The novelist and publisher talks to the Guardian about writing, politics, and his latest tome, A Hologram for a King.
Your portrayal of Saudi Arabia [in A Hologram for the King] sounds note-perfect – from the female surgeon who wears male trunks to go swimming to the foreign labourers fighting over a discarded cellphone. Did you do research trips there? What did you think about it as a country?
I went to Saudi Arabia in 2010, and spent most of my time in Jeddah and the King Abdullah Economic City. Before I went, I’d talked to friends who visited the kingdom, and some who’d lived there, so I had some sense of what to expect. But when I got there, what struck me more than anything was how quickly it’s changing. The internet arrived about 10 years ago, and more and more people have access to satellite TV, and now the youth of Saudi are insisting on change. And under King Abdullah, there’s been movement on many fronts. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is one example — women and men mix more freely there – and the arts in general are far more accepted and even liberated than ever before. I did a forum recently with three young Saudi artists, including Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first feature-film director from the kingdom, and all three were optimistic about where things are headed. In 10 more years, I think we’ll see some profound reforms.
The “hologram” of the title seems to refer not only to a new kind of IT technology but to the idea that the systems of modern finance were built on a mirage. Do you think capitalism has been shown wanting? Did we lose something tangible and real during those years we believed in endless credit?
There’s also the hologram of Alan’s life. He’s been raised to expect that, as an American businessman, he’ll be given a certain kind of regal treatment abroad, but finds that things have changed. He’s on the sidelines now, and has no idea how to get back into the game. And at home, the American Dream that was promised to guys like Alan seems increasingly unavailable. The financial system, the banks, the venture capitalists — these players don’t have use for a guy like Alan.
Your prose in Hologram is sparse; so subtle it creeps up on you. How much do you work on your prose style? Do you need to keep reminding yourself to strip it back?
Getting the tone just right for Hologram took a while. I’m naturally inclined toward a more dense, maximalist style, but that wouldn’t have been right for this book, and for Alan’s story. He’s a middle-aged man stuck in a desert, so the prose had to be spare and exact.
Did you consciously set out to write a novel about the global financial crisis?
I’d been taking notes for a few years for a novel about a man who’d been in manufacturing, but found himself adrift when his industry moved to Taiwan and China. I grew up north of Chicago, not far from where the Schwinn bicycle plant used to be, and was conscious of the fact that these beautiful, everlasting bikes were made just down the road. When the plant closed, psychically it was a big blow to Chicago, and ever since, there’s been very little manufacturing done in or near the city. And that’s very strange, given how central industry had been to the city’s identity since the beginning.
So I’d been thinking about this guy, Alan Clay, who he was and where he was in his life, and then one day I heard about the King Abdullah Economic City, and about American businessmen waiting in the desert for an audience with the king. That seemed the perfect place for Alan, for a guy who knows he’s in trouble but doesn’t know how to find his way out. So he travels thousands of miles, to a desert, to wait for the approval of a despot. I liked that; it has a strong parallel to our own economy. The American economy had a lot of problems, and for the solutions we tend to look everywhere but the mirror.
Is it true you write without the distraction of the internet? Do you think the internet helps or hinders thought processes?
I’ve never had WiFi at home. I’m too easily distracted, and YouTube is too tempting. About eight years ago, I had a DSL line for about three months, and I remember waking up one day, thinking I’d spend a few minutes on YouTube before getting to work. Next time I looked up, it was 1pm, and I was watching a 20-year-old video by Kajagoogoo. That proved that I couldn’t have WiFi at home.
You’re married to a writer. Do you show her your work as you’re writing it?
I do. Periodically I’ll ask Vendela [Vida] to look at something, to make sure I’m not wasting my time.
The book shows both a man and a global system in stasis. How much of this was influenced by your own impending middle age?
Impending nothing. I’m 42, which is middle age in my world. The last couple days, actually, I’ve had this feeling that my ribs are broken, all of them. It hurts to walk, to breathe. I can’t figure that out. Could I have broken all my ribs while sleeping or sitting on the couch? I need to figure this out.
A Hologram for the King is a beautiful physical object: how important is it for you that a book is a thing to be cherished?
McSweeney’s as a publishing company is built on a business model that only works when we sell physical books. So we try to put a lot of effort into the design and production of the book-as-object. For Hologram, we worked with a great printer near Detroit, and that collaboration proved, on a small level, that you can make manufacturing work here in the States if you’re willing to work within the capabilities of existing machinery and expertise — and the occasional constraints can actually make the object better. Besides, the manufacturing costs in China, when you consider time and shipping, make Detroit more logical much of the time.
You founded one of the most influential literary magazines in the US. Do you feel pessimistic about the future of publishing?
There’s never been a better time, I don’t think, to be a writer or publisher. The playing field is more democratic than ever, in that any small publisher can get a book to any reader in the world with relative ease. That’s very new, and good for everyone. I’m also encouraged because it looks like ebooks’ share of the market might be levelling out. I always hoped there’d be a plateau, and after that, ebooks and physical books would enjoy a kind of permanent détente. At least for the moment, that seems to be what’s happening.
Do you own a Kindle?
I don’t. I’ve never read a page on an e-reader. But I have no problem with them as another path to the text. But for me, because I write on a Mac, I spend so many hours looking at a screen already, so when I want to read a book or a newspaper, I like the paper in my hands – for contrast as much as anything.
You’re the founder of 826 Valencia and have done a lot of human rights and charity work over the years. Should authors have a moral conscience?
I don’t know if authors should as a rule do anything but try to write well. But sitting in your garage, writing – or pretending to write, while actually watching Kajagoogoo videos – sometimes it makes you feel a little useless. Sometimes you feel like getting out in the world and seeing if you can be useful in some more immediate or tangible way. With our nonprofits, they all emerged from situations where it just seemed logical. I knew teachers, and I knew writers with free time on their hands, so it made sense to create a centre where we could help schools with one-on-one attention to student writing. That idea works everywhere, and in London it works with the Ministry of Stories (cofounded by Nick Hornby) and First Story.
You’ve experienced the shocking and sudden deaths of close family members: are you scared of death?
Well, there’s a familiarity now that precludes fear.
Why did you choose to do this interview over email?
My hope is that I sound smarter and more focused this way. In person I tend to ramble.
You’re famed for blending fact and fiction: how difficult is that to pull off? Do you find facts liberating or restricting?
These days, I don’t have any nonfiction planned. Writing fiction is far more liberating and enjoyable on a daily basis. But I came up as a journalist, and my education was as a journalist, so research, and trying to tell a story that might have an impact – those things will likely always be part of the mix.
President Obama recommended his cabinet read What Is the What. Have you ever met the president and, if so, what was he like?
I met him briefly, during the campaign, back in 2008. There was a small fundraiser in Berkeley, and we all got to spend a few minutes with him. I’ve met some other elected leaders over the years, and almost uniformly there’s a stiffness about them, a certain distance — even if they’re known for their charm. But Obama has a realness about him that’s not fakeable. He is exactly who he appears to be. I don’t have to tell anyone from London what a bonehead Romney is, but outside of being a verbal klutz, he was the most unknowable, and mercurial, and utterly dangerous, politician since Nixon. With President Obama, you know who he is morning, noon and night. That kind of certainty, and moral clarity, is essential to a country trying to find its footing again.
What is the best book you read last year?
There are a bunch of books I could mention, but the book I find myself pushing on people more than any other is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. The author fought in Iraq with the US army, and then, many years later, this gorgeous novel emerged. Next to The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, it’s the best thing I’ve read about the war in Iraq, and by far the best novel. Powers is a poet first, so the book is spare, incredibly precise, unimproveable. And it’s easily the saddest book I’ve read in many years. But sad in an important way. We need to feel sad, profoundly sad, about what we did in Iraq. We deserve a hundred years of sadness.