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Talking With Choire Sicha and Caleb Crain About Their New Books

Choire hopes people hate his book. Caleb just wants people to get his. Jane Hu spoke to the two of them—when they weren't talking to each other.
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Caleb Crain (left) and Choire Sicha (right). (PHOTO: JANE HU)

Caleb Crain (left) and Choire Sicha (right). (PHOTO: JANE HU)

Caleb Crain and Choire Sicha—two prolific New York writers of the same generation—both have books coming out on August 6. It will be Crain’s debut novel (he has previously published an academic book), while Sicha’s book—categorically non-fiction—is his first. As a fervid reader of both, Crain and Sicha sharing a publishing date was reason enough to speak to them. But there are a few more congruencies: Crain’s Necessary Errors and Sicha’s Very Recent History each focus on a single year during a particular historical moment (the former in 1990 Prague, the latter 2009 New York City). Both writers are also gay men, as are their protagonists (Crain’s Jacob and Sicha’s John). Past these similarities, though, the books are vividly different in style, tone, and focus—not to mention genre. Still, when we gathered for a joint interview at a pie shop in Gowanus, there was plenty to discuss. Sicha and Crain had read one another’s books prior to our conversation, and, both being seasoned reporters, had questions for one another as well.

Can we start by talking about process? How long did it take you to write the book?
Caleb: It took me five years to write the novel, and another year to edit it, and a year waiting out the publication process. So I started it seven years ago.

Choire: It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?

Caleb: It is insane, yeah. This is your first book too, right?

Choire: Yeah. Aaaand last!

Caleb: I had an academic book but it was nothing like this.

Choire: Well the thing about fiction is, you’re sort of—I mean I’m sure you want to fuck with sentences, even at the last minute—but when you’re done you actually have a book. So publication actually really is just waiting it out. I had to do panicky last-minute fact-checks and stuff.

Caleb: Because so many of the things are actual true things.

Choire:Very true. So I was literally like, what horrible thing is wrong with this book? Which is such a bad experience. It took me forever too, though.

Caleb: How did you do the fact-checking?

Choire: Some of it was going back to tapes, some of it was going back to notes, some of it’s going back to newspaper archives.

I just listened to your Longform interview—you followed certain people around?
I ungraciously stalked and then was nosey about them as well.... I mean, the actual writing takes so long, doesn’t it?

How many years were you working on it?
Choire: I ended reporting on February 28, 2010? And I probably turned it in about a year, a little less than a year ... is that right? I don’t know, something about that feels wrong. I feel like I’m missing a year in there somewhere. I dunno, where am I!? The book was done in ’12. Done done.

Caleb: So have the subjects seen it?

Choire: Yeah, that was one of the final parts of the fact-checking. They all read it, and asked for very minor changes here and there, which was good! I was expecting so much more. [To Caleb:] You have elements of truth in your book. To the point where you had to speak to people?

Caleb: Um ... it’s a novel. I drew on my experience and my memories, but I wouldn’t have had the freedom to write it if it weren’t a novel. I confess I read your book thinking it was more of a novel.

Choire: Really!?

Caleb: And to realize that you actually did research and fact-checking and stalked people and interviewed them is fascinating. It’s also fascinating that people would want to share their lives with that level of detail.

Choire: No one really knows what they’re getting into. Maybe I’m misreading your book too. Because there’s this whole thing about gay novels where you’re like “Oh, well it’s thinly veiled memoir!” Which actually isn’t very fair, is it?

Caleb: No. I mean, I think, when I was a reporter, I remember thinking that there are times when you find out in the process of reporting certain things. And you realize, I just can never print this. The social reality is so complicated and so delicate that the whole process of fact-checking would destroy it. I feel like there are certain kinds of social reality that can only be portrayed on the understanding that it’s fiction.


Caleb: But maybe I’m being old-fashioned because it sounds like your book is more of an experiment than I realized.

Choire: I’m totally surprised, and this is happening over and over again. But I’m literally like, it says “Entirely Factual” on the front cover, and everyone thinks I’m joking or something. It’s filed under sociology in the library!

What genre is it? Just non-fiction?
It’s totally straight 100 percent non-fiction. Every quote is verbatim. There are no composite characters, nothing.

"I hate it. The idea of a writing workshop makes me want to throw up."

So how did you start writing it, if you didn’t have your information yet?
Choire: Very poorly.

You just scaffolded it?
I just listened to tapes. But it drove me crazy to report because I was like, I can’t manage this.

How many people read it before it was good to go?
Literally no one read it until there was a final [draft]. I don’t show anything to anyone ever. I hate it. The idea of a writing workshop makes me want to throw up.

[To Caleb:] So I’m not asking about non-fiction, but I feel like most fiction writers start with this idea of people saying things, and they hear things in their head and they write that down. Does that make sense? Is that where it comes from?

Caleb: I’m really bad at talking about it. I feel like I have to apologize for talking about it because it sounds mystical. But I’m just not fully present. I don’t feel like, um, I’m not sure how it happens. All I know is that I have to be well rested and show up and be in a room with no Internet.

Choire: Ooh, really? Fucking crazy.

Caleb: And you’re in a room for a few hours and maybe it will happen, and maybe it won’t.

Choire: Wow. That sounds amazing, but what happens if you lock yourself in your horrible dungeon and nothing happens?

Caleb: Well, that happens a lot actually.

Choire: Well then you’re like, fuck this day.

Caleb: Yeah, and it can be fuck this month.

Choire: Then five years later you have a book!

Everyone laughs.

Caleb: But eventually it happens. There were periods when I went weeks at a time where I’m not writing anything. And I’d be really mad at myself and get really depressed. But the thing is you eventually realize that work is happening unconsciously, just being there and sort of saying “This is what I’m doing right now.” And I would have to give myself permission to do nothing if that's what happened. But what you say about voices is sort of right in that I could sort of tell when I was forcing it because it wouldn’t sound like the right voice. If there was a line and it sounded like the person I imagined saying this. If the line sounded right then I knew it was right. You know what I’m saying?

Choire: Yes. So you know. So you can throw away a chapter, whatever, fine, shit happens. I threw away a lot of my chapters. They were terrible. Or worse. I’m a firm proponent of the turn-on-the-TV-for-half-an-hour mode of writing.

While writing, or in between?
You’re like, urgh, this is annoying—lettt’s watch an episode of Alias! And then your brain is working in the background.

You were writing the Awl while you were writing it. Did you write in the evening, in between blogging?
I took a week off once. It was bad, it was really bad. I can write a lot, that’s the thing. It’s not the way people are supposed to write. Though I guess it’s an older model too, where people would just write constantly. I feel like that’s very newspaper-hack-1935.

Caleb: I think there’s something to it, though. I used to worry, “Oh you shouldn’t write things unless they’re important and magical and special.” But now I’m like, “No, the more you write, the better.” And some of it’s going to be garbage and that’s OK.

Choire: Totally. I talk about the Woody Allen theory of making things a lot, where everyone should put out a shitty book once a year. In my ideal world it’d be like, “Here’s another book! It’s 12 months later! Blehh. Oh this one? Ehhh no one really likes it!”

Caleb: That’s how they used to write back in the early 20th century. People would just come out with a book every year or two. But they don’t publish quite as many books I think anymore.

Choire: But we could sort of return to that. The system’s sort of set up for that to happen again. I also think when you go back—when I reread Eating People Is Wrong or some book like that, I feel like they didn’t spend a long time on this book. Also they didn’t have the technological means to rewrite like we do. When Henry James was dictating at the end, he was like “Yeaah, good enough!”

Caleb: But then they’d see galleys. There’s actually a theory that having the printed version out makes it easier to rewrite.

Choire: I can believe that. I had a really hard time with the printed manuscript. It found it overwhelming, I didn’t know how to find—this is going to be the most pretentious thing I’ve said and I’ve not said it in an interview yet so prepare yourselves: There’s a palindromic structure to the book as well. So in galleys, in paper, trying to assemble that more clearly was difficult.

Caleb: What do you mean by palindromic?

Choire: Stuff happens toward the center. There are repeating chunks that sort of circle in.

Can I ask about influences?
I think I was aware of Henry James, Christopher Isherwood. I feel like somebody like Elizabeth Bowen, like her prose has a certain kind of aura that I wish that mine had.

Yeah, she really does. And, I mean, not a lot happens in the Bowen novel, or the James novel. [To Choire:] Yours feels like a fairy tale.
Isn’t that weird? I was trying to write a science fiction book, really. I only like science fiction, but I can’t write fiction. I can’t make anything up. So I’m kind of forced to write science fiction that is non-fiction.

Caleb: Is that what the sort-of future anthropologist explaining our strange world [is]?

Choire: Yeah, I just think there’s this thing about being in New York when you’re young. And you moved here when?

Caleb: I moved here in ‘91.

Choire: I moved here in ’92—‘92 or ‘93.

You were very young.
We were young! And it was terrible in New York. But there’s that sense of ... we moved here at a much better time than it is now to live here. Thoughts?

Caleb: It was a very different time. It certainly felt more authentic in some ways.

Choire: When you moved here, didn’t you feel like you’d missed New York? Like it all happened.

Caleb: Yes. Like I think my first night here or something I went downtown and tried to find Mars or something, which had closed like a year before. And I found like, there was no Internet then, so when you’re new in town you just went somewhere to see if it was there. And it wasn’t there.

Choire: Yeah, I think about this a lot. It’s also changed the way you go out, and the way you associate with people, because when you go to a club now, people are just texting their friends to meet them there.

I loved what your book did with communication.
I liked that the guys in the book had a herding instinct for each other—they were constantly and constantly piling each other up, which is a thing that happens typically in your mid-twenties. I went out constantly! And we didn’t call each other on the phone. It was just “See you tomorrow.”

[To Caleb:] That’s how yours felt too.
Yeah, we were just “Oh we’ll go to X; we’ll go to here.”

Choire: You would go to the same places every week.

Caleb: And complain about how it was always the same people.

Choire: It sucks for kids today, it’s a nightmare! But probably—it sounds great! I would have loved to have cellular devices. I remember when we got pagers in the ‘90s; we used to page each other different codes for different bars to go to.

"That’s something that the novel is supposed to do—is capture the way people actually talk, rather than the way they’re supposed to talk, or the way they used to talk."

Did either of you have a reader in mind when writing the book?
I didn’t have a reader in mind in any strategic way.

Choire: Would you have liked your book when you were 22?

Caleb: Yeah, but I would have been mad at it for having been there before me. But yeah, I think you write the book you want to read, in some ways.

Choire: Have you had anyone tell you they don’t like it yet?

Caleb: Not yet.

Choire: I’ve had like one bad review. It was kind of great—it was actually nice to get that done first.

Caleb: Well, there was one other review where they just didn’t seem to get it? And I was like, “OK, that’s OK.” I mean I can say I’m prepared for that, I’m sure I won’t be. But I feel like there are going to be people who just aren’t going to get it, but that the people who do get—they will really like it, and that’s all I care about.

Choire: I wrote my book for like 80 kids who are probably still in middle school. Y’know, depressed 14-year-olds who will need to find this book.

Caleb: Who’ll be like “What’s it going to be like in my twenties?”

Choire: Yeah! Or be like “Wow” or “Ew.”

I hear a lot of Choire’s Internet voice in the book.
There’s some—yeah, I really flattened it out. There are no italics, very few exclamation points, and no parentheses. There’s a little undercurrent of vim and vigor.

Well, there are some exclamation marks, and you use the word “totally” a lot.
Well there was also this thing about recounting dialogue that I was really forced into this problem, which I’m sure Caleb found too—it helps that yours is in the past a bit—with representing dialogue. Because we only say “like.” And nobody just says “was.”

Caleb: No, I thought that was fascinating, especially now that I know it was transcribed representations of speech. But I was very jealous of the fact that you were getting this perfectly accurate dialect-speech down on the page. That’s something that the novel is supposed to do—is capture the way people actually talk, rather than the way they’re supposed to talk, or the way they used to talk.

Choire: And it sort of bleeds over, right? Like, how am I supposed to represent people speaking?

Caleb: Well, you do free indirect discourse. You don’t always have things in quote-marks.

Choire: No. There were moments I was trying to stay true to relaying conversations I wasn’t present at, so I tried not to quote.

Caleb: Right, but when you do that, you seem to be reproducing their voice.

Choire: Yeah, it was all relayed, but I wasn’t there. And I feel bad about attributing it.

Caleb: I mean, that’s why people like me misunderstand it as a novel—because that’s a core novelistic trick.

So I thought Choire’s was really funny, and I thought when Caleb’s was funny, it was really funny.
This is my question about your book too! How comic did you intend it to be?

Caleb: Well, I meant for there to be funny parts. You’re supposed to laugh at Jacob sometimes. I mean, the other characters laugh at him. I don’t feel like I’m a kind of slapstick guy, I don’t think I’m capable of writing jokes that are really funny. What do you mean though, “how” funny?

Choire: Sometimes I don’t know if books are comedy or not.

With both of the books, I wanted to know what you thought about the status of jokes. I didn’t know you meant it as flat as you did, because it felt really satirical.
I wanted it to be a little absurd. I also think the people in the book are funny.

Caleb: The perspective that you introduce, coming from the future and describing what’s happening. I mean it highlights the absurdity. You’re describing it in this sort of deadpan way.

Choire: Yeaaah, and I go back and forth between being super emo and wanting it to be like disjointing?

I guess I’m asking about jokes because, for a lot of it ... I don’t know how earnest or sentimental or nostalgic you meant it to be. Because at moments both were extremely tender and that’s when I run into the “How autobiographical is this?” How close are you to the protagonist?
Well, I think that if you want the reader to be sad, you also have to spike it with humor so that it feels safe. Like I think if you just paint with one color, nobody’s going to see the picture. You have to have a few colors in the palette.

Choire: There’s got to be a ... I mean, I’m so sappy and earnest at heart. It’s sad.

Your final few pages are really sweet.
The point with books like this is you’re like, “I wish someone would just fucking die already so I could just end this book.” You’re sort of waiting.

Caleb: At least in my memory, there’s something unstable about one’s identity if one is gay and in one’s twenties. And I think your book kind of captures that.

Choire: Did you have a bit of background anxiety noise when you were younger?

Caleb: Yeah. Yeah.

Choire: So that’s the kind of thing I was trying to get, that I think only gay people will get?

Caleb: That’s why I think your sociological frame works, because I think the straight reader might think that they know this world, and it helps for you to sort of defamiliarize it. Because it is a strange world; they don’t know it. And even gay people who read your book may not recognize that about their world. I did have many moments of recognition while like, oh yeah that’s right, being single in your twenties and being gay in New York....

Choire: Ooh it’s weird.

It felt like kind of a vacuum every time a woman showed up or straight person showed up.
Which is weird, I have to say I hated writing a book without women.

There are very few of them.
Yeah, very few and they’re very sweet, but I really kept them really in the background—and they’re really obviously very important. And honestly in this generation, which is really nice, you see what happens right now in gay communities, which is more and more integration. Like, I’ve been spending more time on Fire Island this summer and all these guys who are under 30 are filling their houses with women, which is a first. It’s actually really interesting—so they don’t care, they don’t segregate the same way previous generations tended to do.

Caleb: That’s very hopeful.

"I hope I get more scorn. I hope people pick it up and are very upset by it."

The three central women in Caleb’s book were all really different. They all had a really strong presence over the book and seemed very informative to Jacob.
Also for writers I think structurally it helps a lot. It’s really hard to read a book with all men.

Can I ask about the straight relationship [in Caleb’s novel]? I mean, obviously it’s included it because those two people are important to the story.
I’m really curious about the reactions different people will have to the different plots in the book because ... Choire, you say your book was a palindrome. I was thinking mine was a sonata, this kind of A-B-A or A-B-A'. So there’s a gay story, a straight story, and a gay story again. And a couple of the early readers, I just wonder, most straight readers focus on the story in the middle, or will they be interested in all three stories?

Do you think your protagonist is likable?
Another interviewer asked me about a moment where he thought Jacob was unlikable, and I just thought, Well, he’s supposed to be a human being, and people aren’t always likable. And I’m more interested in having them seem real than having them seem always perfectly likable. I do think Claire Messud is right, that that’s a terrible question to ask. Y’know, it’s a novel, not a popularity contest.

But how self-aware did you think Jacob is? I thought Jacob tried to justify everything he did, like even when he knew he was being a jerk, he would try to tamper that.
Well yeah, I didn’t expect the reader to buy all of Jacob’s self-justifications. I think of his self-justifications as part of his internal monologue, which the narrative represents, but we’re supposed to see it and also see through it. Things don’t necessarily have the meaning that Jacob thinks they have, and Jacob is at the beginnings of being able to see his own process of interpretation as itself fallible. The book is called Necessary Errors, right?

Choire: It’s actually a good title. I was thinking about your title. We actually both suffer from non-visual titles—or benefit from them! But people will be like, “What were those words?” They’re not visual. They’re very dry.

Caleb: They don’t bring an image to mind.

Choire: It’s a mistake in terms of packaging, but it’s a worthwhile mistake.

How many titles did you go through?
I never really had a good one ... still don’t like any of my other ones.

Oh, and why this book size?
Choire: It was a whim of my editor, which I’m into. He showed it to me and I was like, “Absolutely.” It’s weird.

Caleb: It looks like an obelisk from 2001 or something.

Choire: Do you have any regrets about your book?

Caleb: I don’t know. Let me come back to that.

Choire: I have two. First, I originally had, for my epigraphs ... I didn’t want to do the clearances for it, but I cut the lyrics to Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body."

And I’m sad because it would’ve inflected the book in a totally different fashion. I really wish I’d done that because it would’ve significantly changed the reading of it.

Are you in your book?
Yes. But I asked if you had regrets and you dodged.

Caleb: No, I guess, no. I’m happy that it happened. The whole experience is colored by the fact that I wanted to be a novelist a long time ago, and I’m 46 and pushing my first novel. I just feel like when you’re 46, you’re more sort of grateful that you got to do it, y’know?

Choire: [laughs] No “Best Under 30” lists.

Caleb: Not even “Best Under 35.”

Choire: Or even 45!

Caleb: Nope.

Are you thinking about next books yet?
: [To Caleb:] But do you want to spend seven years?

Caleb: Well, what other choice do I have?

Choire: Write. Faster.

Caleb: [laughs] Umm I don’t know, I’ve had ideas, but—

Choire: Have you had a conversation with your editor about the book’s success, or what success would mean for the book?

Caleb: Well, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who’s an editor, and he asked me what success would be for me. And I said if there was one review that seemed to get it. And he said that I was an incurable optimist.

Choire: Eh, that’s pretty sappy.

How would you gauge success?
I mean, anything except like scandal would be acceptable to me.

That’s pretty optimistic too.
Scandal would be it’s own success.

Choire: That would not be good. This was the only way I could create a book out of the process. I just sort of followed my instincts and kind of did what I wanted to do. I hope I get more scorn. I hope people pick it up and are very upset by it.

Maybe you do want scandal.
No, no, not scandal! I want, um, unhappy readers. I want people to be like, “Fuck this book.” It’s better than boring people, I guess. I have this phenomenal urge to be disliked.

Caleb: You have a very funny relationship to your book on social media.

Choire: Oh I do. It’s very hard; it’s actually very bad.

You’re almost condescending to it.
Yeah, no, I am. So I’ve finally settled on what I want to do, which is I will keep a link to it in my email footer, which is new. I will mention it on publication day, and, like, that’s kind of, that’s it.

Caleb: And how does your editor feel about this?

Choire: Oh, they’re good. The only thing that moves books I think is radio.

Caleb: I feel like I’m becoming my own hack.

Choire: Yeah, and that doesn’t feel good. And I feel like, why ... would you do this? You do and you don’t want people to read your book, right?

Caleb: Well, I want to be able to write another one so I want this one to sell, so I have to play along.

Choire: That’s the thing. That’s getting into the market! ... which is our ownnn market, which is awkward.

Caleb: Which is our own alienation and destruction.

Choire: Right! So it’s actually very troublesome.

Caleb: I haven’t really figured it out. I’ve sort of been watching your....

Choire: Don’t take my—you’re doing the right thing. You’re going to places where people buy and sell books.

Caleb: You mean the....

Choire: You’re going to actual bookstores, which is a really good idea. It’s very hard to give someone reasons to read a book, I find. It’s not solving any problems necessarily. But I don’t really have any reasons to say: “Read this.”

Caleb: Well, the writing that I’ve done up to now is being a critic, being a journalist, nobody does this to you; no one interviews you. And I don’t fully understand why, having written a novel, suddenly there’s this personal interest in me as a person. I guess I sort of understand it.

Choire: A novel is a news peg.

Have you read your Goodreads page yet?
Choire: Uh, I will not. [Speaking about the tape recorder:] Is this still on? Oh my god.

Choire Sicha's book party will be held at The Cock starting at 6:00 p.m. on August 6. Caleb Crain's book party will be held at Bookcourt at 7:00 p.m. on August 7.