The Usonian Interviews, No. 16: Samuel Bollen on his new novella, "The Ghostwriter"
On novellas, semi-autobiographical elements, & satirizing the publishing industry
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with fiction writer Samuel Bollen about his new novella, “The Ghostwriter,” anthologized in Running Wild Press’s latest novella collection. Preorder the novella anthology here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
THE USONIAN: Perhaps you can introduce our readers to The Ghostwriter. Give us the quick pitch.
SAMUEL BOLLEN: Max is a recent graduate from an elite liberal arts college whose unemployed bliss is shattered when his mother gives him an ultimatum of either find a job or move out. He finds dubious employment from a shifty client, who asks him to write a novelization of his memoirs, which Max finds repulsive. And in writing the novel, he has to confront his own demons in both work and romance, which the novel is kind of about.
TU: The Ghostwriter is a novella, a literary format that lands between the length of a short story and a novel. What were some of the challenges in writing to this length?
SB: I would say that the format developed naturally from the subject. I knew that it was going to be on the longer side for a short story just based on the fact that it was “writing about writing.” There would be excerpts from the novel that he was working on, as well as a flashback around midway through, so I knew that it was going to be on the longer side, and it just wound up taking on “novella-length” rather than a long short story.
A challenge of that length is keeping the reader’s attention throughout. But it winds up being similar to a screenplay in the total word count, which I actually found a helpful reference point for the structure. The final challenge of the novella is placing it. It was fortunate that Running Wild Press had this anthology that seemed like a perfect fit.
TU: You and I attended a certain Ivy League school with a resemblance to what the story calls “P— College.” At one point, you also worked as a ghostwriter. Though it’s always tempting (and dangerous) to assign the “semi-autobiographical” adjective to a literary work—can I ask if your experiences and background in any way inspired the arc of the story?
SB: I would say semi-autobiographical is accurate. It comes more in in bits and pieces than in the broad arc of the story. Real life rarely narrativizes itself in that way, where there’s a clear, beginning, middle and end with a buildup.
It’s more like plucking these individual events, and then trying to put them into a format that’s valuable, independently of a therapy session or a memoir. Hopefully it stands out on its own as a work of fiction beyond whatever elements may or may not be autobiographical.
TU: The Ghostwriter is a coming-of-age tale that feels in-step with the themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise with a voice that feels more Philip Roth (à la Goodbye, Columbus). What were your literary influences and models for this story?
SB: Fitzgerald definitely makes sense, with the “P— College” connection. Max definitely feels like he’s part of a lost generation. Hemingway is perhaps present in Max’s injured ego and the feeling that he’s part of an aggrieved generation. Not that the style is that similar, but [evoking] that idea.
As far as the narrative style, the actual narration, satirists like Brett Easton Ellis, Martin Amis, Sam Lipsyte are in there. Not like one-to-one, but that tradition is what I’m trying to work in. Then, in the romantic failings and the sometimes-quippy, sometimes-awkward dialogue, the overall anti-work sentiment, there are hints of Charles Bukowski or Jim Harrison.
TU: Of its many themes, (which include how hard it is to become a writer and how easy it is to get sucked into working at sub-minimum wage in publishing for nothing), part of The Ghostwriter reads as a satirical commentary on the ironic reasons as to why certain types of books become popular. From your vantage, what makes a book ready for Oprah’s or Reese’s Book Club?
SB: Oprah’s Book Club is the apotheosis of “middle-brow” literature or the summer beach read—somewhere in that range. There has certainly been great literature [featured] on there, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
But in that middle brow zone, there’s popular appeal, but there are either pretensions or an attempt to touch something a little more meaningful. The book that Max initially writes when he’s working in publishing is kind of based on that format. He calls it “authenticity porn”—it has pretensions of being meaningful while actually being based in stereotype.
Not that that’s every book in Oprah’s Book Club. But “The Ghostwriter” parodies what might appear there. And then, there’s the book that winds up on Oprah’s Book Club [by the] end. Which is ironic in a way I won’t spoil.
TU: One of the delights of the story is the way you pull the rug out from under the reader regarding how the protagonist’s backstory is revealed. Without spoiling anything, how did you decide to reveal the character’s “ghost” in such a thrilling and shocking way?
SB: The basic idea that Max had a “ghost” or wound in his backstory was going to be a part of the story from the beginning. It was mostly the placement I wasn’t sure about. It wound up fitting in nicely with this “dark night of the soul” moment he has during the writing of the novel.
And it makes sense that once you resolve this thing in your past, that’s what allows you to move forward in the present. Beyond that, hinting at [the backstory] earlier in the story without giving away too much—[you know] there’s something this guy isn't telling you. He’s a little bit of an unreliable narrator, but you’re not sure what the reason is, or why it’s causing him to act the way he does in the present day of the story. I tried to plant a trail of breadcrumbs early on.
TU: The main character, Max, has a romantic subplot that may not end in the way that audiences expect. How did you see that plot serving the main story?
SB: You see in Max’s reaction to his employer’s work that he’s offended by his [employer’s] views on women. He calls him misogynist, a lech, a monster. In the narration, however, Max clearly has his own blind spots and complications regarding his relationships with women.
At the beginning, the relationship that Max has over the course of the story is illustrative of that. And then it’s sort of subverted by the end with this character Carly. We realize that she’s using him in a cynical away, if not more cynical, than Max is using her. It is a learning moment, but maybe he doesn’t learn quite as much about his relationships with women as he does with his relationship with work. I think he has a little longer to go in that regard by the end of the story. It’s that subversion at the end that I think makes the [subplot] valuable and not just an appendage of the main storyline.
TU: Where else can we find your work?
SB: Australian publisher Grattan Street Press has a great collection called Intermissions, available on Amazon, as well as the Grattan Street Press website. But if you’re in the US, Amazon’s probably easier. That collection includes my story, “Movie Night.” It’s a flash fiction collection. And there are 59 other flash fiction stories included.
TU: Fifty-nine. That’s bang for your buck.
SB: It’s like $5 now. So you have no excuse. Per story, that’s a lot of value.
Samuel Bollen is a writer living in Playa del Rey, California. His work has appeared in Intermissions from Grattan Street Press and is forthcoming in Running Wild Press’s Novella Anthology (Volume 6, Book 1). He is an alumnus of Princeton University and is also a copywriter and screenwriter.
Thanks for reading The Usonian! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.