Cabell First Novelist Award winner discusses the creative process
“As a writer, I’m ruthless and amoral,” said David Gordon, debut author of “The Serialist” and winner of the 2011 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.
“The Serialist” is Gordon’s second work, but his first to be published, and it was also nominated for the Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America, which he referred to as “the mystery world’s stamp of approval.”
Gordon, who lives in New York City and holds a master’s degree in English and Comparative Literature and a master’s of fine arts in Writing from Columbia University, joined his editor Karen Thompson Walker and agent Doug Stewart in an upbeat discussion Tuesday at Hibbs Hall with 20 others, many of whom are MFA students themselves.
The graduate seminar was facilitated by Tom De Haven, co-founder of the First Novelist award and professor of the First Novels graduate course, and granted students and the media an opportunity to ask the trio questions about the writing process, the publishing industry and “The Serialist.”
“The Serialist” is a novel about a struggling writer of serial novels who agrees to write the memoir of a serial killer named Darian Clay. The book pays tribute to the detective novels and mystery thrillers of old, as its downbeat protagonist is confronted by a familiar looking set of murders and is forced to take on “new” roles in order to stay alive. The novel is hailed by critics for providing a fresh look at an old style and appreciated by fans for its juxtaposition of humor and darkness.
Gordon is still in the early stages of relative literary success. In spite of a colorful background in film, fashion, pornography and publishing, there is an instinct within him that has only just begun to sharpen.
Before starting work on “The Serialist,” Gordon said his editor told him, “Whatever you do next, make sure it has some kind of story.”
Stewart of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. said they were unable to sell his first manuscript.
“It had so much heart, and it was written so well, but if I were to describe it to you, that was the whole problem with it. It was difficult to describe,” he said.
Stewart said Gordon’s first manuscript was the tale of a man arriving to New York for his first time and noted that it contained too many drugs and too much jazz music to be marketable.
“This is the novel that every 23-year-old wants to write, but does it badly,” said Stewart.
“But that’s why they should buy it!” Gordon interjected with enthusiasm.
Gordon said while he already had the idea for “The Serialist,” he felt no inclination to write it until sometime after figures in the publishing industry told him vampire novels sell better if written by women.
Before Gordon committed to the “The Serialist,” however, he persisted with his first idea of writing a vampire novel.
Gordon said he would use his mom’s name and face to write.
“They kind of laughed it off, although I meant it,” he said. “And then I thought like, ‘Oh well, that could be this guy.’ You know, so after a certain point, he became like a person in my head, and then I felt like I could write the book.”
The main character of Gordon’s book, Harry Bloch, writes genre fiction under pseudonyms, including tales about vampires, using his mother’s fictitious name.
Gordon said he used more facets of his own life while imagining Harry’s character, but only as a way of crafting a believable perspective within the unfolding framework of the novel. He achieved this by implementing other experiences from his own life to make Harry seem more like a bitter hack – or a “noir hero” alienated from society.
Gordon was once an editor for Hustler magazine, a time during which he was responsible for sorting through amateur photographs and, notably, letters from prisoners. He said the prisoners were either requesting free magazines or professing their innocence, asking to have their stories told.
That is how Harry meets Clay, the serial-killer presence in the shadows of “The Serialist.”
Gordon said that, despite similarities, there are key differences between himself and his protagonist: As in a dream, he said, characters in a book may resemble a real person, but are often fundamentally different from the ordinary people they are perceived to represent.
Gordon chose to torture his character Harry by placing him in Queens as opposed to Brooklyn.
“I thought the place for a kind of bitter writer to live is Queens,” Gordon said with a smile. “It’s like, the less cool burrow.”
Gordon received praise from the mystery-genre community for approaching the mystery novel from a literary standpoint, as the book takes on an almost satirical vibe: He mocks the conventions of genre fiction through Harry’s rhetoric and actions, only to employ the very devices his character condemns.
Gordon is a fan of mysteries, and named Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Edgar Allen Poe as monumental contributors to the genre, adding Poe is “the god” of mystery.
He expressed his philosophy that an open-ended creative outlook is a universal motivator in itself.
“I feel like that’s why writers don’t really … retire that much – like writers and painters and stuff. Because it’s still like, ‘Okay, another blank canvas. What am I going to do?’ Like you’re sort of back at zero, all the time.”
“Everyday is just another day, trying to … write, you know?”
Gordon read from “The Serialist” Wednesday at the VCU Student Commons Theater and is currently working on a new novel with a “mystery feel,” based on a bookstore clerk set in Los Angeles.
Photos by Chris Conway