Author One-on-One: Dan Barden and Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan is the author of the 2011 Pulitzer-prize winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Jennifer Egan: The Next Right Thing seems both to honor the conventions of the mystery genre, and to bend them in thrilling and amusing ways. Are you a mystery buff? Talk about your relationship to the genre, and if--and how--it moved you to write this novel. Do you see it as a mystery novel?
Dan Barden: Yes, I'm mystery buff. Thrillers, noir, hard-boiled crime novels--the whole bag. Hard-boiled, particularly. It's the kind of book that always goes to the top of the pile. When I was out in the wilderness between novels, I thought really hard about what I wanted to write, and I kept pushing away the idea of a crime novel. I didn't feel worthy of the genre--it gave me too much pleasure, it was too important to me. But then I went to school on many crime novels that I loved. I typed up the books that I wanted for models--yes, that's right, I typed up at least five novels, got them into my blood and bones. I was trying to write the best story possible, and I borrowed as many elements from the genre as I could. I'm wary to claim this as a thriller because I don't want to show up at the door of that club and have someone like Lee Child or James Ellroy or Laura Lippman kick me out.
Jennifer Egan: The central relationship of the novel--one that I've never seen explored in fiction before--is that of a recovering alcoholic to his sponsor; indeed, the mysterious death of that sponsor is what sets the story in motion. Talk about the quality of a recovering addict's relationship to his sponsor, and what made you think of investigating the richness of that relationship here.
Dan Barden: I have a lot of friends in recovery. I'm sure they might all answer this question differently, but I'll tell you what I've seen: an alcoholic comes into the process of recovery and he is probably at the lowest point of his life. And into this weird, desperate vacuum comes a sponsor who not only introduces him to his new life, but also to a new community. The situations that I've seen are just so wildly beautiful. People are accepted into the community just because they're standing there. Not because they are lovable or kind or smart or any of those things that they thought were important. My protagonist, Randy Chalmers, says it well in the book. He says, "You just have to be a still-breathing alcoholic." When I was getting sober, I had a guy like that, too. He told me that I was in much worse shape than I thought I was, but that I was also better than I thought I was. I can't imagine my life without knowing him.
Jennifer Egan: Likewise, your use of West Coast recovery culture is sublime and unexpected. Was there research involved?
Dan Barden: The research was my life. I've had many friends in recovery for many years, and I lived in California until my late twenties. The recovery scene out there is amazing. It's a big culture. And they really walk to the beat of a different drummer. They have a lot of fun, too. Big wild conventions. A.A. meetings with thousands of people at them. I'm so glad you think it worked.
Jennifer Egan: I was struck repeatedly by the humor in your novel. How did you achieve it? Whom do you look to for funny writing you can learn from?
Dan Barden: In writing this book, one of my great discoveries was that I could write in the voice of someone funnier than I am. I'm not as funny as my friends, for example. I have one friend in mind. I call him once a week just hoping he'll have time to tell me stories about his life. He's been sober a long time, too. So, at one point, I just decided to write in his voice. And that worked really well. As far as other models go, Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist was a book that totally cracked me up. That was another novel I typed up, just a chapter or two. There's a certain kind of brilliantly self-involved mind that always gets me. What else? Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos. God, that was funny book. Jonathan Tropper is a master of droll narration. I studied him, too.