How I Write

04.03.13

Nathaniel Rich: How I Write

The ‘youngish’ novelist lives in New Orleans next to a federal officer of some kind who talks constantly about fantasy sports. His latest book, Odds Against Tomorrow, has just been published.

Where did you grow up?
New York City, the birthplace of Jell-O.

Where and what did you study?
I studied literature and Italian at Yale. I wrote my thesis about Italo Svevo, one of my heroes.

All Yalies have a favorite pizzeria. Are you a fan of Sally’s or Pepe’s Pizza?
Sally’s. Their white clam is the best pie I’ve ever had. But don’t sleep on Pepe’s. Pepe’s is no joke.

Where do you live and why?
I live in New Orleans, because it’s the strangest city in the United States. It has the highest murder rate in the country, the highest incarceration rate, and often we have to boil our drinking water, but there’s nowhere else remotely like it.

Describe your morning routine.
Wake up, groan (this again?), eat oats. For about an hour I respond to emails and read about the Knicks. Then I put on my headphones and get to work.

Who are some youngish writers your age (under 35) whom you particularly like and whose books you look forward to?
Jesse Ball is fantastic, one of the few young writers I know whose work doesn’t imitate the generation of writers immediately older than ours. I liked Robin Sloan’s recent novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and Lindsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham. Francesca Segal and Sam Byers are appealing young British novelists. Benjamin Percy is a very bad man. And I’m excited about Patricio Pron, an Argentine writer, whose first novel in English translation is being published this year. Simon Rich is best of all, however, and that dude’s only 28.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
Wearing dashikis, yukatas, and flannel robes—any kind of billowing uni-garment will do the trick. I have accumulated a collection over the years. They’re not very flattering but they are comfortable for moping around the house. My neighbors find them creepy, however, so I have to be careful when I go outside to get the mail.

Please recommend three books to your readers, and say what you like about them.
Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. Augie March is a miracle, but many readers today seem to overlook this later masterpiece. It is a moving, powerful portrait of a man growing older. Bellow is the rare novelist who is unafraid to address the higher philosophical matters head-on, and nowhere does he do so with such feeling and depth as in Humboldt’s Gift.

J.G. Ballard is an important writer for me, particularly when I was writing Odds Against Tomorrow. Though The Drowned World, a novel that imagines what happens to London after the seas rise, has obvious affinities with what I was trying to do in OAT, I found myself thinking more about High Rise. It is a short, terrifying novel about a large apartment tower—a “vertical city”—whose occupants, cut off from the world, deteriorate into savages. It’s about class warfare, the aporia of modern life, and free-floating anxiety—a beautiful, psychotic nightmare.

The Japanese novelist Ryu Murakami might be the closest thing we have now to J.G. Ballard. In the Miso Soup, like so much of Murakami’s fiction, is flawed but deranged and indelible.

When I look back at the outline, it’s as if I’m looking at the map of a different country—like I’m standing in the middle of Karachi with only a map of Kansas City to guide me.

Your new novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, involves probability and mathematics as a driver for the plot. How did you choose that plot mechanism?
“Numbers people” turn to math for the same reasons that readers turn to literature or poetry: for consolation, beauty, mystery, and affirmation. I wanted to write about a character who uses math to make sense of the world around him. Numbers, like words, have their limitations, however, and that was to be part of the story as well.

Also, I wanted to know: what are the odds, exactly, that an asteroid will hit the planet and usher in a global dark age? That a suicide bomber will detonate himself in the middle of Fifth Avenue? That a catastrophic hurricane will bring about the flooding of Manhattan? In order to get to the bottom of these questions you need statistics and some basic calculus. Fiction allows you to follow principles to their most extreme conclusions, so I felt it was important in the novel to pursue math as one of several possible paths to enlightenment.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I map them out rigorously, but it’s only a matter of time before I veer off the map. So by the end of the novel, when I look back at the outline, it’s as if I’m looking at the map of a different country—like I’m standing in the middle of Karachi with only a map of Kansas City to guide me.

What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
I want to feel confident that the writer knows what he’s doing. I suppose the term of art for this is “authority.” I want to feel that the writer is going to take me somewhere, and that the place is going to be strange and at least a little bit scary.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
I write until I’m physically ill, which takes me to about 7 or 8 p.m.

I understand that your first novel, The Mayor’s Tongue, was top secret throughout the five years during which it was written. What’s with the cloak-and-dagger?
Do you remember, when you were 23, how many people you knew were “working on a novel?” How many of them actually finished their novel, and how many published them? It’s a humiliating situation all around. I didn’t want my friends to ask me constantly how the novel was coming, nor did I want to pretend I was writing one before I knew what it was, or whether it was any good.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?
I face an eight-foot-high vertical window that squarely faces my neighbor’s identically sized window. The houses are five feet away, so it’s an intimate view. The man who lives there is a federal officer of some kind. He looks exactly like Jon Gruden and is obsessed with fantasy sports. He must have tens of thousands of dollars invested. All day long he paces the alley between our houses (directly beneath my window) talking with associates about professional athletes and their value. He’s on a first-name basis with most of the athletes. This is one of the reasons I wear headphones.

Describe your evening routine.
Watching basketball, cooking dinner, and reading.

You regularly write for The New York Review of Books. How do you approach a book that you are tasked to review?
The pieces I write for the Review are not reviews so much as essays that use the book under review to make a larger argument. So I’m looking for evidence that I can use in that argument. Criticism always seemed to me a lot like police work. You look for clues, fingerprints, motives. You need to construct an airtight case.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
Anything my brother writes.

Do you have any superstitions?
After writing an essay for Harper’s about cell phones, I don’t talk on them without a headpiece. But that’s somewhere between superstition and educated guess.

What is something you always carry with you?
A book and a change of socks.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
Lee Harvey Oswald, whose house is down the block from mine in New Orleans, so I could get to the bottom of the JFK business.

What is your favorite snack?
Salt.

What phrase do you over-use?
“Hilarious.”

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
I try to write 1,000 words. Some people say it’s not about the quantity but about the quality. I disagree. You need to write a lot in order to figure out what’s good and what’s crap.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
Once, at a Paris Review benefit while I was an editor there, I met Norman Mailer. He had arrived about an hour early, and asked me to get him a grapefruit juice and vodka from the bar, and sit with him while he drank it. I ran to the bar and when I returned he held forth on various subjects for nearly an hour—baseball, his children, George Plimpton, and Brooklyn. At one point he gave me unsolicited advice about reading on book tours. He advised me, “Read sex scenes whenever possible.”

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Read and write in great quantities. Don’t gripe. It’s unbecoming. Send letters to the living writers you admire.

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I keep a worm farm on my back porch. I feed them decomposing food scraps and often find myself staring, longingly, into their dark, crawling, fetid quarters.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Editor's note: Nathaniel Rich is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. You can read his "American Dreams" series here.