Christopher Bollen

Left: Cover of Christopher Bollen’s Lightning People (2011). Right: Bollen and his cottage in the West Village.

Christopher Bollen is a New York–based writer and the editor-at-large of Interview magazine. His first novel, Lightning People, is published this month by Soft Skull Press. Bollen will read from the book at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York, with music by Eleanor Friedberger, on September 22. He will also read at Pace Gallery in Chelsea on September 27.

THE BEST PART about writing your first novel is that you never have to do it again. You can write your second or third or maybe, God willing, your fourteenth, but you don’t have to write that first one more than once. I say this not only as a warning to those who might be considering such a rash creative act but also as a consolation. The reason that the first one is so hard is that, unless you are blessed with an early book deal or some sort of beneficent mentor, you pretty much have to write it alone into the darkness, confident in your every move that you know where you are going and where you are leading the reader, while you are entirely unsure if what you are doing makes any sense or if it will ever see the light of day. I had neither a book deal nor a mentor—I didn’t even have a solid outline—when I wrote this book. But now that it’s done and printed and staring at me occasionally from bookshelves in stores, I now know how to make it through to the other side.

Many people have asked me about the title of the book, which stems from the novel’s preface. In it, I describe a series of deaths due to erratic lightning strikes on rooftops of downtown Manhattan. The reason for this meteorological event is that the World Trade Center used to serve as the island’s chief lightning conductor. When the towers went down, lightning could no longer be safely routed and was now capable of striking anywhere or anyone in the city. Sadly, this phenomenon isn’t entirely the work of fiction. After 9/11, a member of the New York band Gang Gang Dance named Nathan Maddox was struck and killed by lightning on a Lower East Side rooftop during a storm. I barely knew Nathan but was close with his bandmates. In fact, it was band member Brian DeGraw’s artworks in 2002 that first alerted me to this connection between 9/11 and lightning.

Generally, I don’t think of Lightning People as a 9/11 book. It is, nevertheless, about the city that was left in that shadow and about the people who live there who first came to New York as a place of dreams only to find it a crowded town of nightmares. This is, for me, the real New York of the last decade, even though so many films, books, and television shows have tried to express it as a place of people endlessly falling in love, shopping, going out, and basically living in a designer fantasy. For me New York is a place where its residents are in a constant state of worry and continually finding a means of survival.

No one in the book has a real-life corollary. That said, my novel’s still based on a world I know somewhat well—characters trying to be actors and artists. I probably gravitated to artists because of my love of the art world. In all my experience interviewing various artists and writers for magazines, certain ideas have definitely developed. But I didn’t want to glamorize it or make fun of the art world. That seemed too easy, too much a cliché. For instance, there’s a scene toward the end of the book where one of the main characters, a photographer, creates a violent insect installation that is supposed to serve as something of a memorial for another character who doesn’t survive the turns of the plot. I’m certainly not a visual artist myself, and I did worry that this installation I conceived was the best––or worst––piece of art I could come up with. I remember casually describing the piece to a few artist friends, including Nate Lowman. Nate didn’t really respond to it; he just shrugged and shook his head. And I remember thinking, “I was really half expecting you to steal that idea from me.” He didn’t. Although he did do a bedbug show at Gavin Brown with Rob Pruitt, but I can’t claim my book as an inspiration.

I wrote the entire first draft in my apartment cottage in the West Village. It’s a small, Hansel-and-Gretel-size house hidden from the street by the apartment building in front of it, and while the outside seems enchanting, the inside is tiny, cold, and falling apart. Nevertheless, it proved an ideal place for me to check the city at the door and write in peace and quiet. It even has a cameo in the novel as the apartment of the older, ailing, gay New Yorker Brutus Quinn.

To be honest, the kind of book that Lightning People became surprised me. Before I wrote it, I imagined I was going to be a different kind of writer—much cooler and aloof and much less character-driven or emotional. I, like so many my age, was fascinated by Less than Zero in high school, and I also love Joan Didion and her clean, hard prose. I adore her writing, but it didn’t help me—well, it helped me in the larger sense, but it didn’t help me when it came time to find my own style for telling a story.

I find I write very much based on sound. Poetry is really the way I’ve learned how to write, more so than journalism. There’s some sort of secret rhythm or beat or measure that I’m following in my sentences like I’m trying to follow a meter. Sometimes I look at something I have just written and it sounds like it needs another beat. It’s not as though the subject hasn’t been described well enough; the cadence just isn’t right.