Christopher Bollen is the Editor at Large for Interview magazine. He’s picked the famous brains of Brad Pitt, Gwen Stefani, Roman Polanski, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison, plus over a hundred more artists, film-makers, and pop-culture icons. After talking to so many writing legends and creative powerhouses, he himself turned to novel writing, resulting in two brilliantly compelling literary thrillers – The Lightning People, and his latest novel, Orient.
In this Q&A, he tells us about his favourite (and most dangerous) interviews, the New York artist community of Orient, and the Montauk Monster.
You’re the Editor at Large for Interview Magazine – who’s your best interview so far?
I’ve had the opportunity at Interview to speak with many of my heroes and fascinations—from Roman Polanski to Renata Adler and Toni Morrison. But perhaps my favourite interview was my very first one and it preceded my time at this magazine. In 2001, I was 25 and had no business asking such a lion a bunch of amateur questions. I sat across from Joan Didion in her Upper East Side living room (her husband, John, was still alive and in the next room). I was a super-fan and so nervous and basically just wanted to read passages aloud from her essays and novels. Didion didn’t pull any punches; she was tough and direct and took her answers seriously, which was generous because she probably understood from my sweating that she was dealing with a neophyte. She kept serving me small bottles of Evian. I will also tell you my worst experience: Gore Vidal. I flew to Los Angeles in 2006 to interview him in his Hollywood Hills home, and the entire time his cat ferociously clawed my arms and legs. Vidal just sat there, smiling indignantly through the hour-long bloodbath.
Alive or dead, who would you most like to interview? What would you ask them?
There are many, but hands down Agatha Christie. I would have loved to spend a day with her hearing about her travels and how she worked out her plots and murders. Technically, this could have been possible: I was born at the end of 1975 and she died in early 1976, so we did actually overlap on Earth for forty-eight days.
Is New York the place everyone dreams it is? Can you describe the city in a sentence?
New York is the place where all of your dreams can be met, and for this reason, it is the least human and most deluded and probably the most extraordinary city on the planet. My feelings about New York change daily, because, ultimately, it isn’t an actual place but a state of mind.
The idea for Lightning People began on the back of a motorbike in Greece when you thought you spotted a snake … how did Orient begin?
I was staying at an artist friend’s house in Orient in 2010 when I was finishing up the final edits on Lightning People. Orient is located at the tip of the North Fork on Long Island, surrounded almost entirely by water. My friend had just bought this ramshackle clapboard home, and I was staying there by myself for peace and quiet. In the day, the land and sea was so stunning and unspoiled. But then the night would creep in, filling the house with soupy darkness—darkness so thick I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face—and I became so terrified in this old house I actually slept with a kitchen knife under my pillow. Me, a grown man who had lived in crime-ridden neighbourhoods back in New York without blinking an eye! I knew it was irrational, but I wasn’t used to the silence of the country at night. So this clash of dream by day and nightmare by night fascinated me. Also Orient is only attached to the rest of Long Island by a thin ribbon of causeway. It just hit me: this is an isolated village close to the city that would be a prime setting for terrible events.
What are your experiences in the town of Orient? Why does it attract so many artists?
Orient is almost the last untouched village in Long Island. It is historic and serene and really not so different from when it was founded by fishermen, farmers, and shipbuilders. Then, in the past decade, artists from the city started moving in and buying up houses for weekend retreats. The reason for that is pure geography. The South Fork of Long Island is home to the Hamptons, and it’s jam-packed with moguls and movie stars and corporate executives, like a billionaire theme park. Artists went north to find their breaks from the city, and since Orient hadn’t already been colonized, they could build their own artist community out there. It should be said that these artists are by and large also quite wealthy, so it was still a bit of a culture clash—maybe more so because artists aren’t exactly the easiest people.
A warped and monstrous animal corpse washes up near the small town in your novel. Have you heard of the Montauk monster?
Yes! The Montauk Monster, poor creature, who washed up not too far away from the beaches of Orient in 2008. That was definitely a model for my Orient monster. The Montauk Monster became the centre of so much fear and conspiracy over mutants and contagions. I remember in my early research, an Orient historical society member kindly drove me around and at one point he nodded out to the sea in the direction of Plum Island. He said, “People are always asking about Plum Island and what it’s like to live so close to a notorious animal-disease laboratory. Please don’t put Plum Island in your book.” Advice: never give a writer a salacious detail and then tell him he shouldn’t use it in his book.
Can you tell us about Mills and Beth?
Mills and Beth are really the two beating hearts of the novel. Mills is an orphan teenager from the West who got into trouble in the city and comes to Orient at the invitation of a local to help fix up his house. Beth is a native, who moved into the city and married a successful artist. She returns to Orient with her husband with the idea of starting a family here. In fact she’s pregnant, but she starts to question if the decision was a mistake. They are both rather lonely and become friends. I didn’t want my mystery to be solved by a detective. Most American mysteries are either police procedurals or feature a noir-ish private eye. I wanted my sleuths to be more natural, two individuals caught up in the madness around them who are compelled to figure out what’s going on. I love Mills and Beth and I hope, unlike a cool detective, they seem like fragile, soulful free agents who actually have a lot to lose.
If you were a character in your own novel investigating the murders, do you think you’d be able to solve the crimes?
Oh my gosh, this is a great question. The answer is probably no. Probably by the third murder, I’d be running for the causeway with the clothes on my back. For different reasons, both Mills and Beth can’t leave Orient. They can’t escape. They have to stay put, and I think it’s that forced captivity that drives them to begin piecing together the clues. Also Beth is a total insider, and Mills is a total outsider. I’d have an in-between perspective and in-between you can never see things clearly.
From talking so profoundly with so many writers and cultural icons, what have you learned? How do these experiences affect your novels?
It’s had a huge impact. I didn’t get an MFA in creative writing, so in many ways editing a culture magazine and speaking with so many different talented artists and writers has been my graduate school. This is especially true for Orient, because I wanted to put all of my knowledge of and experience with artists and the art world to use. I’ve learned so much about the creative process simply by asking masters about their processes for years.
Toughest question: give us your top 3 books in any order, OR your top 5 books in order of preference?
Okay, this is a toughie, and it changes all the time. But right now I will say:
1. Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer.
2. The Quiet American by Graham Greene.
3. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
4. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
5. The Waves by Virginia Woolf.
Orient by Christopher Bollen is published by Simon & Schuster, rrp $35.00
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