“D. Foy’s second novel is a tornado of brutal Americana. Patricide is a heavy metal Huck Finn that whips up the haunted melancholy of Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, a novel of introspection and youth in its corruption that seethes with the deadly obsession of Moby-Dick, and the darkness of Joy Williams’ State of Grace. Beyond the story of a boy growing up in a family derailed by a hapless father, Patricide is a search for meaning and identity within the strange secrecy of the family. This is an existential novel of wild power, of memories, and of mourning-in-life, softened, always, by the tenderness at its core. With it, Foy’s place among the outstanding voices in American literature is guaranteed.”
–James Reich, Stalking Horse Press
With his latest novel, Patricide, poised for release October 3rd, D. Foy and I sat down together (in separate locations and at different times) to discuss his new book, the fate of literature, the concept of time, religion, capitalism, MFA flashbacks, literary influences, and last, but in no way least, D.’s superstar dog, Mrs. Roosevelt. Following is the first of our two-part interview. Look for Part 2 on Thursday along with an excerpt from Patricide.
KGB: Your first novel, Made to Break, was a major critical success, and your latest, Patricide, is a stellar piece of work, poised to follow suit. What’s different about bringing out a second novel as opposed to a debut?
DF: With a first novel no one knows you. And because no one knows you when your first book drops, you have to work your heinie hard. Not everyone does this, but I sure did. For about six months—several prior to the book’s publication and the balance following—I had one day off. One. The rest of that time I worked at least eight hours a day, and a lot more when I did my national tour in support of the book (those were usually sixteen-hour days). This included running a crowdfunding campaign to help offset the cost of the tour (to my knowledge the first ever), whose remaining expenses my wife and I went into (more) debt for, to doing interviews, to negotiating via email and phone the myriad logistics of bookstores; lodging (90% of which was arranged through friends and in some cases even strangers); transport (I drove every mile myself, alone, with the exception of the five cities in the Pacific Northwest for which the novelist Cari Luna and I teamed up); and social media, the bunch of which, as you might can guess, constituted a mountain of work whose details I’ll let you imagine as your eyeballs go dry. As if that wasn’t enough, I was also doing freelance work for money at the time.
When at last the ordeal ended, I collapsed. It took me close to three months to recover. I’d never worked so hard, and that’s saying something, because given the massive quantity of manual labor I’ve done, I’m far from being a stranger to really hard work. For the first month after the tour, I could scarcely do more than stare at walls and in a catatonic haze binge on shows like Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica. I watched all seven seasons of BSG, I think, in under two weeks. But the worst thing about the collapse was the multiple times I thought I might never come back. It was horrible.
KGB: Was it worth it?
DF: The short answer is yes.
KGB: The long?
DF: While I may not have sold gazillions of copies of my book, it was, as you noted—and to my huge surprise—pretty well received by critics and peers. More importantly, though, I think, I established myself on the scene. This, for me, was the biggest thing, my sole ambition, honestly. I didn’t want to sell books as much as I wanted people to know my book and I existed.
KGB: Why was that so important?
DF: As I said in interviews after the release of Made to Break, the book was sixteen years old by the time the world was allowed to see it. I wrote the first draft in the summer of 1998. In the eight years before that, I’d written two novels, both of them abominable, and a bunch of terrible stories and poems. (One of those novels, I reduced to a twenty-five-page story that was just accepted for publication. By the time that story comes out, next spring, it will be twenty-three years old.) The point here is that at the time Made to Break was published I was an artist who’d been working in clichéd obscurity and lack for twenty-four years.
KGB: Meaning that, like most writers, you’d received a few rejections?
DF: Well over a thousand, actually, if not closer to two thousand, including the host of agents who’d refused me. It wasn’t until Made to Break saw daylight, in fact, that I published anything younger than ten years. I mean, everything I wrote took me at least ten years to get published. Seriously. The first story I placed in a big magazine, The Georgia Review, in 2007, I’d written in 1996. It was eleven years old and had received somewhere in the range of sixty to seventy rejections. I sent it to every magazine I could think of, all via snail mail, mind—there were no electronic submissions yet—the vast majority of which rejected it with form letters. The screwy thing is, in terms of a gaslight effect, it ended up a finalist for the National Magazine Award for Fiction. At that point, I’d been writing for seventeen years.
This is what I mean when I say I was surprised at the reception Made to Break received. I had no idea how the book would play. I workshopped excerpts at my MFA program and was told by one of the three professors on my thesis committee that they refused to work with me on the book, dumpster fire that it was. That person told me flatly, as well, that if I submitted the book for my thesis, I’d fail. A peer went so far as to say the book was vomit on the page. Many more comments were almost as nice, but that one took the prize. Then flash forward to 2014: someone with a measure of cultural wherewithal puts their imprimatur on the work and presents it to the world and—boom!—you’ve got a whole other deal, people saying all manner of fine things about the book that in light of what I’d heard till then sounded to me almost hallucinatory.
There’s no explanation for any of this, I’ve learned. There’s no formula, there’s no one path up the mountain. The only certainty is the mountain itself. You can climb the mountain, or you can stare at the mountain from afar or even just forget about it. But whatever you do, the mountain doesn’t care a crummy mote.
KGB: What are your hopes for this second novel?
DF: It’s tough to say. I mean, my experience has taught me not to have hope per se—that others will like what I do and so forth—only faith in myself and the work. I just do the work and put it out there. What happens past that’s none of my concern. It would be wonderful of course if people read Patricide. It would also be nice, I guess, to see it recognized for some of the things I’ve tried to do with it. More than these, I guess, some coin in my pocket would be swell, though on that one I’m not going to hold my breath.
KGB: Patricide is certainly a charged title for a novel, the sort of choice that makes me think there’s something deeply personal to it. How much of the book is drawn from your own experience?
DF: Let’s just say the last thing I can claim about my childhood is that it was a ride on the merry-go-round. Let’s also say, to put it mildly, I’ve stumbled down several hundred nasty avenues. But, yeah, there is something deeply personal to this book, though that’s not special. I can make the same claim for everything I’ve written, however far afoot it is from “me.” My next book, for instance, Absolutely Golden (2017), is narrated by a thirty-eight-year-old woman from inside a nudist colony in Northern California, in 1973. She’s nothing like me, and yet I put so much of myself in her. She and I are now very close, strange as that may sound.
KGB: What’s different about Patricide?
DF: I’d say that while it’s personal, it transcends the personal, or so I hope.
KGB: Expand on that a bit.
DF: The book tells the story of a boy trying to find his way out of the shadow of a hapless father and then, free of it, to find his way as a man who—because his notion of the world is, despite his struggles, a reflection of his father’s, and of all the fathers before—can’t do more than spin ouroboros-like in self-destruction. But the book is also an allegory of a society being driven to annihilation by an all-powerful Father who rules in a fog of cruelty, fear, arrogance, and greed so deep and thick it’s blinded Him to everything but His own pathological interests. So there’s a father in the book, and there’s The Father.
In both senses, this is the story of humanity itself. For millennia, we’ve labored under the yoke of what for me is a villainous patriarchy, a yoke, moreover, that we’ve scarcely begun to shake off and which no one’s opposed in any meaningful, systematic way until relatively recently. The Father of all Fathers today is capitalism.
KGB: Not religion?
DF: It’s curious you say that! Religion once owned that suspect place, but it’s been usurped by capitalism. This isn’t a coincidence. The rise of capitalism corresponds with the rise of Christianity, and with “time” as we know it today, both of which are intimately related. I’ve done a lot of research on this subject, actually.
Official time regulations didn’t begin to control secular life until somewhere near the end of the thirteenth century, with the advent of the mechanical clock. Run by the clock, and by those who saw the value of the clock and used it both mercilessly and assiduously, commerce and industry exploded. And the bigger these systems grew, and the faster they and people worked, the greater their complexity, all of which demanded increasingly sensitive “alarm systems,” as it were, in the form of the same bells that governed the world’s monasteries. Commerce, in fact, took the complex timekeeping systems that the monasteries had developed to monitor their prayer and applied them to labor—bells for work to start and end, bells for meals, bells for the opening and closing of markets, and so forth. By the seventeenth century, all of society had fallen under the yoke of time, via the clock.
This is the phase in the development of horology that marked, once and for all, the personalization of time. Where before we’d been merely obedient to time, bowing, as it were, to its dictates from on high, now we had assumed the task of disciplining ourselves from within. The clock on our mantle and the watch in our pocket became, literally, our keepers. But the clock didn’t simply keep our time. The clock kept us, and we allowed the clock to keep us, just as the monks had allowed the clock to keep them on a strict schedule of prayer called “the hours.” The clock was running now, it never stopped, the clock monitored our every minute, relentlessly prodding us to consider how much time we “used” and to what ends. The time we “wasted” was the time we “lost.” The time we “spent well” was the time we “earned.” Nor did time merely judge us. Time taught us to judge others, by time. And where the criteria for success were for a good while both quantity and quality, after hundreds of years of this, and certainly by the mid-twentieth century, success, and hence a person’s standing in the world, had become the function of quantity alone: how many units of this or that thing have you made or completed in this unit of time? Of course this is the heart of capitalism. And if capitalism is now our über-Father, time is The Father’s Minister of Labor.
Today, like Frank Norris’s Octopus (the trope at the heart of his book about the crushing of the individual by insurmountable forces), the tentacles of capitalism have infiltrated humanity’s smallest crevices, to the extent that it controls us all to the atomistic details. Do what capitalism says—quietly produce and consume within its unforgiving set of laws—and you’ll be materially rewarded. Don’t do what it says, and you’ll suffer merciless punishment, in the form of poverty and the ills that are its spawn. Or in other words, as ever, obey Daddy, the way we’ve been taught to obey the Church, and Daddy will love you, the way the Church says God will love you if you do what God tells you. Defy Daddy, and, like God, Daddy will smack you down so fast you’ll not know your ass from Tokyo. We only need look out our front doors to see more instances of this than we can count. The totality of these is the matrix within which we’re all being smothered with increasingly exponential speed.
KGB: So when you’re talking about “The Father,” you may as well be describing a monster of sorts that comes and goes in any number of guises, and which, horrible as it is, seems invincible.
DF: Exactly. I don’t recall when, but at a certain point in the writing of the book, I began to see The Father as a kind of Moby-Dick—a colossal figure, omnipotent and seemingly omnipresent, who, because He’s also incomprehensible, stands always beyond the reach of puny man. Ahab believed himself able to destroy the leviathan that possessed his every thought. Instead, as anyone could have told him, as his entire crew tried to tell him, in his pride he was destroyed. I mean, the guy may as well have sought to make the devil sweet. Moby-Dick is Moby-Dick. Who in their right mind thinks he can—to say nothing of wants to—mess with Moby-Dick? The same is true of The Father.
We all know history is rife with patricides. The entire Greek mythology is essentially the story of fathers killing sons and sons killing fathers in return. But of all the men who’ve killed their fathers, not one has been able to kill The Father. Far worse, with few exceptions, every man who has killed his father has suffered in the end the horrific irony of becoming that same father in his own right, yet another overweening despot witless to his myriad flaws and thus neither able nor willing to escape them.
Speaking of which, for the most part, these are the concerns that account for the book’s structure and approach. Its structure is that of a tornado: even while moving forward along a trajectory that’s more or less unpredictable, a tornado continuously turns on itself such that nothing can escape it—everything in its path is destroyed. Its approach is that of a heteroglossia born of the mode I work in, gutter opera. Both the father and The Father are inscrutable. Realizing that I stood no chance to surmount these idols from any conventional approach, I had to use every means at my disposal, and from every side. This is why you’ll find all three points of view in the narrative, working in spinning unison, and why, too, I bring to bear on the story a variety of narrative modes.
KGB: And yet to my mind there’s nothing about the book that’s “experimental.” It’s very much the opposite, eminently readable.
DF: I think so. The book’s one request is that the reader drop her notions of how a novel ought to be in favor of how this novel is. If someone told you the best way to swim was to flap your wings, you’d scoff them away for a fool. Likewise, what sense does it make to insist that a book be one way, a way that abides the relatively narrow set of bequeathed standards according to which most books are written, when plainly that book is nothing like the others and therefore can’t be held to account by their laws? You asked what I hope for with Patricide. When I say it would be great to know people are reading the book, that includes knowing they’re keeping an open mind to what the book is doing. At bottom, its story is one we can all relate to in the most intimate of ways.
KGB: Your publisher, Santa Fe’s Stalking Horse Press, is a new one, and Patricide is their first offering. Do you feel any additional pressure?
DF: Not really. What I feel is honored. James Reich, my publisher, has complete faith in me and my vision. Unlike so many other editors, who refused to read the book or who read mere parts of it or who read it only after my agent had repeatedly harangued them, James ate it up in two days and called to make an offer. We had a number of long talks, in which we both expressed our wants and needs, and on nearly every point were unanimous, to the extent that we quickly signed a three-book deal.
Stalking Horse Press, in short, loves my work, and for that love is willing to put its resources behind it as an expression of its faith. This was critical to me. The business of “literature” today, sadly, is conservative to a fault. On the whole, it’s driven not by faith but by fear. Save a few houses signing multi-book contracts with authors who are already hugely successful—or, as with the latest trend, simply signing a typically twenty-something debut author to a seven-figure deal for a single book that, at the expense of so many others, will receive the lion’s share of that house’s means in the hopes the investment will redound to blockbuster status and massive profit—how many writers do you see these days signing multi-book deals with any house, forget the big ones? At these houses especially, but more and more at the indies, too, the motive for signing authors—gussied up, insidiously, as fanfare for the author’s daring or brilliance or at times even genius—is the bottom line.
KGB: Not feeling too sanguine about the prospects for literary fiction, are you? Do you see the literary novel as a form doomed to obscurity, today’s version of the epic poem?
DF: In the not-too-distant past, supporting an artist as they built their oeuvre over time was the rule, not the exception. Cormac McCarthy is a perfect example of this model. Random House published his books despite their negligible sales because they believed in what he was doing. It wasn’t until he’d written Blood Meridian that he assumed even modest stature, and not until he wrote his Border trilogy that he hit big, at which point he’d moved over to Knopf (surely for a larger advance). The Orchard Keeper dropped in 1965, Blood Meridian in 1985, and All the Pretty Horses in 1992. That’s twenty-seven years of unwavering support. Were McCarthy to publish The Orchard Keeper now to the reception of ’65, he’d in all probability be kicked out the back door by a couple of boneheads in leather vests. This is the way of things today. This is how it is.
The publishing business in America is now scarcely different than any other business. It’s a business, whose aim is profit, not philanthropy or anything remotely like it. I’ll probably get a ration of hell for saying this, but I think of most editors and agents nowadays as glorified car salesmen. They veil their dubious efforts behind the nobility associated with the artist herself when really all they’re doing is selling a product for as much as they can get for it, knowing that absent the sales department’s forecasted ROI—to whom and which they’re shamelessly beholden—they stand a good chance of getting fired.
No doubt I could endlessly grumble about all of this, the way I once did, but it’s never done more for me than blacken my soul. The last thing I want is a bald head and heart attack. The world being what it is today, a virtual loony bin, there are just too many other things to worry about. The only way I have to a semblance of peace is to accept things as they are. And accepting things as they are includes accepting myself and my work for who I am and what it is. Yes, I’ve sometimes wished I had the constitution to pander and work toward trends, but I don’t, and know I never will. I’m not going to change what I do for the sake of a paycheck. And I refuse to pledge my work to an organization whose only interest lies in the potential profitability of a single “product.” What I will continue to do, because I can, is demand from the house I give my work to the same faith that backs my giving. This, by the way, is another reason for my having signed a three-book deal with Stalking Horse: I want to show other writers that indie houses aren’t lowly stepping stones to the big houses on the hill, but that they’re destinations in and of themselves, places of haven where value, not profit, is the guiding light. When it’s all said and done, that’s what matters most.
To be continued.
(Part 2 coming August 18th with an excerpt from Patricide.)
D. Foy is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Made to Break, and the forthcoming novel, Patricide. His work has appeared in Guernica, Salon, Hazlitt, Post Road, Electric Literature, BOMB, The Literary Review, Midnight Breakfast, The Scofield, and The Georgia Review, among others, and has been included in the books Laundromat and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial.