Jennifer Egan, author of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, interviews Dan Barden about his new book The Next Right Thing.
The Next Right Thing seems both to honor the conventions of the mystery genre, and to bend them in thrilling and amusing ways. Are you a mystery buff? Talk about your relationship to the genre, and if – and how – it moved you to write this novel. Do you see it as a mystery novel?
Yes, I’m mystery buff. Thrillers, noir, hard-boiled crime novels — the whole bag. Hard-boiled, particularly. It’s the kind of book that always goes to the top of the pile. When I was out in the wilderness between novels, I thought really hard about what I wanted to write, and I kept pushing away the idea of a crime novel. I didn’t feel worthy of the genre — it gave me too much pleasure, it was too important to me. But then I went to school on many crime novels that I loved. I typed up the books that I wanted for models — yes, that’s right, I typed up at least five novels, got them into my blood and bones. I was trying to write the best story possible, and I borrowed as many elements from the genre as I could. I’m wary to claim this as a thriller because I don’t want to show up at the door of that club and have someone like Lee Child or James Ellroy or Laura Lippman kick me out.
The central relationship of the novel – one that I’ve never seen explored in fiction before – is that of a recovering alcoholic to his sponsor; indeed, the mysterious death of that sponsor is what sets the story in motion. Talk about the quality of a recovering addict’s relationship to his sponsor, and what made you think of investigating the richness of that relationship here.
I have a lot of friends in recovery. I’m sure they might all answer this question differently, but I’ll tell you what I’ve seen: an alcoholic comes into the process of recovery and he is probably at the lowest point of his life. And into this weird, desperate vacuum comes a sponsor who not only introduces him to his new life, but also to a new community. The situations that I’ve seen are just so wildly beautiful. People are accepted into the community just because they’re standing there. Not because they are lovable or kind or smart or any of those things that they thought were important. My protagonist, Randy Chalmers, says it well in the book. He says, “You just have to be a still-breathing alcoholic.” When I was getting sober, I had a guy like that, too. He told me that I was in much worse shape than I thought I was, but that I was also better than I thought I was. I can’t imagine my life without knowing him.
Likewise, your use of West Coast recovery culture is sublime and unexpected. Was there research involved?
The research was my life. I’ve had many friends in recovery for many years, and I lived in California until my late twenties. The recovery scene out there is amazing. It’s a big culture. And they really walk to the beat of a different drummer. They have a lot of fun, too. Big wild conventions. A.A. meetings with thousands of people at them.. I’m so glad you think it worked.
I was struck repeatedly by the humor in your novel. How did you achieve it? Whom do you look to for funny writing you can learn from?
In writing this book, one of my great discoveries was that I could write in the voice of someone funnier than I am. I’m not as funny as my friends, for example. I have one friend in mind. I call him once a week just hoping he’ll have time to tell me stories about his life. He’s been sober a long time, too. So, at one point, I just decided to write in his voice. And that worked really well. As far as other models go, Steve Hely’s How I Became A Famous Novelist was a book that totally cracked me up. That was another novel I typed up, just a chapter or two. There’s a certain kind of brilliantly self-involved mind that always gets me. What else? Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos. God, that was funny book. Jonathan Tropper is a master of droll narration. I studied him, too.
Randy Chalmers, your detective figure, is a sensational mix of incongruous qualities. Talk about his genesis; how did he take shape in your mind? Do you plan to write about him again?
First of all, he’s grief-stricken. He’s lost his best friend, the man who made his life possible. I know about this kind of grief. The man who got my ass sober died of a heroin overdose himself. For me, it was like getting hit in the face with a shovel. I got very angry about my friend’s death, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I wanted someone who could cause trouble in a way that I couldn’t — so I made him an ex-cop with an anger management problem. But Randy also has a big heart. He loves his friends to a fault. He is incredibly loyal. He also has the grace, sometimes, to see what a problem he is to himself and others. He struggles mightily against himself. He is a beast and an angel. He’s also an artist — a home designer, to be precise — and that’s something he discovered in his recovery. He’s a guy who pulled a lot of precious gifts from the wreckage of his life. I am writing about him again for sure. I hope to be finished with a second book very soon.
When I read mysteries, I often find that there comes a point when the exigencies of plot crowd out the more literary aspects of the story. That never happened in your book. In writing it, did you experience tension between genre requirements and literary goals?
I’m so glad that you feel that way! Yes, that was the big challenge. I’m sure that’s always the challenge in a book like this that gets its energy from both genre and literary impulses. I worked very to make a book that functioned as a mystery/thriller/crime novel. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the literary part of the story. The trick was to deliver the questions — and answers — that would satisfy an audience looking for a more action-packed experience. That was the prize that I’ve always dreamed of: a compelling story wrapped around characters who seem alive in the real world.