Interview by Katherine Duke '05
In Chapter Five of The Girl with the Sturgeon Tattoo—Swedish author Lars Arffssen’s new thriller about an investigation into serial reindeer killings and the secret history of the UKEA furniture company—protagonist Mikael Blomberg sneaks into the vast but messy apartment of the brilliant young hacker Lizzy Salamander and finds, on her nightstand, a copy of the novel The Vices, by Lawrence Douglas. “Must order it on Amazon,” he thinks.
Such conspicuous product placement is a treat for readers who are in on the joke: that Arffssen and Douglas are one and the same. Aug. 30 will mark the release of Sturgeon Tattoo, a parody of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other novels in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling crime thriller trilogy. The Vices, released on Aug. 16, is—like Douglas’s first novel, The Catastrophist—set partly at a fictional (but familiar) liberal arts college in Massachusetts.
Douglas, the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst, has also written The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust(2001) and, with Professor of Philosophy Alexander George, Sense and Nonsensibility (2004). He recently attended the Nazi war crimes trial of Ivan Demjanjuk, which will be his subject when he delivers the prestigious Meyerhoff Annual Lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in October. He will also report upon the trial in the November issue of Harper's Magazine and in a book whose working title is The End of Something: Demjanjuk in Munich (forthcoming from Princeton University Press).
He sat down with Katherine Duke ’05 to discuss the different kinds of writing that he does, from the scholarly to the send-up.
A condensed version of the interview appears in print below.
KD: When and why did you decide to do each one of these two books?
LD: I wrote The Vices two years ago, while I was on a sabbatical in Berlin. And the parody—that’s something that just sort of fell in my lap. My agent was approached by an editor at St. Martin’s. They wanted to do a parody of the Stieg Larsson trilogy, and they wanted someone who had some experience doing humor writing and who could sustain a novel. So my agent asked me, and my first reaction was, “Absolutely not. I’ve never read a thriller in my life. I’ve certainly never read anything by Stieg Larsson.” He encouraged me to just try it for a 10-page proposal, and the folks at St. Martin’s ended up liking it. I wrote that [book] over a six-week period last Christmas vacation. There was a lot of time pressure; it had to be done by April 1. I read all three [Larsson] books during Thanksgiving. [In December,] I was just sitting in Rao’s [Coffee in Amherst] and writing every day, and first I thought I’d do about a thousand words a day, and then I found I could actually do about 2,000 a day, and the thing went strangely smoothly.
KD: Did you actually have to do serious research for this parody?
LD: The Web is a fantastic resource for exactly this type of project: a project that requires a superficial gesture towards research. Stieg Larsson always supplies too much information about the type of cell phones that characters are using, which I thought was something that you could then easily parody. But I don’t know a lot about cell phones. But you spend 20 seconds on the Web, and you can come up with “the Snapdragon processor with 25 megahertz… .” It’s the perfect way to get instant information that creates the illusion of some type of technological savvy.
KD: What other elements of those books did you find inviting of parody?
LD: There is this way in which Stieg Larsson seems to present Sweden as a society filled with rampant psychopathology and violence, and that seems like something that is pretty ripe for parody. You can kind of ratchet it up to make Sweden sound like the most violent, horrific, misogynist, psychopathological society ever constituted on the globe.
KD: Do you enjoy reading, watching or listening to parodies that other people have created?
LD: No. Maybe that’s not entirely [true]. I like The Onion, and I’ve read Onion books which I thought were very, very clever. We have a 16-year-old son, and he likes watching online The Onion News Network, and sometimes he shows me some of their things. But I don’t read a lot of humor, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book-length parody in my life. In terms of the influences on [my] humor, reading a lot of Peanuts as a kid was probably the strongest influence. Peanuts and Doonesbury. There’s a kind of repetition compulsion to the nature of some of the humor in Peanuts. You’ll see Lucy’s psychiatrist booth, and one panel will say “The Psychiatrist is In”; the next one will say “The Psychiatrist is Really In”; “The Psychiatrist is Far Out”.... I always liked that way in which Charles Schulz revisits these things, gradually ratcheting up the humor.
KD: If we could move on to The Vices, now: In your own words, what is it about?
LD: It’s told by a first-person narrator—I guess “first-person peripheral” is the technical term. The narrator doesn’t play an overly active role in the story. He’s telling the story about his closest friend, [Oliver Vice], who is a professor and philosopher who’s died under circumstances where it’s not entirely clear if it was an accident or a suicide—though it looks like a suicide. In trying to reconstruct the life of his close friend—trying to find out why someone who is very, very talented and seems to have a lot going for him in life would choose to voluntarily end his own—he starts getting more drawn into the story of his friend’s family. [The novel] deals with questions of friendship, loyalty, knowledge of other and of self. There’s a good amount of deception that comes out in the course of the story, both in terms of what the narrator did not know about the friend and also in terms of the narrator, who’s never named in the novel, [and] his own unreliabilities as a storyteller.
KD: In a way, it’s a mystery story, and you leave a lot of questions unanswered. Do you have answers in your own mind to those questions? For example, do you have a name in mind for the narrator?
LD: I’m probably in the dark about some of the same things that the reader’s left in the dark about at the end of the novel. I don’t actually have a name for the narrator. It really wasn’t something that I was intentionally doing all along, saying, “I don’t want to have the narrator have a name.” I was probably 200 pages into the manuscript [when I] realized, “He doesn’t have a name.” At that point it seemed almost gratuitous to have someone say, “Hey, Fred, pick up the phone.” Ultimately, I did like the fact that he was unnamed, because it agreed with these themes about unreliability and uncertainty and about knowledge of self.
I think there are some novels that leave you with a kind of annoying absence of closure, and then there are ones that, at least in my mind, have a kind of pleasing and inviting absence of closure. At least my ambition was to write something that had more of the latter.
KD: One of the things that the narrator of The Vices struggles with is the act of using the lives of people he knows as fodder for his own writing. He decides it’s always both an act of loving tribute and an act of predation. Does that sum up how you feel about it?
LD: It does kind of strike me a little bit that way. I remember at one point, a few years ago, I was thinking about writing this collection of linked essays about friends of mine, looking at them from the time I first met them—which was maybe 20 years ago—until now, being middle-aged. I was talking to this friend of mine about the idea, and I had been toying with the title The Book of Friends. And he said, “Oh, I have a better title: How about The Book of Ex-Friends?” So I do think it’s a potentially dicey thing to do. But it’s inevitably the case that writers, I think, both honor and poach.
KD: Is the central family in The Vices, or are any of the other characters, based upon people you know?
LD: Yeah, I think they are. [But] I don’t want to say, “Oh, it’s based on X,” [because] then everyone will then read every single detail in the story as “That must be true about X and of X’s family,” when in fact that’s not the case. For example, the brother of X could actually be based on the brother from anotherfamily that I know, and the mother of X could be drawn from yet another family that I know.
KD: How do The Vices and your first novel, The Catastrophist, relate to one another in your mind, and how are your intentions for them similar or different?
LD: I hope it is the case that The Vices is a more mature work. I like The Catastrophist, and I think it’s a funny book, and I was happy that I wrote it. When I wrote The Catastrophist, I knew I had a sabbatical, so there was time pressure to get the thing done in an academic year. I tried to hew pretty close to the shore. There the first-person narrator is the central character in the book.
Both books concern questions of identity. In my professional incarnation, I write a lot about the Holocaust and about war crimes trials, and I continue to find these subject matters gripping, too. In The Vices, I was trying to revisit some of the themes that continue to obsess or grip me, but to do it in a somewhat more mature way—somewhat more satisfying; ultimately, perhaps, a bit more moving. I still try to preserve some of the humor, [but] it’s a more serious work.
KD: As someone who has also written a lot of nonfiction, what do you see as the benefits of fiction? What can you accomplish in fiction that you can’t in nonfiction?
LD: I think there are some academics who start out with academic writing and then come to fiction. With me, it was the opposite: Already, when I was in law school, I was writing stories. My real dream all along was to be more of a fiction writer, and I think I just kind of hedged my bets and ended up in the career that I’m in, which I love.
Fiction writing is liberating. And I do believe that literary fiction supplies the profoundest expression of human interiority that there is. I’m a passionate reader of literary fiction, and some of the most pleasurable moments come from just sitting alone and reading a book. So I think part of the motivations of writing are an attempt to recreate that experience of pleasure for another person. Some people talk about [how] writing is very painful and difficult, and I don’t find it that way. I find that I often write things I don’t like, but I do like the process of writing—it’s something that does give me pleasure. But writing academic work also gives me pleasure.
One thing that does not give me pleasure is having to switch back and forth from one form of writing to the other with any kind of rapidity. I feel a very strong need to keep them separate—to work on one project at one time, and another project at another time—because I find that switching back and forth within a tight time frame is very, very stressful.
KD: What are your plans for your next book?
LD: For the past 18 months I was covering this John [Ivan] Demjanjuk trial, and I have a piece about the trial coming out in Harper’s in November. It was the last of the high-profile trials involving Holocaust-related atrocities. Demjanjuk lived in suburban Cleveland for several decades; then he was denaturalized, sent to Israel to be tried; he was convicted in Israel and condemned to death; he was acquitted by the Israeli Supreme Court, sent back to the United States, had his citizenship reinstated, only to be denaturalized a second time; finally he was tried in Germany. The trial started in 2009 and just ended this past May, with his conviction. The Harper’s article will form the heart of a book.
KD: Is there any part of you wants to fictionalize that—approach it as though it’s a novel?
LD: Yes. When [Demjanjuk] was tried in Israel—over 20 years ago—Philip Roth sat in on part of that trial, and there are little excerpts of the Demjanjuk trial that appear in his novel Operation Shylock. The Music Box, an old movie with Jessica Lange in it, was also basically [about] the Demjanjuk case. So I did think about maybe doing it as a novel. But on the other hand, the reality is so bizarre and so convoluted that I’m really quite excited about just writing the story about this guy’s 30-plus-year legal odyssey.
KD: Will you at least employ any literary techniques that you use in your fiction?
LD: My previous book about Holocaust trials really was a straight academic book. I hope this one will be much more of a crossover book and will reach a crossover audience. Because I was actually present at long stretches of the trial, I will probably be embedded as a first-person [narrator] in the story itself, registering my observations of it, my interactions. I was in a curious position, because I was there playing journalist—as an observer—[but] at the same time, because of my legal background, I ended up becoming very close with some of the lawyers involved in the case, who at times would ask me questions about it. At moments, I was almost an adviser. It was a funny role to be thrust in, and I want to try to capture a bit of that dimension.