An Interview with Arthur Nersesian
Remember Escape From New York? That movie where Snake is sent into the post apocalyptic detention city to rescue the president? Yeah, that one. Now set aside the bad taste in your mouth and look at another re-imagining of the city.
Arthur Nersesian’s The Swing Voter of Staten Island begins with an amnesiac assassin’s arrival in the Rescue City of New York, Nevada, where all the draft dodgers, convicts and the homeless have been shipped after a terrorist attack on the real New York City. No thanks to Nixon, Rescue City is plagued by a gang war between the two presiding political parties, the Piggers and the Crappers, and everyone inside wants out.
Nersesian’s new novel is a major departure from his previous works, which dealt with artists of varying degrees living their lives. Having delved into the world of alternate histories, Nersesian explained his novel over French toast and coffee in New York’s East Village.
The book was very reminiscent of Jamestown.
I actually bumped into Matthew Sharpe about six months ago, and I said “I gotta warn you -- full disclosure -- I just wrote a novel where Manhattan and Brooklyn are allies in a war. I don’t think anybody will make any real parallels to your book though.”
Why did you decide to write an alternate history novel this time around?
The book really took a long time to gestate and evolve. It started as almost scifi-ish, like a Samuel R. Delany novel. I really wanted to do a book that deals with some group inside of a country that was going through some kind of oppression. The initial draft dealt with an African American culture a little bit, and there were no proper nouns. It wasn’t America, it wasn’t set in any time, and it wasn’t set in any place. It was just very free-floating, and that was the problem with the book. I’m Armenian, and I guess as a member of a group that was to some degree at the mercy of a host country of a different culture (Armenians underwent the genocide in Turkey) and seeing that with other countries and other peoples like the Native Americans and other subgroups in America, other groups that had been persecuted to ethnic or even sexual orientation, that was sort of the original idea, just studying that and the insulation and isolation of a group inside of itself.
I began the book in the early '90s, and I’d show it to different friends, my own kitchen cabinet of readers. I wasn’t getting particularly positive responses. I would periodically go back to it off and on. It wasn’t until 9/11 and then New Orleans and things that I never thought were really possible started happening that I picked it up again. I thought this book wasn’t suddenly far-fetched. Fiction is usually out of the norm, and it should be, but this was not as far out of the norm today as it would have been initially.
The only thing that comes immediately to mind as far as a fiction writer who might have tackled this a little bit in terms of dimension was Camus with The Plague. There’s no isolation and so-forth, so it goes into a different territory. That’s what I remember reading when I first wrote the book in the early '90s. Other than that it was just really kind of mixing and matching, finding what worked and what didn’t, and finally plugging it into a history that really did reflect our own time.
Why did you set Rescue City in Nevada?
That was really just research. I read that the federal government, outside of Alaska, owns more private property in Nevada than anywhere else, and the fact that there’s a desert really allows for the isolation aspect. I was thinking of Utah as well because there’s a desert community there. In the book, Rescue City is reshaped from a military situation city. There really is a military situation city in the Utah desert called German Village, but Rescue City seemed more isolated. You’re kind of stuck, and a lot of these people want to get out.
There’s a very ominous ending here. Does that leave room for a sequel?
There is a sequel to this, and it actually goes back in time and kind of in a different direction. Not all is as it seems, and the book actually deals more with history. It deals with Robert Moses, who built so much of New York and was responsible for so many highways and the UN being placed here. It’s fascinating, the itemization of everything, but he was sort of a fascist in the process. He had a brother who was also kind of a brilliant engineer, and he totally thwarted his career. It becomes the basis for the big attack, and it loops into the whole terrorist thing and the sixties and so on. I can tell you more, but that would just give it away.
Did you have the sequel in mind while writing The Swing Voter of Staten Island?
This was initially one pretty big book, and some of it has to do with basic marketing. I showed it to my agent, and I showed it to my editor at Akashic, and the idea was that in the rewriting of it, I realized I could probably take off five to seven years and really bring it into a solitary forum. But there were so many writers who have been really serializing or multi-volumizing one work. I kind of liked that. When I was in my teens I read Lord of the Rings, and there are so many others like Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. The point is I’d just love to do that. Instead of sitting down and writing it as one big book, I realized it was easier to do this in parts.
I’m just finishing the second draft of the second book, and I’m trying to give it to my publisher before the year is through.
How did the experience of writing this differ from The Fuck-Up and Suicide Casanova?
Actually greatly. Those books are very different. They’re set in a very specific time in New York in the last ten years with a fairly recognizable group of characters, usually artists. My last three before this were all artists. One was an actress, another a painter and then a writer, so this is a departure for me. I really found myself using a whole different palate of colors and a new criteria for how I usually write. I wasn’t able to pull at my comfortable routines for this one.
I heard a mutual friend of ours inspired a character in Suicide Casanova.
Maybe after the fact. I began that in the early '90s, and I didn’t meet him until early 2007. Any obsessive, sexual creature can find himself in there. Truman Capote kept saying that people kept jumping forward saying “I was an inspiration for Holly Golightly!” I guess everyone was.
What kind of research went into the new book?
One thing about this book that I was trying to address was that it feels like our present culture, politically and socially, is as if we had not gone through the '60s or even the '70s and '80s to some degree. The social activism that I grew up with in my early teens, I wonder where has that gone? In this book I tried to enlist some of that, certain figures who were cultural icons who could be today. I remember Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman and people like that who said we’re not going to just let you take our youth and throw them in Vietnam, we’re not going to let Watergate go away. I feel like all of those things that were really outrageous, those social indignities, are a trifle compared to what we have now with Bush and Iraq and Halliburton and the money we’re getting ripped off for, the conservative appointees to the court that strip us of our rights. I just wonder where is the outrage? According to the polls, America is pretty evenly divided against things like abortion. Where’s that quiet group, that fifty percent? Where is the indignation? I was trying to draw on some of that.
I did some basic research to enlist some figures for that aspect. The idea of the book was rounding up the counterculture figures of the day, kind of isolating them and letting America move on into a conservative agenda with Reagan taking over from Nixon and the Vietnam War continuing on. Woodward and Bernstein being arrested so they were unable to do their expose on Watergate, and so on. That was a key point of research: who and where.
What was the last book you read or what are you reading now? What was your favorite or least favorite book? Take it how you want.
I went to Russia this summer with my friend Margarita Shalina, the small press buyer at St. Mark’s Bookstore. After this wonderful immersion in Russian culture we sat down and drew up a list of ten books that we’re going to read this year that represent Russian literature. I’m kind of in that right now. Some are very academic like the Brothers Karamazov, and some are really out there.
But the problem with being a writer is that I sometimes equate it with being a porn actor who has to come home at the end of the day and make love to his wife. After screwing around all day, it’s very difficult to keep it going at night. Writing the new book has almost destroyed the pleasure of reading for me. And then your eyes start to go…
Would you find yourself in Rescue City with Woodward and Bernstein?
I’d like to think so. You become very conscious of who would have been sent to the gulag, who would have been a threat to the state. This was much more benign, but the idea of internal exile, would I really have the courage to speak out against a regime, knowing they could come after me? I would like to say that I would, but I don’t know. It’s one of those things you have to decide at the time. In the '30s when Stalin was coming to power, you could see the writers who were sent to the gulag or executed, and there were those who tended to say that they weren’t going to write anymore and spend a quiet life with the wife and kids. You really can’t divide the heroes from the cowards, because I really can’t blame anybody for not choosing death. We’re not all martyrs. It’s a tough choice and it’s easier to push someone else into the pot and say, “Be a hero!”