Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite are the authors of War of the Encyclopaedists, which Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times calls "a captivating coming of age novel that is by turns, funny and sad and elegiac." In the words of Phil Klay, this "bizarre, hilarious, and devastating" novel is both "a war story and a story of the disaffected millennial generation for whom the war hardly happened at all." Set in 2004, the novel moves from Seattle to Baghdad to Boston, following four twenty-somethings as they navigate war, love, and grad school. As part of Words After War's June book club selection, Christopher and Gavin answer a few questions from Sara Nović, author of Girl at War.
1. I feel bad asking this question because I imagine you get it so often, but I was obsessing over the notion of a co-written novel the entire time I was reading this book. How does it work? What's the process and the division of labor like? How do you think it made the novel stronger?
G: We're friends first and co-authors second. We figure out the macro stuff -- plot arcs, characters, scene ideas -- in the normal course of hanging out. We'll construct elaborate fictional universes while riding the bus or playing mini-golf. At some point, Chris will organize our thoughts into a spreadsheet and we'll go from there. We'll divvy up the scenes, draft them separately, exchange for editing, talk it over, wash, rinse, repeat.
C: Our collaborative work is more than the sum of its parts. Creating the world together forces us to depict social and political content with much more nuance, without taking sides. We don't have identical world-views; we meet in the middle. This is also true for arriving at believable character motivation. We have two lives worth of experience and two mental libraries of literary examples to draw from when creating a character. If I'm having difficulty nailing down a character's thought process, Gavin will often hit upon the right emotional spark when he edits my draft. And on the sentence level, that additional editorial step guarantees that before the manuscript reaches our editor the prose will be just that much more polished.
2. In terms of your actual personal writing processes, how do you work? Are you planners/ outliners? Do you type or write by hand? Do you tend to over or underwrite? Etc.
G: Chris is a planner and outliner, I'm really not. I visualize good scenes in my head and go from there. I imagine a camera attached to a drone flying around my imaginary world, getting good shots of the action, and I watch the take and maybe change the script or give the actors directions or redirect the drone. This leads to a bit of overwriting at times -- I fall in love with a moment and want to describe it in all of its detailed finery; sometimes it goes overboard and disrupts the pace of the book. So then I'll reexamine the film reel and just describe certain parts of it.
C: I'm definitely a planner. It's a strength and weakness. If working on a short story, say, I'll get out dry erase markers and draw all over my windows. I'll note character traits, I'll make thematic diagrams. I'll also write out the plot in a spreadsheet if the story's long enough. I'll spend weeks doing this, without writing a word, just for a thirty page story. Then I'll sit down at the computer. And the sentences typically come fast. I'll bang out a draft and show it to Gavin, or my pal Phil Klay -- we've been trading short stories with each other for years. And after getting some feedback, I'll move on to something else, let that story age until it doesn't feel so definitively a creation of my own mind. Then I'll re-outline and redraft the whole thing. Five, ten, or twenty times. I end up doing a lot of rewriting and what typically starts as overly planned and overly symmetrical eventually gains a sense of spontaneity, looseness.
3. Why did you decide to start the novel where you did? What do you want the reader to understand from this hipsteresque party opening?
G: I wanted readers to be able to identify the characters in a social context. They're hipsters, basically -- cerebral, arty, post-collegiate dudes. And they're hipsters together. It's not as if one's an academic and one's a soldier and they're both friends even though they're opposites; they're very similar people who end up having very different years.
C: In medias res. We wanted to start right in the middle of some tense emotional moment, but importantly, it's a tense moment that takes place during a ironic party! There's a dissonance there that sets up a central conflict in the book. All four of our characters are struggling to transition from carefree adolescence to real-stakes adulthood, they're struggling to be sincere people.
4. The idea of writing encyclopedia articles, of documenting what's happening in the surrounding world, is obviously something important to Montauk and Corderoy. In terms of fiction, though, what responsibility did you feel in terms of "accuracy" with respect to a specific historical moment? Do you think a certain degree of realism is required to keep your readers "invested"?
C: We depict historical events, like the Bush/Kerry election and 9/11 as accurately as we can. Ditto for describing real locations, like Checkpoint 11 in the Green Zone or the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle in 2004. That realism helps us anchor the story in a time a place that readers are already invested in. We'll take liberties with small things -- like inventing a yoga studio in Boston that doesn't really exist -- as long as they don't mess with the building blocks of the world we're representing. That world, the real world, is already so complex, contentious, and compelling. We only need to isolate and highlight thematic arcs that exist in the chaos of information surplus. One of these themes is the rise of subjectivity and the democratization of content creation. 2004-2005 was just before YouTube, just before Facebook. Wikipedia was changing our relationship with knowledge, and blogging was turning every person into an author and critic. With that as our subject matter, historical accuracy becomes even more important.
G: Part of the appeal of fiction, for me, is its ability to act as a portal to different places and times. That's a big part of why people love TV series like "Mad Men" or "Downton Abbey" -- it would be annoying if the creators started to take a bunch of liberties with costumes, historical events, etc. So yes, I do think a certain degree of realism is required to keep readers invested, unless what you're going for is clearly fantastical. The setting of most of the book will be fairly familiar to Americans -- U.S. cities and major events in 2004-05. It wasn't that long ago. The Iraq sections will probably be less familiar to many readers, but hopefully they will come across as historically realistic, since we certainly tried to adhere closely to historical fact. Those sections may feel unfamiliar even to people who have taken in a lot of the popular fiction and film based on Operation Iraqi Freedom, since they deal with the boring and sometimes absurd grind of occupation rather than the clichés of intense combat.
5. The concept of "home and away" in war writing is both an important and often-displayed juxtaposition. But when it came down to inventing characters, why Montauk and Corderoy, specifically? What about these two men's personalities, occupations, and lifestyles do you hope will serve to highlight different perspectives of the war for readers?
C: The thing about Montauk and Corderoy is that they were basically modeled on us. As the book developed, they took on a lot of fictional characteristics, but they're still basically us, just slightly more despicable.
G: Most of all, we wanted to highlight that these two characters are very similar. That, had things been slightly different, it might have been Corderoy at war and Montauk in grad school. There's this idea that soldiers are somehow different from the hipster millennials who spend their days slacking off at work, retweeting Onion articles. But many of the soldiers in our volunteer military are these same millennials. All that said, they aren't identical characters though. Montauk is reluctantly approaching responsibility. He takes on more and more as the novel progresses, even when he shouldn't, and it causes him problems. Corderoy is, from the beginning, fleeing responsibility. And he slowly realizes that even going to grad school for literature is another way of postponing real responsibility, a life with consequences.
C: Our two main females characters are dealing with this dynamic, too. Mani is struggling to take control of her own life, to set and accomplish her own goals, through art. Tricia, by pursuing human rights advocacy and journalism, is attempting to hold herself responsible for society as a whole.
6. What's one question you wish you'd been asked in an interview about this novel? (And what's your answer?)
C: I wish we'd been asked: Did you struggle in writing an abortion scene from a woman's perspective and did you worry about how readers would react? The answer: I definitely struggled. We're firm believers that writing only what you know first-hand is a fast track to a) running out of material and b) reinforcing your own parochial worldview. It's more exciting for us to stretch our fiction muscles and imaginations by writing characters distinct from us. And exploring foreign emotional territory makes us more empathetic people. I was worried about how readers would react, of course. A man writing an abortion scene? It begs to be scrutinized. All I could do was focus on anchoring the experience in the specificities of the character's thought patterns, not in broad assumptions based on her gender. It seems to have worked. Back in the editing process, I showed the scene to plenty of friends and fellow authors, women and men, and got positive feedback that I'd written something convincing and moving. I hope any future readers agree. I know some probably won't. It's a risk, but a novel that doesn't take risks is boring, for the writer as well as the reader.
G: I like talking about what's next. We're about to head off to Detroit to research our next book. It will be set in the near future, and involve Amazon being granted some airspace in a Detroit neighborhood to beta-test its delivery drone program. The novel will deal with race relations, inequality, the fall of American industry, the rise of the internet economy, and the efflorescence of arts subcultures. The working title is "Fulfillment, Detroit."
Words After War is a literary organization with a mission to bring veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature.