In Conversation with David Burr Gerrard

David Burr Gerrard’s debut novel, Short Century, is the kind of book he hopes you’ll want to throw across the room. These are the books he likes best, really the only kind he likes at all, so it’s only natural that he’d give us a book that begs to be flung. The story was conceived in anger a decade ago, and this subtle, pulsing rage – at politicians’ twisted justifications, at violent and paternalistic foreign policy, at Gerrard’s characters, themselves – carries the novel like a heartbeat. I’ll admit I never did throw Short Century across the room. As blind as his characters are to their own perversions, Gerrard imbues them with just enough of a shred of dignity to keep me with them even at their ugliest. That, and I was reading it on a laptop.

Gerrard’s masterful prose is at once achingly personal and intensely political, reminding us over and over again that the two are impossibly intertwined. Short Century’s protagonist Arthur Hunt, who often feels more like its antagonist, is an anti-Vietnam War radical turned pro-Iraq War journalist. Reeling from an anonymous blogger’s revelation of his long-buried incestuous relationship with his sister, Arthur flails his arms in a whirlwind of self-justification, deflecting the attacks of his detractors, both real and imagined.

Arthur’s own sexually deviant past gets mixed up in his support for “humanitarian intervention” (his euphemism for drone strikes) on behalf of sexually oppressed women oceans away. Against the backdrop of his privileged upbringing in Manhattan and the Hamptons, his days as George W. Bush’s classmate at Yale, and the anti-war protests of the early 2000s, Arthur attempts to dig himself out of a crater that’s deeper than the ones his beloved drones have created.

For someone whose writing is motivated by an intense anger, Gerrard presented as nothing but gracious when he welcomed me to his shared Long Island City workspace with a cup of hot tea. We discussed the role of empathy in fiction, the role of fiction in politics, and the one person he’d sacrifice his own life to save, were they both in a burning building.

—By Eliza Berman

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INTERVIEWER

The book is all sorts of wrapped up in the politics of the early aughts. What was the genesis of the story?

GERRARD

The book came about because I graduated college in 2003, just as the Iraq war was starting. I was reading a lot of writers who had been radicals in the ‘60s and who were now supporting the war in Iraq, and they didn’t see the war as a break from their ideals. They didn’t see it as a repudiation. They saw it actually as a fulfillment of these ideals. I remember at the time reading these articles and being very persuaded that this was a war for freedom. I wouldn’t say that I was necessarily a supporter of the war, but I was sympathetic to the arguments.

By 2004 when the war was going badly, the arguments seemed very, very strange. I wondered why those arguments had been persuasive to me at all, and persuasive to anyone, particularly to people who were older and should have known much better, and who wound up getting us into this terrible war in the first place. So I went back and researched a lot about the ‘60s, and I created this character and this world.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a world we see mostly through Arthur’s eyes, but at several points in the narrative, he inhabits other characters, attempting to narrate the story from their perspectives.

GERRARD

This narrative strategy is definitely very important to the theme, where Arthur thinks he’s very empathetic and essentially thinks he knows people better than they know themselves. It’s also an intrinsic problem in writing fiction. It’s very easy to get complacent about empathy as a fiction writer. There’s that B.S. study that was written about in the New York Times that says that reading fiction makes you more empathetic, as though being empathetic were an easy thing to describe. You have these researchers who say that one person is more empathetic than another person because one is right about what someone’s facial expression means, and the other person is wrong. That just seems very anti-literary to me. Empathy is obviously extremely important in fiction. It is one of the most important things in fiction. But at the same time, it’s very complicated, and if you forget that it’s complicated, then you’re probably going to write bad fiction, and you’re very likely also to make terrible political decisions, as Arthur certainly does.

INTERVIEWER

Towards the end of the book, there’s a line about empathy being “doled out to flatter the empathizer.” For Arthur, the lines between empathy and self-justification get very blurred.

GERRARD

Right, you often read into people emotions that in some way or another flatter your own vision of yourself.

INTERVIEWER

Moving from empathy to a close cousin, sympathy: in your interviews with Adelle Waldman and Said Sayrafiezadeh, you asked them their thoughts on sympathetic characters. Waldman talked about the extent to which a reader’s inclination to be sympathetic towards a character is tied to the character’s gender. Sayrafiezadeh said that likeability can only get you so far if the character isn’t interesting. How did you approach this question of sympathy as you developed Arthur’s character?

GERRARD

The question of whether characters should be sympathetic or unsympathetic, certainly from my book, doesn’t quite get at the heart of it. I think sympathy is much more complex, just as it is in real life. Anybody that you know well is someone that you occasionally have sympathy for and occasionally do not have sympathy for at all. In fact, the more you get to know someone, the angrier you’ve probably been at them, and at their limitations.

Clearly Arthur is, let’s say, incompletely sympathetic. If you walk away thinking that Arthur Hunt is a good guy, I haven’t done my job. At the same time, I want you to occasionally feel things from his perspective. This ties into this idea of empathy. I want you to occasionally have empathy for Arthur, as I did while writing it. But I want you to question that feeling.

INTERVIEWER

The interplay between the personal and the political is central to the story. They’re impossibly enmeshed with one another.

GERRARD

I think that war, in particular since 9/11, has been at the same time highly personal and highly impersonal. On the one hand, most of us feel personal danger from terrorism. On the other hand, we can go for months or weeks without thinking about the war at all. We can be totally unaware of American and foreign policy in a way that might not have been possible during WWII or the Vietnam War. One thing I admire about Arthur is that he’s not able to put what’s happening overseas out of his mind. The conclusions he comes to are not ones I agree with, and they’re often evil, but unlike many of us, he doesn’t just look away.

At the same time, it’s the fact that people like him spend so much time half-thinking about people around the world that enables these policies to exist in the first place. A lot of people think we’re doing good by dropping bombs in foreign countries, and it’s the fact that people like Arthur think that we’re doing good that allows the rest of us to slumber, assume that what’s going on is for the best. Sure, maybe civilians get murdered occasionally. Sure, as happened recently, maybe there’s a drone strike against a wedding convoy, but I guess that has to happen because overall it’s for the good of the people that are getting bombed. That’s how we generally think about it when we think about it at all.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of the personal and the political, sex in Short Century is especially politicized: Arthur’s college girlfriend Miranda keeps the radio on when they make love, to “let the world in.” The free-love guru Jersey Rothstein, whom Miranda later marries, preaches for sexual revolution in favor of political activism. How did this theme come to be so central to the story?

GERRARD

One thing that was very interesting to me is how frequently male writers would invoke how poorly women are treated in Afghanistan and elsewhere as an excuse to go over and drop bombs. Afghan men treat their women badly, so let’s go over and bomb Afghan men, women, and children. It seems to come down to the idea that America knows better because America has a superior level of freedom, so sexual freedom is used as an excuse to engage in bombing. There’s also a sense in which the bombing is itself sexual. There’s a famous video of Thomas Friedman talking with Charlie Rose very shortly after the invasion of Iraq, saying that even though Saddam didn’t have WMDs, it was necessary for us to go over there and say, “Suck on this.” This is obviously a grotesquely sexual metaphor for bombing people and murdering and maiming them.

INTERVIEWER

In an interview on Blog Talk Radio, you discussed wanting to contribute to a conversation about where the country’s been and where we’re going. How do you see the role of fiction in driving political discourse?

GERRARD

I think that fiction can get at the way that certain political arguments feel in a way that essays can’t. Fiction can show how opinions about politics get wrapped up in ways that aren’t necessarily reducible to a one-sentence summary. You have both politics and the personal all wrapped up in your mind and – I hate the term “heart,” because your mind and your heart are the same thing. But your emotions and what’s conventionally called thinking, those things are impossible to separate.

INTERVIEWER

Are you at all anxious about the political response the book might elicit?

GERRARD

Clearly, I wrote a book that I hope people have strong feelings about. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. I don’t like books that I never want to throw across the room. Probably my biggest influence is Philip Roth, and I think he’s wrong about almost everything. I very often want to throw his books across the room. It’s the way that he gets at how deeply politics are ingrained in our minds that appeals to me. So I want people to disagree with me and to disagree with Arthur. I often want to throw Arthur across the room, and I hope people want to throw him across the room, but I hope that there are also people who say, “You know what, you’re being too hard on Arthur.”

This was definitely one of the biggest things that I struggled with: how hard to be on Arthur. As I got older, because this book took me a long time to write, I would say that for the most part I got harder on Arthur. His ideas came to seem more and more absurd as we got further and further away from Iraq. At the same time, they seemed to get more and more deeply ingrained in the culture. I think I finished it at exactly the right time, in that my empathy towards Arthur has, if anything, decreased since I finished. I do think it’s helpful for a novelist to have a certain amount of empathy towards his characters, and I think there’s an appropriate amount of empathy in the book.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of the extent to which someone like Philip Roth influenced your writing style versus the content and the things you’re interested in writing about, was it one more than the other?

GERRARD

I would say that those two things are just very connected. The style comes from an intense anger about what’s going on in the world. Arthur and I are both angry about what’s going on in the world. We have different reasons to be angry. I get very emotional when I read about this stuff. Even though I’m sitting at my laptop, I feel tense and angry. And that can also be caricatured. As I’m talking I can imagine someone reading this and saying, “That’s ridiculous, this guy isn’t actually doing anything.” And of course that’s part of the experience, as well. We can read a lot of blogs and read a lot of newspapers and have our opinions, but do our opinions actually matter?

I talked about this with Nicholson Baker, because in his novel Traveling Sprinkler, he has his character reading Glenn Greenwald’s blog, and there’s a feeling that it’s not really changing anything. After Baker finished Traveling Sprinkler and I finished Short Century, Glenn Greenwald broke the Snowden story, and that has had some impact in the world. It’s impossible to know exactly how much, but clearly it’s doing something rather than nothing. Nicholson Baker said that he was jealous of Glenn Greenwald, and so am I. I’ve said to my girlfriend, in the extremely unlikely event that you ever have the opportunity to save either me or Glenn Greenwald from a burning building, save Glenn Greenwald. And she said no.

But in any case, I think Greenwald is a model for how a certain type of writer can be effective in the world. Fiction’s effect on the world is necessarily going to be more oblique. There’s a famous line from W.H. Auden, that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Fiction and poetry, do they actually make nothing happen? Maybe. You just have to have faith that people are going to read what you write and that it’s going to change the way that they think.

INTERVIEWER

This question about whether opinions actually matter weighs heavily on Arthur, who’s a radical in his college days but then realizes at a certain point that his political beliefs aren’t bringing about any tangible changes in the world. And when he later becomes a writer, he’s conflicted about the fact that his writing has had a tangible influence, like inspiring Miranda’s son Jason to enlist in the war, where he is ultimately killed.

GERRARD

Jason was an extrapolation of who I might have been had I been substantially bolder than I was. There was a one- to two-week period during my senior year of college, just after the invasion, that I thought about going into the military. I was never actually going to do it, and when I told my friends, they basically laughed at me. Going to the military voluntarily is something I would never do. And to a certain extent that makes me a coward, because at the time I was persuaded by a lot of pro-war arguments. But it was good that I was a coward. There’s a lot of harm that I might have done, both to myself and to others, that I didn’t do because I’m a coward. So cowardice is underrated.

INTERVIEWER

This idea of a short century comes up several times. Where did the title come from?

GERRARD

There are a number of possible interpretations that I float in the book. The genesis of it is this idea of the short century from 1914 to 1989 that was popular among Eric Hobsbawm and a number of other writers. The idea of the end of Communism leading into this new liberal, democratic millennium is very important to a lot of the journalists I was thinking about.

Another reason it’s called Short Century is that I think there’s something problematic about the way thinkers try to squeeze very chaotic forces into these nice little packages. That’s something I’m always concerned about because, of course, someone who condenses chaotic experience into a nice little package is a novelist. I try to reproduce the chaos of the world to some degree in my novel, but it’s still a little block that lies on a table. It’s also telling to me that we try to think in terms of centuries, which just happen by random coincidence to be the outer limit of a human lifespan. We try to fit history into, essentially, a human mold.

INTERVIEWER

After less than a century but almost a full decade of living with these characters, and especially with Arthur, what does it feel like to send them out into the world?

GERRARD

Mostly, I’m just curious at this point. They were very real to me for a very long time, and particularly Arthur, I had a lot of volatile feelings about. I’m curious to see how people will respond. A lot of people say it feels like putting your children out into the world. Maybe it’ll feel like that for a different book, but hopefully you like your children more than I like Arthur.

INTERVIEWER

And after so many years with the book, how did you know when you were done? Did somebody tell you?

GERRARD

[Laughs] It just felt done. I stopped working on the book for a couple years. I finished an initial draft in 2008, just as Obama was getting elected. I thought that it wasn’t necessarily going to be as relevant as I hoped it’d be. I was also delighted that it wasn’t going to be as relevant as I hoped it would be. I was delighted that Obama had won, and that I wasted several years of my life, and that this book about George Bush and the Iraq War was no longer relevant.

Then I was very disappointed to see a lot of the same strands of “humanitarian” intervention, what Teju Cole rather brilliantly called “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” It’s been distressing to see that continue to thrive. It’s thrived in the war in Libya. It was fortunately thwarted in Syria – I say fortunately, but it’s hard to be happy that we didn’t intervene there. This is one reason why I wrote the book. The pull of humanitarian intervention is so strong. If I thought the idea were ridiculous, then I don’t think I would have written the book.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything you learned in the process of writing your first novel that would change how you approach a second novel?

GERRARD

I’m deep into another novel. I started it when I put down this novel in 2008, and I would say the only thing that I’ve learned from writing these two novels is that every novel is different. You think you’ve mastered a particular approach, and there are some people who have one particular way of writing, and they do it book after book, and it produces excellent results. There are other writers who you sort of wish would expand their horizons. And other writers write different books every time, and they’re all over the place, and you wish that they would actually narrow their interests a little bit.

The book that I’m writing now shares a lot of themes with this book. It’s called The Epiphany Machine, and it’s about this device that tattoos epiphanies on people’s arms. There’s an open question as to whether there’s any kind of metaphysical merit, or whether this is just hokum being perpetrated on the public. The thematic link is this issue of why we believe what we believe, what is the truth, what is the way to live. These are all obviously very broad questions, but for me those questions are what anchor me as a writer. It took me a very long time to figure out how to write this second one. I worry about jinxing myself by saying that I have figured it out. I think that I have, but if I have learned anything, I’ve learned that there is not something that I need to learn. It’s just a matter of blindly doing a lot of writing until you have something that feels right.

Eliza Berman is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The RumpusThe Hairpin, and The Billfold, among other publications.

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