My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
“I intended The Fugitives to be as close to a zero-research book as possible. I decided that if I couldn’t find something with Google in ten minutes, then I should forget it, or make it up.”
I have been eagerly anticipating a new Christopher Sorrentino novel since I read Trance, his brilliant 2005 book. The Fugitives, rife with Sorrentino’s dark wit and acute cultural observations, does not disappoint. It conjures different kinds of fugitives whose lives cross but never seem to actually entwine. Sandy Mulligan, a writer in exile and the not-so-active protagonist, is mesmerized by the storytelling performances of Native American folktales given by John Salteau, a man who isn’t what he seems to be. The performances lead Mulligan to Kat Danhoff, a small-time journalist trying to make herself into a big-time journalist by investigating a heist involving casino money, the storyteller, and the mafia. As the novel progresses, each angle gets revealed as false in some way, and the double-crosses mount until everyone seems mired in an isolated world of their own construction. A late switch to an omniscient, otherworldly narrator satisfies our need for the true story of what happened and also forces us to question all the assumptions we have made while reading the first part of the book. James Camp, in Bookforum, describes it as a classic “storyline of self-discovery, but Christopher Sorrentino’s smart and mordant novel soon subverts it with bitter élan … bleakly ingenious … brilliantly cranky.” We talked about The Fugitives through a series of email volleys.
Dana Spiotta Let’s start with Iron Eyes Cody, the actor who played “The Crying Indian” in the iconic anti-litter ad from the early ’70s. Although he was Italian American, he claimed he was of Cherokee/Cree descent. In addition to playing Native Americans, he devoted himself to Native American causes. How does he figure into The Fugitives as inspiration? And what interests you about this Rachel Dolezal kind of imposture?
Christopher Sorrentino You nailed it: Cody’s story was in fact the inspiration for John Salteau, the imitation Ojibway in The Fugitives, although the character isn’t based on Cody in any way. My interest came about partly because I’m always impressed by the boldness of this kind of appropriation. I really do find it audacious, as fictional material, even if in real life it’s belittling and offensive. But I don’t think I come at these things in my fiction purely as instances of imposture. I don’t really have any moral judgments to make about them. I’m interested in characters who try to get out from under the circumstances that limit and define them. It certainly figured in Trance. In this book, I knew Salteau’s masquerade was going to be at the center of things, but after a while I could begin to feel Sandy Mulligan, the self-exiled, scandalized writer at the center of things, get slippery, like this character I’d conceived as a very straightforward guy was beginning to come out as if he were much more devious and untrustworthy than I’d intended. And I thought, Well, what if everyone in the book is in disguise, and none of them is being forthcoming with each other, or with us?
DS You also have Kat Danhoff, who is the inverse of Salteau, but also a variation. Kat is Native American and grew up on a reservation, but she moves to Chicago and doesn’t correct people when they assume she is of Asian descent. She is not pretending to be someone she is not, but she is, as you say, trying to “get out from under circumstances that limit and define” her. I think that is right, it is not so much pretending to be someone else, but rather wanting to shed the past, or the past’s weight. Partially it is that perennial American question: Can you escape the things that made you? And a related question is how much of our sense of self is determined by context and history and geography. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it begins “No, but.” The “but” is fascinating to me.
CS I was thinking, very generally, about my mother when I was writing Kat. She’s a Puerto Rican whose first language was Spanish and whose New York City–birth certificate rather nonsensically designated her as “Negro,” much to my grandparents’ shame. Let me skirt the racism inherent in that shame to observe that “what makes you” is often simply a label that gets hung on you. My mother was very aware, growing up in a part of the Bronx called Morrisania, of the limitations within which she and her brother and cousins were expected to make their lives. To paraphrase Vivian Gornick, who grew up around the same area, at best the expectation was that you would move from a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx to a lower middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx. My mom ran for the hills, or for Manhattan, where as far as I know no one questioned her about what she “really” was. Nor should they have: she was what she’d created, which was a sophisticated, stylish, modern New York woman. Even as a kid, when I used to visit family in the Bronx, I could see the vast distance my mother had traveled through her own audacity. So Kat is, for me, the much more interesting character—she’s certain that there’s no dishonesty involved in simply allowing other people to make incorrect assumptions about her background, if it means she’s not copping to something that can be held against her. And I would say that maybe she’s not wrong, or that if it is dishonesty, it’s the quintessential American lie.
DS Sandy Mulligan, a novelist, is at the center of your book. What challenges did that present for you? It is hard to write about writing, but you are really writing about not writing. You are very funny in describing a writer in retreat from the literary world. I have to ask why you used that name, and how playful you wanted to be about invoking your father’s novel Mulligan Stew?
CS ”Mulligan” is an homage to my father. It could be construed as a clue to Sandy’s real-life alter ego, but it would be a false clue. As Ross Macdonald said about his fictional detective Lew Archer, there’s a lot of me in Sandy Mulligan, but there isn’t a lot of Sandy Mulligan in me. Mulligan also refers to the unofficially sanctioned cheat in golf, where a player is allowed a do-over without penalty.
Writing about being a writer came pretty easily. The challenge was in framing it within the perspective of someone whose experience is very different from mine: Sandy is a very successful writer whose missteps in life and art are heavily subsidized, which is not a situation I’ve ever enjoyed. I wanted there to be something hollow about his complaints about the literary life, a sense of dissimulation, just as there’s a growing sense for the reader of Sandy’s dissimulation about everything else. Although I do agree with much of what Sandy has to say about the role of writers in today’s world, that they either commodify themselves or face marginalization.
DS You made some interesting structural decisions in The Fugitives. Through most of the book, we have chapters of Sandy’s first-person narration interspaced with chapters of third-person sections close to Kat’s point of view (with moments of repeated, overlapping time from Sandy’s chapters), plus chapters of Salteau’s Native American stories. That holds until the last section of the novel, where things change quite a bit, including how time is denoted. How did you arrive at this shape? I guess I am asking about your writing process. Did you imagine it would be structured in this way at the start? The ending is surprising both in how it is told and what it tells us. It makes the reader want to reread the earlier parts of the book. Can you talk about the ending (without giving too much away) and how you arrived there?
CS Kat’s chapters were written in close third person to give me a break from Sandy, with no further ambitions for playing with structure or point of view, but about 250 pages in, the book had become this “and then this happened, and then that happened” swamp. No light escaped. I’d sit there and try to figure out what was going to happen next, and that was no fun. So one day I rewrote a dialogue from Kat’s point of view that I’d originally written from Sandy’s. The idea of each of them contradicting the other was fun, as was the gradual emergence of the agendas each was trying to advance, and it refreshed my whole idea of the book. But eventually I felt I had to bring the dissonance to some kind of resolution, so I wrote the “Orbital Resonance” section: unnumbered, told from an omniscient perspective, and dispensing with the division into separate chapters. The idea was to clue the reader in that this, purportedly, was the authoritative version of the story, that the narrative had been hijacked from its interested-party narrators. That’s why the book jumps from chapter 27 to chapter 44. “Orbital Resonance” is what’s supposed to have replaced chapters 28–43. By the time we do get back to Sandy, he and his version of the story have been discredited.
As for the surprise of the ending, that was just a big “Why not?” I’d been having Salteau tell stories about the shape-shifting trickster, Nanabozho—I suddenly realized that the entire book could be a kind of trickster tale.
DS Yes, I like how when we return to Sandy, he seems entirely in question. I did think the trickster stories were there to inflect how we read the narrative. After you discovered and wrote your ending, how much revising did you do? Were the Salteau/Nanabozho chapters always a running strand in the book, or were they added after you figured out the end?
Also, can you describe the research you did for the book? Why Michigan? Don’t get me wrong, I was very glad you didn’t spend too much time in high-literary Brooklyn. I am interested in exiled people, runaways, escapees. But what interests you about Michigan? And what about writing about contemporary Native American culture? Is it a long-standing interest of yours?
CS There were a lot of revisions, but not to bring the work into line with the direction the book had taken. In fact, things that had seemed like problems—Sandy’s self-absorption, his evasiveness about certain things—suddenly made a kind of deeply satisfying sense when I decided that he was simply not to be trusted. Revision generally was an ongoing process—every time I returned to the book after having had to put it aside I went through it again and made changes. This happened maybe five times over the five years I spent on the book. The biggest revisions I made came after the book had been accepted by Simon & Schuster, and had to do with pacing. Sandy dominated the first half of the book; I knew the pacing was off, but Cary Goldstein, my editor, made the simple suggestion that I alternate between Sandy’s and Kat’s narratives more frequently, and that fixed it. The trickster stories actually were some of the first things I wrote. Eventually, I interpreted a bunch of them, drawn from different sources, before settling on the ones that are in the book.
The Nigerian folktale that opens the book was a late idea—it seemed in keeping with the deceptive nature of the book to misattribute a Yoruba story to the Ojibway. But they were always there, and each of them relates, obliquely, to what’s going on in the novel.
I intended this to be as close to a zero-research book as possible. I researched Trance pretty thoroughly, and old-school, scrolling through microfiche, heading to film archives to look at news footage, writing inquiries—I remember writing what must have seemed like a really strange note to a parochial school located on the same street in San Francisco where the arrests leading to Patty Hearst’s capture were made, asking some obscure question about dismissal times in 1975, or something—and of course reading books, court transcripts, official reports, and other sources. For The Fugitives, I decided that if I couldn’t find it with Google in ten minutes, then I should forget it, or make it up. And I pretty much stuck to that. I stumbled across one book that inadvertently became an important source—Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, by David Treuer, who in addition to being a novelist and scholar happens to be an Ojibway from Minnesota. It’s very smart, and it discusses contemporary Native fiction, the formal attributes of traditional folklore, as well as the misconceptions that surround Native American culture. I got the “Smartberries” story, in which Nanabozho dupes a man into eating rabbit turds by assuring him that they’ll make him smarter, from his book. And that really was about it for research.
Michigan I knew. I wrote about it because my former in-laws have a house there up in Leelanau County, which served as the basis for Manitou County in the book. I used to go there with my ex-wife and our daughters every summer, and it’s one of the few places to which I’ve felt an immediate attachment. I was very aware of the sentimental draw of a place like that, particularly if you want to pull off what recovering drunks call the “geographical cure.” And there’s that classic writer’s fantasy: What if I had unlimited time, money, and solitude—what great work would I do? Sandy gets bored. And drunk. Leelanau also has a pretty good literary provenance—it’s not that far from Hemingway Country, which is kind of a running joke in the book, and Jim Harrison lived nearby.
As for Native Americana, I’d be lying if I said I knew more about it than I’ve read in books and in the news. It’s too diffuse to speak of monolithically. The book really isn’t about that, though. American culture encourages this kind of apocalyptic belief that we represent the perfection of the species, an epochal shift away from the past and its errors and institutions. These dreams of transformative change are always tied to narrative, a story that corrects reality, just as Sandy, Kat, and Salteau have stories that “correct” a dangerous or unwanted past. That’s really where the trickster tales come in: as a character that people try to use to benefit themselves. Nanabozho embodies the illusion they have that they’re in control of their lives amid a vastly indifferent universe. He’s a free radical agent of chaos. He punishes and he consoles. He’s arbitrary but he’s also just. It’s very different from European folktales, in which the message is clear and practical: Don’t go in the woods, or you’ll be killed or raped. The meaning and application of Nanabozho stories really depend on the storyteller’s intentions, the context in which the story is being told.
DS There is a lot of satire in the book, most of it conveyed through the cynical, writerly voice of Sandy. He often digresses into riffs about a wide variety of subjects including technology, the hideous idea of being a “writer-entrepreneur,” small-town development, and the wages of success. He is funny, partly because his self-loathing, self-pity, and shame are a kind of brag, a form of perverse bravado. He reminds me of some earlier male literary figures. Did you have some models for him? It must have been fun to channel his retro literary machismo. And the agent and editor are acidly drawn. It is interesting that you also make Sandy such a success. He has written a couple of books with great critical acclaim. A movie was made based on one of his novels, and he is living in ease thanks to money from a MacArthur-esque fellowship. And yet, he blows his life up. Why is he so self-destructive? (Or maybe just plain destructive.) Is it because he can’t seem to write anymore?
CS The satire is reflexive. Certainly I’m with Sandy on the objects of his satire more than I’m with him on anything else. But now that you mention it, Sandy’s satire is elegiac at its core, even nostalgic; it really accompanies his operatic sense of himself as fallen. The characters I drew from for Sandy include, at least subliminally, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Machado de Assis’s Dom Casmurro, Svevo’s Zeno, Céline’s Bardamu, Beckett’s Molloy, Bernhard’s narrators, Roth’s Zuckerman, and so on—they’re all funny but also self-impugning, and they often place themselves in intolerable situations but have constructed worldviews in which the things that happen to them, their terrible lapses in judgment, derive from some injustice, some injury they’ve suffered. Coetzee, whose Disgrace Sandy archly quotes, might suggest that the thing to do amid intolerable conditions, amid discomfort and loss, is not to nurse grievances or cling to a bygone status, but to learn to be human again from scratch. Sandy’s not up for that—he declares himself corrupt and shameful, then calls it a day. If he really had to face himself, he’d first have to stop drinking at lunchtime. And if he were really corrupt, he’d just grind out his book, take the money, and move on. He’d be healthier. But Sandy’s flaws and weaknesses don’t have anything to do with success and its temptations; he’s just a flawed and weak man.
DS Although there is a lot of satire around his literary endeavors and his romantic disasters, Sandy becomes a more serious figure as the book progresses. He loses reliability, but it seems more complicated than just that. In the moving and beautifully written section about his father’s death, he comes across as much more earnest, and his description of his grief is powerful. Here his self-implication does not seem indulgent; it reads as a true and poignant confession. How reliable is the claim he makes at the end of the chapter that his destruction of his marriage came out of profound grief for his father?
CS You’re identifying a certain tension that I’m not sure I resolved entirely—Sandy is one of those unreliable narrators who nevertheless does manage to speak the truth fairly frequently, and there also are things about Sandy that the book suggests but never expresses. Certainly his grief over his father’s death is real, and it unhinges him, so it seems likely enough to me that he might wipe the slate clean, including wiping out his marriage. But I think Sandy’s correlation of the two events is a little too neat—it’s another instance of his shifting the blame. Sandy wanted out of his marriage, and although his father’s death may have made him more aware of this, it didn’t bring it about.
DS It has been ten years since your last novel, but you have been writing other things. Did you have a different novel that you stopped working on? Or did this one take most of that time? Or did you lose interest in the idea of writing a novel for a while? In your view, how’s the novel as a cultural object, as an art form, doing these days?
CS There weren’t any uncompleted books and I never lost interest. What happened was that my life got very complicated almost immediately after Trance came out in 2005, and for a few years there wasn’t much writing going on at all. When I did begin The Fugitives, it was under pretty adverse conditions. I was really broke a lot of the time, or I was scrambling to make money somehow. There were happy interruptions, like the little book I wrote about the film Death Wish, but mostly it was a lot of angst and pissed-away time. It was frustrating, and it was discouraging, and it didn’t help that Trance’s reception had permitted me to indulge in heightened expectations that only time and a returning sense of just how complicated and difficult writing a novel can be were able to deflate. It was chastening. The period during which I wrote The Fugitives chastened me. By the time I was wrapping it up, all I wanted was to have written a good book.
As for how the novel’s doing, I think it’s doing great. The novel is like some impoverished count, living in a ransacked villa, dressing for dinner every day. He may be poor, people may not come that often to visit and pay court to him, but he’s still a count. The novel does things that other narrative art just can’t do, and some people will always be drawn to it, trying to push it in new directions.
DS Novels do something that can’t be replaced, try as we might. But a count? Seems too aristocratic to me. I think maybe the novel is a derelict who rants about end times to passersby. Mostly ignored but still making people uncomfortable. And every once in a while someone finds himself stopping, listening, and nodding with a shock: yes, yes! All awkward metaphors aside, the novel is marginal, an unpopular pop culture object, which I think makes writing one an off-kilter, even perverse thing to do. Maybe that’s why it feels slightly subversive to me with all its analog, vertical glory.
You talked about struggling for money and the difficulty of working while trying to write The Fugitives. Plus dealing with your own daunting expectations. Writing is a profoundly humbling experience, as is publishing. You can work for years on a failed novel. Even good novels always contain “something unachieved” as Kundera put it, something “aimed for and missed.” Do you think that is true? If so, why make something so fraught and so often ignored?
CS In The Fugitives, Sandy wonders whether the last man on Earth would still write novels. I think the answer is yes, if he were a novelist. As a way of ordering experience, as a way of shaping the nuances of thought, as a way of testing the limits of your ability with language, as a way of exploring the complexities of human nature, writing a novel has satisfactions that exist quite apart from the reception it receives in the world. And it is humbling as well, because after you’ve done all those things, you can reach for a book on your shelf and know in an instant that the writer has achieved something you never will. The people who become writers, they learn humility first of all. Some people, this probably drives them away from writing fiction. Others, it drives them back to it. In the end, you’re not really looking to wow an audience. That’s very satisfying, but you’re pretty callow if you measure yourself against the applause. You measure yourself against the work that wows you.
Dana Spiotta is the author of Innocents and Others (Scribner, 2016). Her previous novels are Stone Arabia (Scribner, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Eat the Document (Scribner, 2006), a finalist for the National Book Award; and Lightning Field (Scribner, 2001). Spiotta teaches in Syracuse University’s creative writing program.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.