Please welcome Martin Seay to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Mirror Thief was published on May 10th by Melville House.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Martin: Thanks! I have gradually come to realize that my impulse to write comes mostly from the satisfaction of getting something exactly right. In most undertakings—creative and otherwise—we have to accommodate the limitations of our materials and circumstances, but since writing gives us all of language to work with, as well as the freedom to decide for ourselves what “exactly right” looks like, it’s an area where this kind of exactitude seems, or feels, possible.
So that’s probably why. As to when, I’ve written stuff for as long (or longer) than I can remember. I wrote a few things that would probably qualify as functional short stories when I was in high school and college, and I started getting serious about it—taking classes, reading clinically and rigorously, writing stuff meant to be read by people I don’t personally know—in about 2000. My first published story came out in Gargoyle in 2003.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Martin: A plotter, but I’m not fundamentalist about it. I once heard the novelist Kathryn Davis say something smart about doing research that I will now attempt to paraphrase and probably get wrong: She said that she does research whenever she gets stuck, but then stops doing research as soon as she’s not stuck anymore. (The general idea is that it’s way easier to just keep researching than it is to get back to writing, and that you’ll probably make the best and most crucial discoveries about your story by writing it, not by reading.) I think a similar principle probably applies to outlining plot: I want to know where I’m going, but I also want the story to feel like a trip, not like a map.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Martin: Finding time! My process tends to be very revision-intensive—I’ll go over and over a particular chapter to polish it before I move on to the next one—and that means my progress is often painfully slow. While I was writing The Mirror Thief I kept a quote from Moby-Dick taped to my monitor: “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Martin: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy was the first novel by a living writer I read that made me aware of what novels are still able to do, in terms of their capacity to deal with big metaphysical questions while still telling a fun story. I read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye around the same time, and it taught me a lot about how to write characters with complex pasts and distinctive points of view. The aforementioned Moby-Dick dramatically elevated my standards for what qualifies as fearless and ambitious. A couple of nonfiction selections: Lipstick Traces—Greil Marcus’s book about the Sex Pistols and the hidden radical tradition that includes them—opened a bunch of doors for me. The art critic Rosalind E. Krauss’s book The Optical Unconscious helped me think in new ways about the act of seeing, which is not an easy thing to do.
In the portion of my life where I interact with people face-to-face, not through books, I have been influenced by a number of teachers and friends who are also writers. I should make special mention of the novelist Jane Alison, my thesis advisor in grad school, who masterfully articulated the value of fiction as a way of modeling sympathetic understanding of people who are unlike us, and who also taught me a ton about what it means to be an honest and responsible storyteller. (I also can’t overstate the value of the example of her own writing, which is uniformly excellent and which I highly recommend.)
This is going to be the part of the interview where people go “aww,” but I am honestly most inspired by my spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney, who during the time I have been working on The Mirror Thief has 1) changed the lives of dozens of college students, 2) started a successful publishing venture (Rose Metal Press) and a successful typewriter-poetry collective (Poems While You Wait), and 3) written eleven books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, memoir, and criticism, each of which is brilliant and quite unlike its siblings. (She has also recently coedited the first English-language edition of the selected writings of the Belgian painter and philosopher René Magritte, coming out later this year, and written her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in January of 2017.) She’s a great writer and a great literary citizen, in addition to being a real treat to be married to.
TQ: Describe The Mirror Thief in 140 characters or less.
Martin: Las Vegas 2003, Los Angeles 1958, Venice 1592. Soldiers, gamblers, thieves, poets, alchemists, spies. LET US NOW CONSIDER THE MIRROR.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Mirror Thief? Why did you set the core of the novel in Venice, Italy?
Martin: Venice came first, actually. I had visited it a few years prior to starting the novel and thought it was cool. While I was there, it felt like something I would eventually try to write about.
It’s hard to say why, exactly. One of the things that most struck me about it is the degree to which it’s a purely constructed environment: the vast majority of its structures aren’t built on islands, but on wood pilings pounded into shallow areas of the lagoon. The city is literally built on the water, and took its shape based less on geography than on the stubborn will of its residents.
This creation from nothing seemed to make it analogous (to an even greater extent than other cities are) to a work of art, and especially to a work of literature, which is made from nothing but language, and which is also shaped collaboratively by its writer and those who choose to inhabit it.
The Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky—who I think was pretty sharp—wrote that art functions by “making objects ‘unfamiliar,’ making forms difficult, increasing the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” Venice works a similar trick on us due to the strangeness of its form: where many old European cities are walled fortresses, it’s infinitely permeable; where they’re straight-lined and right-angled, it’s curved. It seems to have been constructed according to a highly idiosyncratic but internally consistent logic that can’t help but suggest a dream. It practically writes about itself.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Mirror Thief?
Martin: Extensive research! The novel is set in Las Vegas in 2003, in Los Angeles in 1958, and in the city-state of Venice in 1592; although I had been to all three cities prior to starting the book, I wasn’t able to visit them while I was writing it. Consequently I learned almost everything I needed to know from books, films, paintings, and (of course) the internet. Topics of inquiry included the United States Marine Corps, blackjack card-counting, casino administration and security, the hermetic–cabalist intellectual tradition in early-modern Europe, the Beat movement in Southern California, English-language poetry pre- and post-Pound, mid-twentieth-century esoteric religious practices, pinball machines, Mutoscope films, alchemy, glassmaking, mirrormaking, printing, and a whole bunch of cultural, political, military, scientific, and art history.
That said, I didn’t become an expert on anything while writing the book. Researching a novel is very different from academic research; I didn’t need to achieve any kind of mastery. (And per Kathryn Davis’s point quoted above, that level of rigor would probably have killed the book: I never would have finished it.) What I’m looking for when I research are perfect little tip-of-the-iceberg details that will engage readers’ imaginations and enlist them to help fill in information that isn’t actually on the page. (The other side of that coin is all the reading that I did just to avoid messing stuff up: putting in a detail that rings false or is just plain wrong, that undercuts my authority and knocks readers out of the story.)
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Martin: Of the three main characters, the easiest to write was probably Stanley Glass, the teenage con-man and petty criminal whom the 1958 Los Angeles sections focus on. This is simply because Stanley is even less given to introspection than the other two main characters are. All I had to do, pretty much, was keep him moving with his eyes open.
The hardest to write was Vettor Crivano, the physician, alchemist, and spy who’s the main character of the Venice 1592 sections. This is partly because he’s the most complex of the three—he has the broadest education, the most elaborate backstory, the most secrets—but mostly because it was very hard to write the consciousness of someone who’s supposed to have lived four centuries ago: I needed these sections to be strange enough to feel authentic, but not so strange as to be incomprehensible.
(Some people will try to tell you that the essential nature of human beings hasn’t really changed since the Stone Age; I can see no evidence that that’s the case. On the contrary, it seems to me that human nature has fundamentally changed just since the iPhone went on the market.)
TQ: Tell us something about The Mirror Thief that is not found in the book description.
Martin: Although The Mirror Thief is largely set in—and, to my way of thinking, is entirely about—Venice, the word “Venice” never appears in the book.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in The Mirror Thief?
Martin: I included a lot of social issues—along with a lot of politics; I’m not sure where to draw the line between the two—as part of the book’s background noise, and I hope that readers will recognize that content as very important to me, even when the main characters aren’t paying much attention to it (which they’re generally not). It seems to me that such material is most effective in fiction when it’s presented deliberately but obliquely—worked into descriptions and dialogue in passing, for example—and not laid out as a thesis. People are prepared to disagree with explicit arguments, but they can be genuinely jolted when they encounter an assumption about a world that conflicts with their own; that’s how I’ve tried to proceed. (To be more specific in terms of social issues, I don’t think the book makes a big deal out of the fact that it contains characters who are African-American, Jewish, Muslim, gay, etc., who are living with disability and/or posttraumatic stress, and who are struggling against conventional assumptions about gender roles . . . but none of this stuff is in the book by accident, either.)
I’m not sure I believe that there is any such a thing as a book that doesn’t include social or political issues. I think books that purport not to do so are probably just conservative. At best.
TQ: Which question about The Mirror Thief do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Q: Why don’t you use quotation marks?
A: Great question! Glad you asked! Strictly speaking, I do use quotation marks; I just don’t use them to tag speech. (They show up around song titles, for instance.) The short answer was that I wanted the narration to be continuous: to feel as if it includes a bunch of voices, but also to suggest that all the voices you hear might really be one voice—the way that, say, a mirror looks like it contains a bunch of discrete objects when in fact it’s just a single reflective surface—which in turn might prompt the reader to think about who (or what) that one voice might belong to. Anyway, it was a choice. Some authors just don’t use quotation marks on principle, but I’m not one of those authors.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Mirror Thief.
Martin: My favorite sentence in the book (from Page 19) is:
“Stretch limousines idle at curbside, sly and circumspect, while the sidewalk procession slides backlit across their mute black windshields.”
Thanks for indulging me!
TQ: What's next?
Martin: Honestly, I’m still a little up in the air on that myself. I have maybe three or four ideas that could turn into novels, but I’ll need to spend some time with them before I’ll know what’s likely to take off. Until then, I have a few criticism projects that I plan to play with, and I’m also looking forward to working through a stack of books I picked up during my recent book tour that refreshingly have nothing to do with anything I’m working on.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Martin: Thanks for including me in the Debut Author Challenge!
The Mirror Thief
Melville House, May 10, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 592 pages
A globetrotting, time-bending, wildly entertaining literary tour de force in the tradition of Cloud Atlas.
The Mirror Thief is a dazzling combination of a genre-hopping adventure, a fast-paced mystery, and literary verve. Set in three cities in three eras, The Mirror Thief calls to mind David Mitchell and Umberto Eco in its serendipitous mix of entertainment and literary mastery.
The core story is set in Venice in the sixteenth century, when the famed makers of Venetian glass were perfecting one of the old world’s most wondrous inventions: the mirror. An object of glittering yet fearful fascination — was it reflecting simple reality, or something more spiritually revealing? — the Venetian mirrors were state of the art technology, and subject to industrial espionage by desirous sultans and royals world-wide. But for any of the development team to leave the island was a crime punishable by death. One man, however — a world-weary war hero with nothing to lose — has a scheme he thinks will allow him to outwit the city’s terrifying enforcers of the edict, the ominous Council of Ten …
Meanwhile, in two other iterations of Venice — Venice Beach, California, circa 1958, and the Venice casino in Las Vegas, circa today — two other schemers launch similarly dangerous plans to get away with a secret …
All three stories will weave together into a spell-binding tour-de-force that is impossible to put down — an old-fashioned, stay-up-all-night novel that, in the end, returns the reader to a stunning conclusion in the original Venice … and the bedazzled sense of having read a truly original and thrilling work of literary art.