Please welcome Jacob Bacharach to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Bend of the World was published on April 14, 2014 by Liveright.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Jacob: Thanks for having me. I started writing when I was very young. I had always been a precocious reader, and when I was in, oh, probably second or third grade, someone--probably my mom--gave me this little anthology called 101 Famous Poems (which you can still find, by the way; it was compiled by a man named Roy J. Cook). For the next couple of years, I was obsessed with the poem, "Each in His Own Voice," by William Herbert Carruth, especially the first verse:
A fire-mist and a planet,--
A crystal and a cell,--
A jelly-fish and a saurian,
And caves where the cave-men dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty,
And a face turned from the clod,--
Some call it Evolution,
And others call it God.
I must have written a hundred poems ripping it off. A few years later, my dad gave me The Edge of Tomorrow, which is a great Asimov collection. I fell in love with his short story, "The Final Question," which involves a giant computer called Multivac eventually merging with the collective mind of much-evolved humanity and creating the universe all over again. I ripped that off, too, which was the start of my interest in fiction.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Jacob: The Bend of the World is a book, in part, about occult conspiracies, so you'd think I would be a plotter, but in reality, I knew where it started and I knew where it ended and I noodled my way through the in-between. I didn't actually write a synopsis until my agent made me, at which point the first draft of the book was nearly complete.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Jacob: I am a serial procrastinator. Go to look up one fact, and I emerge three hours later having written a blog post, read a Wikipedia list of the world's longest bridges, tried to find a snippet of dialogue from some other book, made eggs, had tea, taken the dog for a walk, watched an old episode of Star Trek on Netflix . . .
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Jacob: There are so many. I love Philip K. Dick and Joseph Conrad--that's a weird pairing, I know, but both of them write astonishingly well about paranoia and the conspiratorial mindset, and both of them are underrated as humorists; Conrad's The Secret Agent is one of the great comic conspiracy-espionage novels of all time, and it even has a bit of a scifi tinge, as it involves a plot to blow up an astronomical observatory. I also love Ishmael Reed. Mumbo Jumbo is a sort of Afrocentric alternate history involving jazz, magic, and ancient Egyptian deities. I own every one of Iain M. Banks Culture novels, although my favorite of his is the non-Culture The Algebraist, which features what I consider the finest, funniest aliens anyone ever invented. I selfishly regretted his too-early death last year, because I was always waiting for his next book. I still love Frank Herbert, whose environmentalism was so prescient--a friend of mine was making fun of me for having all the Dune books by my bedside and called me "Kwisatz Bacharach."
TQ: Describe The Bend of the World in 140 characters or less.
A coming of age novel in which no one comes of age. With UFOs and a sasquatch.
TQ: Tell us something about The Bend of the World that is not in the book description.
There are a lot of drugs in the book, real and imagined, and they're sometimes played for laughs, but in a lot of ways, The Bend of the World is about our addictions: to drugs, to love, to status, to wealth, to our imagined futures. Even the book's different conspirators and conspiracy theories are treated in may ways as addicts and their addictions. I'm fascinated by the idea that addiction is in so many ways the mind conspiring against itself.
TQ: The Bend of the World is a genre blending literary novel set in Pittsburgh, PA. Why Pittsburgh? How would you describe the genres mixed together in your novel?
Pittsburgh because it's the best town in the world! And my hometown. I like books and stories that have a real sense of place to them. It's a fascinating geography and topography against which to set a tale of the weird. Also, I believe, as one character says in the book, that the city is "a nexus of intense magical convergence, an axis mundi, if you will."
It's half a pretty classic literary Bildungsroman, a quarter X-Files, with the remainder a combination of late Philip K. Dick, disinfo, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, and The Gates of Prayer, which is the Reform Jewish Shabbat prayer book . . . although the narrator is in fact a Catholic.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Bend of the World?
I re-watched The X-Files, spent hundreds of hours reading about the Philadelphia Project and MK Ultra and other classic conspiracy theories, and, because the book is as much about a place as about characters, I spent days staring at Google maps, trying to figure out exactly where everything should occur.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
The easiest was Johnny, the narrator's best friend. He is the world-of-the-weird's main interlocutor in the book, and in many ways it was Johnny, rather than my narrator and protagonist, who provided the impetus to write the story. The hardest character was Helen, a beautiful and deeply troubled artist with whom Peter (the narrator) becomes infatuated. She had to be both impressive and pitiable, finely drawn and still mysterious--it was very difficult to find the proper balance.
TQ: Give us one of your favorite lines from The Bend of the World.
I love the last line, but that would be telling. So I'll give you the opener instead: "It was a wet February in Pittsburgh, spring, early and without warning, and twice in one week UFOs had been spotted hovering over Mount Washington."
TQ: What's next?
I'm working on a new novel, a sort of loose retelling of the Abraham story from Genesis, set in rural Western Pennsylvania in more-or-less present times, full of Real Estate scams and fracking and megalomaniacal architects who think they're prophets and a monster or a god who lives in the woods.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
The Bend of the World
The Bend of the World
Liveright (W.W. Norton), April 14, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages
"A comedy of bad manners, darting wisecracks, deadpan chagrin, and drug-hazed pratfalls" (James Wolcott), The Bend of the World is a madcap coming-of-age novel in which no one quite comes of age and everything you know is not a lie, it's just, well, tangential to the truth.
In the most audacious literary debut to come out of the Steel City since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, we meet Peter Morrison, twenty-nine and comfortably adrift in a state of not-quite-adulthood, less concerned about the general direction of his life than with his suspicion that all his closest relationships are the products of inertia. He and his girlfriend float along in the same general direction, while his parents are acting funny, though his rich, hypochondriac grandmother is still good for admission to the better parties. He spends his days clocking into Global Solutions (a firm whose purpose remains unnervingly ambiguous) and his weekends listening to the half-imagined rants of his childhood best friend, Johnny. An addict and conspiracy theorist, Johnny believes Pittsburgh is a "nexus of intense magical convergence" and is playing host to a cabal of dubious politicians, evil corporate schemes, ancient occult rites, and otherwise inexplicable phenomena, such as the fact that people really do keep seeing UFOs hovering over the city.
Against this strange background, Peter meets Mark and Helen, a slightly older couple, new to town, whose wealth and glamour never fully conceal the suggestion of something sinister, and with whom he becomes quickly infatuated. Mark is a corporate lawyer in the process of negotiating a buyout of Global Solutions, and initiates Peter into the real, mundane (maybe) conspiracies of corporations and careers, while Helen—a beautiful and once prominent artist—is both the echo and the promise of the sort of woman Peter always imagined, or was always told he ought to find for himself.
As Peter climbs the corporate ladder, Johnny is pulled into the orbit of a mysterious local author, Winston Pringle, whose lunatic book of conspiracies seems to be coming true. As Johnny falls farther down the rabbit hole, the surreal begins to seep into the mundane, and the settled rhythm of Peter's routine is disrupted by a series of close encounters of third, fourth, and fifth kinds. By the time Peter sets out to save his friend from Pringle's evil machinations (and pharmacological interventions), his familiar life threatens to transform into that most terrifying possibility: a surprise.
In The Bend of the World Philip K. Dick meets Michael Chabon, and Jacob Bacharach creates an appropriately hilarious, bizarre, and keenly observed portrait of life on the edge of thirty in the adolescent years of twenty-first-century America.
Jacob Bacharach is a writer and nonprofit administrator living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has a BA in English and creative writing from Oberlin College and an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh. He is not, to the best of our knowledge, a shape-shifting reptiloid or a descendant of the Merovingian dynasty. In his spare time, he cooks, rides bikes, and occasionally plays the violin badly. He prefers "experiencer" to "abductee." This is his first novel.