Rookie novelist Kevin Guilfoile was born in Teaneck, N.J. and has lived in Pittsburgh and upstate New York. He graduated from the
University of Notre Dame, worked for the Houston Astros, and moved to Chicago to work in advertising and get married (or vice versa). He has written short humor for McSweeney’s, The New Republic, Modern Humorist, the Chicago Reader and this web magazine (The Morning News), and has been a commentator for National Public Radio. His humor has been anthologized in Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney’s Humor; May Contain Nuts: A Very Loose Canon of American Humor; 101 Damnations: The Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells; and with John Warner he co-authored My First Presidency: A Scrapbook by George W Bush. Wicker is his debut novel.
Wicker is a highly original novel and one that deals with a number of controversial issues; did this make finding a publisher difficult?
I can’t say for sure, but I think the topical nature of the subject matter might have made it easier to sell. Wicker is being released in 15 languages and I suppose that in some of those markets—Korea for instance—publishers might have been especially interested in it for the cloning angle.
My hope is that the controversial aspects of the story are handled in such a way that no reader comes away thinking I had an agenda. Some books tell you who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and by doing that they are telling you how to feel about the things those characters do. It was very important to me that the reader be allowed to decide for him or herself the difference between right and wrong in the book.
I don’t mean to knock other books when I say that. I get great satisfaction reading about a hero who does heroic things and a villain who gets his just deserts. This just isn’t necessarily one of those stories.
Do you think that publishers and readers still have a very conservative view of what constitutes a thriller?
It’s been really exciting to work with editors—Mari Evans with Penguin UK and Jordan Pavlin with Knopf in the US—who absolutely understood the book from the first page and who have put tremendous passion and energy behind it. So with respect to my publishers, that certainly hasn’t been the case.
I have encountered a very few readers who were uncomfortable with the moral ambiguity in the book. I know that some people were upset that Wicker doesn’t contain a clearly defined hero, and (very mild spoiler here) that the ending doesn’t explicitly show good triumphing over evil. I don’t think Wicker is in any way a difficult read, but the book does ask a little bit of the reader, intellectually and emotionally, and not everyone is willing to give it. That’s fine.
One of the most interesting aspects themes in Wicker is the way that playing Shadow World allows the characters to live an alternative version of their everyday lives, is this something you would like to explore further in another novel?
Possibly. I considered putting it in the background of my next book, but it felt a little forced so I took out. I do think there’s more to say on the subject and if I ever figure out an appropriate forum, I’ll probably try to say it.
I suppose I should hurry, though. Technology is catching up very quickly. I was thinking more in terms of a game like The SIMS when I was writing, but afterwards I discovered several actual MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) that already seem a lot like Shadow World. Shortly after the book came out in the US (where it is called Cast of Shadows), I was asked by an individual who played one of these if I would talk to her book clubinside the game. In other words, we would meet in someone’s virtual living room with an avatar representing each of us on-screen, but all the participants would actually be at home in front of their computers. It seemed very much like something that would happen in Shadow World. I said I would be happy to do that, but then this person suggested that I should spend several months playing the game ahead of time so I could become familiar with that universe. I told her that I would love to speak to her book club but I had a toddler at home and another book to write and many episodes of “The Gilmore Girls” to catch up with on TV. I couldn’t possibly invest that kind of time. And after that I guess I was disinvited.
We’re used now to thrillers dealing in depth with the scientific and psychological aspects of crime, Wicker does this and attempts to confront a number of serious ethical and philosophical issues, does this suggest an interesting new direction for the thriller genre as a whole?
Well, I’m interested in philosophy so philosophical themes will always show up in my stories, I think. One of my favorite writers is Walker Percy and most of his books appeared to be genre novels on the surface—one was a thriller, one was a dystopian sci-fi satire, another was a gothic romance of the American South—but they were so full of ideas they were almost like old Russian novels, (many critics called Percy the “American Dostoevsky,” in fact). I’m not pretending to be in Percy’s league, but he was definitely on my mind when I was writing. I’m very excited by the idea that you can meet the reader’s expectations of what makes a satisfying genre novel, but you can also surprise him as well.
Now that you mention it, though, I suppose the prevalence of psychological themes is a product of the novel, or at least the American novel, coming of age after Freud. As a college professor of mine, Tom Morris, once pointed out to me, what we now call “psychology” was just one aspect of what used to be called “moral philosophy.” I think that’s a pretty good description of the way I think about it—that psychology is just one part of a philosophical whole.
This is a huge generalization but I think I can say that over the decades the novelist has become more and more “micro.” He has concerned himself largely with drilling deeper and deeper into the human mind in search of root psychological causes for man’s condition. I enjoy taking that journey, but I also have a fondness for “macro” novels—Dostoevsky and Camus and so forth—that are equally concerned with the whole philosophical, existential picture. Kierkegaard and Freud get equal time in my stories. Maybe it’s not a new direction then, but an old one.
Wicker sees you making skilful use of the standard conventions of the thriller, that suggests you have read widely in the genre, which authors would you consider to have influenced your work most?
I might give a different answer to this question each time it’s asked. I’m sure the first grown-up novels I read were my father’s Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming paperbacks. I already mentioned Percy, who might be at the top of any list I make about writers. I’m a big fan of Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil, A Kiss Before Dying), although no one reads him much anymore because all his books have been made into successful movies. I think the Stephen King novels in which the protagonist is a writer—The Shining, Misery, Bag of Bones, etc.—are almost always terrific.
I very much like Stephen White, John Burdett, and Henning Mankell. Michael Chabon and TC Boyle write outside the genre although I will always buy their novels the Tuesday they are shelved. And Boyle’s latest, the excellent Talk Talk, has the architecture of a thriller. I like to read Boyle when I’m writing. I’m not exactly sure why. Rhythm or something.
I like Graham Greene and Michael Gruber and Charles McCarry and Michael Connelly and on and on and on and on and on.
At your best, you write a novel as a reader writing for other readers, so the author is constantly playing a game with his audience: A game of “I know that you know that I know that you know…” If a writer can anticipate what the reader is expecting he can use that to his advantage and to the reader’s delight. Of course, you have to read a lot if you’re going to play that game. If you don’t (and I know writers who don’t read, oddly enough) the advantage shifts away from the house.
Following its success on both sides of the Atlantic Wicker must surely be an attracted interest from Hollywood, would you consider allowing the novel to be filmed, or do you think its subject matter would be considered too controversial by the studios?
The film rights have been optioned by Andrew Lauren Productions, which last year made the indie hit “The Squid and the Whale.” An option doesn’t mean a great deal—Hollywood must option a hundred or more stories for every movie it makes, but Andrew came to a reading I did in New York and even after a brief conversation I knew he understood the book completely. Radical changes would no doubt have to be made in a two-hour film—time compressed and characters deleted and so forth—but I’d be excited to see someone attempt it.
Not to give too much away, but the casting of the film would certainly be interesting. Some characters would have to be played by more than one actor and some actors would have to play more than one character. That would be great fun on film, I think.
After the success of Wicker do you have plans to write another novel and will you continue with the thriller form or move into more mainstream fiction?
I didn’t start Wicker by saying, “I want to write a thriller.” Those labels are helpful, but more for readers than for writers, I think. As much as I have always enjoyed the genre as a reader, I was completely ignorant of the whole subculture of mystery writers—Edgar Awards and Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime and all the rest of it. I had never even met another mystery writer until I ran into Robert B. Parker when our book tours crossed in San Francisco. I wrote a thriller because the subject matter dictated the kind of story it would be. But I’m proud to call Wicker a thriller and a mystery and a crime novel and my next book will properly wear those labels as well.
I like stories where the stakes are high and I can’t think of any better place to find them than on a bookseller’s shelf labelled Suspense.
Michael Joseph hbk £12.99