You bring up a lot of popular culture, like music and TV shows. Were you trying to capture the times we live in?
No, not really. The music I put in the 1971 sections was definitely meant to add a little period resonance, but not the contemporary stuff. There, it’s just that music and tv are things that we talk about, popular culture is very much a part of the world and the conversation going on in it, and it would be unnatural if Peter & Co. didn’t talk about it, which made me responsible for figuring out which music and tv they would be talking about so it wouldn’t seem jarringly inaccurate. So, to whatever extent the specific references convey some aspect of contemporary life, it’s a byproduct of what I think these characters would be paying attention to.
Although, also, the degree to which popular media have become the focus of our attention is a specific aspect of our time, so in that sense, yes.
It’s also part of their characterization, in that, for example, Peter’s a rock snob, takes some pride in his refined tastes, so that dictates certain things. Also, not that I think there’s anybody but me paying this much attention to what I’m writing, but I was also trying to convey something about how things change and how things don’t. There are long-haired students throwing a frisbee on the quad both then and now while listening to jam bands and smoking weed. The only difference is that then it was the Dead and now it’s Phish. Or a few years ago, anyway. Subcultures and cultural movements don’t spring up and then go away the way they did a hundred years ago; nothing goes away anymore.
Right now there are people as genuinely into the Beats as anyone was forty or fifty years ago, and there are punks and hippies and metalheads you could drop back in time twenty or thirty years ago and they’d fit right in with their cultural predecessors. Popular culture didn’t used to work like that, and I think it’s interesting.
How did you approach writing the love elements, like between Peter and Trish, in this novel?
The same way I approached everything else. I tried to imagine myself into their heads, what feelings they were having, what they’d do about it, how it felt to be that particular person having those particular experiences.
There was also some plot-y stuff going on with that; Peter had to have that relationship so that there’d be a credible reason for him to resist Walker when his father and sister didn’t.
You jump back to 1971 on several occasions. Did you do this to add suspense to the narrative? What was your goal?
I didn’t start doing it to add suspense; I started doing it because I was writing about these ghosts, and realized I had no idea what these ghosts would do because I didn’t know anything about their lives, and I wanted them to do more than go around and make scary noises and have ghost sex with people.
All I knew when I started was that a bunch of people drowned while tripping, which I thought would be a pretty awful way to go, and if anything was going to produce ghosts, that would.
So I needed to know who the ghosts had been when they were alive, and started writing a section about how they came to be a bunch of people who drowned while tripping, and I got interested in that, so I kept writing it until I knew their whole story. (Of course, in the end, they basically make scary noises and have ghost sex with people, but at least I knew why.)
Once I had the two storylines, though, sure, I tried to time going back and forth from one to the other so that the reader is left wanting to find out what happens next, because, you know, that’s in my job description.
My editor actually had something to do with that, too. I had the 1971 sections starting much later in the book, and she suggested moving the first one up and getting that narrative thread in gear a lot earlier.
Where did the character of Mike, the revolutionary with evil plans, come from?
The really obvious influences for Mike are Charles Manson in real life and the Stephen King character Randall Flagg, who is also known as the Walkin’ Dude, hence the name “Walker,” so that if anyone said, “Hey! You stole that character from Stephen King,” I could say, “It’s not stealing, it’s homage.”
But somebody else I was thinking of was a real guy known as Tommy the Traveler. He was a freelance agitator who worked for the police and the FBI in the late sixties and early seventies, traveling around to various campuses in Upstate New York. On each campus he’d try to stir up the students, and sometimes the more radical faculty members, and organize a violent, antiwar action, after which they’d all get busted. He was sometimes successful, notably in the bombing of the ROTC at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, which is where I heard about him.
(It’s pretty interesting stuff. If you want to know more about Tommy the Traveler, you can google him; there are a few articles around. One of the best things you’ll learn is that he’s now a Civil War-reenactor, which, if you put that together with his history as a fake radical, well, it seems like there’s a whole other novel right there.)
One of the hardest parts of the novel to write was the section where a wild-eyed radical convinces a bunch of smart, well-meaning kids to kill innocent people. At first, I thought I was going to have to finesse it; just proceed with the understanding that such things happen, but I wasn’t convinced, so I knew nobody else would be.
I did a lot of reading, about the actual politics of the student radical movement in the sixties, the SDS, and the Baader-Meinhof gang (the most radical of the sixties groups in West Germany; blew up all sorts of shit). I also watched both the recent documentary about the Weather Underground and another one I found called Underground, made in 1976. It was made by Haskell Wexler, now a pretty well known filmmaker. A whole bunch of the Weather people participated, but they hid their faces while they were being interviewed. They’d all been underground for a while by then, and the world had pretty much moved on; you could hear that they sort of knew this, but weren’t accepting it yet. They thought that they were still fighting the good fight just by being underground. It was sad, mostly. A little inspiring, that people cared that much, but as Walker explains in Age of Consent, it was never enough to really make a difference.
I also found some filmed interviews with Manson himself, who is, if I can just say the obvious here, fucking nuts. But the scariest thing, really, isn’t Manson himself, it’s that people actually confused the two things: violence for the sake of change (right or wrong, I’m not saying), and violence for the sake of violence. People followed Manson just like they might have followed John Brown in a raid against slaveholders. But there was nobody to free; there was no law to change; or government to overthrow. They were convinced that just the act of slaughter was somehow significant. Or fun, I guess.
Anyway, that’s some of the stuff that went into the character of Graham “Microgram” Walker.
Was the writing a long process or easy for you?
I’m going to take that question as “hard or easy” rather than “long or easy.”
For me, it’s always both. It takes days of hacking at something before I can really get started writing, as if I have to throw myself at a wall until it breaks down, and every time I get distracted and turn my attention to something else for more than a day or two, I have to start all over.
So, days and days of staring at the screen, every sentence is like dragging myself through mud. But then I break through into the story, and it starts unfolding in my head, and the writing zips right along. Once that happens, it’s lots of fun and I can’t wait to get back to it. It can still be hard work, but it’s very satisfying.
In terms of actual time, I handed it in about eighteen months after I made my first notes for it, but there were long periods when I was working on other things or waiting to hear back from the publisher, so I’d say I spent around six or eight months actually writing it. I would like to have had another six months to work on it, though.
Did you have any major influences for this novel?
I first got the idea for the book when I was reading T.C. Boyle’s Drop City, a novel set on a commune in 1970. Otherwise, pretty much everything I read while I was writing it probably influenced me. I try to read mostly non-fiction when I’m writing fiction, because I’d rather be influenced by ideas than by somebody else’s style, but that usually lasts about a week before I give in and pick up a novel.
I was reading a lot about 19th century America while I wrote it, and a bunch of stuff on religion. The information on the Gnostics is right out of Elaine Pagels, and I read a memoir sort of thing by the daughter or granddaughter of the founder of the Oneida Community.
I tried to read Shirley Jackson’s the Haunting of Hill House, because people whose opinions I respect tell me it’s the best haunted house novel, and I was hoping to be influenced, but I just didn’t like it that much and didn’t get very far.
Otherwise, I must have read dozens of books while I was writing Age of Consent, and I’m sure every one of them set me to thinking something that shaped what I wrote, but damned if I know what they were.
The pace of the story never seems to fluctuate. How did you develop such a fast pace?
I wasn’t thinking about pacing as a specific thing apart from the story itself. It just seemed like the right rhythm for the book.
I guess I did use some little tricks, some obvious things, like when Peter’s about to attack those guys with a baseball bat, I stopped right before you find out what happens, which presumably compels you to keep on reading to find out. (Which a friend of mine, a very accomplished novelist, tells me is a huge blunder, and that you should never do that, but I disagree.) And, as mentioned above, switching back and forth between storylines.
But, generally, it seemed to me a book like this should be all downhill, without any speed bumps.