The Rumpus Book Club chats with Martin Seay about his debut novel The Mirror Thief, the Great Work of alchemy, Venice, researching optical prosthetics, and keeping plot lines straight in a 600-page novel.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: The end notes say it took you thirteen years to write and then get this book published. How did you keep going all that time and not give up on it?
Martin Seay: Well, it never really SEEMED overwhelming. So far as the writing went, I tend to compare it to rock climbing (which I don’t actually know much about): you’re not climbing a mountain, you’re moving from handhold to handhold, one at a time. I had a plan and I stuck to it. Regarding getting it published… this is maybe corny, but I just felt like it was a good book, and that patience would be rewarded. When I first started sending it around in 2007-2008, not much of anything was happening in publishing. So I just waited it out, to a great extent. I mean, it was 700 manuscript pages by a first-time novelist, y’know?
Ann: You’ve titled your sections with what seems to be the recipe for making glass. At what point in the writing did this structure appear for you? Was it a guiding outline or something that came later?
Martin Seay: That’s a very good guess, Ann! But the chapter titles are actually the stages (according to somebody) of the Great Work of alchemy: the process that creates the Philosopher’s Stone. While alchemy isn’t all over the book as a subject, it seemed like a pretty decent metaphor for many of the main character’s attempts to make sense of the world and their places in it. So far as the structure goes, meaning the three-Venice structure, I had that first, before I had a plot or characters, before I had written a word. I wish I had though to use the glassmaking process as my section titles, but I don’t think there are enough stages.
Brian S: How much research went into this? There were points where it reminded me of Eco in Foucault’s Pendulum mixed with Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but with gambling, if that makes any sense.
Martin Seay: That makes sense! I should rush to admit that I’ve never read Eco’s fiction… although (this is going to sound bad) I’ll cop to being influenced by what I think his fiction is like. So far as research goes I did a ton of it. I couldn’t visit any of the three settings while I was writing the book (although I had been to Venice—the original—and Las Vegas; I don’t think I’d ever been to Venice, CA) so it was all book-learning: a lot of digging for details that would really evoke the times and places, a lot of reading just to not get things wrong, and a lot of just letting stuff sit and trying to imaginatively inhabit it.
Brian S: I love Eco, and Foucault’s Pendulum is a DEEP dive into the occult/conspiracy theory world. I’ve told students in the past that FP is what Dan Brown wanted to write but he wasn’t good enough to pull it off.
Ann: Can we talk Crivano? I got so caught up in his progress (and sometimes lack of progress) through Venice that I jumbled my backstory for him. **spoiler alert** What does it mean that he is the Lark? What does that mean re: Perina’s brother?
Perhaps I need to get into one of the first Mirror Thief forums to discuss it as if it were a Game of Thrones episode.
Brian S: Wait—there are forums? Look, I have kids. I can’t get caught up in forums. 🙂
Ann: There should be. This book warrants discussion.
Martin Seay: Ah, it’s so liberating to be able to talk about this! Thanks, Ann! In plot terms, the main character of the 1592 sections is someone born Gabriele Glissenti, to a noble Venetian family in Cyprus; his best pal growing up is a guy named Vettor Crivano: a non-noble citizen of the republic. In the Battle of Lepanto, the real Crivano gets blown up by a cannonball, and Gabriele assumes his identity. The original Crivano was nicknamed the Lark, and was a pretty great guy. Our Crivano, not so much. HUGE SPOILER, right there.
We’ll tell you more about the forums when you’re older, Brian.
Ann: Thank you! All is illuminated.
Brian S: When the reveal happened, it explained to me a little about why he never really considered the possibility of marrying Perina, because that’s his sister, right? Or did I just get the relationships mixed up?
Martin Seay: Woohoo! The nickname was the trick I used to keep from spilling the beans, but it’s also one of several places where I used some EXTREMELY close-third narration to hide important details. Cuz I’m sneaky.
Ann: So Perina is Perina Crivano?
Martin Seay: You got it, Brian. And Perina is Perina Glissenti; Crivano is really her brother, Gabriele Glissenti.
Ann: My bad. But I needed to know. It kept me awake last night.
Brian S: He took on Crivano’s name because he didn’t want to be ransomed, and then when it turned out that all the nobles were executed, that move inadvertently saved his life.
Martin Seay: I hope I’m spelling Gabriele’s name right; a few characters’ names change depending on whether someone is currently speaking Venetian, Tuscan, Latin, etc.
Nailed it, Brian.
Ann: Somehow I understood how the switch had saved him, but i couldn’t keep the familial links straight.
Martin Seay: Suffice to say I had to make a pretty elaborate outline to keep track of who’s who in 1592.
Brian S: Of that I had no doubt. I could have used that myself while reading it.
While we’re in the weeds of the little details, one of the few things to stick with me from my fraternity days is the ability to read Greek capital letters. So in the bit where one of the characters (Ciotti, maybe) has some lead type, do the letters spell out Lethe, which was the river of forgetfulness?
Martin Seay: Man, Brian, you read the HELL out of this book! Yes, LETHE was totally intentional! Good catch!
Brian S: Funny thing is, if you’d used anything other than capital letters, I’d never have caught it.
Martin Seay: That may have been all I could figure out in the Windows character map, but that was a long time ago.
Ann, all I want to do is keep people awake, so thanks for that!
Brian S: Is there an actual Adrian Welles or was he a creation?
Martin Seay: Welles is a total fabrication. Maybe half of the other people that Stanley meets in 1958, however, are historical: Alexander Trocchi, Charles Foster, etc.
Ann: Did you also have to outline your varying points of view? I re-read the beginning last night and I am now even more impressed with your second person usage. It was something I bookmarked and noted throughout the beginning chapters of the book and finally again in the *spoiler alert* end.
Martin Seay: I did run three separate outlines, with a ton of character notes for each POV. (That said, I wrote the book pretty much sequentially… although the second-person opening got extensively rewritten a bunch of times.) It took me a while to really get the hang of the second person, but I’m pretty sure it was in there the whole time, from the first pages I wrote in 2002.
Brian S: What made you decide to make Welles a poet and to have that collection be the thing that sets Stanley off? I mean, as a poet I love it when we get attention like this, but it’s not something that happens often.
Ann: Great question, Brian!
Martin Seay: Basically once I knew I’d be writing about the three Venices, the trick was to pick a time period for each. I picked 1958 because it was the year before Lawrence Lipton’s book The Holy Barbarians came out and made all of the troubled denizens of the scene famous for a minute. Once I had the Beat angle, I knew I wanted Stanley to be looking for a poet. I ended up making Welles more of a Pound acolyte because it was a good way to play up the newness of what the Beats were up to. 1958 was also the year Pound was released from St. Elizabeth’s, I believe…
Brian S: Did you just write sections to fit into the novel, or is there a complete verse version of The Mirror Thief on your computer somewhere?
Martin Seay: I actually thought for a minute that I should write the entire Mirror Thief by Adrian Welles, but unfortunately—fortunately?—you now possess the complete works. Those poems were just such agony to write, I couldn’t put myself through more of it.
Brian S: Is there a Jehovah’s Witness connection in your real life? (I’m always interested when I see them in lit because I was one for twenty-six years.)
Martin Seay: No kidding! Let me know if I screwed anything up! A good friend of mine in high school was (and still is) a Jehovah’s Witness, and it seemed to be a great platform from which he could maintain a respectful but critical distance from other people’s received ideas. I thought that was cool.
Brian S: I thought it was a good move limiting the amount you got into it—making the grandmother a Jehova’s Witness means that the speaker only needed to have surface knowledge and the no Halloween thing is both accurate and well-known.
Martin Seay: Yeah, given that Curtis introspects only under duress, I figured that his own experience of the faith would have been mostly practical: no Halloween for Curtis. After his injury, he’s started to ask some bigger questions, so we’re meeting him at a good time.
Brian S: The fact that he was ex-military was a signal that he’d never been one himself.
Martin Seay: Again, good catch! Curtis is a guy who’s been looking for a solid system to organize himself with for a while, and found a good one in the USMC.
Ann: Is anyone talking cable-channel miniseries of The Mirror Thief yet. (This deserves more than a two-hour movie for sure.)
Martin Seay: Man, I hope SOMEBODY is, Ann! Have your people call my people if you know anybody.
Brian S: Oh, I very much liked the wild goose chase involving the wrong Welles. That whole bit on the back lot of the movie studio was terrific.
Martin Seay: That was one of the few episodes that I kind of improvised. I had been watching the opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil many, many times—it was filmed on the Venice boardwalk, and I was using it to get a spacial sense of the place—and it occurred to me that I had given my poet the same last name at the director who’d shot the movie there earlier the same year (or in late ’57; I don’t recall). And for a second I was like: is that a problem? And then I was like: that is NOT a problem! That’s how I’ll get the boys onto a backlot!
Brian S: Any significance to the choice of Albedo as a name?
Ann: You say the three Venices were your launching point for the novel. How did the notion of the three Venices first strike you, Martin?
Martin Seay: Regarding Albedo, I wanted the characters in the Vegas sections to have names that corresponded to the colors in the stages of the alchemical Great Work: white (Albedo), black (Damon Blackburn), red (Veronica Rosenkreutz, although I may have cut her last name from the book), and the “peacock” stage of rapidly changing colors (Graham Argos). And Curtis’s last name is Stone, obviously.
Regarding the three Venices… this isn’t very romantic, but I was taking a writing class back in 2002, and the instructor asked us to “write a story in which someone tells a story in which someone tells a story.” I had known for a while that I wanted to write something set in Venice—because Venice is awesome—and I had recently learned about their monopoly on flat glass mirrors, and the idea of reflections led me to the odd tendency that Venice has of getting duplicated elsewhere. Once I knew I’d be writing three stories, separated in time, about three different Venices, Las Vegas and Los Angeles were easy leaps to make.
Brian S: Have you started working on anything new? I mean, how do you follow up a 600-page debut novel?
Martin Seay: I have a few novel ideas I’m playing with, but nothing very firm, and if past performance is any indication of future results I’m going to need some time to think hard about them before any writing starts to happen. In the meantime, I’m trying to do some critical writing—music reviews, essays, etc.—to stay sharp. Or sharp-ish.
Ann: My final question. I know we’re getting to the end of the hour. Did you do much research into optical prosthetics?
Martin Seay: Regarding prosthetics, I think I spent about a day on it. If I think too hard about optical surgery I literally, seriously pass out, so that’s about what I could handle. I was lying on the floor a lot that day.
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us tonight.
Martin Seay: Absolutely! I’m honored and thrilled to be here, and grateful for the time that you’ve spent with the book. Hope it was fun!