Monday, May 3, 2010

Two Books, One Great Author

This month, rather than write a a review of "Last Night in Montreal," which I've already done, Emily Mandel has graciously agreed to tell us a little bit about both "Last Night in Montreal" and her new book, "The Singer's Gun." Both books are available at the University Campus Store.

1. Last Night in Montreal

I began writing my first novel in Montreal. It was winter and I was cold all the time. Last Night in Montreal isn’t autobiographical, except for the parts about what it’s like to be an anglophone in Quebec, but it’s still in some ways a very personal book: I’ve never taken a writing class, and Last Night in Montreal is the novel I wrote when I was figuring out how to write a novel.

I think of that book as forming a sort of bridge in my life: when I started writing the story, I was a dancer in Montreal. I didn’t think of myself as a writer; I was going to auditions for contemporary dance companies and looking for drop-in dance classes to take. By the time I finished the book I was living in New York City, I hadn’t danced in two years, and at some indefinable point I’d begun to think of myself as a novelist.

In Last Night in Montreal there’s a character, Lilia, who travels endlessly. She’s based on no one I know, but by the time I arrived in New York I’d lived in three cities, two countries, and a dozen apartment shares in the previous two years, and it was interesting to write about a character even less geographically settled than I was. I wanted to write a portrait of the city I’d just come from; I know that the Montreal in Last Night in Montreal is capable of annoying life-long Montrealers, and I understand why, but it’s absolutely true to my experience there.

The years when I was working on my first novel marked a transformative period. I was settling into my new city, beginning to think of myself as a writer, getting married.

We honeymooned on the island of Ischia.

2. The Singer’s Gun

Ischia: an island in the Bay of Naples, some distance northwest of Capri, a tranquil place where whole towns shut down over the off-season. Fishing villages and resort hotels ring the coast. Most of the tourists are German. The sea is bright blue, the beaches white. If you’re the kind of slightly morbid person who imagines dark plotlines running through everything (in other words, a writer) it’s the sort of place that seems beautifully sinister.

I was thinking a lot about weddings and honeymoons in those days, having spent months planning both of the above, and at a cafĂ© table in the piazza in the town of Sant’Angelo I was thinking about a story I’d heard recently about a couple whose relationship hadn’t survived the marriage. The story was that he’d realized it was a mistake during their honeymoon; they divorced, amicably, six months later. (What’s surprising, not to digress too horribly, is that I’ve heard two very similar stories since then. It’s apparently not as uncommon as all that.)

An idea I’d been thinking about around that time, and that I’m still thinking about now, is that it should be theoretically possible to base a novel on almost anything, no matter how random or how slight. I read an interview once in Salon Magazine with Michael Ondaatje, in which he was asked about the genesis of The English Patient. He said in the interview that the book began with three images: a nurse with a patient, a man stealing back a photograph of himself, a plane crash in the desert. It should be possible, I thought, to write an entire book based on the single image of a man leaving his wife on their honeymoon.

In this respect, the writing of The Singer’s Gun was identical to the writing of Last Night in Montreal. I begin with no more than a wisp of a premise, a few disconnected images or a single particularly striking sentence, and keep writing until it turns into a book. (I don’t recommend this process, incidentally; I don’t think I can work in any other way, but I strongly suspect that it’s easier to finish a novel when you know where you’re going in advance.)

Every premise raises questions, and it’s in answering these questions that the plot is formed. Why, for example, would a man leave his wife on their honeymoon? Perhaps if he were being blackmailed. In The Singer’s Gun, Anton Waker arrives on the island of Ischia and is forced by his criminally-inclined cousin to perform one last job for her. Anton’s spent the past few years struggling to carve out a life for himself in the legitimate world; but his first job was a partnership venture with his cousin Aria, selling fake passports and social security cards to illegal aliens in New York—and if he doesn’t perform this final transaction for her, she’ll tell his new wife that his Harvard diploma is a fake.

Various interests and worries attach themselves over time: passport fraud, human trafficking, the architectural salvage industry, identify theft, the New York City water supply, figureheads, the fragility of family, until what began as a sort of private stunt (“I bet I could write an entire book based on a single vague premise!”) has taken on a life of its own and expanded into something with much more depth.

There are some similarities in atmosphere and theme between the two books: disappearance and reinvention, immigration, plots that hinge on criminal mysteries, a touch of noir. It’s impossible for any writer to evaluate their own work with any trace of objectivity, but it seems to me that Last Night in Montreal is a much more lyrical novel than The Singer’s Gun—perhaps, in the manner of first novels, a little self-consciously so in places—and it’s driven as much by sheer atmosphere as by plot mechanics. The Singer’s Gun is a harder, faster piece of work, plot-driven and perhaps somewhat more precise. I tried my best to make it bulletproof.

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