With both your books concerning the death of a major character, can you talk about what fascinates you about death and the process of it?
It’s funny because I’m not fascinated with death. I’m fascinated with what’s anachronistically called “metaphysics.” I take my cues from physics or science and the observation that 96% of the universe is not available to our perception. So I’m interested in the greater whole of which we are a part, but cannot perceive. That makes death an interesting threshold. It fascinates me in the context of our mortality. It’s a great backdrop. It sets our eminence in release against the omega point of our mortal career. It’s this absolute value that I create narratively and aesthetically—it’s a powerful subject to write about. With Charlie in Enon, it all takes place in his head, these are projections, it becomes the psychology and emotional tectonics of grief, and he invents this other Enon in which he repatriates his daughter and he joins her there and that’s how he negotiates her passing. The idea is that her absence is as specific to and as highly articulated as her presence.
Being able to observe only a small part of the universe we’re a part of, is this why you often write from a lofted point of view? Like the seizures in Tinkers and the hallucinations in Enon?
That’s an interesting question because I’m interested in character rather than plot, but then you have these times when verisimilitude rears its ugly head, so I find ways to modulate my characters into these points of view that are heightened or poetic, but I think of that as practical logistics, ways of modulating even the reader into those states of mind so they don’t seem to come out of nowhere.
Did you notice a difference in editing between Bellevue [which published Tinkers] and Random House?
I’ve been supernaturally lucky with the editors I’ve had. Both Erika Goldman at Bellevue and Susan Kamil at Random House were, respectively, the first readers. The editing process was that I wouldn’t talk to either of them for months working on the book, and then we’d have conversations about it. As it got closer to publication, the conversations got more specific. Good editors say, “I like all this stuff, but there’s something off-key here, can you take a look at it?” And I’d say sure, I’ll take a look at it. With both editors I was fortunate that every time I’d go back, they’d read the revision and say, “That’s it.” It wouldn’t be, “In this scene this dog should bark twice.” There was none of that prescriptive stuff. It was absolutely wonderful. In both cases, for better or worse, what ended up between those covers is what I wrote.
Since Tinkers took so long to publish and was such a success, I was wondering if you had any advice for young writers?
My advice comes out of my own situation, which is dangerous because it could sound normative. It took me a long time to get Tinkers published. I didn’t get my MFA until I was 32, and 10 years later I published my first book. So to me it’s all about playing your long game. But it’s also the good fortune I had. The silver lining of those years when I was trying to get Tinkers published but couldn’t were the years when I had to decide, “Why do I want to be a writer?” I realized that writing is the thing itself, writing is not a means to publication, writing is not a predicate of publication, so I spent years making art for art’s sake. If you want to be a writer, you write. Everybody wants to get published. You gotta play your long game. You don’t want to publish a crappy book, you don’t want to be a 50- or 60-year-old person embarrassed by the juvenilia that you were able to get published, and you don’t want to publish just because you can.