Conspiracy Theories, the City and Lightning People with Christopher Bollen
Set in New York in the years following 9/11, Lightning People by Christopher Bollen spies on the lives of several New York dwellers. Authoring a novel is no mean feat; authoring a novel while sitting as editor-at-large of
Interview magazine is kinda crazy. I attended the book reading of said crazy person last week which took place in front of David Byrne's great, new installation "Tight Spot." Later, I prodded Christopher with the following questions.
Gilian Tozer: How on earth did you manage to write a book while working as the editor-at-large at Interview?!
Christopher Bollen: Good question! The novel was really a nights-and-weekends operation, basically written while hunched over my desk in the hours around my day job. It took five years to write Lightning People
, and I had to say goodbye to a lot of fun activities, nights out, weekends away, and I probably did a real number on some of my relationships but I’ve always thought of writing as work. Just because I wasn’t getting paid didn’t mean I didn’t have to show up every day and put in the effort.
It was difficult to have one brain for the editing job and another for the novel, but eventually I was rather addicted to returning to this little world I was creating alone in my apartment. I think when you start a novel, writing is a very lonely art, but when you get into it, it becomes almost like a second existence. And the boon of all that sweat and tears is that the novel and the world finally meet up. And there it is, out there on its own. And I must say, all of the interesting, exceptional, unexpected people I’ve gotten to meet and interview at Interview definitely helped in terms of creating characters.
GT: You said at the reading that Lightning People unintentionally became a character study. Could you describe each of the protagonists in one word?
CB: I’m inclined to say “searching” for each of them, but let me try to assign colors to each character and I’ll let the reader decide if the color fits the mood. Joseph is blue, Del is black, William is a red orange, Madi is yellow, Raj is gray, Quinn is turquoise, and Aleksandra Andrews is a blinding white. And New York itself is a hologram, which is all colors or none.
GT: Yes, New York City is a major character in the story. In what way has New York affected you, for better or for worse?
CB: I moved to the city at age 20 for college and it’s really been the place I became an adult, and not only became one, but solidified as one, so it’s affected me tremendously in both positive and negative ways. It’s allowed some of my dreams to come to fruition while stomping ruthlessly on other ones. And perhaps most strangely, it’s allowed a lot of the child in me to remain, which I think is a positive—as much as still being very much a young soul at age 35 has its sacrifices. But would I trade New York for any other city? Not a chance. Some people have said that Lightning People
is a valentine to the city, while others have found it tantamount to a big F You. It’s probably both.
GT: Regarding the conspiracy theory elements of the story. What are your favorite conspiracies?
CB: There are two I particularly like. One is the famous yarn about the moon landing being a piece of Hollywood, and there are whole books that deal with the fact that the shadows of the astronauts on the lunar surface or the backdrop of deep space would never actually film that way if the landing were real. I like it because it reminds me of those first tastes of paranoia one has as a kid, when we question the world: How do I know that China exists if I’ve never been there? How can I trust that everything I’m being told is really true? Most of us can’t know if the moon really looks like that, but I’m inclined to believe that footage.
The second conspiracy theory I like is the notorious 20-year presidential curse. Every president from 1840 to 1960 who was elected in a year ending in zero died in office. (Since there was an attempted assassination on Reagan who was elected in 1980 he could be added to this count.) If you add Reagan, George W. Bush, who was elected in 2000, broke this rather paranormal conspiracy.
GT: Do you have a favorite passage or line you would like to share?
CB: I think of all parts of Lightning People
, I am most partial to the prologue, which begins, “We had lightning strikes all summer but no blackouts…” But there is a scene later in the book where William, somewhat the novel’s antagonist, visits his older friend Quinn, who is a tough, old gay dude who lived through the wild times of the 60s, 70s, and 80s in Manhattan. William is falling apart, and Quinn keeps rattling on about the old days, and Williams finally interrupts him and says, “I’m sick of hearing about how great New York used to be.” I think a lot of us can understand that desire to stop comparing the present to the past.
it takes two