Jon Fasman--charming colleague, adventuresome critic and novelist extraordinaire--has just been named as one of the finalists for the ninth annual Young Lions Fiction Award for his latest novel, "The Unpossessed City". The New York Public Library doles these out to "authors age 35 and under who are making an indelible impression on the world of literature". Indelible. (Rivka Galchen, another recipient of our adoring gaze, has also been nominated, along with three other undoubtedly talented authors who happen to be dead to us.)
The winner won't be announced until March 16th. In the meantime, Fasman has indulged us in providing not a few answers to our questions about his books and about the writing process in general. In "The Unpossessed City", we follow Jim Vilatzer, a hapless man-child with gambling debts, who travels to Moscow to make some money and hide from his East Coast suburban life. There he falls into a dark plot of Russian secrets, weird abductions and nuclear science. But really, it's more of a coming-of-age story.
Moscow seems to function as a character in "The Unpossessed City". Everyone is corrupt and broken; the snow is always dirty; the sky is always dark. Your hero, Jim, struggles to "feel human in a city designed to make one feel insignificant: everything was outsized, immense, deliberately imposing, rough, gray, cold " What moved you to set your book there?
I'm glad you said that, because Moscow is indeed a character in this novel--perhaps the main character. Like people, cities have souls, and therefore one can take to a certain city (or not) as one would take to a person.
I found Moscow--its addictive mix of architectural brutality and the human warmth that necessarily breeds; its long grey boulevards dotted with churches decorated in rich reds, greens and golds; the way this immense city just sort of surrenders to endless forest and steppe on its outskirts; and of course its head-spinningly rapid transformation, not just since 1989 but year-by-year--profoundly attractive. I fell in love with it in the same way one can easily fall in love with unpredictable, unstable but for that reason exciting people.
When did you live there? And did you know it was a place you would wrestle to capture on the page?
I lived there in 2002, and returned for a short time in 2005. I didn't know I would write about it--or rather I didn't figure out how I would write about it--until well after I left. When I lived there I was working on my first book, which was set in a fictional version of Providence, Rhode Island, where I lived in the mid-1990s. For some reason I can't seem to write about a place until after I leave.
Both novels seem toy with more conventional genres--the hard-boiled thriller and the coming-of-age story--which you mix together with a literary twist. What draws you to this arc? Is it something you seek out at a reader?
Hard to say. I like writing mysteries because I discovered (in failed attempts at more "literary" works) I am terrible at plot. Mysteries and thrillers force you to pay close attention to it. I have also always enjoyed reading them: Sherlock Holmes marked my move into "adult" fiction when I was a boy, and I'm now happily becoming a Daniel Silva completist.
As for the more literary arc, that's just how it happened, and I think that's a result of using protagonists in both this and my first book who were very lightly fictionalised versions of myself. That gave me license to "talk" a bit more than I would have (and perhaps should have) had I written characters more different from me. I guess if you take a mystery and throw in a bunch of first-person musing or third-person emotional back-story, hey presto--you've written a "literary mystery".
But if you are, as you say, "terrible at plot", then doesn't that mean that your preoccupations are elsewhere? Characters? Emotions? Descriptions? Don't mysteries and thrillers force your hand, plot-wise?
I'm not really sure where my preoccupations are, or should be, or will be. For better or worse, I share Nabokov's horror of psychoanalysis, and have a great fear of tromping around inside my own mind. Emotion, on paper and, alas, in life has always given me trouble; I look at the openness and vulnerability of an author like Jonathan Safran Foer, or the precision of Rohinton Mistry, with unbridled envy. Mysteries do not force my hand so much as they guide it.
Still, characters, emotions and descriptions all have their place in mysteries, just as in any other novels. I happen to like the story propulsion that writing a mystery provides, but it is not an either-or proposition. Plot concerns crop up in most "literary" novels; however realistic a novel seems, it remains a contrivance, in that what purportedly happened did not in fact happen. Similarly, without character and a sense of place, a mystery is dead from the start--or worse, clichéd.
You've said that creating heroes that are essentially variations of yourself lets you "talk" more. But what else does placing a proxy of yourself in a fictional story let you do? Is there an element of wish fulfilment?
Most of the elements of wish-fulfilment occur on a conversational level: Jim and Paul (my two protagonists) often say things I wish I had said, particularly in confrontational situations, when in real life I have a tendency toward red-faced stammering. I certainly have no wish to have been involved in a conspiracy of the sort Jim finds himself in, and I'm quite happy to keep my distance from guns and the men who shoot them (I suppose, in that sense, I make my protagonists much braver than I am, which is also wish-fulfilment of a sort).
Having an authorial stand-in also clears up an epistemological problem for me, which first-person narration also does: what can I say? What do I have the right to say? If "I" the protagonist makes the same sorts of observations that I the author might make, then I have a better sense of what my hero can say, see and feel on the page. However, in the book I'm writing now there are two first-person narrators quite different from me, so I've had to start from the points of observation and voice, and work my way forward.
As you've brought it up, can we talk a bit about the book you're writing now? Where is your fiction taking you?
At the moment my fiction is taking me directly to the liquor cabinet. I just consigned 250 pages of a rather sparkless novel to the spare-parts shelf. I hope to harvest its inessential organs, or perhaps reanimate it sometime in the future, but it's not walking off that slab anytime soon.
Ouch. Oh dear. How much of this can you appreciate as part of a larger learning process? I'm now reading Blake Bailey's (forthcoming) biography of John Cheever (speaking of a liquor cabinet...), who spent a decade toiling at a novel that would never get published. Ultimately he mined it for "The Wapshot Chronicle", improving upon his earlier efforts with the wisdom that comes from getting older and moving farther from the subject at hand (his own family; his youth). He was so distraught and discouraged during the struggle, wrestling with a book that wouldn't work. But the struggle was necessary for the books that did--particularly his last one, "The Falconer". He was always improving, always struggling (and always morose and surprisingly poor).
Isn't it absurd to think that books are born whole?
I think I can appreciate all of it as part of a larger learning process, because--economic realities aside--that's what novel-writing is. That doesn't mean I don't get frustrated, or worried, of course, but there is far more to learn from failure than success. Every book is perfect in my mind and a failure on the page; this one just happened to fail earlier and for more obvious reasons. I hope that every book is a slightly better failure than the last, but I can't see ever reaching a point where I bang something out and think I've hit all my marks.
With this one I know what went wrong, and I think I know how to fix it. If I end up doing this start-stop process three times over I'd be worried, but I never expect the process to be easy, and I don't think it would be worth doing if it were.
Are you able to read your published work, or does it make you feel uncomfortable to go over past decisions?
I absolutely despise reading my published work--I find it disgusting. I'm getting better at it (I think--I hope), but it still is like fingers on a chalkboard to me.
What do you read to restore your faith in fiction? How do you get back on track and feel less discouraged (gatorade for the novelist mind)?
I read everything. Most recently I absolutely fell in love with "The White Tiger"--it was so good I had to stand up and pump my fist every so often. The most fun I've had reading a book since "Augie March". I've also been enjoying the work of Qiu Xiaolong, who writes mysteries set in modern Shanghai (lots of food and poetry).
Other than that, I see on my desk Wilkie Collins, Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare's Romances and Claudia Roden's masterful ethnography with recipes "The Book of Jewish Food". I never lose my faith in fiction, only in myself.
So what lessons did you learn from "The Unpossessed City"?
The two main lessons I learned have to do with plotting and characterization: specifically, if I treat my plot as a convenient hangar for, say, my impressions and descriptions of a city, the book will have an odd, somewhat jerky and inorganic rhythm. And if I treat my main character as an authorial stand-in but don't bother to adequately flesh him out with observations, he will seem a little thin. (I realise that I'm engaged in anti-advertisements for myself, but as I said, you learn more from failure than success.) On the more positive side, I learned that cities--their history, construction and, for lack of a better world, their souls--fascinate me as a writer more than anything else in the world (though I think Moscow and I are done with each other).
How will your next novel be different from the last two? Do you intend to write a mystery? Do you think you'll continue to play with this authorial stand-in?
I'm leery about discussing it at such an early stage, but I hope to dispense with the authorial stand-ins--or at least to better disguise them. I'm planning to come home geographically and do my travelling in time rather than space. I think I'll stick with mysteries, or mystery-esque structures, for the foreseeable future. I still have a huge amount to learn and I'd rather not stop what I've started until I feel at least a little more in control of the form.