Christopher Sorrentino on Writing, Publishing, and the Fugitives

Christopher's Sorrentino's exciting novel, The Fugitives (Simon and Schuster) was released on February 9, 2016, to broad critical acclaim. Jim Ruland for the Los Angeles Times called the book, ". . . a cautionary tale for anyone considering the implications of getting married, having an affair, writing a novel, or moving to the country in the service of one's art. Or it would if Sorrentino's electric prose and mordant wit didn't tap into the secret desire we all have from time to time to shed our skin and start over" and Donna Seaman wrote, in a Booklist starred review, "A mischievously funny, keenly incisive, and mind-bending outlaw tale.” We were lucky to have the chance to talk to Sorrentino not only about his writing, but his life as a writer, the role of publishing, and his thoughts on helping young writers.

Art Vs. the Artist

Rachel Sherman: What are your thoughts about the art vs. the artist? How do you separate your writing life from the rest of your life (or are they one and the same), on a practical level, as well as an emotional one?

Christopher Sorrentino: The last time my writing and my life were completely commingled was in my Stephen Daedalus days, twenty-five years ago. Since then it's been the usual mess: jobs, marriage, kids, divorce, washing the dishes. In a practical sense, I've always been really adaptable. I've written in the evenings, I've written in the early mornings, I've written in the spaces between other obligations. And I've resigned myself to sometimes not having any time at all to write. In an emotional sense, at some times the art is much more present than at others.

I feel it, like steady pressure. If I'm writing, it goes right into the work. If I'm not able to work, I see the. The trick is not to let the seething escape into the environment where the people you love are.

The Difference Between Writing and Publishing

RS: How do you reconcile writing and publishing? Does putting your book "out into the world" feel like a separate venture from writing the book itself? 

CS: I think they're entirely separate. Writing is a solitary, exploratory, and provisional activity. It takes a lot of patience and faith that the really rough patches will pass. I tend to keep my work-in-progress to myself regardless of whether it's going well or going badly. The part of my brain that creates it requires this. For me, at least, it doesn't involve any strategies to reach or appeal to an audience. So, with publication, you go directly from this bubble to an entirely collaborative effort, dependent on shrewd calculation on how to package the book and get it into the hands of as many people well disposed to it as possible.

And you, the writer, have to emerge along with the book. You have to explain things to audiences or journalists that you've only thought about in the context of writing them. Your face appears in the newspaper. People say things about your work that alternately make your head swell up or make you want to crawl into a hole. And, of course, while all of this is going on, the book is behind you -- apart maybe from some corrections to the proofs, this thing you lived with for two, three, five years is simply something you once wrote, something you've moved on from.

RS: How has the publication of "The Fugitives" been in comparison to your other books (so far)? 

CS: Well, the most relevant point of comparison is TRANCE, which came out ten years ago. Back then, online literary sites were just beginning to find their footing. For the most part, it was a matter of waiting for print reviews and other press to appear. Sometimes I actually had clippings forwarded to me in an envelope by FSG. Some of the kinds of early attention THE FUGITIVES has been getting didn't really exist back then -- making the "Most Anticipated" lists of sites like The Millions and Flavorwire, for example.

That's the good part. The bad part, I suppose, is that many, many newspapers and magazines have folded or just curtailed their book coverage in the intervening years. Also, I didn't have a website back then and there wasn't any social media to use to promote the book, not that I'm some social media adept. Otherwise, the attention seems to be coming a little earlier. Lists and plugs, plus print reviews, of which I don't think I'd received as many last time prior to publication (February 9), apart from the trades, like Booklist and Publishers Weekly.

And I got reviewed this time in Books of the Times, which is very high profile. I got panned, but I take that to mean that I've arrived. Either that, or they're trying to kill me before I can get in the door.

Advice for Young Writers

RS: What advice would you give to young writers? 

CS: Funnily enough, this is where the creative experience and the publishing experience tend to coalesce. Young writers should prioritize reading, above all. They should read divergently when it suits them, they should read systematically when it suits them. They should read so-called literary fiction and genre fiction. And when they're writing they should try to apply what they like in what they're reading to their work. They shouldn't worry about finding an agent or whether what they're doing is appealing to the current market.

They should step outside the market and develop what's meaningful and beautiful to them. And they need to be patient. I get the sense that for a lot of young people, with the ability to publish instantaneously on a variety of platforms, the work is done as soon as they press "post" and the response begins. And I don't really think that's the point. Maybe that's an antiquated viewpoint from a member of a different generation, but I don't think writing is about engendering a reaction to your hot take on some issue of the day.

Writing is a long game, involving invention, synthesis, and a certain amount of furtiveness. It doesn't need other people's responses to be complete. Working in isolation and uncertainty is a certain kind of discipline in itself, and writers should cultivate it. 

Christopher Sorrentino is the author of five books, including Trance, a National Book Award Finalist for fiction. His next novel, The Fugitives, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. His work has been widely anthologized, and has appeared in A Public Space, The Baffler, BOMB, BookForum, Conjunctions, Esquire, Fence, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times, McSweeney's, The New York Times, Open City, The Paris Review, Playboy, Tin House, and many other publications. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and he was Writer-in-Residence at Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2011. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University, the New School, Fairleigh Dickinson, and at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y, where he is a core faculty member.