The First Novel: David Gordon and “The Serialist”

In our third interview of our ongoing series, we catch up with 2011 Cabell First Novelist winner, David Gordon, and ask a few questions about his first novel, The Serialist.  We also learn a bit more about his upcoming second novel, Mystery Girl, which will be released in July 2013 (Thomas & Mercer).  Receiving critical acclaim across the board, including a starred review from Booklist, The Serialist tells the story of Harry Bloch, a freelance writer whose life takes a sudden horrific turn after he agrees to write the memoir of death-row inmate, Darian Clay (aka The Photo Killer).

Interview was conducted by former MFA fiction student, Tom Batten, during Tom De Haven’s First Novelist Seminar, Fall 2011.  Additional questions about Mystery Girl were recently asked via email by First Novelist coordinators.

How long did it take you to write the novel? How many drafts did you go through?

The whole process took about two years including revisions with my editor. I don’t know how many drafts really. A lot. I want to say maybe seven or eight before I sold it and then several more after. Ten? Also I tend to pull out individual parts and re-do them very intensively, like say taking the carburetor out of a car and rebuilding it then putting it back, driving around the block, taking out the radiator, etc. So yes, a lot of revising.

When the novel was finished, accepted, and sent off to the printer, was it very different from your original idea of what it might be? If it was, where did those changes come from? Did they come to you organically during the writing?  Were they recommended by an editor?

All of the above. The basic story and idea was what I had in mind from the beginning, as well as the sort of tone or feeling. But I made some pretty big changes even in later drafts, after my agent and others had already read it. Claire grew more and more for instance. I also added the excerpts late in the game, like draft six or something. My editor thankfully had no big problems but there were a lot of places where she saw what I was trying to do and helped me bring it along. For instance she really liked the more “literary” sides on writers and writing and encouraged me to add more of those, which I was very shy about at first. She really emboldened me. But yes, I kept compulsively changing and cutting things all along.

One of the things that I really responded to about the novel was how well it balanced the humorous and the horrific. As you were working on the book, how concerned were you with maintaining that balance? Did you ever find yourself having to insert some more jokes, or maybe cut some out to better sell some of the more serious material?

Yes, I was thinking about that mixture or balance. Also, I find that jokes especially come late, almost nothing is really funny at first so a lot of revision is reshaping things to find the funny parts and shifting the tone, lighter, darker. That said I also like a sudden plunge into darkness when everyone is laughing or an inappropriate laugh in the middle of a serious scene.

In Ted Gioia’s great review of the novel on, he says “…just when you think Gordon may be too gimmicky, he pulls back and takes a critical stance. Some of the the best parts of this book are the author’s asides on literary matters.” I really agree with Gioia here, in fact one of the things that I liked most about this novel is how you managed to make it seemed so novel while always avoiding becoming ‘gimmicky.’ While you were working on the novel, which obviously includes a lot of metafictional elements, were you very concerned with the idea that it might be considered ‘gimmicky’ by some readers?

Yes, Mr. Giola’s piece was extremely kind and insightful I thought.  As for being gimmicky – I felt sort of inoculated against that by having a protagonist who rails against precisely those kind of post-modern novels while I myself then proceed to pull a lot of those tricks: meta-fictional critiques, multiplying narratives, texts within texts, parody, etc. That said, some readers still didn’t like those parts.Others didn’t like the mystery part. But I like all that stuff so I put it in. Like a make-your-own sundae.

Another thing that I loved about the book is how tightly plotted it is, how the mystery really turns and kept me engaged (I’ll admit, I started reading this novel in my office on campus and ended up reading it while walking home that afternoon, at risk of great personal injury.) Did you do a lot of outlining before getting to work on the novel?

I did, then immediately veered away from it, then outlined again, etc. I’m a great believer in trusting impulses but never having dealt with a detective story before I wanted to know the big turns, the clues…like who the killer is. I didn’t want to trust the process for that. Still I have to say a lot of the little twists and connections did sort of grow organically once I had the general plan.

Claire is a really fascinating character. At some points in the book she seems much more mature and composed than Harry, at other times (especially in the end) she’s revealed as the young woman that she is. It seems that there might be something to Claire’s depiction here that is perhaps commenting on the role that women play in the kind of genre fiction that Harry writes—is that too far out? Is there anything that you were trying to accomplish with Claire’s character?

Regarding the role of women, I would say that I tried to take special care with all the female characters and to make sure they had a certain fullness or space. Even though the violence is gruesome, and I felt I had to be unflinching in those parts, I didn’t want those women to seem disposable or like they were just victims. Just because someone will die in the next scene doesn’t make them less real. I tried my best to think about each one, who is she, what is she like, just as with a major character. So that was my form of respect, I guess.  Also, a friend recently pointed out how many more women there are vs men and in how many roles good and bad: the three earlier victims who are discussed, the three women he interviews, Claire, the mom, Dani, Teresa, the lawyer, the ex-girlfriend, etc. That wasn’t conscious at all but maybe I was trying to balance things.

Claire is a special case. She really began as only involved with his writing, a joke “manager,” someone who would just pop up in few scenes and she kept growing as first I, then everyone else, fell for her. I just kept thinking of more things for her to say and really her dialogue was easiest. Finally she becomes sort of his Watson, his partner, and I think the main relationship in the book besides the killer and maybe the mom, kind of overpowering Dani and the ex-wife. It’s sort of about the two of them! Ha.

Your second novel, Mystery Girl, is coming out this year.  Did you find your writing process had changed in any way?  Was it easier the second time around?  How was it different?  And also, could you tell us a bit more about this novel?

To start with, I feel obliged to admit that it is not really the second time. I’ve been trying to write novels, stories, screenplays, articles, poems and so forth for decades, so I am in the habit of writing now, no matter what. It was a bit different this time around, knowing that I had published a book and that someone might, theoretically, care what I did next. Before I had nothing to lose, now I had a little something to lose at least.

In one sense, however, the process remains the same. I begin each project feeling completely lost and with no clue how I’m going to pull this off. And despite all my preparation, and some experience, I still realized several chapters into Mystery Girl that I had gone down the wrong path and had to go back and start over. So that hasn’t changed.

On the other hand, I think I trust the process a bit more. I’m not sure how to put it—I feel like more experienced writers could put this better—but while stumbling around in the dark I have more faith that I’m stumbling over the right things.

Mystery Girl is about a disillusioned experimental novelist and unemployed bookstore clerk whose wife has just left him. Out of desperation he takes a job as assistant for a reclusive and possibly mad detective who sends him to follow a mysterious woman around Los Angeles, leading to an adventure involving Mexican shootouts, Satanic ceremonies, video-store geeks and various revelations. I hope you all like it and look forward to hearing what you think!

David Gordon was born in New York City. He attended Sarah Lawrence College and holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature and an MFA in Writing, both from Columbia University, and has worked in film, fashion, publishing and pornography. His first novel, The Serialist, won the VCU/Cabell First Novel Award and was a finalist for an Edgar Award. His second novel, Mystery Girl, is forthcoming from Thomas & Mercer in 2013. His work has also appeared in The Paris Review, Purple, and Fence, among other publications.

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