Tobias Carroll | Longreads | May 2018 | 18 minutes (4,881 words)
Lost Empress addresses the injustice of mass incarceration, plays with the possibility of parallel universes, and uses arena football as a metaphor for how the revolution is unforeseeable. Welcome to the world — or should I say worlds — of Sergio De La Pava, whose fiction certainly doesn’t lack for a sense of scope.
His debut, A Naked Singularity, followed a young, incredibly successful public defender through a personal and professional collapse, weaving in a heist narrative and moments of absurdist comedy, moving from harrowing scenes of inequality to suspenseful setpieces and back again. Initially self-published before being reissued by the University of Chicago Press (which also released his second novel, Personae), A Naked Singluarity would go on to win the prestigious PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize — an award also won by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and Paul Harding’s Tinkers.
In De La Pava’s fiction, grand ideas and societal tragedies coexist with a brisk narrative voice and an irreverent worldview. Lost Empress alternates between two seemingly unconnected stories: Nina Gill, a genius football strategist, suddenly becomes the owner of an indoor football team in Paterson, New Jersey, during an unexpected pause in the NFL season; meanwhile, Nuno DeAngeles, imprisoned at Rikers Island, ponders his earlier crimes and romantic connections, and his plans for the future. Within this sprawling narrative, De La Pava tells the secret history of a Salvador Dalí painting, discusses Cambodian politics in the late 20th century, and muses about why the NFL’s labor market is uniquely exploitative of American athletes.
Improbably in our age of hyper-specialization, De La Pava, like the hero of A Naked Singularity, is a public defender in Manhattan, where he handles 70 to 80 cases at a time. He recently wrote an impassioned op-ed calling for reform of New York’s discovery laws. His interests are obviously wide-ranging, and our conversation touched on the cultural history of Paterson, what we hate about rich people, the multiverse, and more.
Tobias Carroll: In Lost Empress, you deal with characters from a number of different social classes and backgrounds. What about football was useful, narratively speaking, to bring them all together?
Sergio De La Pava: I think football is useful aesthetically in this book for many reasons. I’m not sure I had thought about explicitly what you’re bringing up, but now that I do think about it, certainly there’s a cross section of individuals on a football team. The person who owns the team almost overwhelmingly comes from a background of huge privilege. The actual players who risk their health and their safety and their lives — not exclusively — tend to come from far lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Again, I’m not sure how much of that was explicit when I was setting out to give a wide-ranging narrative about as many different people as I could fit in. On some level, perhaps, that was an influence.
Where you’re talking about revolution, you’re talking about upending, or you’re talking about a social upheaval, it never feels, certainly from the perspective of immediately prior to the revolution, like something that could ever possibly succeed in any way.
Did you initially plan to focus on an indoor football league, or was there a moment where indoor football caught your attention and you got the idea that this could be something that could fit into the narrative?
No, I think what drew my attention was a kind of… a form of revolution and upending of the existing social order, let’s call it.
Here you have by far the most successful sports league in our country and because of that success, it just feels monolithic and entrenched and not subject in any way to attack, and then you think, well, what’s the most ridiculous thing? There are indoor football leagues. There is, for example, the Arena League and things of that nature. They don’t in any way put any kind of dent in the NFL, but they do exist.
The notion is taking this and having it stand in for other entrenched social systems that exist that feel invulnerable. So the notion is that, where you’re talking about revolution, you’re talking about upending, or you’re talking about a social upheaval, it never feels, certainly from the perspective of immediately prior to the revolution, like something that could ever possibly succeed in any way.
To me, the unlikelihood of something like an indoor football league one day challenging the NFL was not a deterrent in any way, it just kind of felt like the other piece of the current things I was thinking about.
What was it like being in the process of writing this book and then seeing real world events mirror it, like Colin Kaepernick and other football players kneeling during the national anthem and bringing some of these sociopolitical issues to the forefront, or Vince McMahon announcing that the XFL was going to come back in a couple of years?
Those were weird moments. What happens is, the novel’s not very good at being topical. The genuine or the good novel meant to be reductive is not going to be very topical because it took me years to write.
And your newsfeed — certainly since November of 2016 — our news cycle is like 12 hours long. I’ve often had the experience where I’ll get in the car in the morning to drive to work and I’ll hear the newscaster talk about the news and it just feels like, that happened yesterday? That feels like that happened last week. Because the second it happened you read about it on the internet. By the time you read it in the paper, it just feels like they’re talking about something that happened a week ago. I’m not breaking any ground, a lot of people have felt this.
The novel’s never going to be good at dealing with that kind of topicality. If you choose, so to speak, fertile ground — I think the NFL, the criminal justice system, things of that nature are fertile ground — then what’s going to happen is events are constantly going to be feeding your ability to produce the work. What I’m looking for before I start the project is soil where things can grow. I’m looking for things like that, that are rich enough that for several years I’m going to be able to entertain myself, which is always my first goal.
The NFL will always be the gift that keeps on giving just because it’s such a central part of our society. We all know people who have no interest in it whatsoever, but I think even those people understand about the kneeling before the national anthem and concussions and these kind of things that pierce beyond just the specialist and the person who’s interested in the NFL, and take on larger social significance.
There’s a speech fairly early on in the book when Nina is explaining why she’s making these business moves in the indoor league. She has a speech about the way that, if you’re a talented football player, the NFL is the only place that you could make a living from it. I found that to be particularly interesting and particularly revealing for the course of the novel.
Right. So, again it goes back to that monolithic power that I was just referencing that the NFL has in a way that probably no other American sports league has, for the very reason that Nina’s bringing up, which is, you want to play this weird sport with this weird ball that they only care about in the U.S., really? We’re the only game in town. We’re the only place you’re going to be able to do that and make a living.
Not true, for example, of Major League Baseball. Not true of the NBA. Yes, those are the three major leagues, but there are other leagues that are close. The Spanish basketball league is pretty good to make a living. The Chinese basketball league, you can go there, and NBA players have gone there. The NFL really is the only game in town. They have absolute power. We know what absolute power does.
In terms of monolithic systems, you have the NFL on one hand and then you have the system of incarceration that one of the novel’s main characters is also dealing with. Did you find a conscious analogy between the two, or did that emerge as you were writing the book?
I think it’s a combination of the two things. I think early on, you see this connection, or it’s more like you sense a connection, but you’re not fully certain what it is. If you were fully certain of what it was, it’s almost like there’d be no point to writing the novel.
You sense that there’s a connection between these two things. You’re not sure what you feel about it. You’re not sure what you think. You’re not sure how strong that tether is between the two worlds. Then you kind of write the novel to figure those things out.
What I’m looking for before I start the project is soil where things can grow. I’m looking for things that are rich enough that for several years I’m going to be able to entertain myself, which is always my first goal.
You also have Nina and Nuno having these similar names that almost, but not quite, echo one another.
I’m not fully conscious of deciding to do that. There’s not a point where I look back and say, oh yeah, that’s where I decided to create these mirror image names of these two central characters. I don’t believe that it was that kind of identifiable decision. I am conscious, at some point, of becoming aware of the fact that there is this mirror image quality of their two names, and then making the decision of, okay, how corny is that? Does it survive? Does it remain? And then deciding that that becomes a concept, that I’m leaving it in.
There are aspects of archetypal plots here: the underdog sports narrative related to Nina’s efforts with the team; Nuno’s plotline having aspects of a heist narrative. What was the challenge for you as you were writing these to acknowledge these archetypes, but kind of keep them in balance with each other and in balance with the larger story of the book?
I think the archetypes are, above all, to me, entertaining. Then the challenge becomes whether you can stretch them just shy of the breaking point. Not suck them of all their entertainment value, but take it somewhere that it hasn’t been taken before. That’s the way I always view these — in this case, a prison break and art heist. In my earlier novel — a robbery, a legal thriller.
How far can I stretch these things so that they no longer, in any way, resemble what we’ve come to passively accept as kind of low level hack storytelling? That interests me, for whatever reason. I like to think that there’s something revelatory about encountering these well-worn tropes and then watching new life be breathed into them. If the novel works for the reader that way, that’s what it will feel like. That’s a special kind of entertainment that is maybe more rare than we think.
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You said earlier that when you’re writing, you’re writing to keep yourself entertained, but do you end up having an ideal reader in mind as you’re writing this?
It’s a cliche, it really is. Writing it so you can read it. I have a certain conception of what I find compelling slash entertaining, illuminating, elucidating, whatever you want to say. I’m constantly checking up against that ideal that I have in my mind. There’s really no ideal reader I’m thinking of. I’m just thinking more of an ideal destination that this novel will get to. Then when you’re done, that’s the check. Does it match the ideal? It’ll never match it perfectly. Is it close enough to the ideal that I had in mind three, four years ago, that I kept kind of projecting and trying to match in some way? If it is, then that the project is done and now whether or not other readers will respond to it is largely out of your control.
My experience is that I’m similar enough to some readers that there will be a substantial number of people who will find it entertaining, but I’m not similar enough to enough readers for it to break the interest of the average human being. In other words, my taste matches up with a very small percentage of people, but they’re probably passionate about their tastes and they like to read this kind of thing, and it takes off from there. I recognize that this isn’t going to be… pick your number one bestseller.
Over the course of this, you incorporate this history of this Salvador Dalí work, a history of Cambodia in the late 20th Century, and even quantum theory. Were all of these things that you knew already, or did you end up doing research as you were writing to figure out how to incorporate them into the book?
I would say the three things you’re talking about I knew about, but by the time I was done with the novel I knew a lot more about them. I knew enough about them to know that they kind of fit the key of the piece, and that they would be useful and that they would, in many ways, be a tool that could drive the project forward. In the course of writing the novel, my interest grew and I learned more about it. I knew there had been this piece that Dalí had donated to Rikers when he got sick before a visit. I knew the very bare outlines of that and so that served as a tool, as a function, as a starting point to dig deeper and enmesh it into the narrative.
One supporting character has a long speech a little more than halfway through the book, which deals with questions of parallel universes and parallel timelines. When did that end up becoming a part of the narrative?
I don’t know how deep you wanna get, but I’m always interested in — or I grew interested in — what the world of a novel is in relationship to our world. Like I said, I could go way off the deep end here and tell you that I don’t draw the greatest distinction between the reality of the people I encounter in my day-to-day life and fluidly alive literary characters. Taking off from that — that I have that weird kind of relationship to fiction writing and reading — I was looking to explore the concept of what people call the multiverse and things of that nature, which I think gets mislabeled a little bit, but those kind of theories from theoretical physics about what the reality is of possible worlds and other worlds.
I was interested in it from the outside because I was tying it to these strange movies that I have about the role of a fictional world that’s created in literature.
You sense that there’s a connection between these two things. You’re not sure what you feel about it. You’re not sure what you think. You’re not sure how strong that tether is between the two worlds. Then you kind of write the novel to figure those things out.
As someone who grew up reading a lot of science fiction and a lot of comic books, I would say the multiple universes is something that kind of has been ingrained in me from a very early age.
The only thing I’ve never liked about Professor David Lewis’s possible worlds theory is when they say something like, okay, this is where you do X and, because of that, you know that XYZ. You, I think, can object that, whoever it is that they’re saying did X, it’s not me. What are you going to say to convince me that that’s also me. Well it looks like you. Well that seems silly. Has your name?
Whatever it is that makes us an individuated human being, we don’t think it’s our looks or our name. We think there’s something else and that, whatever that is, seems indivisible.
So I never responded well to when somebody would say to me, there’s a possible world right now where you do X. I’m just responding, no there isn’t, because we are quibbling over the definition of the word “you.” If there’s something in another universe that looks like me, has my name, that other people call Sergio De La Pava and is doing something, that’s great, but whatever that thing is, it’s not me.
I address this in the book; whatever you want to say about that person and how weird that situation is, it’s not me. It’s your clone. Fine, it’s my clone. It’s a clone of me. It’s not me. Everybody feels this way if they take the proper time to think about it, which is, whatever you want to say my physical body or whatever you want to call it — a mind, you want to call it, a soul, whatever you want to call it — it feels indivisible.
We’re going off on a huge tangent. I was watching a movie the other day with time travel. Not a very good movie. The Time Traveler’s Wife. And Eric Bana goes to when he was a child and there was a bad car accident. You see him address his eight year old self. Now, this is going to sound stupid, but that’s just impossible. And I don’t mean impossible like there’s no time travel, I get that. There’s only the individual and whatever he goes through and whatever he’s addressing, he can’t be said to be addressing another individual that’s himself.
I’m not making this perfectly clear, but even within the rules of science fiction and even within the rules of wildly speculative things like time travel and the multiverses, I think the rules of logic have to be obeyed even if you can invent a technology that does it. You can’t invent a technology that makes it that I don’t exist. What I’m saying is, similarly, you can’t invent a technology or even posit one that makes it so that there’s another individual who is also me.
You’ve talked about the improvisational quality of your writing. In the novel, you allude to both Joni Mitchell and Joe Satriani, and you also incorporate official documents into the body of the book. Do you view those as soloists in their own way, or each instrument getting its own moment in the spotlight?
Yeah. I think that can be a useful analogy. What I envy about music is not its freedom. I feel like I have more freedoms than they have, to be honest with you. What I envy from that is their kind of accessibility, if that makes sense. It’s a lot easier for me to bring you into a conversation and say, you’ve got to listen to this new artist, you’re not going to believe how good it is, and probably within ten, fifteen seconds you’ll say, oh, I like this — or, I don’t like it. I envy that kind of ease of education that comes with that.
If I want to convince you that there’s this great new novel that’s out there, I have to hand you a book and maybe talk to you three weeks later and maybe you’ve done the work, but more likely life has prevented you from doing that. I’m not even speaking to my viewers in particular, because you probably read a lot, but most people don’t read. But everybody listens to music. It’s on the radio, it’s there when we’re shopping for shoes. It’s ubiquitous and it’s easily accessible not just technologically speaking, but mentally speaking. Right away you kind of start making up your mind.
Now, really good music requires repeated listening to make your mind up, but there’s an element in which music just kind of smacks you in the face and asks to be dealt with in a way that novels and literature just don’t. So maybe that’s why I’m constantly going back to music as a way of simplifying discussions of artists and things of that nature.
With respect to found documents, to me, it just feels more genuine to me to include an actual grand jury transcript, or an actual 911 report, than to have a character describe it or to have a narrator describe it. That, to me, is more artificial than literally giving you the document — you, meaning the reader — and letting you process it the way you process things in the real world. When people don’t sum things up, you come across documents. You see actual maps or you read a transcript, et cetera. While it may be, I think, that the average person says, well, that’s a little transgressive and odd and not what we’re used to. I think it’s the opposite. I think it’s actually less artificial to do it that way.
I’m always interested in what the world of a novel is in relationship to our world. Like I said, I could go way off the deep end here and tell you that I don’t draw the greatest distinction between the reality of the people I encounter in my day-to-day life and fluidly alive literary characters.
Was it difficult to write the documents that were in the novel and make them feel both genuinely like the transcripts of what they are and parts of the book?
It’s not that different from everything we do. When you write a long novel, you’re always mimicking. You’re always putting yourself into another head space that’s not your natural one. Most of the documents that I think are found in Lost Empress are 911 tapes or incident reports of grand jury — these are things that I’m familiar with from my other career. Well, I guess there’s that medical stuff that I’m not so familiar with. You educate yourself a bit and it’s interesting and fun. I don’t think it’s particularly difficult.
In your previous work, you’ve also dealt with legal issues. To what extent do you need to balance your work as a public defender with your work as a writer? Do you keep a wall between the two?
I do try to keep the things separate. There’s some overlap between the two things. I do view them as separate, or…. what’s that Stephen Jay Gould article, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria”? About religion and science? I kind of feel that way about the practice of law and novel writing or fiction writing. I try to keep those two worlds separate.
You recently published an op-ed about the discovery process. Is that something that, for you, exists between the two?
I mean, it’s writing. It’s non-fiction writing. Generally, for some reason, I struggle with it. Not that I can’t do it, but I don’t enjoy it for some reason. It feels weird to me. The kind of writing that’s attractive to me is about freedom and expansion, and non-fiction writing quite often wears its intent on its sleeve and has a particular goal and is trying to maybe accomplish it, whereas with fiction it’s more of an exploration. I mean, I do it. That’s an example where my legal career kind of calls for an attempt to educate the average person who doesn’t follow the legal system too closely about this mass injustice that’s going on. Non-fiction writing, even in book form, is really not something I’m all that interested in exploring.
As you’re doing the exploration that comes with writing a novel, was there anything in Lost Empress that surprised you as you wrote it, or after you looked back on it?
You would think by now I wouldn’t be surprised by it, but I still find that I’m surprised by the interconnectivity of all human activity. I start by thinking, well, this is a completely unrelated thing. There’s no genuine connection, for example, between the NFL and Rikers Island. And then, the more you dig deep, you start seeing the way everything is connected. Not to sound too hippy-dippy here, but I do end up feeling like…. it’s like that game six degrees of separation. It’s like, if you keep digging, you keep looking, you will find a connection between things. That’s what I always end up being surprised by.
In this case, for example, when I started writing, I’m not sure I could have told you the first thing about Hart Island or the Dalí theft or Joni Mitchell’s music; these are things that I had a very vague sense about when I started writing and then by the end…. You mentioned the word surprise. Yeah, it’s surprise at how with just a little bit of minimal digging you can connect pretty much anything.
It’s like that game six degrees of separation. It’s like, if you keep digging, you keep looking, you will find a connection between things. That’s what I always end up being surprised by.
Did you have a good sense of Nina and Nuno before you started writing, or did that also develop over the course of writing the book?
I think Nina, right away. Right away I was like, what would it be like if the best football mind was a woman, and what kind of blatant sexism would she have dealt with and how would that have affected her and what kind of bitterness would it cause, to be the smartest person in the room and then condescended to for however many years? That, I think, I had a pretty early conception of. She’s just a powerful force that just drives from that.
Nuno was a little tougher to come by because I felt like with Nuno — and I don’t know how well this came across in the book — I felt like there was more than one Nuno and he’s going to show one or the other depending on the situation. When Nuno’s talking at Rikers Island to fellow inmates, it’s a different Nuno than when he’s writing in his diary. A different Nuno than when he’s, in essence, narrating on the intellectual history of humanity. There are different Nunos that suit each situation. There’s really only one Nina and she’s a madwoman. But that does make Nuno more difficult. That was more of a search.
It seems like he has a much more difficult go of it over the course of the novel, too.
Yeah, certainly. He is one of the close to two and half million people incarcerated by this country, which is…. it’s not number one, but it’s close to the most per capita. Yeah, he’s incarcerated for a long time. Some of his misery’s self-created. I do think that one of the flashpoints of the book is this kind of contrast. Early on, Nuno is on the bus being taken to Rikers Island, and Nina Gill’s playing the piano. Just sipping from a brand new snifter.
That’s American reality, man. Huge gap between those who are essentially going through life playing, as I would argue Nina is, and those who are basically just repeatedly being victimized. So that was a contrast that I was interested in.
Was it difficult to keep Nina as a fairly sympathetic character when she is someone who comes from this incredibly privileged, incredibly wealthy background?
I think we tend to be forgiving toward funny people. Rich people, they generally aren’t very funny, in my experience. They tend to be pretty humorless. I think part of what makes Nina…. even though she’s an acerbic wit, she is constantly displaying verbal wit. That tends to make us like people.
I think that, while Nina is certainly incredibly wealthy, my interpretation of it was that she’s never screwed anybody over to become that way. She was born into it. She was never all that interested in it. She loves football. She cares about achievement in this very bizarre and narrow segment of society, and that’s really her list of priorities. That, and having fun, in a way. Not somebody who is, in my opinion, actively exploiting others. Which I think is what turns us off to the rich: the notion that too often it feels likes the wealth is accumulated at the expense of others. And then the need to keep that wealth at the expense of others, is what we find offensive, generally.
Did the decision to set parts of the novel in Paterson, New Jersey, also come from the questions of class and economics that you were dealing with in other parts of the book?
Paterson’s a fascinating place. I went there a lot during the course of writing this novel. I think there’s a palpable energy there. It’s also a defeated energy, maybe. When you look at what Paterson was at one point…. it was a real hub of commerce and a genuine central city. It still is in many ways; it’s just changed with loss and sadness. That was always appealing. You dig into the history of Paterson. I knew Paterson mainly from William Carlos Williams; that’s obviously an outdated picture of the place, but certainly there’s a majestic feel to it, as odd as it feels. For a place that’s not doing particularly well, there is kind of the ghost of past majesty, and that, I found interesting.
When, in the course of writing the book, did the title come into play?
I feel like I had some other really bad titles. I like to start with a title and I chose a title pretty early, but I had some other weird shit that wasn’t good. Mainly, when I’m picking titles, whether I like the sound of it is 99% of it. If I like the sound of it, then I’ll figure out why that’s the title afterwards.
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This interview has been edited for clarity.
Editor: Dana Snitzky