The Rumpus Book Club talks with David Gilbert about his novel & Sons, shifts in perspective, and the economic viability of hot-dog carts.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Lauren O’Neal.
Guest: Do I need to sign in as me (David Gilbert) anywhere?
David B: Sign in as Carlos Danger.
Lisa D: Hello! I believe you can set your display name to David Gilbert under settings. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.
David Gilbert: Nice!
Lisa D: Haha.
David Gilbert: Oh, I did it. Now regretting not going in as Carlos.
David B: No photo texts please.
David Gilbert: Damn. I had some good ones pre-prepared.
David B: Book tour promo material?
David Gilbert: It’s amazing what they ask for nowadays.
Guest: Apparently for your jacket photo they asked for “roguish.”
David Gilbert: I know, I look so stern. There’s a coin slot between my eyes.
Linda: Hello there.
Christopher: I thought it was mild anger.
David Gilbert: I’m daring you to read my book, that’s the look.
David B: I liked your phrase, “psychological tan.”
David Gilbert: Like Robert Conrad with the battery (that’s dating me).
Guest: Mild Anger, I think they’re opening for Arcade Fire this weekend.
Christopher: They lost their percussionist though, so what’s the point?
David Gilbert: They become Passive Aggressive then.
Christopher: This book is actively against passive aggression.
David Gilbert: Just straight-up aggression.
David B: After reading both of your novels, I am curious if you are going to write one in first person.
David Gilbert: Considering it, I have to say. My short stories were very first-person-voice-y, so I wanted to try something different. With & Sons I try to do both.
Guest: Damn, just looked at the Kakutani review—Salinger, Dostoevsky, and Ford Maddox Ford references in the first sentence.
David Gilbert: STOP READING NOW! Or stop when she mentions “slow-footed, long-winded.”
Christopher: Was there any hesitation in using Phillip as a window into close-third?
David Gilbert: I basically wanted to challenge myself, see if I could do it. I’m a sucker for the unreliable narrators, and I also wanted readers to question who was really telling the story.
Christopher: Have any favorite unreliable narrators?
David Gilbert: Good Soldier #1, Lolita #2 (a close second).
David B: Do you have a fascination with Salinger’s life? Did that in part inspire you?
David Gilbert: Kinda. That and Pynchon, since I live in NYC and was always intrigued by the idea he could be next to me in the deli. Mostly fascinated by what Salinger hasn’t released. What was left? Can’t believe we don’t know yet. I just wanted an unknowable man who was so knowable in prose.
Christopher: That has to be a stipulation in some will of his.
David B: I think Pynchon lives in the west 90s, according to my sources, shop up there.
David Gilbert: Yeah, I heard that too about Pynchon. Lives a very normal life.
David B: Get a book signed for me if you see him.
David Gilbert: Yes, Christopher, must be, right. Have you seen the trailer to the documentary? They promise some revelation. I think it’s WWII-related.
Christopher: That trailer was very pulpy.
David Gilbert: VERY. But it made me want to watch it, that’s for sure, so it worked.
Lisa D: Okay, everyone who’s just joined, it’s just past 6 and we’re diving right in!
Sean: Since we’re on authors/influences, how about Beckett? The girl in [your short story] “Member/Guest” plus a couple of things in & Sons—like how Richard used to call his dad Didi and the end of VIII.i—are why I ask.
Lisa D: (P.S. I’m Lisa and I’m filling in for Brian Spears today and hello!) Welcome to Carlos Dang—I mean David Gilbert!
David Gilbert: Love Beckett. Didi is what my kids call me, so nothing there. And Beckett was one of those things that I noticed after I had written the story. I was like, “Damn, Beckett, of course.” But End Game is one of my all-time favorite plays.
Christopher: Is there more of Ampersand in a box somewhere?
David Gilbert: Only if the book does DaVinci Code–like sales.
Rebecca: Hi! Sorry I’m late to the party. I have questions, but first I want to say I’m disappointed you aren’t Carlos Danger for the purposes of our chat. So timely!
Carlos Danger: Yes. I’m here, Rebecca.
Rebecca: Hahahahahahaha! Thank you!
Lisa D: Ha!
Rebecca: Anyone signing in late is going to be so confused.
Carlos Danger: Or even more intrigued.
David Gilbert: Anyway.
David B: How’s the book tour going? Looks busy.
David Gilbert: Going to the West Coast next week and then staying pretty local. Don’t think August is a big let’s-go-to-readings month.
Guest: Did I not read closely enough, or is it ever revealed where Jeanie Spokes was hiding in the Met?
David Gilbert: No, she’s still there somewhere.
Sean: That sequence was very filmic, reminded me of that movie Russian Ark.
Rebecca: So, the thing I was most struck with reading this—okay, not the MOST, since there were a lot of things—was how much I was reminded of John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s not the same at all, especially because it doesn’t have those sexual themes (though Andy, poor Andy, is a point of consideration), but that idea of living in a writer’s world and including the actual bits of story reminded me of Garp. Were you conscious of this while writing?
David Gilbert: Not really, though I loved Garp. First adult book I read, really. I do remember being disappointed by Garp’s short story in Garp, and I was scared about people being disappointed about Ampersand.
Rebecca: I think this book stands alone, and it doesn’t borrow from Garp, certainly, but I just kept thinking of how much of a writer’s world this was. There were parts of Ampersand that I was enthralled with.
David Gilbert: I really wanted to give a sense of a writer’s entire career.
Christopher: The edited Ampersand was fascinating.
Rebecca: That line early on about fathers disappointing sons? (I hope I’m getting this right.) That made me want to read Ampersand.
David Gilbert: Yeah, that was taken from The Spared Man, I think, which is Dyer’s last book (and, if you look closely, an anagram for Ampersand).
Rebecca: Ahhhh. Oops. I got my A.N. Dyer books mixed up.
David Gilbert: Please, there are a lot of them.
Rebecca: How much of Ampersand did you have to create before you wrote this? Or did you write the bits included off the cuff, as you were writing?
David Gilbert: I had the sense of Ampersand without actually writing it until the time came. That was the most fun part of writing the book, those pretend novels.
David B: Is there a happy fathers/sons relationship anywhere?
Christopher: Happy father/son relationship: Roald Dahl, Danny the Champion of the World.
David Gilbert: Love Danny. All-time fav. Such a good book.
Rebecca: Did your editor ever sit you down and try to piece the novel together?
David Gilbert: Um, no. (Should he have?) (He says nervously.)
Rebecca: Nope. I just remember getting my MFA that my thesis director would’ve been that type. Then again, thesis directors don’t have anything on editors, so. It’s probably a TOTALLY different process.
Sean: This is my first time doing one of these and it leads me to the question: Do you feel that bibliophilia has been craft-marketed? Like, this feels like being at a small gastropub, whereas your novel kind of celebrates an era where literary authors had big-time fame.
David Gilbert: Sean, a little bit. It’s rare for a “literary” book to really grab a large group. People nowadays follow their own niche taste.
Rebecca: I do have quite a few friends who seem to only read in one genre, or something closely approximating that.
David Gilbert: I agree, Rebecca. It’s hard to trip into things the way one used to.
Rebecca: Although on the flip side, you have Goodreads, which does more to add to my “to read” pile than anything else. (Anything save Nick Hornby’s columns in The Believer.)
David Gilbert: True. The Internet is a wondrous sinkhole of association.
Christopher: Was there an impulse to include more Richard scripts? Those were fun.
David Gilbert: No, I just wanted that one moment in script form.
David B: I want to see Jamie’s video of his ex (a real underground film).
David Gilbert: I thought about trying to make that with a friend and then thought better (as a viral thing).
Rebecca: Jamie’s video could’ve been a cool marketing tie-in, if nothing else. I would want to see it, but I’d be nervous it wouldn’t live up to the video in the novel.
David Gilbert: Exactly, Rebecca, that was the problem, or the fear.
Christopher: The video bits reminded me a little of Infinite Jest‘s “Entertainment.”
David Gilbert: A little bit of that. But on the other side, this video in a way brings Jamie back from the dead.
Christopher: Yes, I liked that. I imagined Jamie making a more unsettling version of Baraka.
David Gilbert: I think Jamie is certainly in a better place by the end of the book. Richard too.
Rebecca: I think Jamie and Richard have to be in a better place just simply by virtue of making amends with their father.
Sean: Has the book trailer been successful? Is the photo on the book Brooke Shields is holding like an old pic of your dad or something?
David B: I am glad you had a cameo with the Frick museum, I love that place. What made you use it?
David Gilbert: Love the Frick, and I love that it was once someone’s house. Seems insane.
David B: Robber barons.
David Gilbert: It was only after finishing the book that I realized I used the Met and the Frick. I think that might be one museum too many (not to mention the Morgan). But I wanted that sense of New York, in particular the Upper East Side. These places that don’t change, that kind of become your living room.
Christopher: That was especially apparent in Andy’s ownership of hot-dog carts.
David Gilbert: Yes, that is essentially a true story. I had my own love affair with a particular hot-dog cart.
Sean: That was one of the best scenes. The particular pretzel guy. Well wrought, sir.
Rebecca: Did you know hot-dog stands can make $100,000 a year??
David Gilbert: Nooo.
Rebecca: I read that recently. I’m blown away. I’m in the wrong field.
David Gilbert: I guess if you got a good spot, like those guys in front of the Met. There’s that strange veteran thing, where they have certain cart rights.
Rebecca: Forbes reported it: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/05/23/10-unusual-jobs-that-pay-surprisingly-well/
Sean: Yeah, but licenses and stuff and dealing with those big stocking facilities are a lot of overhead to juggle without a safety net. Tom Perrotta goes into it a bit in Joe College, where the protagonist’s dad owns a food truck.
David Gilbert: Ice-cream taster makes $56,000! Whaaaa?
Christopher: That can’t be as good as it seems it would be.
David B: I’m in the wrong business.
Sean: Ice-cream taster may be euphemistic in that Carlos Danger sense.
Rebecca: My friend’s been trying to convince me to go into the funeral business for years. I’m almost tempted.
Christopher: Why the derision for the New School?
David Gilbert: No derision. I love the New School. Just a little joke. I live between the New School and NYU. They are like the Jets and the Sharks.
Christopher: Folks on both sides definitely have dance experience.
Sean: So, speaking of Perrotta and dichotomies, is there a film deal, or would you prefer an HBO-type serial interest?
David Gilbert: I’ll take anything that’s written on a check.
Sean: I guess I’m asking more about the rise of TV-as-novel and if you have any thoughts on all that.
David Gilbert: I think this book would be a hard sell for movie or TV. I’m not holding my breath. They would have to play up the cloning angle, and the whole cloning thing is a very uncertain premise.
Christopher: That tinge of science-fiction was very surprising.
David Gilbert: It would be a comedy with the tagline “What if your Dad was 17 years old?” (record scratch).
Sean: That’s kind of what the Smilla’s Sense of Snow movie did, amped up the X-Files/sci-fi.
David Gilbert: It was meant to be verrrrrry subjective. Since A. N. Dyer is obviously in crisis (and a professional spinner of tales).
Rebecca: I’m so glad the novel didn’t go into the sci-fi realm. The idea of the cloning bit just gave it some extra resonance.
Christopher: Speaking of subjective, was Phillip’s implication in Andy’s death always subjective, or did it start as definitive?
David Gilbert: Always subjective. I think Philip’s position in the whole book is subjective. I mean, how could he have written this book? I think lingering in the subtext is the question “Who wrote this book? Who is the novelist in the book?”
Rebecca: I questioned Philip writing the book many times.
Christopher: Yes, I’m disappointed that reviewers aren’t understanding that.
David Gilbert: I thought the prologue/epilogue made it clear, or clearer, that this was, in its way, a children’s story for fucked up children.
Christopher: The question of authorship was a great twinge to the whole thing.
David Gilbert: I stay awake at night wishing I had tweaked it a little bit more, like doing a single cross-out (as in the Ampersand draft) toward the end.
Rebecca: I do have not really a question but a comment: So, there’s a lot of men in this novel. And not many women. Part of me loved that masculine prose and aggression, and part of me really wondered about that choice. Was it purposeful? Is that just how it came out? (I guess that is a question.)
David Gilbert: I always had the title & Sons, and to be honest, it was a lack of imagination to not include a daughter. In retrospect, it would’ve been interesting. I did try to do something with Isabel, and to reproduce an Alice Munro short story. I also wanted the women to be these high-functioning figures yet forced to the background.
Rebecca: I understood the father-son thing, and part of me felt like I was getting insight into a world I have no clue about (as well as the New York publishing world and the Upper East Side, which I just don’t know other than in pop culture). But it was also strange at times. I think I clung to Isabel’s appearance for a while.
David Gilbert: Yeah, hopefully that was a nice change of pace.
Rebecca: That’s exactly it: the women were high-functioning figures yet forced to the background! She was a nice change of pace. I loved that she believed Andrew. My favorite character was probably Andy, though. Poor Andy.
David Gilbert: I have to say, in doing the “cloning” thing, the nicest scene was having her recognize the man she first fell in love with, when that door opened. But he had to go.
Rebecca: Oh god yes!
David Gilbert: And absurdly so.
Rebecca: Andy and Andrew couldn’t have survived.
David Gilbert: Since this is a world of fiction-making, the most absurd death is randomly getting hit by a bus.
Rebecca: I think around the time that the cloning idea was first introduced, I thought, “It has to be Andy who dies.” Because at the beginning the obvious choice would’ve been Andrew.
David Gilbert: Exactly. His “death” saved him. (How’s that for confusing?)
Rebecca: Hah. Yes.
David Gilbert: I always knew Andy was doomed. Though he was easily my favorite character (and the easiest to write).
Rebecca: I should’ve known from the beginning. His determination to lose his virginity, to get that one thing that he really, really wanted to feel human and alive? That couldn’t happen. But it was sad. I liked him the best, I think.
Christopher: His scenes did have a sort of slapstick glee to them.
David Gilbert: Yes, he was pure teenage riff.
David B: How was it, orchestrating and getting into the heads of all these characters?
David Gilbert: I sort of stole the structure from Richard Powers.
David B: Aha!
David Gilbert: To have each chapter be about a certain character. Chances are the reader will like one and be moved to keep reading. Thank you, Richard Powers. But it really is a great structure.
Rebecca: Thank god you’re not George R.R. Martin. I haven’t read any of the Game of Thrones books, but I’ve heard he’ll stay with a character for a hundred pages and switch over!
David Gilbert: I haven’t read those books yet, but boy, do I love the show. Love that dragon lady.
Rebecca: You could also say you stole it from Faulkner. As I Lay Dying divides its chapters by character, though they’re all in first person, I believe.
David Gilbert: Yes, Faulkner does it too. (Sound and the Fury is so crazy good.)
Sean: I thought Alice the waitress was a memorable character. It seems like we all know someone like that. Would you say she is a failure who others often see as pathetic but who actually has a zest for life, and that there’s something to be said for “not giving up”?
David Gilbert: I don’t think she’s a failure at all, I think she is totally real. I like the fact that Jamie falls in love with Alice at the end, despite himself.
Rebecca: Have you ever been to Faulkner’s house? He charted his novels on the walls.
David Gilbert: I’ve heard that, but I’ve never been there. Would love to see it.
Rebecca: It’s amazing. Just to take a tour and really see Oxford. The Deep South! (I took a Hemingway and Faulkner class. We toured both Oxford and Oak Park.)
David Gilbert: Dying to go to Oxford.
David B: What’s next on your plate, another novel? Disneyworld?
David Gilbert: Starting to think about another book (or maybe try a screenplay since they are great palate-cleansers).
Rebecca: You have a new story out in the New Yorker, but I haven’t read it yet. How many short stories are you writing?
David Gilbert: Right now, none. They sort of percolate for a while, and then I sit down and try to write one. It’s so particular, short stories.
Rebecca: You have a short story collection out, right? Remote Feed? Does your agent push you to write more novels?
David Gilbert: Remote Feed was my first book. My agent loves short stories, so that’s nice, but from a career perspective he prefers novels.
Rebecca: I just finally read what Chad Harbach wrote about the publishing world v. MFA programs and he made a big deal about novels v. short stories.
David Gilbert: Oh, where was that?
Rebecca: Salon? Let me find it. Wait, no. It was Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2010/11/mfa_vs_nyc.html
David Gilbert: I went to the University of Montana MFA program. Really enjoyed it. But they have become sweatshops.
Sean: Ah, and a Wood review in the New Yorker too (apparently you have a “rich theme” and “plenty of talent”). Can’t say you’re not getting top-flight attention from the big venues. Congrats on that, on being taken seriously and getting some notices (although it’s harder to take James Wood as seriously after Lethem dismantled him). You obviously are a writer who reads your reviews. What’s the incentive or take-home?
David Gilbert: Curiosity, for sure. I mean, despite one’s opinion of James Wood, he’s a smart dude. He has his obvious hobbyhorses and preferences, but he is certainly thoughtful.
Lisa D: We’re coming up on 7, folks. Any lurkers out there (besides me) got an unasked question?
David B: Bring your book tour to Ohio, Cheryl Strayed is coming here next week.
David Gilbert: I haven’t read that book yet. Heard nothing but great things.
Rebecca: You haven’t read Wild? Oh my god. Read Wild. It’s amazing. Also, Tiny Beautiful Things.
David Gilbert: Yes, got to read it.
Rebecca: So, what are you reading? Brian always asks that, and I always want to know.
David Gilbert: Reading the Renata Adler book, Speedboat, which is really cool.
Sean: Ah yeah, NYRB re-release of Speedboat. Has one of the best rants ever about how people need to drive fast in the left lane.
Rebecca: I haven’t heard much about Speedboat. Hmm. Must check out.
David Gilbert: So much to read. I just read the Karen Joy Fowler book.
Christopher: She is an amazing writer. I just got that book.
David Gilbert: It’s an amazing book. And I’m about to dive into Stoner (another NYRB reissue).
David B: Stoner rules.
David Gilbert: That’s what I heard. Two weeks ago I had never heard of the book.
Sean: Adler was way ahead of her time with that one. Yeah, NYRB and Melville House have been putting out some good stuff.
Rebecca: I can’t remember who’s been talking about Stoner lately.
David Gilbert: I was like, “Stoner?”
Rebecca: Someone else has been talking about Stoner.
David Gilbert: Amazing stuff. Graywolf too.
Sean: I think Bret Easton Ellis tweeted about Stoner recently.
David B: Thanks Carlos, don’t drop out.
David Gilbert: I have to say, I don’t know what you guys think, but a lot of pretty good new books out there. The first half of The Flamethrowers is pretty mind-blowing
Lisa D: Seconded!
Christopher: There are so many excellent books this year.
Rebecca: Oh god. I’ve heard so much good stuff about The Flamethrowers, but I open the book and can’t find my way in.
David Gilbert: It seems otherworldly, all these books doing interesting things.
Sean: Or maybe Matthew Specktor, one of those LA novelists. Specktor’s book American Dream Machine on Tin House really good as well this year.
David Gilbert: Another book I want to read.
Rebecca: I’ve heard The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is excellent. Gary Shteyngart was tweeting about it.
Christopher: Shteyngart loves everything.
David Gilbert: And Stone Arabia—though it came out, what, last year?—is so good.
Rebecca: We read On Sal Mal Lane, and I loved that.
David B: Just got an advance copy of Dissident Gardens by Lethem, good stuff so far.
Christopher: Yes, and a new Donna Tartt to look forward to in the fall.
David Gilbert: I haven’t really “loved” one of his books since Motherless Brooklyn.
Rebecca: Jhumpa Lahiri has a new novel coming out. And Aimee Bender has a new collection of stories coming out in August. SO, so much good stuff out right now.
Lisa D: Yes! This is all making me want to curl up with a book or five.
Christopher: I’m sad that it’s a collection and not anything new in Aimee Bender’s.
Rebecca: I haven’t been keeping up with her stories published anywhere, so it’ll all be new to me.
Sean: Pessl and Coetzee will be big books also.
David Gilbert: The Pessl is meant to be quite scary, especially the end.
Christopher: It’s excellent, the Pessl book.
Sean: Oh, and The Shining sequel, for those of us who like Mr King.
Rebecca: I’m still in love with Tenth of December. Still. Months later.
David Gilbert: And such a swell guy, that George Saunders.
Linda: His weird little stand alone was great: “Fox 8.”
David B: Thanks for another great book. It was amazing.
David Gilbert: Thanks, David.
Sean: Thanks for your time, David. I enjoyed your book. This was an interesting little cyber venture.
Christopher: Yes, I loved reading it, thank you.
David Gilbert: Thanks for taking the time to read it. A lot of other stuff out there fighting for eyeballs.
Lisa D: Thanks so much for chatting, David.
Rebecca: Oh yes. It’s 10:05 EST, so I guess that means we’ll be ending soon. Thanks so much for writing the book and for the conversation. Good stuff.
David Gilbert: Rebecca, my pleasure.
Linda: Thanks, and thanks for “Member/Guest” as well.
David Gilbert: Thanks, Linda.
Lisa D: Thanks, everyone, for coming out tonight. David: full disclosure, I got a late start on & Sons, so I’ve been averting my eyes at some of these questions. I’m excited to get back to it.
David Gilbert: Oh crud, sorry.
Lisa D: No, no! This was fun. Thanks again for talking with us.
David Gilbert: No problem. My absolute pleasure. Carlos Danger out.
Rebecca: Bye, Carlos! Be easy on the photos. (Though at least your last name isn’t “Weiner”…)
Lisa D: Haha, goodnight!
David Gilbert: Goodnight, all. Now back to my selfies.
Photo Credit: Susie Gilbert