No Man an Island: Christopher Bollen on the “Bodily” Thriller

All of us can fall into some very odd Google holes when we can’t sleep. But for author Christopher Bollen, his insomnia-fueled searches actually became the foundation for his most recent thriller, The Destroyers. “Be it murder or parasailing accidents, I will read about how people found their end on resort islands, forever,” he admits. “It’s fascinating what kind of trouble people wander into while they’re supposed to be having the time of their lives.”

The Destroyers, Bollen’s third novel, follows Ian, a trust fund kid, who finds himself written out of his father’s will and in need of money and, arguably, a good time. Ian’s desperation leads him to Patmos, a Greek island where his elusive but charming childhood best friend, Charlie, now lives. When Charlie offers Ian a lucrative job working for his luxury yacht company, it seems like Ian is set to spend an idyllic summer in paradise; but there are sinister forces at work on the island, and Charlie’s yacht company is not what it seems. Soon after Ian’s arrival, Charlie goes missing, and Ian is forced to answer not just to Charlie’s loved ones but to his nefarious business partners, including a Mercedes-driving priest, who all want to know when they are going to get paid. The book also delves into the more pressing and timely matter of the global refugee crisis, as Syrians begin to literally wash up on the shores of the tiny island, looking for shelter or safe passage to other parts of Europe. The Destroyers is a tense page-turner, but one with a deeply humanitarian pulse that asks the reader to face the destructive machinations of capitalism head-on.

I spoke with Christopher in an outdoor cafe in SoHo on one of those warm and, dare I say it, Patmos-esque summer days, about the challenges and joys of genre writing, navigating desire in male friendships, and of course, the apocalypse.

The Barnes & Noble Review: What about the mystery/thriller genre is interesting to you? Do you feel like that genre accurately describes the worlds you are writing in?

Christopher Bollen: The way that I went from reading as a child to reading as an adult was purely through Agatha Christie. In fifth grade, I remember discovering her books and becoming completely obsessed to the point where my teacher actually told me to stop reading in class. At one point, we had to make a quilt of one of our heroes, and I chose Agatha Christie. The way that a child might love horses or dogs was how I loved Miss Marple.

But I never intended to write mysteries as an adult. I was initially only thinking about the literary, agonizing sagas one writes in their early twenties. In the first novel I wrote, Lightning People, there is a murder, but it’s not a mystery. Orient, my second novel, was my first murder mystery proper. The hardest part of writing a murder mystery was giving myself permission to write a murder mystery. I was still under the impression that murder mysteries were too genre-y. But then I thought, “That’s absurd, go where the water is warm.” The Destroyers is not so much focused on a murder, though there are murders, but it is a thriller. I never want to write a whodunit it again. You feel so much pressure to keep so many different story lines going at the same time and not reveal your cards.

BNR: What was so impressive to me about The Destroyers was how you managed to render literally dozens of full and complicated characters.

CB: I’m glad you said that, because I feel like I write from place and character. Characters are so important to me, and I think as soon as you start saying “genre” people imagine these cardboard cutouts who come in purely in service of the plot. I never want to do that. But I am naturally drawn to that genre and to the feeling of suspense or dread, and to those sensations in writing, to the point where I worry that it will be hard for me to withdraw from mystery/thrillers.

BNR: When you were writing did you feel that fear in your body? Or was it a different kind of fear?

CB: [Laughs] Right, well there’s always that absolute horror and dread that you’re failing miserably with your writing, but in The Destroyers, there were scenes that were frightening to write. I wouldn’t say I felt the fear of those scenes, but I felt that tingling sense that I was creating something weird, and that’s always a good place to be in. As soon as you’re bored of your own sections, you know the reader is going to be much more bored than you. I really write best from a feeling of momentum, and I think thrillers are like a built-in engine.

BNR: What was your interest in locating The Destroyers in Greece?

CB: I’d written two books about New York and about people who were really unsatisfied and moping. I wanted to write a book about people in the sun. People who weren’t wearing a lot of clothes and were swimming all day. I had just been in Patmos for the first time because I was really interested in the Book of Revelations as a kid. Patmos was a place that seemed infinitely fascinating, because it had the Cave of the Apocalypse, and these rich Europeans, and hippy backpackers, but it wasn’t like Mykonos, which is just a party island. So for me, it pressed all the right buttons.

But I had a really hard time with the book at first because I had never written in first person. I’m used to brain hopping because I get really bored with one character. And at first, I hated Ian [the narrator] and wanted to kill him. He’s really judgmental, especially in the way he sizes people up. But the reason I wanted to do first person is it allows you to really take on the perspective of an outsider coming to this island for the first time and knowing as little as the audience knows. When you’re on vacation, especially in a foreign country, you’re pampered but you’re so vulnerable. You don’t know where anything is, you might not even know how to call the police. I needed to stick with that perspective in order for the book to work.

BNR: Once you decided it was going to be based in Patmos, what was the research process like?

CB: I had never written about rich people before this book and I don’t come from wealth, but, like anyone in New York, I have friends who are from a lot of money and they fascinated me, the way in which an ecosystem develops around their wealth, and I have a sense that I can rely on them if something goes awry but also never mention that they’re wealthy. So Greece seemed like a great place to explore that fascination, because it has all of these people running around with a lot of money.

If you go before August, people are much more open to talking to outsiders, because by August they are just super bored with the glut of tourists. So at some point early in the summer during one of my trips there, I met this billionaire Italian who said he was “in finance” — whatever that meant — and I needed to know for the book if they checked your passport if you came by yacht from Greece to Turkey and vice versa. So I brought it up with this Italian man and he was just like, “Let’s take my boat to Bodrum and we’ll see.” So we sailed to Bodrum [in Turkey] the next day on his mega-yacht and sure enough, if you sail somewhere in a luxury boat, they don’t check at all.

BNR: How did you decide to include the refugee crisis in the book?

CB: The refugee crisis happened the last time I went to Patmos, at the same time Greece was in peril of bankruptcy and was about to leave the Eurozone, and cash machines had stopped working. When all of that happened, I stopped writing for a short time. I had such a hard time deciding how much of current politics I wanted to put in the book. I think there’s this idea with Trump where people think that books have to change and we have to write to this new time, and of course the danger of that is that books will be dated very quickly.

BNR: Although, including the refugee crisis feels really appropriate because we’ve reached a crisis point in capitalism and globalized labor and climate change such that a massive shift of populations will be happening for decades, if not longer.

CB: It’s like the death-of-the-planet time, or the saving-of-the-planet time. It’s funny, I started writing the book in 2014 during the Obama administration, and I remember thinking “Oof, writing a book about rich people with inherited wealth feels so out of touch with the moment.” But it just wandered backward into being really relevant. And now the word apocalypse comes out of people’s mouths on a daily basis.

BNR: You mentioned that you were obsessed with the Book of Revelations as a kid. What was your relationship to the Bible, given that it’s threaded through much of The Destroyers?

CB: I am not a practicing Catholic anymore and I try not to think about God, but I must seem like a religious fanatic, because religious themes keep creeping into all that I write, so maybe subconsciously, I am having a conflict with faith. Being Catholic had a huge influence on me in terms of how I think about morality — which I think came from having been forced to sit in two Masses a week from the age of seven to eighteen.

The Book of Revelations is actually much more popular in Protestantism than it is in Catholicism. I don’t think Catholics celebrate the end in the same way. We believe in heaven, but I don’t think there’s as much joy in the idea that people will be suffering while we’re lifted up. Catholics are ultimately a little bit sketchy and they know it. Because we — and here I go saying “we” like I’m still in the Church — have confession, so that we can wipe the slate clean. But that book always fascinated me.

I went to an all-boys Jesuit high school, and I took a class on the Book of Revelations where we read every chapter and then illustrated it. I still have the drawings somewhere of like, a woman on a seven-headed bull drinking wine, topless, and I hope that someone doesn’t find them because they will think I’m insane. But that book is so interesting because it became the template for how we conceive of destruction. The Four Horsemen, and 666, and the Beast with Seven Heads, and the Whore of Babylon, all of these characters are still so a part of our belief system about what the end of the world is like. And I like bringing the charge and fear of Armageddon to the book, because we all share in that fear.

BNR: I know that Charlie and Ian are straight, but did you feel like there was some sexual tension between them?

CB: Oh, totally. At first I wanted to make Ian gay, but then I was worried it would be too much like The Talented Mr. Ripley, even though I think Tom Ripley is a sociopath, not a gay man. I think there is something sexual and intimate between all men in friendships. There is a lot of noticing the body. I wouldn’t say there’s a heavy sexual dimension to all of my relationships with men, but there is moments of touching and noticing and momentary feelings of arousal. I wonder why it’s not mentioned more on the page. And again, I really was just interested in making things more bodily in this book. I often wonder if a reason why there’s a lot of depressed people in novels is because the writer is just sitting in a room alone for hours on end.

I remember in Lightning People, my first novel, I had a male main character who is straight and had a lot of problems, and I remember I wanted to make him also have a gay experience. The editor and everyone else who read it felt like it was too much turbulence to have happen to him. At the time I agreed, but now I look back and think it was a missed opportunity. I think you can have all these little lives in a life, and an experience like that doesn’t have to become a big plot point or a thesis statement on sexuality.

I’m working on a new novel set in Venice, and I want to make the main characters gay and also thieves. There’s a history of turning a gay character into a criminal and then of redeeming them and bringing them back into mainstream society. But nowadays it seems like you have to write gay characters as if they are almost these shiny volunteers of humanity. And I want to try to make a gay character who is dark without being depressing and without returning to criminalizing gay people.

BNR: I think you can write a queer person as a character without making their sexuality or the morality of their sexuality the main focus. But I also think it’s still very relevant to consider all the ways in which being a thief as a queer person would show up for a queer person. I always feel like I’m stealing something.

CB: [Laughs] Yes, that there’s been a crime and I’m about to be thrown in jail. Which we very well could be, one day.

The post No Man an Island: Christopher Bollen on the “Bodily” Thriller appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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