an interview with David Knowles      
photo of David Knowles

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  Tell me about your process for writing this book--how did you conceive of and develop the idea?

I started writing this book when I was in residence at a writers' colony in upstate New York. I got the idea initially from a friend who was subletting an apartment in Manhattan; it was a short-term sublet, so the apartment owner hadn't really put away most of his personal effects. His closet was still filled with his clothes, there were still photo albums lying around, and most specifically there was an area of the apartment that he asked my friend not to go into. This, of course, was a tantalizing admonition and request. So we started coming up with ideas as to what could be locked in this closet, and I got the idea that it would be a fun setup, to create an apartment like this and to give someone that sort of "Candid Camera" set of instructions and watch what happened. So that's where the story started coming from.

I'm interested in the art world, and I began to view this as an art project, and the ideas flowed from there. I stumbled upon a painting by Degas when I was at the library, so I began to learn about the history of that. [The painting, "Interior," plays a prominent role in the novel.] Suddenly it became part of the story. That's sort of the way I work: I start an idea and then things make their way into the book, almost randomly.

Where did your interest in Hinduism originate?

I had long had the idea in my head to write a story with the title "The Third Eye," as I'd always been fascinated with the third eye itself and the mysticism surrounding it. So I started poking around with that as well. I thought about who would sublet an apartment, who would need to sublet for just a couple of months; I thought of people from out of town, and then I started thinking about immigrants to New York and it just sort of found its way there. Once I started doing more research on the third eye itself, it proved perfect for the book.

I suppose I should ask--did your friend ever break her landlord's rule and look in the closet?

My friend was very reluctant to do so. Being bad influences, we really encouraged her to look. We did look into a photo album in which there were some rather intimate pictures of this fellow, with girlfriends and what not. That really peaked our interest, and that also got the ball rolling in my head, thinking about renting an apartment to a young woman, leaving somewhat sexual material lying around, and then as a titillation actually watching the woman discover these articles. That quickly became what the book was going to be about.

How much has the finished product strayed from what you'd originally set out to do?

It's strayed a lot. I generally start with this grand idea. Then when it actually comes time to write it down, it takes a million turns as I go, becomes something totally different, and finishes out being something I hadn't expected. That's part of the joy for me in writing, is to find out what it's going to turn into. I don't follow the master plan to the T.

Do you set a master plan?

I set the beginnings of a master plan. I set where I think I want it to go, and I'm very flexible about what happens afterwards.

I found it interesting that names play such an important role in this book, and yet we never actually learn Jefferson's real name. Was that a conscious decision from the beginning?

Definitely a conscious decision. I don't even know what his real name is--I don't have one for him. Naming and names are concepts that I've had running throughout the first book (The Secrets of the Camera Obscura) and this book. The narrator of the first book was unnamed.

It has to do in part with the confessional tone of this novel. It's also a first-person recollection, so there's no need for him to refer to himself by name. The theme of names in the book is something that I worked with a lot. There are all sorts of false names that people take on, there's a question as to the name of the heroine in the book, there's a question as to the name of the painting by Degas: is it called "Interior" or "The Rape," or how is it known?

Basically, I'm writing about subjectivity. This is a story with limited access: you're limited through the first-person narrator to getting certain elements of the story and certain information. This whole story is told from a fellow whose name you don't really know. It's a comment about the unreliability of the stories that are told to you.

Did you create Henry's character to ease some of the difficulty of relying on a first-person narrator?

Yes. In a formal sense, Henry is someone that restrains the main character, Jefferson, someone that lets the reader know exactly how off-base Jefferson is at times. He is something for Jefferson to sound off of. That's the way he functions; he keeps the narrator in check for the reader. You know exactly how crazy or how sane Jefferson is at different times. Or you start to, anyway. That's how Henry functions, though that's not necessarily why I put him in the book. I wanted a rationalist interpretation, I wanted a guy who was somewhat of a crazy art figure, a headstrong young painter.

That's interesting, because I did not find myself completely trusting Henry's perceptions. I viewed him as a bit of a loose cannon.

He is a loose cannon, and yet from a reliability standpoint, you sort of know where Henry's coming from. The thing about a narrator like Jefferson is you feel you're being told the truth by him, that you're being taken along on this ride, but you don't necessarily sense that he has a good perspective on himself and where he's going. Henry, on the other hand, is a little more doltish, not quite as savvy as Jefferson, and yet you sense a humbleness to his character that comes out in the end as more truthful than Jefferson, or more linked to reality.

One of the reviews that I read called Jefferson a misogynist. To me that seemed an entirely too simplistic. What are your thoughts--how are we supposed to perceive him?

I think that is a simplification, but also true. He is a misogynist. He rationalizes his behavior in terms of aesthetic phenomena and the art world and the art process. In fact I am satirizing people in the art world and people who will deconstruct anything to get them out of any sort of responsibility or conscience, because they can explain it all away with methodology and process. That's sort of what I liked about that review, the fact that it cut to the quick.

Jefferson certainly doesn't see himself as a misogynist in any way, though his notions of beauty pretty much have to do with women. He doesn't rent the apartment to men, quite notably. He's stuck in a certain misogynist frame of mind.

Are we meant to be sympathetic to him?

You're meant to be brought in with this guy and taken along for a ride with an interesting character who has very likable qualities, and yet who repels you at the same time. You're meant to feel ambivalent so that you have to choose at the end. I like the frame of mind that a writer gets into where they try to show you the good side of every bad or evil character--to show you many sides. I'm not into portraying someone as purely misogynist or purely evil or purely good. That's not the way life is. In the end, he's sort of a scoundrel, this character. I feel sorry for him, and yet he's dug his own grave.

What else is Jefferson--a madman, an artist, a pervert a criminal--all of the above?

I think he's delusional--he deludes himself. He sees what he wants to see, to the extreme. He's a creature coming out of a certain luxury, and that luxury has led him into situations where he can create the world the way he wants to. He's wealthy, he has a certain decadence to his lifestyle, and an intellectual decadence. The only point I really want to bring about with him is that he uses deconstruction and subjectivity to rationalize away everything about his character. He evades knowing himself. He is someone who hides behind things. His bout with agoraphobia is something that he's afraid of; he doesn't want to understand it necessarily, he just wants to block it out and prevent it. He has desires to be great, to be an artist, he has the will to do something important, and yet he's sort of a defeated character in a lot of ways. His medium is something that is private, and he has to rely on a painter to help him actualize it to the public.

You brought up decadence. I enjoyed the attention that Jefferson devotes not only to intellectual decadence, but to its tangible forms as well. He goes through bouts of it with food, attire, music, and so on.

He's a fetishist.

He certainly is. What do you consider some of life's greatest pleasures?

I share some of his loves; definitely the food thing, though I don't quite get his specific cravings. I think one of the great things about New York, as he says, is that you can go out and find all sorts of great food at any time. Music is another one that he is very much entrenched in, and I have a similar love of music. It's always on; when I'm in my living room there's rarely dead air space. His passion for the art world is certainly a lot greater than mine, in that he is so immersed in it that it overrides everything within his everyday experiences, whereas mine's perhaps a bit more compartmentalized. I don't view everything as pure aesthetic material.

On the aesthetic front--what about Maya? Who or what is Maya?

I wanted to leave the reader with a choice. I didn't want to sew up the character and do a fantastic Hollywood ending where she turns out to be a God or she turns out to be just around the corner. What Maya is, and what she represents, is the power of the mind to create what it wants to create. To my mind, she is not something supernatural; she is a real person who pretty much follows Henry's explanation of her at the end of the book, which I won't give away. To Jefferson, she is the pure possibility of explanation. She is, at the same time, something he'll never know--the limit of his knowledge. This is frustrating for Jefferson, who wants to control everything. So she's the thorn in his side because he can't nail her down and he never will. She comes to represent a sort of maturation in him at the end of the book, where he has to simply accept something that he can not fully understand.

Do you think this maturation will stick? Is Jefferson really over?

No, it's delusional. Again, he hasn't really learned his lesson because he has gone on this rant and path of thought, and has convinced himself once again of how the world is. He's created a whole other universe, which is also perhaps not as down to earth as Henry's. So I don't think he's cured, and I don't think he's one hundred percent satisfied with his own findings. He's doing that thing he did when trying to deal with his agoraphobia, which is, "Cure it--cure it. Let's deal with it later. I've got my explanation, I've got what I need to know, and now onto the next." He doesn't even see it himself, though he has cured certain physical symptoms, like the apartment experiment, which he has shut down.

Has he truly shut it down?

Yes he has. He can't go on with anyone else but Maya, which is an overly-dramatic gesture on his part. The way Jefferson sees it he has been transformed. The way Henry sees it, he has gone off the deep end. The way I see it, it's a little of both.

You did an excellent job of leaving things open-ended without leaving the reader frustrated, or dissatisfied.

Some people will be frustrated, I know. Some readers don't want to finish a book with a question; they want to feel fully satisfied and nourished. Again, this book is about subjectivity. It's about interpretation, about constructing what you want to construct. To me, the whole point of the ending was to further emphasize that, and to actually ask the reader to do some work. I realize that this is a weird place--the ending--to ask the reader to do work. That's something that I've heard throughout the drafts from people giving me feedback, that the ending is dissatisfying for this reason, but I've steadfastly kept to it. I've never had any doubt that this was the way I wanted to end the book, and this is eventually why I wanted to work with Nan Talese, because she shared that vision.

On the subject of Hollywood endings, what are your thoughts or plans on turning this into a film?

From a financial point of view I would love for someone to make a movie of this, to run with it. I've always had the opinion that a film is a very different beast than a book, and in almost all the cases I can think of, when someone makes a really bad movie out of a really good book, the comment that people walk away with is, "You should read the book--it's tremendous. They've really fucked up the movie." My opinion is that I would love for somebody to try to make a movie of it. I am not a screenwriter, though I would give it a crack if somebody said they wanted me to. I'm a little bit leery of getting involved in the process and of raising my expectations as to the final product. I've been in films and I've seen how they work from beginning to end. I know that the writer's portion of the film is something that changes so drastically from start to finish that if you're a control freak, you shouldn't try to make films; you should stay out of the business. Maybe I have too much of a control instinct to really do it half-heartedly or to be only somewhat involved. It seems to me to be an all-or-nothing situation. I'd let somebody else write the screenplay. I would sign away the rights before I'd become just a pawn in the whole process.

Are there any books-turned-movies that you think have worked?

The English Patient was a case where the screenwriters and Saul Zaentz took an interpretation of the book and decided to emphasize a different story line than what was emphasized in the book, and I think it worked out well. They didn't try to follow the book religiously or to recreate it. That's the thing. Film is different, and you can't just expect Angela's Ashes to capture what was great about the book. You can't expect that same sort of tone to come through, because that's lyricism in writing and that's not something that's necessarily going to translate. You can make a good film but you can't recreate what was great about the book.

I thought The Sweet Hereafter did a good job of capturing the mood of the book.

An excellent job, but the language is so different from the book to the movie. I adored that film as well--that's a good example. For every good example there are about one hundred bad examples.

What writers do you admire most, or are most inspired by?

In terms of influential writers for this particular book, Jerzy Kosinski's book Cockpit had a big effect on me. Certainly Nabokov as well, for his use of the first person narrator. When I was growing up I was a huge Yukio Mishima fan. I read almost all of his books, and there's something about the psychological dimension of his work that I adore. It's really terse and wonderful and dramatic. Salinger's Franny and Zooey interestingly addresses Indian mysticism. I enjoyed that concept of high culture and affluence mixing with looking for answers in another culture. It's that cultural abduction, talked about in the book, that is prevalent with a lot of upper middle class white people looking for some sort of mystical answer, for some more mystical link to the earth other than what the consumer economy is giving them. There are also a lot of contemporary people--I really liked Enduring Love as well, and I'm really enjoying Disgrace, which I'm reading right now.

I understand you're now working on fictionalized epistolary novel on Modigliani--can you elaborate?

I'm kind of viewing these three books--The Secrets of the Camera Obscura, The Third Eye, and this upcoming one--as dealing with the art world, dealing with perspectives, dealing with history to a certain extent. With the new one I'm back in the art world and I'm also going back in time. It takes place in 1911, and is the story of Amedeo Modigliani, the painter, writing a long, rambling letter to a lost friend back in Italy. The subject matter and the story line for the book come from a tiny little snippet that I found in a biography--in a paragraph that mentions an episode in Modigliani's life when he seduced a woman that he was commissioned to paint, her husband found out and put the woman in an insane asylum, and she committed suicide. The passage was very terse, didn't really explain any more than that, and I decided it was something to blow up into an entire scene. The letter itself is part of the story. The other, framing part of the story is about one of Modigliani's biographers. He's a very insecure writer whose first work was the artist's biography. He gets a phone call out of the blue from a woman in Italy who's come across this manuscript. He flies to Italy, purchases this thing, returns home to have it translated, and discovers that what's written in the letter pretty much overturns all of his interpretations, his take on Modigliani. He'd tried to write a very interpretive history, which he finds suddenly to be false. So it's a story of a biographer who's confronted with new information, and his quandary as to whether or not to release it to the public, to make it history, to subvert his own career in a way. It's a story of his friendships as well. It's sort of a book within a book.

I look forward to reading it. And I hear you're currently involved with a few other projects--will you tell us about them?

Sure. I'm a musician, and I play in a group that plays around Manhattan quite a bit, called Champale. We're a septet and we play a lot of the clubs. February 26 we'll be at Brownies on 10th Street and Avenue A. We're moody pop music.

Any parting words of wisdom?

Basically, The Third Eye is a book about the contemporary art world, about New York. It tries to capture that slice of life in New York, and it's about mysticism and subjectivity, and about seeing what you want to see.

You're happy with the finished product?

Very happy.

interview by Laura Buchwald
author's page
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