn’t want another decade to pass with the title “artistic dreamer with little to show for it.”
But Lightning People itself came out of a real ache to see a book about the New York that I experienced—one that was convoluted, unsafe, unstable, still beautiful, and may indeed throw you against the sidewalk a few times.
Transplanted Midwesterners play a large part in Lightning People. As a Cincinnati native who moved to NYC, can you speak to the reality of this endeavor: the magical allure of big city life in America?
When you’re a weird kid raised around weird but far more seemingly adjusted people, you really have to be thankful that there are certain cities reserved for freaks. You hold on to the idea that, at least—or, for me, at most—you can go and live there and find a world that celebrates your eccentricities. In fact, these few urban pockets are a little disappointed when you show up and don’t want to live a life with edges and maybe a few bizarre clothing choices.
New York and Los Angeles are definitely two cities that hold this magical spell. I’ve come to realize that living in these cities doesn’t make you a happier person necessarily, or in any way a better one, but for those of us who are deeply curious, they do provide a limitless possibility to run up against every kind of human life form. But moving from the Midwest to these coastal capitals is a sort of immigrant experience. You leave your roots, where you’re from, and you so often do this totally alone. I didn’t see so much difference between the main character Joseph, who moves from Ohio, and his new wife Del, who is an immigrant from Greece. Both have reached the age where they aren’t just reveling in the newness of this great city; they also have to face the places they lost in the process.
Joseph Guiteau, the main character of the novel, seeks out an acting career in a post-9/11 NYC to escape his roots and his past. The post-9/11 experience is one well explored in Lightning People—how do you think people's 'sense of purpose' has shifted in the last ten years?
I think we—and by we, I mean a young generation who had come to New York from other places expecting to find this enchanted, open city—were pretty much running on the gas fumes of our original dreams after 9/11. Unfortunately, that city had changed drastically and no one knew how to react to it. A lot of us tried for a return to normal but there was no normal to find and so there was a lot of soured optimism through most of the last decade. I feel in many ways we were just hanging on; uncertain of any future, and if there was a sense of purpose, it was one slightly warped and nihilistic. Obviously, in the 2000s there was an economic bubble and a lot of wild frivolity attached to it, but I always saw that as a delusional response to a deeply fractured sense of stability.
What do you think of the Occupy Wall St protests and how do you think the characters of Lightning People might relate to those presently populating Zuccotti Park?
I’m very inspired by Occupy Wall Street, and it’s funny you ask this question because it did occur to me too: how would my characters have acted or participated? Lightning People takes place in 2007. I don’t think any of them were ready to let go of their own pathos yet to be part of a larger social movement. But when you read Lightning People, you can see some of the forces that brought about Occupy Wall Street already at work.
For instance, the character Madi is a corporate executive who naively thinks her outsourcing enterprise is helping the people of India. It is only during a business meeting in Tribeca when she hears a protest march in the street chanting words about greed and thieves does she realize that she’s been deluding herself. She’s only concerned with profit and hasn’t grasped that she’s making money on other people’s suffering. It’s a wake-up call to her but it arrives too late. She’s already become a Wall Street baron. I’d like to think a few of them might have come to their senses by 2011 and been down at Zuccotti Park.
In an interview with Jay McInerney, you noted that you didn’t use an outline in constructing Lightning People. How did you achieve such a tightly-knit plot for your first novel and what did your writing process entail?
I didn’t have an outline. I did have signposts leading me in a single direction that I knew I wanted to hit along the way—a murder, a change of heart, an affair, the revealing of an explosive secret, a tragedy at the end. That served as a very hazy compass for me.
I had a full-time job while I was writing the book—for three years of it I was the editor of Interview Magazine. That meant I wrote on nights and weekends. It was a challenge to come home from a day of office work and head straight to my computer, but the time away from my desk gave me a lot of time to think about the next scene or how the characters and details I had compiled could work in my favor in upcoming chapters.
When I was a child I was infatuated with Agatha Christie mysteries. I think this need for tight, interwoven plots has something to do with all of those years reading detective stories. A life of reading really is boot camp for writing.
You’ve cited Bright Lights, Big City and The House of Mirth as two ‘New York stories’ that have had a lasting impression on you. Is there a literary depiction of Los Angeles that has had a similar impact on you?
There have been many, and I won’t lie: I’ve often dreamt of renting a pool house in the hills and doing my version of Joan Didion. I think most writers share this fantasy. Certainly, Play It As It Lays comes to mind, specifically due to the main character’s obsession with driving the freeways. The Last Tycoon is another. Cecilia Brady’s line, “we don’t go for strangers in Hollywood” is pitch perfect about the hermetically sealed world of the film industry.
Lightning People has been called a ‘true New York Story.’ What do you think makes place inherent to a story? How might you advise someone who's attempting to tell, say, a ‘Los Angeles’ story?
New York was an ideal place to set Lightning People because it allowed me to put so many disparate characters in one conceivable place, all of these different men and women tripping over each other in a confined space. New York has that advantage because it’s a walking city, and most of us live on top of a dozen other neighbors. I mean, we share washers and dryers and hallways. I couldn’t have realistically put two half-Indian siblings, a Greek immigrant, and a burned-out actor from Illinois in the same block if I wrote about Cincinnati.
Los Angeles doesn’t have the same sidewalk culture as New York has, but it still has a pretty amazing assortment of identities and backgrounds. I would hope the next L.A. novel doesn’t just give us the rich, Hollywood lifestyle but aims for a more diverse crop of characters. There should be more L.A. novels set downtown.
As 'editor at large' of Interview, you are perhaps all too aware of the troubles facing the publishing world. Whether it’s the death of the book, the end of the tangible printed word, or the loss of publishers’ strong hold on the industry, have you seen evidence of this--either in publishing your first novel or in working with the magazine?
It’s a gloomy time to be working in publishing. But it isn’t a less exciting one. There seem to be sadly fewer publications and houses willing to take risks on stranger, less market-certified material. But if the Internet killed print publishing it opened the door to an array of new, potentially vital channels. The truth is that everything in print is becoming more niche. That means the audience is smaller, but those who have remained are supremely interested in the focus.
The internet is the opposite: it opens everything up. I just hope in doing so, that doesn’t mean that everything has to be written in short form to grab a viewer’s attention. Thus far the internet hasn’t shed the sense that something has to be immediate and grabby in order to deserve real estate.
What advice might you offer writers eager to embark on their first novel?
Find something you really feel a passion about writing, and then do it, against all impulse to be reasonable or try to guess what an agent or a publisher or an invisible readership might want. Just go with your gut and then kiss the sunlight and most of your friends goodbye and get to work, forcing yourself to write as a routine.
I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. It rarely will. You have to decide you’re going to write this book and then treat the work as manual labor that must be done no matter how tired or uninspired or depressed you feel. It’s painful to write. It’s heartbreaking work. But if you’ve chosen to write a book, it doesn’t come from that sensible part of you that thinks of hours in terms of money or success in terms of painlessness.
For more information on Christopher Bollen and his work, check out the author's website.