Nathaniel Rich has written two novels: The Mayor's Tongue (Riverhead, 2008) and the forthcoming Odds Against Tomorrow, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in April 2013. He is also the author of a book on film noir, San Francisco Noir (The Little Bookroom, 2005). He lives in New Orleans.



Farrar, Straus and Giroux (publicity & rights inquiries): fsg dot publicity at fsgbooks dot com
Nathaniel Rich (everything else): nathaniel at nathanielrich dot com
Twitter: @nathanielrich



Q:  You kept the existence of The Mayor’s Tongue secret during the five years you were writing it. Why?

For a long time I thought it would be presumptuous to announce that I was working on a novel. At no point was I certain that all my notes and jottings would add up to a finished novel, and there were times when I seriously doubted the sanity, let alone the merits, of what I was writing. I later found out that my suspicions were well-founded—when I went back through the early drafts I realize that there were more than a few ridiculous scenes and subplots, which I ended up cutting before I showed the book to anyone. In the end, though, I decided I was ready to take the next step, so I gave the manuscript to a few friends. But only my nicest friends.

Q:  What led you to write it?

I had a lot of unformed ideas—about language, about the way people relate to each other—that I wanted to put on paper. The themes, the characters, and the general conceit came first, the story later. In the first year or two I wrote very little, but made notes about the characters and their relationships. My thought—like my speech—is incoherent to an embarrassing extent, and I can only make sense of what I’m feeling or thinking about when I write it down. The other thing—and I realize this is something of a cliché—was that I wanted to write a story that I myself would enjoy reading.

Q: You’ve said that this book is extremely personal but not autobiographical. How so?

Well, none of the events depicted in the book are real, except perhaps for moments in which a male character humiliates himself by being inarticulate in front of a girl. None of the characters are stand-ins for me, and none of them—with the exception of one or two very minor characters—are based on any people I know in real life. But the book’s emotions are very real to me, the themes and ideas are ones that I have thought about obsessively, and the spirit and the tone of the writing feels a reflection of my own sensibility. I felt like I funneled all of my own personal thoughts into some crazy contraption and, sausage-machine-style, out came The Mayor’s Tongue.

Q:  The failure of language is a central preoccupation of your novel. How do you develop that theme?

The main characters all want urgently to communicate their thoughts and emotions, but for different reasons, are unable to do so. They develop all kinds of strategies, some of them preposterous, but whether or not they succeed is open to interpretation. I think this is something we all struggle with; at least I do.

Q: There are two main stories that flow side by side in your novel, but never actually intersect. Why did you use this structure?

I had hoped that the two stories would generate some (perhaps unconventional) suspense as they unfold, that the reader wouldn’t be able to help but wonder what the two stories were going to do. Even if that suspense is spoiled (by an interviewer’s leading question, for instance), the fact is the characters in both stories are faced with similar problems but they approach them from their own perspectives, and reach different conclusions. My hope is that the two stories reflect and echo each other in different ways, and I felt that if they were to intersect, it would cheapen that dialogue. I suppose there would be some mild pleasure were Mr. Schmitz and Eugene to meet at the top of a mountain in the Carso and hang out, but that would feel to me a bit contrived and unnecessary. I think that, by the end, the stories feel resolved in a way that is true to the spirit of the novel.

Q: Your novel blends elements from many genres, including fantasy, realism, mystery, fable, melodrama, and romance, for starters. How do you describe the result?

I never thought in terms of genre, maybe because I don’t have much experience in reading genre fiction, except for horror. I worked hard to make the characters human, vivid, and honest. It was important to me that the story move along at a steady pace (this required a good amount of cutting and condensing over the course of the writing process). I knew I wanted to explore certain themes, so I concentrated on making those as nuanced and involved as I could. I also knew from the very beginning of the project that there would be some slightly fantastical elements, but I wanted to work up to them gradually, so that the reader was never jarred by some sudden plunge into the surreal. I was thinking of a frog in slowly boiling water.

Q: You chose one of Italy’s least-known regions, the Carso, as the setting for most of your book. Why?

The most prosaic reason is that I was living in Trieste the summer I started writing the book. That summer, Trieste hosted the annual international Esperanto festival, so everyone was walking around speaking this invented language. And this in a city where people speak a smattering of different tongues—Italian, German, Slovenian, and Hungarian primarily, but also Triestino, a thick dialect incomprehensible to other Italians. When you go up into the Carso, this odd web of languages and cultures becomes even more pronounced. On the winding mountain roads it’s often difficult to tell what country you’re in. The signs are all in different languages.

For a book whose central themes deal with the confusions brought about by language, the Esperanto sealed the deal. But I also loved the idea of this isolated land that nevertheless is located within the borders of one of the most visited and familiar countries in the world. The region is completely forgotten by time, and even by its own country—I remember reading a survey in which the majority of Italians thought that Trieste wasn’t even part of Italy. It was only annexed in 1954, and over history it has had numerous national and cultural identities, having been under the rule of the Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, the Austria-Hungarians; for several years after armistice it was even an independent territory. It is the gateway to the East, the easternmost city in Western Europe—but it also could be considered the westernmost city in the East. As Jan Morris wrote, it’s “nowhere.”

Q: Who are some of the writers who have influenced your work?

I wonder whether there are any writers I love whom I haven’t tried to steal from. Some of the writers whose work I repeatedly consulted during the writing of the book were: Flann O’Brien, Mikhail Bulgakov, Charles Dickens, Italo Svevo, Stephen King, Kazuo Ishiguro, Katherine Dunn, and Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great. Jan Morris’s excellent Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere was an important resource, for her depiction of the city and its peculiar hazy identity.

Q: Are you working on another book? Can you say anything about it?

The new novel has the working title of “Odds Against Tomorrow.”