Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The debut novelist on writing fiction about free will, his love of Denis Johnson, the elusive idea of plot, and his family lineage of writers.
Nicholas Mancusi and I became friends the way many young writers must become friends: between free beer at a literary party neither of us had been invited to. Mancusi had been reviewing books for years at that point, gathering bylines in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, and The Washington Post. I was lucky enough to have a story of his to edit for Joyland, his first fiction publication, entitled “Missing Years.” It’s a story about five old friends in their twenties having a booze-soaked weekend upstate amid small and large questions, from Should I kiss my friend’s girlfriend? to Is death comforting or scary? “I had a moment where I wondered, is this fun?” the narrator asks, as he proceeds to cover his stubborn existentialism with tequila. And reader, for us, it is. Mancusi’s writing is undeniably fun, stubbornly existential, and exceptionally human.
Mancusi’s debut novel, A Philosophy of Ruin (Hanover Square Press), follows an adjunct philosophy professor who has just found out about the sudden death of his mother, and then learns that his late mother was thousands of dollars in the hole to a pop-philosophy phenom peddling questionable theories about the lack of free will. Struck with financial anxiety and a sloshing grief, he gets dragged into a drug deal with a female student that involves a simple backpack pickup in Mexico. But of course, in the aftermath of death, in the hands of a charismatic cult-like leader, in an adjunct professor’s bank account, nothing is ever simple. It’s hard not to zoom through A Philosophy of Ruin-–like many other Mancusi-heads, I swallowed it whole on one cross-country flight––but stay too focused on the chase and you might miss the nuanced meditations on grief, death, and depression that shimmer under the surface here, popping up just enough to pierce you when you’re least expecting it. Mancusi and I speak all the time, but for this occasion, we got together over frozen scotch-lemon-honey drinks at Diamond Reef in Brooklyn.
—Kyle Lucia Wu
Kyle Lucia Wu This is your first novel––congratulations! Where did you write most of it?
Nicolas Mancusi I wrote the first sentence of the novel, which has not changed, lying on the floor of my mom’s house shortly after graduating college, an unemployed and, I soon learned, fairly unemployable English and philosophy major with constant and unrelenting dread for the future. I had decided some years earlier that I was a “writer,” which we all know is another way of saying, “Sorry mom and dad but I won’t be looking for a real job just yet.” The reality of not only no career, but no art to show for it either, turned out to be far less romantic than we are led to believe, and I grew up quick. My parents were, for the record, very supportive, but I wanted to at least have something to present to them to support.
I wrote the first half of the book in the shade of that terror, confident that I had essentially ruined my own life, as I bounced around the homes of various family members who would take me, applying to MFA programs that wouldn’t have me and making a little money writing book reviews. For a time I lived above my step-uncle’s garage in Australia while working in his liquor store and playing rugby with a local team called the Mullumbimby Moonshiners. I had one book review editor who would have galleys sent to me all the way down there, from the mailrooms of New York City publishing houses to the eastern tip of Australia, and they would arrive in the most beat-up, tattered mailers you could imagine.
KLW Was it hard to find the time and headspace with a day job?
NM It was only the second half of the book that I wrote while having a real-ish job, which I finally got a month before I turned twenty-six. People complain about writing while you have a nine-to-five, but I think it can be fun to beat the system in that way. Waking before the sun is up to write for an hour, scribbling secretly in a notebook at your desk or on the subway, finding a church near your office where they’ll let you work during your lunch break. It creates a kind of hungry, propulsive energy that can only be good for the work. I don’t think I could ever have written this novel in some writing shed in the woods, with nothing but time.
Of course, throughout all of the time it took me to write the book, about seven years, I held tightly to the secret double-edged weapon of the debut novelist: the knowledge that it was very unlikely that anyone would ever read what I was writing. It helped to think that since nobody is ever going to read it, I might as well finish it.
KLW Many writers complain about plot. A Philosophy of Ruin is special, as it’s a literary, meaningful book that also has a thrilling, cinematically compelling storyline. What are your thoughts on action and plot in fiction?
NM I’ve never had the aversion to plot, which I take to mean simply: interesting external things happening that other writers seem to fret over. I think there can be this feeling that plot is an unserious indulgence, some kind of fun distraction from the real literary work going on within the characters, but I don’t think that’s true.
Good storytelling is a two-part process. (Apologies to Kurt Vonnegut, who I may be biting this from.) The first part is to make the reader care about the characters, and the second part is to get those characters in trouble and see how they do. That was my project with this book: to establish certain ideas within the characters, perhaps most obviously about free will, and then use the plot to test those ideas to their breaking point. Coincidentally, is it also fun to write car chases and gun fights? Absolutely.
I am not trying to recreate the exact experience of owning a human brain in the world. I am trying to tell a story with a capital S and through that story engender an experience of art in the reader that makes them feel something true about life. This is the kind of fiction that engages me most. I’m thinking of works by Graham Greene, Denis Johnson, and Robert Stone. Novels where the characters are essentially at war with the state of the world and the state of affairs that surround them.
All of that being said, I wouldn’t say that plot comes easy to me, but I’d be glad to hear that it seems that way. The hardest part of writing this book was probably waiting around, sometimes for months at a time, not writing a word, desperate for inspiration on “what happens next.” In fact, I had the first half of the book more or less completed before the second half, where the majority of the action takes place, came to me.
KLW A fun thing we’ve done together is attend not one but two events in uptown Manhattan dedicated to honoring Denis Johnson and his book Jesus’ Son. (We live in Brooklyn, so this trek means something.) Many young writers are inspired by and reverential to Jesus’ Son, but I’d love to hear why it’s meaningful to you.
NM Man, Denis Johnson was everything to me. I remain so sad that he’s gone. His books are never far from me, physically, especially when I’m in need of inspiration. Everything you could want is all there. The poetic sensibility, the understanding of America, the function of time and history, the sheer intelligence, not only the emotional kind but also about the Cold War or Calvinism. What I probably love most about his body of work is the double-barreled sad/funny thing. It’s so sad but also so funny, not just in specific moments of comedy but throughout, unrelenting—something about the tone. I think Jesus’ Son was the first time I felt a writer truly capture the utter ridiculousness of what is going on down here on Earth, what a bummer this all is, to be constantly destroying each other and ourselves, to have to endure all this without the promise of salvation. But he left a little room for that as well. To have that all be somehow funny, without evading it? To laugh in the face of that? I thought, I will follow this guy anywhere. Now I see that the two are inextricable, and I want that to come through in my own work.
One of Johnson’s lesser-known books Nobody Move was an even bigger influence on my novel. It has lots of pulp elements—a man and woman on the run in a stolen Cadillac from vengeful heavies—but he clearly cares about every sentence, and it never feels like he has dipped beneath his intellect. I re-read that about three or four times while writing this, just to remind myself that it could be done. It’s not untrue to call it a thriller, but it’s not just lives that are at stake, but souls.
KLW You grew up in a family of writers, though of a different medium. How do you think that has affected your view of writing, and the evolution of your own writing career?
NM My grandmother, my mother, and my uncle were all screenwriters, mostly for daytime television. My grandmother co-created a show called Ryan’s Hope that ran for a long time, and for most of the ’90s, the three of them together were the head writing team on some soap operas you’ve probably heard of, including General Hospital. My mom won an Emmy, which I brought in to school for show and tell in third grade, and I think my grandmother had nine.
There was definitely a feeling that “in this family, we are writers.” Obviously that’s rare, and I was very lucky in that way, and I was at an advantage in that I certainly never had to apologize for wanting to pursue writing as I grew up. I was showered in books and surrounded by discussions of story constantly. My mom would work from home a lot, and I remember eavesdropping on her conference calls as a child while they ironed out an outline or worked on the beats of a story line. So it was clear to me that writing was a fine and admirable way to spend a life, and furthermore that one should not be ashamed to be paid for it, to build a middle class life with it.
I suppose, to refer to your earlier question, that it left me unashamed of writing plot. As a proud son of soap opera writers, I do bristle when a critic uses the term “soap opera” as a lazy pejorative for cheap plotting. I mean, of course I get it—they’re referring to the silliest end of the plotting spectrum, evil twins and hypnotism and things like that. But the reason these shows (which air four new episodes every week!) have super-dedicated fan bases isn’t because of that stuff—it’s about creating a real connection with the characters and keeping them in trouble. I can’t speak for other shows, but I know that my family indulged in an evil twin only very sparingly.
KLW The epigraph to A Philosophy of Ruin is the Arthur Schopenhauer quote: “Misfortune in general is the rule.” Why choose to frame the book with this?
NM That quotation is a just a small bit from one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time: Schopenhauer’s fairly short paper entitled “On the Suffering of the World.” I have a pocket-sized copy that I often carry around with me because it’s so small, and there’s a line I love on every page. What Schopenhauer means to say, I think, is that suffering is more or less the natural state of things; and unfortunately, I think that if we look at the facts, it’s true. There’s no such thing as a happy ending, and if it’s happy, it hasn’t ended. There is much more misery and grief in the world, throughout history, than we allow ourselves to contemplate at once—and very reasonably so! We narrativize the stories of our own lives in order to hide that fact from ourselves. It’s a seductive impulse that we’re basically powerless against: the idea that “my life is a story; I am that story’s protagonist; and, much like every story that I’ve ever seen, I will face a series of challenges that I will eventually overcome. Or, if I fail to overcome them, then at least that failure will have some meaning.” My book wants to push back on that. Our lives are not narratives. Here is where the notion of a god has to come in and save our asses. Or not. You know, hopefully!
KLW Do you think that your book’s protagonist, Oscar, is a pessimist?
NM I wouldn’t call Oscar a pessimist. I just think he demands evidence for something before he believes in it. He wants there to be a loving god. He wants everything to work out in the end. He believes that both things are, at the very least, possible. But as a philosophy professor, he thinks that if you can’t define something clearly, then it probably doesn’t exist.
KLW To me, his mother’s depression is the biggest driving force in the book. She’s been depressed his whole life. Paul St. Germaine might be a hack, and his videos and retreats might be nonsense, but he also may have brought Oscar’s mother comfort in her last days. Do you think Oscar can get any comfort from this himself, or is he too morally imposed?
NM I think this is one of the key questions I’m trying to ask in the book, and I don’t have a great answer. I am inclined to say, as Oscar might be too, that it is better to face things as they are, rather than embrace a comforting lie. But we do that, I do that, all the time. St. Germaine’s whole thesis (that there is nothing much to worry over because nothing matters, and there’s no free will) is pulled basically whole cloth from the internal monologue that would run through my head back in those years when dread would keep me awake in bed all night—that I was on a track entirely outside of my control, so it was best to stop worrying and try to get some sleep. It’s something I still find myself considering during moments of extreme anxiety or sadness, even though I don’t really think it’s true. As it happens, I am undecided on the matter of free will. I certainly want us to possess it, and I try to live my life as if we do, but again, the evidence seems scant. This book sets up St. Germaine as the embodiment of determinism and another as the embodiment of free will, and has them both fight to sway Oscar to their way of thinking.
KLW Especially since you haven’t been to grad school for writing, how has community functioned in your writing life?
NM Well the thing is, not attending an MFA program, I don’t really know what I’ve missed out on! Would I have been allowed to write something like this as a thesis project? Would it be torched in workshop? Others would have to tell me. What I do know is that the community I found on my own, mostly through good old-fashioned networking and introducing myself to the authors whose work I loved, was invaluable when it came to actually finishing this thing.
I’ve learned that one big step to actually “becoming a writer” is disabusing yourself of the notion that finishing a book is a monkishly solitary art practice, that you’ll emerge from the woods holding a manuscript saying, “It is done.” You need your first readers, and you need to choose them wisely. Without notes and advice from that community, I don’t think I would have overcome the inertia to finish this book, and even if I did, it wouldn’t be nearly what it is now. I’m referring to only like four people here, and you’re one of them, but still. Sometimes community is just making a pact in a bar (RIP HiFi) that you will have a completed manuscript ready to face rejection in four months.
Kyle Lucia Wu is a writer based in Brooklyn. She is the Programs and Communications Manager at Kundiman, a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing Asian American literature, and the editorial director of the literary journal Joyland. She has received the Asian American Writers Workshop Margins fellowship and residencies from the Byrdcliffe Colony, the Millay Colony, and the Writing Downtown Residency in Las Vegas. She has an MFA in fiction from The New School and she teaches at Fordham University.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.