The Devil in Silver: A Novel
Spiegel & Grau, 2012
432 pp., $27.00
Interview by David J. Michael
Writing for the Reader
Your work is concerned with sex, violence, and, for lack of a better term, social justice. When you were reading Mailer, or meeting him, for that matter, was it a hangup that he'd stabbed his ex-wife? I haven't read him yet, in part because it seems like his life overshadowed his writing, and I was suspicious of that. He seemed like more an icon than a writer. (I wrote my master's thesis on The Pale King, and in some ways, I really beatified Wallace because of the virtues his writing espoused. The quest to figure out what it means to be human in this age. So when I read the new D. T. Max bio, which describes, among other things, Wallace trying to buy a gun to kill Mary Karr's then-husband, as well as Wallace's practical addiction to seducing women, I was kinda disappointed. That sounds naive, I know …)
Everyone is going to disappoint you if you get to know them well enough. I don't mean that in a dismissive way, but to say that it's important to think about why we ask so much of the people we idolize. Why must they pass the test of perfection? Or even just amiability? This is certainly the case with artists, but it applies to my priest and my postman, too. I don't know how I would've reacted if I'd known Mailer stabbed his wife before me and my friend showed up at his house. Would it have stopped us? I doubt it. Mailer sure wasn't a wilting violet, but I'd hate to disqualify artists simply because their personalities were remarkable. Caravaggio was a scumbag and a street fighter, Flannery O'Connor a racist, and, from her letters, a bit of a pill. I love the work both produced though, without reservation. The saints weren't even saints.
Something of the spirit of what you just described, maybe we'll call it giving people the benefit of the doubt, is very much present in The Devil in Silver. Almost without exception (Mr. Mack? or maybe Loochie's brother?), all the characters are portrayed charitably, even sympathetically. You go out of your way to explain why the antagonists—the negligent hospital staff, the mother who has her teenage daughter institutionalized, even "the Devil" who haunts the psychiatric ward—are the way they are, often because they're stuck in really dysfunctional systems. I was wondering if you could comment on that. Were you trying to stretch the reader?
I have a natural tendency to be short-tempered, judgmental, superior, a bit bullying, stubborn, and sure that I know better than most much of the time. Not everyone is this way, I know, but I certainly am. I recognize that this has been helpful to me in some ways (we're in touch now because I've been stubborn and arrogant enough to keep writing books and think others will enjoy them), but I also know these traits can be a great detriment to my understanding of the world. I'm often very happy to size people up, and I'm not always generous when I do.
In that sense, I write with the idea of giving my characters the benefit of the doubt because I know that very often I don't do the same with people in the real world. I fail to see their complexity. I fail to see our shared humanity. I fail to imagine that their lives are as valuable as mine. So when I wrote this book, I'd keep an eye on which characters were still caricatures. One draft it was the staff. Another it was the patients. Then the Devil himself. And in each subsequent draft I wrote with an eye toward making that character (those characters) into fuller, more interesting people. I did this to serve the characters, and the book, but also to remind myself to at least try to be more thoughtful, more generous, whenever I can. I like to think that even Mr. Mack gets a nod, an acknowledgement of his potential for goodness. There's a scene in a pizza shop where I try to make clear that he's been shaped, warped, by the system he lives in. And that is part of his tragedy.
Loochie's brother is probably the only character I was unreservedly hard on—he's an arrogant boob—and that's because, of course, he's based on me. I can take it.