In Ways and Means (Overlook, Feb.), the debut novel from PW contributing editor Lefferts, NYU business student Alistair is on the run from his evil billionaire former employer while one of Alistair’s former lovers gets involved with a gay erotic art project involving MAGA gear.

Ways and Means is set during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, but it’s about more than Trump. What made you choose that year as the novel’s backdrop?

That summer before the election just felt like a dramatically rich and perilous time. You had the sense that America as we knew it was coming to an end, and it was happening just as the protagonist Alistair is finishing college. I always knew the story would be about money, class, and ambition, and I felt like the election really highlighted the inequities and iniquities about the American class system that we've been content to ignore or deprioritize.

Alistair hails from a working-class background in Upstate New York and struggles to fit in at NYU and at the banks where he gets internships. What did you want to convey about his disenchantment and his unwitting involvement in criminal activity?

You know, Alistair and I share some qualities. We're both from Binghamton, N.Y., and we both went to Catholic school and NYU. But he's also just extremely different from me. I mean, I could never imagine majoring in finance. I would flunk out after one week. But it was interesting to think about someone who kind of grew up with the same complexes about class and takes them in a totally different direction. I think one of the more affecting things about Alistair is his naive faith in the meritocracy, the idea that if he performs well in school and executes his duties in his various jobs, he will be rewarded by the system. And that's just not the case.

I also wanted to explore through Alistair the isolation of class shame. He’s among the poorest students at NYU, and that's a very alienating experience. He believes that through success he will overcome that alienation, but he doesn’t realize his alienation can be destructive. So he's sort of hoist with his own petard. He's defeated by the very thing that he's trying to escape.

There are big important themes at play, but there’s also a lot of fun. What did you want to convey with the lurid scenes of the art world and gay culture?

With interviewers, you end up focusing on these weighty things, but the truth is that I was just having a riot while writing this book, and I wanted the reader to have a riot, too. I could provide a theoretical justification for why there's so much sex, but it’s also true that my instincts to entertain just naturally went there. There’s this sort of menacing artist character named Jay, who is dancing around a kind of amoral interest in Trump, and I don't want to mitigate how awful his ideas and project are, but I wanted him to be a source of entertainment and comedy.

All of these characters are diving headlong into crushing environments. With Alistair it’s finance, and his former lover Elijah is crushing headlong into an entanglement with the quasi-sociopathic Jay. I thought it was important to get at what's so seductive about the worlds depicted in the book—what makes them laugh, what turns them on—and that’s where I wanted to be entertaining.

Speaking of entertainment, your book recalls some recent TV shows about inequality and moral corruption. As a novelist, are you informed at all by movies and TV?

I don’t take direct inspiration from TV, but after writing the book, I ended up watching a lot of movies and shows that felt germane to the novel, like Succession and Margin Call. My natural tendency as a writer is to explore the psychology of a character, but I think what makes a novel dynamic is its balance between psychology and, you know, jolts of action. When it came to some of the TV-ish aspects of the book, I was thinking a lot about John Grisham, who is certainly a writer who thinks about the screen. I thought a fusion of contemporary Henry James mashed with John Grisham would be generative. Also it was exciting to watch Succession and realize I'm neither the only person interested in writing about characters like this, nor am I the only person who's interested in seeing them self-destruct.