More Questions than Answers: Selected Interviews
The majority of THE READYMADE THIEF takes place in hidden or forgotten locales—abandoned buildings, basements, squatters’ houses—and features characters who live outside or on the edge of mainstream society. Why did you choose these spaces and characters?
There’s a slippery term within the field of aesthetics, the “sublime,” which is relevant here. One aspect of the sublime is the simultaneous feelings of awe and horror, attraction and revulsion, transcendence and dissolution that one can have when witness to something of such magnitude it shuts down our ability to comprehend it. Originally, the term came up mostly in relation to art that renders the natural world in this way, landscapes and seascapes of the Romantic period, for instance.
I think that there is a similar (if much quieter) quality of the sublime in the ruins of an old factory or a derelict ocean liner. There’s something akin to the sublime in photographs of a long-abandoned amusement park being retaken by nature. It’s this feeling most of all that draws me to write about these places. As for outsider characters, these are the kinds of characters I like to read, as well as write. They tend to be weirder, often iconoclastic, and battling on two fronts—in conflict both against the outside world and against forces within themselves.
It must be fun for a writer to imagine a new cult. How did you build the ideology, the look and the feel of the Societé Anonyme?
One thing I’ve always been drawn to as a writer is individuals or groups who start out with good intentions but then transgress into dark, self-serving territory after egos or ambitions get in the way. Cults are a natural embodiment of this process, because cults organize themselves around a particular idea, and often an individual as well. It’s when these two become conflated that things get interesting. The Societé Anonyme has an obsessive curiosity to uncover the secrets they are sure are encoded within the work of Duchamp, and in the beginning are even playful and theatrical as a group (taking on roles from Duchamp’s The Large Glass and staging re-enactments of early avant-garde events). But as they start putting the pieces of the puzzle together, more and more they begin to see what they want to be there. This is a process that comes quite naturally from looking at Duchamp’s work, which is so complex, evocative, and open that a person can analyze it through whatever lens they wish and find whatever they want there. This was borne out in the research I did for the book—the more I uncovered about Duchamp and his work the more dots I saw to connect in some kind of grand, unifying theory that served the purposes of the narrative.
Thinking of the look and feel of the Societé Anonyme was even more fun. I’ve always loved the aesthetics of the early-twentieth-century; I’m mesmerized by the photos of Jacques Henri Lartigue. And I love the idea of a bunch of men earnestly role-playing from this time, even going so far as to do re-enactments, not military but art-historical. It’s this theatrical element that I had the most fun with, this sense of play with such a dark undertone beneath it. The tech and drug culture aspect was important, too, and I liked playing around with the contradictions inherent in the technologies and attitudes of two historical periods 100 years apart.
Lee is such a distinctive heroine. How did you find her voice? How did you approach writing this book from the perspective of a teenage girl?
I’d say there are two voices in the book, the narrator’s and Lee’s. Sometimes they are so merged as to be indistinguishable, but other times the narrator’s voice clearly distinct from hers. It was initially much easier and more fluid for me to write from the narrator’s perspective, which is closer to my own. Lee’s took a lot more burrowing before it emerged. Lee is a girl who’s felt silent and invisible her entire life, and yet she has a kind of screaming inside of her. She’s an outsider looking in, uncomfortable under the spotlight but at the same time longing to be seen. I think when I figured these things out about her, her voice emerged from these tensions.
As to writing from the perspective of a teenage girl, I’ll just say this: I have (for better or worse) a kind of direct line to my teenage self. I remember all too well the convoluted, tortured yearnings of being a teenager and I just reached in and drew from this as needed. I never thought consciously about gender in this respect. If I had, I suspect it may have gone horribly awry.
Urban exploration (Urbex) plays a big role in Lee and Tomi’s adventures. Do you have any personal experience with that?
In the early nineties a friend and I used to slip down a grate that led to the drainage tunnels running beneath the city of Berkeley. This was my first experience of what we then called “urban spelunking.” It wasn’t true urban exploration, but it was instilled with a kind of pleasurable terror limited only by our imaginations of what we might find down there. (Which it turns out wasn’t much more than a lot of spider webs, some dead rodents, and a good deal of dark, oily water.) Another friend and I once snuck through the gates of Alyscamps, a Roman necropolis outside Arles, to wander around there at night. And I’ve explored a derelict granite quarry (with a large ramshackle house for the granite workers slowly giving way to the elements) on a tiny island off the coast of Maine (reachable by boat from a small writer’s residency I sometimes go to). It’s full of rusting machines and artifacts that go back decades. But I don’t think Tomi and his ilk would have been much impressed with any of it. Everything that I got right or wrong about urban exploration is simply a result of research and imagination.
Where did the idea of the Subnet come from? Were you thinking of connections to things like Silk Road and 4Chan, or is the Subnet more like a shadow Wikipedia?
The Subnet in my conception is something between Silk Road and 4Chan: an anonymous group of subterranean internet denizens who have formed various communities of like-minded people, who trade in nefarious goods and information, and yes, who have built their own version of Wikipedia, where secret information is available but also riddled with rumors and innuendo. I don’t actually know if such a place exists. The utopian in me thinks it could be populated by free thinkers and iconoclasts, but the dark realist in me fears it would be quickly overrun by pedophiles and alt-right trolls.
You spent many years as a bookseller before you were a published writer. Can you talk about your experiences in that role—did they influence your writing at all?
I think a lot of writers have been booksellers, and for good reason—you’re literally surrounded by inspiration. As a bookseller I would sometimes hide out and sneak reads from novels that made me want to do something similar—compel another person to drop what they were supposed to be doing and lose themselves in another’s imagined world. Over the course of about fifteen years I kept myself afloat working at a few different bookstores in the Bay Area. Green Apple Books is one of those massive old-school bookstores with piles of used books from floor to ceiling. There’s a real sense of discovery in places like that, especially if they are poorly organized—you just never know what you’re going to stumble upon if you start digging.
I’ve always been especially attracted to strange and rare books, and one of my jobs was to stand in a tiny, coffin-sized space upstairs and sort out the boxes of used book buys that came in, piling them in teetering stacks all around me. I got first look at all kinds of odd gems and forgotten volumes this way. I can see a few on my shelf from where I’m sitting right now: Mindfuckers: A Source Book on the Rise of Acid Fascism in America (1972), Survival Research Laboratories (1988) about the San Francisco industrial machine performance art collective, and more than a few books on Duchamp, including the Manual of Instructions for the Assembly of Étant donnés (1987).
You’re a Duchamp fan yourself. What has his work meant to you, and how does that relate to how the characters respond to it in the novel?
I’ve had a low-grade obsession with Duchamp since the age of nineteen. Before The Readymade Thief I’d been circling for ways to write about Duchamp for many years; I made several aborted attempts before Lee came to me as a character and the various elements of the book began to show themselves and fall into place.
As a young film student I was drawn to the playfulness of Dada, Surrealism, and Situationism, the ways in which these movements aimed to dismantle power structures by pranking them. But while these movements eventually lost their hold, it was Duchamp, tangentially connected to them and yet hovering aloof and amused off stage, who held my interest and admiration all these years. The more I learned about art, the more I understood what a towering figure Duchamp was. That so much of contemporary art traces a direct line to his work and his thought. And yet he seemed to have no ego invested in it. He was neither humble nor arrogant, just amused by it all. And I think it’s this attitude that I admired so much. He had an aristocratic grace and elegance about him too, a kind of luminosity that showed through his photographs and made me think of him as an almost otherworldly figure. His work was often provocative, subversive and (in his time) scandalous, while being at the same time highly cerebral. Duchamp’s art seems almost clinical, yet many of his works also carry deep underground currents of eroticism, because Duchamp himself was so driven by his own unrequited (and probably repressed) desires. I think I responded to this aspect before I even consciously realized it was there.
His readymades changed the entire way we look at art (questioning the very idea of taste and tastemakers, beauty and creators), but it was his more complex and elusive works that drew me in most, especially The Large Glass and Étant donnés, called by Jasper Johns “the strangest work of art in any museum.” These were towering, utterly singular works to me, and I had never seen any works of art that spoke to me as much as they did.