Jonathan Dee’s latest novel, A Thousand Pardons, goes on sale August 6 and we’ve got an excerpt from the exclusive Random House Reader’s Circle materials in the back of the book for you to enjoy.
“A Thousand Pardons is that rare thing: a genuine literary thriller. Eerily suspenseful and packed with dramatic event, it also offers a trenchant, hilarious portrait of our collective longing for authenticity in these overmediated times.”—Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
A Conversation with Jonathan Dee and Dana Spiotta
Dana Spiotta is the author of three novels: Lightning Field; Eat the Document, which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award and a recipient of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and Stone Arabia, which was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award. Spiotta has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and the Rome Prize in Literature. She is an assistant professor in the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program.
Dana Spiotta: Helen’s apology wrangling is described as a gift, a vocation, and an accidental specialty. It is mysterious to her exactly why, yet her idea of “total submission” works. This process strikes me as almost religious.
Jonathan Dee: I’m not interested in current events per se, but I am interested in how certain aspects of social or public life that might seem ultra-contemporary actually take their place in a long American continuum. If you look at the practice of “crisis management,” and maybe squint at it a little, you can make out in the corners of your vision the ghosts or the vestiges of a much older, but still thoroughly American, form of public life, one centered not on public opinion but on religion. The theater of press conferences, Oprah sit-downs, et cetera is like an old, sacred vessel into which all this contemporary, pro- fane content gets poured. To me, A Thousand Pardons is a book not about spin or scandal or PR or even forgiveness, but about religious heritage. But I wanted the story itself to have a smooth surface, and to wear its ideas lightly.
DS: A Thousand Pardons has a breakneck pace. Events propel the characters forward, and as soon as they react to one event, another event happens. It’s hard to resist the momentum, and then the reader wants to go back and read it all again, more slowly. Tell me why pace was so important in this book?
JD: It would be going way too far to say I wanted the novel to be a par- able, but I wanted it to have some of the formal aspects of a parable or a religious tale. Parables are short and sweet; they move only forward, from event to event, as you say; they don’t contain flashbacks or other devices for re-ordering time; and there’s no pause in them for reflection or commentary or explorations of meaning. Those things exist outside the story, to be provoked by it.
DS: Helen believes abjection and confession are transformative. But why doesn’t Ben’s abject apology toward the beginning of the book work on Helen? Does he need to atone as well as apologize?
JD: She’s too angry, at that point, to accept it. And she stays angry with him for a long time; she’s been wronged and humiliated by him, so she can’t bring to his case the same sort of objectivity she brings to the dilemmas of her clients. As for Ben, being a lawyer I think he understands too well the negotiability of words; he knows that the road back for him will be about repenting not in speech but in service. He just has to hang around long enough to learn what that service will be.
DS: Public relations has cynicism built into it. It is brilliant and slightly perverse to posit such a sincere person as a public relations savant. Where did the idea come from?
JD: In order to describe a particular subculture, you might want to portray people who are typical or representative of that subculture; but to dramatize it, to make it an interesting setting for a story, you want to bring someone anomalous into that setting, to see how she conforms to it, and it to her.
DS: Did you read a lot of tabloids when you decided to write about crisis management? Public scandal is now so performed and mediated—did the machinations behind these events fascinate you? How do you know so much about it?
JD: What I read, mostly, were memoirs, first-person accounts written by veterans of the crisis-management industry. That’s always the most productive research—research into tone, into voice. Facts are nice too, but facts are more raw material than creative inspiration.
“A page turner . . . What a triumph.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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