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.
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.
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
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
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 club inside 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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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