I’m sure you know the immense satisfaction that comes from thinking a book sounds right up your street and finding that is indeed the case. That happened to me with Christopher Bollen’s second novel Orient, a sophisticated murder mystery set on Long Island. It has everything I most enjoy about contemporary American fiction and is one of my Fiction Hot Picks 2015. I’ve wanted to visit Long Island since the time I got the most stunning view of it flying into JFK and if all goes to plan I will make it out there later this year. Until then, I’m delighted to welcome Chris to the Literary Sofa to whet my appetite and yours, whether for a real trip or a fictional one (my mini-review follows):
I have come to realize I suffer a rare condition: perfect contentment in writing in Manhattan. I’ve never understood the age-old lament that it’s impossible to get decent writing done in the city due to all of its distractions and noise—as if we’re outdoor rhythmic gymnasts whose routines keep getting interrupted by traffic jams. I’ve written both of my novels—Lightning People and now Orient—in the cramped bedrooms of rented downtown apartments, at a tiny walnut desk, more often than not, five feet from my mattress. In fact, I think I would find the country, with its wide, open expanses and no doubt endless supply of garage sales, too enticing a diversion from the grind of me at the computer screen.
That being said, the idea for my second novel actually sprung from a trip out of town. I was finishing the edits on my first book, and some friends had recently bought a country house in Orient. Orient is a quiet fishing village on the far North Fork of Long Island—located at its tip and connected to the rest of the island by a long, narrow causeway between the Long Island Sound and Gardiners Bay.
I had already been to Orient for summer weekends several times, freeloading at the rentals of artist friends who had refused the usual city migration to the South Fork (with its crowded, obscenely expensive Hamptons beach communities) and who had staked out the tranquil, under-the-radar North Fork as a potential art haven. For a few years, my friend, the artist Wade Guyton, had rented the converted stables of the former Bird’s Eye (as in frozen vegetables) estate. The ramshackle house overlooked a settlers’ graveyard, and while we were all convinced the place was haunted, I’m afraid I was usually so drowsy with wine by the end of the night that I felt no otherworldly visitations even if the ghosts did come calling.
But for this trip, I was going to a different house alone. I drove my rental car east on the Long Island Expressway, crossed the causeway, and found the tiny, two-story clapboard on the edge of the historical village that would be mine for an entire week. Maybe I had misjudged the peace and quiet of the country; maybe the city and my slowly perishing air-condition unit was conspiring to keep me from great reservoirs of literary flow. The house’s interior had already been stripped of its past—the trim and wallpaper gone—and had yet to be renovated into its next life. But I liked the emptiness of the rooms, with the yellow sunlight pouring through the hand-blown glass panes, and out the back was a view of long sword grass blowing in the fields and the blue ribbon of the Bay studded with sailboats.
After I took a ten-minute walk to the general store, the only real store in Orient, with a grumbling shopkeeper who made excellent fried-egg sandwiches, I returned to the house and set a wicker table on the back porch. There I got to work, often glancing up from my Word document to marvel at the beauty and silence of the landscape: birds and deer and the hypnotic, fluttering branches of a maple tree. I couldn’t believe how close I was to the city, but a million miles from its chaos. I felt lucky and envious at the same time. This is what I had been missing, not just as a writer but as a human being—the nature, the animal air, the ability to walk on grass without a subway rumbling twenty feet below it. A passing neighbor waved to me. I waved back as if it were a normal activity: waving at neighbors, smiling, going about one’s day in a yard by the sea.
Then the night crept in. Darkness swallowed the house. I turned on the few lamps there were, and the walls, which had looked so provincially charming by day, were slashed with marks as if some previous captive had tried to claw his way through them. The stairs to the upstairs bedrooms were broken and slanted, like the staircase in the cannibal-family home in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most of the light switches didn’t work, and the ones that did involved chains hanging mid-way into rooms, forcing me to swat for them in the dark. And the sounds—out the window was total blackness, but strange noises, squeaks and invisible bodies moving through bushes spooked me to the point that I actually took a knife from the kitchen and carried it up to bed.
The house had stood empty, and now it wasn’t, evident by the light in the windows, and I suddenly felt very vulnerable for my absolute unfamiliarity with the village or its ways of escape. I knew I was being ridiculous—me, who had lived in some of the worst crime-ridden neighborhoods in New York and occasionally forgot to lock my apartment door at night. I simultaneously wanted to burst out laughing and push a dresser against the bedroom door just to ensure the killer couldn’t easily murder me while I slept. The thing is, I had never spent a night alone in the country before; the sounds of a house settling or raccoons digging through the garden were entirely foreign to me.
It was an awful night, I barely shut my eyes, and simply going to the bathroom stirred up all of the horror-movie conventions I had unknowingly memorized since childhood. And then, when morning came, there it all was again: the peaceful, beautiful, benign Orient, neighbors waving, the water sparkling, a child riding a bike. I had always wanted to write a murder mystery, being something of an Agatha Christie fanatic in my pre-teen years. It dawned on me on that weeklong visit that Orient was a perfect place to set a series of disturbing crimes—a village connected to the mainland by a slender thread of road, and a community undergoing a strange gentrification of rich, city artists buying up weekend houses from families that had lived there for generations. I was struck by my own embarrassing experience: a dream by day, and a nightmare after the sun went down. That trip was really the impetus for the novel that became Orient. I visited Orient continually for research. But I wrote most of it in the safety of my East Village bedroom.
Thanks to Chris for this fabulously atmospheric piece and for drawing such an interesting distinction between the setting of his novel and the place he actually wrote it.
IN BRIEF: My View of Orient
Unusually for a novel I enjoyed this much, Orient didn’t disengage my critical radar but had it buzzing with activity, picking up all the things I admired. This was an inspiring read for me as a writer – 600 pages’ worth of tense and complex storytelling in which I found one solitary stumble in pace. I read for hours on end and whenever I had to put it down I couldn’t wait to get back to it. The writing is crisp, stylish and assured, the plotting maddeningly clever and the depiction of small town life, with all its dramas and relationships, engrossing. But above all, it was the superb characterisation and intriguing dynamics between drifter Mills Chevern and local host Paul Benchley that hooked me and kept my interest to the final page (and what an ending it is!) Orient has been praised by A M Homes and Joshua Ferris, two of my favourite American novelists. Christopher Bollen is undoubtedly in their league.
*POSTSCRIPT* Next week I’m joined by Paul McVeigh, author of The Good Son, who will be sharing his experience of writing a novel with a ‘difficult’ setting – in this case Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
OPEN SOFA… Do YOU fancy appearing on the Literary Sofa? As things have been too frantic to take a break, I’m going to hand the Sofa over to volunteers for a few weeks from late April whilst I prepare my Summer Reads selection. If you’re any kind of writer (up-and-coming, self-published, world famous) or publishing professional with something interesting to say that hasn’t been said on here before and you’d like to share some top quality content with my readers, do get in touch via the Comments or on Twitter @isabelcostello.