An Interview with Nick Antosca
Nick Antosca is the author of Fires (Impetus Press, 2007), a novel
about broken friendships, violence, and advancing destruction that
John Crowley (Little, Big) calls "a striking work reminiscent of James
Salter." His short fiction has been published in the Barcelona Review,
the New York Tyrant, Opium and Hustler. He blogs at
brothercyst.blogspot.com and can be found not drinking in the bars of
New York City's literary community.
Let's start with a tough one that writers and reviewers always ask in their heads. As a first-time author, to what degree to you feel you've "blown your load"? Does Fires's status as your first novel worry you at all -- something to live up to?
That doesn't worry me in part because Fires isn't actually my first novel. I was an unfriendly child with few companions and from a very young age I spent most evenings writing short stories. When I went to college I also mostly kept to myself and I wrote a novel a year from the age of 18 to the age of 21. I didn't try in any effective, systematic way to get them published at first; writing them was just a method of calming my temper. Fires, the most linear and accessible, is the one I wrote when I was 20. I'm 24 now, and Fires feels like an ex-girlfriend. I am very fond of it and I remember every crevice, but artistically I've long since moved on.
And about the other side -- how much have you "blown your load" as a promoter? What have you had to do to get this book noticed? How has that been?
You like the phrase, "blown your load," I gather.
Self-promotion is the devil's work and I hate it. It may be necessary -- as a writer you do want people to read your book -- but I can't escape guilt and a certain creeping nausea when clamoring for the attention of strangers. I'm also unskilled and unlucky when it comes to that stuff. The last time I sent an e-mail promoting Fires, Gawker.com acquired and published it as an example of evil self-promoting ivy league alumni. There are some people -- a certain interviewer comes to mind -- to whom the talent for creative promotion comes with astounding ease, but I am not one of them.
Mainly for this reason, I leave much of the publicity to my publishers at Impetus Press. My book is only their third (after Kate Hunter's The Dream Sequence and Jennifer Banash's Hollywoodland). They figure it out as they go along but they are unbelievably tenacious and dedicated to their authors. I like working with the young and hungry.
Jon Danfield, your protagonist, is hardboiled. You establish that early on with his concern about Ruth's bruises. How much of that is your persona? And how difficult is it to write a badass?
I don't think he's hardboiled. He's not a "badass." He's just depressed and doesn't know it.
The character resembles me only in superficial ways -- he is roughly my age, he goes to the same college (a decision of convenience), he grew up in similar (if slightly more affluent) suburban surroundings. One of his most distinctive traits is his anxiety about ever being alone. He can't stand to be left with his thoughts. I am the opposite -- I have trouble not being alone and rarely spend time in a crowded environment if I haven't medicated or otherwise steeled myself in advance -- so it was challenging to write from the opposite perspective.
One of his traits with which I do identify is a desire for the ability to change oneself -- one's life, one's nature -- radically. At the end of Fires, the opportunity for such change comes in more catastrophic forms -- a bullet in the brain, for example -- than Danfield or any other character expected, but the desire for it is a sincere one and it comes from me.
Otherwise, his personality has little in common with mine except general pessimism.
This might get too personal, but from hanging with you I know that you don't drink. This puts you in the minority with writers. Do you ever find it weird? And which vice do you find most common among your writer friends -- women, wine, pot, coke, song?
I stopped drinking in college, that's true. I had problems with the combination of liquor and painkillers which I was taking after lung surgery -- my left lung was stapled together and scarred to the inside of my chest, and the recovery took a long time. Parts of that lung are gone. Do I ever find it weird that I don't drink? No. I never really enjoyed drinking that much in the first place.
No drug has ever enhanced my creativity. Almost all hindered it. I
write with a clear head.
And just as I've discarded most of my "vices," the majority of my writer friends never even had them. Actors and musicians, I think, are more inclined to really hurt themselves with that sort of thing. Writers in my experience seem better equipped to foresee the point at which the pleasure-to-pain ratio will become unreasonable and adjust their behavior accordingly.
Let's get this out of the way -- influences?
Nabokov is my favorite novelist and literary personage, but Calvin and Hobbes and the Marquis de Sade are my strongest influences.
In no particular order, here are some books that have affected how I
read and write: Waterland, Lanark, The Martian Chronicles, The Magus,
Koko, The War Against Cliche, The Bridesmaid, Bend Sinister, Lolita,
Last Night, A Sport and a Pastime, American Psycho, The Collected
Stories of William Trevor, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Young Men
Do you read more contemporary stuff or more classics? How do you see contemporary literature right now? Not asking you to slam anyone or give anyone a blowjob, but how does it look out there?
I read more contemporary stuff (that is, from the past fifty years) these days. No one writes more profoundly about aesthetic and carnal pleasures -- he makes them echo across lifetimes -- than James Salter. It is heartbreaking. He is my favorite writer right now. The novelist John Crowley, my former professor and a great writer in his own right (see Little, Big), introduced me to Salter's books. He had read the first draft of Fires and thought I would feel a kinship. I did. Salter's 2005 collection, Last Night, is extraordinary, and his novel A Sport and a Pastime is one of my favorite books.
And there are some very young writers, in two cases younger than me, whose work I've only become familiar with in the past eighteen months. One is Kelly Link, whose short story "The Hortlak" is somehow about everything at once and contains so many good ideas she could've gotten a whole collection out of it. Two more are Helen Oyeyemi, whose novel The Icarus Girl I loved, and Noah Cicero, who has written three excellent books. And still another is my former roommate Tao Lin. Strange roommate, fucking great writer. No one like him. His books Eeeee Eee Eeee and Bed come out this year.
I admire many other contemporary writers, too. Too many for me to list them now.
Why do you think anyone still cares about books, what with George Bush's "internets" and all?
Most intelligent people simply like to read, I think. Other media can become a distraction, sure. But I use the internet primarily to buy, read about, and write about books.
You work with stories and novels (and you won some awards a few years ago for your poetry). With the short fiction -- can you you toss off a story in one day? With the long -- how do you discipline yourself?
I can't write a short story in a day. It might take a week; it might take two months. Recently I wrote a short story about a man who works for a cosmetics company, testing lipstick on rabbits. The first draft took a week. I can write the first draft of a novel in as little as a few months -- sometimes -- but six months to two years of revision and rewriting will follow. And I don't write poetry anymore, ever. When I wrote poetry I was almost always high on something. Unsurprisingly the results were terrible -- but somehow a lot of it got published. There were some strange real world consequences to that, too. Would that I could cleanse the internet of it.
My discipline as a writer is not that great. I just really like writing, so I do it all the time. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't force myself to do it. When I get exhausted working on a long piece, novel or novella, I just take a break for a while and go back to it when the urge returns.
You went from Maryland to Yale to NYC. What's best? You going to stay in the City?
Before Maryland, Louisiana. That's where I was born. New Orleans in my mind has always been a city of murderers. Two of my earliest memories are hearing my mom talk about a beheading that happened near her school and picking dried mud off our family car after someone dumped it in Bayou St. John as a threat.
None of those environments were "better" for writing, but in college I certainly had more free time. In New York, if I wake at midnight and write until 3 or 4 a.m., I feel isolated enough that I am able to produce good work. For one year at Yale I lived in the highest dorm on campus, a cramped room at the top of a tower; that's where I wrote Fires.
Yes, I intend to stay in New York a while if I can afford it. I
haven't made money writing. I am an assistant at a hedge fund.
That's my day job. In fact I'm sitting at my desk right now, answering these questions.
Finally, what are you working on now?
A lot. I'm just stitching up the last of several surgeries on the manuscript of the novel I wrote immediately after Fires. I'm also writing a short novel called Midnight Picnic. Right now that one's my wife. It occupies my thoughts. I'm writing it out of order, without any commercial considerations. And, finally, I'm in the very early stages of a novel about a ground war in the cities and suburbs of the United States.