What inspired you to write?
I started The Ugly while at law school, and my initial goal was to critique the idea of law. I was publishing law review articles and dating a professor, and in the process got turned off by academic rationality. I came to see storytelling as the most sophisticated form of thinking. I realized I loved ideas that are too complex to put in a box, whether the box is a bumper sticker or a tome like Being and Time. Heidegger never wrote the second half of Being and Time because, he said, he realized that Rilke had done it all better through poetry.
I came to see ideas as being meaningful only when they interact with people—real conflicted people, not Ayn Rand-style cardboard people—and stories as the only way to touch truly complex, open-ended ideas. It’s probably why I dislike plays: they tend to be closed.
If you can grasp an idea in its totality, it’s not a very interesting idea. To me, an interesting idea is one which can only be poked, not held, because it’s full of aporias and conflicting levels. Novels of ideas can get a bad rap sometimes because writers start off with prepackaged answers they want to present to the world. That leads to allegory or therapy or propaganda, not literature. I wanted a novel of ideas that started only with questions or approaches to thinking. And the characters in the book, though a little extreme, are real people with motivations that vary across situations. If they were flat, then both the story and the ideas would be flat.
These ideas took on a personality while I was sitting at a café in Prague—all quasi-surreal, existentialist books are born in Prague—where I was working as a summer associate for a French law firm. I’d spoken English at the café so I wouldn’t get questioned about whether I could really afford the coffee (it was shortly after Czechoslovakia split) and a Czech table next to me was making fun of Slovaks as dumb mountain men who grunted and threw boulders at each other.
I absolutely loved the image. When I was younger, I had a bad habit of playing dumb whenever I noticed someone make that assumption—I was large, drank too much, fought a lot, and had an East European love of the absurd that North Americans sometimes mistook for stupidity—and when I heard that dumb-mountain-man stereotype I wanted to run with it.
At the same time, Harvard Law School really was a very alien place for me at first, and the boulder-throwing image became a shorthand for this sense of mismatch. At one point in the book, my main character, Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth, gets an anonymous letter stating that his admission devalued the Harvard name for everyone at the school. That was, nearly word for word, taken from a real letter I received in my first year. It was a very careful place, where nobody knew if the person next to him or her might end up being a Supreme Court justice, or the president of some little country. Or big country. People who had lawyers for parents knew that the most valuable thing at Harvard wasn’t the education or even the name, but the connections—my roommate, for example, was Samantha Power (she was great; I’d never have made it through our Chinese Law class without her)—all in a hypercompetitive context. I preferred a directness that made me look like a caveman in comparison.
I thought it would be fun to bring a mountain man—not my half North Americanized version, but one distilled and fortified in the most remote mountain range in Siberia—to Harvard Law and see what happened. The incongruity of the clash between Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth and Harvard Law School was a natural driver for humor, conflict and cultural critique.
Did the inspiration to write come to you suddenly, or had you been thinking about it some time?
Writing itself was gradual, a way to protect the creative side of my mind -- I started by writing for the McGill Red Herring, an Onion or Harvard Lampoon type school paper. In law school, I wrote for the Harvard Law Record and became the head editorial columnist. As for The Ugly, the idea/inspiration came in a couple of stages -- first the thematic idea and then its manifestation as the story of Muzhduk.
How did you tell your story? In other words, did you use an outline, or just write your story from start to finish?
The process for The Ugly was ugly, and not one that I plan on repeating. I spent six months writing the book and 16 years editing it back under control. I had the main character, Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth. I had the setting, Harvard Law School. I had a few characters I wanted Muzhduk to meet, and I had a few ideas I wanted to bounce into each other through their interaction. But I had no plans as to how those interactions would play out.
When I was a boy I used to make cars out of Lego blocks, and then smash them into each other to see which was the better design. The winner would get fixed, the loser would get disassembled and replaced with a new design. I took a bit of that approach with the people, settings and ideas in The Ugly.
Did you receive any encouragement from family and friends, or did you work on your book alone?
My parents thought I was nuts to quit law in order to write fiction, especially difficult fiction that was unlikely to ever make much money. But they were supportive, as always. I had great feedback from friends when the book was in its beta-reading stage and tremendous support after it was published, trying to get the word out. But the day-to-day writing is in the end a very solitary act.
What was the most difficult part of writing your book?
I really wanted the book to work on both on the surface, the plot, and on a thematic level. And because it started off as a book of ideas with no answers, only questions slammed into each other, it quickly grew into a monster with too many things happening to keep track of.
Faulkner has a quote where he says you can learn how to write on your own, but everything will take twice as long—I’d never taken a writing class, though I’d written for school and humor papers, so I tried to sign up for one. I ended up at MIT with Anita Desai, and, lucky for me, she was at the other end of the spectrum from me in terms of style, which means I learned a lot. And my girlfriend my last year of law school—Stacy McKee who went on to fame as a writer for “Grey’s Anatomy”—was doing an MFA at Emerson. She was always a fantastic writer and let me peek at her notes, taught me some basic craft, and gave me great feedback. To this day, I’m grateful. (I haven’t watched, but have been told there are elements of a brusque ex-wrestler named Alex Karev in the early seasons of the show that helped make it a fair exchange). But it took 16 years to carve back the essence of the book from the chaos I created in the first six months.
I’m a big believer in self-doubt. To write a book, you need to be confident enough to push through, yet you need enough self-doubt to make sure that you’re not just indulging yourself. When I worked as an art critic, I found that artists could get away with work about their own personal mythology because they were only asking for five seconds, not ten hours, of a person’s day. With fiction you have a much bigger debt to your audience.
At the same time, however, I wanted to write a completely different sort of book. To make the thematic layer of the book work I knew I had to break some of the rules of fiction, even though those rules exist for a good reason at the plot level.
Once you’re James Joyce, you can write Ulysses. Some people will understand it, some won’t, but those who don’t won’t blame Joyce for not being able to get it. You don’t normally get that credit until you’ve earned it. You need to make the book accessible enough for people to enter and balance out the idea of authenticity by making sure that you’re doing your job as an entertainer. That’s what makes it both fun and difficult.
It was still a big enough stretch that I had to go with a small press—and thank goodness for small presses, because they take all the risk these days in publishing. I was very lucky to find Brooklyn Arts Press. They won this past year’s National Book Award in poetry, and they were open to an unusual book.
The hardest part to write was overcoming my own personal blocks, maturing enough to find ways to bridge that gap between plot and theme, confidence and doubt, entertainment and authenticity.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing your book?
The first chapter, or prologue, with the Dull-Boulder Throw. The book only gradually gets more difficult, but the first chapter was just pure fun. I wanted to suck the reader in with something light and funny, and in the process I got to indulge my persona as the boulder-throwing mountain man while messing with the stereotypes of boulder-throwers being dumb. I’m a big fan of all sorts of tonal tension, so the lightest scene had to feature giant boulders. I actually have two movie-set (i.e., fake) boulders in my home office, suspended from the ceiling above my head while I write. I used them for the book trailer. That chapter was the impetus for the whole book, and it very much wrote itself.
Did you experience any personal transformation after the book was published?
After, no. During, in the process of attempting to solve problems, and going through endless revisions, yes, absolutely.
I was once asked whether any mountains were harmed in the making of The Ugly. I answered that Harvard doesn't blink, but my ego took some solid dents. Economics, law, those are all subjects where the rules of the game are explicit and more or less objective. Once you know the rules, it’s not hard to beat them. Writing is subjective, however, and it’s tough. Over and over I found that the limits to my writing ability were actually the flaws in my personality.
What’s something that gets in the way of your creativity?
Family, children, paying the electric bill, running out of coffee. Though the first two, and maybe even the third, also help generate it. Running out of coffee is terrible, though.
What strategies do you use to deal with criticism?
I'm a big fan of criticism. I don't learn much from praise, unless it's extraordinarily specific. I learn much more from criticism. I prefer it to be to my face and in time to fix any problems the criticism reveals, rather than after the fact on Goodreads, but I think there's nothing more valuable than criticism. That doesn't mean I listen to every critic. You can’t imagine the number of agents who told me something like
I love the book, if you cut the Africa scenes.
I love the book, if you cut the Harvard scenes.
They wanted two separate books. The whole insight or question in the book requires that juxtaposition, and if you cut one out it would be something else entirely. So I ignored criticism that, had I listened to it, would probably have landed the book with one of the Big 5. But it wouldn't have been the book I wanted--and thank goodness for small presses, because I think they do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to trying new things in fiction--but there was lots of other early criticism that improved the book tremendously.
The Ugly has been named the 2016 Somerset Grand Prize Winner and also has won the Overall Grand Prize Ribbon!
Yes, I received the awards in person. It was a lot of fun. The conference was in Bellingham, WA, which is not far from me - I live in Vancouver, Canada. This competition is open to all small publishers, university presses and independents - basically everyone other than the "Big 5". Overall they had thousands of entries from 33 countries.
Does winning of the Somerset prize in particular have any special meaning to you?
After I quit practicing law (I'm a recovering attorney), my first real article was a commentary in the Toronto Globe and Mail in early 2001. Their features editor at the time gave me the very first sign that maybe I wasn't insane to try and switch from law to writing when he said of my piece: "It reminds me of Somerset Maugham." So there's definitely a rewarding feeling of coming full circle.
The Ugly is also a double finalist for the 2016 Indies “Book of the Year” award (literary and humor), with the winners to be announced at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Chicago on June 24. One of the books that The Ugly is competing against is "Trump's America: Buy This Book and Mexico Will Pay for It" by Scott Dikkers who founded The Onion.
There are a dozen finalists, and I'm sure all of them are very funny. But I like frame it to myself as competing vs Scott Dikkers because I enjoy one-on-one combat/competition, and the stronger the opponent, the more fun. It's just the way my brain works, whether Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or chess or law or boulder throwing or humor writing. Even when I played rugby, I experienced the game in terms of one tackle at a time, not as a team sport. I kept it to myself, but I didn't care whether we won or lost the game nearly as much as I cared about the individual one-on-one encounters.
Thinking of it as The Ugly vs The Onion is both flattering and puts it into a concrete framework that taps into my primitive side. I've won a few prizes, including a PEN prize some years ago, but those all feel abstract and so it's hard to get excited. But beating someone whom I respect as much as I respect Scott Dikkers, that would be fun.
Are you currently working on a new book?
I am. But it's a simpler book than The Ugly. It'll be a fast-paced science fiction novel. The thematic layers of The Ugly were very important, and making them work together with the narrative took a lot of editing and many rewrites. It was a very complex book, which is why it both wins awards and doesn't sell as many copies as something lighter might. The next book will be lighter in terms of mental load on the reader, though politically dark. I'm Eastern European, after all. There needs to be some darkness and satire even in genre fiction.
Do you have any author appearances coming up?
Not right now. I just finished a number of readings and panel appearances at writers' festivals. As a writer you end up living in a hermetically sealed cave for most of the year, then emerging to suddenly try and re-learn how to interact with humans when it's time to market the book, and then climbing back into the cave. I've just re-entered my cave. I'll be back out, possibly for the Bread Loaf writers conference in August, but not for the next little while.
Where did you grow up and what is your favorite/worst childhood memory?
I was born in Kosice, Slovakia. We escaped when I was a kid--I had my eighth birthday in a refugee camp in Austria--and came to Canada six months later. I grew up in Ottawa. I think with this much hindsight, I have a hard time telling favourite memories from worst memories. The only distinction is strongest memories vs insignificant ones.
Tobogganing down the Austrian Alps on a mattress wrapped in plastic during a year without school, getting stopped by gypsies while walking to school at age six on my own and forced to drink a bottle of wine with them, so that I showed up at kindergarten drunk out of my mind, climbing Mt. Baldhead with my grandfather for mushroom picking and signing my name in the book at the top, getting caught in a storm during our escape attempt off the coast of Yugoslavia with the boat dead in the water and my dad throwing me and my two year old brother from one heaving boat to another that had come in response to our Mayday, lots off good stuff like that. Hard to pick one.
Do you have a favorite quote?
"The desire for security stands against every great and noble enterprise." --Tacitus
What is your favorite show on TV?
Breaking Bad, Rick and Morty, Battlestar Galactica.
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Fassbinder.
The Castle, by Franz Kafka
Who would you want to meet if you could? Dead or alive.
Kafka, if it’s just one. I’d love to see how his mind worked on daily things—we’d talk about the weather and aliens and slow people who drive in the passing lane—to see whether his ability to consistently open a weird existential sideways shift was just who he was, or whether it was a conscious intellectual move within the story.
But if I can choose more than one, I’d love to have a poker game with Kafka, Heller, Vonnegut, Musil, Borges, Joseph Roth, Hrabal, Bowles, Dostoevsky, Camus, Rilke, Conrad, DN Stuefloten, Jodorowsky, PK Dick, Frank Herbert, Fassbinder and Einstein for variety—and just listen to them trying to bluff each other.
Is there a talent you wish you had?
What’s something about you that would surprise us?
When I was 17 years old, I wrestled a 770-pound brown bear at the Canadian National Sportsmen Show. It was one of the last years that bear-wrestling was still allowed. When I started marketing The Ugly, I contacted the show asking if they had any pictures in their archives, and discovered that the bear’s name had been Sampson. By sheer coincidence, I had named my own son Samson (no “p”) 10 years earlier.
Describe yourself in 3 words!
Author, father, boulder-thrower.