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War of the Encyclopaedists: A Novel Hardcover – May 19, 2015
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Guest Interview – Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite in conversation with Phil Klay
Phil Klay: War literature often gives only minimal notice to the experience of women, but your two main characters are balanced by two fascinating women who become involved in both of their stories. How did you come up with Mani and Tricia?
Chris: In the earliest drafts, Tricia began as a foil to Hal, the character based on me. She was pretentious, overly PC, annoying. Her function was to highlight all the things Hal hated about Boston. She wasn't compelling and her being used as prop made Hal less compelling.
Gavin: As we rewrote and rewrote the novel, one of our main goals was to make it just as likely that a reader would identify with Tricia as with Hal or Mickey. Tricia went from being the villain of the book to being the hero, at least for me. She’s my favorite character.
Chris: Mani, too, went through a lot of revision. She was initially too defined by her victimhood, which we didn’t want. As her character evolved through rewrites, she became less of a victim and more and more of an actor; her choices started driving the plot for the other characters. And I think we both became more fascinated by her, and how she handles those power dynamics.
Phil Klay: Esquire said War of the Encyclopaedists may be the "defining novel" of the millennial generation. Do you consider that a backhanded compliment?
Phil: Seriously, though, we’re you consciously trying to write about millennials? What do you think defines the millennial experience?
Gavin: It’s a forehanded compliment, and a very flattering review. I’m still just so happy that some people are enjoying the book. We’re on the front cusp of the millennial generation, but I think much of what makes millennials millennials in the popular mind applies to us, and to the characters in WotE. In 2004, none of us really knew what we were expected to do, other than graduate from college. College graduation was the end of the marked path, and almost everyone I knew was lost afterwards. People applied for jobs and travelled a bit and supported themselves, but no one was starting some big career or a family or saving the world—it was this widespread feeling of deflatedness. My post-graduate malaise was pretty bad, in part because I had to go through it alone; I deployed during my senior year, and by the time I got back my friends had graduated and moved on. I had had this intense and disorienting experience as a platoon leader, and was married—
Phil Klay: A deployment marriage?
Gavin:Not like in the book. In real life, we were very much a couple and in love. But when I got back I was just emotionally fried. All I wanted to do was spend another few years as a college kid before I had to grow up and figure things out. The Rome trip, where I met Chris, was a godsend. Unlike many other people, Chris didn’t treat me any differently for being a vet, which I was so grateful for; it was just a stream of dumb jokes and clever immaturity, which was what I needed at the time.
Chris: You know, you never told me that before, Gav. That’s nice. I think it was just obliviousness to your vet status on my part, rather than tact. But to get back to your question, Phil, the funny thing is, we actually were trying to write about millennials, though neither of ever thought of ourselves as millennials until the TV told us we were. The very first outline of War of the Encyclopaedists had something of a mission statement in it: to capture one side of the Iraq War through the separation of friends, to explore our generation’s need to self-create and its embracing of subjectivity through YouTube, Facebook, and of course, Wikipedia. We largely ignored that mission statement as we wrote the book. Forgot about it, even. Four years later, we dug up that first outline on a whim and saw that we’d actually written something which came close to fulfilling the original mission statement. But it didn’t feel like we’d done it. If WotE is a book for the millennial generation, it’s because we let our characters drive the plot. It was their attempts to define themselves, and their shared feeling that a self-definition is the only valid definition.
Phil Klay: You were also explicitly writing about war. How does the Iraq War, as depicted here, differ from what people might expect to find?
Gavin: For one thing, “war” is a misnomer for my deployment experience—I served in an occupation. I know now as a military lawyer that occupation was in fact required under humanitarian law, and that it gave us, the occupying force, certain legal rights and responsibilities. All I knew at the time was that our job was to screen and defend the Green Zone. We tried to be as respectful and friendly to the locals as possible while effectively deterring and blocking attacks. Keeping a good relationship with the locals was central to our security plan, and either it worked or we just got lucky. We still took mortar rounds and drive-by shootings on a somewhat regular basis, but none of us got hurt. I felt more like a cop in a bad neighborhood than a combat soldier in enemy territory.
So the occupation stories in WotE are very unlike, say, American Sniper or Lone Survivor or any of those hellacious combat tales that take up a lot of popular bandwidth, for obvious reasons. We weren’t fighting the Iraqis, we were trying to protect them from the criminals and extremists in their midst. There were bright points, like the elections and handover of sovereignty that happened on our watch, but it was depressingly clear to us as we were winding up our deployment in spring 2005 that the city was slipping deeper into a state of violence and fear. It was heartbreaking to watch. I stopped reading the news after I got back because I didn’t want think about my neighborhood being bombed and shot up. Things got really bad between ’05-’07 before they started turning it around.
Chris: From the beginning, we’d planned to juxtapose Boston academia and the military occupation of Baghdad. What was surprising to me, during the writing process, talking over the Baghdad sections with Gav or revising his first drafts as he revised mine, was how similar the two worlds were. The insularity, the boredom, the struggle to meaningfully connect one’s actions with a broader purpose. Perhaps the strangest thing readers might find about our depiction of the Iraq War is how relatable the experience is, and how the characters in the Baghdad sections, Mickey especially, but also Ant and a few others, could just as easily have been the focal point of the Boston chapters.
Phil Klay: Speaking of those two worlds, would you rather be trapped at a cocktail party with academics or with active duty military?
Chris: Can it be a cage match instead of a cocktail party, and can I be outside the Octagon watching?
Gavin: [Laughs] I’d go with JAG captains--military lawyers are just really fun to be around. I never really fit in in the infantry for personality reasons, plus the infantry’s a sausage fest. Academics can be fun, too, but if there’s one thing I hate it’s intellectual dick-measuring, and that can be a problem with academics and cocktails.
Chris: I’ve hung out with JAGs and other military, through Gavin, and I’ve found them to be focused outward more than inward. And though they may have worries that American military policy has been disastrous in some ways, that doesn’t usually manifest as a doubt about the value of their own service. Which is refreshing. Academics and writers, myself included, sometimes have this deep existential fear that their work doesn’t have real value when set next to famine, race riots, terrorism, wealth inequality, or even exotic bird smuggling. And I’m not holding myself immune to these insecurities. Of course, academics are my tribe. It’s hard to pass up a good conversation about Kafka’s influence on Borges. They’re nerds at heart, just passionate about books instead of computers. They’re people always in search of the right rabbit hole to go down. And eager to share what they dig up at the next cocktail party. It’s a great way to move through life, in my opinion. But there’s an overlap between these groups, too. This is why I like hanging out with Gavin, and with you, Phil. Best of both worlds.
Phil Klay: That’s a nice segue into the topic of friendship, one of the central themes of the book. Did writing the book put a strain on your friendship? What was the worst fight you had while working on the book?
Gavin: It did put a strain on the friendship at times, because Chris and I came at this project from very different places. Chris is so ambitious and driven about writing, and put years of his life into this book. I had a full time job and didn’t personally identify as a fiction writer, so for me, writing was a fun thing to do with Chris. I remember the week in the fall of 2013 when our agent started selling it—I’d just started a job as an Army prosecutor and was neck deep in all these new cases when I started having to take all these conference calls with prospective editors and things like that—it was exciting but also surreal since the book seemed to be so distant from my actual life. I didn’t really hang out with writers aside from Chris, and people I worked with didn’t know I’d been writing a book for years. At times it became serious work—this was way before we were anywhere near a finished manuscript—and I didn’t want to use my weekends and evenings on it, so I’d run and hide while Chris was blowing up my spot trying to get me to draft this or that scene. I felt bad about it at times, because I was letting down the cause, but I really didn’t want a second job.
Chris: I did hound him. I mean, Gav would stop responding to emails and texts! And I’d be like, Yo, asshole, if you can’t get this chapter done by when you said you would, then tell me so. Don’t just disappear. I mean, he did have a lot more responsibilities than I did, being a homeless poet bouncing between artist colonies for three years. Eventually we figured out a civil way for me pressure him into writing. We’d find a deadline he could actually meet and I’d check in every few days. And if he was just too busy, I’d say, Screw it, I’m writing the first draft of this Baghdad scene myself.
Gavin: Those were kind of meta struggles, you know? We never really fought about the content of the book. Chris is really generous with creative control given his huge investment in WotE, but also we just generally think along the same lines when it comes to fiction. I’m also happy to compromise or give stuff up when Chris thinks it’s not working, so we really don’t have the kinds of control struggles that other writers tend to imagine would happen with a collaborative novel. The only time I really dug in my heels was against you, Phil!
Phil Klay: [Laughs]
Gavin:I had some issues with the Tricia character and I had to cling white-knuckled to a scene or two because Chris was totally in favor of your suggestion.
Chris: What was that suggestion? Something about toning down a passage that was potentially offensive?
Gavin: I don’t even remember. I just remember clenching my fist and saying, I’ll show you, Phil Klay!
Phil Klay: Are there ways in which you two depend on each other, weaknesses in your writing that you’re willing to admit to?
Gavin:It generally takes a lot of ambition, focus, and ego to write a novel, and I tend to lack all three. It’s OK though, because Chris supplies them for the team. Basically, I’m a slacker. That should change in about a month when we start writing together full time.
Chris: I have a tendency to be overly controlled. A bit OCD. I’ll make really complicated spreadsheets outlining where every character is every hour of the fictional timeline, which in WotE spans almost a year--with notes about about the plot developments in each scene, which themes are hit, where the narrative perspective is. I’ll even track the scenes that happen off camera, scenes that exist in the novel only through references the characters make to past events. All this can really deaden the narrative. But then Gavin will start writing unplanned scenes, scenes not in the outline, and we’ll have to adjust. His lack of focus is an essential balance to my hyper-focus.
Gavin: Chris also had a tendency to be overly poetic.
Chris: You mean you’re overly restrained!
Gavin: [Laughs]. Yeah, that’s another nice balancing act in our collaboration. I think in the end, the prose in WotE has a constant lyrical pulse without becoming florid and sacrificing readability.
Chris: Yeah, it’s nice to be able to throw your flaws against someone else’s flaws and produce something you’re proud of. How lucky are we?
"Only a poet and a soldier—like these collaborating authors—are mad enough or ambitious enough to conceive of this smart, wise and wise-assed first novel. Seattle hipsterville to Baghdad, Cambridge theory nerds and Army grunts, this book has sweep and heart and humor. It captures coming of age during foreign wars and domestic malaise, and it does so with electrifying insight." (Mary Karr author of The Liars' Club, Cherry, and Lit)
“As bizarre, hilarious and devastating as the past decade, War of the Encyclopaedists offers a brilliant portrait of America in the early years of the Iraq War. A startling, original accomplishment, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite's novel is simultaneously a coming-of-age story, a war story, and a story of the disaffected millennial generation for whom the war hardly happened at all.” (Phil Klay author of Redeployment)
“[Robinson and Kovite] have taken their individual histories and attitudes and invested them in their two main characters, who are deftly portrayed and a perfect fit for each other. Their story unfolds rapidly, humorously, and convincingly from page one.” (Library Journal)
"An epic for the 9/11 generation, War of the Encyclopaedists chronicles the churning uncertainties of new adults, when everything represents possibility or peril." (Booklist)
“A gripping, thoughtful read…Moving and memorable.” (Publishers Weekly)
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Top Customer Reviews
This novel is a fascinating experiment in co-writing that 'totally works,' as someone much younger than I might say. And that's probably a good way to begin, since I'm pretty sure ENCYCLOPAEDISTS is directed at a much younger audience than me. Full disclosure: I'm seventy-one, and this is a book about twenty-somethings, and it provided me with a great peek into their world in the early years of the twenty-first century. And it's a confusing one. Call this a guy-sorta BFF book, okay? Except I'm not really sure about the 'forever' part, because, in my experience, guys don't often maintain those early best friendships. The BFF is more of a gal-thing, I think.
But I started to comment on the successfulness of the co-writer thing. I'm trying to think of the last time I read such a good book written by two people. I'm digging way back even, and all I can come up with right off the top of my head is Nordhoff and Hall's Mutiny on the Bounty, and boy was that a long time ago! First published in the thirties, although I read it back in the sixties.
Although I'm pretty sure grad student Halifax Corderoy and Army 1LT Mickey Montauk bear little resemblance to Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh, they are a couple of pretty engaging characters, and, even though their story takes place in 2004-2005 time frame, I chuckled my way through some of the 'guy things' in here, both civilian and military, that I remember from my own youthful years (civilian and military, as I've been both soldier [twice] and grad student) in the sixties and seventies.Read more ›
War of the Encyclopaedists is a story about war, love and friendship. And like all good books there's a love triangle, an IED, an Iraqi kid named Monkey, a sperm bank and a sleep study. With moments of humor and horror, passion and punch, the authors are part of the growing crop of writers (e.g. Klay, Fountain, Lish, and Roxana) that are setting the war in Iraq into a context that the greater American culture can digest. The ability to find and create this context in a balanced manner takes grit and talent--Kovite and Robinson have proved they have both in spades.
One of my favorite lines from the book:
There is no definitive moment when two people become a couple. Elements of intimacy accumulate, and what makes a couple a couple is the gradual recognition of this accumulated intimacy.
I have more quotes at kruzoo blogspot
Using a Wikipedia page as a plot commentary, the 2 young men find love, war and complexity in their lives. Keep reading. It's worth it.
Montauk shares a large Seattle house - the 'Encyclopad' - where he and Hal throw a series of achingly cool 'Encyclopaedists' parties, ironic affairs of local legend. At the last of these before their futures call, Hal's ambivalent feelings towards his exotic but wayward girlfriend Mani reach a turning point. As a reservist officer, Montauk has been called up to lead a platoon in Iraq (this is set in 2004/5) while Hal is off to study Lit Crit in Boston. But it's not just geography that is about to separate the two friends; the stage is set for something - or rather, someone - else to come between them. Just before the parting of the ways, they put together an entry on Wikipedia; this is the way they will communicate with one another. The Wiki pages serve to demarcate the two narrative arcs.
The two authors interweave the threads of the story seamlessly in this collaborative novel. (I would love to know how they achieved this!) Their writing is just the right side of smart without being in the least showoff-y. Montauk's deployment in Iraq conveys the utter futility of the American mission, without recourse to histrionics. This is exemplified in a series of interview reports he conducts in a murder enquiry which make the point most effectively. Lt Montauk means well - but does he make good? Meanwhile Hal, broke and increasingly reliant on booze, is finding his post-grad course equally - if less momentously - futile. Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite have woven an interesting late coming-of-age story that sheds light on the American malaise of "no good deed going unpunished". Warmly recommended.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is one of the few books I've read recently that provided some kind of takeaway; I deeply enjoyed reading it. Read morePublished 12 days ago by cbell
The Encyclopaedists opens with a nice hook, enough to get me through Amazon’s Look Inside 10% and interested in the characters so I would buy the thing. Read morePublished 6 months ago by ArtOfSilence
Well written novel, interesting characters and circumstances. Compelling personal take on today's issues particularly as they apply to twenty-something generation.Published 7 months ago by Alex T.
This book would be an extraordinary debut for a single writer; that it's a collaboration defies belief. Read morePublished 8 months ago by terence hawkins
Liked it. Unusual story of a complicated friendship, set in the early years of the 21st century.Published 9 months ago by Susan L. Walker
“War of the Encyclopaedists” by Robinson and Kovite is difficult to review. I read the several glowing reviews here, and I wondered, why are there not more reviews and... Read morePublished 9 months ago by David Island
A very good read! Fascinating how 2 young authors develop an interesting story of the millennial generation and the Iraq War.Published 9 months ago by Woodsy
In the interest of full disclosure, I know the author's mother and thought his depictions of her (and his parents in general) were spot on. Read morePublished 10 months ago by BigAl