Eli Gottlieb

Eli Gottlieb’s new literary thriller, Now You See Him, is being touted as the next big literary success – by the publishing industry, booksellers across the US (his publishers were so confident people would love it that 7,500 advance copies were distributed) and, on the front cover, author Ann Patchett. Jo Case spoke to him about the book, writing and literary success.

What was the germ of inspiration for

I’m a character-based writer, so the characters came first. The germ of inspiration, if there was one, was a scene of two writers meeting at an art colony. I’d just returned from many years living in Italy, and was struck by the number of American art colonies – which don’t exist in Europe. One in particular, an isolated place called The Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, was the perfect petri-dish in which to grow the culture of an ill-starred romance. I put the faltering, once-famous guy writer and the coolly ambitious blonde girl writer together and watched what happened.

The event that is the catalyst for everything else in the book is a murder/suicide carried out by a faded literary star driven mad by his ex-girlfriend’s ‘overnight’ success. Did you draw on any first-hand observations of the literary world to create these characters and this situation?

Writers are some of the most congenitally ingrown, envious, and jealous people in the world. ‘Novelists,’ said John Cheever, ‘are as competitive as sopranos.’ Though not an academic (they have it even worse, in a way) I’ve spent a lot of time at those art colonies of which I speak. It was enough to watch my compatriots in action to see the truth of what lies belong all their apparent civility and erudition. Writers together are a pot of pinching crabs

Your sensibility is poetic; you started out as a poet. How does this affect your approach to writing a novel?

It means you concentrate hard on the sentence as the basic unit of expressive weight. It means you retain a sensitivity to style, and default often to compression, that fundamental dynamic of poetry, as a means to achieving that style. It means you feel an abject disappointment at the lame-brained stupidity of (American) reviewers who tend to review books as if they were a higher species of television script, with their entire attention paid to the story line and the likeability of the characters rather than that dear old dying thing called ‘art’.

You manage to make the reader root for some potentially very unsympathetic characters: Nick is clearly a bit unbalanced, Rob is a narcissistic murderer. Were you conscious of the need to keep the reader attached to them, or was that just the way the characters developed?

It was simply the way they developed. As regards their potentially unsympathetic nature, I’m reminded of a quote by Susan Sontag, who once said, ‘No one is a devil if you listen to them long enough.’ Similarly, it’s my own belief that any character observed with enough detail and particularity in the telling becomes sympathetic by virtue of the revelation of their – and our – common humanity. To be credible, in this instance, is to be pardoned for being a bad husband, a murderer, a suicide, and a putz, though not in that order.

There are some wonderful passages in the book satirising contemporary celebrity and how it makes the characters behave: Rob’s parade of glamorous girlfriends, Kate falling for a fat, balding fifty-something, presumably lured by his money and power. Do you think our worship of celebrity is faintly ridiculous?

I do. I think it’s part of a larger cannibalistic hollowness at the core of contemporary culture. After 9/11, my mother said to me, ‘I’m glad I’m not a young person today’. I know what she meant. Each generation reliably finds fresh new delights with which to distract itself, but it’s impossible not to perceive that public – and, correspondingly private – life have coarsened appreciably over the years. Frank Lloyd Wright once called television ‘chewing gum for the eyes’. I wish people had listened to him and spit it out.

The media reaction to Rob’s death is both predatory and over-the-top, sucking the life out of every potential sound-bite and snatched anecdote. There’s not only the rolling news coverage, but the movie and the book – to be written by Rob’s great mate, Mac, who even moves into his old hellhole apartment to write about his final days. It reads as satire, but maybe it’s more like straight social observation these days. Which did you intend it as?

I’m a satiric writer at a very deep level, but it wasn’t like I was trying to make the media reaction to Rob’s death a satire, in and of itself. I was playing it straight. The culture of celebrity has something fundamentally morbid at its core, a real late-imperial fascination with death. The demise of poor Heath Ledger is a case in point.

One of the best things about Now You See Him is the secrets that are hinted at from the start, and gradually revealed as the book unfolds. These secrets explain a lot about Nick’s slightly off-kilter personality and his inability to let go of his friend’s death. How intrinsic were these secrets to the character of Nick as you first imagined him?

Most of what you describe happened in the writing and rewriting. While plumbing the origins of his characters, a writer can be lead in all sorts of directions. The vacuum at the heart of Nick, coupled with his passionate attachment to a dead person, seemed to me to imply certain things about his background, which I went into as I moved along. The book didn’t grow in a methodical way, but rather like city-states do in those maps of the ancient world: a scattered bunch of nodes radiating outwards in every direction

You brilliantly recreate the experience of childhood, as a time when things are both frustratingly beyond your control (and often, your understanding), but also a time when your days are your own and you create your own, intense world. Did you draw on your own childhood memories?

Yes, I did. Like many melancholics, I seem chained to the damn place.

When you’re not writing or talking about your book, which books and authors do you like to read? What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Lately I’ve been too distracted to read much, but some of the authors I’ve read most closely are Handke, Bellow, Joyce, Lawrence, Flannery O’Connor, Kafka, McEwan, and a few dozen others. The best book I’ve read in the past year was poet Robert Lowell’s Collected Letters. Differently from Philip Larkin’s letters which, while fun to read, basically portrayed him as a whingeing Blimpish wanker, Lowell’s only added to the nobility of the man which was already perceptible in his poetry. He was manic-depressive, and during his ‘up’ phases could act with breathtaking cruelty to his near and dear, but I found the arc of his life as portrayed in his intimate correspondence one of the most haunting things I’ve ever read.

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Cover image for Now You See Him

Now You See Him

Eli Gottlieb

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