Q: What is it about Bennington that has nurtured so many successful
A: For one thing, it just happened that there were a lot of talented
students there at the same time. For another, we had good
teachers: Arturo Vivante, Joe McGinnis, Nicholas Delbanco, Mary
Robison, and Jamaica Kincaid, to name just a few. They were all
very different from each other and had different styles, which kept
writing classes from being too formulaic and workshoppy. So
instead of being rigorously schooled to turn out writing in one
particular form or style (like the minimalist Carver style that was
so popular in writing workshops in the 1980s), we students were
seeing all kinds of work and hearing all sorts of theories, some of
them contradictory, and we basically ended up learning what
suited us each individually--with a lot of other disciplines thrown
into the mix--and teaching ourselves to do the kind of work that
we wanted to do. But, perhaps most important, the creative writing
that came out of Bennington drew a lot of energy from other
artistic disciplines. Jill Eisenstadt was a music major; Bret Ellis
studied music, too; and Jonathan Lethem was a painter who read
a lot and wrote a lot but (as far as I know) never took any creative
writing classes at all. This is why the writers who came out of
Bennington in the mid-eighties (and there are a lot of us) are all so
different from each other in terms of style.
I can't speak for other Bennington writers, and am more akin
to the Bennington poet Reginald Shepherd than to my fellow
novelists in this particular respect, but as a writer who is very influenced
by classicism and by the nineteenth-century novel, I personally
learned a great part of my craft from literature professors
like Claude Fredericks and Alvin Feinman and Georges Longree
and Maura Spiegel and the late Richard Tristman. Back then literature
at Bennington was taught in a way that was very immediate
and relevant for young artists. It wasn't just the critical,
analytical brand of comparative literature one usually encounters
in academia. The literature and languages faculty were keenly
aware that they were teaching young artists as well as young
scholars. A lot of us wanted to learn how to make art--we weren't
satisfied with pure criticism and interpretation. So there was a very
practical feel to much of what we were taught: We learned how
certain effects were achieved, the nuts and bolts of craft. One
would come home from a class on Dante or Proust or Homer all
excited about the technical lessons and processes that one wanted
to put to use in one's own work. For all these reasons, I find the
radical restructuring of Bennington that has occurred in the last
decade and a half extremely sad. The intellectual atmosphere has
been completely lost, as evidenced by the fact that young writers
aren't coming out of Bennington anymore.
Q: It's been said that books have greatly influenced your life. As a
writer, who are some of the authors that you admire?
A: Austen, Poe, Wilde, Stevenson, Kipling, Dickens, James (both
William and Henry), Tolstoy, Conan Doyle, Conrad, Nabokov,
Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Salinger, Borges, Yukio Mishima,
to name just a few. Poetry also informs my work, and the
list of poets I admire is actually much, much longer than the list of
novelists above. Obviously, I'm also interested in classical Greek
literature and philosophy. Not many people pick up on this, but
The Secret History is actually quite influenced by a certain type of
children's novel (such as Peter Pan, or Mary Poppins, or the novels
of Enid Blyton) where children live in a world of their own,
largely unsupervised by conventional adult authority. I'm also interested
in memoir and biography, and particularly in true-crime
Q: The Secret History is your first novel . . . quite an astounding
feat at five hundred plus pages.
A: Actually, it was a thousand manuscript pages before it was
typeset. They printed the book so there were more words per page,
so it seems shorter than it really is. I didn't understand this before
I became a writer--a publisher can make a book longer or
shorter depending upon how they decide to print it. It's all about
Q: You began work on it your second year in college. Explain the
process. Did you ever think you'd actually finish such a massive
A: When I started it, I didn't intend it to be a massive manuscript.
But I continued to be interested in what I was doing, and the pages
Q: How long did it take you to complete the book?
A: Ten years. But it wasn't ten years of working every day. There
were several years where I put the manuscript aside and didn't
work on it at all. I have Bret Ellis and Joe McGinnis to thank
for the fact that I picked it up again, and my dear friend Paul
McGloin to thank for the fact that I was able to see it through to
Q: Did you have an incredible feeling of accomplishment at the
A: Well, the predictable answer would be yes, but the actual answer
is no. I loved working on The Secret History, and I was rather
sad when I finished it.
Q: The Secret History spent thirteen weeks on the New York
Times bestseller list. What is it like to have your first novel be such
a huge success?
A: An incredible surprise. I never expected it to be successful, and
I still don't quite understand why it was, though certainly I'm delighted
Q: The Secret History has been compared to a Greek tragedy; it
certainly has all the components . . . beauty, unrequited love, betrayal,
mystery, and murder. Simultaneously, it has been categorized
as "Southern gothic" and "brat-pack."
A: I'm puzzled by how a novel set wholly in New England, with
virtually no Southern references or allusions, could be categorized
as Southern gothic.
Q: It has even been compared to Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rope.
How would you categorize your book? Or would you prefer it not
to be categorized at all?
A: Well, as evidenced by all these disparate comparisons, I don't
think it fits into an easy or convenient category.
Q: Richard Papen, the novel's narrator, is an outsider who builds
a fictitious life for himself in order to fit in. We can all relate
to this sense of wanting to belong; was this a conscious effort
on your part in order to make the reader sympathize with the
A: No, I didn't purposely cast my narrator as an outsider in order
to make him sympathetic (I don't much care whether the reader
sympathizes with the narrator or not--and, in fact, a lot of people
don't sympathize with him at all). But it was a conscious decision
to narrate the novel from the perspective of an outsider.
Q: Have you ever pretended to be someone else in order to fit in?
I suppose in a sense we all do in some way or another--do you
A: "Fitting in" has never been a big priority for me.
Q: The group of Greek scholars plants such a vivid image in one's
mind that it is obvious why Richard is attracted to them. Why are
they, in turn, attracted to Richard? Why is he allowed into their
A: Well, he's observant and discreet. He's smart. He's different
enough in his upbringing to seem exotic to the rest of the Greek
class. I am currently reading the novel aloud, unabridged (for
Harper Audio), which is an interesting process in all sorts of ways
(not least because I haven't even glanced at The Secret History for
ten years), but I guess the aspect of the novel that surprises me
most in reading it again is Richard's caginess and control in his interaction
with the other characters.
Q: Henry has almost no knowledge of popular culture; he is surprised
to learn that someone walked on the moon! This seems to
symbolize his otherworldliness. It is as if the group of scholars
comes from a different era. Was this your intention?
A: Young scholars--from whatever era, from whatever discipline--
are generally held to be unworldly. That was as true in the fourteenth
century as it is now. I've known young physicists and
computer scientists who are so consumed by their work that they
can scarcely carry on a conversation.
Q: Julian is shrouded in mystery from the onset of the novel. He
inspires love and respect and even a sense of worship from his
young proteges. He acts as a sort of Svengali. How much of the
blame do you think he shoulders for the sad turn of events?
A: It's hard--if not impossible--for me to stand back from my
characters like a judge and assign blame or praise. I just don't see
the book in such terms.
Q: After all, he first discussed the Dionysiac ritual and the idea
that "beauty is terror" (p. 40). He planted the seed of the Bacchae
in the minds of Henry and the others.
A: Are ideas, and the free exchange of ideas, to be held responsible
for acts that may result from their misinterpretation? That's a
Q: All of the main characters come from dysfunctional families. Is
this why they are so drawn to each other? To the "father figure"
A: Well, that is a very mechanistic and deterministic way of looking
at the story, and not at all the way I would describe it myself.
I suppose that one could also describe Huck Finn and David
Copperfield and Davy Balfour and Kimball O'Hara as products of
dysfunctional families, driven by the search for a father figure. But
to me this seems reductionist and absurd.
Q: "I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone's life
when character is fixed forever: for me, it was that first fall term
spent at Hampden" (p. 80). What was the "crucial interval" in
A: Before I was ten.
Q: The Secret History deals with the inevitable loss of innocence.
When reading about the idyllic days at Francis's country house before
the downward spiral, the reader (along with Richard) finds
himself wishing it could last forever. Why did you choose to let the
reader know right from the start that this is not to be?
A: In classical literature, you have the idea of starting a story in medias
res: in the middle of things. We are told, in the first few lines
of the Iliad and the Aeneid, what these stories will be about. But
the mystery is exactly how the story will unfold, and therein lies the
suspense. Audiences of Greek tragedy were well aware of the myths
or stories that the tragedies were based on. It wasn't any surprise
to them when Klytemnestra murders Agamemnon. In fact, great
tension is created in the play because the audience knows that
Agamemnon is going to be murdered. So when Klytemnestra is behaving
in a conciliatory and forgiving manner toward Agamemnon
and Cassandra, and not much is really happening onstage, it actually
makes the audience quite nervous, because everyone except
Agamemnon knows she's going to kill them both shortly. Anyway,
revealing the end in the beginning is a very ancient way of telling a
story, which is partly what made it appropriate for this novel, but
it is also a surprisingly effective tactic for building suspense; and
unlike many tropes and devices of classical literature, it translates
well to a modern audience, which is why one sees this particular
trick of storytelling so often in the movies.
Q: Although the crime of Bunny's murder goes unpunished in the
legal sense of the word, no one escapes. Is this a comment on what
is just? From Richard's summation at the end of the novel, it is obvious
no one ends up leading a happy life. Did they get what they
deserved? Or do you believe it is psychologically impossible to live
a normal life after committing such an act?
A: In terms of psychology, it's well-known that many killers go on
to live "a normal life" after committing the most heinous crimes
imaginable. But it's important to remember that not all murderers
are sociopaths. Because the characters in my book have consciences,
and are possessed of a moral sense, they suffer greatly as a consequence
of what they've done.
Q: Tell us about your much-anticipated second novel, The Little
Friend, due out in October 2002; there is much speculation about
the plot. Why did you wait so long to release it?
A: In truth, it was a great luxury to take my time on my second
book. I was fortunate not to have to hurry out a quick follow-up
in order to pay my bills, as so many novelists are forced to do. I
wanted to start again from zero, as if I'd never written a novel before,
and write a big self-consistant and self-contained book that
was rich and complicated and set in a completely different world
from The Secret History.
Q: It has been said that the second novel is "easier" to write than
the first. Do you think this is true?
A: It depends. If the second novel is a development of the first--
then yes. But in a way, The Little Friend was another first novel
for me. It's so different from The Secret History that, when I was
writing it, I felt that I'd never written a novel before. I wanted to
speak in a different language, wake up in a different place, imagine
everything anew. It's what Zen Buddhists call "beginner's
mind"--emptying oneself of preconceptions and ideas, coming to
the task afresh. And if one begins at the very beginning, there
aren't any shortcuts.