Adam Langer and the Salinger Contract

Lundi 9 Novembre 2015

Interview with Adam Langer for the release of his novel The Salinger Contract.

© Andreas Von Lintel
© Andreas Von Lintel
I imagine that the daily life of a writer is very quiet and monotonous. Was it a challenge to create a suspenseful story about a writer?

Well, yes the actual writing of a novel can seem monotonous and quiet—though, perhaps less so when one writes in cafés, at home with music blasting, or on public transportation in New York and Chicago. Which is why I don’t spend all of my waking hours writing novels. About two-to-three hours of quiet and monotony is enough for me. I think it’s a challenge to write a suspenseful story about just about any profession—if I had experience as a private detective or a bounty hunter, I would write about that. But I’m a writer, so that’s the experience I have to draw upon.

The influence the books can have on the readers’ life and on their acts is the central theme of the novel. Is it a theme that fascinate you? Were you inspired by some tragic acts? And do you feel responsible for your readers’ behaviour?

Tragic might be overstating it, but I wrote this book during an odd, somewhat isolated time in my personal life and an odd period in American society as a whole. I was living with my family in what almost felt like a sort of exile in a college town in southwestern Indiana while the American economy appeared to be going into freefall and the tech, real estate and literary worlds were all going bust at the same time. This was the time of banking scandals and skyrocketing employment when everyone I knew seemed to feeling great insecurity, and though I was experiencing that tension, since I was in a small town in the middle of America, I was feeling it at a great remove. What else could I do but immerse myself in books? As for what effect books have on readers, I think usually the effect is somewhat indirect—I think the reason I am who I am and think the way I do is very much a result of the music I’ve listened to and the movies and plays I’ve seen and the books I’ve read—if I hadn’t read, say, Virginia Woolf and Graham Greene and José Saramago and Alain Robbe-Grillet and Tom Stoppard and Simon Gray, I’d be a very different person. But none of those literary works actually made me perform a very specific act. But what interested me about J.D. Salinger and why I wrote about him is that a number of fairly reprehensible individuals tried to blame their acts on the books he wrote. And what would it be like, I wondered, to read a book that would have such a great, tangible effect. And what sort of responsibility would a writer feel at having influenced a reader in that way. I’m not sure what effect “Le Contrat Salinger” has on the people who read it—if they’re lucky, it will convince them to read more and stay the hell out of academia and south central Indiana.

J.D. Salinger is omnipresent in your novel. Is this book a tribute to Salinger?

No. I’ve never been that much of a fan of his work, to be honest. I enjoy Catcher in the Rye. I like some of Nine Stories. But he always creeped me out a bit. I’m interested in the cult that emerged around him, but I never wanted to be a part of it. When other kids in high school were reading Salinger, I was reading Kerouac—though to be honest, his work creeps me out a bit too these days. A few months ago, I went to Cornish, New Hampshire, because Salinger’s old house was for sale, and I went there wondering if I’d be interested in buying it. I found the place pretty, but far too isolated and claustrophobic. It seemed to be the house of a paranoid man. Going there, I understood him more as a human being, but I didn’t become more interested in him as a writer.

In the background of this story, there is the decline of the readership and the crisis of the publishing industry. What is the situation in the US?

We’re always on the verge of the death of the novel, aren’t we? André Gide wrote about the death of the novel nearly a hundred years ago. The one thing I think that has happened in America, though, is about a decade ago, maybe a bit more, there was a “bubble” in the publishing industry simultaneously with the “bubble” in the real estate industry. For a while, people were looking at books as a viable get-rich scheme in the same way they were viewing condominiums. To borrow from Jonathan Franzen, there’s been a “correction” in the market, and that has sucked for a lot of us who were performing unreasonably well in what had almost always been more of a niche market than a mainstream one. But it also sucked for people who thought the value of their apartments was going to keep doubling every year. And it sucked even more (and continues to suck) for musicians who have seen their music sales plummet because now everyone gets their music for free. At least some people still buy books.

A collection of unpublished manuscripts written by the greatest novelists, do you think it is something that might happen in the near future?

It’s fun to think about. But, if they existed, I would hope they would remain unpublished. There’s something so tantalizing about the great novel that never sees the light of day, the unfinished cinematic masterpiece that no one has ever seen. Whenever these works do surface, there’s invariably a disappointment because the reality can never match our imaginary version of it. Which is why I still haven’t read Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” And why I’m not sure if I want to see Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” if anyone actually ever finishes it.

Could you write a book for an individual reader?

I think I always do—except usually the reader is me. I look at my bookshelf and try to think of what’s missing up there. What is the book that hasn’t been written that I want to read? And how can I fill that void? I have pretty diverse tastes in literature, so hopefully, if I write a book that I would like to read, then other people would like to read it too. The premise of the book, however, is that a very rich, nefarious person has contracted authors to write a book that no one other than him can read. If I had signed that contract with him, then I’d have to keep it secret. Could I wrote a book for an individual reader? I guess the answer is “How do you know I haven’t?”

In the novel, you provide a very critical description of life in US colleges. Does it looks like that? Do you lived it?

There is a joke in America that goes—“The reason why academic feuds are so acrimonious is because the stakes are so low.” I think that’s about right. I have some good friends who have been lucky enough to lead comfortable existences because of academia. But, for the most part, I find the world of the American university—particularly in the humanities and social sciences—to be repugnant and insular, filled with pettiness and self-aggrandizement. There was a time when we were living in Indiana and some jackass political scientist was asking me about how I felt living there. He said, “This must be slow torture for you.” I told him, “No, the torture happens real quick.”

This novel is also about being a writer. Do friends of yours have already offered you a great subject for a novel like Conner Joyce did to the narrator of the book? And where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration is everywhere for me—it’s in the conversations I overhear on the street and in the subway; it’s in what I see out the window; it’s in what happens in the line when I’m dropping kids off at school. It’s in the books I’ve been reading lately by Paul Beatty, Willy Vlautin and T. Geronimo Johnson. It’s in the music by Courtney Barnett and Paul Kelly that I’ve been listening to. It’s in the stories my daughters tell me. Inspiration is easy to come by; the tough part is finding the time to write it all down.

Will The Salinger contract be adapted for the screen? And which actors would you like to choose to play the role of the main characters of the novel?

I’ve had a lot of conversations about a movie version of “Salinger,” but nothing concrete yet. If someone gave me a pile of money, the first thing I’d do would be to keep James Franco away from it. Then, I’d cast my old Chicago theater acquaintance Michael Shannon as Conner Joyce. I’d get Romain Duris to work on his American accent so he could play the character based on me. I’d cast Jeremy Irons as Dex Dunford and Bruno Ganz as Pavel. I’d buy a time machine and go back around thirty years so that Helen Mirren could play Margot Hetley. And then I’d get Joachim Trier or Olivier Assayas to direct the damn thing. Do you think we can make that happen?

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