The Rumpus Interview with Craig Nova
America’s best writers have been singing Craig Nova’s praises for years.
John Irving praised his novel The Good Son for its “bitter and ironic understanding of professional cunning and ambition,” its “deft revelation of the chinks in moral armor,” and its “comic and painful exploration of the disasters of loneliness.”
Last month, Ann Beattie selected Nova’s story “Another Drunk Gambler” for The Paris Review‘s Object Lessons collection. Of Nova’s story, about a crippled horse running a race that has been fixed in more ways than one, Beattie writes: “The language, as always with Craig Nova, is a wonder: the internal injury that figures prominently in the story is echoed though not conflated with the bruised sky; the Malaysian pediatrician—the doctor we never meet; the Godot of doctors—has her doctorly actions of scrubbing imitated by men whose dirty arms tell their dirty secret; and the rain, so desired in Eliot’s The Waste Land, here turns into punishing monsoons, those times it does not tease the ‘sea-like’ movements of the almost perfect horse.”
Nova’s work has a popular feel, but it is also lifted by his moral imagination into the literary realm. The Constant Heart, his thirteenth novel, plays with figurative and literal connections between the individual and the universal. It revolves around Jake, an astronomer, his loving relationship with his father, and his fraught relationship with Sara, his first love, who returns to knock his world from its orbit.
From the day Hurricane Sandy arrived on the East Coast until the eve of the election, Nova and I corresponded by e-mail. We discussed the terrors of the universe, the solaces of fiction, and Nova’s influences, from Albert Camus to Alice Munro.
The Rumpus: When you started The Constant Heart, what captured your imagination?
Craig Nova: Well, it is very difficult, really, to say where a book comes, since the entire matter of writing a novel is one of discovery, and so the writer faces a double mystery, which is compounded of two items: the initial impulse and how that impulse changes as the writer discovers things. I had the desire to write a heart-thumping book that still had serious, practical, moral matters built into the action. And I have always been haunted by a line from Marcus Aurelius, which is, “Look to what is excellent in yourself. Look to what is excellent in the universe. The two are related.”
So you could say this was my starting point. I had an astronomer, who knows something about the universe, and who has, in the most natural non-vain way, some lovely, decent qualities, like the ability to love, to be loyal, to be considerate. This, by the way, is a character we don’t see in books these days. When I was a judge for the National Book Award, I read many, many books, and a decent man, in extreme circumstances, who tries to do the correct thing, putting self-interest aside, was simply not in any of them.
And, of course, I wanted to put my characters under enormous pressure. That is, the book had to be exciting.
Rumpus: And the cosmology?
Nova: My interest in science goes back to my undergraduate days at Berkeley, when most of my friends were in the sciences. I remember one of them receiving a mass spectrometer from a scientific supply house. It arrived in cases, like from a Road Runner cartoon, and we assembled it by tightening its gaskets with a torque wrench we borrowed from a local gas station. Another friend from Berkeley, who has a Ph.D. in Astronomy, often explained to me items having to do with cosmology.
Through my friends I met Jon Lomberg, with whom I have corresponded for a long time. He designed the messages carried by the Voyager spacecraft that is just leaving the solar system, as well as the sun dial on the Mars Rover. He also helped me with a nonfiction book I wanted to write, about the nuclear war that was fought in this country.
Rumpus: You mean…
Nova: I mean that when I was growing up, they were still testing bombs in the air in Nevada, and you could see the light from them in Los Angeles, if you got up early. Sometimes the clouds from these explosions drifted over Los Angeles, and on the local TV weather station then—I think it was KTTV—they had something called the “School-o-Meter,” which told parents how to dress their kids. It also gave, after a test, the local levels of Strontium 90.
And then, of course, Sara McGill just walked in the door one day. Maybe it had something to with the fact that when I was writing this book I received a collection of letters I had written to a girlfriend when I was eighteen years old and away at school. After forty years, she sent them to me. I was amazed by them, by their—you will have to forgive me for being frank—maturity. I really loved her. And so this got me to thinking about how we often have these experiences at a young age that haunt us.
Rumpus: It’s the intensity of that longing that makes it so curious.
Nova: I think it’s something…I call it the Romeo and Juliet Syndrome. When people at a young age fall in love, they can do so more intensely than at any other time, if only because they aren’t so completely formed, and the rough edges of a personality aren’t there yet. It occurred to me that this lingering effect might be interesting to look into. What happens if people, who have had this experience when young, meet again when more grown up?
Rumpus: In The Constant Heart, Jake studies the cosmological constant: the problem of how to account for the accelerating expansion of the universe. He’s also watching as the elements of his own world accelerate away from him into oblivion. One question the novel asks, I think, is, how do we deal with the mystery and the terror of this experience?
Nova: Yes, this is precisely the heart of the novel—that is, how does one deal with the mystery and terror of the universe in which we live? And, of course, the novel attempts to pose this question without naming it, as in the best parts of good novels: as, say, the American class system and its brutality are not mentioned in The Great Gatsby.
But yes, the question is there, not only as a question, but in the implication of the need to ask it. What does it feel like to live with this fact of life? That enormous things are about to disappear, not only in the universe, but in one’s own life?
Rumpus: Such as the death of Jake’s father.
Nova: Yes, the death of a man Jake loves. And this is not to mention the other difficulties in Jake’s life, that seem just beyond his control—the mobsters, the traffickers of one kind or another, the hint at the drug wars in Mexico. It is quite terrifying to get close to any of these things.
Rumpus: In some ways, the novel presents this question as a mood, an atmosphere.
Nova: I hope the book not only asks this question, or suggests this terror, but also tries to come to terms with it. I guess one of my ghosts is here, but only partially, in the novel’s answer to this terror. That ghost, of course, is Albert Camus. Who suggests a moral life without any god. Meaning: we are all in the same boat.
Rumpus: Individually responsible for finding and fulfilling our moral obligations.
Nova: Yes, and this question is also addressed by the fact that the father, who is dying, is also trying to pass along to his son the things he thinks are worth having in the world. Loyalty, forgiveness, being there when someone you care about needs you, a harmony with the natural world (he is, after all, a wildlife biologist). All of these things go into a constant heart.
Rumpus: The other ghost you mentioned was Marcus Aurelius.
Nova: If you read The Meditations—which Aurelius composed, by the way, when he was on his way to fight a war in the Balkans, or what became the Balkans—he begins with a list of people he has learned things from, various teachers, and so on. In a way, that is what is happening here. Jake is thanking his father, or wants to thank his father. I think this is also something you don’t see that often in books, a son thanking a father.
Rumpus: How does your novel address these questions?
Nova: In the face of this terror, I think the novel calls for courage, a certain decency, common sense, and love—not the sappy version, but what I call “good weight.”
Rumpus: You explore these questions with many of the techniques of what we might call “genre fiction.” Your work, I think, blends “literary” qualities with elements of noir fiction, offering the reader the pleasure of both experiences. (I’m putting these terms in quotes because I’m not sure how reliable they are.) What attracts you to this kind of storytelling? What are its strengths and limitations?
Nova: Many people are mystified, I think, that some books of mine seem genre-like, but I am not sure that is where I am calling from.
Writers have always made use of dramatic elements. What is more dramatic than a typhoon, as presented by Joseph Conrad, or the presence of gangsters in The Great Gatsby, or the hustlers in Huck Finn, you know, the King and the Duke? Or the violence in, say, Coetzee, which you see in Disgrace? Or you might read, on Amazon, the first paragraph of The Dwarf, by Par Lagerkvist, a Nobel Prize winner. Or, for that matter, look at the first paragraph of Jazz, by Toni Morrison, and its violence, of a scale that is almost like ancient Greek tragedy.
So, I really mean to use elements that are exciting to keep a story going, to increase tension, to put some terror into the books. I like books that have a certain danger in them. Most good books have that, I think. But you are right, I am blending the dramatic and what I like to think of as good language—that is, striking language that makes you see things, both objects and the world—to produce an effect, I hope, of good storytelling, which nevertheless has—oh, god, I can’t believe I am going to say this—“those old truths and verities without which any piece of fiction is damned.”
The limitation of doing this is precisely the point you bring up. People may mistake what you are up to and think that because a thug appears, the book is noir.
Rumpus: They might think the thug is just a thug.
Nova: When the thug is really a modern typhoon.
Rumpus: I agree dramatic effects can be powerful. My favorite example is the thunderstorm in Act III of King Lear.
Nova: I know Act III of King Lear pretty well. Isn’t this where Lear’s fool says to Lear, “Your problem, nunckle, is that you grew old before you grew wise”?
Rumpus: Isn’t that the heart of the problem? We’re all growing old too soon before growing wise.
Speaking of Camus, have you read The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir? It’s her roman à clef about the life she, Sartre, and Camus shared after the liberation of Paris. A beautiful novelistic examination of philosophy, and politics, and love, too, of course. Also starring a young Nelson Algren.
But I guess I want to ask how these metaphorical symbols come to you. For The Constant Heart, did you start with Marcus Aurelius, and your desire to write a dramatic story, and find the plot and characters from there? Or did you start with the cosmology and work your way back down to Earth? Do these ideas come to you intuitively, or logically, or both? Are they born into the story organically, or are they more often elements of craft you weave in as you are revising?
Nova: I’m going to order The Mandarins the instant after I send you this e-mail. In fact, I have been spending more time in Paris recently—a month in the spring, and then last December, too—and I plan to go back this coming spring. The neighborhood I like (the sixth, around Rue Buci and Rue Dauphine) was Camus’s hangout.
I once had an idea of trying to bring Forster’s Aspects of the Novel up to date. Because the entire justification for the novel has changed, or so it seems to me, and while storytelling is still its essence, a lot of the other items, like having had an experience that you couldn’t admit to so you wrote a novel about it, have disappeared. I guess my real point—and I do have one—is that the novel works today as a sort of practical epistemology, an antidote to the confusion of postmodernism. That is, if you tell a story and if it seems right, or correct, then you have discovered something about what you really believe. Also, I wanted to point out that almost all novelists, at least in the West, but maybe in the East, too—I am a great admirer of Akira Yoshimura, especially Shipwrecks and On Parole—are working with a debt to Camus. (By the way, I’d like to recommend Shipwrecks to you if you haven’t already read it.)
This, of course, is the long way of coming to the matter of language and metaphors, which you asked about. I think, when you get down to cases, a novel is a sort of paranoid personality, at least schematically, in that for a paranoid, everything has significance. Everything is filled with meaning, or is evidence of something. And so, in the actual day in, day out work of writing a book, I quite consciously try to bend things around, even in the language, to have a whiff of the unstated, or even the stated, concerns. For instance, the language in a book like The Constant Heart will keep bending around, in description, to the infinite, or to the mysterious, or will hint at something ominous, like the trees turning into lace, like lingerie, just before dark, and then becoming ominous, or the water at the bottom of a well, which is as far away from the stars as Jake can get. The idea is that once you know what concerns are in the novel, you use them as a lens for description and anything else you can do (subjects in dialogue that seem to be about one thing, for example, but have a double meaning), to make the book coherent, not only in what happens but in the way it happens.
Or, to put it another way, Henry James said, or I think it was James, that “landscape is character.” I am a firm believer in this—that the landscape around characters is a way of suggesting the world in which they live, the mood of their interior lives. As to the order in which this happens, it is hard to say. I think my original impulse was to write a story about a man who is dying, and his son, who go fishing together. It seemed to me, in the beginning, that there was something mysterious in a moment like this. The beauty of the natural world. The horror of what is coming. And that naturally lead to Marcus Aurelius, and then, of course, Sara walked in, and I guess this happened naturally, but also consciously, from reading Alice Munro.
Rumpus: She’s the best.
Nova: I almost get more pleasure out of watching her work as a writer than out of the story she is writing. She is so transparent in how she writes as to be a delight. You can see her say, “Well, yeah, I’ve got this working and I’ve got that working. So what can I add to push it up?” This is particularly evident in a story like “The Jack Randa Hotel.” Or maybe I like her for the reasons described by William Maxwell in a Paris Review interview, in which he says that the writers who influence you are really just giving you access to your own material.
Anyway, I think the story and the metaphorical aspects of The Constant Heart (astronomy, the influence of Marcus Aurelius) come from the basic circumstances, and then the story and the vision, which is made up of these background items, go hand in hand. And then I will dig around in my own personal warehouse and remember a summer in Los Angeles when I bought and sold used cars (and got nowhere; after many trades I ended up in the hole), and then I will remember a car dealership owner I knew years ago, and that will bubble up.
It all seems like a far too circuitous path to travel, but then novel-writing is circuitous, by its nature, one item feeding off another. And discovering these connections, I might add, is one of the keenest pleasures in writing a book. Which is saying something, since writing a book is often one long train wreck. And so the pleasures should be carefully and completely enjoyed.
Rumpus: You hit on something I’ve been thinking about, too. It seems that literature, today, offers readers a source of secular faith, a system of beliefs in what matters—in the case of our age, as you put it, a practical epistemology and antidote to postmodernism. Even our loyalty to paper books can be understood as a shared fear that a sacred object might be taken from us, the object through which we understand the world and discover how to live.
I guess there are other outlets in our culture for this kind of conversation about who we are and what matters, but maybe novels, as much as anything, offer a cultural touchstone for these questions. I mean, when you think about art that sparks a broad public conversation… There aren’t that many “serious” movies. Mike Daisey did a rare thing in making theatre so urgently relevant to the wider culture. Girls certainly provides this experience for its audience—the experience of starting a conversation about who we are, and how to live—as does Louie, and shows like Mad Men and Homeland. But novels are doing this work, too, I think. In smaller circles than television, maybe, but still.
Nova: I want to bring up a notion I have about reading and how books work in the culture today. Everyone tends to think of reading as a solitary pleasure, but I think it is a communal activity, if only because you don’t really enjoy a book completely until you have given it to someone whose taste you admire and this person has enjoyed it, too. It is a sort of expanded sigh of pleasure. “Yes,” you and your reading friends say, “Yes.” It is this that really binds in a way that is hard to explain but is nonetheless powerful for all that.
It’s interesting to think about the path forward for the novel. And, of course, I think about it all the time, just like you. One of the things I find reassuring is that while people often talk about the death of publishers, I don’t hear anything about the end of writers. So, I guess in not completely random order, the first thing with novels is, and always has been, and always will be, I think, storytelling. The magic of fiction is that if the story is right, it makes the chair you are sitting on disappear. And I guess the investigation we have been talking about goes along with that. Yes, since a novel is a matter of discovery, both for the writer and the reader, this is where the novel will not only remain vital but thrive, particularly as the cultural static increases.
I found a line in Camus’s notebooks that I think is the key to it all. It’s just a fragment, but he says, “That wild longing for clarity…”
If the story is right, and the writer is alert to the moral ambiguities that we all face in this world, and if the writer is able to imbue a story with them, and if the resolution in the story makes sense, both dramatically and with this other concern, then the novel will be a powerhouse. So, yes, this is it: the novel will exist and thrive as long as it attempts to answer or to soothe that line from Camus’s notebook: “That wild longing for clarity…” And this clarity can be not the answer, but sometimes just the definition of the problem. And in fact, I often think that a good character isn’t summed up, so much as just defined up to the moment of some ultimate and haunting mystery.
Rumpus: That’s a beautiful idea, and well said. I want to conclude by asking what you are working on now.
Nova: I have just finished the corrections for a book to be published in June, which is a sequel to a novel of mine called The Good Son. So that’s two books in less than twelve months. I’m also teaching a class for graduate students at the University of North Carolina, getting ready to judge the PEN Hemingway Prize, and taking an intensive French course. In fact, right now I’m reading Camus in French, or trying to, with an edition that gives a translation on the opposite page. It’s such a beautiful language. In his story “The Guest,” the breath of a horse is described as “le jet de vapeur.” That strikes me as not just better but, somehow, in the mysterious nature of the language, an expression of something deeper… Well, maybe it is just novelty.
But I am also considering another novel, which seems to be squirming around down there in the dark, like an eel in a black plastic bag (held against my chest).
Rumpus: I think it’s beautiful. Thanks, Craig, for a lovely discussion, and good luck with the eel in the plastic bag. It’s already giving me shivers.
Original Rumpus artwork of Albert Camus by Jason Novak.