FRIENDS OF THE TORTOISE - MARTIN SEAY (PART II)

OK, it's time for the second installment of our Q&A with Martin Seay, author author of The Mirror Thief, which you should most definitely check out, if you have not already done so. (Click here for Part I.)

Q:  In one interview, you said you were initially worried about finding enough material to connect the various Venices, and you eventually ended up with the opposite problem. It sounds like you ended up with a surplus of material. How much research did you end up doing after you started the book, versus before, and how did you balance the research and the writing?

A: I am fond of quoting (or more likely paraphrasing) something that I heard the novelist Kathryn Davis say once in a Q&A when asked a somewhat similar question: I do research when I’m stuck, she said, and when I’m not stuck anymore, I stop doing research.

It’s the second part of that remark that’s particularly awesome; lots of writers experience something that’s been called “research rapture,” when one gets so carried away with making connections through all sorts of disparate material that one forgets to, y’know, actually get back to writing.  I suspect there’s also a danger of absorbing so much material that one finds oneself paralyzed, unable to sort signal from noise, or to locate the thread of a compelling narrative.  I’ve been lucky; I’ve never been anywhere close to managing that degree of expertise in any subject.

Q: Did you ever feel like you’d fallen down the rabbit hole, research-wise?

A: This is a great question, and one that I’m going to try and answer in a way that’s more informative than boring.

Back in 2002, while taking Richard’s Experimental Fiction class, I wrote a 25-page fragment that gradually grew into The Mirror Thief.  Richard’s class was generative: he had us write nine stories over the course of a semester (which is a lot) and we had to write them all to very specific and somewhat off-the-wall prompts.  As a result, I had very little time to work on anything prior to turning it in.  The prompt for my 25-page fragment was to “write a story in which someone tells a story in which someone tells a story.”  I decided—quickly!—that I’d do something inspired by the emergence of the flat glass mirror as a consumer good in Venice circa 1500; in order to achieve the triple temporal displacement that Richard’s prompt demanded, I decided to set two of the three stories in “reflections” of Venice: Venice Beach (which was built in 1905 as an explicit imitation of the original) and a Venice-themed hotel and casino in Las Vegas.  My research for that first 25 pages was limited to a Las Vegas travel guide, a cursory glance through The Mirror: A History by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, and a lot of frantic Googling.

Looking back now on those initial pages—something I hadn’t done in years prior to answering this question—I am struck by 1) how bad much of it is, and, despite that, 2) how much of it actually did make it into the published book, if in a very, very revised form.  (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the content from my original Page 2 is now on Page 7, Page 13 is now Page 84, Page 15 is now Page 341, etc.)  Even given the half-assed—hundredth-assed—research I’d done to get started, I could see that I had hit on an idea that was worth pursuing; I begin reading more widely and attentively in a bunch of different directions, trying to make thematic connections and identify motifs that I could tease out into scenes, characters, a storyline.  This wasn’t even research yet; I wasn’t looking to solve any specific problems or answer any particular questions.  I was just thinking in very general terms of what the book would be about, and how it would work.

In 2003 I started my MFA program—the low-residency program at Queens University of Charlotte—with the 25 pages that I’d written for Richard and the intention of expanding them into a novel.  The first teacher I worked with at Queens was the novelist Jane Alison; Jane immediately handed me my ass.  She helped me realize that what I thought was the beginning of a novel was really a very sketchy outline and a few notes; its ostensible “characters” were just blatant mechanisms for getting to and from various conceptual set-pieces.  Jane encouraged me to be respectful of my made-up people: to imaginatively inhabit their pasts, their fears and desires, their embodied experience of the situations that I’d chosen to put them in.

This was by far the most difficult and most rewarding aspect of writing the book.  Much of this process was purely meditative: thinking hard, for example, about not only what taking a boat across the Venetian lagoon in the late spring of 1592 would have been like, but what it would have been like for a 35-year-old physician who’s working as a spy for the Ottoman Empire, who’s operating on no sleep, who has a slight cold, and who murdered somebody a few hours earlier.  But a lot of it was research-driven, too.  Some of my characters are professional gamblers, so I read a lot about blackjack card-counting.  Some of my characters are glassmakers, so I studied up on how glass was manufactured circa 1600.  Some of my characters are alchemists, so I learned about the Neo-Platonic intellectual tradition in which they partook.  A lot of what I came to understand as the deep structure of the novel was concerned with technologies that people have adopted over the centuries in order to regard themselves—along with a bunch of metaphors that these technologies have encouraged—so I researched mirror-making, publishing, painting, poetry, architecture, film, etc.  As I was reading, I’d stumble over specific details that would spark aspects of characters’ biographies, or give me ideas for scenes, or suggest lines of dialogue; pursuing these would generate more of the others in turn.  The process was fairly accretionary.  By this point the amount of actual writing I was doing had slowed to a trickle—not the best situation when one is enrolled in a writing program. 

Once I had outlines of the plots of the three sections worked out well enough to really start writing, I tried to follow Davis’s advice and only research what I needed to get me from chapter to chapter.  (Certain topics were bottomless: reading about alchemy, for instance, turned out to be a power-dive that I desperately needed to pull out of.)  An important thing to keep in mind is that unlike an academic researcher—who’s trying to achieve comprehensive knowledge of a chosen subject—I was mostly just hunting for details to steal: evocative images and language that would shore up the authority of the book’s narration and induce readers to imagine their way into a vivid and transportive experience.

The only thing that I turned up in my research that I regret not being able to feature more prominently is the crazy story of of John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was also an avid practitioner of the occult: a follower of Aleister Crowley who was laying the foundations of the American space program during the workweek and collaborating on the weekends with a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard on rituals intended to summon the goddess Babalon.  It was just too much, man.  The story deserves its own novel.  By someone other than me.  (I did work some of this material into a short play I that wrote last year for the Chicago-based Runaways Lab Theatre.) [Editor's note: ZOMG! You should read about John Whiteside Parsons, for real. Like, just open the link and leave the browser window open and read it later in the bathroom, if you have to. You'll thank me]

Q: You mentioned in one interview that you’re more of an idea-based author than a character-based author. Did you have any big ideas or epiphanies during the final stages of publication, or post-publication, that you kind of wish had made it into the finished product?

Not yet!  It could still happen, I suppose.  The one thing that I did add at the last second was a slightly stronger evocation of the residential building boom in 2003 Las Vegas; that’s something that my original draft touched on, but that became somewhat more compelling after Vegas got clobbered in the housing crisis.  I figured that folks who read the book without knowing that I finished it seven-odd years before it was actually published might wonder why I didn’t play that up more, so I played it up more.  (It’s consistent with many of the book’s broader themes anyway.)

A thing that I tried to do—because novels that are obviously more interested in lecturing than storytelling are invariably terrible (Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you)—is cover my conceptual tracks as much as possible.  While I do have sincere and strongly-held convictions about the world and the project of living in it, I hope these aren’t ever stated baldly in the book.  There’s plenty of theorizing and bloviating in there, but I think it’s only done by the characters, not the narrator—more specifically by characters who may be full of shit.  What I really hoped to accomplish was to create a space and an occasion for readers to think about certain ideas and patterns without directly prompting them to do so; I tried to make my arguments elliptically, through the book’s structure and motifs.

Q: There’s certainly something Pynchon-esque about the book, particularly the parts set in old Venice, but the 2003 parts have a very noirish feel to them. Do you have any particular favorite influences (books or movies) when it comes to noir/detective fiction? Were there any other big influences that people haven’t really mentioned?

A: An obnoxious but honest thing that I feel obliged to say when I’m asked about influences is that the book was, to my way of thinking, definitely influenced by Pynchon—and by Umberto Eco—not despite but because of the fact that I’ve barely read anything by either of them.  I keep picking up and putting down Foucault’s Pendulum, never getting more than a dozen pages in, and while I read and loved The Crying of Lot 49, I haven’t attempted anything else by Pynchon.  But as I was writing The Mirror Thief, I thought often about what I imagine Pynchon’s and Eco’s novels to be like—or maybe more accurately what I wish they were like.  (To be clear, I’m not remotely saying that my book is better; just that it’s closer to the sorts of things that I connect with as a reader.)

I pull a few metafictional stunts in the book—characters’ names very often refer to something outside the text, and there are quite a few unidentified and unattributed quotations scattered throughout—but I decided not to use them as distancing or alienating effects in the ways that Pynchon and Eco might.  I wanted the book to play by (most of) the rules as a literary thriller, and for (most of) the metafictional elements to function as Easter eggs—as the gamer kids say—for readers who catch the references.

The three biggest influences on the book are probably 1) Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses (specifically the way that he smuggles a lot of his philosophical content into the reader’s head by way of his descriptions of landscape), 2) Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’s book about the Sex Pistols (and Dada, and the Situationist International, and, um, everything else), and 3) The Optical Unconscious by Rosalind E. Krauss, a fairly theory-heavy book about visual art that really rearranged my thinking on a bunch of stuff.  Moby-Dick was also something I was thinking about a lot; the hugeness of its conceptual universe was weirdly reassuring to me.  I reread quite a bit of Shakespeare to figure out how to approach the language in the 1592 sections, and his rhythms and constructions crept in as a result.  And a few days ago I was reminded—by the untimely death of its author, unfortunately—of how important Mark Fisher’s blog k-punk was to me while I was writing the book.  Fisher always drew clear and surprising connections between culture, theory, and politics; his writing on ghosts, hauntings, and “the weird” definitely affected the tone and content of my book.

None of that is noir, or detective fiction, obviously.  The portions of the novel that are the most directly influenced by that kind of material are actually the Los Angeles 1958 sections, even though those are the parts that fit least obviously in a genre box.  In order to get the voice right for those sections I reread a bunch of Raymond Chandler, which is a dangerous thing to do (since he’s so easy to get carried away imitating) but a total pleasure: at least a couple of his novels are as good as anything by anybody.  In order to figure out the baroque and paranoid atmosphere of the Venice 1592 sections, I read some of Alan Furst’s very stylish spy novels; although they’re set in Europe in the years during and around the second world war, not in the early-modern era, they were still very helpful.  I’ve read quite a bit of Dennis Lehane’s stuff over the years, though not while I was writing the book; still, I’m sure it was influential, particularly on the Las Vegas 2003 sections.

I fairly recently harangued my buddy Logan Breitbart into watching one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies, Angel Heart, Alan Parker’s noir nightmare from 1987, and he later asked me if it was an influence on my book.  At the time I was like: “Not at all!” . . . but the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to believe that it was a huge influence.  I probably shouldn’t spell that out any more than I already have.