Martin Seay: The Mirror Thief

First, congratulations on the success of The Mirror Thief. Has its reception come as a surprise to you at all?

Thank you!  It’s fair to say that parts of its reception have come as a surprise to me.  I’m thinking specifically of the experience of meeting my Melville House editor Mark Krotov (now the publisher at n+1) for the first time last October, and of him handing me a copy of the bound galley that Melville House used to promote the book.  Unbeknownst to me, they had already circulated the manuscript to a bunch of indie booksellers around the country in the hope of getting early endorsements, and a lot of those booksellers ended up being very enthusiastic about it.  Consequently, Melville House was able to cover the galley with a ton of great bookseller testimonials.  They even put one on the spine.  You really had to hunt to find the book’s title.  I worked in retail books for eleven years before I started my current municipal gig, and I have a lot of respect for booksellers as readers and advocates, so I was very moved by this, to say the least.

As soon as I saw that galley, I was pretty sure that the ball was rolling.  Although I’ve been thrilled at all the fantastic things that have happened since then in terms of the book’s reception, I haven’t been surprised by them, exactly, because I know how powerful independent bookstores are (and have always been) in terms of getting the word out and starting conversations about new titles.  I mean, don’t get me wrong: The Mirror Thief is, like, really good . . . but a lot of good books are published every year.  Almost all the nice things that have happened to mine have happened because Melville House got it into the hands of booksellers who connected with it.

You have perhaps the shortest author bio ever. It says only that you are the executive secretary of Wheeling, Illinois and that this is your first novel. The Mirror Thief is, at least in part, about our abilities to truly know one another or even, more frighteningly, ourselves. Is this brief bio a result of that contemplation? Or is it simple modesty or reticence.

This is the part where I confess that that bio is largely the handiwork of the good folks at Melville House, who are (I think it’s fair to say) fascinated by the notion of a staid local-government bureaucrat who writes crazy baroque novels on his lunchbreaks or whatever: sort of a cross between Wallace Stevens and Walter Mitty, I suppose.  I defer to their judgment on such things, and I gather that the mini-bio has succeeded in engendering a little intrigue among curious readers, but left to my own devices I would have disclosed a little more.

That said—and as you correctly observed—the brief bio does make for an interesting counterpoint to the book’s concerns, in that it seems to reinforce the kinds of anxieties that you mentioned, and also to edge them out of the book and into the world.  

So clearly I was a fool for ever doubting Melville House.  I am at peace with the previous sentence being accessible on the internet forever.

You say in your acknowledgments that this book took you five and a half years to write and another seven and a half to find a publisher. Could you talk with us more about that process? Were there times you’d given up on seeing it in print?

Some points on the journey were rosier than others, for sure, but I don’t recall ever being close to giving up.  I remember a few scary times during the writing process when I realized that the book was going to need to be quite a bit longer—and would take more time to finish—than I had hoped and planned, but I never felt like I’d gotten lost, or like I wasn’t hitting what I’d been aiming at.

Once I finished a complete draft, I was able to find an agent for the manuscript with very little difficulty, and for most of the seven and a half years of seeking publication I had reason to believe a deal was imminent: we kept getting very encouraging responses from editors at a bunch of large and midsize presses, but offers would just fail to materialize.  

I should mention that there were very reasonable explanations for this.  For one, we started circulating the manuscript in November of 2007, immediately before the publishing industry went over the waterfall in a barrel along with the rest of the global economy.  For another, I was a first-time novelist with a sparse publication history and a 699-page manuscript (which Melville House’s typesetting shrunk to 582, thank god).  Taking a pass on The Mirror Thief was hardly anybody’s indefensible lapse, even in retrospect.

Anyway, because the manuscript was being circulated on my behalf by an agent, and because we kept getting good responses, and because by then I was working full-time at an occasionally very strange new municipal job that was eating my brain, it was pretty easy to just kind of forget that I was waiting for other people to determine my future as a writer.  It never occurred to me that it might not work out.  Good thing it did!

How did you come to publish the book with Melville House?

I’m going to give you the extremely short version of this story: they said yes!

I’m thrilled that they did, because I can say with complete honesty that I cannot imagine a better fit for this book.  One of my concerns about finding a publisher for The Mirror Thief was that it’s a little dense for a beach read, but it also contains some flashy genre elements—missing gamblers! ostensibly magical mirrors! a swordfight!—that make its status as Serious Literature seem a bit wobbly.  (All of this is by design, of course.)  My fear was that it simply wouldn’t be intelligible as a midlist title at one of the big trades: if it didn’t come into the world on somebody’s front burner, then it seemed likely to be received as some kind of chimera or folly.

Melville House seems to be a press that only has front burners.  (There’s a joke in here about tiny Brooklyn apartment kitchens, but somebody else can look for it.)  They seem not to publish anything to which they’re not committed to the point of disquieting zealotry.  Booksellers throughout the Anglophone world know and value this.  Furthermore, Melville House knows and values booksellers throughout the Anglophone world.  They’ve done an incredible job with the book, and I’m very grateful.

Usually “ambitious” is used pejoratively, but it seems accurate here in its best sense. The novel spans continents and centuries. Did you conceive of one of these strands first and then realize other strands were related? Or did it come to you as one large narrative that you then fleshed out the parts?

Definitely more the latter than the former.  I began with the idea of writing a novel about Venice made up of three temporally separate storylines that echoed each other in various ways.  When I learned about the mirror-making monopoly that the Republic of Venice maintained during the early-modern era—and the ruthlessness with which it safeguarded that monopoly—I started to get some ideas about plot and setting, but I tried to sketch out a pretty elaborate conceptual framework and sets of motifs before I really began outlining the story and inventing the character biographies.

I decided to set the Los Angeles sections in 1958, for instance, because that’s the year that Ezra Pound was released from St. Elizabeth’s; I set the Venice sections in 1592 because that’s the year that Giordano Bruno was arrested by the Inquisition.  Those events ended up barely figuring in the novel’s plot, but they were important thematic landmarks to navigate by.  Similarly, I also came up with a list of words, images, and locations that I wanted to braid through the text.  The goal was to end up with an overall form that would look less like a comet than a constellation: something with a lot of bright fixed points and a lot of ambiguous empty space.  

By the time I actually got around to naming my characters, working out their backstories, and outlining the events of the three sections, I had a pretty good sense of the overall form of the book.  With the exception of a few tricky scenes, I wrote it straight through, with very little jumping around.

Clearly a massive amount of research went into this book. What was your research process like? How did you balance that with the actual writing? 

When I was about a third of the way into writing the book, I happened to attend a reading by the novelist Kathryn Davis at which someone asked her a similar question.  Her response—as I recall it—was as follows: I do research when I get stuck.  Then (this is the important part) once I’m not stuck anymore, I stop doing research.  

Her point, basically, was that researching is generally easier and more fun than actually writing; it’s crucial to do it, and it’s helpful to a point, but past that point it’s just another distraction.  This was helpful for me to hear, because I had just gotten underway on the portion of the book that’s set in the city-state of Venice in 1592, and I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of reading that I felt I’d need to do to develop a solid grasp on a setting that’s very distant in terms of geography, language, and culture.  It helped me consider the real aims of my research, which I decided were: 1) to determine the most basic raw material of my story, and 2) to avoid making a bunch of boneheaded mistakes that would compromise my authority as a storyteller.  

The successful completion of those two aims does not and should not add up to a Ph.D. in early-modern European history; in fact my understanding of the subject doesn’t extend very far beyond the material that actually made it into the book.  Basically I researched each section until I felt like I knew what would happen, and then I started writing.  Whenever I hit a point where I couldn’t convincingly imagine a particular scene, I’d do research until I could imagine it, and then I’d start writing again.  As a result, I found myself very rarely struggling with massive quantities of material, but rather just trying to answer specific questions (like what the inside of a glass factory might have looked and smelled and felt like) or to find a perfect detail that would be surprising and convincing enough to induce readers to fill in the rest of the scene with their own imaginations (ideally without even realizing they’re doing it).

The most important (and most challenging) thing that I did to make the narration seem persuasive and immersive was only tangentially related to research: I spent a lot of time just thinking about scenes and settings, trying to imaginatively inhabit the circumstances I was depicting in order to capture my characters’ embodied experience of them.  I’m more proud of that than I am of my research, such as it was.

At the center of this book is another book, an obscure book of poetry with the same title as the novel. Usually poetry that is created for a work of fiction is terrible on one or more levels. In fact, this is the only instance I can think of where the poetry seems necessary, right, and as if it came from an actual poet. Can you tell me what led you to including some of the verses in the book and how you managed to pull it off so well?

Thanks!  I’m really gratified to hear you say that.  This is something that I was very worried about, because I really needed the poems to deliver: an obsession with the book-within-the-book is the major motivation of one of my three main characters (the most important of the three) and I wanted the poems quoted in the text to seem like they might plausibly engender that kind of response, at least from a particular kind of reader.

As it turned out, the poem excerpts were some of the most enjoyable writing that I did.  I discovered that composing poetry in character is a great opportunity to take the Pretentiousnessmobile out to the salt flats and really put the accelerator to the floor.  It wasn’t exactly easy to write this stuff—my imaginary poet is an uncritical worshipper of Ezra Pound, so each allusion-packed stanza turned into an hours-long Wikipedia odyssey—but it was fun to be utterly undisciplined in my use of research materials.  (It was probably also good to have an outlet for that impulse.)

To give credit where it’s due, my main inspiration was Jorge Luis Borges’s character Carlos Argentino Daneri from his story “The Aleph”: another blowhard poet who has something hidden in his house.

The characters, except perhaps for Curtis, the most modern of the protagonists, are—I’m not sure of the term—omnisexual? bisexual? Without any sense of their sexual lives having much to do with their identities. Was that a conscious choice or something that just seemed to develop naturally while you were writing the book?

For the most part it was a conscious choice.  The protagonists’ apparent disengagement from their sexual identities is probably an element of their broader disengagement from other people; I wanted to show that their ill-conceived missions are distracting them from things they should be thinking about, particularly their connections to people who care about them.

I’m going to answer in a bit more detail, but readers who dislike spoilers are advised to skip ahead at this point.

I wrote most of the book from a somewhat idiosyncratic point of view: one that’s known as “close third” in the trade, but in this case so close that it conceals many of the three protagonists’ most fundamental traits.  My rule, basically, was that if a protagonist isn’t thinking something, then the narration can’t mention it.  When Curtis walks into a casino in the book’s opening pages, for example, the narration tells us what he sees and how he’s feeling, but it doesn’t ever explicitly state that Curtis is African-American, because Curtis isn’t thinking about that, at least not in explicit terms.  His race is extremely important to his identity, but its very importance keeps it hidden from the narration; it’s a lens that Curtis is looking through, not a thing that he’s conscious of.

As a result of this weird point of view—which I used because I wanted the reader to ask questions about perception and perspective, for a bunch of thematic reasons—the characters’ sexual identities can be a little tricky to pin down; they might seem more straightforward if I had used different narration to present them.  I think of Stanley, for instance, as pretty unambiguously gay; he’s extremely guarded, even among people who are very devoted to him, and therefore people tend to assume that he and Veronica are a couple (despite their substantial age difference: such is the power of heteronormativity), but they’re not, at least not in the romantic and/or sexual sense.

Crivano, the protagonist of the 1592 sections, is a more complicated case.  The fact that he’s living in an era when the concept of identity was still very much a work in progress—Descartes hadn’t even been born yet—gave me an opportunity to be postmodern by being premodern, so to speak.  The notion of dissembling—maintaining a public self at sinister variance with a private self—was a major anxiety in urban European societies circa 1600; I decided to make Crivano an embodiment of that anxiety, and indeed of the more profound anxiety that underlies it: without an omniscient God to affirm the constancy and sincerity of one’s innermost convictions, how can one be sure of who and what one really is?  Crivano is simultaneously Venetian and Ottoman, Christian and Muslim, queer and straight . . . to name only a few of the contradictory constituents of his supposed identity.

I should issue a standard post-Foucault disclaimer here: it’s almost certainly anachronistic for me to describe Crivano in terms of being gay, straight, queer etc., since European society wouldn’t have constructed identity in anything remotely like those terms in 1592.  Homosexuality was certainly known to those societies—particularly in cities like Venice—but people would have understood it as a set of practices, and not as a defining aspect of anyone’s identity . . . but, then again, most people wouldn’t have had a clear understanding of “identity” at all.

Two of the main characters are soldiers, of a type, and so there is a lot in the book about battle and its effects. The book seems to argue against the glorification of violence while also being itself fairly violent. How did you navigate that difficult terrain? Were there any models you had in mind, in particular?

That is a great question!  I hope I navigated it responsibly.  

One of the things—maybe the thing—that I most wanted to accomplish with The Mirror Thief was to criticize a certain type of privileged, adventurous masculine subjectivity, one that’s widely valorized and presented as admirable, but that’s ultimately irresponsible and damaging, both to those whom the subject encounters and to the subject himself, particularly in that it impedes and distorts his lived experience and his perceptions of the world.  Violence—the capacity to engage in it, appreciation of its lore and its aesthetics, etc.—is one of the major defining constituents of this masculine subjectivity.

I wanted to find a way to deliver this critique to an audience that isn’t already familiar and in agreement with its broad outlines, and to address that audience honestly.  I figured that meant that I would need to originate my argument inside that subjectivity, from a standpoint of sympathy, and to employ a rhetoric that’s consciously implicated in what it warns against.

This approach was neither clean nor easy.  There are, for instance, a bunch of guns in the book.  I am not a big fan of guns.  Given their wide and easy availability and the position they have come to occupy in American culture, I think they pretty obviously belong on the short list of factors currently shredding the fabric of our civil society, to say nothing of the tremendous amount of literal bodily injury they inflict.  But The Mirror Thief is a story that could not be told without guns; all three of my protagonists take them up at one time or another.  While it may not be something that every reader noticed, I tried to make sure that every gun in the book fails to fulfill its ostensible function: instead of increasing its bearer’s potency or agency, it malfunctions, gets mislaid, misses its target, or is turned against its owner.  

But I admit—in fact, I insist—that the book is subject to accusations of attempted simultaneous cake-having and cake-eating.  So far as models go, I naturally had a huge cultural apparatus providing me (and, um, everyone else) with romanticized and eroticized depictions of violence, and I tried to play around with a number of those.  Regarding fictions that are implicated in their own critiques of violence, I don’t think I had it consciously in mind while I was writing, but the fact that I have watched Clint Eastwood’s brilliant 1992 film Unforgiven something like fifteen times over the years probably informed my strategy.  (If you can spare like four hours, I am prepared to argue that David Webb Peoples’ screenplay is one of the best things of any kind ever written.)

Something I definitely did have in mind while I was writing was a passage near the beginning of Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir Jarhead, in which he argues (I’m extrapolating a little) that all fictional depictions of war are pro-war—regardless of their content, their rhetoric, or their makers’ intent—whenever their audiences haven’t already been primed to interpret them as anti-war.  (Susan Sontag makes similar points regarding photography in Regarding the Pain of Others, of course, and in a much more sustained way.)  Thus readers who decide to pick up The Mirror Thief just because they’ve heard it contains an awesome swordfight will not be persuaded by, or even perceive, its argument against the glorification of violence, no matter how much I might want them to.

Finally, I’ve heard that a movie might be in the works. What are your hopes and fears for a motion picture version of The Mirror Thief?

I’ve heard that too!  

I’m only slightly kidding with that response.  The project is still in its very early stages, but yes, a team of filmmakers has bought the option to adapt the book as a film.  The team is led by the director Peter Chelsom, and it includes a very smart and thoughtful screenwriter named Tinker Lindsay.  I’m very excited to see what they come up with, and I’m very comfortable with not being the one responsible for figuring out how to pull it off.  (I don’t know a damn thing about screenwriting, and on average Kathleen and I watch approximately 0.8 first-run movies per year.)

Regarding my hopes and fears, while I feel very protective of the novel, I have no trouble (or haven’t had any so far) conceiving of a film adaptation as a totally separate thing belonging to somebody else.  If I can do stuff to help the filmmakers out, I definitely will, but I understand that a film’s first imperative is to succeed on its own terms, and not to accurately represent its source.  I’ve seen a few great adaptations in my time, and I’ve seen a few adaptations that were fairly faithful to their source material, but I don’t remember ever seeing an adaptation that was great and faithful.

The Mirror Thief is a long book, obviously, but I think they’ll have a lot of freedom in terms of what can be left out.  One of my big inspirations—particularly in the 1958 sections, but really throughout—was Raymond Chandler’s classic-but-still-underrated debut novel; much of what seems like plot in The Big Sleep really turns out to be setting, and I borrowed that strategy for my book, too.  My protagonists do a lot of complicated running around, but the function of all that action is mostly to distract them from pending realizations about themselves and their motives.

Things that might be trickier for the filmmakers to work around include the weird point of view that I described earlier, as well as the book’s concerns about visual representation and visual perception, which might be challenging to navigate in a visual medium.  The use of film might open up some fun opportunities in that respect, but it’s probably more likely that that material just won’t make it in.  And that’s totally fine by me.  Whatever works! 

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