Novelist David Shafer talks about his dark horse hit, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, about the perils and pleasures of success, and the dangers of living online.
David Shafer is having a bit of a WTF moment himself.
Shafer, whose debut novel, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, has been hailed by The New York Times as possibly “the novel of the summer” and the accolades have continued to roll in. He’s been compared to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.
The novel, which follows three characters, two males and a female in their mid-30s, on a paranoia-inducing mind trip as they uncover a vast conspiracy to control the world. The novel is a tautly paced thriller, but it also packs a searing satire of the much-ballyhooed modern world we live in.
The book is also every publicist’s fantasy—its release has coincided with leaks about the U.S. national security apparatus that have created a very receptive, and credulous, audience.
In a Q&A with The Daily Beast, Shafer opens up about his quick rise to the top as well as what books have recently graced his bedside table.
What compelled you to write a book about paranoia and the national security state?
In 2006 or 2007, when I think it’s fair to say I began the book, that was the height of the War on Terror; post-9/11, pre-Obama. But, it turns out that may not have been the height. Some of the creepier security stuff came afterwards, but I wasn’t aware—a lot of people weren’t aware—of a change, a shift going on. At the same time I was on an emotional upswing, a hyper-manic swoop and I was falling in love with my now-wife. I had a friend sending me weird emails about conspiracies he saw all around him, but he too had stayed shy of a psychotic break. He’s very intelligent, but he saw things having to do with world government, things that people see when they get that way. It occurred to me, what if there were a nefarious world cabal and an online underground opposing it, and you were going sort of paranoid. It’s the old “even paranoids have enemies” gag.
One of the things I found compelling in the book was the character of Leo, who is battling with crippling paranoia, but at the same time is uncovering the truth about the national security state. How did you approach that character?
I’ve never been what I think shrinks would call paranoid. That imaginary reality line has never gone too fuzzy. But any intelligent person could see how it would. So much of our life is lived inside our head, and you’re supposed to check outside to make sure you’re corresponding with what’s going on. But, there are patches of privacy and secrecy all around us. Whether they’re actual government secrecy, as we now know are done in our name, or in the name of our protection as citizens. And then there’s the private privacies that you don’t tell people—the secrets made of drug use or transgressions that are too private for public consumption, or even sharing with anyone, so they just live in your head and that creates a world inside your head that’s very different from the one outside. And if that keeps going, you could see how it would get to the point where you wouldn’t be able to know which is the more important world to act on.
So as I’m sure you’re aware, your book was called “the novel of the summer” by the Times. What is your reaction to that?
I was very, very, very pleased and surprised. Really, all those things. I had hoped for a lot for the book, but that review, I couldn’t have asked for more. I suppose there is a part of me that wants to be very careful about exultation or any swell-headedness, because we all know that any of that kind of attention—I’m enjoying it—is ephemeral and these things move on pretty quickly, and I have work to do on the next novel.
It’s a bit ironic, because a huge chunk of the book is you dissecting an author becoming famous overnight. I’m talking about Mark Devereaux, whose intoxicated ramblings get turned into a popular self-help book.
Mark is aware from the beginning of a kind of mistake that was made. His fame is essentially on the back of a powerful business titan who misunderstood his original work.
It was funny to write. The original essay that Mark writes that goes viral, when that phrase was new, was called Motivation in an Unjust World. That was an essay I couldn’t write. I had to write and say, “It was very good.” If you could offer any advice on motivation in an unjust world for real, then you would be a brilliant philosopher and a useful person for humanity. So I just wrote, “Mark wrote this essay. It was very good.”
So as long as I don’t allow terrible perversions of the book then I’ll be safe from any Mark problems.
One of the things your book has been praised for is that it’s more than a thriller—that it has poignant societal critiques and the character development. Did you worry about it becoming a schlocky thriller?
Yea. All credit due to my agent who did some early editorial direction and then my editor at Mulholland to bring me around to this notion. It would be OK if the book took the form in certain ways of a thriller, because the higher art elements of it would be allowed to come through. I was worried about that. I didn’t want to be a thriller writer because of a certain sort of snobbishness I’m pretty much over.
I’m just glad that I didn’t resist more, for instance, allowing the book to open with Leyla instead of Leo. For a long time I wanted to open with Leo, but various smart readers and my editors just kind of conveyed to me that the white-guy-depressive-in-Portland-thinking-about-stuff novel will keep fewer readers than the NGO-girl-in-Myanmar-stumbling-across-a-nefarious-plot, and I can get in some of the larger ideas and the more careful characterizations if I earn the reader’s interest and their time.
You, and the book, have now been compared to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Who are some of the writers you admire and that influenced you?
From young adolescence to young adulthood, I read a lot of spy novels. I read Ken Follett, Frederick Forsythe, and Robert Ludlum. So the thriller form was in my earliest reading habits. Then, the book that made a great impression upon me was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and I read that when I was about 22. Maybe it was the age I was, but that book had a real impact upon me. And though it’s wilder than my book, it still has a thing at the heart of that has to be figured out, and these weird, semi-terrorist groups. I see it in there. I became a fan of the rest of his work and wondered why he killed himself.
All I can do is think of people I’ve read recently, I’m so much less able to recall the things I read.
So what have you been reading recently then?
Right now I’m reading Jo Ann Beard’s essays. She wrote a novel called In Zanesville and then a book of essays called The Boys of My Youth. My dog died recently, and she had an essay called “The Fourth State of Matter,” and it shocked me how good it was, so I found the rest of her work.
I’ve read a lot of the guys who provided me with blurbs, whom I had not known, and had no connection to, so it was very exciting to get their support. I read Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, which is a big, thick thing, but very well informed about how spies might actually work now. It’s sort of a thriller in the sense that it treats people who perform spy work, and has a mystery in it, but it has much more psychology than what we’d usually call thrillers. Then I read the Adam Ross book, Mr. Peanut, which was very good. And then my wife read it, and it’s about killing one’s wife, or maybe you didn’t do it, so it’s a very funny book to have your wife read right after you.
Why do you think the book has resonated so much?
I’ve never done any of this, and answering questions like this, I’m so aware of sounding like some inflated prick. I’m just lucky I was writing a good book for years about things that a lot of us are thinking about right now. I overlapped the political, cultural moment we’re in with some timeless stuff about being human. So, it’s a good book. Why it caught on so quickly in the last week is luck, good fortune, and the work of the people who got behind it.
When you see the national security revelations in the news, such as the recent one about the NSA’s Monstermind computer program, what is your reaction?
I don’t think I’m any more inclined to conspiracy theories than the next guy. The book didn’t make me paranoid. I like the Leo character, and while he’s teetering on the edge, he does know there’s a lot of crap out there that are just fevered imaginings.
It was strange to write the book and try to stay ahead of the conspiracy and surveillance curve—because you almost couldn’t. You’d just open the paper. They’re saying it’s a showroom now, but Google is building a ship, and they’ve got all these top-secret projects, and every day you hear about an acquisition or a fleet of satellites. I’m relying on the journalists to keep me apprised of what to actually worry about.
The book is full of funny satire of the so-called wonders of the modern world. One of the things I wanted to ask you is what annoys you the most about society today?
I would rather not say it annoys me because it sounds so aggrieved and me-centered.
There’s actually a line in John Cheever’s journals. He’s complaining about things. He’s trying to kill a snapping turtle on his lawn, and has to shoot it like eight times with buckshot or something. But the end of the entry has him say something like, “Until we can describe clearly the world we desire, it is idle to catalog the vulgarities of our time.” This is the kind of crap he put in his journal!
So, obviously the celebrity culture is easily satirized, because even if you try to be an ordinary schmoe getting by in the world, you’re going to absorb a lot of celebrity news, and news about the hyper-rich. News about things I shouldn’t care about not only in the moral sense, but news I won’t ever need to care about. So, that was the Mark [the self-help author] stuff.
As far as Leyla [the NGO worker in Myanmar] becoming disillusioned with the work she is trying to do—not that I’ve ever put as much work into world betterment as Leyla has, but it’s strange that even when you decide, as a young adult, I’m going to do something very helpful, and I’m not going to require money or prestige, it’s still hard to get good work done. Now, that wouldn’t surprise more knowledgeable, older people, like I am now. But for people in their 20s and 30s, that’s kind of surprising bad news all the time. So the little problems she has with her employer, I imagine, the office politics and the sort of vanities that get in the way of the work you’re trying to do.
A lot of people will be buying your book through Amazon, which you have actually written about for us. It’s a company that looks eerily like the tech company Sine you create.
It is amazing what we as consumers decided we would give up to them. Just think if I’d asked you 15 years ago whether you’d like it if I’d keep all your stuff, don’t keep it in your desk in your file cabinet. I’ll just keep it all over here, and you can ask for it when you want, which is pretty much what we’ve all done.
And one doesn’t want to be knee-jerk. There are good reasons for big data, if you’re an epidemiologist or in the social sciences. We as a society are going to advance because we can collect and analyze huge tranches of data. But if it’s mainly in the business world, then it’s troubling because there is only one reason to collect that information and power, which is to leverage it. It’s a little strange that we agreed to give them all our stuff.
What do you think the endpoint is in terms of us giving up our privacy, whether it to be companies, or the government?
Or to some sort of weird combination of those things that is imagined in the book.
I hope it won’t happen. I hope there is a limit. We still have a keen sense of privacy between each other. It’s just when we get on a machine, or pay for something. If you’re not getting onto a keyboard or into a camera lens, it’s private. So, that’s still a lot of our lives. Talking to your wife in the kitchen, or your friend in the car. We all still have a sense of how it should be.
I’m not a futurist, so I don’t know what will happen, but I’m pretty confident in human nature that we won’t just watch the tyranny tromp over us.
I know you live in Portland, and lived in Dublin. Did you visit Myanmar, which is one of the other main settings?
I traveled in Myanmar for a few weeks with a journalist friend in 2006, and it kind of blew my mind. You could just feel the grouchy liberal Americans like myself talk about the state power and how it impinges on us in the U.S., but then go buy a nice coffee in a nice city.
So, when you’re in a place where the menace of the state is so palpable—as when the shopkeeper whispers in your ear that they’re so glad you’re here, or the way a very young soldier at a roadblock keeps everyone there with more than the threat of authority, but with the threat of violence, even though it’s just two teenagers at a roadblock—then you have a keener sense of what it might be like to live under tyranny.
Have you started on your second book?
I have. It’s about the loss by criminal misdeed of a great family fortune, and what that causes the descendants to contemplate in terms of what they should do to get it back, or what they should do to realize it’s gone.