New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld sat down with David Gilbert to discuss & Sons, a wonderful work of literary fiction on sale in paperback this month. Together, these two authors discuss the characters, plot twists, the novel’s title, and more in this Random House Reader’s Circle Q&A for you and your book club.
“In terms of sheer reading pleasure, my favorite book this year was & Sons, David Gilbert’s big, intelligent, richly textured novel about fathers, sons, friendship, and legacies. . . . From [A. N.] Dyer’s slacker sons to a J. Crew-wearing young seductress, every member of Gilbert’s cast of characters is perfectly drawn.”—Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker
Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of four novels, Sisterland, American Wife, The Man of My Dreams, and Prep. Her books have been translated into twenty-five languages. Visit her website at www.curtissittenfeld.com.
Curtis Sittenfeld: The narrator of & Sons is a peripheral character. I love this choice, but it’s also surprising. What made you select the narrator you did rather than going with a more central character or just using a third-person omniscient point of view?
David Gilbert: I always knew I wanted to write the book in the first person but, in a tricky way, a sort of omniscient first person who by dint of his omniscience is unreliable. That’s Philip Topping. I have a soft spot for unreliable narrators, in the subtext they can generate, in the extra work the reader has to do in order to glean the “truth” of the story, in the pure fun of their uncertain claims; I also have a soft spot for outsiders peeking in through the glass, seeing a world they’re desperate to inhabit. In this book I wanted to have this question hang in the air: Who is the author of this story? Is Philip Topping truly in control? Does he have the artistic chops? If not him, then who? I wanted a certain kind of narrative shimmer, if that makes sense.
CS: Given that the focus of the novel shifts among a few characters, I’m wondering if you have a special fondness for anyone. In many books, the author’s favorite is obvious, but you’re very even-handed in making everyone flawed yet endearing.
DG: A. N. Dyer was a favorite, mainly because of his crankiness, which was enjoyable and perhaps all too natural to inhabit. Intelligence unhinged is always interesting and allows for particular flights of fancy through time. Plus it was fun to create all those unwritten novels, three hundred pages condensed into a paragraph or a line. The Andy sections were also a blast, what with the straight-ahead definition of his desire and the riff-like quality of his mind. And at the end of the day we’re both seventeen, only I’m wearing the mask of a forty-six-year-old.
CS: Although the book is primarily about fathers and sons, I admired your believable and well-rounded female characters, especially Jeanie Spokes. Do you have any favorite female characters created by either male or female novelists?
DG: I’ve always been a tremendous fan of Lily Bart and Isabel Archer, which is appropriate since their creators had such a deep friendship. I also love Matilda, especially from reading the book to my girls. And there’s Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. And Emily Dickinson, who seems like a character of her own creation. And all the women in Housekeeping. And . . .
CS: The novel includes a few dramatic plot twists, especially one at the end. Did you always know what was coming or did you surprise yourself as you were writing?
DG: I had things pretty well mapped out when I started and understood the route of the plot, the ups and downs and sharp turns. But there were smaller moments that surprised me, like when Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk in Central Park, suddenly flew into the book, as did a poem about an owl, and a certain statue at 70th and Fifth Avenue, and the Von Trapp Family Singers, and how much a pretzel resembles an ampersand, which resembles a strand of DNA, and the prologue and the epilogue—those small moments of discovery can be quite novel-affirming, an unexpected detail that opens up the story and confirms you are on the right track (forgive the pun).
CS: A. N. Dyer reveals a bombshell to his adult sons, who don’t entirely believe him. Do you want readers to believe Dyer’s claim, or did you intentionally leave it open to interpretation?
DG: Hmm, how to answer this, Curtis? I certainly have my opinion, though I do want it to remain open to interpretation, but since whoever is reading this has likely read the book (and by the way, thank you, and if you are skimming the back in your local bookstore, I highly recommend The Flamethrowers and Black Swan Green and Skippy Dies and Sisterland too). I can say that I think A. N. Dyer is quite unstable at this point and he is merely weaving another tale, another piece of fiction that he hopes somehow will bring his family back together and forgive his past and ease his future. He is a professional storyteller, after all.
CS: I can’t resist asking: What’s your opinion of J. D. Salinger in general and The Catcher in the Rye specifically?
DG: The thing about J. D. Salinger—the weird thing, once you’ve read the short stories and The Catcher in the Rye—is that he sort of becomes part of you, maybe because of the age in which you access his writing, those late teen years when you yourself struggle between the poles of public and private, which often invert, so that you can feel alone among friends or totally in touch with the pulse of the world locked up in your room, and Salinger writes to this, hears our call, and also fulfills our own immature dream of mammoth success followed by the fantasy of dying while still alive, of being present at our own funeral (hello, Tom Sawyer), of feeling beloved from a self-imposed distance, without the complications of actual contact and possible compromise—Salinger is adolescence, and reading him today is like watching a home movie as directed by a master: it is artful, often wonderful, but sometimes I have to look away, sometimes the sentiment is too awkward, too trapped in a sense of self-absorbed unfairness. Did I really look that way back then? I think the lack of material has done Salinger a favor. That said, I reread The Catcher in the Rye every few years, mainly to see how I have aged.
CS: Another reason I admired this book is that the New York it evokes simultaneously feels authentic and insiderish but not off-puttingly smug. (I say this having never lived there.) I believe you grew up in New York and live there currently, and I’m curious about your relationship with the city. Have you lived elsewhere? Did you worry at all that non–New York readers might miss some of the book’s references?
DG: I have a strange relationship with New York. It is my hometown. I have lived in other places for stretches of a few years, but I always seem to find myself back in New York. I married a New Yorker. I am raising little New Yorkers. I still live on the Magic Mountain that is Manhattan, unable to escape even to Brooklyn. I am doomed. And New York has changed from the New York of my youth. (Wait a sec while I put on my Old Crank hat.) New York oozes with money now, like an infected open wound. Oh, there has always been money flowing through the bloodstream of this city, but today it feels different, today it feels stifling, apocalyptic even, the walking dead of the rich. That said, there are still the museums (though art nowadays is equated with cash), and there is the theater (which on average costs around $100 per seat), and many movie houses (mostly playing blockbusters) and great restaurants (don’t get me started). Still, there is a surviving culture here, and by that I mean the culture of the street and the subway, the park, the packed-in people, the blunt edge of close inhabitation mixed with the collective cause of being trapped and toughened and oddly dependent on one another to remain cool, i.e., New Yorkers. There remains a self-generating energy, a great grand orgy of everyday desire. I could only leave New York for Berlin or Paris or Rome, Madrid maybe, but I don’t speak those languages. I speak New York. And I hope in this novel, no matter where you’re from, you can understand the words.
CS: The title of this novel is simultaneously perfect and kind of awkward, especially to say aloud. Did you have reservations about giving your book an unwieldy title?
DG: It was always going to contain an ampersand. The title kind of dropped in fully formed. And I twisted much of the novel around that shape, in the obvious narcissistic reflection in A. N. Dyer’s name, and in his first novel, Ampersand; even in the titles of his subsequent books, there is a hint of an ampersand. Growing up I also remember seeing old ghostly advertisements on the sides of building, often with only an “& Sons” visible, the father faint and undecipherable. So I was totally committed to the title and its lack of a solid foundation.
CS: Did you use any particular strategy for writing the sections of the book that are “excerpts” of A. N. Dyer’s novels? Did you feel pressure, given that these novels are supposed to be iconic?
DG: Like I said before, that was actually fun. I could write a whole novel in a snippet without the hassle of plot and character development and pages and pages of actual painstaking writing. It was different with Ampersand since there’s a large chunk of that novel contained within the book, and it’s so beloved and acclaimed by its readership (it won a Pulitzer, after all). I just kind of held my breath (and at times my nose) and dove in. I had the whole internal novel pretty well mapped out, to the point where it seems like I’ve written it. But it does set up as an easy target: This is meant to be great? Yeah, right. But I understood that going into the project, that there was that danger, and to be honest, it was thrilling to take on the challenge.
CS: This is your third book. What do you know now about writing and publishing that you didn’t know before your first?
DG: Unfortunately, not a lot. The first blank page is always a mystery. Maybe when I first started writing I disparaged plot, thinking it a hack’s course, but nowadays, we novelists have to compete with so many other easier (and frankly wonderful) entertainments, we need to remember the basics of story and plot and forward momentum and character and, most important, the pleasures to be found on that once blank page. We need to prove ourselves worthy of the most precious commodity: time.