Adam Langer’s newest novel, The Thieves of Manhattan hits bookstores across the country this week. It’s a smart, funny hybrid that blends and bends genres with startling results. Adam was kind enough to talk to Biblioklept over a series of emails about his new book, truth vs stuff that actually happened, literary hoaxes, and being mistaken for the author of The Magicians. You can read more about Adam Langer at his website, including info on his previous novels Crossing California, The Washington Story, and Ellington Boulevard, and his memoir My Father’s Bonus March. The Thieves of Manhattan is available from Spiegel & Grau.
Biblioklept: Your new novel (or novel-posing-as-memoir-posing-as-novel-posing-as-memoir . . .) The Thieves of Manhattan is about a con game, a literary hoax, and the problems of art and truth, love and theft. It’s also a send-up of the publishing industry and a clever adventure story with a noir flavor and a self-referential sense of humor. I want to talk about all of that, but let’s begin with your protagonist, Ian Minot, a barista with literary aspirations. Early in the novel, he attends a Manhattan party crammed with literary types, most of whom he thinks are poseurs and hacks. At the same time, under his bitterness, we sense that he’d love to be a part of that world. How much of Ian’s experiences correlate to your own with the publishing world? How much hyperbole is in your satire?
Adam Langer: Looking back on writing Thieves, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember exactly where the reality ends and the satirical hyperbole begins. At some point, fact and fiction fuses in my mind, which is, of course, one of the themes of the book. On the one hand, it’s totally true that, as an editor of Book Magazine, I attended many a literary wingding in which actual events described at the book took place. Yes, just as Francine Prose happily greets our hero until she realizes she has confused him with someone else, I too was happily greeted by Ms. Prose until she realized that she thought I was Lev Grossman (Argh). On the other hand, though, a majority of Ian’s experiences and Ian’s biography emerge completely from my imagination—my resumé has a lot of odd items on it, but New York barista isn’t one of them. I liken this experience of melding the actual with the fanciful to one of those live action/animation movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Mary Poppins, in which the two coexist to create another reality.
B: At the beginning of Thieves, Ian is writing “small,” realistic, character-based stories that no one wants to read. He enters into a literary con with a man named Roth to produce a big adventure story that they will sell as a memoir–as “true,” despite how improbable and fantastical it is. Thieves is in many ways an analysis on our modern obsession for true stories (and the way that “truth” can unravel). Why do people demand truth–even when it might not be what they really want from a narrative?
AL: I think we, or at least speaking for myself, I do want truth from a narrative. When I read a book or see a movie, I do want it to resonate; I want it to either connect with my viewpoints or to challenge them and make me rethink them; I don’t like when my BS-o-meter is constantly going off. But I think people often get bogged down when they confuse Truth with Stuff That Actually Happened. Tim O’Brien has an awesome essay on this topic that kind of blew my mind when I was in college. As for me, I’d much rather read a story of space aliens or baboons or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog that rang true than a self-aggrandizing purportedly-true memoir or celebrity autobiography. There’s a line in Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, which I quite liked–”If someone said to me, ‘I’ve got this great story to tell you, and every word of it is an absolute lie!’ I’d be on the edge of my seat.” That line has stuck with me. Also, more prosaically, in the publishing industry, there’s a perception that, with the decline of traditional book coverage, a good novel isn’t enough anymore, that the author needs a compelling biography as well. Ian certainly has this perception and part of his frustration is that he assumes his lack of success is directly related to his lack of an interesting autobiography. He later learns he was wrong regarding just about all of his
B: In his recent book Reality Hunger, David Shields makes a point similar to yours that audiences “get bogged down when they confuse Truth with Stuff That Actually Happened.” Shields also calls for the extinction of the “novelly novel” or the “novel qua novel” — he wants hybrid or “remix” novels. Thieves strikes me as such a novel, clearly in its treatment of memoir vs. novel, but also in its self-aware incorporation of genre fiction tropes from adventure stories and crime noir. Had you tried your hand at crime fiction or adventure tales before Thieves? Were there any difficulties you faced in crafting your hoax story?
AL: I haven’t read Reality Hunger, but my sense is that Shields is probably a lot more dogmatic in his views than I am. I’m not particularly interested in rendering any particular literary form “extinct,” except maybe the genre of Manifestoes That Declare Certain Literary Forms Extinct. I’m a fan of novelly novels just as I am a fan of remix novels or hybrid novels. I love writers who experiment with form and writers who hew to the “well-made-novel” and haven’t advanced past the 19th Century. Though Thieves probably does fit the definition of hybrid or remix, I don’t think that’s all I’ll be writing from now on. As for crime fiction, I’ve dabbled. In fact, the first novel I wrote after moving to New York in 2000 was a thriller of sorts set in the publishing world and concerned a research assistant to a crime novelist who becomes chief suspect once that novelist disappears. It had a lot of problems, and I haven’t taken it out of the drawer in about nine years. Although I have other crime/genre fiction ideas, I think my tastes and skills tend more towards character-based, comic social novels. But putting together the hoax plot was really a blast or a hoot or something like that. It was really incredible fun to try. Normally, when I’m writing, I read certain books to inspire me; while writing Thieves, I was religiously doing New York Times crossword puzzles.
B: Speaking of crossed-words, your narrator Ian uses a rhetorical device that will stand out to many readers: he substitutes the names of famous authors, alter-egos, and literary characters for words he associates them with–so, sex becomes “chinaski,” after Bukowski’s stand-in, a bed becomes a “proust,” a thick head of hair becomes a “chabon,” and so on. How did you come up with this idea?
AL: Well, it seemed to me that so many thrillers I’ve read are filled with jargon, whether hard-boiled patois or technical procedural details, that I thought my narrator needed his own lingo. At the same time, the lingo worked for me because it established Ian’s mindset, one completely immersed in the contemporary literary universe. Before I even started Thieves, I heard this voice that spoke in this literary slang, much of which I didn’t wind up using because I didn’t want to overdose on it. The idea of the slang is that it should be understandable in context without anyone needing to understand or even care about what is being referenced.
B: There is an “answer key,” though–a glossary at the end. Was that your idea? Or was that a publisher’s or editor’s inclusion?
AL: My idea, and I was just having fun with the glossary. I don’t like when readers can flip to the last page and see how it turns out. So, my previous books have featured glossaries, an index, and in the case of Ellington Boulevard, song lyrics.
B: Like you, I’m a big fan of literary hoaxes–so one of my favorite passages in Thieves was a detailed list of various literary forgeries and hoaxes, many of which I’d never heard of, like Li-Hung Chang or the works of Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. How much of Thieves was born of your interest in literary hoaxes, and how much research did you do along the way?
AL:: I’ve always been fascinated by literary hoaxes and, while editing Thieves, I was reading as many as I could including the titles you mention, as well as watching great literary hoax movies such as Orson Welles’s F For Fake and Forbidden Lies, the documentary about Norma Khouri, and some awesome YouTube footage of “Margaret B. Jones.” I was slightly disheartened to note how many literary hoaxes have been forgotten. My personal favorites are the Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in 1764-5 by Madalen King Hall aka Cleone Knox, an incredibly fun read, and the poems of the fictional “Ern Malley,” who has some great turns of phrase no matter how nonsensical. I have no idea what “I am still the black swan of trespass on alien waters” means, but man, it sounds cool.
B: While we’re on literary hoaxes, one of my favorite things about Thieves is that both Clifford Irving and Laura Albert (aka JT LeRoy) blurb it, and then, in the plot, a hoaxer agrees to blurb Ian’s book. How did the Albert/LeRoy blurb come about?
AL: I actually take a very active part in soliciting blurbs for my books, which is partially related to control freakishness and partially related to the fact that, as an author, I much prefer hearing from other writers than from editors, publicists or agents. Clifford Irving’s was the first blurb I got for the book, and getting it was remarkably simple. I found his agent, wrote her a letter that she forwarded to him. We had a very gentlemanly correspondence. I sent him the book and he provided a very generous endorsement. As for Laura, we were introduced via a mutual friend and, after I sent her a galley of the book, we traded dozens of e-mails back and forth and had a number of hilarious, wild and profane telephone conversations. She’s a lot of fun to talk to and correspond with.
My initial idea was to have writers blurb as their alter egos or writer characters in their books—Steven King would write as Jack Torrance, Gary Shteyngart would write as Jerry Shteynfarb, Michael Chabon would write as Grady Tripp, and so on. But I was advised that this would be confusing and most readers who got the joke would think that the blurbs were fake.
B: Have you ever stolen a book?
AL: When I was about eleven, I shoplifted a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise from Rosen’s Drug Store on Devon Avenue a few blocks away from my house in Chicago. But I felt guilty about it, so the next day, I actually wound up sneaking it back.