The Many Reflections of Venice: An Interview with Martin Seay, Author of The Mirror Thief
by Timothy Moore
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Martin Seay’s sprawling debut novel, The Mirror Thief (Melville House, 2016), has been described, and rightfully so, as a big novel with big ideas, clocking in at close to six hundred pages, and taking us as far back as 16th century Venice. Many are comparing the book to the works of David Mitchell, Thomas Pynchon, and Umberto Eco — but, really, The Mirror Thief is hard to pin down for comparison, and equally hard to summarize in just a few words. Via the miracle of email, I had the great honor of discussing the book with Martin, as well as the long road to publication, his process, the three Venices, and, of course, the mirror.
— Timothy Moore
Timothy Moore: There’s a lot to unpack here and a lot of different ways we could go with these questions, Martin, but I want to start with something small here, or, rather, something those of us not named Martin Seay often take for granted. To paraphrase a character in your book, I must first ask, why should we consider the mirror? And why did you?
Martin Seay: Thanks for asking! I have to admit that I myself started considering the mirror somewhat arbitrarily: I really just wanted to write about Venice, but I was lacking certain elements — e.g. characters, a story, yadda yadda — that would make it possible to do so.
Then I stumbled across a book by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet (The Mirror: A History) from which I learned about the two-hundred-ish-year monopoly that Venice had on the manufacture of flat glass mirrors, about the intrigues that resulted from the efforts of various foreign powers to steal the technology for themselves, and about the draconian measures that the city-state of Venice took to thwart them. That, I figured, was enough plot to hang a book on; it also led pretty naturally to themes of reflection and iteration, which allowed me to play with the idea of Venice as a city that keeps getting duplicated: versions of it have reappeared, for instance, in Southern California and in Las Vegas, to name only the two instances that are pertinent to my book.
But the idea of the mirror — its physical attributes, its role in culture, and so forth — quickly asserted itself as more than just a McGuffin and a motif. I started to think about what a big deal it must have been to see a flat glass mirror for the first time. People had had mirrors in their everyday lives for centuries, including large ones and flat ones, but the new methods of the Venetian mirror-makers yielded products that were both large and flat, and as such enabled people to see themselves for the first time as they appeared to others in social spaces: the way they moved, the way they took up space in a room. A flat glass mirror is not only a cosmetic tool, but also a tool for fashioning and rehearsing a public self; it becomes widespread in the culture at about the same time that we see the early-modern obsession with the public self and the private self — a distinction that hadn’t been firmly established before — really take off. (Think of all the Shakespeare soliloquies in which a character walks the audience through some elaborate strategy for deceit.)
It also occurred to me that in many ways the mirror is the first screen: a featureless surface that we look at to receive illusions that (in theory, and/or up to a point) help us better understand ourselves. There are, obviously, a bunch of other screen-based technologies that have succeeded it.
Plus, mirrors are just really weird. Right? They’re tremendously strange, disorienting objects. They have a defining property that’s very close to invisibility, in that we don’t really ever see them: we know them from their effects more than their appearance. You can easily understand why they came to carry so much mystical and superstitious baggage, to be the occasion for so many metaphors and anxieties. Encountering one must have been a deeply unsettling experience for somebody in the sixteenth century. It must have seemed like a gap in the fabric of reality: something their brains could barely navigate.
Moore: I love that you said “gap in the fabric of reality” here — for one, it’s a great point! But also, it allows me the opportunity to make a clumsy segue, as gaps in the fabric of reality really run throughout your book. Take, for instance, one of your main characters, con man Stanley Glass. A big thrust of his personal journey is, of all things, his obsession with a book of poetry. Not so much for its literary merits. Instead, he believes the book to be some type of map that will open him to another world — one that he suspects he belongs to. Would it be fair to say that your own obsessions may lie in these strange corners — at the edge of the real — call it mysticism, call it the occult — something just at the peripheral of the everyday?
Seay: It would probably be fair to say that, yes! But I’m not sure it would be a hundred percent accurate. I am very sympathetic to this kind of radical, gnostic sensibility — a punkish attitude memorably summarized by Greil Marcus as the belief that “the whole of received hegemonic propositions about the way the world was supposed to work comprised a fraud so complete and venal that it demanded to be destroyed beyond the powers of memory to recall its existence” — but ultimately I’m not sold on it. This attitude sometimes picks good targets and often reveals hidden injustices, but I think it generally proceeds from a place of unexamined privilege, and it’s pretty much always deeply irresponsible. (Stanley’s behavior as he pursues this aim is ultimately not super-admirable.) Lately I feel myself more touched and compelled by the beautiful, barely-effectual mess of small-scale democratic exchanges, where dissimilar individuals trip over each other, work through their shit, and build something genuine and earned.
I know it’s obnoxious to quote my own characters, but at one point Veronica, the art-historian-turned-professional-gambler, says something along the lines of: I don’t believe any of that mystical mumbo-jumbo, but I am very interested in what happens when other people believe it. That’s pretty close to where I’m coming from.
Moore: It’s interesting too — what happens to people who believe, but also what pushes them to believe, isn’t it? I’d like to talk about these rich characters you’ve developed here, but first I feel it’s necessary to bring up these three periods in your book — 16th century Venice, late 1950’s Venice Beach, and the Venetian Casino circa Las Vegas on the eve of America’s second war with Iraq. I feel like the characters in The Mirror Thief are shaped by their personal histories, but also by the traumas of history itself. I know that you started with wanting to write about Venice, but how did you decide on these periods in history? Did your characters develop after you figured out the setting?
Seay: I’m glad you asked, because this is something that I had honestly almost forgotten about: how I picked the specific settings, particularly in terms of their historical circumstances. From Melchior-Bonnet’s book I knew I wanted my Venice sections to fall somewhere between about 1500 and about 1700, during the period when the Venetian flat-mirror monopoly was in place. From my early reading on the topic, I learned that many written accounts of the mirror-making process are by alchemists; that in turn led me to cursorily investigate alchemy as it would have been practiced at the time, which quickly led me to learn a little something about the intellectual tradition that alchemy came out of: a counter-tradition to Thomist scholasticism that emphasized the value of pre-Christian “secret knowledge.” Dabbling in such stuff could get somebody in big trouble, even in a comparatively liberal city like Venice; I ended up deciding to set this portion of the story in 1592 because that’s when the poet-philosopher Giordano Bruno was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition. (He was ultimately burned at the stake in Rome in 1600.) Bruno ended up being more of an event than a character in the book, but I’m happy with the result.
…if you have a legitimate excuse to write something set in Vegas, you pretty much have to do it.
Once I’d decided to set the other two thirds of the story in copies of Venice, it was pretty easy to decide to make one of those a Venice-themed casino on the Las Vegas Strip — because, I mean, come on: if you have a legitimate excuse to write something set in Vegas, you pretty much have to do it. It’s a narrative-rich environment. (My decision was very swiftly reinforced when I learned that the world’s first mercantile casino, of the sort that now lines the Strip, opened in Venice in 1638.) The decision to set the Vegas sections in 2003 is one that I kind of backed into; I actually started sketching out the book in 2002 — with the notion that the Vegas sections would just be “the present day” — but I was writing slower than history was happening, so these sections too ended up being a period piece.
I very clearly remember working on outlines of the plot of the Las Vegas narrative and the various backstories of its characters while watching U.S. Marines pull down the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square, and a lot about that moment — the anger and despair that I (and, of course, a lot of other people) felt about the invasion, and the untrustworthiness of the images that were being used to explain and justify the war — ended up being very important to the book.
It was slightly trickier to settle on Venice, California as my third Venice, but here again I let myself be guided by what seemed like richness of narrative possibility: I knew it had been a colorful place for a long time — a somewhat shady entertainment destination in the 1930s and 40s, a major flashpoint in the development of Beat culture in the 1950s, and a site for the flying of many a freak-flag ever since — so I figured it was a safe bet. Significantly, like the Venetian casino, it was also a place that was built to emulate the original Venice, and not just named because of a perceived similarity to it (which is, for instance, how Venezuela got its name): when developer Abbot Kinney built it in about 1905 he very deliberately sought to copy Venice, putting in copious ersatz Byzantine and Gothic architecture, as well as a bunch of canals, most of which were filled in after Los Angeles annexed the community in 1926. So far as the timeframe goes, I picked 1958 because it’s the year before the publication of The Holy Barbarians, Lawrence Lipton’s sensationalistic bestseller that made Venice nationally infamous as a hotbed of crazy Beat culture; it’s also the year that Ezra Pound — who wrote memorably about Venice in the Cantos, who’s buried there on the cemetery island of San Michele, who cast a huge shadow over midcentury poetry, and who provides a troubling case study of the role of a poet in wartime — was released from confinement in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. I figured I might be able to use that.
And yes, I picked those times and places first, looked for things that linked them or were common to them, and then developed scenes and other plot elements from that. The characters showed up last of all.
Moore: Did your characters take shape organically from there? Or was there a struggle? It’s interesting because, while your central characters are shaped by their times and the events surrounding them, your book peers very closely into their interior lives — in a close third person perspective. We see what your main characters see, what they hear, feel, and fear. To sharpen my question a bit: was it difficult to balance these big ideas and settings with a sharp focus on your characters as well?
Seay: That’s an interesting question! As you mention, the narration is mostly presented in close — very close — third, and also (mostly) in the present tense; as it happens, my reasons for doing that were totally conceptual, at least in the beginning. I knew the book was at some level going to be about the not-so-great things that happen when a culture disproportionately privileges visual information and image-based ways of knowing stuff, and I wanted the narration to reinforce that and to function analogously: giving the impression that we’re always peeking over the three protagonists’ shoulders, and then gradually making it clear that that very closeness is hiding things even as it reveals them.
But for that point of view to work — for it to be honest and play fair — it had to be more than just conceptual, which meant that I had to really immerse myself in my made-up people’s embodied experience of my made-up world. For a couple of years after I started the project, I had to pretty much stop writing and just try to imaginatively inhabit the situations and circumstances that I planned to put my characters in, to think hard about their sensory experience . . . and not just somebody’s sensory experience, but theirs. Trying to understand them as physical presences helped me figure out their personal histories, which in turn helped me figure out what memories and anxieties and desires might be triggered by things they see and people they encounter.
…no real magic happens while I’m writing, but only when somebody reads what I’ve written…
This was a time-consuming process, and one that does not come naturally to me: I’m an idea-driven writer, not a character-driven writer. I’ve known a bunch of people over the years, many of them very accomplished novelists, who describe their creative process in terms of “hearing voices”: a character pops into their heads and starts talking, and a story takes shape from there. I’ve never been able to do that, or to convince myself that I’m doing it. Consequently my process never really feels organic — it feels more like growing crystals than growing beanstalks — and I never have the experience that many writers describe of “fighting” characters that seemingly develop their own agency and want do their own thing. I’m always very aware that I’m just building something out of language — in Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster refers to characters as “word-masses” — and that no real magic happens while I’m writing, but only when somebody reads what I’ve written and brings their own imaginative and interpretive stuff into play. That, for me, is when things get cool.
Moore: I’m sure that it must be such a rewarding experience then to have this book finally out there! From what I understand, you’ve been working on The Mirror Thief for nearly ten years, isn’t that right? And now it’s been released to enthusiastic acclaim from some really MAJOR publications (like the New York Times!). I’m sure all these readings and interviews have been a whirlwind — but can you talk a little bit about what it’s been like to jump into this new limelight, and having your work reviewed, scrutinized, and discussed after having such a long journey to publication?
Seay: It’s been pretty great! It’s very gratifying that people seem to be enjoying it; it’s even more gratifying that they also seem to be reading the book that I think I wrote: catching what I wanted them to catch, getting what I hoped they would get.
If I’m remembering (and doing math) correctly, it took me about five and a half years to write the book, and then an additional seven and a half to find a publisher — Melville House — that was willing to send it out into the world. Tack on another year for the publication process, and it makes a total of fourteen years between the release date and the day I first started working on it.
I definitely didn’t plan on that long gap between finishing the book and its publication, and I can’t honestly tell you that I’m glad it took as long as it did, but there are a few silver linings. One of them is that it gave me an opportunity to increase my critical distance from the book: I can go back to it now as a reader to a much greater extent than I was able to before, which is nice. I can also handle negative comments better than I imagine I could have back in 2007: it’s easier for me to think, “Well, I can understand why someone might make that complaint,” rather than feeling personally wounded or judged or whatever. I’m certainly no less enthusiastic about the book than I was when I finished it, but it’s easier for me now to separate myself from it, and to understand it as something that is finally able go about on its own legs.
About the Interviewer
Timothy Moore has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Chicago Reader, and Entropy. He lives, writes, and sells books in Chicago.