How much we need our lives to mean something, how much we need to have purpose. How eventually we all end up searching for, or being driven to do something with our lives, which in essence is the search for some form of immortality. We want to leave something behind, be remembered for something. It’s a fundamental aspect of human experience. Traditionally people have found a route to this in their jobs, family, community, culture but for various reasons people are becoming less needed and these things are losing effectiveness as places where we can find those elements. Why? Because the world is changing very rapidly and we are having difficulties keeping up. I feel this is the core reason for all the dysfunctions and disorders people are experiencing. So I thought about that. Are we in some transitional period that people will eventually adjust to? Is it simply change and evolution the Western world is going through, or is it degeneration and decay? I explore these questions in the novel via the possible revolution that happens. Are the people who undertake these violent acts nihilists, or idealists? Are they in search of a better future, or are they just out to destroy?
Who are the “we” of the title? Humanity? America? We the people? Are you suggesting the book is an instruction manual on how to start a revolution?
Something I see happening a lot in contemporary fiction that really rubs me the wrong way is authors letting their personal politics and beliefs bleed into their work, in a very self-righteous way, like they know something and it’s their job to clue the rest of us in. Well, fuck that. Let the readers decide. Our job is just to pose difficult questions. Not to come up with half-assed answers, or tell people what to think. If literature is good for anything it should be to explore the things that all people have in common—their hopes, desires, their dreams, their humanity, rather than focusing on the things that separate us—politics, ideologies, stereotypes, stigmas, etc. It’s impossible to completely remove authorial influence from a story or characters, but I made a concerted effort.
What’s up with that Kant epigraph: “To be is to do.”?
The epigraph suggests the idea that the key to being, or living, is taking action, or “doing.” I just wanted to explore that idea, that “doing” is more important than thinking or saying or feeling. So few things we “do” anymore seem to have any effect on our lives, and the world around us. Nothing much changes. People are feeling more and more powerless. Voting, protesting, these things don’t mean shit anymore. So how would one go about changing the world in some meaningful sense, in a way that one could see readily? People talk about the apathy of Americans when it comes to voting. Well it’s no wonder; nothing has changed, nothing substantial, for decades now. And every time nothing changes the meaning of these small actions gets diminished further. At what point do these actions become totally meaningless and futile? Have we reached that point already? And what do we do then? James Nethery does something. A situation is put in front of him and he takes action, and then the readers have to consider whether what Nethery does is good or bad, justified or not, appropriate or extreme. This is an issue that needs to be looked at hard, especially in the wake of all the mass shootings recently. When I began the novel in 2009 I knew we’d be seeing more of them, and these people who go on these rampages, besides being mentally ill, are clearly feeling powerless to make their lives better and want to “do” something.
Tell us about James Nethery.
He’s an anti-hero. That’s what I wanted because the traditional American idea of heroic good guys and villainous bad guys has always seemed wrong to me. It’s just another in the long line of things that separate us. Even a step removed from that, the idea that good guys can do bad things and bad guys can do good things suggests that people are either inherently good or bad from the start. And I just don’t buy that. The view I take in the novel, and that I think reflects reality, is that most of us have better and worse angels of our natures and what brings one or the other out is something that fascinates me. My two main characters have natural inherent human goodness in them, like most of us, but they also have flaws. They are neither good nor bad, they just are. And then they become what they do.
What makes you think people will like Nethery as a character?
Nethery acts as a mirror that reflects a certain dark American emptiness. In the beginning of the novel he’s an empty vessel, a blank slate. He has never had the force of personality to become his own person so when the novel begins he is essentially what our culture wants people to be: a puppet, a cog, a consumer of everything, including the women he’s been involved with. But he’s reached a tipping point, and he has recognized the meaninglessness and banality of the life he’s been leading. This realization leaves a void. So he goes to Paris, in a desperate attempt to fill that void.
And Lily, what makes you think readers will like her?
I don’t care if people like her. I want readers to understand her. I’m much more concerned with creating understanding for my characters than sympathy or likeability. With Lily I wanted to write a difficult character who refuses to play the victim, and yet is not so easily sympathized with or cheered for. When you look at the character of Lisbeth Salander for example, from Stieg Larsson’s novels, it’s really easy to root for her after we find out what horrors she has suffered growing up. Not that that doesn’t happen, because it does, far too much, but I thought that was too easy. She was abused by men, so she goes goth and becomes bisexual. It’s too formulaic. Humans don’t make that much sense. There’s a general perception that women who suffer at the hands of men will continue to fly into the flame like moths, or at best just grin and bear it, go through ten years of therapy and learn to deal with it. I wanted with Lily to do something different, something that to me felt more real, more true, and take all that negative energy that is directed at her in the novel and redirect it somewhere, rather than just make it disappear.
How did you get the idea for the novel?
The beginning is based on a trip I took to Paris in 2005. I started there, with a lone American in Paris undergoing a kind of crisis. From there I decided to set things in motion, set off a chain reaction of events. It’s a bit more than simply plot and tension, it becomes a momentum, a force, like a wave that carries the characters and story along, and from there the interesting parts are how they respond to that momentum. That’s the influence of Paul Bowles. The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down are both novels that have a kind point of no return, where the characters get overwhelmed and from that point on they are merely reacting to events and operating on some primal level. I’m fascinated by this. Nethery hangs onto a thread of his old self, his civilized self, such as it was, but his situation forces him to embrace his primal self to survive and do what needs to be done. Meanwhile, the world is falling apart. Civilization becomes degraded, morality becomes nebulous; there are shades of Lord Jim.
Why is there a revolution going on in the background?
With the current situation in the media I think it would be almost impossible for there to be a traditional “revolution.” It would have to be something very primitive and driven by individuals. Any form of organized revolt would be snuffed out or defused. But if individuals suddenly went off and began attacking the power structure, it could easily be mistaken as a revolution. That’s what I was getting at. The idea came to me with the Joe Stack incident in 2010. I had a feeling the recession, or depression, was going to drag on for years, and we’d be seeing more mentally ill or desperate people flipping out and getting violent. So I thought “What if there were hundreds or thousands of Joe Stacks?”. Of course what happens in the novel might actually be a revolution. It makes people think about what that word means, “revolution,” and also think about words like “terrorist” and terms like “freedom fighter” and examine the differences in meaning.
Why does Nethery become the leader of this revolution?
This sprang from observations about celebrity culture and politics and questions I had about how people climbed the ladders of success, how they become wealthy and powerful, because a lot of them seem to be totally oblivious, ignorant and moronic. Did they get there because of hard work? Or was it merely luck? Luck is a theme that is examined in the novel too.
How does this book connect with your previous book, American Junkie?
I wrote them.
Tom Hansen is the author of American Junkie, a memoir of his life as a heroin addict and drug dealer. This Is What We Do is his first novel. He lives in Seattle.