I met up with Tony Tulathimutte on a Sunday afternoon in March to talk about his first novel, Private Citizens, after having spent the prior week reading it greedily. I neglected household chores. On more than one occasion I was late to work. I had to ignore several unsteady old ladies standing on the bus. They glowered at me for hogging a seat, but my nose stayed deep in the book.
Four Stanford grads navigate the perils of 21st century San Francisco: It’s not a story I had expected to love, but I did love it. It’s a hilarious, harrowing probe of self-concept that denudes human contradictions as well as one of its characters, literally, on a crowded bus, in front of a girl he had been righteously (creepily) defending. How could you not love a serious novel that doesn’t take itself seriously?
Tulathimutte suggested we go to quiet bar on an out-of-the-way street on the edge of Brooklyn, right before it shades into Queens. Our conversation ranged from writing habits to writing classes, from Philip Roth to Fuller House, from masturbation to cognitive psychology. His answers to my questions managed to be detailed and precise, but also witty and fleet-footed. If your ego’s in need of deflating, record a conversation with Tony Tulathimutte and compare his eloquent explications to your own stuttering prattle. (Oh, by the way, this interview has been edited for clarity and concision.)
This is Part 1 of the interview. Part 2 can be found here.
Kevin Zambrano: Let’s start with something vague. How do you write?
Tony Tulathimutte: You mean the day by day regimen.
I’d love to hear that.
Mainly it involves calibrating and balancing different forms of procrastination. I used to try to be austere and monastic. In writing programs you’re encouraged to close the office door. At some point I stopped because I found that keeping myself in the state of perpetual distraction that gets maligned by older writers, plunging through the Internet or chores or standing on my head or whatever, actually ends up clarifying things.
Detaching yourself a bit.
Exactly. Lots of material comes this way. By the time I start concentrating, after having kind of dicked around for two hours, I can hit the ground running. Even once I’m in the project I’ll find myself shuttling between different sentences and passages, or, as is the case now, between different book projects. I’m working on four.
I imagine being plugged-in was important for Private Citizens. The Internet is such a big part of the culture now, and it is a part of your book.
The same way David Foster Wallace used to talk about alienating his writing teachers by deploying brand names and late night TV show personalities, writing about the Internet now is supposed to be this Wild West of a fictional setting. That had more to do with my memory of 2007, when the Internet was a much different place. Writing in any realistic mode about young people forces you to address the Internet, which doesn’t mean the book has to be about the Internet. Some people feel any treatment of the Internet has to be this conspicuous centerpiece. Even when people work it in without having it take over, they compartmentalize. Have you read Leaving the Atocha Station?
The Gchat section is demurely blocked-off and formatted differently than the entire rest of the book. It is markedly different in tone and style.
It’s like, “Here’s the Internet part of the book.”
Right, though he does reference email in other parts. So I’m just doing naturalism in a story where at least two of the characters are heavy Internet users and one person makes his living by it.
You mentioned Private Citizens is about your memory of a particular time: 2007, late Bush administration. It’s also located in a particular place: the Bay Area. You use lots of detailed description to achieve that realistic particularity, but in other ways you work against the conventions of realism. There’s almost a studious avoidance of subtlety, for example. That’s an interesting tension, to have this realistic mode and this other… I hesitate to call it a “melodrama,” but crazy shit happens.
That’s a very good observation. I feel like these days realism also turns on Updikian restraint, where nothing happens out of the ambit of mundane ordinary experience. In this view life is never a seismogram of ups and downs but a quiet, understated affair where small gestures are given heavy weight. But that’s not the only way to get at realism. To me it has more to do with verisimilitude than plausibility.
So I’ll give a two-pronged answer here. The first prong is that there are these formal excursions in the book to avoid sticking only to the usual beats, like, exposition, scene, dialogue, flashback. I wanted to toss in things that just look weird. I can’t remember who said this, but someone said, “When I decide if I’m going to read a book, I open it up, and if the page looks weird, I don’t read it.” I take the opposite approach.
“Give me the weird book.”
Not in this meretricious way, where there’s just some typographical razzle-dazzle. Just that you’re not getting the same texture of prose the whole time. My experiments don’t usually last long. The section where everything’s hyphenated goes on for two or three pages. It used to be two paragraphs until Wells Tower, who was reading the manuscript—and he never marks up the manuscripts—next to that section he wrote “tedious and pukesome.” And I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got to make it eight times longer now.”
Exactly. Make it as tedious and as pukesome as possible.
[SPOILER ALERT: Plot points revealed below]
But the other prong you’re talking about is the extremity of the content. You’re etymologically spot-on there. “Melodrama” refers to 18th century French theatre where music sort of artificially heightens the drama. The way Will’s storyline ends is heightened like that, beyond mundane plausibility—Oedipal even. Almost every agent and editor who saw the book suggested to take it out or dial it down.
Yeah. They were saying, like, “Can it just almost happen?” or “Can he just lose one eye?”
That’s so interesting because…I don’t want to sound sycophantic, but I felt like that was the perfect ending for Will.
Absolutely. Will is now removed from the discourse of images. And also just being the worst character in the book…
He suffers the most.
He gets the comeuppance from his hamartia, his susceptibility to images.
It frees him from his addiction to pornography and from his toxic relationship, but it also leaves him…
[End SPOILER ALERT]
And, I mean, he’s not even talking at the end of the book. It’s what he needed, but it also leaves him hopelessly embittered. But what about the other characters? They suffer a lot too, but maybe not in the same simultaneously redemptive and destructive way.
These characters are privileged. And the enablements that privilege grants you are endless. Privilege makes it very different for you to change, because nothing’s forcing you to. The world will just yield. Dealing with these characters, it was necessary, for the sake of satisfying movement, to bring them to crises that force a transition. In different ways, they’re exiled from their lives of privilege, if not quite the privileges themselves.
Speaking of transition through crisis, one of the things I noticed… well, first, I felt like you were using Linda, who is a writer, to get the book to talk about itself. It’s sort of a self-reflexive mode. Have you read Christian Lorentzen’s review in New York Magazine?
Oh, have I ever!
He says you use Linda to anticipate criticisms of the book but also acknowledge the hurdles it has to overcome. Do you agree with that?
I do. He nailed it there. I took a class with Darryl Pinckney, who said that all writing is criticism, in that it anticipates its criticism and has to either accommodate it or respond to it before it even leaves your desk. The classic place where writers encounter their first criticism now, at least this semi-impartial criticism from people you don’t know all that well, is the workshop. At Iowa, I went up the very first week, alongside Anthony Marra…we were the two Tonys. He was “Tony” and I was “Asian Tony.”
That’s, that’s… nice.
I insisted the next time that everyone call me “Tony” and him “White Tony.” Everybody loved his manuscript, and my manuscript… I was told later it was because I had this aggressive workshop presence that made people want to put me in my place. When my turn came around I got shredded. Sam Chang said it was the bloodiest workshop she’d seen in her entire career. I did copy some of the criticisms into the workshop scene you’re talking about, where they’re like, “This is a chilly, valueless sensibility where you’re just kind of setting up these characters to laugh at them and say, Ha-ha, you stupid fucking hipsters.”
What my wounded ego responded to there was, “Oh you guys don’t fucking get it. You don’t understand the mode of ironic self-loathing that the book is written in.” But as I worked the book over more, because it was a lot crueler and more rough-edged to begin with, I saw it as a craft problem. It wasn’t clear that the narration was close to each character, and the aspersions and judgments cast at them were coming from inside the house.
The ironies weren’t as apparent.
Exactly. The narration for all four characters sounded too similar. So it sounded like this authorial surrogate in the car being like [miming a rifleman], pshew, pshew, pshew! Shooting clay pigeons. This is something I took to heart even as I kind of recoiled against it, and tried to keep doing my own thing while anticipating these criticisms. And the workshop scene is one of the booby traps I set to make that happen. Also, that scene is exaggerated. Linda’s writing isn’t like mine.
But Linda’s transition… at the end, I think it’s in her last letter to Henrik, she talks about being sympathetic to characters in stories, specifically female characters written by male writers. Which, on the one hand, is that same thing: anticipation of criticism. But it’s also Linda reaching a point where she actually cares about people, at least to some degree. Earlier she was being trashed for her lack of empathy for her characters. But now she understands them.
No one’s made that connection yet. That’s a close read there. Linda is the only one who’s sort of semiotically savvy and spends much of her time with fictional characters in books. By the end she’s finally able to bridge her critical sensibilities with the way she exists in the world. And these are contradictions that Baptist points out earlier in the book, when he says, “For someone who complains about fashions and topicality in books, can I point out that your hobbies, clothes, even the way you talk couldn’t be more contemporary?” So yeah, you’re right. She’s finally engaging with life as literature, which I basically ripped from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s reading of Kafka, where he made that connection between life and literature.
You’ve mentioned a few writers so far. There were two writers I heard a lot of in Private Citizens. One was David Foster Wallace, whom you mentioned earlier. The porn chapter reminded me of Ken Erdedy at the beginning of Infinite Jest, obsessing over his weed and spiraling downward.
The other’s Philip Roth. Before I read your book, I saw an interview where you said, “Sometimes I find it more interesting, rather than try and stay pure and virtuous, to instead hyper-indulge your vices,” and I immediately thought, “That’s Philip Roth.” Then I found out you actually wrote an essay for The Atlantic about Roth, and in it you expand on that same idea. But I hear Roth in other ways.
That piece you read was about letting go of the fiction of true empathy, meaning this idea that authors have a privileged insight into human nature, especially the nature of people other than themselves.
When you accept that it’s a charade—an entertaining charade, a useful and meaningful one, but still just an educated guess—it frees you from having to play the part of an omniscient, all-seeing, all-feeling oversoul. Roth acknowledges the artifice at the beginning of each American Trilogy book. And it was an important insight for me, because I’d had this false idea that you had to somehow literally inhabit somebody else’s life on some profound level before you could fathom even beginning, whereas it’s more like doing an impression. That, and the fact that there are lots of rants in the book, and really unappealing sex, and a good deal of anger…yeah, Roth’s in there. That said, he also…
I definitely wouldn’t confuse it with a Roth book.
Well, because Philip Roth… it’s like he almost doesn’t try with women. I had a sort of political recoil reading him when I first started out.
Same here. It held me back from reading him for a while.
Even in his most acclaimed works like The Human Stain there are things like, him just not understanding—to borrow his own phrase—the complaints of people with a different set of disprivileges. For him, Jewishness, and the ways people orient themselves to Jews, the way people think about Judaism—those are huge concerns that he never seems to analogize real well with other conditions. And there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.
It limits your writing.
It does. I mean he wrote 35 books about himself. No one’s complaining. I love his books and I believe in the project of writing about yourself, if you can vary things in other ways. This is still the project of many writers. Zadie Smith said that writing’s always the attempted revelation of the elusive, multivalent self. But it’s not that hard to…
And you can succeed. The difference between any two individuals is just far greater than two different identity categories. Which is not to say that identity is trivial or something that can be whitewashed and minimized in writing. It’s just that the amount of effort and research and imagination that would go into writing across race, to me, is on par with writing about people in different countries, time periods, occupations, classes. Like, it’s very hard, but it’s not impossible.
This reminds me of a great tweet you wrote:
Until we do away with the idea that books are virtuous and improving most people will never want to read lol
— Tony Tulathimutte (@tonytula) January 31, 2016
I thought about this because part of what makes books supposedly “virtuous and improving” has to do with empathy. There’s sort of a tyranny of empathy that affects how a lot of people read today. You know, constantly asking, “Do I identify with the character? Is this writer being sufficiently empathetic?”
Because in this twilight era of American letters, people are scrambling to justify the act of the reading. They bring utilitarian standards to writing that are neither needed nor wanted. One of those things is empathy. You know, Improve Your Empathy in 30 Days By Reading Literary Fiction!
There’s all these studies about how reading fiction makes you a more ethical, wholesome person.
We don’t trust anything anymore unless it comes out of a computer. “MRI studies prove that your empathy lobes will be improved by literature.” The sensibility is also echoed in the super insipid criticisms of fiction at large. “There are so many interesting stories in the world. Why would I want to read a made up story when I could be learning something?” You don’t hold TV or movies to this standard. And why? We regard those, and video games—dearest to my heart—as vices. As masturbatory.
Is the answer, “Why can’t reading be masturbatory too? Why can’t a chapter of my book be devoted to masturbation?”
You go a movie just because you like it, but it can incidentally make you think. It sort of accidentally improves you. The same goes for anything you put enough time, thought, and attention into, including masturbation. In my book someone has a number of insights around sitting in front of a computer jerking off.
He turns masturbation into a creative act.
I used to say in workshop, “You say masturbatory like it’s a bad thing.” With books, unfortunately, something is damaging its status as an art that people actually want to engage with: the idea that you have to, or that you really should read more. And it’s just… no. Reading can be revoltingly indulgent. Writers should not necessarily shirk their responsibility to make it so.
That said, I wrote an essay for AGNI about the virtues of boredom in fiction. This is another way of enlarging the temple a bit. Even boring fiction is worth it. You can’t dismiss it just for that reason. Fun can occur after the fact. You may not really get a book at the time, or it may bore you to tears, but later it becomes useful, interesting, or enjoyable in the way it diddles your perspective.
Identity is the major thing your book wrestles with. Its four main characters feel very specific and fully inhabited, but they also fall into recognizable types: Will, the narcissistic tech bro; Cory, the self-righteous granola cruncher; Henrik, the depressive scientist; Linda, the party-girl writer. Why these particular types?
Partly I wanted the characters to be good foils for each other on every sort of dyad you can match them up in. Beginning with these broad types is one way to do that. At the same time, the identities that they inhabit represent domains I care a lot about—technology, science, literature, and politics.
The stronger point here is that most of identity is usually skin-deep. This big Jenga tower you spend all of your time trying to erect, this narcissistic curation. Am I an INTJ, or an ENFP, or a Ravenclaw? All of these things end up meaning less than more particular things, like what your first dysfunctional relationship was like, what hobbies you had, what your family’s first car was like. You know, “Rosebud.” All of this puts the edifice of constructed identity, especially identity purporting to be authentic, up against people’s consciousness and experience and inner lives. It was a way of critiquing identity.
Yet identity is still important to people. It’s important to me. It’s unavoidable and it’s going to affect how people treat you. The clearest example is Will. His Asianness underlies a lot of his self-consciousness and image sensitivity. And I knew that I was going to be identified with him. You feel pressure when writing an Asian character to make one that will counteract tropes and stereotypes. At first I was like, “Well, I can’t have an Asian guy working in tech, he’s got to be a womanizer with an eight-foot dick.” But I realized that this is an approach that almost all mass media takes, at least the part that’s even bothering to try to subvert or rehabilitate these cliches at all. They end up with artificial characters. Take a stereotype and invert it 100%, it’s still beholden to cliche.
This is very similar to how Roth handles Jewishness.
Philip Roth did it. Junot Diaz did it. Mary Gaitskill—they took stereotypes and hyper-inflated them. By exaggerating the stereotype, you poke fun at it; then when you take the extra trouble to really flesh out the person as an individual, the identity stuff can’t help but seem minimal. The fact that Will wears the same pants until they get itchy because he doesn’t care enough to change them doesn’t necessarily belong to a stereotype. It’s just a fact about a person that tells you a lot about him. And that stuff is more interesting to me. Putting these into highly vivid contrast makes it possible to work in stereotypes without abiding by them.
I’ve heard you somewhat jokingly refer to yourself as being “Post-Relevant,” but Private Citizens struck me as very relevant, in its sort of mise-en-scène, in the character types we talked about, and in the issues it addresses. Quote-unquote identity politics is, like, one of the things everybody is talking about.
One of the big clickbait hooks.
Definitely. So what is Post-Relevance?
There’s two things I’m talking about. One is that relevance is something that undergirds the entire economy of the literary Internet. The idea that what people click on, share, and are interested in talking about in online forums—I say “online” just because it’s the clearest version of it, but it also applies to all mass media—either something is important mainly because social media and large publications are talking about it at the same time, or because it has content that’s likely to grab you—stuff that’s scandalous, cute, inspiring, or stunty. When that’s the criterion, it’s hard for things that aren’t self-evidently relevant to find a way into public discourse.
The other part is that relevance purports to be something that appeals to the greatest amount of people, right? But my intuition is that, except in the limited cases of interest communities, and politics, what everybody cares about is not what you care about most. You may have an interest in politics, Game of Thrones, or Taylor Swift, but your passions are going to be marginal and not always pleasant or attractive. What keeps you awake at night are probably specific relationships that maybe only you know the truth about. Or a philosophical idea. Or a sensation you’ve become addicted to, like the feeling of being needed or of doing molly. These aren’t headline news but nonetheless become more important to you than who the next president is. Where better to talk about this than in a book, where you get VIP access into people’s interior lives, and can go on about things at pretty perverse length if you want to? Interiority is not everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s mine.