About Jon Fasman
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Jon Fasman

About Jon Fasman

An Interview with Jon Fasman

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Jon Fasman was born in Chicago in 1975 and grew up in Washington, D.C. He was educated at Brown and Oxford universities and has worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., New York, Oxford, and Moscow. His writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Slate, Legal Affairs, the Moscow Times, and The Washington Post. He is now a writer and an editor for The Economist's Web site.

Find out how Russia, language, lack of friends and money all helped in the creation of Jon Fasman’s thrilling novel The Geographer’s Library.

When did you begin writing your first novel The Geographer’s Library?
Actually, this is not exactly my first novel: in my very early 20s I wrote a rather puerile and boring novel and a half on an old computer in my mother’s attic – to which I quite soon intend to take a sledgehammer (the computer, not the attic).  After that, I put fiction aside for a while and turned to academia and then journalism.  But I had never lost the desire to write, only, I thought, the habit and the ability.  Increasingly, my interest turned back toward mystery stories, which had been my first love as a reader (specifically Sherlock Holmes and Tintin stories, as well as modern crime writers like Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos, and writers who play with the form of mysteries, like Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Haruki Murakami).

Meanwhile, my wife persuaded me to move with her to Moscow, where she had lived the first three years of her life, and to which she had always intended to return.  I began working on The Geographer’s Library shortly before I left, but wrote the bulk of it there. I can recommend no more conducive conditions to writing than travelling to a country where you can barely speak the language and lack both friends and money: privation concentrates the mind.  Also, I learned so much in such a short time, and was surrounded by a profoundly rich culture about which I knew shamefully little – although I am partly of Russian extraction, I never studied the language or culture before travelling there.  I wrote the novel at my desk beneath a bookshelf crammed with complete sets of Turgenev and Tolstoy in the bedroom of a huge, old, unrenovated Soviet flat, with worryingly powerful plumbing, a hot-water heater that nearly blew our eyebrows off every time we lit it, and windows that didn’t quite fit in their frames.   My wife taught and left for work early in the morning, I wrote until I left in the afternoon to go to work at The Moscow Times (an English language newspaper) and when she returned home my wife read what I had written that day; then we would do it all again the next day.

And did you think while you were writing it that this one would be different than the others and would become your first published novel?
One of the strangest things about this experience is that up until Penguin bought the book, I really had no sense that I was writing it for anyone other than my wife.  I was fuelled by a mixture of unease (at being in a city where I was a functional illiterate), and a sense that I was both doing precisely what I wanted to do and could not possibly sink any lower: as my friends were advancing further and further in their careers, here I was, broke and freezing cold, in Moscow.  Anyway, that was our life - cloistered, basic, sort of creaturely, but totally fulfilling.  And everything I learned there just seemed to take root: conversations I overheard at the newspaper about Turkmenistan, articles I read about Siberia, discussions with my one friend there about hitchhiking across Russia.  I just figured I might as well throw everything I could into this one book and do exactly what I wanted to, because I wasn’t writing it for anyone but me and my wife (who seemed to like it).

Alchemy features heavily in the plot of your novel.  Have you always had a special interest in it?
Not really.  In graduate school I studied Renaissance English literature, and worked on a thesis having to do with medical history and the philosophy of emotion – melancholy, specifically, with a heavy reliance on Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, which dealt glancingly with alchemy.  When I first started thinking about my book I happened to pick up A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery by Lyndy Abraham, which discussed the symbology of alchemy: the ways in which the discipline’s literature renders concepts concrete. That reification – a formalised but not systematic system in which tangible objects stand for ideas – was what appealed to me most about alchemy, and was what allowed for the imaginative leaps that led to the interchapters in The Geographer’s Library.

Tell us about the interchapters.
The main narrative follows Paul Tomm, a cub reporter for a small New England paper, who is investigating the mysterious death of a local professor.  Interspersed among the strands of Paul’s story are chapters which each chronicle a different object from twelfth-century geographer Al-Idrisi’s collection, or library.  They tell a parallel story to Paul’s, one that allowed me to indulge my imagination in a freer way.

Your novel seamlessly interweaves history and imagination.  Why did you choose to include some real historical figures and events?
As a writer, but especially as a reader, I have always enjoyed the slipperiness of Borges, Calvino, Eco, and Conan Doyle – the way these writers mixed fact and fiction in a particularly wanton way.  I allowed myself a similar freedom, and enjoyed the challenge of disguising history as fiction and vice versa.  So Al-Idrisi, for instance, is an actual figure, who did live around the time I say he did, and who did, in fact, undertake an expedition to Estonia at the behest of the King of Sicily, who was, if you can believe it, named Roger.  Some of the objects described in the interchapters are based on real items. An alembic is, in fact, a distilling apparatus (used today not to turn lead into gold, but for the infinitely more noble purpose of making whiskey), but the specific alembic I mention is a product of my imagination.  The same holds true for the ney.  Similarly, some of the books I mention are real books; most aren’t, and the quotes that form the epigraphs are all fictive, as are their sources.

Did you conduct any research on these characters and objects?
I remember reading an interview with E.L. Doctorow in which he advised writers to do as little research as they could get away with, and I more or less agree.  As a journalist, I am bound to report what happened, and to limit myself to the truth; as a novelist I feel absolutely no fidelity to history as anything other than an inspiration.

As for the way I did the research, I tried to be as asystematic as possible, stealing and forging together bits of information from books, films, conversations, newspapers, and – the most indispensable tool of all for asystematic research – the Internet. 

How much are you like your protagonist Paul Tomm?
Like Paul, I graduated from a liberal-arts college in Rhode Island (where I lived a block off of Wickenden Street, which gave my fictional Providence its name), and my first job out of college was at a small weekly newspaper.  I think we have similar senses of humor, and a similar misdirected streak.  Our parents are both divorced; and while I don’t come from Brooklyn, of all the places I have lived in the world that’s where I feel most at home.  For all that, Paul is braver, sweeter, and more patient than I am, and I suspect his future in journalism is far brighter than mine.

You’ve said that you find plotting one of the more difficult aspects of fiction writing but, at its heart, The Geographer’s Library is a mystery and has a complex plot full of twists and turns. 
That’s true.  The central problem with the soon-to-be-sledgehammered novels I mentioned earlier was their plotlessness.  I would get mired in pages of back-story, reams of character description, and could never quite figure out what to make my characters do. One reason writing a mystery appealed to me is that it forces a writer to pay attention to plot - one thing always has to lead to another, and when the mystery is resolved, the story ends.  This may sound limiting, but actually I found that it both freed and guided my imagination.  Think of Bach (and let me say, before a lightning bolt strikes me down, that in no way am I comparing myself to Bach but I did find inspiration from him, as I always have): the Goldberg Variations is perhaps the single most impressive piece of music in human history, but it is, in its own way, beautifully formulaic.  Or think of his solo cello suites and violin partitas: again, works of mind-boggling imagination following set forms.

So thus inspired, I figured out who I wanted Paul to be and what I wanted him to do, then met him halfway: I couldn’t make him do anything that seemed unnatural for the character, but I did have to make sure he did his job and did it convincingly.  Worrying about the plot more or less independently of character – that is, treating it structurally, as something constructed rather than something organic – allowed me to make it more complex.  I figure if you’re going to build a plot, you might as well build something as intricate as possible.

Though your novel is mostly narrated by Paul, you end with Hannah’s version of some key events.  Why?
I wanted the book to be ambiguous: is Jaan a jewel thief or an acolyte in a mystical sect? Was Hannah a dupe or perspicacious?  I hoped that by having Hannah end the narration, it would give her a chance to speak without Paul’s skeptical mediation.

What are you working on next?
Another mystery set in Wickenden, which deals with gambling, piracy, immigration, colonization, the American suburbs, and the history of playing cards.

Scene of Crime – Jon Fasman, author of The Geographer’s Library, writes about the importance of place in crime fiction

 One evening a couple of weeks ago, I made the always-to-be-avoided trip from my home in Brooklyn to one of those white-wine, chat-and-circulate functions with which the literati punish themselves for some notable success or another.  The secret to parties like this is that everybody wants to have been there; nobody actually wants to be there.  I think I went for what Saul Bellow called “a humanity bath” – a biological need for human contact.  After months of chuffing and chugging on a novel in my New York writer-sized apartment, I needed to give myself some perspective, to remind myself that as crucial as every sentence and plot nubbin in my book is to me, plenty of people – most people – don’t really care.  I took great comfort from this; I walked myself back from the ledge.

I believe we were celebrating a magazine’s anniversary.  The function lacked the focus and good cheer of a book-publication party, and had a suspiciously high ratio of glossy, chipper publicists to grumpy, booze-sucking writers.  Either that, or the former just did a great job of defending the open bar from the latter.  Anyway, having ducked, dodged, and barreled through enough terrifyingly professional white-toothed grins, there I was, a plastic cup of room-temperature vinegar in one hand, munching on something skewered and grilled that had allegedly, at one time, lived in the ocean but which in fact tasted exactly like a piece of filleted racquetball, explaining myself to a guy in chunky black glasses who had buttonholed me by the drinks table.  He asked what I wrote, and I told him.

Mysteries,” he said, in a descending tritone of condescension.  “Cool.  Really great.  So stuff for the masses – like, popular stuff? – more than, you know, real literature?”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this kind of sneer, and I’d love to be able to tell you that I had a riposte – or at the very least a quick left – at the ready, but in fact I never quite know what to say.  I’m sure this same guy would have been able to parse the minutiae of whatever rock band was enjoying its fifteen minutes; I’m sure if I said I had written a biography of, say, Charles Mingus he wouldn’t have looked down his nose and said, “One of those popular musicians, is it?  Josquin and late Beethoven are beyond you?”  I’m sure, too, that he’s watched the films of Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, and Michael Winterbottom, no matter how many suburban multiplex screens their films have graced.  I would even guess he could discuss “American Idol” – with the requisite ironic detachment, of course, but that fools nobody.  And yet crime fiction and mysteries, at least in the United States, especially within the self-selected guardians of literary culture (who would, of course, never admit to being anything of the sort) still has to fight for respect.

And yet, I’m aware as I write this that I’m preaching to the converted, selling snake-oil to oleaginous ophidians, carrying coal up Tyneside-way.  If you’re here you swallowed the Kool-Aid.  Really what I wanted to do was to write the above scene – the party, the snob, the grumpy solitary author – which is all, of course, fictional.  I wanted to write that scene because it seems to me typically, archetypically, New York, and I believe crime writing at its best serves a more sociological function than traditional literature.  At its best what one takes away from a good crime story are not the details of the crime itself, but the details surrounding the crime, the way the author brings to life the milieu in which the crime occurs.

Of course, I’m not the first author to say this; Ian Rankin once said that before he visits a city for the first time, he tries to write a crime novel set in that city.  And though our styles and subjects matter differ, I doubt I could have begun writing had I not first read the novels of George Pelecanos, which bring Washington, D.C. – the city where I was raised – to vivid life.  Pelecanos – like Connelly, Mosley, Chandler, Hammett, and Conan Doyle: the masters – both creates an imagined city at the same time he painstakingly describes an existing one, in a way nobody before him has.  Just as Conan Doyle, in creating London, brushes up against the world of the powerful but focuses with zeal and sympathy on the underworld, so Pelecanos’s Washington is composed not of politicians but of the working people – mostly but not exclusively black – who comprise the real Washington, which begins where the news cameras’ halos end.  This was the city I had grown up in but had never seen portrayed in fiction.  Chandler’s Los Angeles, Rankin’s Edinburgh, Hammett’s San Fran, Conan Doyle’s London: all of these were fictional constructs to me, because I didn’t know the landmarks, the smells, the vistas, the rhythms.  But Pelecanos’s D.C. was his, but also mine; I finally saw how to translate from eye to page.

This is not to imply, of course, that the Wickenden or Lincoln I created in my first novel (fictional cognates of Providence, Rhode Island and Washington, Connecticut) are as deeply or skillfully portrayed as Pelecanos’s D.C., nor to claim our goals or legacies are totally parallel: the grime on his shoes is real and hard-earned; for better or worse, I’m a little more comfortable in a library carrel.  Still, however divergent our styles or books, I still would not have understood the process of literary translation without him, and his mission – shining a light on the complex web of social networks in which people actually live – seems to me crime fiction’s cardinal mission.  It differs from what we could call – for better or worse, and however sloppy the category – “literary” fiction in focusing on the rich, multivalent surface of life shared by many characters (those in the story and, by implication, many more) rather than the interior life of a limited number of people.  To put it more simply: crime fiction glides above a city; literary fiction delves deep within the residents of a single apartment.

And after moving to Moscow, I had to glide, as best as I could; I wanted to write my way out of Rankin’s Rule: that is, if reading a crime novel set in any given city allows you to better understand that city, surely writing one would do the same.  Right?  Yes/no/maybe?  Anyway, that’s more or less what I had hoped.  The Geographer’s Library was an attempt – however feeble, however error-riddled, however misguided – to understand something about the ruined, glorious country in which I was living.  It was also a long valentine to Providence, Rhode Island (incarnated in TGL as Wickenden), the best and weirdest of American cities.  It was also an attempt to say something about the evils we permit ourselves to do in the name of a good cause, in Hannah’s case, in the name of belief.  It also…well, who cares about any of this really.  The only thing that matters is: was it a good story?  Did you live in Paul and Hannah for a while; did you care about them?  Do you remember them?  That’s the only metric for a story, crime or otherwise; anybody who writes for any other reason – therapy, revenge, the edification of others, vanity (well, it’s perhaps not such a bad thing to have a little bit of this) – is asking for trouble.

That’s what I would have, I hoped, told the guardian in guardian glasses, had he existed.  That the social novel, whose disappearance everyone laments, did not die with Tolstoy, Dickens, or Balzac; rather, novelists rose in prestige and education; they became college-educated and usually graduate-schooled; and society expanded, doubled back on itself, expanded again, and – through technology, migration, and travel – kept on expanding.  That the crime novel is as valid a means of understanding what happens in the world as any other novelistic form.  And that what matters is the story, not where you find it on the bookshelf.  I would have said all of this if I’d left Brooklyn that night.  Instead I had a beer on my roof and watched the sun set over lower Manhattan.

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Author Image: Jon Fasman - Jenny Black