A fire-side chat between 2 thriller scribes.
An interview between me and “Limitless” author Alan Glynn. A free-wheeling, sit-down summit about the state-of-the-world via literature, geo-politics, and surveillance.
In Conversation with Nicholas Mennuti and Alan Glynn
The wide-ranging conversation below between Nicholas Mennuti, one of the authors ofWeaponized, and Alan Glynn, whose novel The Dark Fieldswas adapted for the film Limitless,covers such topics as globalization, espionage fiction, Cambodia, literary influences, and film influences—a veritable “arterial spray” of allusions (their words, not ours!). You’ll definitely want to make time to dive into this fascinating exchange.
Alan Glynn: Nick, I thoroughly enjoyed readingWeaponized and was struck by several things in it. One is the fact that it is packed—action-packed and packed with ideas, which is pretty unusual, I think, and unlike anything I’ve read in recent memory. The highest compliment I can pay it is to say that the book feels like North by Northwest meetsApocalypse Now. Anyone who reads the book will know immediately what I mean: the Cambodian setting, the existential end-of-American-empire angst, the assuming and trading of identities, the espionage, the cat-and-mousing around, the playfulness, the darkness, the betrayals, the reversals, the fun and the horror (x2). Perhaps those movie references betray my age, because the thing is Weaponized is also bang up-to-date in its concerns. In a way, it’s like a primer on globalization. You leave nothing out: resource wars, pipelines, corporations, big data-driven surveillance, private security firms, the outsourcing land grab, the Chinese, the Russians, and you also debate, or pose questions about, the individual’s place and responsibility in all of this. But despite packing these themes into the novel, you don’t ram them down the reader’s throat—it’s not a didactic or polemical book. Instead, you deflect and entertain with car chases and explosions, with tense checkpoint confrontations and with the occasional spurting artery. I suppose my first question is, how important was this balance for you, and how conscious were you during the writing process of trying to strike it?
Nicholas Mennuti: First off, I’m thrilled you enjoyed the book. Means a ton coming from you. I’ve been “borrowing/inspired” by you for a while. That’s one of those jokes-not jokes.
Your question is kind of a bouillabaisse of interesting things to talk about, so if I get a bit circular I hope that’s okay.
I’m kind of an espionage thriller binger and had come to the conclusion that the model hadn’t really changed in years. You either had the sort of fussy-frilly Le Carré model (that of course started with Greene and Buchan) that Olen Steinhauer, Jeremy Duns, David Ignatius, and Charles Cumming have dragged into the 21st century. Or you get the military-jingoistic version of it with Brad Thor, Andy McNab, Lee Child. And I just felt neither of these styles felt like the right way to deal with the chaos of the 21st century.
The world had changed, but espionage fiction still felt very 1989. All of those authors (many of whom I do like) still seemed locked into talking about a world that has kind of ceased to exist. A unipolar world that one man can save from destruction. So I really wanted to talk about topics/places that I felt were being underserved/underutilized by contemporary espionage fiction. Which of course leads you into privatized spying and the third-world. Now, that’s all analytical, and I probably became more aware of that as I went through writing/editing the book. But this desire to break the paradigm was there all along.
But where Weaponizedreally started was with my enduring obsession with Antonioni’s The Passenger. Do you know that one? It’s with Jack Nicholson. It’s all about identity switching and existential ennui in the guise of a thriller. Only problem is that it’s Antonioni—who had no interest in making a thriller. So I started thinking: what if you made an actual thriller out of this art-movie?
North by Northwest and Apocalypse Now have been obsessions of mine since I was a teenager, so they’re just part of my creative DNA at this point. I’m sure they’re going to be present in whatever I write. If I were writing a romantic comedy, I’m sure there’d be at least one spy and one third-world setting.
Apocalypse Now in particular fascinated me. It reminded me of Graham Greene’s fiction in that the topography of the novel seemed like the perfect literal manifestation of the lead character’s interior. With Apocalypse, I’ve never been sure whether Vietnam looked that crazy, or if it just looked that crazy to Martin Sheen. And that subjectivity runs through Weaponized. I wanted people to feel Cambodia through Kyle. Just like how you feel Vietnam through Willard. That’s also something you got a lot of mileage out of in Dark Fields (Limitless). Just how subjective/expressionistic can I get with this narrator without pulling this out of genre territory. Would you agree?
And what both North by Northwest and Apocalypse Now have in common is that they’re genre movies of the highest order that managed to pack a ton of subtext into the genre without weighing it down.
I mean I could write a page just on how fascinating it is in North by Northwest that Cary Grant’s middle initial “O” literally stands for NOTHING. It’s zero as a place-holder. Is that why he could be mistaken for Kaplan on a metaphysical level in the first place—there’s no one there to start with. It’s no mistake I think that Hitchcock had him working in advertising.
In terms of what I’ll refer to “ideas balanced with mayhem,” I was definitely conscious of it. I wasn’t interested in writing a deconstructivist thriller, where I hollow out all the genre gambits, and turn it into a formal-polemicist kind of thing. The Europeans do that really well, but I don’t.
I set a rule for myself early on that any ideas, either political or philosophical, have to come out of a character, or be on the action line. For example, if I want to talk about French colonialism, it’s going to be during a chase scene at Robinson’s hotel. Or if I want to talk about Russian oligarchy, it’s going to be in a scene where Kyle’s got to pick up a gun.
I have a lot of love for the genre, particularly when it’s really working, so I wanted (and David Guggenheim was so crucial in helping me getting a frame for it) to make sure the book worked as a thriller first, and then go about layering this other stuff in. That said, even before we had the story I knew I wanted Weaponized to feel like the 21st century: fractured, neon, lonely, and set in a series of geographical non-places. I wanted to write a thriller that didn’t feel embalmed.
Glynn: Yes, I can see that, and I think that updating the Cold War espionage paradigm is a great idea, and long overdue. I guess that Le Carré has done it to some extent by moving into the area of corporate shenanigans, but my impression (I haven’t read him post-The Constant Gardener) is that he has become very polemical, even preachy. To be honest, I haven’t read most of the espionage guys you mention, but I have read Greene (he’s in the DNA as much as Hitchcock and Coppola) and he can’t be bettered in terms of exploring a tortured soul that is defined by, and interacting with, a very specific geographical location. Incidentally, just to let readers know, Nick and I have only met once (over lunch more than a year ago with the great John Schoenfelder), so my referencing North by Northwest and Apocalyspe Now wasn’t due to any familiarity I have with Nick; these are connections that jump right off the pages of his and David’s book. Given a little more space, I feel I would also have come up with Greene and The Passenger, and for the same reason.
A bit like the arterial spray, there are so many directions this conversation could go in (Roger O. Thornhill as a proto-Don Draper anyone?) but to rein things in a bit, let me ask you about something specific: Cambodia. In your recent Huffington Post piece, you say that Phnom Penh is a more secure location for your leaker-in-exile protagonist, Kyle West, to end up in than Hong Kong is for Edward Snowden. There is the historical backdrop: Nixon and Kissinger’s incursions. There is the Khmer Rouge legacy. There are the echoes from Coppola (and indirectly, Conrad). You also describe the city incredibly well—the smells, the sounds, the architectural layering. So. Nick Mennuti: Cambodia. Discuss.
Mennuti: I imagine you must have felt the same about the Cold War paradigm, too. Your recent trilogy (Bloodland, Winterland, and Graveland), although not about “espionage” per se, seems to be like Weaponized—one of those trying-to-figure-out-where-we’re-going books, using genre as the vehicle. And you do way more globe-hopping than I do: Congo, Ireland, New York…
Le Carré has gone global, but he’s still fighting the good fight for the British empire. It’s always one heroic lone Brit against the system. And I think that’s done because the system isn’t identifiable anymore. It’s too diffuse for one man to take on. That said, I will forgive him even the worst of The Little Drummer Girl because it gave us a movie starring Klaus Kinski as a MOSSAD agent. That takes some creative casting.
Now Why Cambodia? A couple of reasons: I basically looked at the most reliable non-extradition countries for fugitives (and Thailand was out because they had just handed over Viktor Bout). David and I were sort of on the fence, because we knew the setting was going to be a huge part of this story.
Then I went to the wedding of a close family friend. She had spent years living in Cambodia as an ethnomusicologist. And half her wedding party was Cambodian. I spent a long time talking to them, and by the end of the reception I told David, “It’s Cambodia.” Kyle’s hiding in Cambodia. There was such a sense of hope, wounded history, and grandeur in the way they spoke about the country that it just seemed right emotionally. And when they showed me pics, videos, etc, I knew it was physically right, too.
It was just the perfect topographical expression of the underlying themes of the book. Plus, I’m mildly addicted to describing neon. And finally, yeah, I just can’t seem to get away from Conrad, Greene, and Apocalypse Now,and I wanted in a purely mise-en-scenesense to have a little bit of their magic rub off on the story.
And to possibly circumvent a question I know I’ll be getting: Have I spent time in Cambodia? No. I thankfully had plentiful resources in making sure the book was accurate. I wanted the audience to “feel” Cambodia more than believe I had spent time there. The setting was chosen as much for emotional and stylistic reasons as it was for accuracy.
Glynn: That’s really interesting. I had a similar feeling and instinct about the Democratic Republic of Congo, which features in Bloodland. My imagination was initially fired by Michela Wrong’s brilliant book about Mobutu, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurz, and literally for years I wanted to write something set there, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be doing firsthand research. I have small children, and I’m a coward, and Congo, especially the parts I was interested in, seems to be a pretty dangerous place. I met and spoke to a couple of Congolese people in Ireland and got some small sense of the place, plus I did a ton of research, about one-percent of which I’d say ended up in the book. But narratively the Congo sections in Bloodland are filtered through the p.o.v. of a non-local, a visitor, and I felt that in that way I could get around the problem. Clark Rundle was like my little traveling webcam.
We’ve mentioned Kyle West a few times. How about Julian Robinson? He’s a fascinating character, like the lovechild of William Burroughs and John Milius. I’d be interested to know something about how he was formed.
Mennuti: Can we just take a second to discuss how much research gets left on the cutting room floor? You said you used about 1% of it, which although I’m certain is an exaggeration, is probably not all that far off. David and I joke about how we need a “director’s cut” for all the great locations and characters that we were never able to use.
My rule on researching a place is simple: If a goodly chunk of the population is trying to flee it, I don’t need to go there! And I don’t even have kids. I’m not Sebastian Junger.
On to Robinson. Well first of all, I have to give a tip of my hat to Céline. I stole the name Robinson from him. He’s the narrator’s doppelganger in Journey to the End of the Night. So the name already had a fine doppelganger tradition I wanted to tap into.
The inspiration for Robinson was this question: Once the traditional power structures collapse and globalize, what would someone with Robinson’s skill-set do? He’s not going to take a course and learn how to write Java. He’s got to adapt.
Then I started thinking about Highsmith’s Ripley—who to me is the ultimate protean identity shifter. And it’s no surprise then that the set-up ofWeaponized mirrors Strangers on A Train in certain ways. When you’re talking Highsmith, you’re also going to run back into Hitchcock. They operated on parallel lines of ambiguous sexuality and ambiguous bargains.
To me, Robinson has become as fluid as the world he lives in. Sexually, politically, morally…that’s why his scenes with Kyle have this erotic undercurrent. Robinson’s first goal with everyone is submission. That can be through either talk, sexual energy, or if necessary, violence. Like the unstoppable march of global capital that can seemingly adjust to any wrench you throw in the system, Robinson can, too.
I don’t want to make him sound like a metaphor come to life. I think he’s pretty fleshed out for the amount of time he gets—but his genesis started more with questions I asked myself than with a particular character sketch. I don’t even know Robinson’s biography 100% myself. I hint at it here and there. I didn’t want to know. I’m not sure even he could tell you. I could tell you what happened to either Kyle or Lara when they were six. But Robinson couldn’t be thought out on those terms.
In terms of you finding him a mix of Burroughs and Milius, that’s high praise, because I think both those gentlemen are total maverick geniuses. That said, does that mean you feel Robinson could be a gay gun-nut with pronounced fascist sympathies? If given some time and a laptop, could Robinson have come up with a better take on the Red Dawn remake, Alan?
Glynn: Have to confess, I didn’t pick up on the Céline reference. I’ve gone way beyond the age where I need to fake having read certain books, so there it is: I haven’t read Journey to the End of the Night. Nor have I seen Red Dawn, by the way—not the 1984 version, and certainly not the remake. But I think I get Robinson, especially when he says that he exists in a world where laws, nations, treaties and stockholders just don’t matter. He’s a terrifyingly 21st-century creation, sort of a mirror image of the modern ideologically or religiously-driven fundamentalist—an extremist from the void. Perhaps Fowler is closer to the Milius school of the gun-toting, fun-lovin’ fascist. If Robinson is post-Empire, Fowler is very much Empire, an interesting dinosaur figure that links back to the Hunt and Liddy era.
On research, yes, the temptation is to try and pack it all in because you did the work, but less is definitely more. Often you’re better off trusting your imagination and then using research post factoas a sort of verification process. It’s a confidence trick you play on yourself and on the reader. I did a hell of a lot of financial research for The Dark Fields, but don’t ask me about it now.
We’re getting a good look at your DNA here: Hitchcock, Greene, Coppola, Highsmith, Celine, Burroughs, Milius. Who else is in there, sluicing around your double helices?
Mennuti: Alan, I may have to press you to read Céline. You can skip the rest of his oeuvre if you like, but Journey is, for lack of a better word, essential.
Ironically, I came to Céline through part of the DNA strand: Burroughs. I was reading an interview with him where he talked about his love for Céline and Genet. Genet’s also part of the DNA. I’d never seen crime written about with such voluptuousness until him. He’s like the literary form of Cammell and Roeg’s Performance. Another part of the DNA, more doppelgangers and crime.
The key to Fowler is in the line: “He liked the orders he was given.” There’s a great quote from a CIA officer who said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I was paid to rob, rape, and steal all in the name of a higher power. It was fun, fun, fun!” Fowler’s of that school. I’m sure he went into the CIA because he wanted to kill someone and not go to jail. So yes, I think they’ve definitely stopped making Fowler’s model. Robinson is the new prototype—although admittedly a particularly virulent model.
I always wondered via Dark Fields if you had a background at all in finance. This is before I met you, of course, and had just read the book.
My favorite book ever is Under The Volcano. It’s so wedged in the DNA that it’s in everything I write (I mean it’s all over Weaponized in spirit, if not in content). Other authors that meant a ton and still do are J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Robert Stone, Michel Houellebecq, Nelson Algren, Bret Easton Ellis (the only American author I’d actually identify as transgressive), DeSade, Bataille, Jonathan Littell. And then, of course, there’s the literary monuments that you can’t help but be influenced by: Flaubert, Joyce, Hemingway, Mann, Doestoevsky, Nabokov. They’ve influenced so much of what we love today that you’re almost reading them by default.
But film has also been incredibly important to me, so in addition to Hitchcock and Coppola, the big ones are Paul Schrader (screenplays and movies), Donald Cammell, Godard (until 1967, then he lost me), Fritz Lang, Michael Mann (huge influence), Antonioni (of course), Visconti (the German trilogy), Friedkin, De Palma, Cronenberg, Peckinpah, Soderbergh, Bunuel, Pasolini (the later works), Paul Greengrass, those great Adam Curits BBC docs—and fuck it, I still love Oliver Stone even though he’s done more to disappoint me in the past decade than any other filmmaker. I love his early work so much, I’ll wipe the slate. What a run he had from 1986-1995.
And at this point, David would be infuriated if I didn’t mention some of his great influences, because they’re all over Weaponized: Lawrence Kasdan, William Goldman, 3 Days of the Condor, Parallax View (even with its flaws), and Ian Fleming.
And shit, not to turn this into a love-fest, but Winterland and Bloodland are part of the DNA now, too. As much as I love Dark Fields, I don’t think I’d know what to do with something that high-concept. That’s a compliment, by the way!
Glynn: The arterial spray has now become a torrent. Where to begin? First off, I guess, that “fun, fun, fun” quote was George Hunter White, who said of the CIA, “Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?” He’s quoted in H. P. Albarelli’s amazing book A Fatal Mistake about the murder of Frank Olsen (and about so much else besides).
Our DNA profiles would be quite similar, though I do have some fairly big gaps in my reading. The Céline’s Journey issue will be addressed very soon, I promise. For me, Ballard is essential (High-Rise), as is Pynchon—and going back, Chandler, Fitzgerald, and Melville. I’ve said this elsewhere, but perhaps the greatest books I’ve ever read are the second and third volumes of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography—they transcend everything in their narrative scope and power. In terms of movies, check check check, and add in Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole), Kubrick, Pakula (All the President’s Men is my ideal thriller, no action, no violence), Kieslowski’sThree Colors trilogy, Fellini’s Amarcord, Haneke’s Hidden, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and of course, the ur-text as far as I’m concerned, Chinatown. I saw it first when I was 14, in its first run, and I haven’t been the same since.
But back to business. In your Huffington Post piece, you talk about the thriller as a mirror to events. Earlier we casually mentioned Kyle West and Edward Snowden, but that is an astonishing parallel. In my latest novel, Graveland, there are parallels with recent events in Boston. In some ways, Winterlandpredicted the bursting of the real estate bubble. I think if you’re observant and writing about the current scene, you’re bound to hit a nerve now and again (equally, you could get it very wrong). In general, how do you feel about hot-wiring the zeitgeist like this?
Mennuti: Don’t worry about the arterial spray, I already warned Mulholland that it could be a distinct possibility!
Before we get to the zeitgeist—and I will control the bleeding—I am so excited that someone else read A Fatal Mistake. I had no idea that book even existed. I was wandering around Barnes & Noble and just happened upon it. First, because of the nifty swirly lettering on the cover, and second, the fact that it was a doorstop—both qualities I look for in any historical novel. But, good God, it was not only a confirmation of all that you feared about the CIA and drug-testing, but as you said, a veritable trip down the rabbit-hole of intelligence agency abuses.
Pynchon. I can’t believe I left him out of the DNA (because certainly almost everyone else made it).Gravity’s Rainbow is up there with Under The Volcano for me. Just seminal.
I have to just say check, check, check to all your films, too (especially All The President’s Men, and of Kieslowski’s Three Colors, Red is the one that has the hardest hold on me. I’m still haunted by scenes from it today). But I’m going to quibble (for the first time in our thus far seamless conversation) with Haneke’s Hidden, which I didn’t love at all. I actually dislike Haneke intensely. But Hidden in particular rubbed me the wrong way. WARNING: SPOILERS.
I just didn’t feel that the sin committed by Daniel Auteil’s character deserved the terrible existential wringer than Haneke put him through. I felt Haneke was just getting off on torturing this bourgeouis couple for no other reason than they were bourgeois. I wouldn’t call the Auteil character likeable per se—but he was a child when he committed his sin. I’m certain he was supposed to be some kind of metaphor for France’s attitude towards its immigrants (particularly the Algerians), which is chiefly one of critical indifference. But I just couldn’t get behind it. I think it also felt like too much of a riff on Lynch’s Lost Highway for the first half hour.
That said, the formal qualities of the film are exceptional and so are the performances. Haneke is clearly a master craftsman. In fact, I feel similarly about him as I do Lars Von Trier, but Haneke lacks Von Trier’s sense of playfulness that comes out at times. Albeit very rarely lately.
Now about the zeitgeist. Here are my thoughts on it: I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much politically agnostic. People tend to think Weaponized has a leftish feel to it, but I think that’s just them bring their own particular bent to it. It’s not right or left; it’s my particular view of the world.
I think you and I can hit a nerve at times because we don’t come at politics or current events from a particular dogmatic angle. We leave ourselves open. I know sometimes Tom Clancy (or his type) can call a war in Georgia, but it’s only because it’s a fulfillment of his random military-porn fantasies that happened to come true. That’s not “hitting the zeitgeist” to me. That’s just luck. There’s more than luck involved in what we do. I don’t believe in any theories of history. I don’t believe in any ideologies either. I just try to look at the facts on the ground. And if you can examine the facts on the ground bloodlessly enough, you may end up hitting the zeitgeist since you’re not tied down to a firm set of beliefs.
I hate to use the example of Obama here, but I’m going to. I was never enthralled with him. I always felt he was a blank slate that the nation projected all its post-Bush aspirations onto, instead of actually listening to what he was saying. Which turned out to a boon for Obama, because he wasn’t saying anything. He was selling the same bathwater the Democrats had been selling with McGovern and then abandoned to win elections. My views caused a lot of consternation among my friends because they loved the guy. But I didn’t see it. And his terms have basically borne out my initial thoughts to a large extent. This is a guy more interested in the concept of governance than governance itself. And I was able to see it, I think, because I wasn’t looking for a savior in the first place. To me Obama is basically America’s answer to Tony Blair, who arrived after whatever luster Thatcher had given the old Empire had worn off.
I tend to think judging from the “Lands” that you’re pretty politically agnostic as well. I think we have our own moral compass, but it doesn’t lead us politically. The way you write about Congo, or about Ireland, or about the United States, or high finance—you have a certain way of looking at things, but I don’t think it’s political per se. I think it’s your particular authorial voice.
The Huffington article has been interesting because most people got my point loud and clear. But a few really thought I was arguing against any sort of state security or surveillance, which isn’t the case. I’m saying we’ve got far too much of both, and they’re not serving any kind of verifiable point. The bloat has gotten out of control. We need to discuss what kind of a world we want to live in. The point of that article was to make people think about the sheer size of the security state. Even after Snowden, people still don’t get just how much information is being stored.
I’d also like to point out that Dark Fields—and feel free to correct me—kind of predicted the designer pharmaceutical craze and nascent penchant for self-experimentation. It was published in 2001, right? Back in 2001 I didn’t see TV ads for drugs for ADHD, restless leg syndrome, and other various myriad disorders if not created, then nursed to prominence by the pharma industry.
Now I’m not saying you called Lexapro or Zyprexa. But you did nail that people are more willing these days to take pills to enhance their natural abilities, be it their memories, their sex drives, their attention span, etc. You really called the fact that people were going to literally experiment on themselves. And now in 2013, when you start getting into genetic engineering and nanotechnology,Dark Fields doesn’t seem too far off, does it? A real version of Eddie may come around sooner than you predicted.
Glynn: Yes, I agree largely with what you say. I think it’s a combination of paying close attention to what’s going on and then of being politically agnostic about it. Writing with an explicit political agenda is certain death to a story. It can’t be where the impulse to tell the story comes from, and it can’t be where the story leads the reader to. I think it’s fairly clear from my stuff that I have a certain viewpoint when it comes to the dominance of the financial-corporate complex, but what ignites the stories for me is an interest in the psychology of the people involved. What’s it like to be a billionaire plutocrat? If I’m even going to attempt to answer that question, there’s no way I can be judgmental about it. It just wouldn’t work. It quite clearly has to be an act of the imagination. And I think you’re right about The Dark Fields (Limitless). Since the book first came out, the “pharmaceuticalization” and “DSM-ification” of modern life has mushroomed. I was just looking at the facts on the ground, as you phrase it, and here we are over a decade later.
On Haneke and Hidden, I don’t think you can make a naturalistic connection between what the kid did and what the adult is made to suffer—I think it’s a masterful study of guilt and angst in the modern world. The Algerian/colonial context can make it seem like a politically-driven film with an agenda, but I don’t think that’s what Haneke was trying to do. I think it’s a more impressionistic, atmospheric and self-consciously artistic work than that. Oh God, listen to me. Time for another question.
Talk us through the title, Weaponized. It’s certainly a heavily-loaded word. One of the most striking and chilling uses of it I’ve ever seen, coincidentally, was in Albarelli’s A Fatal Mistake, when he talks about the CIA’s attempts to “weaponise LSD.”
Mennuti: You’re absolutely right. You can’t start with thinking, I want to hit the zeitgeist. It has to come from a particular desire to tell a particular story or to enter the thoughts of a particular character.
You nailed the upcoming “DSM-ification” (to quote you) with Dark Fields (Limitless). But I assume you really wanted to write about Eddie. Can I ask a question—the one all writers hate—what came first, Eddie or the story? Did you just want to write about him and the rest came from that initial desire? I’m sure the stock market analysis you had in that novel (extremely accurate I might add) came from thinking things through the eyes of that character. If you suddenly had Eddie’s abilities, why not make money? So then you’ve got to talk about the markets. Because of Eddie you suddenly had the key to go into all these other worlds.
It was like that for me with Kyle in Weaponized. I’ve always related to literary exiles. And it was through my desire to do that that I was led to eavesdropping.
Your concerns with the global financial complex are pretty simpatico with my own—clearly Neil inWeaponized is saying some things I agree with. But what I find most depressing is that no one has any alternative to the system. It’s all about adding a safeguard here, or closing that loophole. We need to think about this. I’m no Marxist. I am a genuine capitalist. And as a capitalist, I can say quite honestly that the current global financial system doesn’t resemble capitalism at all. In fact, it’s quite possibly the furthest thing from it. And calling it “socialism for the rich” doesn’t even begin to do justice to it either.
Which brings me to you saying Blair was a true believer—what do you think he believed in exactly? Do you think his team-building exercise with Bush was to get England back on the global stage again? Or do you think he really believed in the war on terror? When I look at Obama and Blair, here’s what I see and why I juxtaposed them: they are both the last breaths of the Janus-faces of contemporary liberalism trying to adapt to the 21st century. Blair adopted the Clintonian variety, but it was too late. That time had passed. And Obama went back to the more traditional welfare liberalism. And that time has passed too.
You’re probably right about Hidden. You’re not the first person whose opinions I respect who has told me that I’m just fucking wrong about my analysis/opinion on that film. I think I’m just scarred by all the prior bourgeois bashing in Haneke’s movies and dragged my own baggage over to Hidden. I’ve got to give it another try.
I’d love to say I was inspired by Albarelli with the title of Weaponized, but I can’t. The book was originally titled Exile. However, Mulholland Books felt that too many books already had that title and that it wasn’t evocative enough for what the book was doing.
The title was actually the work of the aforementioned John Schoenfelder, who kind of pulled it out of thin air and fell in love with it. Initially David and I were on the fence about calling it Weaponized. We were worried that it was just too hard a genre sell for the book. But the publisher loved it.
As I was working through the rewrite, I started thinking, There must have been a reason John wanted to call it Weaponized—outside of the fact that it’s one strong word, and he loves a good one-word title. And I realized that it was actually the right title. Because it does summarize what the book is about:
Any information in our day and age can be weaponized. Your phone number, even. Since Kyle and Robinson are part of this “new” world and have been weaponized by it, they’re able to survive it. Whereas Fowler and Lara, who are more traditionally weaponized (which is to say, their bodies are weapons), they get lost and suffer. So really the title for me meant “this is the current mind/body schism we’re looking at now.” Where we’re all mind and no body. Which could lead us right into a conversation about someone like Kurzweil if we’re not careful…
Glynn: What you say about the current global financial system is right: it’s not capitalism, just as Soviet communism wasn’t communism. But they’re both big, ugly, elaborate flowerings of human nature’s baser side, and that’s pretty depressing. Tony Blair was and is a true believer in God, and he believed that in pushing for war in Iraq, he was doing God’s work. I think with Bush and the gang, despite a religious patina, it was New American Century ideology all the way, but with Blair it was—unusually for a modern western leader—an almost fundamentalist (and therefore dangerous) religious zeal.
To answer your questions about which came first in The Dark Fields, Eddie or the story, the truthful answer is I don’t know, I don’t remember—the start of a novel is always a sort of primordial soup as far as I’m concerned, with lots of different things going on at the same time. But once I got going, yes, Eddie’s p.o.v. led me into some really interesting areas that I as the writer had to run pretty hard to keep on top of if I wanted Eddie’s experience to feel authentic. As for the parallels between me and Eddie, I’ve said before that The Dark Fields was largely autobiographical—up until the point where Eddie comes across the drug. This is where I’d insert a smiley emoticon.
I think John did very well to suggest Weaponized as a title because it describes the book thematically in so many ways, but it also describes what happens to its protagonist over the arc of the story.
So, to finish up—and this has been a lot of fun—I have two more questions. One, what in your opinion is the enduring appeal of the doppelgänger? I can’t get away from it. I have an unpublisheddoppelgänger novel, and I’m currently working on a new idea. What is it?
And can you tell us something about the process of collaborating on the book with David? Thanks, Nick. Next time with martinis, okay?
Mennuti: This has been a ton of fun! You are a great, benevolent interrogator, Alan, and yes, next time with martinis. Please write a book that has more New York locations so you can visit again sooner rather than later, because I’m not planning any Irish-based fiction at the moment!
I’d like to go back to Bush/Blair for a moment. I agree with you that for most of his cabinet, the religious invocations for war were purely decorative; however, with Dubya, I think it was genuine. He’d been an alcoholic (or at least heavy drinker) until 40, at which point he exchanged—as many Americans do—Gin for Jesus. So I think his love and need for Jesus was in a direct relationship to how badly he wanted to relapse. I think both he and Blair were genuinely religious men. I’m just not sure which one scared me more. The one (Blair) who genuinely believed—or the other (Dubya) who believed to keep himself clean.
Maybe that was the perfect lead-in to discuss doppelgangers, because we’ve got a pair of them right there.
There’s like six or seven different ways we could go with the enduring appeal of the doppelganger. I could go back to the historical/psychological roots of it, which pre-dates Freud. But I think I’ll just tell you personally why it got its hooks into me:
Lolita. I read it when I was still in college, and Nabokov was one of the great doppelganger dealers in literary history. The relationship between Quilty and Humbert fascinated me almost as much as the love story between Humbert and Lolita. And I always loved the notion of ending a novel like Lolita, a love story, with two doppelgangers facing off against each other in a surreal attempt to find sovereignty. In fact, I stole it for Weaponized—that’s how much I liked it!
I think it’s stayed around as a literary creation for so long because it’s amorphous. You can physicalize the doppelganger and make him the antagonist, like Nabokov. You can make him an obscene embodiment of wish fulfillment—Nabokov again, or Highsmith. You can make him stand-in for what a repressive society does to someone who can’t fit in—e.g. Burroughs. Or you can make him an object of satire of terror, like Doestoevsky. You can use him to explore the schism in one person, like Stevenson. Or you can do a mix of all of those, which is kind of what Borges did. So I think the mutability of the doppelganger has a lot to do with why we keep coming back to them.
I’d love to see you take on a doppelganger novel after what you did with Eddie’s altered states of consciousness in Dark Fields (Limitless). That boggles the mind.
I’d also like to point out that I don’t think Alan linked these questions to insinuate that David and I are somehow each other’s doppelgangers!
Collaboration with David is something that’s been going on since we first met at Tisch. We’ve always shown each other our work. It’s just an instrumental part of my process and his. We’re each other’s first readers.
David is an absolute master structuralist. He has some instinctive story gene that lets him see narrative moves seven steps in advance. Listening to David crack a story is akin to watching great chess players—or at the other end of the spectrum, an ace grifter.
The reason I think our collaborations are fruitful is that we don’t attack a story in the same way. I tend to work from the inside-out, and the story isn’t necessarily what I start with. It can be a character, or a location, or a subject that fascinates me. After I’ve isolated what interests me, I’ll start with the story. David doesn’t work that way.
So in addition to whatever creative fusion you get from our different processes, you also get some good creative friction, because we force each other to look at our material from different angles. I’m prone to digression, and David forces me to be linear. I hate him for it at times—but he’s right.
The last thing you should look for in a collaborator is someone who agrees with you all the time. And David sure doesn’t. And I don’t agree with him all the time either. I think that’s what makesWeaponized interesting: we dragged some provocative stuff out of each other in the process that I don’t think we would have found without each other.