Frank Lentricchia is the author of the new novel Manhattan Meltdown. His other books include A Place in the Dark/The Glamour of Evil. He is the Katharine Everett Gilbert Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Literature at Duke University, and he lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Q: Manhattan Meltdown begins with the Covid pandemic. How long did it take you to write the book?
A: Actually, the novel was begun two weeks before Covid hit here. I had two characters, friends from childhood, go to Manhattan with secret purposes unknown to each other.
Once there, and Covid hitting NYC hard, I needed to take account of the Covid context for them and a number of other characters. How could I not? Covid became the unavoidable environment for my characters—though not the be all and end all of their lives, although for one of them it was the end.
The novel was written in a white heat, as the saying goes. About six months. For the first six months of the pandemic, I was having a great time sitting at my desk, totally swept away by the process of my composition, just as I always am when I am at work -- morning, afternoon, evening.
In other words, the pandemic was having no impact on me personally because I was consumed by the creative process. Unfortunately, the novel came to an end, but the pandemic had not.
Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I did not know how the novel would end before I started. The truth is, I know very little when I begin. And do not want to know.
Writing for me is always a process of discovery in writing -- an organic adventure, wherein I learn surprising things about the characters, and what the plot might be.
The great pleasure of writing for me is not knowing and having things jump off the page AS I write. I have always considered knowing in advance as equivalent to a kind of death.
Vital life for me as a writer is the life that springs upon me, in the process of making sentences. That’s how I, with great happiness, lose myself as I become part of something bigger than myself inside a world of imagination.
I revise relentlessly. Each and every page. The finished book represents the last of many, many drafts.
Q: You begin with an epigraph from W.H. Auden's "The Fall of Rome." Why did you choose to include that?
A: The epigraph from W. H. Auden encapsulates what I have always thought was true: the natural world is indifferent, does not give a damn about what we self-annihilating humans do to ourselves and to the natural world because the natural world will in the end survive us and evict us from the planet. In the end, we are aliens, an incurable disease.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I would hope that the book reminds its readers that, while Covid has been, and is, an appalling crisis, the troubles that we had in our individual lives before Covid and during Covid will persist after Covid.
The troubles that grip my characters in the pandemic -- uterine cancer, failed romantic relationships, the deteriorations of old age -- are inescapably human.
If we and our friends and loved ones were not infected, and survived, we nevertheless will have to deal with “all the ills that flesh is heir to,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet says in his most famous monologue. Covid or no Covid.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am in the earliest stage of a novel that will explore a cruelty embedded in immigration that I have not seen anywhere written about, and that has nothing to do with the cruelties visited upon immigrants by their home countries or by the Orange Monster.
I must not and will not say any more about it because I do not want to risk killing off this as yet unborn baby.
Q: Anything else we should know about?
A: Travel has always been a trigger of writing for me. Movement for some reason has always put me in an imaginative space. Now, of course, with the raging Delta variant, travel is not the smartest idea.
Nevertheless, I may take my chances and return to Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina, where 30 years ago I started as a fiction writer. May take my chances? I think I’ll do it.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb