Today I'm sitting down with Nicholas Mainieri, author of the literary thriller The Infinite. As it will soon become obvious to you, Mainieri is a master craftsman when it comes to story and language and I'm grateful of the opportunity to pick his brain on topics such as setting, revision and style. And, as an added bonus, Mainieri was kind enough to share the books he is most looking forward to this year. Read on!
Steph Post: The settings of New Orleans and Mexico are conspicuous and vivid in The Infinite. In the way that they contributed to the novel, I felt that they were almost characters themselves. How important were these two settings to your story and, in general, what is the significance of place- especially real places- in a work of fiction?
Nicholas Mainieri: Setting is one the most important aspects of good fiction, regardless of whether that particular setting is a real place or not. A purposefully described setting establishes mood, echoes character’s emotions, and makes things like extraordinary acts of violence or goodness seem plausible. Actions are woven out of the fabric of setting. When that setting is a real place then things like the moment in time, the specifics of a local culture matter as well. It can be a fine dance between making a certain place “accessible” and being too esoteric. I think New Orleans and Mexico are kind of natural bedfellows. Complicated, beautiful places. I frequently return to the author Jorge Hernández’s phrase regarding Mexico as a place of “enduring contrasts,” and I believe that applies to New Orleans as well. Divides between rich and poor, life and death, play and work, good and bad seem both more pronounced and somehow more blurred. The great themes of literature live and breath. Specifically, these settings were logical bookends to a story that is in part about the cyclical journeys of things like drugs and cash but also people.
SP: I’m also curious about what drew you to the setting of New Orleans, and specifically post-Katrina New Orleans. Did The Infinite need to be set in a city still reeling and rebuilding from the effects of a catastrophe?
NM: I think of The Infinite as a sort of post-post-Katrina story. It’s set in the spring of 2010, a time that seemed to me then as a transitionary period, a complicated slide out of reconstruction and into new development or redefinition. When the rebuilding work was drying up, when the school system was undergoing the final moments of an extensive overhaul, and so on. I was interested in thinking about those who are going to bear the illest effects of massive social change—the young, the poor, the immigrant. And certainly I was thinking about my home, this city I love, that had been rebuilt by immigrants even as our public discourse increasingly vilified them.
SP: The Infinite is a lyrical novel that clearly utilizes your deftness with language. Oftentimes, language and story can be at odds with one another, as one element is sacrificed for another. This seems to occur in both literary and genre fiction, but I didn’t see that struggle in The Infinite. How can you make “poetic” language best serve, and not interfere with, the story?
NM: Well, thanks, Steph. Language is often where I have the most fun with a story, and I believe that one element does not always need to be sacrificed for the other. They can serve each other—the writing can be artful and the story can move. Doesn’t mean that it always works out. Some folks, mainly a few former teachers, would still tell me I’m too precious with language, and there’s some truth to that. Bringing these things into harmony has to come in revision, the continued rewriting, polishing, trimming, culling. I let it flex as best I can on that first draft, then don’t let anybody see it. One thing I ask myself, when considering a particular word choice or syntactical shape or whatever, is whether this particular arrangement of language is doing more than one thing—is it just pretty? If so, then it’s got to go or be rewritten. But if I can justify that it’s doing something in addition to being pretty (like complicating character, echoing emotional truth, advancing plot, resonating with theme) then I work to hone it best I can.
SP: One of the things I loved about The Infinite is that it’s clearly a literary novel, but one with grit under its nails. Did you ever encounter problems with either writing or selling a novel that balks somewhat at the “literary style?”
NM: I was ready to encounter it, sort of expecting it. The books I like the most are those literary novels with grit under their nails. I know I’m not alone in that, and I was just trying to write a story I’d like to read, myself. I got super lucky as this book found the perfect agent and editor for it—I never had to explain anything along these lines. From the get-go, they both saw it as a serious work of fiction first and foremost.
SP: The Infinite is an adult novel, but the two main characters are teenagers. Was it difficult for you to get inside the heads of Jonah and Luz? As a high school teacher, I’m around teenagers every day and the rollercoaster of emotions is staggering. Did portraying Jonah and Luz come easily to you or was it something you struggled with?
NM: I think the adolescent rollercoaster of emotions is a thing we’ve all been through. It’s a true thing. I imagine that most writers have the realities of those days tucked away in their little mental folders of material. What was more challenging, perhaps, was portraying young people who aren’t just contending with those things, but also the profound realities of poverty and death and violence and true hopelessness. I thought to myself that Luz and Jonah are two people who would have grown up quickly. I wanted them to be able to meet their challenges thoughtfully and determinedly. They are “teenagers” technically, but I never thought of them in that way. The first time somebody at my publisher referred to them as teenagers it kind of surprised me, believe it or not, but it is of course undeniable. However, they’re dealing with and handling things that a lot of “adults” will never have to.
SP: And finally, just from your writing style alone, I’m guessing that you have pretty good taste in books…. What upcoming novels are you looking forward to this year? Who should I have on my radar?
NM: I recently read advanced copies of a couple really great books coming out this year. The Boat Runner, by Devin Murphy, is an exceptional epic of WWII and refugees—it crushed me, in the best sense. In the Valley of the Sun, by Andy Davidson, is an artfully written and very scary story, like Barry Hannah meets Stephen King. I’m also looking forward to Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (sci-fi Joan of Arc! From one of the coolest writers working today). The great Percival Everett has a new one coming out, So Much Blue. I don’t know much about it, but he wrote it, so I’ll read it, excitedly. And will this be the year that Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger hits shelves? I will drop everything.
Me too! Thanks so much to Nicholas Mainieri for stopping by. The Inifinte is now available and you should definitely pick up a copy. Happy Reading!