Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Q&A with Casey Walker

Casey Walker is the author of the new novel Last Days in Shanghai. His work has appeared in The Believer, Boston Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Last Days in Shanghai?

A: The initial inspiration for the book was China itself, which I first visited in 2007. Though I’d lived in New York City for several years, I found myself entirely unprepared for the scale and energy of cities like Beijing and Shanghai, utterly amazed by their speed and intensity and size.

I knew that I couldn’t write about China as any kind of insider, but I also knew that part of what I wanted to capture was the shock of outsiderness that hits a new visitor.

So I decided the book should be narrated by an American who has never been to China and doesn’t really understand it. It felt honest to write out of that sense of confusion and awe and distress. 

What took me some time to figure out was a story I could tell that would be able to collect together the aspects of China I was so interested in.

I settled on a political junket because it allowed my characters a great deal of motivated movement through the country, as well as a glimpse of China’s political workings, at the processes that were driving all this upheaval. 

Q: The book paints a grim picture of politicians, both in the U.S. and China. What inspired your main characters, and why did you decide to focus on corruption as one of the themes in the book?

A: The more I read about China, particularly with regards to its urban development, the more it became clear that much that was happening in these cities was happening through a mostly secret, and often deeply corrupt, political process. 

Ordinary residents were being, quite literally, bulldozed out of centuries-old homes in Beijing, and the dislocation in Shanghai was just as staggering.

Sometimes whole neighborhoods would be destroyed but the building project slated for the site would be so spectacularly corrupted by developers and government officials that what would be left was just a hole in the ground or a few empty buildings.

But this is an old story, and not just a Chinese problem—if you look at any comparable project in the United States, like the building of the railroads, you encounter corruption and deception every bit as awful.

A few people in positions of power get spectacularly rich and a lot of other people suffer—that seems to me the essence of corruption. 

I spent plenty of time reading court papers about American congressmen and senators who’ve been prosecuted on corruption charges, and most of those stories are so shameless and stupid that they’d be scarcely believable in fiction—readers would dismiss it as cliché. And yet, it’s all true: the money in freezers, the golf junkets, the shady business associates.

Our political system has plenty of virtues the current Chinese system lacks, but no one has a monopoly on corruption.

Americans are very quick to acknowledge a rigged election abroad or something as hilariously corrupt as the infrastructure building in, say, Russia before the Sochi Olympics. But when it comes to our own politicians, we still treat it as a problem of the corrupt individual, and are slow to recognize the systemic nature of the fraud.

I wanted the novel to show characters embroiled in a system that can defeat even well-meaning impulses.

Q: On a somewhat related note, the novel also highlights the dynamics between powerful bosses and those who work for them. Why did you choose to include that as an important topic?

A: There was a time in my mid-twenties in New York City when it seemed all my close friends were assistants to vaguely tyrannical (or actually tyrannical) bosses. And this was true across industries—in finance, in the arts, in politics. 

You can tell an immense amount about a person by how they treat the people they’re not obligated to be nice to, and horrid boss behavior struck me as a mark of low character that would be useful for a novel. The assistant role is also interesting because the boundaries blur so quickly and professional responsibilities bleed into personal ones. 

So, I used the experience of certain friends, and I also read memoirs by people who had been assistants to powerful people. (Chairman Mao’s personal doctor, for example, wrote an outstanding one called The Private Life of Chairman Mao.) 

As it happens, I had a very close friend who worked for a long time as an assistant to a congressman—though I want to be very clear that the man he worked for was a more decent person than the congressman I invented.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: The very end of the book—the last chapter—stayed more or less the same across drafts. I knew where I needed the character to end up and I had a sense very early on of where his own corruption and complicity would finally lead him. It takes a long time for the narrator to finally correct his own self-image and acknowledge in some way what he’s done. 

But while the last chapter never changed much, the events that lead the narrator to his final self-reckoning, especially the events from the middle section of the book onward, changed nearly constantly. It was a difficult process. I was still finalizing and rewriting fairly large changes until very late in the editing process.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The novel I’m working on now will sound much different than Last Days in Shanghai, but it’s more a geographic departure than a thematic one. 

I grew up along the California-Mexico border, and I’m finally starting to write about the towns and communities that are separated by that international line.

I can’t say too much about it yet, just from superstition on my part, but I will say it continues my interest in corruption and accommodation in chaotic places.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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