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Interview: Nathaniel Rich Gives Us Some Tongue

By Jess D'Amico in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 25, 2008 4:45PM

Nathaniel%20Rich%20%28light%20color%29%20%C2%A9%20Mark%20Sch%C3%A4fer.jpgWhen Nathaniel Rich (yes son of Frank Rich and brother of Simon Rich) left his hometown of New York City for California to write his first book, San Francisco Noir the fiction bug was already in his head. While he was busy collecting information on the city and its legendary films, he was scratching ideas about languages and the idea of colossal writers on the back of his notebook, ideas aching to be explored. But he didn't tell anyone about them for five years.

Flash forward to now. Nathaniel's the senior editor for the Paris Review, and his first love of fiction, and that bug from San Francisco, have melded into his first novel, The Mayor's Tongue.

The Mayor's Tongue is a beautifully interwoven story about language and literature that dances from New York to Trieste, Italy, the cities as much a part of the story as the characters themselves. In short, there's an eccentric literary giant, Constance Eakins, gone missing, his close friend and biographer's beautiful daughter, who is the love of Eugene, an Eakins fanatic. The subplots and side characters are equally intertwined as the books descends deeper into a world less like reality and more like one of Eakins' fictional stories.

Nathaniel was in Chicago Tuesday to read part of the book and agreed to take part of his short time here, which also included the Cubs and Mets game and a trip to the Empty Bottle, talking to us.

Chicagoist: Your stories have strong connections to the cities they take place in. Have you been to Chicago before the reading?

Nathaniel Rich: I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago actually. My parents were obsessed, well, maybe not obsessed, but really enjoyed coming here when I was younger. I have a lot of friends out here too. I definitely plan on getting a hot dog from the Wiener Circle while I’m in town. I really like Chicago because it’s a city with this strong personality, a Midwestern conviviality.

C: Do you have any favorite places or memories of Chicago?

NR: I loved going to this restaurant, Gene and Georgette’s, when I came here when I was younger, and I always have to go to Flat Top Grill. I have an unnatural love of it that my friends don’t really understand. I was also at the first night game at Wrigley field, the Cubs and the Mets. Of course I was there to see the Mets, but Chicago’s probably the city I visit more than any city other than New York City.

C: People keep saying, no one reads anymore and people don't care about literature. As the editor of a print magazine and the author of two print books, what’s your reaction?

NR: I get kind of pumped touring because it’s really exciting to go to cities and see what the local literary scenes are like. To meet all these people who are passionate about reading. I think in New York people sort of get isolated and feel that’s the only place where things are happening, but it’s nice to take part in and dialogue with all these different people and places.

C: How did the idea for The Mayor’s Tongue come about? What was that process like?

NR: I was living in Italy one summer and working as an intern for a publishing company in Provence and had no money and was desperate to find a cheap place to live. I didn’t want to really tell anybody but I met with the editor and he said I could live at his place, which might have been creepy, but I didn’t have a choice. I slept on a fold-out chair in a kitchen. He wanted me there so he could learn English and he wouldn’t let me try my Italian. Somehow though, we had this uncanny understanding of each other. In the end though, my English got worse, because I was trying to speak to him and my Italian never got any better.

Later, I went to Trieste and the language barrier between even a normal Italian accent and the way they speak was astounding. It was really frustrating and I kept thinking about our desire to communicate with each other even through language barriers about love and literature.

C: You didn’t tell anyone you were writing the book for the five years it took you to complete it. Was that easier to do because you didn’t have deadlines? Or was the secret so juicy you had to hurry up and finish so you could tell everyone?

NR: It was really the only way I could do it because what I had for a long time was a bunch of abstract ideas and story lines and I had to edit down the insanity. One divergent plotline, which I really liked, was about Constance [Eakins’] memoir. I had to cut it though because it didn’t add enough to the plot to merit the confusion. There’s a fake fansite for Eakins’ work for the book and a lot of that stuff ended up there. [writer’s note: you can see that material here]

C: How does your job as editor for the Paris Review affect your writing?

NR: I know a lot of people feel the opposite, but personally, I feel that editing improves my writing and writing improves my skills as an editor. It makes me have a more critical eye on my own work and a more forgiving one editing. It’s humbling to work with both these young, bright, writers and also to interview these literary giants, legendary writers for Paris Review.

One thing that helps I think is that we’re a quarterly. I don’t think I could do it if I were a book editor who is constantly reading manuscripts and sorting through text. I don’t really take stuff home, so that’s when I write. Also the Paris Review has a history of our editors writing so we try to be a collective of writers and editors.

C: The Mayor’s Tongue has been categorized as a sort of magical realism novel, but how would you describe the book to someone who has no literary vocabulary?

NR: For me magical realism is a term applied to a very specific school of literature wherein the first thing that happens is “magical” or unrealistic and you’re thrown into this world. Second, the work is often political. I don’t see The Mayor’s Tongue as either. It’s not political at all and has a rather slow descent into weirdness. My characters are not fantastic; I tried to make them more realistic in a strange situation, but you can pull them out of that situation and they’re very believable.

C: Of course, there's your well-known family members. Your father, Frank Rich, is a columnist for the New York Times and your brother, Simon Rich a comedic writer for the New Yorker. Did you ever feel pushed to write by them, or pushed not to?

NR: For one the kind of writing I do is very different so I certainly never felt pushed to write. I don’t think any good parent would push their kid to be a writer. Then again I didn’t have the awful talk of coming home from college, telling my parents I wanted to be a writer and them feeling disappointed. My parents had already set a bad example.

C: Are you working on anything now?

NR: I am and I have the tentative title, FutureWorld. That’s all I can say right now.

Image courtesy of Riverhead