Chapman’s debut, Riots I Have Known (Simon & Schuster, May), is extremely funny—and just happens to be set in a prison.
What was the genesis of the book?
It came about as a series of challenges that I set myself. I’ve worked a lot in marketing and advertising with literary fiction, on campaigns for Zadie Smith, Roberto Bolaño, and others. I definitely wanted a book that could be read in one sitting but revisited. I wanted a charming, unreliable narrator, and I wanted zero plot.
Your prose is very polished and economical. How many drafts did you go through with the novel?
I rewrote it five or six times, rewriting until I found that voice, the voice of the narrator. After that, it was much easier; the recursive quality that I had envisioned would work. And every day or so, I would come up with a very strong line that I could incorporate, so I was continually tightening the words.
I love the mix of high and pop culture in Riots. Do you have favorite pop culture artists that you’d call guilty pleasures?
I like the idea that the book is one big mélange; that’s so much of what American culture is. Those Fast and Furious movies and Mission: Impossible. Anything that has action scenes that would kill anyone who would try it, I’m in.
You do a fair amount of book reviewing. What contemporary writers do you admire?
I got deep into Latin-American writers a few years ago, starting with Roberto Bolaño. I love Horacio Castellanos Moya. He wrote a novel called Senselessness, and it’s a masterpiece. Of course, César Aira. And Mariana Enriquez. Her collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, is brilliant. She’s captured the smallest overlap in the Venn diagram between darkness and humor. Who else? Lydia Davis, Geoff Dyer, and Sam Lipsyte. His new novel, Hark, is terrific.
Tell me about the Nerd Jeopardy events you produce.
It’s a literary trivia night that began when I worked for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Applying Jeopardy! formats to literature was the beginning; applying alcohol to the formula makes it even better. We’ve done it occasionally as a lit crawl in New York and at book festivals. I live in Kingston, N.Y., now and produce Nerd Jeopardy occasionally at a local place called the Rough Draft Books & Bar.