Festival of Books: Bring on the anxiety for Khakpour, Doten and Nicholson

On Sunday afternoon, a panel called "On the Fringe" brought together three novelists: Mark Doten, author of "The Infernal," a darkly twisted novel in which the major players in the Iraq war come alive; Porochista Khakpour, author of two critically acclaimed novels, including "The Last Illusion," which imagined the life of a so-called "bird boy" navigating a version of New York leading up to the events of Sept. 11; and Geoff Nicholson, author of "The City Under the Skin," a novel in which the urban space he builds is a kind of mirror for whichever character is doing the seeing.

Why were they all in the same room? They are united by a certain level of experimentation in their writing. A certain comfort with the strange and the absurd. A level of commitment to the darker stories we can all tell about each other. And a feeling like the stories they're telling aren't easy but probably aren't wrong.


"We all write out of our anxieties," Nicholson said, referring to his co-panelists and perhaps himself. "We don't write out of our certainties. We write out of an itch, that we want to scratch… A certain kind of novel wants to reassure you at the end. There's a kind of order, but you realize there's a greater disorder."

Asked about this disorder by moderator Karolina Waclawiak — author of "How to Get into the Twin Palms" and the forthcoming novel "The Invaders" — and how they came to write their difficult books, the panelists all described similarly harrowing paths through the marketplace.

Doten said it was in 2007 that he first thought he was done. Then his agent would hand his novel draft back to him every 18 months, requesting substantial changes. "I had this really crazy, unruly piece of work ... I wanted tentacles going out in as many directions as possible," he said. "It took a long time to chop it up, tie it up, and make it a neat tentacle creature."

Khakpour talked about how editors simply wanted the same novel from her over again; Nicholson happily mused on the delicious melancholy involved in knowing if a book is finished. "There comes a point when you want it to be finished," he said. "But it isn't. Or maybe it is?"

"Right after I said stop," Doten said, half-seriously, "if I'd written even one more day it would have been too much and would have ruined it."


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