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
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and now it's just sadly--for me, anyway, outdated.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
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