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A conversation with Thomas Mullen

The below conversation between Thomas Mullen and Jon Fasman appears in the paperback edition of THE REVISIONISTS, now available in bookstores everywhere.

Check back later in the week for questions and topics for discussion perfect for your reading group. Or, head out to your favorite bookstore, snag a copy, and start reading now. You’ll thank us later.

Thomas Mullen has written two great novels set in America’s past: The Last Town on Earth, which tells the story of a quarantined town in Washington state during the 1918 influenza epidemic, and The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, the story of two Depression-era bank robbers with an unusual gift for surviving bullet wounds. His writing, both in these stories and in his new book, gestures toward fable, allegory and that catch-all category, magical realism, but remains grounded where novels should be grounded: in character, and in love. His new novel, The Revisionists, is a historical novel of sorts: one of its protagonists comes from the future, which he calls The Perfect Present, and treats our imperfect present as history.

I met Tom by chance, in 2007, when we were both living in the same neighborhood in D.C. One year later he moved to Atlanta, and a year later, again by chance, my work moved me down here — to more or less the same neighborhood once again. I had a few conversations with Tom while The Revisionists was still in the idea stage. I told him then that it sounded great, but how great it actually turned out to be surprised and delighted me. What follows is our conversation about imagination, genre, and the not-so-Chocolate-anymore-City.

JF: You give us brief glimpses of Zed’s world: the Department, pods, erasers of memory. Did you, as the author, imagine, see or plot more of it than that? Was Zed’s world that you allude to complete in your mind?

TM: I admit that I don’t read much sci-fi, and that the specifics of Zed’s future world (what it looks like, what sort of inventions they have, etc) wasn’t quite as interesting to me as the philosophy and politics behind it. So I tried to describe the world as vaguely as possible and let smoke and mirrors do the rest.

What most intrigued me about his allegedly “Perfect Present” is the way they deal with past conflict and with the idea of race and ethnicity. I was inspired by a Time magazine cover story from 2000 that used computer graphics to create a composite face of what humankind will look like many, many generations in the future, when all the ethnicities have mixed and we’re basically one race. I figured that if one of my characters was a time traveler from such a future, then he should look this way. The contemporary-Washington characters who see him think he looks “interestingly multiracial” and puzzle over his background, which leads to some awkwardness.

To Zed’s perspective, the people of our time are obsessed with intergroup conflict. He reads a few pages of the day’s Washington Post and feels like every story is about one group hating another: Jews v. Muslims, Bosnians v. Serbians, Russians v. Chechens, Saudis v. Yemenis, on and on. He claims that, in his own time, people have moved beyond race and religion and other “blood feuds.”

But the more we learn about his time, in which memory of the past is deliberately erased by the government, which fears a return to such sectarianism, the more we wonder just how perfect it is. How important is our heritage, our race, our religion, our inherited rituals and beliefs? If you were told you could live in a world without war or prejudice, so long as everyone abandoned their religion/ethnicity/etc, would you take that trade? Or are those attributes so vital to who you are as a person that you’ll accept war and racism in order to preserve them?

I was inspired here partly by the many 20th Century dictators who, while leading horrible, autocratic regimes, managed to keep the races and sects within their nations playing nicely. Once Tito died, Yugoslavia dissolved and the Bosnians and Serbs were at each other’s throats again. Once Saddam was overthrown, the Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds were at war. This same routine has been repeated many times; the Soviet Union and other communist nations even claimed that race was a construct, that we were all workers and other categorizations were meaningless. I was intrigued by the counterintuitive nature of this, how only while under evil dictators could different peoples live together in peace (although it really wasn’t peace at all, but fear). I took this idea and let my imagination wander a bit.

I’m curious: you’ve lived and set fiction in Moscow and the former Soviet Union. And I remember you telling me about being hassled by Russian police who thought you looked Chechen. Did the book’s treatment of those issues resonate with you?

JF: Well, nothing moves racial profiling from the ranks of abstract political issues to concrete personal ones more quickly than actually being harassed by the police, day after day, because of how you look. It was no fun. And there was a great saying that I think I heard in one of the Baltic states: under the Soviets, we were all brothers, but Russians were the older brothers. So what Tito did may have been unique (or I may just not know enough about it), but in the case of Saddam and the Soviets, they didn’t eliminate racial conflict so much as they froze a pecking order, keeping one group on top and the rest squabbling with each other. If you’re asking whether I would abandon, or at least play down, my religion and heritage in exchange for a world in which religion and ethnic conflict disappears, my answer is yes. But it’s a freely-given yes, not a coerced one. That matters.

Let’s talk about cities now: At the beginning of one of his Kenzie and Gennaro books, Dennis Lehane says something to the effect of yes, it’s Boston, but I’ve moved a street here and shifted a neighborhood there. George Pelecanos, by contrast, is uncompromising in making his details accurate: if he says a character was walking by a movie theatre on a certain date and mentions what’s playing, that is what in fact was playing. Where do you come down between those two? You describe Washington, D.C. in such minute detail that it almost becomes a character. When you write a city like that, do you write from memory, or is every corner, every detail true?

TM: I’m glad you bought my D.C., since your own roots there are deeper than mine. That’s always the scariest part of setting a book someplace: will the readers who live there feel it’s legit?

I think I come closer to the Lehane side of the scale than the Pelecanos side. Investing the time and energy to find out what movie was playing when seems a bit overkill to me, though it obviously works well for him.

Washington MonumentThat said, I think D.C. is much more fascinating city than it’s given credit for, and I wanted this to come out in the book. The city is incredibly diverse, racially and by class and by country of origin, and while it’s home to the federal government, the actual citizens of D.C. have far fewer rights than do residents of states. It’s a majority-black city—or it was until just last year; it’s now plurality-black—in which the legacy of the 1968 riots still looms large more than 40 years later, yet there are many, many white folks who live (or just work) there and barely give a thought to black D.C.

So while I wasn’t writing a Pelecanos-ish story of drug dealers and cops (I can’t top how he does it), I also didn’t want to write one of those political thrillers that claims to be set in Washington but that really has no sense of the city other than as a 2-D Hollywood set with some cool monuments in the background. I wanted to mention the weird conversations you overhear downtown, and the sight of Army colonels checking out the reflection of their medals in the subway window or checking for bombs under their parallel-parked cars, and the homeless newspaper salesmen on Capitol Hill and U Street, and the political idealists talking big ideas over coffee, and the tense gentrification of so many neighborhoods, and the constant political rallies snarling traffic and annoying the locals, and the young lawyers getting drinks at hip bars wondering if they’ve sold out. None of this is necessarily at the book’s forefront, yet all of the characters are shaped by the city, its strange politics, and its history.

JF: How was the process of writing into that real-life structure different for you than writing into the Pacific Northwest or Depression-era Midwest, where you’ve never lived?

TM: I absolutely loved writing about a city that I knew so well. On the one hand, I want to make sure I don’t cram unnecessary detail into a book – something that you have to learn to avoid when writing historical fiction (nobody cares what a salami sandwich cost in 1918, so don’t show off your fact), but it applies just as well to writing contemporary fiction (bringing up some pop song or movie or TV show does not win you coolness points; you have to have a good reason for mentioning it, either because it fleshes out the character or moves the story or completes the setting, and preferably all three).

On the other hand, it felt liberating to write about my former home, and all the things that were happening when I lived there in 2002-2008 (a time period that future historians might one day refer to as the post-9/11 years, or the Bush II or the Iraq II years, or the Orange Alert years, or “The Dark Side” years in honor of Cheney’s famous line). Writing two historical novels back-to-back had left me with this feeling that years and years of thoughts about politics and culture and society were building up inside me, and I was dying to let them out.

JF: Your descriptions of place are incredibly rich and layered, in this as in your previous two books. Do you start from a place you’d like to write about and find a story and character to go there? Is character first? Story?

TM: I’m all over the map on this, as each book has been conceived in a totally different way. For The Revisionists, I think what I had first was a mood or a vibe, supplied by the city itself and the 9/11 hangover and several larger-than-life storylines in the media, like CIA renditions and black sites, and NSA wiretapping and privatized spy firms. Things that felt like subplots of a spy thriller but were actually happening in real life, just down the street.

There was so much I wanted to tackle, almost too much. I wrote many chapters that I later cut, and at one point I abandoned the whole thing for a few months. I wrote and rewrote the characters of Leo (a former CIA agent and now a private spy following peaceniks) and Tasha (an attorney who becomes radicalized after her brother, a soldier, dies in Iraq) many, many times before finally getting them right.

Which leads me to ask you: as a journalist and a novelist, do you keep a running list of “I can’t believe this actually happened” stories that you want to go back and fictionalize? Do you think fiction can compete? One of the issues I had in getting this book to work was how I felt like I was tackling a lot of big current events issues, and I wanted to do them factual justice while also letting myself artistically explore.

JF: I think the major difference is that the reader doesn’t have to “buy” reality. However strange it was, it happened. Whereas a novelist has to make events credible. Here’s an example from my current fiction-starved, reporting-rich life: there is a parallelism to Rick Perry’s candidacy—another swaggering, glib Texas governor heading right for the presidency not four years after the last one left office—that in fiction would strain credibility. Reality has no obligation to be credible, or make sense. It usually isn’t and doesn’t. And so if fiction tries to compete with reality on reality’s terms it will lose. Fiction brings a different sort of news—a more human, more intimate, more interior perspective than most reporting does or can give.

Okay, another change of subject: As much as I hate questions of genre, I’m going to ask you one anyway. This book could go on the fiction shelf, the espionage/thriller shelf, or the sci-fi shelf (and I guess I’m dating myself by thinking of novels as physical things that go on “shelves”). Does it matter to you where it goes?

TM: I suppose I’ve made things difficult for librarians and booksellers, as I’ve now written historical fiction, magical realism, hardboiled noir, espionage, sci-fi, and contemporary realism. All in three books. I would be lying if I said I didn’t care how or where I was shelved. I think because most of what I read is called “literary fiction,” that’s where I want to be put too. And I’m sure I’m being affected by the cultural bias that lit-fiction is serious and the other stuff is trivial, which is totally unfair and incorrect.

Ultimately, I think any writer wants their work to be enjoyed (this is entertainment, so I hope it sweeps you away and you have fun with it) and also respected (I worked my ass off on this, and put a lot of thought into it, so I hope it makes you think too).

The Revisionists is a literary/genre mash-up in many ways. If I had only written about Leo and Tasha, it would have been a contemporary realist novel (meaning literary, right?) or maybe a spy novel (meaning genre, right?). The Zed story line, however, is sci-fi (which is genre), but, then again, so were the last two Margaret Atwood novels, and she’s literary (right?). It’s all so confusing.

Interesting tangent: Leo himself I see as a character who has slipped from one genre to another. I recently read a review in which a critic referred to a novel as belonging to a genre called “WMFU” (white male fuck-up), meaning the kinds of wry comedies about privileged ne-er-do-well white guys who sleep with the wrong people or lose their jobs or go on benders but who manage to endear themselves to us nevertheless. These are considered literary novels, but their narrative arcs, story conventions, and character types are just as rigidly defined as those in detective fiction or spy novels. Now, some of my favorite books would fit into the WMFU genre (like Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys or Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City or Jess Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets), but so would a lot of really bad, empty first novels (and, sadly, some bad second and third novels too).

My character Leo realizes he’s on the verge of becoming a WMFU – he’s about to get his Political Science PhD at Harvard after years in academia, but he’s bored and aimless, he still doesn’t know what he wants out of life, he has no girl, etc. Then the Twin Towers fall, while he’s waiting for a flight at Logan. Weeks later, he literally walks out of a job interview for a professorship and calls the CIA. At that moment, he chooses to leave his potential WMFU book and enter a spy novel instead. That scene was my way of saying, you know, literary novels don’t have to be about privileged characters who feel sorry for themselves for doing nothing. They can be about people who do things, too. A little adventure never killed a reader.

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize; the critically acclaimed The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers; and his new novel, The Revisionists. His books have been named to Year’s Best lists by such places as The Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, The Onion, Atlanta Magazine, and

Jon Fasman is the author of two novels, the bestselling The Geographer’s Library and The Unpossessed City. He’s been taking a fiction hiatus for the past few years to cover the American South for The Economist.