Q+A: Kurt Andersen

Image from Heyday/Random House

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Kurt Andersen in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton during the final stop of his book tour supporting Heyday, his historical novel that depicts the United States in the middle of the 19th century as the country began to define its modern incarnation. A sampling of Andersen’s resumé reveals his master understanding of contemporary culture: he co-founded Spy magazine in the 1980s, was the editor-in-chief of New York magazine in the mid-’90s, is the current host of Studio 360 on NPR, and his previous novel Turn of the Century was one of the most accurate depictions of the year 2000 (even though it was first published in 1999). We asked him about what was on our mind and what was on his. Read the interview after the jump.

How did you decide to set the novel in 1848? Is that an era you’ve been interested in for a long time?

It isn’t. I wasn’t looking to write a historical novel. A few years ago I was reading and came across a reference to the date when gold was discovered [in California] and the date when the revolution in Paris started and they were maybe two days in close succession. And I thought, “What an interesting coincidence.” I knew a little bit about the revolution, not much. I knew a little more about the gold rush. They were in parallel universes historically in my mind. I began reading a little more and then I became fascinated and obsessed. It was an era that didn’t have a name—it wasn’t the Gilded Age, it wasn’t the Era of Good Feelings, it wasn’t the Civil War, it wasn’t any of these known quantities. I thought it would be a good place to try and make up a story.

You said the era doesn’t have a name, do you have one for it?

I don’t. I should brand it, shouldn’t I? It does seem to me that it is the moment that modern life as we know it began. From the late 1840s on, you can really see the shape of things to come of life as we live it. Before is much, much older in a million ways, in every way. The speed of the stuff, the new technology, instant communication, photography, liberal ideas, bohemian ideas and marketing and advertising—that didn’t exist in 1840, and suddenly in 1850 did. It’s some version of when modern life began, but that’s not the name for an era, that’s what it was.

What was your research process like?

There was a first phase where I just sort of plunged in and read a lot of stuff. And then I had this little story that became the story and these basic ideas for characters. And I kind of used the rudimentary back-story for each character to guide my research. First I thought this guy from England was going to be from Germany or something, but then I said, “No no no, he’s going to be English, he’s going to be well-to-do.” So that sent me off on that whole bunch of research. Then I’d let the research guide me down another path. I’d find something else I didn’t know anything about, like the Mexican War. I read a lot of books. Basically I just spent a lot of money on used books. I did some library research, but I didn’t go to graduate school so I don’t really know how to do that, and I’d rather just come home to my little office and read. I did go to Northern California, I went to Paris and walked around once I had gotten the basic story. I emailed some scholars who knew some specific things that I wanted to know. I did a lot of internet research. I spent about a year and half just researching as I fleshed out the stories and the characters, and then I was ready to write.

I was reading your blog and saw the email you received from the descendent of the Wall Street banker Nathaniel Prime, who appears briefly in the book, that asked if your depiction of him was accurate. How much duty did you feel to get all the details right?

I was kind of crazily meticulous about accuracy, like knowing if the moon was full or new or quarter on the date that I say something happened, which was just crazy method acting stuff. In general I was meticulous, except in this case and some others [for people] who aren’t well known where I decided, “You know, it’s fiction, I can make stuff up.” In [Prime’s] case it was useful to have a real guy, I thought about changing the name altogether, and frankly I was worried about some descendent writing, and then this woman was so nice. It was a pleasure to hear from her and it was interesting to have her asking me, “Was my great-grandfather really so bad?” So that fictional license aside, I was pretty scrupulous.

In the book the characters have a sense of wonder about technology and all the developments happening around them. These days there are constant, amazing technological advancements happening. Do you think most people have maintained that sense of wonder or do they take it for granted?

I think you do start to take it for granted. There are moments of wonder like when suddenly the web exists. Or the first cellphone, I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s amazing.” But what, when the new version of Flash comes you’re supposed to be wondrous? I mean, I don’t think so. But in this moment [depicted in Heyday] the change was so quantum and radical. From sending letters that took weeks or months to get somewhere to instantaneous communication with the telegram, I don’t think we in our lifetime have experienced anything that radical and sudden in terms of technological wonder. I mean, I’m all for wonder. I seek wonder wherever I can get it. At this point with technology it’s kind of incremental wonder or incremental pleasure. I remember when the Segway came out and I got to ride one. That was wondrous. It didn’t come to much, but it was awesome.

Do you find the modern trends in technology—with everything coming with recording and tracking capabilities—terrifying or exciting?

Well, both. That whole thing of self-surveillance and surveillance and the transparency of web cameras everywhere and all that, I’m not horrified by it, I’m not appalled by it. But you can imagine, without too much of a stretch, all that falling into the wrong hands and America becoming some 21st century version of the Soviet Union. We could all regret it. It basically just intensely interests me, which is some combination of thrill and fear.

Since the Mexican War plays such an important role in Heyday and I’ve read that our current war influenced the book, do you think the United States is a country that defines itself through war?

I think history in its most boring, easy, once-over lightly way defaults to [tracking time through] war. I do think one reason that this period [in Heyday] is relatively so little known is that the Mexican War wasn’t glorious or particularly just, it was just a war we fought to get the other half of the country. I think something is different today. I think something that has been different since World War II (as people have argued) is that we now have so much as a country invested industrially and mentally and every other way in war that there is a certain periodic inevitability to war. I don’t think it’s a bunch of evil men in Washington sitting in a room deciding it’s time for a war, but I do think there is a certain structural inevitability built in. And we are the hyper-power, so just as Britain was always fighting wars in the 19th century and Rome was always fighting wars, there we are, until China beats us.

What are you curious to learn more about right now?

What I’m really curious about, and I haven’t found the book to explain it to me, is that in 1848 it seems to me that America and Europe were basically equally religious places. America had it’s peculiar tent camp evangelist stuff, because of its wild wilderness origins, but somehow in the last 150 years we went one way and they went another way in terms of religiosity. I’ve begun to look around to try and find an explanation for that and I haven’t seen it fully explained how they became irreligious and we stayed religious.
I’m curious about politically if we have what it takes as a nation, in terms of our flexibility, to let parties dissolve and start new ones. And it looks like we don’t. All the experts say third parties are over, that they don’t happen anymore. In 1848 the Whigs, who had been the other big party with the Democrats since America began, petered out and died and the Republicans were invented. I wonder and worry that we are systemically sclerotic, that it’s, “Nope, it’s just these two parties.” And then you worry that if we’re that brittle as a system then we break.
I’m curious about the near-ish future. Not so much the next ten years, but just beyond that. That’s one of the reasons that movie Children of Men interested me so much. 20 years out, that really interests me. I don’t think I’ll write a novel based then, but I have an idea for a story I might do based roughly in that medium-term future which just fascinates me. It gets a little fuzzy, and therefore it’s more interesting because the kind of contingencies are multiplied as you go farther out.

Q+A: Kurt Andersen