An Interview With Nathaniel Rich

By  |  May 6, 2013

Odds Against TomorrowA fair percentage of the acclaim produced lately by the acclaim-producing arm of the literary criticism machine has been reserved for Nathaniel Rich, a young novelist from New York now based in New Orleans, whose second novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, was published last month. I will forego a lengthy plot synopsis here (there are plenty available just a click away) but will add to the chorus of praise my own echo: Rich is a talent with a full head of steam, and he possesses that quality I admire most in any novelist—a mind for details that is equal parts percipient and original.

The narrative linchpin of Odds Against Tomorrow is the destruction, by hurricane, of New York City, which provides Rich with plentiful opportunities to conjure up intricate observations of humanity under near-apocalyptic duress. His authorial vision is both a delight and a terror to behold (depending, I suppose, on your brand of Schadenfreude and how seriously you take the news of global climate change and/or that last book in the Bible).

Consider the passing moment when, in flooded Manhattan, we see this: 

Several hundred yards up Sutton Place a large segment of plaster wall drifted across the wide Fifty-seventh Street intersection. On this crumpling raft squatted three Siberian huskies. They hissed at their reflections in the water.

It is an otherwise inconsequential passage within the story, but a resoundingly beautiful—and horrifying—image. Those poor, oblivious animals will stay with me for some time.

And this is my favorite sentence in the novel, another bit of casual detail that pierced me immediately and permanently:

The lake seen through the trees was like jewelry hanging in the branches.

Rich will be coming to Little Rock on May 16 to read from Odds Against Tomorrow at the Oxford American’s new venue, South on Main. In fact, his reading is our inaugural event. Please come if you can.

I caught up with the author, who is in the belly of a roving book tour, in the hopes of teasing out some of his secrets.

NATHANIEL RICH: You’ve long been a magazine journalist, and now you’re an established novelist with two lauded efforts to your name. How do you reconcile these two occupations? Is it difficult to navigate back and forth between nonfiction and fiction?

OXFORD AMERICAN: Fiction takes priority, but a novel can take years to complete and there are lots of pauses built into the process. During those breaks I write short stories, but I also find it healthy to get out of my house, talk to strangers, and put myself in uncomfortable situations. The writers I most admire are those who, though they may be novelists first, also dedicated themselves to other forms, like criticism, essays, translation—writers like Mark Twain, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, Joan Didion, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. Martin Amis is the best example. I think he’s the greatest living literary critic, but I love his novels even more.

In Odds Against Tomorrow your protagonist, Mitchell Zukor, predicts a hurricane hitting New York and the subsequent flooding of the city, and becomes something of a prophet for it. When Sandy hit last fall and you were in the final stages of the book did you sympathize with Mitchell, having in a sense predicted the disaster?

It was eerie, all right. But what surprised me most was how little I had to change the manuscript. Despite the fact that reporters tended to depict the storm as a terrible shock, the truth is that the damage caused by the storm had been predicted, to a high degree of precision, by many studies, especially one published in 1995 by the Army Corps of Engineers. So if anyone was prophetic, it was the Army Corps.

In some respects—and I think this is a testament to your skillful prose—these long passages describing the catastrophic aftereffects of the hurricane seem like they’d be good fun to write. They’re certainly fun to read, in a voyeuristic kind of way. Do you share Mitchell’s fixation with imagining disaster?

There is something perversely enjoyable about catastrophe. That’s why you see so many Hollywood films on the subject. Visualizing our greatest fears, in excruciating detail, has a cathartic effect. It allows us to examine our anxieties while feeling relieved that everything hasn’t fallen apart just yet.

You were born and raised in New York City and spent the beginning of your adult life there, before moving to New Orleans. What was it like imaging the ruination of your hometown?

Thrilling. I particularly enjoyed ruining Third Avenue, the world’s ugliest avenue. Mainly it gave me a new way to write about the city. Even the most familiar sights become strange when you add nine feet of water. Streets turn into rivers, parks to lakes, lobbies to aquariums.

How has the shift from New York to New Orleans affected your writing?

I rewrote the final third of the novel after moving to New Orleans. I had read extensively about Katrina but reading can only get you so far. Living here, observing the lasting trauma of the storm, even seven years after the fact, I understood its power in a more visceral way. I wanted the final pages of the novel to reflect that.

Your debut, The Mayor’s Tongue, was written in secrecy. As much of an accomplishment as writing an acclaimed first novel is, I’ve always imagined the follow-up as the tougher endeavor. What’s it like, after the buzz of the debut fades, to return to the blank page?

I avoid that by starting the next novel before the last one is published. There’s about a year, more or less, between the time a novel is completed and when it appears in bookstores. It’s crucial to exploit that time. Otherwise, yes, I would drive myself crazy.

Is it too early to ask what’s next for you?

I began writing a new novel about nine months ago. All you can do is work, every day, and hope that the work grows larger than you. 

Maxwell George is the Oxford American’s deputy editor.