The acclaimed & Sons author on the importance of entertainment, his slip into obsessive-compulsive behavior, and why he believes Salinger chose seclusion.
Photo by Susie Gilbert
In a David Gilbert short story published in the New Yorker this summer, a man awakes after a boozy night out only to discover, on the carpet beside his bed, a hideous-looking baby. “It was about the size of an eggplant,” Gilbert’s narrator tells us, “though in color more reddish brown, its body a mish-mash of textures and lumps, a goulash molded into a ghoul.” Appalled, confused, and increasingly resigned to his custody of this creature, he finds himself “rocking the thing until it settled down” and then “wrapped it in a towel and noticed that it was most definitely a male of its species.” The story ends on page 69 of the magazine and on page 70, in a piece of editorial curation that’s almost too good to be true, there’s a James Wood essay entitled “Sins Of The Father: Do Great Novelists Make Bad Parents?”
Gilbert is a writer who has fatherhood much on his mind. His latest novel, & Sons, offers up the story of an iconic, reclusive New York novelist and the personal sacrifices made in the pursuit of great fiction. It is, among other things, an ambitious literary novel about ambitious literary people, a sharp portrait of New York’s Upper East Side scene, and an examination of the mangled ways in which fathers and sons try to express their love for one another. The book explores the things left unsaid between reticent males—“heavily redacted men,” as Gilbert puts it—and the novel’s title enacts its own form of redaction; fathers are noticeably absent.
& Sons is Gilbert’s third book, and it has divided critics. James Wood in the New Yorker argued that although Gilbert has “a rich theme” and “a wonderfully sharp eye,” he “spends precious pages on… narrative silliness” and indulges too freely in an “expensive taste for flashy metaphors and similes.” Other critics have found less to quibble with. Lev Grossman, writing in Time, described it as “a grand book, even extraordinary.” Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times compared it to the The Brothers Karamazov. The Boston Globe’s reviewer said the novel “reproduc[es] the lapidary realism of mid-20th century American fiction to near-perfection.”
I met Gilbert in the garden of Gottino, a Greenwich Avenue bar near his home in the West Village. He told me that he’d “love to be the kind of writer who writes one big long quick draft” of each book, but is “too insecure.” “I have to ensure,” he says, “that every step is solid before moving on to the next creaky step. It’s like building a staircase.” Asked about the reviews he’s received, he added that “a valid criticism of my work from James Wood and others is that I probably don’t need to be this careful with carpentry.” Even so, Gilbert doesn’t seem like a man about to change his approach. He wants to blend the playful and the serious, the intricate with the entertaining. “The kind of book I wrote,” he explained between sips of coffee, “is the kind of book I like to read.”
—Jonathan Lee for Guernica
Guernica: & Sons got me thinking about dead language. It’s there from the outset in the idea of A.N. Dyer, the great novelist you’ve invented in this book, buying a pro forma eulogy from the internet. His oldest friend has died. He hasn’t written anything for years and can’t find the words.
David Gilbert: Yes. A lot of this book is about parody and reproduction. At an early stage of thinking about & Sons, I went online and found you could buy pre-fabricated, pre-written eulogies, which seemed totally insane. I had already decided to start the novel at a funeral, where this great reclusive writer, A.N. Dyer, has to stand up and do the eulogy for his oldest friend, and he’s blocked at what to say since emotionally he’s kind of ruined and plus there’s no way he’s going to live up to the congregation’s expectations. Imagine Philip Roth up there. We would expect something profound. I liked that idea. So I went to Google, and though this was almost ten years ago, which is like 100 years in internet time, I found a ready-to-go eulogy to buy within about twenty seconds.
Guernica: You actually made a purchase on eulogies.com, or wherever it was?
Not only did I buy ten eulogies, for $19.95, but I also ponied up the extra twenty bucks for the special tailor-made eulogy.
David Gilbert: Not only did I buy ten eulogies, for $19.95, but I also ponied up the extra twenty bucks for the special tailor-made eulogy. For that I had to send in a paragraph about the person in question, so I wrote something about this character I had in mind, Charlie Topping. I wrote things like ‘he was my oldest friend; we went to college together; he really loved bacon.’ A week later the eulogy arrived via email.
I used the feel of that eulogy to write my own version of the internet-bought eulogy. I’m a big fan of Nathaniel West and Miss Lonelyhearts, and I love those heartbreaking letters he receives. I wanted a little of that flavor to come across early in the book—an absurd chunk of prose that nonetheless works in its own way.
Guernica: Your subject matter might in part be the limits of language, or the ways it gets recycled or sold off, but the language on the page is alive. In the opening chapters, a man’s posture reminds a character of a comma. Men of a certain generation, unable to share their feelings with their families, are described as “heavily redacted.” A girl’s eyes are “punctuated with too much makeup, like unnecessary quotation marks” and you describe a man imagining her “riding him like a run-on sentence.” The playfulness and self-consciousness involved with some of these images—it seems to have niggled with some of your admirers, like James Wood.
David Gilbert: Yes. I can’t help it, really. The kind of book I wrote is the kind of book I like to read. I love trying to find those little images that open up a book. I’m interested in the metaphor extended to within an inch of its life. The wordplay, the games. I like that stuff; I think it’s fun. It certainly makes the writing more interesting for me, and yes, there is a danger in going too far, but I think there are readers who want something that has a certain playfulness to it. And since this was a book about writers and hyper-literate New Yorkers, it was an opportunity to really dive in deep. Now if I was writing a novel about a rancher in Oregon, I’d be less likely to play around so much.
Guernica: It’s a literary novel but it’s also a funny and at times suspenseful one—a combination that made me think of a book like White Noise. Was it important to you that the book should be entertaining, rather than just well written?
David Gilbert: Absolutely. You can only ask so much of your reader, especially if you’ve written a long book. So you want to make it not only interesting in terms of the story and the way you structure it, but also fun. That’s the writing I like. I’m a big DeLillo fan. And I think Martin Amis’s Money is a marvelous book. Novels with a deep sense of humor. I’m the youngest child of three, and I’m desperate to please and entertain.
At the same time, I didn’t want the book to be glib. There’s a fine line in trying to find the funny observation or way of phrasing a thought. You can push it too far in the pursuit of laughs and you have to remember that story comes from character and the lines have to be true to the character.
I was just trying to throw between those covers as much as possible in terms of what a book can do.
Guernica: Did you know early on that this was going to be a novel big enough to accommodate a range of tones? There are passages which are earnest and tender. There are also sections of the book that are gleefully satirical, or incorporate elements of farce—I’m thinking of the book party in the Frick, among other scenes.
David Gilbert: Definitely. Since this is a book about books, and writing, I wanted it to contain every other kind of book within its pages. To have the satire, and to have the family drama, and suddenly have an Alice Munro style short story pop up. There’s even a bit of science fiction in there. I was just trying to throw between those covers as much as possible in terms of what a book can do. I didn’t want just one straight tone throughout. I wanted it to be all the kinds of books I enjoy. Having an unreliable narrator was part of it too—it’s a trope I like in terms of keeping things interesting and unstable.
Guernica: I suppose the novel functions as a library in another way, too. All of A.N. Dyer’s books are contained within it—a large chunk of Ampersand, but also descriptions of the plots of other books he’s written.
David Gilbert: It was fun to make up those plots. I could write a book without having to actually write a book, without going through all the struggle with language, all the years of trying to flesh out character and plot. I wanted that 14 novels–in–1 novel sense, for the reader to come away with a clear sense of A.N. Dyer’s career. That seemed essential to me.
Guernica: And what kind writer is A.N. Dyer, as far as you’re concerned? There are obviously elements of Salinger you’ve built into his character, but also perhaps some Roth.
David Gilbert: I think there’s a lot of Roth in him, in terms of output. And some Updike and Cheever for their Waspy background. Salinger for his his reclusiveness, but you could also say Pynchon or DeLillo. A.N. Dyer has written a lot of books, which equates to certain compromises in life. I wanted to consider how the sons might feel, looking at those books in contrast to the man chained to his desk, to ask what it would be like to read one version of your father—warm, engaged—and to see the distant, unknowable man you know in real life.
I think every time someone came up to Salinger and said how The Catcher In The Rye changed his or her life, he died a little. The book wasn’t him; the book was better than the man.
With A.N. Dyer’s guilt, I was trying to explore the main reason why I believe Salinger disappeared so completely from the public eye. I think every time someone came up to Salinger and said how The Catcher In The Rye changed his or her life, he died a little. The book wasn’t him; the book was better than the man. And so when he was praised, he felt—he deeply felt this personal lack of connection between the two and it killed him. He was too sensitive for the praise, too knowing of his own faults.
I guess I think of A.N. Dyer as the Dostoyevsky to Salinger’s Tolstoy. With Ampersand I think A.N. Dyer has written a bleaker sort of book, a darker response to the shaggy dog story of Holden Caulfield. The tragedy of Holden is the tragedy of growing up.
Guernica: There was a piece in USA Today in which, I think, you were quoted as saying that a speech your own father gave contributed to early ideas for this book.
David Gilbert: Yes. My father was an impressive man, a very successful businessman. He was delivering a speech one day and doing it very well, and an old friend of his was sitting next to me and she leaned over and told me how it always surprised her to see him perform so well in front of a crowd considering how shy he was as a kid, painfully shy and with a stammer and how he could barely look you in the eye. I was amazed by this. I mean, I always knew he could be socially awkward, but I chalked it up to a certain kind of aloofness. So to imagine him afresh, as an awkward 17-year-old, was very interesting for me, and I started to wonder what it would be like if you could meet your rather inscrutable dad at his most knowable, vulnerable age.
Guernica: When you first realized that you were writing or planning to write a book about writers, did you have any reservations?
David Gilbert: Well, two things got me worried. The first was that there are plenty of books about writers and often they’re completely self-indulgent and reveal a total lack of personal imagination. The other thing I was nervous about was building a story around this great novelist. It sets up a response of, “Great novelist? I don’t think so.” Alternatively, they might buy that A.N. Dyer is a great novelist and think it’s annoying I didn’t just write Ampersand instead of & Sons.
Guernica: I suppose there’s a risk with any novel containing more than one narrative thread that a reader will say, “I preferred this voice to that voice, or that bit to this bit.”
David Gilbert: That was one of the liberating things about the way I wrote this book, actually. I’m a big Richard Powers fan. He often breaks up his book into three distinct characters. Chances are, one of their arcs you’ll like, maybe even love, and the other two you might like, or love, less. But that one love keeps you moving through the story. And that one love will be different for every reader.
Guernica: You pick a horse to back.
David Gilbert: Exactly. In a way it’s a form of playing it safe, spreading your bets.
Guernica: Once you’ve finished a big, ambitious book like this, is it a while before you feel you can create something again?
David Gilbert: It depends. I have various ideas right now for new novels, or maybe a book for my kids, or maybe another screenplay. I’ll mull over ideas until the New Year, and then get started. Something like a screenplay takes less energy.
If writing a novel is getting through a whole meal, writing a movie is like eating a great big plate of whipped cream—there’s so much white space involved and it’s also high in calories.
Guernica: You’ve had one movie made so far?
David Gilbert: Yeah. That was Joshua , with Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga. I’ve written three other screenplays but they haven’t gotten made. If writing a novel is getting through a whole meal, writing a movie is like eating a great big plate of whipped cream—there’s so much white space involved and it’s also high in calories. Problem is, the movie industry is even more dysfunctional than the book industry. There’s such a slim chance your screenplay will ever see the inside of a camera, even if it’s the most brilliant piece of writing in the world. That said, if you write a brilliant novel, chances are it will get published somewhere.
A novel takes me a number of years. There’s got to be time for the story to build up. Time to think about structure. You have the initial idea. In my case, I had this image of a great writer rewriting his most famous novel in order to sell it as an original manuscript. And then I think of [this question]: What if you could meet your Dad when he was 17? And you think, Oh, maybe I can connect those two ideas. And then you wait for the third idea because a novel is not a novel until you get the third idea. Oh, what if I told the story via an unreliable narrator, an outsider who has his face pushed against the glass of this family. At that point you have three anchors, and you think, this could work.
All that stuff is the fun part, because whatever structural writing you’re doing doesn’t feel like real writing. You’re still exploring.
Guernica: There are some passages in & Sons which make writing sound like a pretty tough profession.
David Gilbert: It’s not tough in the real world sense, and that’s what makes it almost tougher. It’s not the real world. There are many days where I wonder why I didn’t just go into advertising or something like that. When it comes down to pulling together actual sentences and paragraphs, progress is so slow. One day you write one paragraph and the next day you erase five. I’d love to be the kind of writer who writes one big long quick draft, but I’m too insecure. I have to ensure that every step is solid before moving on to the next creaky step. It’s like building a staircase. And I think a valid criticism of my work from James Wood and others is that I probably don’t need to be this careful with carpentry. Overwritten is the nastier word.
Rarely does a day’s work equal a page. A good page a day would be a minor miracle for me. Rather, my daily progress is measured in paragraphs. It can be tedious and demoralizing. Whereas with screenwriting a day can often equal ten pages.
Guernica: Have you adapted someone else’s material before?
David Gilbert: I wrote an adaptation of DeLillo’s second novel, End Zone, and for a while it looked like it might even get made into a movie. I wrote it with a documentary filmmaker who had the rights to the book and he asked me after I had finished my first novel if I wanted to work on the screenplay with him. And I was like, Yes, absolutely, please! The collaborative aspect was really fun, and it was also fun taking apart a book I liked—not a perfect book, but a good book—and figuring out how it might work for the screen. We came up with a really great script, I think, and it climbed various indie film ladders, but it was a football movie, and people thought it wouldn’t work overseas, and the stunts and crowd scenes meant it would be expensive to make.
Guernica: Do you know if DeLillo ever read your script?
David Gilbert: He read the script and really liked it. In fact, he took me out for lunch. He was an incredibly normal, friendly, funny guy. It was like having lunch with Larry David’s more serious older brother. He was very dry and generous.
Guernica: I think, unfortunately, I have to ask you what you ate.
David Gilbert: I remember that we ate at an Italian place that’s no longer there on 19th Street. I remember that he paid. I remember that it was a few days before the beginning of the Iraq war, and we were talking about that. I had bought a first edition of End Zone five years prior at a street market for five bucks. So I brought that with me and he signed it. I was too scared to arrive with a stack of his books, but I certainly thought about it. So yeah, he signed my copy of End Zone on the eve of the Iraq war. That was pretty cool. I’m pretty sure it was some kind of sandwich we ate. Some kind of pressed sandwich.
Guernica: A pressed sandwich with Don DeLillo.
David Gilbert: That’s right.
I like paragraphs that will spin in time a little, will go back and forth in time almost like a gymnastics move—tumble tumble tumble—and you just hope you can stick the landing.
Guernica: I’ve heard it said that DeLillo’s practice is or used to be to run one paragraph of prose off the typewriter at a time, just one paragraph per page however few lines it consists of, and to look at it as its own story, working and re-working it as a discrete unit of sense. Which is perhaps one of many reasons why there are so many lines and paragraphs in his novels that I want to underline with a pencil as I go along. I had a similar experience with & Sons.
David Gilbert: That’s good. I want every paragraph to have its own internal logic and story and I like paragraphs that will spin in time a little, will go back and forth in time almost like a gymnastics move—tumble tumble tumble—and you just hope you can stick the landing.
Guernica: I was interested by this idea in the book of a writer thinking at a stage in his career that some material is valid and some isn’t. That truth might lie in writing about tragedies overseas or people in desperate poverty rather than in narratives about well-off families. Is that a thought that you’ve ever had as a writer?
David Gilbert: Oh, sure. Absolutely. After college I went into an MFA program at the University of Montana. All the stories I wrote while there were about people shooting up heroin or trying to survive in trailer parks. People living desperately, which as a guy growing up on the Upper East Side was of course not my own experience. But at that stage of my writing life, my own upbringing seemed to be completely phony and false. The real stuff was people scraping by and living on the fringes of society. So that’s what my early stories were about.
It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I could sit back and think, “No, I can write about my upbringing if I want to, the world I grew up in.” I felt mature enough to do that without thinking that it was the worst thing in the world to be a privileged white boy writing about his privileged white boy life. That I could still make it interesting and fun and still get at some truths, truths about children trying to work out how they exist in relation to their parents, or trying to deal with certain kinds of legacies—stuff everyone deals with. It took me a long time to give myself permission to write about experiences close to my own.
Guernica: How do you feel now, looking back on your early stories and your first novel?
David Gilbert: I feel like that first novel was manic but also fun. I still like it and am proud of it, really proud that I finished it. When I got out of my MFA program I had the classic post-MFA situation of having maybe ten stories finished and an idea for a novel. I got really lucky early on and managed to sell a couple of those stories—one to Harper’s and one to the New Yorker—and as a result I got a two book deal with Scribner. The stories came out in ’98. And I thought it would be easy enough to write a novel, that a novel just equaled ten short stories. Anyway, six years later I finished The Normals.
Guernica: To have your first couple of stories picked up by Harper’s and The New Yorker must have felt a little crazy.
David Gilbert: It was ridiculous. I sent Harper’s this first story, which was forty pages long—that’s how clueless I was. And it was kind of picked out of the slush pile. They called me up and said, “You’d need to cut it down to twenty pages.” And being the artist with integrity, I said, “Sure! No problem!” [Laughs.] From that I got an agent, Bill Clegg, and he sold the next story to the New Yorker. I thought, “Wow, this is awesome. Being a writer is terrific. This is going to be great.” And then it took me another fifteen years to get another story in the New Yorker. The last few months have been great, but I’ll never have a two month period like that again in my life.
It wasn’t writing, it was more a game of Tetris. I was going insane.
Writing under contract for that first novel, I really felt pressure. You miss a deadline and you think since you’re late, it’s got to be good, that you have to make up for this lateness with greatness. It doesn’t allow you to freely inhabit a story. And for me, things got dark and strange. I was working on an old Mac laptop, and I started to notice how the spacing would look on the computer screen, and I began to write so that the right hand margin would line up in terms of where the last letter fell. So not only did I need perfect sentences but I also needed them to appear perfectly aligned on my screen. Then I discovered the ‘justify all’ button—yay—and all was good for a while, but then I spotted that the internal spacing between words was inconsistent. So I would rejigger the words to fit those gaps. It wasn’t writing, it was more a game of Tetris. I was going insane.
Guernica: You think you were becoming obsessive-compulsive?
David Gilbert: Definitely. I had to go on meds and see people about it.
Guernica: Therapy helped?
David Gilbert: The meds helped. The other thing that helped was discovering it was possible to automatically hyphenate. Meds and hyphenation saved the day. But sometimes I still see the gaps and I have to re-engineer the line.
Guernica: Are you similarly obsessive about fonts?
David Gilbert: Not so much. When I’m writing, give me Times New Roman and I’m good to go. But when I print out a section of my manuscript in order to edit, I like to change the font. I feel like reading the work in a different font switches something in your brain and you see things you didn’t previously see. You trick the brain into thinking that this is someone else’s work, not yours. It makes you both more critical and more forgiving.
When I do readings, I have to read from the galley rather than the finished copy, because if I see something I want to change, I can fool myself into thinking I probably already dealt with it before the finished copies were printed. But if I see something I can’t stand in the finished copy, I know I missed my chance.
Guernica: I want to ask a little about how you feel your work fits into the wider context of contemporary American letters right now. & Sons feels to me like an unusual book and I wonder if you feel you were writing against the grain in some way.
We’re living through a golden age of American literature right now.
David Gilbert: I don’t know. I feel we’re living through a golden age of American literature right now. The Flamethrowers is a great book. It just opens up, it’s crazy how well done it is. The Orphan Master’s Son—the imagination behind that book is just staggering. There’s so many great writers writing ambitious books. I’d love to say my own book is out of left field, that no-one else is writing books like this, but there are a lot of writers in their thirties and forties who are hitting their stride. We all went through the MFA system at the same time, were within that structure that can both be a blessing and a curse, and we’re now starting to write the books we want to write.
Guernica: Why do you feel this book has caught on in the media in a way that your other books perhaps haven’t?
David Gilbert: I don’t know. I guess when I started as a writer there wasn’t quite the desperate manufacture of buzz that there is now, in terms of social media and so on. & Sons got early buzz from Twitter because my editor, David Ebershoff, himself a great writer, sent it to a lot of writers and editors. They read advance copies and tweeted about it. There were more old school media outlets for books when I started out but maybe less opportunities for a book to quickly take hold.
It shocked me that for this book Random House printed something like 2,000 galleys. My first book, The Normals, didn’t even sell 2,000 copies. I said to David something like, “Are you guys crazy? You’re giving away more galleys than I have readers. Who’s going to buy this book?” But he was incredibly smart about it, about generating a conversation. And of course he knows a lot of people who like books, and that’s a natural audience for this novel about novels.
Guernica: It might also be a book for lovers of New York. I was interested by the descriptions of Central Park.
David Gilbert: Central Park was a fascinating place to me when I was a boy. We’d play on the fringes, but our parents told us not to go into the middle, and drummed into us that as soon as it got dark Central Park became a very dangerous place and we had to get out. And this was at a time when New York itself was far more dangerous than it is now, and parents were less worried generally than they are now—I was allowed to walk to school at a young age, and my parents would take off for a few days when I was 13 or so, and assume the doorman would look out for us. Like the doorman was this supreme protector.
Nostalgia arrives, but the stores are not what they were. These are landmark memories.
New York is a strange city because the buildings rarely change and the landscape doesn’t change but the stores inside them change. You walk through a neighborhood you haven’t walked through in a long time and it feels much the same as you remember. Nostalgia arrives, but the stores are not what they were. These are landmark memories. And you think, “Oh yeah, this used to be a newsstand, and now it’s one of a thousand frozen yogurt places.” Where I lived on 73rd and Lexington, on that block there was an old-school hardware store that had sawdust on the ground and great big barrels filled with nails. It was like something out of Maybury, but here it was in the Upper East Side of New York. Now things are much more uniform. But I’m sure, twenty years from now, people in their teens are going to walk the same streets I walk and have their own waves of nostalgia, and remember that bygone frozen yogurt place very fondly. New York City essentially doesn’t change, and yet it’s constantly changing.
Guernica: How do you feel about changes to the state of the publishing industry? There’s been a lot of recent coverage, of course, about Amazon buying up traditional media outlets and publishing books themselves.
David Gilbert: I don’t mind Amazon becoming a publisher and providing another outlet for writers. More troubling, I think, is the way that Amazon clearly wants to be the only player in town, is seemingly content to put independent booksellers out of business—the kinds of booksellers who are pushing the kinds of books I like to read, supporting the kind of books I write. Many of the bookstores in New York are still standing for the sole reason that they own the real estate. I don’t think The Strand would still be there if they didn’t own that entire building.
Despite these things, I’m bullish about the state of writing. I think Twitter and Facebook and other social outlets are a way not only for people to discover books that they might not have discovered, but it also provides them with a forum for writing, for trying to compose a good sentence. If you’d asked me ten years ago if I felt positive about the state of books, I don’t think I would have been nearly as bullish. Things seemed bleak.
Guernica: Why do you see the book industry as being in a better state now?
David Gilbert: I think independent booksellers—albeit they are fighting to survive against Amazon—have made real advances in terms of how to push books they love. I think there were concerns e-books would kill off printed books altogether but it’s clear now from the figures that printed books still have some life in them and that there’s a balance to be found between the two. I think we’re at a plateau and everyone’s catching their breath. Printed books may get more specialized in future years, like vinyl is today. Your printed run of books might be 2500 instead of 25,000, and priced at a $100 a pop, to go for a collectible market who are interested in the book as an object.
Guernica: This is a novel partly about literary legacies. I wonder if you can say something about what you hope your legacy will be. When you look into future years is there an effect you want your books to have had, or a status you want them to have achieved?
David Gilbert: I just want the books to still be in print in future years. That’s all. That’s the one great thing about e-books; the novels will remain accessible in some shape or form for a long time. You want people to bump into your books. I want my books to inhabit a reading memory in the people who have turned its pages, instead of that thing where you go, “Oh, I think I read that book.” The best that could happen in ten years? Someone will say to someone else,“Have you read & Sons? It’s fun, you should check it out.”