“Live your life openly. Go all out for what you want to achieve and believe in. If you’re going to work, work. If you’re going to train, train,” says Aleksey Vayner. “If you’re going to dance, then dance… but do it with passion!”
I hadn’t heard of Vayner until I talked to author Aaron Thier, who studied at Yale with him. For those like myself, who have apparently been living under a rock for the past decade, Vayner is best known for his boisterous “Impossible is Nothing” video résumé. Vayner, like the Star Wars kid, unintentionally went viral when one of the firm’s employees posted the video.
A Vayner-like character is the subject of what Thier calls his practice novel. Thier wrote it when graduated from college, in order to understand the space that a novel takes up, “the relationship between the pages that are passing for you, the writer, as you write them and the time it takes to read them for a reader. You get a sense of how that dynamic works only by, I think, writing a whole novel. So, you have to write a novel, before you can write a novel, if that makes sense.”
After graduating from Yale and writing his practice novel, and a string of failed novels (“solipsistic and self-involved,” Thier describes them), Thier went home to stay with his parents for several months (stopping drinking and doing drugs, and passing time by splitting firewood and watching The Office). “I’d been wallowing in young man despair,” he said.
“When I got back down to Florida for my second year of the M.F.A., that’s when this happened. I just couldn’t bear to look at any of the stuff I’d been working on when I was doing drugs. I felt I had to do something totally different,” he said. “I just decided I was going to f-ck around. I was going to do whatever was fun to do in that moment, and what that involved in the beginning was writing these fake course descriptions.”
Somebody told Thier his course descriptions were funny, and that he should write a book about them. This sparked his first novel, “The Ghost Apple.” He said, “The first thing was just getting away from writing about myself, there’s really none of myself in that book.”
“Humor really matters to people,” he said. “Fiction is a way of saying something about what it feels like to be a person. You need to find a form and a voice, a way to do that, that takes people this far, and not away from their real experience, so they can see their world with some kind of context. Any way of achieving an ironic distance is the way that you do that.”
One of his pieces for Lucky Peach entitled “The Food-Free Diet,” features an interview with Dr. Hamilcar Stradivarius. It’s funny. His interview with “A Bit Contrived,” for his fake book, “To Curry Favor with the Wealthy,” is close to an improv exercise.
“For me, it’s just always humor. This absurd way of looking at things enables you to see what those things actually are. Or, I hope it does. I don’t see any exercise of it, I just usually think of a joke. This book I’m working on, now, is about a billionaire who decides she’s going to buy her town, and impose all these lunatic rules on the people who live there. That’s a joke, right? But then it becomes a thing about autocratic rule, how even if you have the best liberal intentions, autocracy is really not the best way to achieve those goals. Finding the seriousness in the joke is maybe the way I live my real life, but certainly my approach to writing, almost without exception.”
Thier’s process typically starts off with humor, but he quickly tries to figure out his work’s form. “The form in ‘Mr. Eternity’ is cycling in and out, moving through time. The first book was all these fake documents. A box to put things in. Once I have the box, then I can put things in the box.”
While most authors finish up the bulk of their research before they write the story, Thier’s process is more chaotic (by his own admission). He researches as he writes. He writes a couple of hours in the mornings, reviews notes on the next day’s writing and researches later in the day. To grasp a better understanding of form, Thier recommends in addition to reading literary classics (he conversationally mentions Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Henry James, and Jane Austen):
- “Aspects of the Novel” by E. M. Forster
- Essays by Cynthia Ozick (like “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays”)
- Essays by James Wood (like “The Fun Stuff”)
“If you go back to the first novels, like Robinson Crusoe, you can see that the rules are not established, really,” Thier said. “The ideas about internal consistency don’t really exist yet. But then we get all these rules, and we have this form, and you have to learn the form in order to make something like that.”
Despite everyone being able to write and publish today, very few put the thought into what the form and structure looks like. Thier adds, “To a certain extent, you need to also concentrate on the writers to whom you’re particularly drawn, and to understand where they come from. Because those are likely to be the people to in whose tradition you yourself belong.”
Aaron Thier is the author of “The Ghost Apple” and “Mr. Eternity.”