A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: To Curry Favor with the Wealthy does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Aaron's debut, The Ghost Apple.
Release no. I:
To Curry Favor with the Wealthy by Aaron Thier
I drove down to Miami to meet Aaron Thier for an exclusive interview on his new novel, To Curry Favor with the Wealthy. It was possibly one of the worst drives of my life, done in the depths of the night without any caffeine to keep me floating.
Aaron had effusively accepted the conversation, but then noted he had three requisite conditions: 1) that we meet at a restaurant of his choosing, a Café Delphinium near his apartment, 2) that I would drive from my home in Gainesville, nonstop, and wouldn’t first step foot anywhere but the café’s parking lot, and 3) that we meet at 6:15 a.m.
To be honest, I was a bit peeved. How could I not be? But this book was something else. I had quite literally suffered medical setbacks because of it. And so I agreed.
The café was stunning inside, composed of a kaleidoscope of purple and golden hues, wafted with the sounds of Yo-Yo Ma. I’d soon realize this was the only song we’d be hearing; it was on loop. Aaron had ordered us a table full of petit fours. Most involved lamb.
He was generous with his words, as you’ll soon realize, and equally so with the check—even after protest. Below is a selection of our dialogue.
The early reviews are in, and they are glowing (to say the least). Felicia Fussbaum at The New Republic called it "dazzling, courageous and ground-shifting" while Malik Lazlo at Bookforum said "Thier is heralding in a new language—what satire is to reality, his world is to satire." Personally, I enjoyed your debut, The Ghost Apple, but after reading To Curry Favor, I literally stopped eating. This was a mixed blessing, as during my hospitalization I had all the time I wanted to reread it—front to back, back to front, every other word, only vowels. Tell me Aaron, were there any noticeable differences in your writing conditions, between this release and your debut?
It's always gratifying to hear that the novel has had an impact on a reader's life. And thank you for alluding so tactfully to my recent reversals. Differences in my writing conditions, yes indeed. I don't mind talking about it. The novel's second, third, and sixth parts were all written at Azure Blue Luxury Correctional Facility on Hibiscus Island in Miami. But I would like to say at the outset that I object strongly to the phrase "white collar crime." I think of it now as a crime of passion. A passion for nice things.
Okay, that's a great relief. My editor put a gag order on your incarceration unless you, technically, brought it up first. Is it fair to guess that the characters originating in these chapters—Jonny "Corned Beef on Rye" Salsalito, Mr. Ed, Ruby St. Ruby—were a composite of your actual, um, co-inmates? I can only guess the sort of absolute depravity you champion came from personal relationships with its subscribers. Expound.
Well, to some extent we all take from life. Mr. Ed is a basically mean-spirited depiction of a certain correctional officer, though I regret it now. But the others... I know a co-inmate who would be flattered to learn that he was the prototype for Jonny Salsalito, but Salsalito is ultimately his own man. His real-life counterpart is a gentler soul. A demure little gentleman, even. In general I lived well at Azure Blue, and I have nothing but affection and respect for my co-inmates. Depravity! It's all an invention, I'm afraid. You'll find your depravity on the outside, among the real criminals -- the ones too cunning and ruthless to be caught and convicted in the first place.
You've just put it so perfectly, haven't you Aaron? Your character's are rich, your book is rich, and yet when it comes to the prose, we're talking a strict economy—so, so tight. Poor, dirt poor, an almost beggarly succinctness. I often found myself reading your sentences aloud (to the chagrin of my bedmate beyond the teal curtain), trying to see if I could remove even a letter. Never. How much editing was involved? How many drafts? Was the first so scanty, so indigent?
I wrote the book in pieces, as I often do, and it was substantially drafted at the time of my arrest, but at that point it was much different. Expansive, flowery, overblown. The breakthrough for me came when three sections were taken from me and admitted as evidence. I'd written them longhand, since I was worried -- and justifiably so, as it turned about -- about electronic surveillance, and the FBI hasn't returned them to this day. At Azure Blue, then, I had only what remained in my memory, a kind of skeletal outline, so that the most important editorial work was essentially accomplished for me. An effect of the ruthless economy of memory. Once I'd begun to transcribe that bare-bones version of what I'd written previously, I realized that this was the way to tell the story. Of course I was also writing on napkins, so concision was necessary from that perspective as well.
Terseness born from necessity. Well not even Hemingway could pretend his was a sort of pragmatism. This sparseness is effective on its own, of course, but works to highlight the book's most climactic scene, the prose of which I can only describe as swollen. More bluntly, Chapter 9 is one sentence. There are nearly three thousand words and about seven hundred commas. It's raw emotion. Raw affectation. Raw humanity. Reading it, I cried like a little baby boy. Of course in retrospect it was obvious Salsalito would be reunited with his father, but not in that way. What other scenes in literature inspired this one? Rereading it, do you have any regrets?
I do regret accidentally incorporating some copy from a Pottery Barn catalog, but otherwise no, I'm very happy with it. Naturally I was thinking of Faulkner. The scene in Absalom, Absalom where Archie and Jughead confront Jughead's father in the Dairy Queen parking lot. Is that Faulkner? I was also thinking of the joke in Ulysses where Stephen proves by algebra that Hamlet is the ghost of his own father. The thing was that originally I had Salsalito fighting a real ghost, that is to say a ghost that existed outside himself and had a sort of material reality. It was unworkable because I had to spend so much time describing the equipment that allowed him to detect and interact with ghosts in the first place. Also I had to establish that he was capable of developing this technology by himself in his camper, which wasn't credible. But then I remembered this bit from Ulysses and I just pared everything away. In the final version, Salsalito is possessed by the ghost of his father and must beat himself to a jelly to exorcise the malevolent spirit. I think it's much more arresting and human this way. And the fact that it takes place at a Dairy Queen -- that's just a nod to Faulkner.
I get the impression I'm being allowed firsthand access into the mind of a genius and, to be honest, I don't know if my seatbelt is strong enough to match the velocity of the vehicle, if you'll excuse the clunky and possibly irrelevant metaphor. I mean this is real, tangible, pulpy stuff. I believe it was Joan Didion who said, in an interview with Norman Mailer, "it's not the book you write, Norman, it's the books you don't write while writing the book." It's funny you should mention ghosts. In reading To Curry Favor with the Wealthy, you get the feeling you're simultaneously reading all of the plot that ended up on the cutting room floor because it was unwieldy, unrealistic chaff—and yet unspeakably close to the Truth of it all.
Obviously the Dairy Queen was a nod to Faulkner. On the topic of food, I did have an itch building towards the conclusion of the novel. This is when Salsalito flies to Hyderabad, spending a month working in tech support as personal penance for his misdeeds. I couldn't help but think, you know, suspect that a lot of this section, and its attention towards the food he was eating, wasn't a gimmick to justify the double-meaning of curry in the title. Obviously I'm off the mark here, right?
Of course! The Hyderabad section was actually the first thing I wrote, so there's no question of its having been added in the service of a pun. I started with chicken curry. I have a passion for chicken curry. Actually it was supposed to be an article for a travel magazine, but unfortunately I had to fabricate some things and the editors weren't able to run it. I'm glad you bring up the Hyderabad section, though, because this gives me a chance to address some other misconceptions about the book. Essentially, critics have been saying that this whole section is part of a product placement deal I made with Tantric Computing Solutions, which is where Salsalito works. This is absurd! First of all, literature is a small business. No company would pay to advertise in a novel. And second, if I'd had this lucrative deal, why would I have gotten involved with Petrov and the art forger to begin with?
Even going so far as to humor those claims is ridiculous. It would be even more unfortunate to omit what a breeze it is to work with Tantric Computing Solutions. They are, as they say, "A higher order Support CenterTM". Fed up with local vendors? Try Tantric—it's the outsourced call center for customers who can't stand outsourced call centers.
I understand you must be going shortly, so leave us on a hopeful note. It isn't question of if there will be a cinematic adaptation (yes) or when we'll have it (the summer of 2017) but who will land the rights. If it was up to you, who's directing this? Who's producing? Who's playing who? I can't imagine Buscemi's being left off the bill.
There's definitely no company doing what Tantric Computing Solutions does as well as Tantric Computing Solutions does it. I think we can agree on that without risking our reputations or violating the terms of any putative contractual agreements, whether those agreements exist or not. Which reminds me: Did you know Tantric Computing Solutions has developed an algorithm that can direct a major motion picture more effectively than ANY human director? It doesn't matter what rubric you use. So that's my choice for director. Unfortunately we don't yet have a good replacement for human actors. I think I'd like to see Charles Barkley in the role of Salsalito, though I know I'm going to face some opposition here. Buscemi could play one of the three guys who get murdered in the first two pages, or he could even play all three. For Ruby St. Ruby I'm not sure. I've thought of Jessica Rabbit, but since Who Framed Roger Rabbit all she's done is pornography. And as for Mr. Ed, which is a tough part, we'd need someone like Tom Hanks to bring sensitivity to the role. Tantric Computing Solutions -- thanks to the doctrine of corporate personhood -- is already in place as a producer, but legally I'm not allowed to reveal the names of the others. It's going to be a great film.
I can literally smell the popcorn being shoveled down my gullet as I watch this sure-to-be blockbuster, will all of its bombastic visual effects and direction (thanks to Tantric Computing Solutions) and marquee-level actors, without a doubt failing to bring the sort of emotional depth you’ve been able to imbue in your characters. This has been lovely Aaron. Thank you for your words.
Cover by Linda Huang. Linda is a graphic designer based in New York. She has a BA from Swarthmore College and a AAS in Graphic Design from Parsons. She is currently a designer at Vintage & Anchor Books, Random House, and is also available for freelance.
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