Subversive American: An Interview with David Goodwillie

David Goodwillie (Photo: Candie Sanderson)

David Goodwillie is the author of the memoir Seemed like a Good Idea at the Time and American Subversive, a novel that centers on a home-grown terrorist plot.  Before he wrote books, Goodwillie was briefly a minor league baseball player, then worked at Southeby’s, a private investigation firm, and a dot-com startup. I interviewed him over lunch at Sebastian Junger’s bar The Half King, where he was recovering from a gin-fueled literary party with “writers, editors, agents, and a lot of very bad dancing.” We discussed his past and present projects, writing and literature, politics and media, life and love, “generational malaise,” the magic of New York, and why it’s sometimes embarrassing to be an American.

I last saw you at your book party in 2010. What’s new?

David Goodwillie: I was on the book tour with American Subversive for a while, first the hardcover, then the paperback. Usually if you’re a novelist, a literary novelist, you don’t get to go on a paperback tour, but we [Aryn Kyle and I] were at a big literary dinner and saw that the head of our publishing house had had a few drinks and decided this might be a good time to approach her with a new marketing idea. So we pitched her on a joint tour of the West Coast, where I had not gone with the hardcover, and shockingly she said: “That’s a great idea.” So she sent Aryn and me out on this big tour, we started in Portland and went all the way down the coast. All kinds of stuff went wrong in a Grand Old Book Tour way. We lost our car. And we got to LA and Aryn met with her film agent and I met with some friends and everyone said ‘You guys just have to write a screenplay about it.’ So we have been for most of the year. It’s kind of a literary Sideways about two writers who disappear on a book tour and the publisher forgets about them when they’re on the road.

I’ve also been working on another novel, which is coming slowly, as they always do, and some magazine articles. I just finished an article for Popular Science about nuclear divers, these guys who work at nuclear power plant and dive down into irradiated water to fix stuff because all the power plants are so old. They’re basically single-handedly saving the nuclear industry patching and welding and moving fuel rods around. And in the process, of course, they’re all getting sick and there’s no real oversight of the industry. It’s an extremely dangerous job and a fascinating subculture to explore. So I spent a bunch of the summer at a nuclear plant in Michigan, researching and then doing interviews for this piece. Investigative journalism is a healthy thing for a novelist to do, it gets you back in the real world. It’s also a while between paychecks in the book world so it’s nice to keep your hand in it.

How did you become a writer? Why the switch from memoir to novel?

DG: I went to Kenyon College, which is a pretty famous writing school, and managed not to take any English classes or do any writing at all. I was completely overwhelmed when I went there. Everyone was a star budding novelist or whatever and all the creative writing classes were filled up so I was a history major and managed to graduate having never written anything. And I took that attitude into my early life in New York City. I was a baseball player for a while, I got drafted my senior year out of college. That lasted…not very long.

Then I moved to New York and went through a series of –looking back on it –ridiculous jobs. I was a private investigator for Kroll Associates, the world’s largest investigative firm, but I could never find anyone so they got rid of me. I worked at Sotheby’s auction house as a sports expert. I started a dot-com company that was funded by Michael Dell, so I got into the rise and fall –more the fall – of the dot-com world.

I emerged from this stuff, having spent seven years in New York running around saying I was a writer and never having written anything and never taken any writing classes, but still had that bug to be a writer. Weirdly, all that time not writing helped me. I now had a story, a story of this generational malaise. Everyone I knew didn’t get serious about work until 10 years past when our parents did and we didn’t get serious about relationships until our 30’s instead of our 20’s. My generation was a generation of trying to figure it out. Or not figure it out. So I wrote this book and that was the glue that held the book together, an episodic tale of these New York adventures. And it was weird: not having written I didn’t know how hard it could be. I had never been in a writing workshop around great writers. I had never struggled over short stories. I just sat down (I had some money left over from my dot com fiasco) and I took a year and I wrote in the Chelsea Hotel and came out. Of course the money ran out after a year so I got an ad job. The book took about two years to write and I didn’t know what I was doing. But I was diligent about it. I sat down every day. I was used to going to work every day and tried to write 800-1000 words a day and at the end I had a book.

I certainly never would have been able to write a novel right off the bat, so for me, a literary memoir was a good way to get my foot in the door. To me the novel, the literary novel, if you’re going to be a writer, is the gold standard of how a literary life should take shape. Unless you’re David Sedaris. I wasn’t really interested in writing memoir after memoir after memoir, which some people make a great living doing and are very good at. Nick Flynn comes to mind. There are people who can mine very small but significant parts of their life in a very interesting way. I was more interested in moving into the fictional world, so I did that after Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.

I wanted this book [American Subversive] to be about a woman that I didn’t know anything about, who was the exact opposite of me and my experiences. [Paige Roderick] is from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, she’s from a military family, she’s a woman, she’s a Save the World type, all the stuff that I have never done, that I’ve been too afraid to do, or had no interest in doing. I wanted the heart and soul of this book to be about someone who wasn’t at all me and part of that had to do with writing a memoir first. And you write about yourself and going around talking about yourself and your friends and your family for a couple of years and yea, you get a bit self-conscious. So the idea of creating a character wholly from scratch was extremely appealing.

What writers do you admire?

DG: Because I didn’t go to writing school, I learned to write by reading. I was always a voracious reader. I read everything. I used to read The New Yorker cover to cover in college, which was weird for a jock to be doing. Jay McInerney was an early influence. He wrote a book called Brightness Falls, not his famous book, but it’s his best book I think by far. I was interested in realistic fiction, how to mine the real world for fictional stories, and how people took events of the day and turned them into narratives that asked larger questions and told us something about how we were living, or should be living, or could be living. That said there are certainly writers like Bret Easton Ellis who I don’t like at all. I think he has a very affected way of approaching the world. David Gates, whom you know as well, is a wonderful, wonderful writer. He’s kind of a cult writer, he only wrote two novels [Jernigan and Preston Falls] and a book of short stories [The Wonders of the Invisible World]. He manages in a mystifying way to tell tragic stories full of longing and sadness and pathos in really funny ways, so you’re almost laughing through a book that’s incredibly sad.  He touches on stuff that touches us all and that’s the stuff I really love. As far as craft, [I admire] someone like Amy Hempel: there’s never a word on the page that shouldn’t be on the page.

I [also] read westerns or thrillers, books that other literary people would turn their noses down at. I remember I read The Da Vinci Code to see how this guy who’s not a very good writer is getting people to turn the page and how you put suspense in a story. I was always very interested in that very thin line between high literature, where you’re writing a book that is partly about the writing itself, and a really good story, a page-turning story. And it seemed to me that so many books fall on one side or the other. You have a world full of Grishams and Tom Clancys and Steig Larssons with all story and no craft, or you had all craft and little story.  I think both books I’ve written, but especially American Subversive because that’s the novel, have tried to really toe that line between the two…One writer who’s very good at that is Richard Price. In Lush Life or Clockers he really gets these fascinating stories but he tells them in ways that go deep. Pete Dexter’s another one, he tells great stories. He’s got a book called Train about a black caddy at the LA country club in the 1950’s who’s the best golfer in the club, but of course he doesn’t play because he’s black. These books are wonderfully written. They’re also real page-turners. One other one on the more literary side is David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. I read it a couple of years ago and I’m still thinking about it.

It’s tough to define what a literary writer is, but certainly one of the definitions would be a writer who pushes the envelope and tries something different every time out and doesn’t get stuck in doing his thing. You think of David Mitchell, you think of Peter Carey, who does wildly different stories every time he does a book, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan. These are writers who really push themselves and they have hits and misses. It’s really tough to do it time and time again, but at least they’re out there doing something new and that’s one of the wonderful things about being a writer. Every two or three years you can enter a vastly different space, not just a different story but a different way of telling a story. Why not take advantage of that?

Why is your novel called American Subversive?

DG: The word subversive was in my head the whole time I was writing, not just because of Paige, who’s the radical character, but also because of Aidan, who’s definitively not a radical at the beginning of the book. He subverts his own life, turns his life upside down…. The two main characters completely turn on themselves. Aidan starts out as someone who’s disengaged completely from the world [and later] comes to care about it deeply. And Paige cares about the world incredibly deeply in the beginning of the book and is very cold and keeps people at a remove and learns to love and learns to care about somebody (against her better judgment).

Why did you dedicate the novel to your brother?

DG: You should not dedicate books to girlfriends. That’s a bad idea. And I dedicated my first book to my parents. So I dedicated my second book to my brother who is a banker in Chicago and not a big reader. I thought: perhaps this will get him on his way in the literary world. It’s [also] a book about a brother.  Paige’s brother dies in Iraq. That’s the catalyzing idea that sends her on her way [to become a radical activist]. It takes a real personal incident, something effecting your life that gets people to stop and get out of their lives and look at the larger picture.

The characters in American Subversive all have great names: Aidan, Paige, Cressida, Touché. You didn’t name anyone David, though you do have a Keith. Thanks for making him the asshole.

DG: He’s a visionary. [KLM: Yeah, a visionary asshole.] Names are really tough. You want names that are a little bit off, a little bit peculiar. You don’t want David or Jimmy. You need names that people can remember. But you also can’t have something that’s show-offy. I use a baby book. A lot of writers do.…Julian Touché is the laugh line of the book. And if you’re writing a book about domestic terrorism get a character in there that’s pretty funny. You need some levity.  He’s a bit of an absurdist character and he knows he’s absurd so that helps with the joke. So I gave him a name that’s a bit silly. Touché’s actually the name of one of my dad’s friends. Albert Touché. He owns a big men’s clothing store in Tuscon Arizona. I met him and I was like My God, your last name is Touché. I knew I’d use it in a book. Sometime life just hands you these things.

American Subversive critiques the American media, not only mainstream outlets like the Times and CNN, but also the blogosphere. Is Internet media a shallow “addiction” filled with “worthless glory” or does it contain some some value?

DG: [The Internet] has let people get the news they want rather than straight news and now the traditional media is playing catchup. You turn on CNN and all you see is ‘Tweet Us’ and ‘Be our next eye reporter.’ I don’t want citizens to be reporting the news. I want the newscasters and the professionals to be giving me the news and I want it straight. And it occurred to me a couple of years ago as I sat down to watch the news that there was no place I could watch straight news except the BBC. And that’s a weird thing. CNN’s supposed to be straight and you can’t even watch it it’s so bad…A lot of that comes from what blogs and websites and Internet news sites can do. Certainly some of that also comes from slanted news organizations in the first place, so you have MSNBC trying to be the left-wing Fox.

Everyone says the news is slanted to the left. I think quite often the news is not only not slanted to the left, but bends over backwards to accommodate the right. Certainly in the lead-up to Iraq that was the case with Judy Miller and the New York Times and here the Times is…bending over backwards to cater to an audience that they don’t have and may never get…Of course their op-ed pages are going to be left wing and the [Wall Street] Journal right wing. I think I say in the book we talk about issues like what’s being taught in schools in terms of science or creationism. The media now has to give both sides to the story. There isn’t another side to evolution except for idiocy. All of a sudden you’re watching these shows and common sense goes out the window and you’re having arguments that an advanced society shouldn’t be having anymore. We spent all our time muddled in this nonsense. Sure, issues like abortion and gay rights, I understand that there are other sides of these issues that are tied up in religion, but some of these issues shouldn’t be argued and shouldn’t be on the news and shouldn’t be given the weight that you’re given…I feel like Bill Maher now.

American Subversive is an indictment of this country and its future. Are we in better or worse shape since you wrote the book?

DG: The book started as a reaction to the Bush Administration and specifically to Iraq and my generation’s malaise and indifference toward what I saw as a tragedy on any number of levels. Sure, we had marches, but it was nothing like the 60s. Nor should it have been. In Vietnam, there was the draft, there were a lot more people dying. But we’ve also progressed as a nation since Vietnam and we should know better and there should be some kind of people should have done more to stop that war [in Iraq] when it could have been stopped. Certainly politicians are in large part to blame, but also the citizenry, who ultimately is to blame. I was really frustrated and I was part of the problem. I wasn’t running around yelling and screaming about it [the war]. I didn’t know what to do, what we should do. I was looking for answers myself.

It’s very tricky to start writing political fiction, fiction based on stuff that angers you in the world. And I tiptoed into it quite carefully. I wanted to write a book that had that as an underlying theme, but also a book about people and not necessarily about that specific topic. It was a book about apathy and how I was really pissed off. And of course when I sold it, Obama had just been elected, and the world was very sunny, and all the progressives were as happy as could be and I was like, Oh my God, maybe I’ve mistimed everything terribly and nobody’s going to give a shit about apathy in the mid 2000s when we’re going to have a nice sunny little political world now. And of course that didn’t turn out to be the case and two years later three years later we have not only the Tea Party, but we have Occupy Wall Street. That is people not being apathetic and that is people who don’t have all the answers but are really mad about stuff and at least raise the questions that should be debated.

In a way, it’s been kind of the fulfillment of a lot of stuff I started writing about in the book. Certainly Aidan’s character who is massively apathetic at the beginning of the book, doesn’t care about anything besides his little downtown Manhattan social circle. And certainly Paige, who  is the opposite of apathetic, but doesn’t know how to channel that Change the World energy and struggled with that. And something like Occupy Wall Street, which has massive problems and hasn’t quite figured out how to voice itself is most definitely a step in the right direction. If there is a message to Occupy Wall Street, it’s the economic disparity between rich and poor, and haves and have-nots, and the rigged game that is this country. What you’re born into, the money you make, the power behind the money, it’s a rigged game. You can’t have an income disparity like we have in this country and not have people eventually take to the streets or a financial collapse and we now have both of those. I think it’s a great rallying cry for a movement.

In the book you say: “It would take something far worse than Iraq, perhaps worse than Vietnam, to bring about mass civil disobedience in America today…total collapse of the financial system, or an unjust war with a body count in the hundreds of thousands.” Are we there yet?

DG: Iraq was a terrible thing: 5,000 American soldiers died. Of course, 750,000 Iraqis died and nobody ever thinks about that.  At the same time, Iraq doesn’t effect everyone and it certainly doesn’t effect the people in power and making decisions like Vietnam eventually did. And so, Iraq was never going to be that war that conflict that made people take to the streets and in the end it wasn’t. Occupy Wall Street has almost nothing to do with the Iraq war.

American Subversive criticizes our generation for superficiality, complacency, and apathy. Why is that the case?

DG: It’s not apathy necessarily. It’s a very self-centric view of the world that Americans now have. The book starts to address this a little bit and I turned away from it a little bit. Capitalism in some ways has been too successful in this country. People are too complacent because they’ve done too well. Some people. But those some people are often the culture makers, the powerful, the decision makers, so you wind up in this personal bubble of contentment and complacency. And the rest of the world falls away a bit. People don’t think of global issues or stuff that doesn’t involve them. In the same way that you only start giving to a cancer cause if your mother gets cancer, the same way that Dick Cheney example, you only care about gay rights if your daughter is gay.

You travel around the world, in poor nations or even Europe, and they have a much better sense of the world outside their own than we do. Part of that is the smallness of other nations and our isolationist tendencies. But a lot of it is that capitalism in these other countries hasn’t developed as far as it has in this country. And it hasn’t been allowed to enter this weird –I don’t know if it’s a “final stage” – but this weird self-centered stage of capitalism that we are in, that caused apathy and complacency and caused us only to look inward and not outward…[In the book, one of the characters says] “The endgame of capitalism is boredom.” Capitalism succeeds to a point where there’s nothing left to fight for and it’s all about the attaining of capital itself. You get into philosophy, you get into economics the more you think about this. That’s the exact kind of thing that nobody does get into in this country anymore. When’s the last time you ran into a philosophy major or talked about political theory? We throw around words like “socialism” and “fascism” and nobody knows what the hell they mean. It’s embarrassing to be an American sometimes. 

American Subversive seems like both a love letter to and a break-up letter with New York. You’ve lived here for 14 years. What’s your take on the city?

DG: My take is that there is no take on New York. You could be having the time of your life and in the apartment next door someone wants to hang himself. Everybody’s New York is a very different place and that’s what makes it an amazing place to live. I love this city, obviously. You write about what you know. In both of my books I have real restaurants and real bars and real museums and real geographic landmarks and I like to play off of those because I think it makes the reader recognize stuff. It’s nice to be like, oh, I walked on the High Line or I’ve been in that bar at 2 AM…I’ve always loved the Joseph Mitchell stories about the old weird corners of New York that are still here, like the safe house [in American Subversive] is down in Chinatown, which nobody ever goes to, even now is still a very closed off world…Fiction writing allows you to write about whatever you want to write about and that neighborhood had always appealed to me. And New York is still full of those places, the Liberty Inn, that old hooker hotel, still there on 14th [Street] and 10th [Avenue]. You go in and they rent rooms by the hour and there’s a little bar, a three-seat, four-seat bar. You want to see some interesting life? Go hang out at the bar at the Liberty Inn.

One thread of American Subversive is what happens to people in their 30s, either they’re forced to compromise their youthful ideals or pretend that they’re younger than they really are. What’s your take?

DG: It certainly has to do with environment and where you live. If you live in New York, and you’re in your 30s or in your 40s –leaving aside the issue of having children if you’re a woman—it’s extremely different than living in the countryside or a small town where decisions get made a lot earlier because that’s what people are accustomed to. New York –and every larger city — offers this [idea] that I live to and I subscribe to, that you shouldn’t have everything figured out at age 25 or age 30 or 35. Life is the liberal arts, life is nosing into different things (I’m 39) whether it’s relationships or jobs or theories of life. Everything should be an experiment, clothes that you try on and off. And cities provide that camouflage to let you do that. New York offers that. It offers a complete life change if you want it. It keeps people open minded, it keeps people young. There’s a downside to that, too. You can wander through your life and not settle on something, and not find the great meaningful relationship or job. It’s always a balance. I prefer the wandering.

Do you see yourself getting married or having kids?

DG: Maybe. It comes down to meeting the right person. It’s not something I think about. I think about my books all the time. Or lack thereof. I think about my relationship and social life a great deal, too, as you know. But ultimately I would have to find somebody who understands that the two go hand in hand. The writer’s life is a weird one because the books never go away; they’re in your head all the time.  I think that’s why artists are attracted to other artists because there’s some mutual understanding there. There is such a thing as an artistic mindset. Some of it’s bullshit, but some of it’s not.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include Sex on the Moon, The Third Reich, and Extra Virginity. Really.

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