In writing, and as a developing writer myself, one of the truest lessons you’ll learn is that patience is everything. The same must be exact for first-time author Estep Nagy, whose debut novel We Shall Not All Sleep swept through this summer after some six years of boundless research, forethought, and deliberation.
This month, we reached out to Nagy directly, who was more than kind enough to share his insights on this staggering first book and discuss his background in film and how his previous creative exploits helped sculpt its foundation and the uncharted complexities of loss, privilege, betrayal, and uncertainty within it.
Read our full interview with Estep Nagy below.
Paris Close: From inception, you started as a playwright, writer, and director. How have your prior creative ventures prepared you for writing your first novel?
Estep Nagy: The remarkable thing about novels, and I think this is why everyone keeps pronouncing the novel dead and they’re always wrong, is that the novel can absorb so many different ideas, techniques, genres. Film, theater, and poetry, absolutely reinforce each other, in the sense that over and over you see that the thing that succeeds in every form is always energy. High energy can make just about anything work. I think of the Powerpoint in Jennifer Egan’s Welcome to the Goon Squad or the insane specifics about whaling in Moby-Dick. It feels to me like the decision to include those non-narrative things sprang from Egan and Melville wanting the reader to understand their story better or differently, and that particular wanting in a writer is a very powerful form of energy. It’s contagious. It makes the reader trust you. So for me, the lesson is, find the depth of your own commitment to what you’re writing, and your decisions will mostly work. Especially when they illuminate the concrete world of the book, which is what the Powerpoint and the cetology accomplish on a technical level.
Film and theater taught me focus, both creative and otherwise. Something I learned about actors is that they don’t care about your reputation or your history so much as how well you know the material you’ve written or are directing. That reinforced my own intuition, which is to keep your head down and work tirelessly at building the world of whatever story you’re telling.
More technically, film and theater taught me about refining and purifying conflicts, about economy, because film, in particular, is unforgiving about the absence of conflict on a moment-to-moment basis. If anything, when I came to write We Shall Not All Sleep, I’d learned the lessons of brevity too well and it took me a few drafts to loosen up and let things digress – that mostly took the form of letting the past into the book, in the form of the italicized chapters that outline the pre-history of what happens to these families on Seven Island.
PC: Do you find the medium of the novel any different from past projects? Less or more challenging? And if so, how?
EN: The challenge is eternally in matching the medium to the story, and that’s hard to do without a lot of trial and error. So I had much more trial and error with We Shall Not All Sleep than with most films or plays I’d written, in large part because I was trying to figure out what will and will not work. How many points of view can the reader absorb? How many can you convincingly present? How many characters do I feel strongly enough – do I know well enough – to give them their own point of view? If you’re interested in multiple points of view – which I am – then is it legit to include an omniscient narrator as one among many? I didn’t do that, really, but I remember reading a Dickens novel, I think it was David Copperfield, where, in a book that ‘s ostensibly told exclusively from David’s point of view, Dickens very subtly shifts from time to time into an omniscient posture. It’s impure, but it works – and that’s really the point. It takes a healthy amount of failure to begin to understand those mechanics.
PC: Can you describe the writing process behind We Shall Not All Sleep? What direction were you aiming for with your first book?
EN: The actual writing – the typing, I should say, because the whole process from free-association to line-editing is writing – was mostly a pleasure. I’m disciplined. I work every day, enough so that I accomplish something but not so much that I burn out. I did an enormous amount of preparatory work on the world of We Shall Not All Sleep and the characters – my first notebooks are from six years before I wrote the first sentence. The main curveball in the process for me was that in the initial drafts of the book, the novel was 100% set in the present and on Seven Island. It was only later that I added in the historical parts. As it happened, the histories tied together better than I initially expected them to, which was nice but also a piece of luck that I may have earned through that initial hard work.
PC: The book does excellent work setting the vista of coastal Maine. Was there any field research or travel that went into establishing the landscape in We Shall Not All Sleep?
EN: I’ve been to Maine a lot. I lived on an island in Penobscot Bay for a summer while working on a different project. I have a few friends with places on the coast. And I went to an artist’s colony up north where the fictional Seven is meant to be. I don’t think the book would exist in this form without Maine because the uniqueness of the light and space was a major source of both challenge and inspiration.
In terms of other research, I went to the library at Yale and looked through a bunch of the papers they have there from James Angleton, the head of the CIA. I read a lot of declassified CIA documents, and I even initiated a Freedom of Information request for the definitive memos about the two-defector situation that forms the backdrop for Jim Hillsinger’s excommunication from the CIA – my request and the appeal were both denied, by the way. One time, at a friend’s place on a Maine island, there was a very boozy dinner and I told everyone I was going to sleep in what was basically a boat house a 20-minute walk away. They thought I was being dramatic. But no, I walked twenty minutes in the pitch dark and slept in a shack where a raccoon lived in the wood-stove. They were surprised when I came back the next day looking like a Sasquatch. That might have been the best research I did.
PC: One of the scenes in the book that particularly stood out in We Shall Not Sleep was Catta’s abandonment because it reiterated that security is not promised and, albeit harsh, it seemed like Jim’s eagerness to steel his son for the world ahead was necessary. Was there a deeper motivation behind Jim’s twisted trails?
EN: I hope you see living, real-world logic in what Jim does. I’ve had people argue it both ways, in front of me. I mean, at the height of the Cold War – which is when the book is set, 1964 – you had some of the brightest minds in the country preparing for absolutely unspeakable forms of war. Read Daniel Ellsberg’s memoir Secrets if you want another point of view. So on an objective level, my sense is that Jim thinks it may take some sort of super soldier to defeat the level of malevolence he’s seen in the Soviets, and on a personal level he feels like he’s failed at his job, despite being supposedly destined for greatness. And if he can’t succeed, with all his talent and all his advantages, then who can?
PC: Speaking in the way of themes, some of the characters — Lila and Jim specifically — come to grips with loss. The former loses her sister, the latter their job and sense of pride and security as a result of a conspiracy. Did you find these ideas to be intentional motifs?
EN: I think what we lost during the Cold War has been under-examined. Especially in the upper reaches of the WASP elite, I think we lost a sense of the value of emotional balance and we stopped pursuing emotional transparency. At some point, we stopped trying to make ourselves whole. War has a way of exposing those more ethereal pursuits in us as – not exactly luxuries, but as things that can be rationalized away when fighting for survival. That happened for a long time, the Cold War lasted for forty-some years. That’s a long time to say to yourself, or to your wife, or to your kids, I can’t think about this right now, the Russians are trying to blow us up. There are consequences.
PC: Which writer(s) would you say influenced your book. Or rather, is there anyone who inspired you to pursue fiction with your first?
EN: I knew I would arrive at fiction eventually. The writers who made it seem most possible, though – who made it seem like the work I loved and wanted to write could stand the test of time – would be novelists like Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner and Jane Austen and Toni Morrison, certainly – they all inspire that massive feeling of gratitude in me – although in some ways more important have been the American poets: Whitman, Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Gluck, A.R. Ammons, the recently-departed John Ashbery. In the United States, I think the poets have been more uniformly serious than the novelists. I also read a lot of literary criticism, which I really recommend, especially for aspiring writers. I’ve gotten immense amounts out of reading Harold Bloom, David Bromwich, Helene Cixous, George Steiner, Franco Moretti, Georg Lukacs, Gilles Deleuze (on writers), James Wood, Julia Kristeva, and many others. Filmmakers have been important also – Coppola, Tarkovsky, George Cukor, Cary Grant. Also TV – if there were another 500 episodes of Friday Night Lights, I would watch them.
PC: What advice would you offer to first-time writers, or writers hoping to charter similar territory?
EN: Read Emerson, often. Read A Room of One’s Own. Read Proust. Don’t confuse publicity with success. In fact, try to throw out the idea of success altogether. Be clear with the people you love about what you’re trying to do. They may not get it, but it’ll make you feel better. Be specific about what your writing time is, and then guard it fiercely, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day. Find a way to make money that’s separate from writing but that still allows time for it – that sounds hard, and it is. But so is writing novels. Also, and I’m not kidding, vote in every election.
PC: Which books have you read or have been considering this year that you think we should know about? (We love recommendations!)
EN: I have young children, so my reading time is limited now. I recently wrote a piece for The Millions about how I couldn’t read fiction while I was writing this book, and while that particular fog has lifted, I’m not what you’d call up to date. I read novels almost exclusively for about twenty years, but now I read a lot more non-fiction. I’m interested in how to create the rough surface of real life. The Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, in particular, is one I keep coming back to. He lived in the Court of Louis XIV, and reading his book is like sitting next to the most compelling guest at the best dinner party in the history of the world. Those memoirs were a major inspiration for Proust, and in my opinion, both St-Simon and Livy’s History of Rome are two massively helpful and massively under-read books by novelists. But don’t take my word for it – ask J.K. Rowling. Livy is all over the Harry Potter books.
PC: What can we expect from your second novel, and how soon?
EN: I have more novels to write in this same world, and with these same characters. I love series. I love length and depth. We’ll see how it goes. When is a great question – I wish I knew myself.
PC: Any final remarks for our readers at Paperback Paris?
EN: Anyone who’s reading this site probably reads like a banshee already, and that’s the main thing. Keep at it. Especially when you’re young, read everything. Read what grabs your attention or what inspires you, for sure, but also give the classics a try – a lot of them are pretty good. Except for Henry James.
Be sure to stay tuned for our next episode of Paperback Chats!