“I’m surprised to find myself a published novelist”: Interview with Chris Pavone
Chris Pavone may be surprised to find himself a published novelist, but in a year he has blazed a trail that very few debut authors have. He has earned rave reviews for this two thrillers
The Expats and The Accident and both his novels have hit the bestseller lists, not too shabby of an achievement at a period when a record number of novels are vying for attention from reviewers and consumers alike. Chris spoke to us this week about his latest novel and his work in progress.
TSM: Tell us about your latest novel.
CP: A literary agent receives an anonymous, dangerous manuscript that reveals the secrets of a powerful man, and then people around her start dying. The Accident is set mostly in New York and Copenhagen and Zurich; it takes place partly in the world of book publishing, partly in the shadows of European espionage, and partly at the messy intersection of politics and media. It’s a book about ambition and compromise and corruption, about the choices we make and the people we become, perhaps not quite purposefully.
TSM: You had a background in publishing; do you miss working on the “inside” of the publishing industry?
CP: I definitely miss the excitement of waking up each day and going to an office, hoping to fall in love with something new, today—a new manuscript, a new subject, a new author. That’s a great way to spend your life! And you do it surrounded by people who have chosen their careers not because of but despite money: although there are a lot of ambitious people in the book business, their ambition is rarely to get rich. I wanted to try to capture some of this culture in The Accident, whose characters all occupy very different rungs on the professional ladder, from an assistant in her first job up to a publisher in his last. A single exciting new project means very different things to each of these people, and their various ambitions are what put them in peril and drive the plot.
TSM: Were you surprised by the success of The Expats?
CP: Even after a publisher acquired the rights—which itself was a surprise—I still expected basically no readers to buy that first novel. I’m astounded that anyone paid any attention whatsoever. I’ve been very fortunate.
TSM: You were an expat in Luxembourg—did you experience culture shock or culture embrace?
CP: Both. But most of my culture shock came not from the new experience of living abroad and speaking a foreign language, but from suddenly becoming a stay-at-home parent, with no paying job, no professional identity. This is not an uncommon experience—plenty of people choose to stay home with little children—but I wasn’t aware of exactly what the choice entailed. This was the predicament that got me writing a novel about a woman who moves abroad and loses a large part of her identity, a story that evolved into The Expats.
TSM: What are you working on now?
CP: My third novel, about an accidental spy. I’m having a terrific time with it.
TSM: Have you considered working on novels with a series character?
CP: I suspect I don’t have the patience for that type of long-term project, or the diligence to produce what readers (and publishers) expect out of a good series. I do plan on writing future books that revisit the characters who are in both The Expats and The Accident, but probably not as a series. That said, I’m surprised to find myself a published novelist to begin with, and I don’t know what to expect from myself in the future.
TSM: Tell us about your writing regimen. Do you outline or do you work on the novel and see where the initial idea takes you?
CP: I’ve written only two novels, so I can’t say that I’ve achieved a reliable regimen. So far, it looks like I outline pretty rigorously, but then I don’t stick to the outline dogmatically. Both my books have complicated plots, and those complexities evolved during the draft process, and then again further during edits and revisions. I didn’t finish with the same stories I started.
TSM: Since you edited cookbooks, I’ll have to ask you to name some of your favorite NYC restaurants?
CP: My children go to school very near our apartment, and we have a new puppy who needs a lot of attention; both of these aspects of my life anchor me firmly in our neighborhood most days. So all my current favorites are very near home: a West Village wine bar called Buvette; a couple of casual Italian places, La Perla in the Village and Il Buco Alimentari in NoHo; and the Minetta Tavern. I’ll also always love Babbo, whose wine book I published, and Balthazar, whose cookbook I published, but those are harder tables to come by, and not places I’ll just pop into on a Wednesday night.
TSM: Who are some of the writers you enjoy reading?
CP: I fall in love with new books constantly, so I can answer this question only in the context of the past few months. I also have such a fickle palate I think it’s hard to take this assortment seriously, but here are my recent favorites: Thirty Girls by Susan Minot, Olen Steinhauer’s latest The Cairo Affair, Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead, a forthcoming book called The Swimmer by Joakim Zander, and this year’s winner of the same Edgar Award I won last year, Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews.
TSM: From the publisher and now writer viewpoint, what do you think the future holds for our industry?
CP: It looks like people are reading books as much as ever. Year after year, the biggest books get even bigger, creating huge audiences and a cultural currency similar to movies’, and a corresponding windfall for authors and publishers. But of course every mega-success started off as nothing more than an author sitting alone, typing out a story, dwelling in the swelling ranks of the midlist or the unpublished. Next year’s blockbuster will have to come from somewhere, and if the recent past is any indication, it will likely be from an author who isn’t well known today. I think that’s fantastic.
TSM: Who were some of the authors you enjoyed reading when you were growing up?
CP: Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexander Dumas, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., anything about baseball. And for a few years in the late seventies and early eighties, I had an unexplainable fascination with novelizations.
TSM: What was your reaction to getting on the New York Times bestseller list? I bet you went straight for your cell to call your wife, or since she’s also in the industry was she the one who gave you the news?
CP: I was thrilled! I had just walked out of music school with my kids, and I decided we should go to a fancier restaurant than our normal after-piano fare. But the truth is that although I was extremely happy that my first book debuted as a Times bestseller, I don’t really believe that hitting a list with a first novel is an authorial achievement. It’s a publishing one—a monumental effort of sales and marketing, publicity and advertising, jacket design and retail distribution, all the many jobs that go into launching a book into the world. I did only one of those jobs.
“I’m surprised to find myself a published novelist”: Interview with Chris Pavone is published exclusively on the Strand’s website.