I’ve known Brian DeLeeuw for the better part of two decades, though we’d likely crossed paths any number of times before actually meeting, since we grew up within a block of each other in Manhattan. We took creative writing courses together in college, and we followed similar post-graduation literary paths, getting MFAs from the same school, publishing our first books within a year of each other, and both finding our ways into the Tin House family. (I worked only briefly as an intern at the magazine, though Tin House Books published my first novel; Brian had a longer stint as an editor at the magazine.)
So I was disappointed on a personal level when Brian left New York for Los Angeles a few years back. The person I’ve probably spent more time talking writing with than anyone else on earth would now be on the other side of the country. But I was also disappointed as a reader by the prospect of a great novelist giving himself over to the dark art of screenwriting, and especially the prospect of a great New York novelist–in the sense not just of a novelist from New York but of one who render the place so expertly in his first novel, In This Way I Was Saved–giving up our native city. It turns out that I needn’t have worried. This week Brian publishes his second novel, The Dismantling, which is not just another great book, but another great New York book, traveling to parts of the city not usually represented in fiction or popular imagination. (Which isn’t to say his move out west has been fruitless: Brian’s first feature film will be debuting just days after the novel comes out.)
Brian and I chatted over email about The Dismantling, writing New York, and the life of a novelist turned screenwriter.
Christopher R Beha: The Dismantling is a thriller about the black market for organ donors. When I started the book, my first thought was that this is such a perfect vehicle for exploring the central themes of contemporary culture that I was surprised I hadn’t seen it before. How did you come to this material?
Brian DeLeeuw: I came up with the character of Simon Worth first—a young man who is carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame, someone who feels that he is not capable of living a regular life with a regular job, friends, girlfriend. He feels defective in some way—psychically isolated—and yet he also has these large student loans to pay off from a failed attempt at medical school, so he needs to get his hands on money quickly. He can’t just retreat entirely from life. I knew I wanted take this character with very little to lose, somebody who feels as though a vital part of himself has already died, and place him in the center of a criminal underworld, turn him into an unlikely criminal.
This dovetailed with my more general desire to write an internally-focused, slow-burn crime novel. In 2008 and 2009, I started noticing articles about the organ trade popping up more frequently in mainstream newspapers and magazines; the more I read, the more I was intrigued. The idea that everything is up for sale now, that you can put a price on absolutely anything—that was of course part of the fascination. I also thought the question of individual autonomy and agency was raised here in an interesting way: should people have the right to sell parts of their bodies? Or is there something inherently unethical about the market exchange of organs? The thinking against it seems to be that if we as a society legalize organ sales, we would be codifying or endorsing the idea that money can buy more years of life, that wealth can determine longevity. Given the way our screwed-up healthcare system works, this is clearly already true; but something about selling organs seems to reframe the issue in a way that appears to be objectionably explicit.
Most of these articles focused on the way illegal transplants tend to work internationally. In these cases the sellers are often from poor rural areas in South America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, while the recipients and surgeons are from Western Europe, Israel, or South Africa. The seller is paid five or ten thousand dollars—many times what they might otherwise make in a year—but they are often misinformed about the nature of the surgery and given little or no follow-up care. They return to areas with no access to clean water, jeopardizing the health of their remaining kidney; and they may be stigmatized and barred from working in their communities when they return. These were very compelling stories, but the exploitation here was too obvious for the kind of novel I wanted to write.
Less well-documented, but more ethically murky, are how these illegal transplants work in well-regarded American hospitals, with (mostly) American buyers and sellers. Here, someone could sell their kidney for $100,000, a portion of their liver for even more. The follow-up care would not be rushed, or ignored altogether. The surgeons would generally be unaware that they were transplanting an organ that had been purchased. The seller would be perfectly clear—as much as anybody who hadn’t done it yet could be—of the risks and difficulties of the surgery and recovery. This is a world, I thought, where it is not necessarily obvious who the villain is, or even whether there is a villain at all. It was exactly kind of morally confused setting that I wanted to drop Simon into the middle of.
CRB: Another thread in the book has to do with ex-NFL players who have been permanently damaged by their time in the league. There is a bit of a “ripped from the headlines” element to this plot line. There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about the ethics of watching men hurt themselves in this way for entertainment. I wonder what you as a lifelong football fan think about this issue.
BD: Yeah, this is something I think about a lot. I actually conducted a lengthy interview on this topic—on this very website!—with Steve Almond last summer, when his Against Football book came out. At first, the issue of the NFL and head trauma seemed to resemble Big Tobacco and cancer: you had corporate interests that were ignoring research, hiring their own experts to spread questionable science, deploying a powerful media team to disseminate their own narrative. But now it’s pretty clear and out in the open that for a certain percentage of the population, especially those who may be genetically predisposed to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, playing football carries severe risks for long-term mental health. (And this is leaving aside the bodily damage—broken bones, slipped discs, arthritis, etc.—that everybody already accepted as the costs of playing the game.) And a lot of the ex-players most affected are not the stars whose declines and suicides we often read about, like Junior Seau, Andre Waters, or Dave Duerson; they’re people like the character I invented in The Dismantling, Lenny Pelligrini, an offensive lineman with a short career, no savings, and a rapidly deteriorating brain.
The onus is now on the fans as well: you can’t claim you don’t know about CTE and other brain damage anymore, so do you still give the NFL your money and attention? I’ve been slowly paring back the amount of time I spend watching and thinking about football, which is not a particularly strong or decisive ethical position. I still love the game. Can I be a politician and say my position is “evolving”?
CRB: Your first novel, In This Way I Was Saved, has a remarkably vivid sense of place. The book’s settings — the upper east and upper west sides of Manhattan, the Princeton campus, Fire Island — are all places where you have personal history. The Dismantling is also set in and around New York, but in entirely different pockets of the city — Roosevelt Island, the outer reaches of Queens. As far as I know, you don’t have the same personal connection to these places, but you’ve managed to render them in the same vivid way. How did you go about doing that? What made you choose these settings for the book?
BD: That’s true, In This Way I Was Saved used the places I knew most intimately from childhood, adolescence, and college, while with The Dismantling, I wanted to set the book in the parts of New York City I was most interested in learning more about, specifically Roosevelt Island and Rockaway Beach. Both of these places have very strange, complex histories, and both have—in the winter at least—a certain isolated feel to them that I thought matched Simon’s mental and emotional weather.
Roosevelt Island used to be a place where the city sent people it considered unfit to mix with the general population. Starting in the 19th Century, it was home to the notorious New York City Lunatic Asylum, as well as a prison and a smallpox hospital. These places are gone—although The Octagon, a condo, repurposes much of the Asylum’s main entrance—but there is still a strong medical presence on the island, with two hospitals and a number of residents working just across the river in Manhattan in the New York-Presbyterian and NYU medical complexes. So it seemed like an appropriate place to situate Cabrera Medical Center, the fictional hospital in my novel where all of the transplant surgeries go down. The island also has a kind of liminal status—not quite Manhattan, not quite Queens—that I thought was a good fit for Simon’s newly untethered life.
Rockaway Beach has an even more twisted history that involves institutionalized racism, Robert Moses’s grand designs, the rise and fall of New York City public housing conditions, the collapse of city governance in the 1970s, and, more recently, the influence of seasonal gentrification. And this is all before Hurricane Sandy decimated the area in 2012. Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York, a historical study by Lawrence and Carol Kaplan, was essential for my understanding the context of the place, as were conversations with a family friend who grew up in one of its neighborhoods.
When I first started writing the novel, I would take the A train from West 4th Street, near where I lived at the time, to Beach 116th, which took about an hour, and walk around the boardwalk and the various neighborhoods. I would do this only in the winter and early spring, when the beach was cold and empty. I took a lot of notes, some photos; those trips—just hanging out there—probably constituted my primary research. I can’t completely explain my attraction to the place. Sometimes you’re just drawn to a town or a neighborhood and you don’t really know why, although I would guess it has something to do with the juxtaposition of dense urban development and the open Atlantic.
Earlier drafts of the novel featured many, many more scenes set in the Rockaways, mostly during Simon and his sister Amelia’s childhoods. There was a whole storyline about Simon’s obsession with surfing that largely got axed, plus some scenes that involved the redevelopment into beachside cottages of a giant tract of abandoned land. The novel was at one point nearly five hundred pages long—it’s just under three hundred now—so plenty of stuff had to go, but the Rockaway passages were the hardest to see on the cutting room floor.
CRB: Okay, all this talk about theme and morality and setting may obscure the fact that The Dismantling–like In This Way I Was Saved–is a thriller. It is a “literary” thriller in the sense that it’s very well written, but it offers all the satisfactions of the genre and doesn’t take itself to be above them. Is that fair to say? What is it about the genre that appeals to you?
I always feel like I’m getting into very contentious territory whenever I talk about something being genre, or literary, or whatever. People seem to get extremely pissed off about this kind of thing, so I’ll tread carefully. I’ll say this: I like to read all kinds of novels, but many of the ones that stick with me the most are books people seem to understand as literary-thriller hybrids, things like Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me, Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source, Richard Price’s Lush Life, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, many of Colin Harrison’s novels.
To me, the genre prism through which people approach a book often comes down to packaging and marketing. For example, Harrison’s Manhattan Nocturne, one of my favorite novels,exists as both a Picador trade paperback reissue and two different mass market editions. The covers are wildly different in design, image, typography. The two mass-market editions scream “commercial thriller”; the trade paperback, “edgy literary fiction.” (The original Crown hardcover splits the difference.) Of course, it’s the exact same book. Same thing with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. There’s the classy Vintage trade paperback that everybody knows, with its cover based on Chip Kidd’s Knopf hardcover design. But there was also an Ivy mass-market paperback with, like, a red rose lying in the snow in front of some Roman columns. Same book; completely different expectations set by the presentation and packaging.
But to get back to your original question, I think something that unites my two novels, as well as many of the novels I mentioned above, is a focus on plot and suspense. You can generate tension and surprise in many different ways, but these books tend to do it through their plotting. Often, too, there’s a crime or act of violence at their center. So if these are thrillers, maybe that’s what appeals to me about them: the ratcheting of tension, the threat or memory of violence, the careful dispensing of information, the backbone of a propulsive plot.
CRB: Since writing your first novel, you’ve been working on movies. In particular, you’ve been writing scripts for horror movies, including one — Some Kind of Hate — that will be making its festival debut just as the book is coming out. How does your writing for the screen influence your writing for the page?
BD: The short answer is: I don’t know yet! I’d finished the bulk of The Dismantling by the time I started seriously writing scripts, so screenwriting’s influence, if there’s going to be any, isn’t evident in that novel. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that I’ll probably be better about outlining and doing a lot of the careful work of plotting before I actually start writing. I was never a big outliner (although I am a big researcher), and I still believe in providing space for improvisation, discovery, exploration, etc. But I probably used to go too far in that direction, and I’d end up spending a lot of time making big changes to the plot at a very late point in the process that would then have ripple effects throughout the manuscript. Screenwriting is very good about forcing you to think about structure, structure, structure. I’ll outline and develop a script, whether alone or in collaboration, for three months, then take three weeks to write the first draft. I imagine this is going to force me to be more patient in thinking a novel through before I start writing it. At least I hope that’s what’s going to happen! Maybe it will just completely ruin my prose, who knows.
Brian DeLeeuw is a novelist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. His first novel, In This Way I Was Saved, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2009 and long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize, with editions published in the U.K., Germany, and France. “Some Kind of Hate,” an independent horror movie he co-wrote, is currently in post-production. He is a graduate of Princeton University and received his MFA in Fiction from The New School.
Christopher R Beha is a deputy editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Believer, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the author of two novels, Arts & Entertainments and What Happened to Sophie Wilder, and a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. He is also the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife.