Could you give us some background info? Where are you from? What first triggered your interest in
I grew up in pretty typical suburban
surroundings outside of Cleveland, Ohio, but my family always had a secret
vanity about their many genealogical connections to the history of the United
States. They had a sort of grandiose modesty about their important Puritan
forebears. That really marked me, because it was so schizophrenic. Were we important
or average? I wanted to be important, and I was dazzled by the “Great Men” of
art and literature as a kid. They seemed lucid, explicit, powerful, while my
family was mum, repressed, withholding. Writing and the related but quite
different longing to be a great writer were both the strategies of a lonely kid
who wanted to be powerful.
What is your favorite aspect of writing?
It’s the only time mood completely vanishes from
my life. I feel just slightly other than human, and for some reason this is fantastically
satisfying to me. Of course, the moods associated with what I’ve written and
getting stuff published are pretty intense and varied. But that just drives me
back to the stillness of making sentences.
Were there any specific events in your life
that helped you formulate the ideas behind The Silver Hearted?
Oddly enough, and I don’t think it’s apparent in
the novel at all, it was the death of a friend. Beneath all the color and
drama, the novel’s central and simple question is, what do we owe the people
who are close to us? For a long time I was haunted by guilt that I’d let a
dying friend down. I don’t actually think that’s true now, but the mind can be
a pretty cruel instrument, all blade no handle.
There was a moment in the Silver Hearted where
a man is very briefly strung up on a sort-of an “accidental” cross, and there’s
a ritual killing later in the book.
Was there anything you were saying about religion?
I don’t think so. But what authors say is never
the last word on their work. I think I was trying to bring the aesthetic and
the horrific as close together as possible to create a humanely upsetting
effect, a sense of outrage. But now that I think of it, the Christian
Communion, the stations of the cross, aren’t all that different. I myself don’t
really think about God at all. I’m not religious. I love the mysteriousness of
reality and nature and I guess that’s a kind of home brew religion. Socially
and historically, I do think religions and their rituals are immensely
It’s been speculated that your unnamed
country, with its pirates, its insurrections, and the remnants of European
colonialism, is loosely based on Somalia.
Is that at all correct?
I like the Somalia comparison, because I think
it’s the closest real world analogue to my made-up world, but I wasn’t thinking
about it when I wrote the book. I think I started out thinking mostly of the
Boxer Rebellion in China, but then I did everything I could to make my world as
non-specific as a dream.
I have an interpretation of the title, The
Silver Hearted, but could you say what it means to you?
Well, there’s a notable lack of warm-heartedness
throughout the book. Silver seems a cool metal. And the narrator is obsessed
with money, so you might say nothing is so close to his heart. Those are both
valid interpretations. However, the real source of the title is much more
obscure and has to do with a view of the novel as a fever dream, or a product
of the narrator’s solitude and fanatical delusions. The Poet James Merrill famously
held séances many of which formed the structure for his masterpiece, The
Changing Light at Sandover. In the first section of the poem he describes how
when arranging a séance he would often set up a mirror on a chair at the table.
He called the mirror, “Our silver-hearted friend.” I liked that a lot.
What was your favorite comment or feedback
about The Silver Hearted? Or any
of your writing?
People seem pretty sharply divided about the
book. They either get it or they don’t. What I love is that the reviewers and
readers who do get the book seem to feel passionate about it. They say it’s
unlike anything else. As if it feeds a previously unknown appetite. I like that
idea and it makes me immensely proud.
Do you have a favorite character you’ve created? What about him (or her) do you like?
I guess “Topher,” because he’s young, beautiful
(to me), and tries to do the right thing.
I know some authors, when creating
characters, ask themselves questions like “what’s in this character’s
wallet? What’s in his
refrigerator?” Are there any
typical questions you ask yourself when creating characters?
I do live with them for quite a long time, but
they keep a sense of partial-ness or mystery that real people, even my closest
friends, have. I mean I wouldn’t necessarily know what’s in a friend’s
refrigerator. It might be quite unexpected. Couldn’t it be counterproductive to
make all your characters fill out a questionnaire? I’m not sure if that would
make them more real. My characters probably don’t WANT me to know about them.
Finding out is fun and a touch antagonistic.
What aspects do you feel are essential for a
good story to have?
I used to be, and I guess I still am, primarily
a writer of sentences. I just love language. But as I get older and, by default,
more familiar with time, I’ve come to really appreciate the importance of plot
and drama—things that occur over time. Elizabeth Bowen, a writer I revere,
called plot “the pre-essential.” But I like all kinds of books (I’m reading a
great plotless one right now) and I can’t think of a single thing that’s
What are some of your favorite books and who
are some of your favorite authors?
W.G. Sebald, J.R. Ackerly, Rudyard Kipling,
Pierre Loti, I.B. Singer, Jean Rhys, Ronald Firbank, Christopher Isherwood,
Jean-Henri Fabre, Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, Gustave Flaubert, “Homer,”
Sir Thomas Browne, Boris Pasternak, Henry Green, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman,
Knut Hamsun, Sei Shonagon, Raymond Roussel. That’s just a partial list, but
each is very special to me in a particular way.
A silly question for you: A genie appears and grants you one
wish. What would you choose?
Eternal life WITHOUT turning into a shriveled
cricket in a jar like Tithonus. Or else a turn in outer space or on an alien planet.
No, I think my wanting too much would paralyze my tongue.
If there’s a question you’ve always wanted to
be asked in an interview, could you tell us about it and, of course, answer
No one’s ever asked about music. I love it (the
grand tradition, that is). I’m not a voracious listener. In fact, I listen less
than most people because it takes up all my attention. I’m an amateur pianist,
a pretty good one, and I play every day. Nothing “popular” though, unless you
count some Chopin.