An interview with Sergio de la Pava

In 2008, Sergio De La Pava self-published his 700-page-debut novel A Naked Singularity to little fanfare, until an intrepid reviewer at The Quarterly Conversation snagged a copy and lit up the blogosphere with chatter that the book was “one of the best—and most original—novels of the decade.” Republished this past spring by the University of Chicago Press, the sprawling, obsessive opus—a potboiler for literary introverts interested in whittling away at the inheritances of Dostoevsky, Melville, and Woolf—has since been profiled by the Millions, the Chicago Tribune, and the Wall Street Journal. Unlike the work of many of the postmodern writers to whom De La Pava has earned comparisons, A Naked Singularity is not quintessentially difficult. It tells the story of Casi, a young, prodigiously talented public defender whose world is falling apart around him—he’s contemplating switching from lawyer to criminal, while still pursuing justice for his clients—with equal degrees of compassion and enlightened skepticism for a character (and system) on the verge of a breakdown. – Kristi McGuire and Pete Beatty

The Believer: Let’s start with: What’s your writing process like?

Sergio de la Pava: There’s a little secret that I never hear anyone say. Some parts of a novel are just easier than others. You’re writing a 700-page book. There were times when I was rolling, just because that section happened to be something I could write quite easily, and there are other times when it could be a bit of a slog. I try not to set up any kind of artificial barriers, because there are so many natural ones in place already. If you say, “I have to be in this chair, wearing this hat, in order to write,” then you’re just setting yourself up to not produce anything. I write wherever I am. I spend a lot of time sitting in a courtroom, waiting for a case to be called—

BLVR: Writing by hand?

SDLP: The beauty of writing by hand is that you have to type it in. That’s built-in editing. That’s really the optimal way for me; typing it up serves as a quality-control checkpoint.

BLVR: In many ways your book is an object of mass entertainment—there have been a lot of write-ups and send-ups: “It’s a zany, heist-driven novel for people who think they don’t like that sort of thing,” even though it’s also deeply engaged in a particular kind of morality play. Are you attracted to or did you have in mind other objects of mass-cultural engagement when you set out to write this book? Or were you just engaged in the act of writing something—uncertainly, without aim, as an obsessive pursuit?

SDLP: Well, it was born from a desire to take on the legal-thriller genre, which I’ve been exposed to through film—I know it through movies; I don’t usually read those books. And I wanted to level that—to show what it was really like and not fictionalize a lot of it, and show you how it could be entertaining. That the cop-out of, “Oh, we’re trying to entertain, that’s why this is unrealistic” is bullshit—a failure on the storyteller’s part. I’ve never known anybody who sat in on criminal court and walked away saying, “I’m really bored.” Everyone resists jury service greatly, but once they’re on a jury, they don’t say, “That was the most boring week of my life.” Human beings are interested in crime and punishment. And somewhere along the way, it seems to me that plot became a dirty word as it relates to American fiction. If you had a vigorous plot, then you were a meathead, purely an entertainer, not a serious writer. If you were a serious writer, then you purposely made sure that there was no plot. My way of looking at it was that the musicians who most espouse theories of how melody is dead are often the ones who can’t come up with a melody.

BLVR: Steve Reich would not like that.

SDLP: There are exceptions, obviously. That’s what happens when you speak in generalities. My point is that plot is a difficult thing to do, but when you read undeniably serious books like Crime and Punishment and Moby-Dick, they have vigorous plots. Really compelling plots that keep you reading, even when Melville has just spent two chapters discussing the significance of whiteness—

BLVR: One of my favorite chapters in all of literature.

SDLP: Or the chapter about how, exactly, you must cut up the whale. But there’s a part of me that’s still a twelve-year-old boy who just wants to know what happens when you finally confront the fucking whale. Or what happens when the detective keeps pushing Raskolnikov. Literally, what’s going to happen? As I said, one of my motivations was just that. I don’t think plot has to be a dirty word. I do think that you can have a plot and still be serious, and still aspire to do other things, and that was one of the shaping factors of this book.

BLVR: If you were making a recipe for A Naked Singularity—and this could include anything: books, music, movies—what would go in it?

SDLP: Two that I hit on already are Moby-Dick and Crime and Punishment. Maybe throw in Beethoven’s Ninth. Descartes’ Meditations. Let’s make it an even 5: I don’t know what in particular about theoretical physics, but it’s a unifying metaphor, from the title to the conversations. I can’t point to one particular thing, but just that field. Obviously people don’t talk the way the characters in this book talk—and that’s one way in which I am deliberately entertaining, because if I portrayed people the way they actually spoke, the way most conversations are conducted, you’d fall asleep after 30 seconds. Most conversations are filled with “Um” and “Yeah,” and “How’s your day?”

BLVR: One thing that shines through in the book is that it feels like you wrote it at the last moment when all of that slow-media desirousness was still possible.

SDLP: A funny line in a recent review of the book mentioned that if Casi were ever to get a look at Facebook, we’d be screwed. But you’re right. It takes place right at that moment. Is there an internet? Yes. Is it this internet? No, not yet.

BLVR: I really appreciate the depth of thought that went into creating archival knowledge in the book. This is not a Wikipedia-sponsored, fragmented, mind-freak where you just sat still and Googled for three hours. There’s a narrative cohesion to the archive you construct.

SDLP: Does that kind of book have relevance anymore? When every twelve-year-old has Google on their phone—is there any allure anymore? Like, I have this son who is really fucking bright and he’s twelve. He knows a lot, but he doesn’t know as much as he thinks. The wisdom isn’t there. And that’s kind of what the internet is. I can list ten facts, but it’s not the same. The art that I respond to tends to be more about wisdom than cold, hard data or things of that nature. I’m a huge admirer of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. There’s not a fact in there, but the wisdom just levels you. And when you read Chekhov, there are no allusions to stuff. I wanted to have a book that’s chock-full of all these ideas—and I did—but writing the book isn’t the same as endorsing what’s happening in it. I was more just trying to accurately describe the sensation of living.

BLVR: I’ve been reading recent reviews and noticing people prefacing things by linking you to these maximalist fiction writers—and I do see a with relationship with Gaddis, but it’s because of the language, the artifice of the dialogue.

SDLP: I think he’s more of a pessimist than I am. I love him, but where he and I would part ways is that I still think human endeavors—and not just by the individual—have room to end up working out somehow. I sense pessimism, and I feel bad about it. Someone who has been on earth for sixty years might learn to account for the fact that there are a hell of a lot of people who do live lives of quiet dignity. They do. Do I wish there were more of them? Absolutely. But they do exist.

BLVR: I maintain that all novels since the late-1980s are Young Adult literature.

SDLP: That’s kind of what I’m driving at: the adolescence of Gaddis’s viewpoint. Have you ever seen a high school sophomore? “Everything sucks, I’m in black, and everything sucks.” You know they’re wrong, that it’s a temporary—

BLVR: —phase.

SDLP: You hope they grow out of it. But some of these guys haven’t grown out of it. They’re still telling people everything sucks. I feel it too, sometimes. But not every minute of every day, and I’m sure they don’t either: because their lives are pretty fucking good. They choose to ignore that for whatever reason. They think art-making has to be caught up in being pessimistic, or else they’re a Pollyanna who’s not in touch with reality. Or: I’m going to look dumb if I talk about the positive aspects of life. But it’s about giving an accurate picture. There’s a new study about how when people look on Facebook they get depressed, because it looks like this other person on Facebook has this great life—“I just came back from Monte Carlo!”—but if you dug into that person, they’d have their own fucking messes, too. It’s not a healthy way to live. It doesn’t matter. What happens ultimately is that you do the best work you can, and whatever happens, happens.