September 14, 2012
Michael Kardos is one of those great, nice guys who doesn’t piss people off and doesn’t behave like some chest-inflating, flea-bitten ape. So it’s not surprising that he wrote a book about a great, nice guy who, in general, doesn’t piss people off or act like some loamy-smelling jungle animal. The great guy in Mike’s book, however, gets into a whole lot of trouble—more trouble than you and I, hopefully, will ever have. The Three-Day Affair earned starred reviews in Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly, which named it one of the best books of Fall 2012.
Here are six questions for Michael Kardos:
One of the things I love about The Three-Day Affair is it’s essentially about smart guys making fabulously fucked-up choices. Was that something you set out to do from the start, or was it how the characters simply developed?
My dad once said to me, “The trouble with smart people is that they can rationalize anything.” I can’t remember the context anymore, but his observation always stuck with me. Smart people are often exactly clever enough to justify their bad choices, but not clever enough to see that what they’re telling themselves is complete bull. We see it all the time, the trained brain fooling itself. At the start, I knew I wanted to write about a group of close friends who are intelligent and well-educated and clearly know right from wrong, but whose ambition, hubris, and loyalty to one another cause them sufficient distress once the bad stuff starts.
Additionally, Will, is somewhat of an underachiever. He went to Princeton and has a rich and ambitious internal life, but externally he reminds me of a friend who once told me, “When I was a kid, all I wanted was to grow up and make enough money to buy a bag of weed each week and pay my cable bill.” He’s sort of the anti-hero in that sense, right?
Will insists he’s a regular guy, not as ambitious as many of his Princeton classmates who’ve always known they’re destined for greatness, whether it’s summiting mountains or stamping out diseases or becoming CEOs of major corporations. In an early draft of the novel, there was a line alluding to Lyle Menendez (who happened to be in my year at Princeton before he was arrested for killing his parents and sent to prison for life)—and how his trial was being broadcast on TV nationwide. The line went something like, “Even the criminals amongst us were making their presence unmistakably felt.” Compared to many of his classmates, Will believes himself to be an unremarkable guy.
And yet his actions don’t quite square with his self-image. It’s true that he doesn’t wear his ambition on his sleeve, but as the narrative moves along, it becomes apparent that when the pressure’s on, he isn’t just a weed-smoking and cable-watching kind of guy.
Although this book is a thriller, it’s also a buddy-story in a way. The entire thing hinges on the fact that a few thirty-something guys are getting together for a weekend. In that sense, it doesn’t quite follow the typical thriller genre that usually has one phlegmatic, brilliant guy or one sassy, alluring woman driving the story to its end. Were you consciously veering away from the usual formula?
Thank you for that observation! I’ve joked that the novel is like Deliverance, only indoors. The buddy aspects looms large, since the novel hinges on Will’s loyalty to his best friends. The truth is, I had no interest in writing a larger-than-life hero who must save the planet or whatever. I enjoy books like that sometimes, but an ordinary guy finding himself in the midst of a kidnapping felt more gripping and awful to me. The stakes for him are huge precisely because he isn’t a professional thief or a spy or detective for whom crime is an everyday occurrence.
I wasn’t consciously veering away from a formula, exactly. I didn’t set out to write a thriller, and didn’t even know that’s what it was until the blurbs and pre-publication reviews started calling it that. As I was working on it, it was always just a “novel” that happened to revolve around a kidnapping. The specific genre wasn’t something I thought much about.
Ideas about culpability, responsibility, and inaction and thought as a form of action continually buzz as the backbone of this story. In a way, it’s a philosophical meditation on crime and what is a crime. Through the writing of this book, did you end up with any answers to the questions the narrative seems to pose?
Anton Chekhov believed that the writer’s role wasn’t necessarily to solve a problem but merely to correctly pose it. My interest was in what happens when a few close friends who are, for the most part, ethical people get themselves into a situation where it’s very, very difficult to do what they know is the right thing. These are guys who know right from wrong and would even subscribe, I believe, to Kurt Vonnegut’s beautiful quote: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Their predicament makes them each have to negotiate criminality and kindness—but as soon as you’re negotiating, you aren’t really being kind anymore.
I’m not sure I ended up with any answers—but that’s probably for the best, since the lack of answers is an ideal motivator to keep writing.
You are a trained musician. And the idea of music is clearly in this book (much of what happens takes place in a recording studio). Is there any connection for you between the world of music and the world of writing? Is it the same process for you?
I was a music composition major in college, but my instrument is drums. When I’m writing fiction, I’m told I pound away at the keyboard. People can hear me all the way down the hallway. Writing isn’t typically a physical activity; apparently, I’m trying to make it one. Also, I constantly mumble while I’m writing (I’m a real joy to be around) in order to work out the rhythm of what I’m doing. I think, for me, the connections between music and writing have to do with rhythm and pacing, and certainly milieu (I’ve always enjoyed writing about musicians and their haunts). Writing music and writing fiction also both involve an obsession with form, the development of motifs and themes, and the strategic use of patterning.
Has anything even close to this thrilling ever happened to you in real life? Confess now: what’s the worst “accidental” crime you’ve ever committed?
Forgetting to feed the parking meter? Jaywalking? No, wait: one time, I handled raw chicken and forgot to wash my hands afterwards.
Thank you for inviting this confession. I feel better now.