The Beatrice Interview

Colin Harrison

" I had a choice of meeting the book deadline or getting the tooth fixed ."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Read the 1996 interview

"The writing of any book depends on a hunger, a desire, a passion," says Colin Harrison, as we escape the frenetic activity of the Harper's offices, where he works as an editor, by hiding out in a storage room. "You believe--rightly and wrongly--that the writing of the book will satisfy that hunger. That's why writers are able to torture themselves for long periods of's why we can write for years and stay up too late and damage ourselves to get the book out." In some cases the damage is literal; Harrison's dedication to his latest novel, Afterburn, caused him to lose a tooth. "I had a choice of meeting the book deadline or getting the tooth fixed. I couldn't do both, because the pain of getting the tooth fixed would prevent me from working on the book. So I chose the book." The novel tracks the intersection of Charlie Ravich, a former Vietnam POW who's become a major player in the global economy but would do anything for a son, Christina, a Columbia student turned gangster moll who's just been released from prison, and her ex-boyfriend, Rick Bocca, who tries his best to save Christina from the trap she can't see.

RH: How do you come up with three very different protagonists and decide to set them on a collision course?

CH: I began with Charlie. I had the Vietnam section, and then I had the Hong Kong section, and I knew I'd need a female character. I just happened to go to Bedford Hills for other reasons, and it came to me that I could start a character there. It'd be interesting to have the two characters from such different places; I knew that putting them next to each other would create tension in the reader's head.

RH: Some aspects of Charlie's character might be inspired by the story of John McCain, but clearly you spin him off into completely different directions.

CH: I was working on Charlie years before McCain showed up in the presidential races. I did come across McCain in the research [on Vietnam POWs], but the references to him were just as a Navy flyer. There were lots of POW stories to draw upon, to be inspired by. Charlie's an all-American in that sense. He has characteristics that are very American: he wants to make money, he's restless, he's damaged, he's learning how to reinvent himself.

RH: As in Manhattan Nocturne, your characters are very plugged into modern culture. Charlie's on top of the Internet economy, for example--is it because this stuff fascinates you?

CH: It all fascinates me. I read the business pages every day, and I read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times every day. Just being here in New York, in this river of information, naturally some of that stuff will find its way into the book. The danger of that is if I try to freeze the zeitgeist, in the future, the book will look very dated. I was probably most guilty of that in Bodies Electric, where I tried to grapple with the frenzy in the media industry for synergy and mergers. When the book was written, it was ahead of its time, when it came out it was dead on, and now it's just sadly--for me, anyway, outdated. It's almost a freezeframe of a lost era, the early 1990s.

RH: This book, like the last, is very much a New York City book. You're clearly still fascinated by the city and its multiple realities.

CH: I'm totally addicted to it, and I don't think I've even begun to scratch the surface of what's possible. Each book is an attempt to gather in some of those worlds in. Two sections of Afterburn are set in China, but it's still a New York book. Maybe that has to do with my evolving understanding of New York and its relation to other cities internationally. That said, the new book will be even more a New York book. It'll be very localized.

RH: Who are some of your favorite writers?

CH: That's hard for me to answer. I'm reading Martin Amis' The Information right now. I love John O'Hara's early work. I've read Updike, Styron, Mailer, Batman comic books...and I'm reading here [at Harper's] constantly. I read eclectically. I'm not one of those novelists who decides to read all of Galsworthy this year. My mind is not like that. My life is not structured that way. I can go highbrow, but it's not my natural place.

And I think that if you're writing about the world, you should get out and deal with the world. I do that as much as I can. It's as important as the reading. If you do nothing but read, and don't get into the world, you're inevitably going to replicate what you read. And that may be beautiful, but it could quite possibly be dead.

I usually don't have trouble with the material. My problems are with the form. I often worry that my chapters are not--usually, in books that are outward in their energy, form becomes difficult to sustain or control, because that's not necessarily how story works. In Afterburn, I was able to maintain an A,B,C shifting point of view for a while. I'd meant to do it all the way through, but at some point it breaks down. There's a stutter in there. That change, which the reader can process in maybe two seconds, can take weeks or months for me to figure out, tearing out my hair, diagramming the plot-- I had to ask myself: Are you trying to force the story into the form? And who cares anyway? You're trying to tell a good story, aren't you? But then I told myself that I'd gotten the reader used to the pattern, and that maybe I should have the self-discipline to sustain it. Well, maybe the stutter in the pattern is good for the reader. It wakes the reader up--things are going to change here, don't make any assumptions about how you're going to get the story.

RH: There's a very moral quality to your depictions of violence. You don't write gratuitous scenes. When violence happens in your books, it has grave consequences, both physical and moral.

CH: I'm glad you saw that. I've been criticized for being sensationalist and writing "mindless violence." I don't think the violence is mindless. It has causes that are very identifiable; in each case you know why the violence has been perpetrated. Some critics say that those scenes are sickening, and my reaction is, "Good. They're supposed to be." If you care about a character and then see this awful stuff happening to him, it should be sickening.

RH: In our first interview, we talked a little bit about being married to another writer [Kathryn Harrison], and about the support you offer each other. That must have intensified greatly in the years since we last spoke [during which Kathryn Harrison published The Kiss, a memoir of adult incest].

CH: The publication of The Kiss was difficult for us. While it may have been hard for me as a man, her husband, I was more or less able to separate out that reaction from my reaction as a writer, as a colleague. I absolutely insisted that she write the book, and I'm glad she wrote it. It was a hard thing, and I probably anticipated the reaction a little bit more than she did. We knew that there would be a storm--we were ready for the storm, we spent months preparing for it. Most particularly making sure our kids were not affected by it--that was our number one goal, and we succeeded in that. Time is in our favor in these situations--the attention comes and goes; that's the nature of all media buzz. The fiery dragon goes looking for other victims.

I think writing that book freed her up to write the next book that she needed to write. If you don't write the book you must write, not only is that book blocked, but all the books after that are blocked. Getting The Kiss out allowed her to move on.

RH: As writers, the two of you have established very different spheres as writers. It's not considered necessary to write about one of you and immediately discuss the other one, to present you as a writing couple.

CH: We did some of those writing couple things at the beginning, and it got old for everybody involved. We do such different stuff at this point--people invariably comment, but it's no longer the meat of their commentary. It should be incidental. I should be able to fall off the face of the earth, and Kathryn would be able to go on and have her work judged alone for what it is, and vice versa.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
John Banville | Complete Interview Index | Bradford Morrow

All materials copyright © 2000 Ron Hogan