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.
It’s been six years since the official release of Sergio de la Pava’s extraordinary postmodern novel A Naked Singularity, and an entire decade since many of us read the original, self-published Xlibris edition. For those who have been waiting for this intellect to give us another big, meaty, messy, charming, and profound new book, Lost Empress will not disappoint. A novel that ranges from the NFL and quantum theory to Rikers Island, the music of Joni Mitchell, 911 operators, solitary confinement, religious parables, and the very nature of reality, Lost Empress kept me up late at night and made me grateful.
I spoke with Sergio one cold Sunday morning, and it was clear just how much ideas animate him—he would frequently seize on what I had said, start going in one direction, and then begin debating himself as to whether or not what he had just said was really correct, taking pleasure in following his thoughts wherever they might lead. Sergio’s passion for disparate concepts and for the lives of his characters sets him apart as a writer, as do his generosity and humor. A longtime public defender who moonlights as a groundbreaking novelist, he is a breath of fresh air in a world often defined more by an excess of attitude than a surplus of originality.
—Veronica Scott Esposito
Veronica Scott Esposito Lost Empress is the first novel you’ve written in quite some time, and it will be viewed by many as a follow-up to A Naked Singularity, which was a very big, very ambitious book. How are you feeling?
Sergio De La PavaWe can compare this to my work as a public defender. I’ve always taken the attitude that when I give a summation on a case, I sit down and I’m done. It wasn’t always this way, but over time I got to the point where I could say that the jury’s reactions exist independent of me. I’ve either done what I’m supposed to do or I haven’t (which can be a horrible feeling), but I’m not waiting for the verdict to make that determination. I’ve always felt this way about my writing too, and part of that is probably my weird publishing history, being that I self-published A Naked Singularity, and years went by before anything happened with it. So my outlook is that nothing is going to change about Lost Empress between now and when it publishes. Nothing’s going to change about whether or not I achieved what I’m after. I’ve made up my mind about it already.
VSE That’s a good entry point to one of the main things about Lost Empress. To a great degree, this new novel, and really A Naked Singularity too, are about the nature of truth—how we know a thing is true, and the relative levels of truth claims available to us. One big plot thread revolves around football, and a couple of times in the book you point out that sport establishes one kind of truth: there’s a contest, one team wins, one team loses, and that’s a true result. Or in the legal field, we have agreed-upon ways of determining what we believe is true. You can contrast that with something like art, where there’s no truth in that sense—there’s no authority saying this painting is definitively better than that one. In fact, a lot of people would say that such statements are contrary to the whole nature of art.
SDLP I’m a huge sports fan, and I’ve often tried to figure out why that is. At its core it’s really anti-intellectual to care what happens with these strangers throwing a ball around. For me, the appeal is this lack of ambiguity. You can sit and debate if you think the losing team was better, but it just doesn’t matter. There’s a very attractive element to that, especially for an artist, because, as you say, we’re imbued with ambiguity throughout our endeavor. I believe Lost Empress is a better novel than, say, John Grisham’s The Firm, but I could never prove that to you, so, ultimately, the artist has to create his own authority, a deeply personal one. I have to believe Lost Empress is better than The Firm, otherwise I wouldn’t publish it. I have to believe this novel is at least fifty percent of what I wanted it to be, or else I just wouldn’t publish. Nobody is putting a gun to my head. The downside of this is that I’m less productive—this is only my third novel, and I’m not particularly young anymore. The upside is that it takes away the anxiety surrounding the release.
VSE So that philosophy is a source of strength. You’re an outsider artist, someone who doesn’t want to be caught up in the mainstream of publishing, and that’s what lets you take that approach. Because, really, a lot of writers do feel they’ve got a gun to their head to publish. These kinds of conversations always remind me of this F. Scott Fitzgerald quote:
A writer like me must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It’s an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing-can-happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me…. I once had it. But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity and I lost my grip.
SDLP The moments of doubt you’re referring to definitely occurred throughout the five-year process of writing Lost Empress. If you had said to me two years ago, “Can we publish what you’ve got?” I would have said, “God, no! It doesn’t cohere.” What you’re getting now, this bound and published book, is really the result of a declaration I made maybe eighteen months ago—basically just a statement that at this point in time this is what Sergio De La Pava believes a novel should be, something he believes advances the form. And I just have to hope enough readers will agree. Any serious writer has to be able to make that declaration.
VSE Can you pinpoint the exact moment when you thought that maybe this novel wasn’t completely done but still something you wanted to put out there?
SDLP With this book I had moments of crisis that I didn’t have with my two earlier books. It took me a little longer to get there, and that’s a really bad place to be, when you’ve been working on something for three years and have nothing else in the hopper. About seventy percent of the way through, I stopped and thought, Maybe this just won’t be a thing. I felt what I had was a lot of good micro writing that wasn’t going to adhere on a macro level—my novels have a very low barrier to entry, because I like to put a lot of stuff in. I had a conversation with another novelist whom I really respect, and she was at a similar point. One thing she said to me was, “What will happen is you’ll keep living your life, and it’ll keep being transmuted into this work. You don’t have to worry about what you’re shooting for two years from now, because you’re going to live through these two years.” I’m not being nearly as articulate as she was, but basically this conversation was able to calm me down. After that, it got to be pretty fun. When I know where something’s going, I can enjoy the process a hell of a lot more.
VSE In Lost Empress, you talk quite a bit about what the institution of the NFL means to America. Of course, when you were writing this, you couldn’t have known that we would have this grotesque figure in the Oval Office and that the NFL would be joined at the hip to national politics. How did this part of the plot emerge?
SDLP Football is interesting because of the toll it takes on the players. I’ve also written a lot about boxing and find it interesting when human beings make the determination—not always knowingly—that their physical health is somehow subordinate to something else. Football players, at least the informed ones, say, “I know I’m going to be a mess when I’m fifty, but I also know that I only have one life to live, so I’m not going to base this present decision on some nebulous concept like my future health.” I’m not saying that’s a good decision, but I think every human being has the right to decide. I don’t feel like I have the right to make those determinations for them, because I view the body as a sort of prison for what really makes us who we are—call it the mind, call it the soul—and I see the body as a limitation on that thing, that it’s inferior to that part of ourselves.
VSE Lost Empress is about the body versus the mind. What I noticed about the boxing narrative from A Naked Singularity and the football narrative here is that you really get a sense of the brutality. There’s something in you that must be fascinated by that aspect; there are lavish descriptions—not gratuitous, but they clearly activate your intelligence as a writer.
SDLP Absolutely. I’m very interested in where a human being’s will has to overcome physical pain. What makes somebody say, “I’m going to absorb this pain for something that’s longer lasting”? The athlete says something like, “Whatever happens in these next four hours will define me,” which again is one of these weird things about sport. It’s rare to be able to say any four-hour period will define an entire life. NFL players start incredibly young; they’ve been around the game since they were seven, eight years old. We don’t know what that’s like. At that age, I didn’t center my life around anything other than what was on TV at the moment. When you watch boxing, the NFL, or figure skating, you’re watching people who have centered their lives around minute bursts of extreme physical exertion since the time they were in kindergarten. They will be associated with whatever happens on the field for their entire lives. It’s the basis of what they will be known for from that point forward. To them, there really is no important reality beyond that scorecard.
VSE In a lot of the narratives throughout Lost Empress, you can see analogues to what you just said. Like the story of the character Sharon, who decides to endure an awful man in her life just because he happens to be the father of her son.
SDLP That’s mental pain. She’s a very smart woman and does the calculus beforehand, then makes that decision. The thing I find compelling in these situations is the self-sacrifice—how they’re deciding that personal happiness isn’t the most important factor in their lives. I know women like Sharon, who have done this, and whether I agree or not, it chokes me up.
VSE There are a lot of threads in this novel. My friend, the critic and translator Adrian Nathan West, once remarked to me that one of the defining things about a good writer is their knowledge of specialized vocabulary. Basically, whatever a writer chooses to write about, we as readers need to believe that they understand the world they’re describing; they have to be conversant with the language of that world. In Lost Empress, you seem to nail the vocabularies of so many worlds: Joni Mitchell, Rikers Island, quantum physics, 911 operators… Where does that all come from?
SDLP It’s pretty organic—I have a wide range of interests and love language. If, having made football a central aspect of my book, it became clear that I had just done a bunch of research, it would come off like a performance. Of course a novel is a performance, but you’ve got to hide that fact as best you can.
VSE This book is clearly in the postmodern tradition, and one of the big things in that line is this idea of the encyclopedic novel. When this sort of novel first started, it was a little more like what you’re describing, where there were writers who were really fascinated by multiple worlds, and they wanted to master and present them all on the page. But now the encyclopedic novel seems more aspirational—ambitious young writers decide to include lots of details from all kinds of disciplines, but it’s somehow not persuasive. I don’t always believe the writer really understands these worlds. I feel this is an important distinction: that actual interests are pushing the narrative.
SDLP Right, right. To date, three novels in, I’ve never written about anything I’m not really interested in. But part of that is I’m easily fascinated. I hate to talk at cocktail parties, but I love listening. There’s really no profession you can tell me about that won’t cause ten questions to immediately pop into my head. I’ll just corner you. I’ve often had this experience where I’ll interrogate someone for like forty minutes, and then someone else will ask, “What were you talking about?” It’ll turn out to be something like labeling products for K-Mart.
VSE But you make these things compelling on the page. Let’s jump into a different world, though, which is a big part of both of your big novels: quantum physics. How deep does this go for you?
SDLP I really find the stuff fascinating, but eventually came to a point where I realized it isn’t going to answer my deepest questions. Physics may be really counterintuitive and surprising, but it’s not going to give us the deepest truth. I’ll quote Wittgenstein: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.” That is, the “why” question hasn’t been touched. Even if you realize this thing we used to call gravity is actually an object being pulled along a geodesic, or that time isn’t what you thought it was at twelve years old—all of which gets us thinking in new ways—at some point you just have to ask if it’s genuinely human wisdom.
VSE Right. In Lost Empress, you call it “Wittgenstein’s lament.” And as I read that, I very clearly remember thinking, Why would we even expect science to do this? What is it about our view of science that someone like Wittgenstein would even think to lament the fact that it can’t do this?
SDLP The quick answer is that when you’re lost, you exaggerate the importance of the compass because you’re lost. This is something I tried to make very clear in A Naked Singularity—that people try to make science into a religion. Science is capable of many beneficent things, like curing a loved one of a disease that would otherwise kill them at age twenty. It can perform all these things that seem like moral acts, but a little more investigation shows it’s actually the decision to use science in this way that has moral weight. I don’t question scientific fact; I question people who want it to bleed over into morality, who want to say that Steve Jobs was a prophet, not just a guy who was good at creating products. Sometimes I wish I could agree, but I just don’t. As human beings, we need to find the thing that was true 5,000 years ago, and remains true today, and will still be true 5,000 years from now.
VSE In your weird prologue for Lost Empress, you write that Newton’s discovery of calculus remains true to us because it has persisted, and this strikes me as a deep statement about what’s valued in the arts. You, as a novelist, want to write a story that’s so true it persists. There’s a chaplain in Lost Empress who quotes some of Jesus’s parables, and they’re still so relevant to people’s lives, still so mysterious and full of significance, even after thousands of years.
SDLP To the extent that religion makes factual claims, I think we can agree that they’re not overly convincing, or they’re false. But to the extent that Jesus is saying not to judge others because you’ll be judged harshly, there’s a way in which that just can’t turn out to be false. It’s not just that it feels true; it feels unassailably true. If moral truths are well rendered, they’re not susceptible to that process of correction that you always find in the sciences. So the chaplain character says that what we’re worshipping are those claims, not any set of facts about the people who brought them into our world, not a claim about what will ultimately happen to our universe.
VSE And he makes the point that, back then, those were very radical statements.
SDLP Oh yeah, radical, absolutely! Jesus isn’t telling us to treat others how we’d like to be treated in order to reap a benefit. He’s saying, Forget the benefit, do it because it’s the right thing to do, period. Forget self-interest, forget a higher power, do this because right here, right now, even in 2018, this is the proper way to live, and that’s a true statement.
VSE Later in Lost Empress you have this character the Theorist, who brings in the idea that when you look at subatomic particles, they really exist as what science calls a “wave function”—an unresolved zone of probability. They only come to exist as a certain discrete thing when we stop to observe them. This is a very weird and counterintuitive truth about the world that science in the twentieth century just kind of plunked down in front of us. Your novels grapple with how these sorts of truths can exist on the page alongside the sorts of truths purveyed by someone like Jesus.
SDLP To me, the misunderstood part about that idea—the Uncertainty Principle—is not our inability to discover something until we measure it, but rather that the fact doesn’t exist until we measure it. It turns out that to measure you need something nonphysical, because everything physical is subject to this principle. So if I want to measure the temperature of a room, I can bring in a thermometer. I’m using the thermometer, which is physical; I’m using my eyes, which are physical; but I’m also using something nonphysical: my consciousness. That’s a nonphysical entity, and the Theorist would say that it’s not subject to the Uncertainty Principle. That’s what you need to create reality. So I thought, What would happen if suddenly there were no such thing as consciousness? It does kind of seem as though things wouldn’t exist. That’s what the Uncertainty Principle tells us, if we’re willing to take the leap. It goes back to what I was saying earlier: that the physical, your body, is in some sense inferior to the mental, which is not subject to the physical rules.
VSE Both these worlds—mind and matter, morals and scientific facts—are in the novel’s pages, but you don’t just juxtapose them, you make them converse in a deep manner. And then, if someone wants to take the next step in that conversation, it’s all right there for them.
SDLP No matter how long a novel is, in a sense, it shouldn’t feel finished. I hope it creates questions for the reader. I want to give people that same transcendent experience I felt when I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, how that book just kept living in me. After I read it, I lived my life armed with that book. I had these experiences that fed me and allowed me to exist in an important way. Now I want to be a part of the conversation on the other end. Which is not to say Lost Empress is a high-falutin’ book—it also prominently features a fight between a costumed pig and a giant crab.
VSE Right, right! We’ve been talking about some heady stuff here, but I don’t want any of that to obscure what an enjoyable book this is, a real page-turner. I have a quote here, the first lines after the prologue:
Let us then have, in these pages, an entertainment. Not strictly one, but principally so. Let wit and peals of laughter distract to the point of defiance and leave for elsewhere the desultory analysis of decay and devolution.
You follow this commandment. This book is filled with completely absurd, ridiculous, and very funny scenes—like the one you just referenced, where mascots compete in tests of strength. It’s clear that you loved writing it. There’s so much slapstick here, and you’re willing to let yourself be carried away by that energy.
SDLP Well, I was coming off writing Personae, which is such a heavy book; there’s not much humor in there at all. And that took me three years, dwelling in that world. So those lines you quoted were almost like a calling card for me: Let’s have some fun here. And you’re right, writing those parts was fun. I was laughing as I wrote them. But I’ve also accepted that I’m someone who’s going to consider big solemn questions sooner or later and who’s probably incapable of writing a purely comic novel. So I was trying to see if I could marry these two different aspects.
VSE There’s this whole idea of irony and sincerity—in society overall, but particularly in the novel. Lost Empress is so ironic. I don’t know if you could find a single page that’s not just dripping with it. But I also can’t imagine anyone reading Lost Empress and not coming away with the feeling that this is equally a sincere novel. I don’t often see those two coexisting.
SDLP Right, we like to divide it. These are Shakespeare’s comedies, and these are his tragedies. And that gets back to the crisis that came with this book, where at times I wondered if it just wouldn’t work, if it was just two different novels and not aesthetically pleasing to combine. I value range in a writer. Actors always judge each other based on their range. But writers don’t tend to think that way. For whatever reason, if a writer hits on a formula that works once, they beat you to death with it over and over. Insofar as it’s possible, I’d like to avoid that.
VSE Something else that struck me about Lost Empress: there’s a whole lot about 911 operators in there, and the EMTs who deal with the emergencies. It really made me think what 911 as a service represents to us, existentially. Chuck D’s “911 is a Joke” notwithstanding, it’s this thing that’s open to all of us: anyone who’s experiencing an emergency can call this number, and help will be sent out to them right away. You can say what you will about equality and justice in our society—certainly we have a long way to go—but it does seem like an achievement that we can make this promise available to everyone.
SDLP I love that. I wish that had occurred to me about a year ago! There’s a line late in the book where a character is in a makeshift watercraft and comes upon Manhattan, and he’s blown away by the enormity of the skyline. He says, “Who did this? It sure as shit wasn’t me.” What you’re driving at is something like that: for all humanity’s inhumanities, there are these things—like hospitals and 911 and fire departments—to help our fellow man in an emergency. And they really are fascinating worlds to look into. I’m someone who has, because of my profession, listened to lots of 911 calls, and it’s amazing how often the operator is so clearly put out.
VSE There’s a lot of that in the book. You have 911 operators who just can’t deal with one more crisis—babies being scalded by water, children who have been sexually abused—because it’s all too much to bear. And then there are people calling for completely idiotic reasons, like their refrigerator isn’t working, who really try their patience.
SDLP And all this is just the nature of the job, getting these calls all the time. So eventually they can get rude, like “Stop screaming, I need to know your address!” To the novice it seems unbelievable, but after listening to these calls for something like twenty-two years, it seems there’s something about this job that doesn’t allow you to react like it’s truly an emergency. They’re very focused on getting the information they need to do their job. And that’s the 911-operator character Sharon’s problem. She starts to consider what it means that call centers are staffed with people all day long, hearing these emergencies about all the things that human beings are doing to each other, and what this means for the world at large. A lot of Lost Empress talks about various jobs people have, and how they go in, day in and day out. Jobs can be prisons; they can be what defines us to the point that we have a hard time existing outside of them.
I must confess I never took the 911 aspect where you took it, and that’s what I love about books as the start of conversations. The author takes it where they will, and someone else can pick that up, and off they go.
Veronica Scott Esposito is the author of four books, most recently The Doubles (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017). She is a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and the San Francisco Chronicle, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, The White Review, and others. She is a senior editor and publicity director for Two Lines Press.
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.