Tricky Magical Dick: How Austin Grossman’s Crooked Makes Richard Nixon Into a Purveyor of the Dark…
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Historical fiction might be the realm of serious literary tomes like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or any number of books nominated for fancy awards every single year, but every once and a while a work of historical fiction also becomes a work of fantasy and phantasmagoria. If you’re thinking of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, think again. Because Austin Grossman has just published Crooked, which is perhaps the most meditative literary/historical/genre mash-up in ages; the kind of cocktail combining two elements you might not put together: President Nixon and Black Magic.
Last week, I sat down with Austin Grossman to discuss the darkness of Nixon, the importance of autobiography in historical fiction and how to embrace any and all readers of one’s own work.
Ryan Britt: So in talking about this book in casual conversation I’ve been saying things like “So, you’re going to write a historical novel about Richard Nixon, imagine the angles you would go with that.” And so far, no one has guessed the angle you’ve gone with this. Why Black Magic with Nixon?
Austin Grossman: Well, there’s more than one answer. [Laughs] I guess I’m on the record there! Soon I Will Be Invincible (Grossman’s first novel) was a critical hit; it was not a sales hit. So, pitching a second novel was not the easiest thing to do when people were looking at the numbers…
Britt: But this is your third novel.
…any version of Richard Nixon has to deal with darkness.
Grossman: Right! But it’s the second of two book deal. You and Crooked. The point is: what’s the sexiest pitch I can make, but also feels like I can write from a real place. Then I thought, which is the most boring President I could write about? Probably Abraham Lincoln! Who’s the most interesting president I could write about? Richard Nixon. Who’s interesting to make into a hero? Richard Nixon. And then, you think about Richard Nixon and you think about the Cold War. And any version of Richard Nixon has to deal with darkness. Darkness that is hidden in that character somewhere; something drove him in a weird direction. What was the hidden thing? And I thought to myself what would be a fun hidden thing that would be as dark as Nixon as dark as the Cold War. And, you have to go to Lovecraft. You have to go to Black Magic. So explaining the fear and the paranoia [around Nixon] and the strange meltdowns…and once it hits you, it starts to work together really well. But without that, Nixon is very hard to make sense of.
Britt: Now, “petty” might be a little bit of a reductive word, but I like how you make Nixon so focused on what he needs. Early on in the book, you’ve got this scene where he’s chasing down Alger Hiss and he’s reading all this crazy magic stuff that Alger Hiss has written down and Nixon doesn’t care. He’s just like, “Oh, he said something about Soviets! Finally!” I laughed out loud at that point. You’ve succeeded in creating sympathy for Nixon in that moment. All he wanted to do was prove Hiss was a communist. He didn’t want any of this Black Magic crap! So, in terms of explaining Nixon’s paranoia: how much research did you do on Nixon? How much are we speculating on this thought process, his interior life?
Grossman: Well, I did a lot of research in terms of the actual historical record. But the thing about Nixon is, no one knows! He was sort of a cranky introvert who dominated the political scene for 30 years and was so calculated. Everything he said in public was so calculated, and I think to this day people don’t have a lot of insight into what sort of person he was. You could call him a centrist or pragmatist but that’s a way of saying he had no moral center whatsoever!
Britt: Later in the book, you’ve got this great scene with Tatyana [a secret KGB agent] and Nixon is pathetically saying, “You know I’m the president of the United States,” and she’s not impressed.
Grossman: Yeah. [Laughs] he’s pretty insecure.
Britt: Earlier you mentioned this was a book you could do honestly…?
Grossman: Yes. The question of Nixon, the character of Nixon was interesting to me. I couldn’t write a book just for money. This was the most money book I could do. Saying something I needed to say. Delving into the heart and into a place that I truly wanted to know about it. It was sort of like when I was working on Soon I Will Be Invincible, one of those happy moments when you think this is a book that gets at my heart, but this is also a book that can sell in the world of publishing.
Britt: Something Jim Shepard has said about historical fiction — I’m paraphrasing here — is that he finds the thing in the historical figure that is autobiographical for him. Was there something autobiographical for you about Nixon?
But past a certain point I was just using Nixon as a way to delve into autobiography.
Grossman: Absolutely! I mean I did research. But past a certain point I was just using Nixon as a way to delve into autobiography. To delve into dark impulses or the worst impulses. I thought I was writing Nixon as decent person who was making terrible decisions all the time. That there was just some sort of demonic element in his character to make the wrong call over and over. But, there’s no question that Nixon was just a way into autobiography. I mean I write in the first person and I don’t know another way to write than telling an autobiographical story through a mask of a given person. Which is why there’s a mask on the cover by the way…Actually, the Nixon mask is so iconic that that is just a happy accident.
Britt: Personally, I love talking about this book. But, I wonder, in your head; who is the readership of the book? Pretend I’m a bookseller. Who do I recommend this to?
Grossman: That’s a great question. You know, I always write novels that cross between categories, so that’s always a tricky question. Did you write this for history buffs? Did you write it for Lovecraft fans? Did you write it for spy novel fans? And either you wrote it for all those people or you wrote a book that has a perfect Venn Diagram of zero readers! [laughs] And you never know quite which it is. But, I tend to let that be other people’s problem. But it’s a fun idea. Someone must want it.
Britt: We were talking earlier about stuff like Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter or books like that. But Crooked isn’t like that because you actually manage not to be camp. How did you accomplish that? Was that hard?
Grossman: Was it hard to write away from camp?
Britt: Yeah. I mean it’s such a high concept idea. And because Nixon is such a comical spoof figure.
Grossman: Right. But the question of Nixon is too deep. Too conflicted. The question of Nixon goes all the way to the bottom. I’m old enough to remember when he was President. He was the first public figure I was aware of. And right away, as a five-year-old, I could sense a conundrum. Why was this man President? And a joke? And evil? And it’s not a question that goes away when you grow up. It must have been terrible to have been Nixon; to have trapped himself in a bizarre series of contradictions while being the most visible person in the United States if not the western world. It simply goes too deep to be camp.
Britt: Right, so the average person wouldn’t associate a lot of darkness with say, Lincoln?
Grossman: Making a hero out of Lincoln isn’t much of a jump. Making a hero out of Nixon…you really have to imagine what it’s like to be trapped into being Nixon. And somehow have made that mistake and still somewhere inside there be aware of how bad the screw-up was, but having had reasons that at the time seemed valid and heroic.
Britt: I grew up in a Republican family and my late father was always defending Nixon and saying he was a good president and he got mixed up in the wrong thing. Do you think conservative propagandist would be excited about your book? You know, “Oh, Austin Grossman has finally revealed what we’ve known all along: Nixon was actually a heroic president!”
Grossman: I did become aware that at a certain point I was writing a novel whose heroes were Republican Presidents! [laughs] Which goes against my voting record if nothing else. There was nothing I could do about that! But, to be fair, Eisenhower and Nixon were not the Republicans we have today. The phrase “Military Industrial Complex,” comes from Eisenhower, from a speech he made as an outgoing President. I mean, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. They were not ideological Republicans the way we have now.
Britt: In a way, isn’t a very liberal move for literary novelist to have a Republican protagonist?
Grossman: I only realized partway through that I’d stepped into that one. And honestly, the worst dodge in the book is putting some of the moral — most of the moral weight — onto Kissinger. Which lets Nixon off a little bit. I think that is the most meretricious element of the book.
Britt: Was it a conscious decision to basically do Nixon’s whole life through this lens?
Grossman: I felt like I had to start at the beginning. I felt like he had to stumble into it as a younger and more naïve man. There was some pressure to only write the Watergate years. I mean the book opens on the night of Watergate and the question is: in what seemingly inextricable steps did I get myself here? And I feel like I had to go back to the origins of the Cold War and the Red Scare, which was kind of the original sin of ambition that started it off. It made sense to do it that way.
Britt: Talk to me a little bit about the occult aspects of the book. The Black Magic. We talked about Lovecraft earlier. But what Black Magic did you invent? What was mashed-up? What was borrowed
Measuring it against the Hydrogen bomb, they would certainly weaponize Elder Gods. There was no question.
Grossman: You can’t really keep Charles Stross out of this. I came up with the idea myself, but when you Google Cold War+ Occult, you get Charles Stross. He’s written really good stuff on the subject. But I thought about Lovecraft and that if dark magic existed in the Cold War, it would have been weaponized. They would have done anything. They would clearly do the worst things. Measuring it against the Hydrogen bomb, they would certainly weaponize Elder Gods. There was no question. So then I thought “what is Black Magic?” And it is a series of contractual relationships with the native Elder Gods of particular regions of the world. And I liked that because you can write a lot of history around that. You can extend it in many directions. You can picture Napoleon as simply an expert contract lawyer whose expertise was masqueraded as generalship. You can write any number of alternate histories around that. Which I liked. It made something magical and dark at the heart of founding any nation state. I found really enjoyable. Because when you look at the 20th century: the disruptive thing there was the Russian Revolution. They tossed out the Czars and by doing so, they voided the old contracts [with magic and Elder Gods] and that begins to set things loose. And again, it made sense, given the unique awfulness of the 20th century, that that kind of disruption kicked it off.
Britt: Now, in your brother’s (Lev Grossman) book The Magician King, there’s some Elder Gods. Could Crooked take place in the same fictional universe?
Grossman: I don’t thinks so…because in his books magic has less of a moral rate. You can’t do magic in the world of Crooked without some kind of Faustian bargain. Whereas in The Magicians, it’s a craft. But Crooked actually emerges from a Soon I Will Be Invincible call-out. I’d actually forgotten that I’d mentioned a “Mage President Nixon,” in that novel. Maybe I intentionally had forgotten that.
Britt: So, Crooked is a miniature sequel to Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Grossman: Sure. I just got to expand a tidbit to novel-length.
Britt: At some point this does feel like a spy novel. You’ve got these great KGB agent characters.
Grossman: Well, I needed some characters that were my own. And characters that Nixon could talk too. Plus, making the only characters that Nixon could tell his secrets to be KGB agents was just too fun to resist! [Laughs]
Britt: Well, I like that because it’s like Nixon is still subordinate to these folks. Like he’s not cool enough for them. It’s funny.
Grossman: Well, trying to make Nixon the protagonist of a spy novel is inherently funny. I mean a spy novel/paranormal investigator Nixon has something inherently comical in it.
Britt: It is a funny book. I don’t think it’s a parody. But it has wit. How did that happen?
But when pen hits paper and I start writing the darkest most sincere parts of my being, it just ends up being funny…
Grossman: It’s just something I can’t get away from. You know I’d be like Marilynn Robinson if I could. But when pen hits paper and I start writing the darkest most sincere parts of my being, it just ends up being funny in a way that seems inexorable from the act of writing. When I was writing Soon I Will Be Invincible I was like “I’m writing the truth! It’s so true and dark, that I don’t know if people can handle it!” But then of course reading it back, it seems like fun. That’s just how my writing comes out. I ended up with the word Crooked as a metaphor, but it just doesn’t come out straight.
Britt: So you’ve got kids reading Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or something like that or watching Penny Dreadful. If they went from that stuff to reading your book, would you be okay with that?
Grossman: I’d rather be in the game than out of it! I mean, I really enjoy the Alan Moore stuff. Crooked could comfortably live in that universe with no trouble. As far as readers: come from any direction! I was given very serious advice from someone when I worried about who would buy Crooked or how it would be marketed. And this person said: “Forget all of that. Just remember people bought Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” It’s silly to be a snob. You’ve got to trust the reader. You can’t turn down a reader or what a reader can find in what you wrote. Enjoy whatever way a reader feels like enjoying it. You can’t say no to that.