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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers. Interview: The Complete (Published in Book Form So Far) Works of Reif Larsen

Twelve-year-old T.S. Spivet draws maps of train routes and water tables, maps of loneliness, the resilience of memory, even a map of his sister shucking corn. Author Reif Larsen notes, "I think I'm gently expanding the definition of the word map."

Reif LarsenAnd about those maps: Larsen, the son of two artists, created them himself. "I got almost all the way through the draft before I realized that we needed to see T.S.'s maps and his diagrams," the novelist explains. "That's the territory of his heart."

When T.S.'s work is honored by the Smithsonian — the institute naturally assumes that T.S. is an adult — he runs away from home in Divide, Montana, and hoboes his way to Washington, D.C. An adventure story, a family saga, and a format-busting beauty (T.S.'s drawings appear on more than half the pages, mostly in sidebars and cutaways alongside the main body of text), The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a revelation. "Read it and marvel," Bookpage recommends.

"Here is a book that does the impossible," Stephen King commended. "It combines Mark Twain, Thomas Pynchon, and Little Miss Sunshine. This book is a treasure."

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Dave: First, the book is a lot of fun.

Reif Larsen: It was fun to write. Waking up every day and writing, I felt like I was along for the ride. Where will it take me next?

Dave: There's mystery and adventure... but on a deeper level it's a novel about mortality, uncertainty, about life. Did the energy of the adventure help you get wrapped up in the story day after day?

Larsen: Very early on, I discovered the voice of T.S. I knew that I wanted to write about cowboys and westerns, and I knew I wanted to tackle it from the point of view of the son of a cowboy. Initially, T.S. was fifty-seven-years-old, narrating from a Parisian prison, drunk. That was going to be a very different book, obviously. But then I realized, No, he's not drunk. He's not in Paris. He's still on the ranch. And he's twelve, actually.

One of the central tensions is that he views the world very differently than his father, who is a nostalgic, cowboy intuitionist. T.S. is a hyper-analytical kid who can't process the world without diagramming it. Once I found that tension and found T.S.'s voice, the novel unfolded. I kept asking, "What's going to happen next?"

The scene in Chicago, when he stabs that crazy preacher guy — I was totally shocked when that happened. For a couple days, I walked around like a zombie. My girlfriend wondered what was going on, and I'd be saying, "He might have just killed someone."

It was weird, sharing the feeling of discovery that the reader experiences. It's a little different because I was the creator, but the arc of the book had an urgency that was surprising to me. I did a lot of comedy improv in college, and I learned early on as a writer that I needed to build uncertainty into my process, to allow myself room to be surprised in the middle of a sentence. Something crazy comes out, and then you take that to its conclusion. That's how I keep it fresh and don't make myself go crazy.

Dave: False starts must be part of the process for you, then.

Larsen: Yes. It's like throwing paint down. You have to get it down and not edit yourself in the beginning.

A lot of beginning writers are horrified of what they first write. They want to brush away the tracks as quickly as possible. I was like that.

I'm convinced that whatever we write the first time is terrible. It's just a matter of becoming more comfortable knowing that in your second or third or fourth pass you'll clean it up. Put it in now and cut it out later. I had about ten times the number of digressions in the book that I do now.

Dave: I feel like I should ask, in a very serious, Barbara Walters-like tone, "Who is T.S. Spivet?"

Larsen: Who is T.S. Spivet? I don't know.

He's the narrator, he's the protagonist, and yet there's an odd etherealness about him. He floats above everything in some ways. People might want to turn him into the everyman. That's what happened to T.S. in Washington; he got turned into a symbol.

For all the bells and whistles on its surface, the book is a classic novel in many senses. The story has been told many times. It's a road book, a journey book, a coming-of-age book. We're watching T.S. emerge into a form of adolescence or adulthood.It's a road book, a journey book, a coming-of-age book. We're watching T.S. emerge into a form of adolescence or adulthood. He's realizing himself as a player on the stage. All kids go through that. His story is a little more dramatic because he possesses this incredible skill set, spatializing the world, but in important ways he has very similar struggles to other twelve-year-olds.

Twelve is an interesting age. You're starting to gain the vocabulary and symbol recognition of adulthood, but you're still mired within the magical thinking of childhood. It was a very intentional choice on my part to position him as such.

Dave: He can't do anything that his father wants him to. It's actually his deficiencies that set him on the journey. There's that wonderful moment when he thinks his dog is trying to tell him that he's needed on the ranch. And he's surprised.

Larsen: That's really important, too. There's a risk to label him a genius and be done with it, but he is very much twelve. He lacks a real emotional vocabulary, which he starts to gain over the course of the book.

One of my favorite scenes is when he's in the MRI, being scanned, as a child prodigy, and the scientist asks him to perform a really difficult math equation. He's like, "Lady, I haven't even taken pre-algebra."

There's an assumption on adults' part that he can do anything. And it's exactly what you say: It's what he can't do. He might trade in all his mapping abilities to have the same kind of comfort and intuition on the ranch that his father does.

Dave: Take me through you process, step-by-step, creating the book's layout. How were the illustrations and sidebars married to the main body of text? In conception and production, how did that happen?

Larsen: I knew there would be something different about the format — I had a vague idea of a field guide in my head — but I wrote the book almost all the way through without any illustrations. I was originally using footnotes for T.S.'s digressions. Footnotes have a long, tangled history in fiction. People use them for a lot of different reasons, but often I find them intrusive.

In writing, I found that in these annotations T.S. showed his weakness; he was most comfortable in the asides. He would make reveals that he wouldn't in the main text. I got almost all the way through the draft before I realized that we needed to see his maps and his diagrams. That's the territory of his heart. Even though they're intensely analytical, this is where he'll make the reveal.

Dave: You did the drawings, yourself.

Larsen: Initially, I was going to hire someone, but I realized that I would drive that person crazy and never pay them enough. It took getting up the courage to do them, myself. Both my parents are artists, so I got some visual art from them by osmosis.

I wanted the visuals to match the writing. One of my advisors at the Columbia MFA program said, "You can do it. Jump off the cliff." When I did that first sparrow skeleton on page one, it felt a little bit like that, but I found that it was an incredible way to get into a character's head.

Once I opened that door, it was like being in the candy shop. Once you include one illustration, you can illustrate just about everything, so it became an issue of selection. What were the images doing narratively for the book? I'd find that by including an image, for instance the dinner table conversation, suddenly I could delete a whole paragraph of text. That image was doing the work for me. As a writer, that was really cool to see. What's doing the work of this story?

Another turning point in the writing of the book was moving from footnotes to marginalia, and using those arrows. I was really frustrated with the footnotes. I felt like Microsoft Word was handcuffing me, so I switched to Adobe InDesign. Suddenly the page opened up.I felt like Microsoft Word was handcuffing me, so I switched to Adobe InDesign. Suddenly the page opened up. I could draw the cartography of each page with those arrows.

The movement of space is so different from the disruptive rhythm of footnotes. At least for me, there's something nice about a diagrammatical arrow holding your hand as a reader, saying, "Here, come with me to this new space." And I think that's much more appropriate to T.S.'s character. He would guide a reader like that as opposed to being disruptive.

The format became a key part of the story. I had to lay the whole book out as such before I even submitted it to anyone. I realized that was a risk. They're used to seeing double-spaced, Times New Roman manuscripts. But if they were going to get the story, they had to see the story.

Dave: On page 138, in a sidebar on the left, something called The Resilience of Memory appears. From there, a blank diagonal bar cuts through the words in the body of the page, splitting lines of text and even forcing a series of words to be hyphenated when they cross that gap.

Larsen: I struggled with the page you're describing. It actually got cut. Have you seen the final book?

Dave: I haven't yet.

Larsen: You should. The galley is an in-between stage, and the finished book is the vision realized.

I ended up cutting that. Thousands of little decisions. That was one place where the format was maybe too intrusive. I wanted it to be disruptive — I wanted it to be an empty space, like a death — but format-wise, I felt like it was breaking it up too much.

Maybe in later editions we'll put it back in. We'll see.

It was fun to think about the tension between main text and sidebar. In certain chapters, for example when he's in the wormhole, chapter nine, the sidebars drop out completely; also, in moments of intense action, when T.S.'s analytical abilities would actually shut down. That was interesting to think about, when the formatting was appropriate and when it wasn't.

Dave: One of the most important bits of information in the whole book is revealed in a sidebar. It's nifty way of sneaking up on readers. We've been waiting for it. When we stumble upon that bit in the second Bathroom = Safety sidebar, it catches us off guard.

Larsen: It's going to be interesting to see how people read the book. The first chapter is little bit of a breaking-in period, where the reader has to figure out How am I going to navigate this? I've talked to a couple people who jumped right to the sidebars; other people finish the page first. I don't think there's a right answer, but, as you said, the marginalia often reveal the most important kernel.

Often with footnotes, I noticed that I would read the first couple lines and then skip them. I wanted the reader to know early on that, if you do that, you're at risk of missing the most important parts.

Dave: We learn how T.S. got his name, and how the Spivets got their family name. We also see Dr. Clair's journal, which T.S. reads. An interesting tension is created between genealogy and mythmaking.

At one point, T.S. says,

I couldn't believe that the strict, almost paralyzingly empirical woman that I knew to be Dr. Clair would allow herself to take such grand liberties and speculate — no, invent — all of these emotions in our ancestors.

Where do ancestry, genealogy, and mythmaking fit into your vision of the novel?

Larsen: You mentioned earlier the resilience of memory. That explains so much of who we are. People cling so desperately to traditions and names and customs. I'm interested in how characters hold onto their history and allow it to shape their identities, particularly ways they do that to avoid being in the here and now. I'm interested in how characters hold onto their history and allow it to shape their identities, particularly ways they do that to avoid being in the here and now.

The father holds fast to certain ways of being. He's nostalgic for the west. It's a way almost of staying out of the present. Everyone at the Coppertop Ranch is embroiled in nostalgic or mythical pursuits that prevent them from being present at the dinner table, so to speak.

Questions loom over Dr. Claire's journal: Why am I married to this man? What am I doing with my life? How did T.S. come to be who he is? What's my responsibility to him? She becomes the nostalgic tenor of history in order to confront the present in this roundabout way — and this is enfolding within a novel whose main storyteller, T.S., doesn't believe in the value of pure storytelling. I like that idea because I'm a writer and I'm interested in why we tell stories. Why do we tell stories? Why do we read stories?

You didn't see the map of Moby Dick, did you?

Dave: No.

Larsen: I don't think it's in the galley. A five-page spread of Moby Dick is included in the finished copy. T.S. gradually goes insane over the course of these five pages, but at the end, in tiny T.S. writing, he says, "Everything is fiction." It's the ultimate admission of defeat in some ways, but also a liberation.

I'm interested in questions of ancestry, why we keep looking back, why we make family trees, and how that shapes our conception of self, even if these stories that we toss around about our ancestors are changed and changed again in an elaborate game of telephone. The truth is less important than what those stories mean to us.

Dave: When you were writing the book, did you start to see the world as a series of maps?

Larsen: I love diagrams. I've always loved them, because of their simplicity but also because of what they leave out.

There's something so satisfying about seeing a four-step diagram, both because you think, Four steps and you're done, while in the back of your mind you know, But all the longing and the hate and the love is left out, and that's what makes life interesting.

That's also why we read, I think. Even if you get a perfect story or a perfect description, it can never capture the fullness of our existence — and yet reading reminds us how full our existence is. I love the selective nature of a good map.

There were certain points where T.S. got to me. The Chicago map took me about four days to do. This was the middle of winter. I was like, "Fuck this." But I remember having this wave of guilt, thinking, T.S. would have gone on. He was talking over my shoulder. I had a complicated relationship with him, I guess. But there's that scene where he's just getting to Chicago and feels this overwhelming potentiality of maps. What do I map? Sometimes I do feel like that. What do I process here?

Dave: I got hooked early. Gracie Shucking the Sweet Corn Number 6 really worked for me. The initial inertia of the corn husk.

Larsen: I think I'm gently expanding the definition of the word map, which has been particularly interesting in foreign countries.

The word for map in German has a technical connotation, so they're actually changing the name of the book to Map of My Dreams. At first, I was very resistant of this because that gives the sense that the whole thing is imagined, but they said that there's a certain wonderful cognitive dissonance between the words for map and for dream. Dream is more of longing and hope. That shift works for German readers.

But I like the word map. For me, it's a much broader term. It's a 2-D or 3-D representation of our experience of the world. It doesn't have to be geographical. It can show things that we do or places we encounter. It's in that translation of the real world to the page where the meaning comes. That meaning-making is much more important to me than the technical definition.

Dave: In New York Magazine, you said, "I'm not going to be that guy who writes illustrated novels." I imagine there will be all sorts of fans who say, "Ah, c'mon!"

Larsen: If I write another story that requires it, yes, I will, but, again, all the decisions I made here came out of the character. I am interested in pushing the way that we tell stories. The relationship between text and images has a lot of room for exploration.

The rise of graphic novels is cool, but graphic novels do things very differently. There, the story is told through the images, and the images are representational devices as opposed to a satellite device. I'd love to see more writers play with this, but you have the potential to box yourself in and become that guy.

My next book has a thing about an avant garde troupe of puppeteers that visits war torn territories and performs shows about particle physics. So there may be strings popping out of the story. We'll see.

Dave: As you consider projects you've worked on over the years, do you recognize a through-line that persists in terms of shape or theme?

Larsen: I have been interested in this idea of kids possessing an extraordinary set of skills and the way that adults react to that. I think in the end it reveals a lot more about the adults than the kid; the kid becomes a kind of vessel for the imagination of adults who themselves wanted to be a boy genius or want their kids to be special. We have a complicated relationship to the prodigy, that archetype.

I've spent time in classrooms, and I'm interested in the way kids see the world before they're infected with the idea of symbols. Adults, they don't see a tree; they see the idea of a tree before they see a tree. Part of any artist's role is to learn how to see the world with the freshness of a kid so you can describe the world in a surprising way. I'm drawn to that.

Dave: What's the first book that comes to mind as one you wish that you'd written?

Larsen: Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides. I was listening to that on tape — it's one of the best books on tape I've ever heard — driving cross-country, all twenty-five hours of it, or however long the recording is. I had a sappy moment when I was driving in rural Illinois and a bald eagle swept across the road at some amazing moment in the story; I remember thinking, I need to strive to do this.

That's the great thing about literature, encountering a moment where everything aligns and the story hits on all cylinders. It makes me excited to get back to work. In Middlesex, and also other books, Tin Drum comes to mind, there's a beautiful combination of a character's personal narrative and a huge cultural narrative being dropped on you. And that's the challenge: to engage a reader on a very personal, story- and character-driven level, but also to engage larger questions without smashing people over the head.

Dave: Have you ever traveled in a Winnebago?

Larsen: I don't think I have, actually.

I did do some research, a lot of research in Montana. I went to an RV lot. I put on a weird Southern accent — I don't know why I thought that would be helpful — and I pretended to be interested in buying their top-of-the-line model. I asked all sorts of questions, but I think the guy saw through my act completely.

I didn't want to be too familiar so I'd be free to invent things, but it did smell weird in there, which is why I put in that detail about the overzealous cleaner.

Dave: T.S. and Gracie classify five different kinds of boredom. Do you suffer one or more kinds on a regular basis?

Larsen: No, I don't actually. I'm like T.S. in that way. There's too much to do in this life. We have so little time to get things done, and there are a hundred other things I'd like to be doing.

So, no — except when I meditate. I meditate every day for a half-hour, doing zazen, which is a kind of enforced boredom, where you're really trying to get all the monkeys out of your brain. Maybe I have a different conception of boredom than most people because for me going to boredom is like going to clarity. I don't know.

Dave: What got cut out of the book that you especially liked or that intrigued you?

Larsen: There's a big thing: the whole afterword. Cutting that was probably the most difficult decision for me.

The afterword answers questions about what happens to T.S. later; and who is the "selector" of T.S.'s work, putting this book together. It addresses questions of what was authentic in the book and what was not. It's written from the point of view of Dr. Yorn, in a very different tone. It puts a hard frame on the book. It cuts out other interpretations of what actually went on inside the pages. I had a long discussion with my editor about this.

Ultimately I decided to take it out. It needed to end with T.S. and his father in the tunnel.

As a compromise I've migrated all that content onto the web site and embedded or hidden it, so that once the full web site is up, the reader can go there after the book and hunt for these clues and get the story within the story. It's almost like an optional ending, if you're so inclined. Which I think is cool.

That's another future for books. Books will be around for a long time, I think, but they have to get smart in some ways. They need to have a dialog with all the media around them in a way that doesn't ruin the sanctity of a novel but asks us as readers and writers to meet the challenge of How do you replicate the evocative and immersive nature of a novel in other mediums? Particularly the web, which is three thousands miles wide and one inch deep.

How does the space of a novel act in dialogue with the space of its web site? What kinds of things can you include on each, and what does each do well?How does the space of a novel act in dialogue with the space of its web site? What kinds of things can you include on each, and what does each do well? Those are the kinds of things that I'll explore throughout my whole career because I'm interested in storytelling in all of its mediums, in film and online.

When I was at Brown in the late nineties, Robert Coover was there, and he was totally fascinated with hypertext fiction. At the time, I was suspicious of it because it seemed like a lot of bells and whistles without the toolbox of narrative and story. It was more like, "Look what I can do!" And yet in some ways you can argue that this book is like an exploded hypertext book. It's funny that I came back to that. Maybe it rubbed off on me in certain ways. But there is room for more exploration in these media, without doing it for media's sake but actually for the sake of the story.

Dave: What are other people asking you about the book?

Larsen: "Why the west? Why Montana?"

One thing I was interested in was the idea of the cowboy and why the cowboy has cropped up again and again in our cultural consciousness. What about this archetypal figure is so seductive?

I was working on a documentary in Crawford, Texas, with a friend of mine. We were interviewing a couple people, people who were very different from me, socially, politically, et cetera, but they were incredible storytellers and they were also very much aware of themselves as Westerners. One guy was a bronc buster, and very aware of himself as a bronc buster. That kind of awareness, with the built-in nostalgia, was very interesting to me, people aware of their own role, both in society and at a historical level.

I started writing this book when Bush was around. He had co-opted all this cowboy-like language. One of the reasons why the cowboy model is so often used and effective is that it's very flexible. It allows us to co-opt what of it we want, whether it's the dead-or-alive language, or the man of few morals, or the drifter. We can pick and choose as we want, as the father does in the book. So that was one of the starting points.

I was very surprised when the book sold overseas because it seemed like such an American story. The idea of the frontier seems so laden with American import. But the book actually sold in Germany and Italy before the U.S. I was talking to some Germans, and they were saying that the frontier is almost more loaded for them because they don't have a frontier. Even more so, it becomes a land of dreams.

Dave: Willy Vlautin is a Portland writer and musician. He sings and plays guitar in a band called Richmond Fontaine. They have a classic Americana sound, plenty of slide guitar. Willy lived in Reno for years, and he tends to write about a down-and-out lot. I think his band is actually bigger in Germany than they are in the States.

Larsen: They love that stuff, I think because it's a proxy for their hopes and dreams. It's interesting. And you keep seeing the renaissance of new Westerns by the Japanese, or Wim Wenders. The West lives on.

Reif Larsen spoke from his home in New York City on April 27, 2009.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

One Response to " Interview: The Complete (Published in Book Form So Far) Works of Reif Larsen"

    DeniseB May 9th, 2009 at 11:18 am

    To quote Mr Petty, "The waiting is the hardest part." (it's better with the guitar)

    Can't wait to see this book!

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