Interviewed in Hobart

My dear friend Bayo Ojikutu was generous enough to interview me for Hobart about my forthcoming book, Extraordinary Renditions. Here’s a sample:
Were the novellas actually crafted in sequence, or conceived as a compendium from the outset?
My editor and I devoted a great deal of energy to deciding whether to call the final product “3 novellas” or “a novel,” but those are ultimately meaningless distinctions. I’m pleased to report that the book we have here did not turn out as I first envisioned it all those years ago. Brutus in “Brooking the Devil” is the direct but distant descendant of a character from a truly awful story I wrote for my one and only undergraduate writing class, which was co-taught in 1993 by Elizabeth Spires and Madison Smartt Bell. That story was an abject disaster, but the character remained intriguing to me. Or maybe I’m just stubborn. Over the years, Brutus solidified into a distinct individual and I became interested in setting him loose outside the United States so that he would have a clearer vantage point of our society.

When Extraordinary Renditions began to take shape, I envisioned the book as two novellas, responding to or mimicking in some crude way the formal structure of Julius Caesar, in which the entire narrative momentum changes halfway through after the emperor bites it. “The Empty Chairs,” about two American expatriates living abroad, was to be the second part. Although those two stories did fit together, it didn’t feel complete. Something was missing, so I bailed on the formal model—those two novellas—I had been so attached to. I came to realize that I was avoiding writing about what mattered the most: how history will judge the United States.

The composer in “The Empty Chairs” started out as a minor character, but his story, as detailed in “14 Bagatelles,” triangulated the other two novellas. That title derives from an solo piano composition by Béla Bartók, but it was his “Konstrasztok” (“Contrasts”) from 1938 that best explains, I think, how the three parts of Extraordinary Renditions work together. There’s a stunning recording from 1940—shortly after Bartók fled his homeland for the United States—featuring Bartók himself on piano, József Szigeti on violin and Benny Goodman on clarinet. The three parts don’t fit neatly together, but they’re also inseparable.