Interview: Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson, Authors of War of Encyclopaedists

Shelf Unbound: How did you decide to write this book together, and what was your writing process?

Gavin Kovite: This is our first novel to be published, but not the first book we wrote together. We first met in Rome in 2004 during a study abroad program in poetry through the University of Washington. We became fast friends and, through a series of weird jokes, ended up writing a comic murder mystery based in Egypt during the excavation of the Suez Canal in the 1860s. We learned a lot about novel writing through that experience, and so when Chris came up with the initial idea for War of the Encyclopaedists in 2009, we were confident that we could write a decent book together.  

Christopher Robinson: We’re friends first and co-authors second, so our writing process happens mostly as a byproduct of hanging out and talking about ideas together. We came up with most of the characters, scenes, and basic plot arcs through casual chatting—we shared an apartment in Brooklyn during the first year of writing the book. After that, I’d formalize it all in a spreadsheet and we’d divvy up chapters based on characters. We’d then edit each other’s work back and forth so many times that it’s now difficult to remember who wrote what sentence.

Shelf Unbound: Your two main characters communicate with each other through occasional edits to a Wikipedia entry they created about themselves. It’s a great concept—how did you come up with that idea?

Robinson: On the simplest level, the Wikipedia conceit allowed us a convenient way to switch from 3rd person to 1st person, providing tone and pacing variation for the reader and allowing the reader more intimate access to the characters as they speak with their own voices, unmediated by the narrator. Wikipedia also anchors the story in 2004, in the early years of the new millennium (which was defined not just by the post-9/11 wars, but by the rise of social media, smartphones, and crowdsourcing). As the central symbol in the book, Wikipedia does a lot of work to set War of the Encyclopaedists in a particular moment in time and space, setting work that is complemented and completed by the highly specific details of character speech, cultural allusions, and so forth.

Kovite: At that time, Wikipedia still had this start-up feel. The whole idea of an ur-reference curated by the lay public invoked both skepticism and starry-eyedness about the future of society. It was kind of like blogging—back then, it seemed like every other person had a blog (I had one, in Iraq), and blogging seemed important and new, as if every blogger could become some minor celebrity. Since then, the mass of information posted on the internet has both made the internet (and especially Wikipedia) more useful, and also made each individual content contributor more small-time and anonymous.   

Wikipedia is also a good metaphor for the proliferation of factual information in general. There seems to have been a period of time in the 20th century U.S. where there was more or less a central political and factual narrative—people could debate about what facts meant but in the main were relying on the same basic factual inputs due to the lack of alternative sources of news and information. Nowadays, people can get their information pre-filtered, though Fox or MSNBC in the mainstream, or even from more ideologically filtered sources like The Drudge Report or Alternet. It was always the case that people from widely different places could rely on widely different “facts,” but now Americans in the same city or neighborhood can get entirely different versions of “truth.”  

This is epistemically disorienting. It makes us reevaluate our relationship with “truth” and thus complicates our political beliefs (for those of us who are at struggling, at least, to be aware of the biases inherent in the various information we consume). The rapid proliferation and democratization of knowledge creation, through Wikipedia, and through the Internet in general, gave us more access to knowledge than we’d ever had and yet made us more skeptical of received knowledge than we’d ever been. It was a fundamentally new thing for humanity’s relationship with knowledge. And it happened in the early 2000s. We wanted to capture transformative moment.

Robinson: But perhaps most importantly, having Mickey and Hal correspond through Wikipedia edits to an article about themselves (which is an abuse of Wikipedia’s function and policies) is a perfect encapsulation of the emotional dynamic between the two young men, who are very close but also emotionally distant; the only way they can really share emotional content with each other is by veiling it with silly Wikipedia entries, ostensibly about abstract subjects, like “Betrayal” and “Used Goods,” and written in a formal diction that is itself a kind of emotional armor. Their correspondence through Wikipedia is a sophomoric act of vandalism that is also an emotional reaching out to each other as well as an intellectual investigation into the larger forces that are steering their lives. 

Shelf Unbound: In addition to Hal and Mickey, you also created two interesting and carefully drawn female characters, Mani and Tricia. How did you want to use Mani and Tricia to develop the story?

Kovite: The novel definitely started out focusing more on the male characters, with Mani and Tricia being more bit players. As the writing progressed, we shifted our focus to the women for a few reasons. We didn’t want to make the book a male-centric bromance—we wanted a specific, but not gendered generational story. And the women were both inherently interesting characters—the itinerant artist hiding from her parents’ expectations and the brilliant but naïve social justice warrior putting real effort into making the world a better place. There was also the challenge of it—male and female characters are the same in basic ways but are also different in specific and interesting ways. Writing women in romantic and sexual contexts with our male characters was all sorts of fascinating—hopefully we got it at least sort of right.  

Robinson: Without Mani and Tricia, War of the Encyclopaedists would be half a story, not only because women are half of all people (a little more actually) but because we wanted to draw a convincing picture of a particular generation at a particular moment in history. Hal and Mickey really encapsulate the cynicism, the dependence on irony, and the yearning to escape it that characterize the millennial generation (or rather, the Oregon Trail Generation, a more specific term we find apt to these characters). Mickey and Hal also embody a certain listlessness, malaise, a simultaneous lack of purpose and search for purpose. Mani and Tricia are searching for purpose, too, but they are doing so in some fundamentally different ways. Tricia is driven and dedicated to improving the world around her—an idealist , not a cynical existentialist like Hal or a reluctant pragmatist like Mickey. And Mani, who is not an aspiring critic (Hal), a warrior (Mickey), or a social justice warrior (Tricia), but an artist—she, out of all the characters is the most optimistic and embracing of her own purposeless subjective experience. She pushes onward not knowing where onward is and not caring or fearing that she doesn’t know. She embodies a deep thirst for self expression as an end in itself. All those qualities– the cynicism, the idealism, the pragmatism by necessity, the need for self expression as a kind of oxygen—they are defining characteristics of this generation, to our minds. 

These aren’t particularly female traits—the idealism, the self-expression—but in the broadest sense, we weren’t thinking of Mani and Tricia as female characters who bring a female element to the story but simply as characters who bring added emotional depth and complexity to the plot. While young men and women are trying to save the world, make their mark, or just make it to tomorrow without killing themselves, they are also thinking about romance and sex. A cast of all men or all women would thus be lacking an essential element of realism. 

Shelf Unbound: A number of the novels written about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shine a big light on PTSD. I think you hint at it in these lines: “The easy definitional categories had fallen away. Maybe that’s what allowed Mickey to see himself outside of the roles he was accustomed to filling. A naked version of himself that had no use for anger, no relationship with it. It was still there, probably, hibernating.” But in the next paragraph Mickey is thinking of asking Tricia for a date, and the tone seems hopeful. Why did you decide not to bring PTSD specifically into this novel? 

Kovite: Because not everyone who serves in a combat zone comes back with PTSD. I didn’t. Most of the people I know didn’t. While it’s good that there’s popular awareness of the potential psychological effects of traumatic experiences such as military combat, my sense is that it’s overemphasized—that there’s some kind of assumption that anyone who’s been in combat or even deployed has emotional issues of the sort that makes it difficult to function in society. That’s just not the case, and the assumption that all or most veterans have some kind of debilitating mental disorder makes it more difficult for vets to get jobs and reintegrate into civilian life. When I was interviewing for jobs at New York law firms in 2008-9, the main thing on my resume was a combat deployment, and this made for very awkward interviews; I felt that the assumption that I had some kind of PTSD was this elephant in the room, keeping me from getting the offers I wanted. I felt at times like saying, “Also, I’m not crazy, in case you’re wondering,” which is hard to say in an interview without seeming crazy. I don’t want to perpetuate that stereotype.  

Robinson: Another reason is that PTSD narratives are almost by definition about the soldier, haunted by the trauma of what she’s been through: war. We wanted to explore not just the soldier’s experience, but the civilian-military divide. Thus, rather than have Mickey psychologically scarred by his war experience, we focused on the misplaced sympathy of his friends, who worry about his physical and mental well-being, oblivious to what Mickey is fixated on: the death and disability of some soldiers under his command. Mickey’s emotional isolation from his friends upon returning from Baghdad is not a result of his war trauma as much as it is a result of good-hearted but mistaken assumptions on the part of his friends. To us, this is a much more interesting dynamic to explore, both because it’s far more common, and because it’s a difficulty born out of concern rather than trauma, which makes it not about the distance between the civilian and soldier, but the attempt to bridge that distance.

Shelf Unbound: What did you particularly enjoy about writing together?

Kovite: Writing alone can be fun when the energy and inspiration is there, but when it’s not, it’s a suck-fest of insecurity and thwarted self-discipline.  With Chris, those fallow periods just turn into bull-sessions about where the story will go. As long as one of us is on, we both know where the story will go, so there’s always some kind of “writing prompt” happening that each of us can cling to.  

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