Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series. 

In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.

Our complete list of conversations, including:

A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books

The Art of Commerce, exploring the intersection of literature and the market 


Episode XV: "Duly muffled, we forge ahead"

Published 5/21/15
In this installment, I set up Christopher Bollen (above) with Jack Livings (below). They discuss reading the other's book, Joseph O’Neill, titles, China, Ai Weiwei, Mao, Greece, saunas, online chess, children & more.

Andrew: Welcome to the fifteenth installment of PIXELATED. I’m here with Christopher Bollen (ORIENT, Harper, 2015) and Jack Livings (THE DOG, FSG, 2014).

Both Christopher and Jack remind me of the lessons carved out by John Gardner’s—that is, to put it shortly, balance. There’s honesty in character and propulsion of plot. There’s a love of language but without a sacrifice to substance. There’s novelty on the edges held together by the known and the familiar. 

In ORIENT, Christopher takes us to the eponymous small Long Island town, where rich Manhattanites have been supplanting the locals. Mix in a series of unsolved deaths, enough suspense to kill a man, and the shredding of a small community, and you have a book nearly impossible to put down. 

In THE DOG, Jack brings us fully imagined stories, each and every scene imbued with the intricate nuance of Chinese social and cultural boundaries. In each story, you get the impression there’s so much more not being said—because Jack doesn’t need to. His characters and their shared ground feels bottomless at times, and it’s hard to put the book down without feeling like they’re still there.

Before we get started, first things first: would you each kindly describe where you are and what you see?

Jack: I see a huge mess. Papers everywhere. A stapler.

Christopher: Chrome is a whole new world for me. But i guess you mean my non-virtual surroundings. I'm at home, at my desk in my bedroom. facing metal blinds and a cactus i bought last weekend

Did you buy or steal that stapler?

Jack: Stolen. Red.

Christopher: I believe the stapler is the most stolen office supply

Andrew: (Also, for those at home, the three of us spent 38 minutes trying to end up in the same digital box.)

Christopher: I'm now on gmail

Jack: I'm on hangouts, apparently. New frontiers.

Christopher: What took us so long?

Jack: And hello, Christopher. It's a pleasure to meet you.

My Olivetti wouldn't hook up to the interwebs is what took me so long.

Christopher: Nice to meet you, Jack. 
I have your book. I haven't started but it's on my summer stack of books. 

Andrew: This whole thing is actually an initiative to bring more authors to Google Hangouts.

Christopher: Congrats on it. I've heard amazing stuff. 

Jack: Bless you, Christopher.

Thank you

Christopher: Andrew, thanks for the Google Hangouts t-shirt and cap

Andrew: Yeah, I've got mugs, temporary tattoos. Lot of fun stuff over here.

Jack: Your book's soon to be atop my to-read stack

Christopher: Jack, I'm guessing you pitted us together because of Orientialism. Edward Said would be proud

ah, thanks. 

I will need for you to fax me the sales receipt

Or just google hangout it

Jack: Consider it done.


Christopher: [that first jack was meant to be andrew]

Jack: So, we're in the clear: you haven't read me and I haven't yet read you, so what have you read good lately?

Christopher: I haven't read you. But I heard a lot about your book when it came out. I was intrigued by the title, and not just because I'm a dog lover

i'd love to know how you settled on that title

Jack: I'm trying to think of a snazzier way of saying, "by default."


Christopher: It wasn't the only The Dog out in 2014

Jack: Right!

I couldn't believe it.

Christopher: Do you hate Joseph O'Neill?

Jack: And then I thought, Wait a minute. People love O'Neill. Maybe they'll accidentally buy my Dog thinking it's his.

Andrew: Joseph O'Neill has my dream face hair situation

Christopher: That's excellent. My new novel is called White Teeth: Orient

Jack: There you go. 

Christopher: He's very handsome. 

Beautiful, brilliant wife, Rivka

Jack: Yes!

Christopher: Did you read that Dog? 

Jack: I have to confess I haven't read it.


Andrew: Galchen?

Christopher: No. I didn't. I bought yours and not his.

Jack: By accident, right?

I haven't read her new collection, no.

I'm usually about 15+ years behind the curve unless it's a close friend's book.

Christopher: Yes. I couldn't believe it. Which Dog came out first? Was there any advance warning?
And then I'll stop asking about the other Dog

As i get older i seem to be digging farther back in time in terms of fiction

Jack: Here's my theory: it's someone's job at every publishing house to check isbn numbers to ensure that no one's publishing a book with an identical title.

But these two Dogs came out within weeks of each other, as I recall, which makes me think that process of checking--if one actually exists--must have happened simultaneously, and the two somehow missed each other.

Christopher: When I started writing Orient, it was really solely based on how much I loved the word for the title. that was the ignitor. And i couldn't believe it hadn't been used before. 

There is Murder on the Orient Express

Jack: Stripped of context, it's a lovely word.

Christopher: Which was a perk because Orient is a mystery

Jack: With context, a complex one. Just what you want for a mystery.

Christopher: It really is. ORIENT. Are you someone who starts with a title?

Jack: Oh, no.

Christopher: So that's the last thing you do?

Jack: Midway point, maybe? 

I'm always looking for the title in hopes it will. . . orient me. 

So are you working on something new now, or are things moving a little too fast?

Christopher: My first novel was supposed to be called Animal, but we changed it at the last minute to Lightning People. And i thought, umm, what about all of those weird animal references throughout the book? should i now make them meteorological?

I've already started on the third book. It's set in Greece. 

Jack: Haha

Christopher: Where do you live? 

Jack: Oh yes! Do you take research trips?

I'm in New York. 

Christopher: Me too. I'm in the East Village. 

Do you hear that siren?

Jack: Always.

Christopher: The siren is in your heart, Jack. 

Please put a pillow over it.

Jack: Hahaaaaa

Christopher: Well, if you live in New York and your book is set in China, how did you conjure a different country? I need to know. 

Jack: Duly muffled, we forge ahead.

The internet.

To answer your question, I mean. 

Christopher: Just youtube tourist videos? That's not a bad way to gather detail honestly.

Jack: I did go to China about 20 years ago, but yes, youtube is an astonishment.

Christopher: Why were you there 20 years ago? I went to Beijing two years ago. 

Jack: No way! I was there as a student. Tell me about Beijing two years ago.

Christopher: I went to interview Ai Weiwei for work. I had to pretend to be there as a tourist of course or they wouldnt have given me a visa. Everyone said i'd hate Beijing and love Shanghai (which i was going to). maybe that set the bar lower but i thought Beijing was incredible. then i twisted my ankle on the Great Wall. 

wasn't going to

Jack: Wow. Wow.

Christopher: But i never got on the time zone. I went to bed at 7pm and up at 3am

Jack: Just like Weiwei, right?

Christopher: And Ai Weiwei's studio complex is amazing. absolutely beautiful. If you're going to be under house arrest....

Jack: I've seen photos / video. Lots of assistants scurrying around, right?

Christopher: Tons of assistants. And cats. 

Jack: How was he in person?

Hard question, I realize, for this format.

Christopher: Very cool. Very smart. the man knows what he is doing. But not bitter about China. Strangely hopeful 

But also practical. 

Jack: Nice. 

He's always struck me as a master operator. 

He plays the media like an instrument.

I don't mean that to demean, but to say that his art is his ability to project himself onto the world.

Christopher: I think if you're working on that level you have to be. Interestingly enough young westernerns that i met who were living over there didn't have such a high opinion of him. he felt he was using the prestige of his radicalism

Very Warhol yeah

Jack: You know, I'm fairly skeptical of the Chinese art that's lauded in the West.

Christopher: Understandably. Maybe also because the aesthetics are so different. I suppose that's changing to a global aestheticism

Can i ask you about writing about another place a little more?

Jack: Yep. The aesthetics are complicated (like all aesthetics, right?), but I see Western interpretations working on about a 3rd grade level.

Christopher: Did you feel like it was hard to bring a version of China to life for western readers?

Jack: This government bad / Chinese people oppressed dichotomy.

Christopher: Yes. that was the argument they had. you have to play ball everywhere. 

Jack: It's not an entirely incorrect reading, but there's so much more to it than that.

Christopher: They didn't like the idea of Ai Weiwei as martyr 

as innocent

Jack: What does Ai Weiwei say about their skepticism?

If anything?

Christopher: Unfortunately i met them after i spoke with him. But he wasn't so Chinese government bad, me good. He understood that he was testing the constraints and their patience. That he knew what he was risking. That impressed me. 

He really is a big fan of Warhol so you could see that play on media and power and culture coming through

Jack: Absolutely. He knows the stakes are very high.

That makes sense re Warhol. So interesting.

Christopher: I'm working on setting a book right now on a Greek Island. And one of the trouble i have is that it's really hard to keep writing about a vacation island that is pretty. How many times can you describe a sunset? maybe i need to watch more youtube. Or go there again (i am this summer). But were you tapping your memory from twenty years ago? Did you ever worry you didn't have enough details for the course of an entire book?

Jack: Maybe you need to spend more time there to work out these issues? Your publisher would front you a few months in the Greek Isles, right?

Christopher: It's only fair that they pay for the ferry

Jack: I see a detailed proposal outlining the absolute necessity of Dec-March in Greece.


Jack: You know, I wasn't so worried about the details because I'd been chewing on them for so many years.

Christopher: Was it the first foreign place you lived as an adult?

Jack: I was more worried about portraying the characters honestly. 

Are your characters Greek?

Christopher: Yeah. All mine are American. We can make Americans monsters carte blanche

More like vacationers. BUt i will put a few in

Jack: Haha. So much easier.

I was so relieved to be finished with China so I could write American characters. I was suuuure they'd just flow from my fingers and arrive fully-formed. 



Christopher: ha

Jack: I spent some time in Germany and Switzerland when I was a kid, to answer your question.

How about you?

Why Greece?

Christopher: But was your actual first visit to China transformative. When i graduated from college in New York, i was a very dark, black-hair dyed misanthrope type. And i took an internship in Venice, at the Peggy Guggenheim, and i have to say that first experience of being to Italy on my own as an adult did something to me. It lightened my whole view, la dolce vita, i guess, but it's like it snapped me into a world of beauty or something. No more black hair dye. 

I think those first steps in the world outside of America change you

Jack: Yes.

Christopher: Or it did me

Jack: I'd never been alone outside the US before I went to China.

Changed me drastically, I think, for the better.

Christopher: Why did you pick China? 

Surely you could have gotten the Peggy Guggenheim internship

It required standing still in rooms of art for ten hours

Non tocare!

Jack: I was very lazy. I would have been able to stand for 2, tops. 


Christopher: Those bastards didn't even provide stools

Jack: I went to China because all my pals were going to Germany but I was failing German and couldn't get into the program.

Christopher: It's very hard to guard art on an intense wine hangover

Jack: So, naturally, China.

Christopher: I wish i had learned German

where in China?

Jack: Oh god. Ten hours with a wine hangover.

I was in Beijing, mostly. 

A different looking one than the one you saw, or so I hear.

Christopher: I bet. Was there a lot of pollution then? 
I was struck by the Mao tomb. All those people still laying flowers and sobbing, theatrical sobbing. 

Jack: Pollution was pretty stout, yes. Not as bad as now, though.

Christopher: Martian sunsets. the constant taste of soot in the mouth. 

Jack: I have a story about Mao's resting place. 

Yes! Soot on everything!

Christopher: Really? it's pretty otherworldly that tomb

Jack: That is, there's a story about Mao's coffin in the book.

Christopher: His face looks.... very waxy

Jack: Perhaps because he IS wax.

Christopher: That can't be it. 

Jack: I don't believe that.

I think it's really him.

He's well-preserved.

They put him in a fridge every night to keep him fresh.

Christopher: I suppose it isn't any weirder than visiting a saint's relics now. But do locals visit saint's relics like that? 

Jack: I'm impressed that you went to see him. 

I'm sure the devout visit the saint at least once a year.

For blessings?

Christopher: And finally i want to say that i was obsessed with the forbidden city. Never have a loved an audio guide more. 

Yes, you're right. 

Jack: Oh, I wish I could have heard it.

Christopher: Affairs, betrayals, so many regal clothes... it's like an audio tour of my apartment building

Jack: Hahaaaa

Christopher: So what are you working on now with American characters? 

Jack: Now I'm writing a book about your building. 

Christopher: PLEASE include the woman downstairs who works at the Turkish Baths who decorates her door at Xmas like a big child's present. You must.

Jack: No.

The Turkish Baths?

Christopher: Or clump upstairs. All he does all day is clump around

It's an East Village institution. I don't go 

Jack: Oh, he and family live above me, too.

Christopher: I'm not a big sauna guy

Do you write at home?

Jack: I write in a sauna.

It's quiet, the phone never rings.

Christopher: I mean why not? It approximates chinese pollution

Jack: I lose weight while writing. 

It's tops.

Christopher: Do you get weirded out by the guys who don't wear towels?

Great for detail

Jack: Oh, I write in a women's sauna.

Christopher: Oh. I'm, I'm sorry, i was confused. 

Better for detail and inspiration

Jack: So, let me ask you: where do you write?

Christopher: Well i am that woman who works at the turkish bath and decorates her door like a present even in February. 

No i write in my bedroom. Isn't that awful. 

Jack: And--don't gloss over this one--how carefully do you plot before you start?

How do you not take a nap every 15 minutes?

Christopher: I dream of an office. A locked door. AND NO BED. the bed calls to me. It's calling now. 

Jack: Right?

Christopher: Bed or online chess. these temptations

Andrew: Online chess!

Where do you play?

Christopher: I guess i've always lived in the smallest spaces so like some sort of caged hamster i've made do. 

stuffing tissue into my mouth 

Andrew: Online chess is my crack.

Christopher: IT IS?

Wait. It's mine too. For real

Andrew: yes


Christopher: I can't stop. this is a cry for help

Jack: I love this.

Christopher: Oh i'm on chess.com

should i switch over? 

Andrew: I love it there.

Jack: Am I on reddit now?

Christopher: I'm whatthethundersaid on chess.com!

Jack: You two are the best.

Andrew: I'm actually not going to switch over.

I need to protect my rating.

But if you make it over to chessfriends.com, I am "Andrew Lipstein"

Christopher: I'm not that great. 

I will do. 

Andrew: Something I regret, because everyone in Eastern Europe likes to call me "Jew"

Christopher: Jack, i take it you aren't plagued with gaming during writing hours?

That's offensive

Maybe they mean it endearingly?

Andrew: They don't

Jack: Yikes.

Christopher: Don't start, Jack. Never. 

I need to scare you straight

Jack: The last time I played chess I got schooled by a 7-year-old. 

True story. 

Christopher: I have a theory that children are getting smarter. Which is horrifying

I thought the precocious kid was just a literary fiction

Jack: Let's say this kid was the tip of the kids-getting-smarter spear.

I mean, the truth is, I play chess the way most people play checkers.

Christopher: You lost for our team. Team average-intelligence adult. 

Jack: It's offensive how bad I am.

Christopher: Do you play any other games?

In my family, games were a sign of accomplishment. They were not distractions. Winning mattered.

Jack: I'm down with that. 

Andrew: Guys, I'm afraid to do this—but we're out of time.

Christopher: Already? On Chess.com i can talk as long as i like

Andrew: Well this isn't chess.com

Jack: My daughter and I used to play Scrabble all the time but those days are gone

Christopher: Did you teach her Monopoly?

Christopher: i wonder if that game is still taught to children

Jack: Monopoly is infinite. We stay away from that one.

Christopher: Yeah, no good lessons there. 

Jack: That comment I made above sounds like my daughter died. She didn't. She just stopped playing so much Scrabble.

Christopher: Ha! I mean, no, i didn't read it that way. 

Andrew: That's a fun end note.

Jack: Farewell, Christopher: who lives upstairs from the TB lady.

Christopher: Jack, it's been such a pleasure and i'm really excited about the book. let's get a coffee if you ever get to east village and away from family clump

Jack: Yes! Let's do it. It's been great talking to you.

Andrew: Farewell, Christopher:. Farewell, Jack Livings.

Jack: And thanks, Andrew.

Christopher: You too. 

Thank you both!