Nice Advance If You Can Get It
Gordon Dahlquist ’83 has lately been the talk of the town, at least in literary circles, for landing a $2 million advance as a first-time novelist. The deal with New York-based Bantam House is for two books; the first, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, came out in August. The novel, set in a vaguely Victorian European city, weighs in at 760 pages, which led Publishers Weekly to run with the headline “Playwright Kills Trees—Makes $2 million.”
Dahlquist, who has been a working playwright and director in New York since 1988, spoke with editor Mitchell Hartman.
Reed: Your first novel, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters seems to fit into a popular genre—Victorian fantasy novels—along with Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Was that your aim?
Dahlquist: The book is historical—it’s a big, fake historical story. It leans toward London, but it’s not London, all the place names are kind of Dutch or pseudo-Dutch, an homage to New York, and it’s not any particular time, probably the 1850s, pre-Civil War.
It’s a contemporary novel, and there’s no claim to be historically accurate, that’s not what I care about. You look in your newspaper and see things that might as well be sci-fi, or historical, and accept them all. It’s a modern novel in that it doesn’t accept genre distinctions. I think there’s a big stripe of Jules Verne or maybe H.G. Wells in it. The way the blue glass and the glass books work in the novel is a way to talk about a piece of technology that records or encapsulates identity and experience. If the book has any theme, it’s how people deal with encapsulating experience. As much as it’s a novel of entertainment, it’s a novel of second-year humanities.
You’ve said the idea for the book came from a dream you had in 2004 while doing jury duty in Manhattan, and that you wrote the first 20,000 words in longhand over three weeks. What was the rest of the writing process like?
I’m a playwright, and this [novel] came up by accident. In a play, the dialog flows—one thing to another to another—and you don’t know what they’re going to be talking about in minute 10. I don’t think literally planning it out is a good idea when it comes to playwriting.
I didn’t know how long the novel was going to be. I had no idea what was going to happen. A murder happens in the last 50 pages and I didn’t know who did it—it could have been any number of people. I never knew who and what was important. It’s one way in which being a playwright really helped the novel.
What do you read for pleasure?
There’s a split between “serious” fiction and genre fiction, and I read very little serious fiction because I find it narrow and not as imaginative as I like. I like novels that mix it up more. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, about Alan Turing and the invention of the computer and code-breaking, treats all of the characters as if they were in a science fiction novel. I would rather read that than read about author Jonathan Franzen and his family. As well-written and sensitive as it is, I don’t care about his family.
It’s pretty extraordinary for a first-time author to get a $2 million, two-book deal. Did you have an inside track to publishers?
I know someone who is an audiobook editor, and I sent it to her in March 2005, a couple of weeks after I finished it. She got to it on July 4. Her boss read it and liked it, and a few weeks later hooked me up with an agent. But the deal didn’t happen. The editor liked it, but the publisher said, “it’s got all these different genres, how will we market it?”
Then my agent contracted with another agent, put together a book auction, sent it to 15 major houses. It was really lovely having a bidding war, and by the middle of September I had a deal. It never happens, ever—it’s incredible. It’s just a crazy thing and I’m incredibly fortunate.
Before this $2 million advance, you were working in electronic publishing at Columbia University. Do you ever have to work again?
Well, I have to work on the next book. And I live in New York. It’s not enough to buy New York real estate. If I play my cards right and live fairly modestly, I don’t need to go back to Columbia.
Publishers Weekly wrote that Glass Books is “a mishmash of Sherlock Holmes, Jane Eyre and Eyes Wide Shut that never quite comes together.” Washington Post Book World called it “a wordy brick that’s epic in length if not in scale.” What do you make of those reviews?
People can think whatever they want about the book, that’s their right and their privilege. Reviews from within the publishing world have been really snipey—the reviewers are almost all novelists. Reviews from out-of-town have been really positive.
It’s a genre novel, and the idea of a big fat story getting all this attention gets all sorts of people burned—“Why does this thing with a dirigible and sword fighting get all this money?” No one reads Pullman, Tolkein, or The Three Musketeers, and says, “Damn, they’re so long.” It’s not short, it’s got luscious, sumptuous detail, it’s a big exotic layer cake of a book, and if you don’t like that, that’s fine, but that’s what it is.
You studied theatre at Reed with professor Craig Clinton, then got into the Portland theatre scene. How did your time at Reed influence you?
It was utterly formative. In my year we had nine threatre majors and it was an incredibly vital place to be. Craig was the hub of all of that. He’s incredibly good with a huge variety of people. They’re Reedies, doing everything off the wall, and they’re theatre majors so they’re even more so—and he ran herd on us.
Reed is the formative intellectual experience of my life. Grad school at Columbia was nothing compared to that. How the way you make a story affects its quality, and the way you have a conversation about a topic affects your understanding of a topic—conference teaches you how to think and talk. It’s a fundamentally theatrical thing, a scene of thinking and talking.
Gordon Dahlquist ‘83 will read from his work on the Reed campus on June 2, 2007. He is appearing in one of a series of alumni literary events being held as part of Reed & Write Reunions 2007.