Interviews

“I really don’t want to be seen as speaking for Occupy or writing the novel of Occupy”

Caleb Crain. Photo: Peter Terzian

In Caleb Crain’s new novel, Overthrow, a thirty-one-year-old graduate student named Matthew meets a poet who recruits him to volunteer at Occupy Wall Street. The poet and his friends read tarot cards, and some of them even believe they can read minds: with a mixture of irony and earnestness, they refer to themselves as the Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings. “It's about admitting that most of the time people are more aware than they'd like to let on of how other people are feeling,” one character explains. “And that it hurts to be aware, if you can't talk about it.” When the group hacks into a government contractor’s email account, prompting legal battles and a media frenzy, the opposing poles of surveillance and intuition, technology and poetry must be reconciled anew. “In the new world everything was always going to be exposed anyway,” Crain writes. “In the universal light everyone was going to have to come to better, more forgiving understandings of one another.” Late this summer, Crain and I sat down to talk about technology, Occupy, and how fiction helps us understand life.

You’ve said it took you five years to write your first novel, Necessary Errors (2013). When did you start writing Overthrow?

I was already writing it in late 2012, before Necessary Errors came out. Overthrow also took about five years for me to write and then a year to edit. The rest was waiting out the publication cycle.

Why did you set the book in a place that resembles New York City, but is never named as such?

I feel like novels should take place in what Hawthorne calls a “faerie,” which is a realm that’s set apart from the daily realm. Occupy had that character of being set aside—a theatrical, self-consciously different space. Occupy was also present in most major American cities and in almost all of them there’s a concentrated downtown where the financial center is located, there’s a body of water, and across the body of water there’s a slightly more “alternative” space. For example, in Boston you cross the water and you’ve got Cambridge and Sommerville; in San Francisco you cross the water and you’ve got Oakland. Even though every city had a different experience of the Occupy moment, and no other city really has the financial power of New York, I still wanted it to be open-ended.

You’ve written nonfiction about your changing impressions of the Occupy movement, but your feelings about the encampment are somewhat muted in Overthrow. Can you talk a little about your decision to incorporate the movement in the book?

I really don’t want to be seen as speaking for Occupy or writing the novel of Occupy. I also thought it was more novelistic to approach things from the side—to be a little bit oblique—rather than have them arguing through the political principles of Occupy.

But in a way the utopian impulse behind movements like Occupy is like believing in magic. It strains credulity to think that you can change the political system—I think it always does—and yet sometimes it happens. I was interested in that feeling of being in a moment when the incredible might actually be realized.

Do you have a similar feeling about the book being a “gay” novel? There’s a great scene, for instance, of Matthew being cruised on the subway. Overthrow offers a refreshing contrast to fiction in which gay characters, as you have previously written, abet the “unseemly heating up of a writer’s personal engine.”

Yes, there is a kind of gay writing that revs up the engine, and there is also a Gothic mode in gay fiction—it goes back to John Rechy and others—where the characters are monsters or miserably unhappy for one reason or another, maybe because society has oppressed them. While all that is real and valid, I’m personally more interested in people who are mostly making it but still have this experience that’s not like a straight person’s.

It’s challenging to write about the gay experience because it’s changing so fast. I was a little anxious about including the scene you mentioned. It seems like so much of cruising is mediated with phones now, but the book is set ten years ago. Would someone Matthew’s age actually still have been doing this in 2011? I had to look up when Grindr was created and finally decided that Matthew would have probably have been a little behind the curve anyway, so it was okay to put that scene in.

You contrast technological surveillance with mind reading. How did those two ideas come together?

I started thinking about Occupy and technology and had the idea: What if they think they can read minds? And then they get in a John Henry–like competition between the technological reading of minds and an imagined, intuitive, humanistic contact that people hope to have with other people.

I thought that if I could raise these issues in the book but transpose them to the obviously fictional realm of mind-reading, then maybe people would think about the real impingements on their autonomy and selfhood. Perhaps the ambiguities of reading someone’s mind are easier to understand than the ambiguities of your weather app selling your location data to Amazon. That transposition might open up some of our conflicted feelings about technology.

You also focus on how hidden physical and emotional needs impact our interactions with other people. There’s a scene in which one character is trying to strategize with his lawyer but is too distracted by how badly he needs to pee. Or, in a courtroom scene, you emphasize the boredom of the judge.

I once read a study that looks at when judges get their lunch and the kinds of decisions they make, and whether the two are correlated. The answer is yes: the absolute worst time for your case to appear before a judge is the last half hour before his lunch. You’re much more likely to get a longer sentence, get your motions denied, and have a bad outcome.

One of the great opportunities of a novel is that you can sit with a situation that you might be too caught up in to observe fully in real life. You can slow things down and become a little more conscious of the sensations, the aesthetics, the experience.

Sach Dev is a writer based in New York. He is currently a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU.