The editor turned author on thrillers and the apocalypse.
Bronzed Americans fleeing their responsibilities with family money; murder and deceit in the scorched Mediterranean. If the premise of Christopher Bollen’s new novel The Destroyers reminds you of Patricia Highsmith’s iconic Ripley series, then that’s probably by design. Because if the thriller as a novelistic form has lost a dash of its literary lustre since the days when Highsmith crafted psychologically probing yet tautly plotted tales of sun-drenched murder and deceit, then perhaps editor-cum-author Christopher Bollen is the man to restore it.
Enviably successful in both his fields, Bollen previously headed up V-Man before moving to the iconic NYC publication Interview – where he now occupies that sacred position of editor at large, a title purportedly coined by one of the magazine’s most celebrated alumnus: the late, great, Glenn O’Brien. And in a sense, Bollen’s cross-disciplinary triumphs (his previous novels Orient and Lightning People have both received critical acclaim) evoke a little something of O’Brien’s stubborn refusal to ever stick to just one creative field.
Indeed, The Destroyers certainly isn’t short on the kind of well-observed insights into the super-rich that you’d hope for in the literary work of a man who moves among the cultural elite of New York. Many of his barbed descriptions of the novel’s spoilt protagonists, strangely insulated from reality by their dense piles of money, seem cribbed more or less directly from a career spent shuttling between gallery openings and fashion shows. And are all the more devastating for it.
Fortunately, though, the novel’s penetrating understandings of contemporary social class and interior life go deeper than a few aptly chosen accessories. For one, our troubled narrator, Ian Bledose, the disowned son of a malevolent baby food magnate, is a man pursed by a very postmodern ghost: a string of Google search results tying him indelibly to an incident that wasn’t his fault. Fleeing to the Greek island of Patmos to reunite with his childhood friend Charlie – a stratospherically wealthy heir with a shady yachting business – Ian soon finds himself embroiled in dangerous lies that make for spectacular, unpredictable, page turning. A tense, densely plotted mystery, The Destroyers is a richly evoked narrative played devastatingly out against the chaos of a crumbling Greece and its looming refugee crisis – technology’s intrusive pull, meanwhile, draws Ian back to the mess awaiting him in the States.
Over a transatlantic line we talked thrillers, the dual career, and writing the end times with the man himself.
To begin with we’d love to hear how you ended up as a both a novelist and a magazine editor?
Well, I always dreamt of being a writer and when I became an adult I went to college at Columbia and I took a lot of writing classes. When I graduated I ended up in magazines and I rode that wave for a long time, not writing any fiction at all or anything besides journalistic articles. Then I turned 30 and I sort of realised that I had forgotten to write any books! So, I tried to find that horse and climb on it! But, yeah, it’s been a funny balance and it remains a funny balance for me. I really love working at Interview. I also love the days which I spend writing novels where I’m just trying to work on my own story. But then you get so far into your own head that there’s nothing more wonderful than going to work and getting to write and pursue other people’s projects and not be trapped in your own narcissistic writing process.
You’re someone who both critiques culture and produces it. So how do you perceive the role of the editor and critic in relation to the writer?
I think it is to be part of the conversation. There’s two ways of reading every cultural artifact and that is to see them as having simply a personal value of whether you enjoyed them or you learned anything from them. And then on a separate level, to see them as a reflection of society, or ask what they’re doing or what they’re achieving. I feel like people really do want to become part of a more collaborative process or have conversations. This whole modernist notion of a genius alone, removed from the world – I don’t really see that as being a very exciting way of creating. So I do see them as interdependent and I hope there’s value in that. I mean, I feel like sometimes you write a whole novel and someone posts a picture on Instagram and they think they have the same value and you think, “okay, why did I just spend 10 years of my life on that?” But in the end it’s really dangerous to make those comparisons.
So, what is it that intrigues you about the mystery novel?
It was the first form that I fell in love with. I was a mystery reader when I was 10 or 11 and so I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the murder mystery. I feel like it is such a beautiful way to move through a story: it’s such a wonderful motor that you strap on the back of your boat. That has a lot to do with the idea that you can’t really trust any characters, you’re always on your toes, there’s always a double meaning, and there’s always something hidden. So you can read so far into every single scene. Are you supposed to trust the characters? Are you not supposed to trust the characters? It puts the reader into a weird place, especially with what I’m trying to do, which is somewhere between literature and mystery. I think if someone just really loves murder mysteries they’d be so annoyed with my books.
The poetic detours might frustrate them a bit.
Exactly, yeah, it’s not very clean. But I also can’t stand the whole kind of literary elitism against plot because I think it’s such an easy attitude to have. Some of the best books, my favourite literary novels, have wonderful plots at the heart of them. And to cross out an entire genre I think is just ridiculous. But it seems to me that’s kind of dying away anyway
Technology also plays an interesting role in The Destroyers. Whether that’s the banality of social media or the fact that Ian’s past is irrevocably recorded. Are you critical of our technology addiction or do you just perceive it as something that needs to be in novels today because it’s an essential part of everyday life now?
It does need to be in novels. I remember in 2004 I was reading the first novel to have a cell phone in it and it seemed such an intrusion into the book. But now when you’re reading it’s so noticeable when people don’t have cell phones. It’s such a fact of life it would be like not having cars. But, for Ian, I was so fascinated by people, deserving or undeserving, who lose their jobs and entire life because of one incident that follows them forever. It’s terrifying.
The whole thing also feels very apocalyptic. Is that a reflection of your feelings: are we in a kind of Trumpian end time?
It’s funny because when I started writing this book it was safely in the Obama administration. The idea of careless, inherited wealth was not an American topic: some things are better to set in Europe. But now it seems entirely relevant. I think that you always feel like you’re living in apocalyptic times no matter what. Every generation feels that way but now does feel particularly like a dangerous times. So that threat level that you always feel has gone up even higher.
With that in mind, why do you write? Why do you need to do it?
It’s funny because I was finishing this book I feel like I had left all the life I had on the pages and felt so empty. I thought, god, that was really exhausting and maybe I just don’t need to write another book. Maybe that’s it. And for a long time, for many months, I was really enjoying my Saturday afternoons going outside and not thinking about the book. But then some sort of weird, nagging monster starts to climb into your head and you sort of miss it. You become depressed, you feel like you need to tell the story, you need to work. I don’t even know what it is: it’s like something in me that wants to write and feels most human or most myself when I have a book going.
The Destroyers is out now published by Harper Collins.