Out Of Twenty: Thomas Mullen, Author of The Revisionists, Answers Six Questions

Thomas Mullen

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! The first time I heard about Thomas Mullen at BEA, where his book, The Revisionists, was one of the highly buzzed books from Mulholland Books. I wasn’t sure his book would be for me, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a fabulous read! Thomas answered six questions, and here is what he had to say about reading, writing and history – it isn’t just for bank robbers and flu epidemics anymore!

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

With three books published and a fourth almost finished, it seems that I write 400-pagish novels, told in the third-person, in which we follow a handful of major characters, veering back and forth between their perspectives. The first two were historical fiction, though my new one, The Revisionists, is set in present-day Washington. History itself is a theme of the book, which features a time traveler whose job is to ensure that a certain horrible event occurs, as dictated by history. I’m realizing that I’m fascinated by history, both as a place to find amazing stories (like flu epidemics or 1930s bank robbers, in my first two books), and as a theoretical construct, in which we can pose questions about what history really is, and how it’s made, how and why it’s told, and what our own individual roles are within it.

As for what I like to write, my main concerns are telling a great story and doing so in a compelling, creative, unique manner. I want to write neither a plotless literary novel nor a thriller that gives short shrift to its prose and characters, but rather a book that achieves the best of both forms, with an engrossing plot, realistic characters, thought-provoking dilemmas, and prose that sings.

Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?

My first two books, being historical, required a lot of research. In both cases, I would try to write a chapter or two first, just to see if I could get the tone and the style. Then, if I felt it was working, I’d stop writing for a bit and do a lot of reading to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I can only take so much reading, though, so eventually I’d hit the keyboard again, supplementing with another research book here and there, either to fill another gap or because I stumbled upon a good resource. (I do read fiction when I’m writing, too, but not as much as I’d like to, as I’ve found it can cause me to subtly alter my style and emulate what I’m reading.)

I was surprised to find that this book, despite the fact that it’s set in the present-day, also required a lot of research. I had always assumed that contemporary books wouldn’t require any, but I think that’s only true if you write something that’s basically a veiled autobiography. If you’re writing about characters who are different from yourself, however, and if you’re writing about events that you yourself have not experienced, you need to know what you’re talking about. So I read quite a lot about U.S. intelligence agencies and foreign policy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a number of books about 20th Century dictators and their regimes.

 People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

Wow, I could go on and on about this. But let’s just say that, as someone who lived inWashingtonfrom 2003-2008, it was hard not to think about all the stories that came out about warrantless wiretapping, and interrogations at “black sites,” and government surveillance of political activists, and the legal issues surrounding the leaking of those stories to the press. I had to write about this. Then one day the local NPR had a story about foreign diplomats who bring with them to D.C. domestic servants who themselves were illegal immigrants in their home countries, and who are treated as veritable slaves in their new D.C. homes. I wanted that in the book as well. Figuring out how to deal with all these issues in a coherent narrative was one of the biggest challenges. But I felt a sort of calling to figure this out.

As a thirty-something white guy who grew up in the suburbs and writes and reads for a living, it was very important for me not to write a book about a thirty-something writer, or upper-middle-class urbanites dealing with infidelities or bad jobs, or those other sorts of trivial concerns that occupy a whole shelf of the contemporary canon. Things like government surveillance and espionage sound like silly thriller ingredients, yeah, but they’re real. They’re actually happening. To duck them felt cowardly. I felt a calling to tackle this in my fiction—not just these political issues themselves but also the meta-issue of how people choose to deal with these issues or avoid them, which is a debate several of the book’s characters have with themselves.

 How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?

I’m a pretty disciplined person and I prefer an un-chaotic work environment, as un-artistic as that may sound. So in a perfect world I’d have an idea, I’d write it, and then I’d move on to the next one. That’s how my first novel worked, but, sadly, the others didn’t go so smoothly. Just coming up with an idea that really, really jazzes you – so much that you’re certain you want to spend the next two years of your life on it – is a challenge. I have a lot of good ideas, but which one is The Idea??? That’s a surprisingly tough thing to decide.

Also, about halfway through this book I ran into a serious wall. Something just wasn’t working. True to the book’s title, I revised and cut and altered it many times, reworking characters, eliminating subplots and adding others. At one point I put it aside and picked up an old manuscript, turning that into a young adult novel. And there was another time when I feared The Revisionists was unsalvageable, so I put it away and started a new novel, writing about 150 pages.

So, to answer your question, I was at one point pinwheeling between those three novels, and a screenplay, and a few short stories. Luckily, I finally had an insight on how to solve The Revisionists, and I wound up writing my tail off for a few months until I finished it. Which meant that I then had a 150-page head-start on my next book, saving me the whole “what should I write now?” debate! Not bad.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

I’ve been lucky with titles: I thought them up for all three books, and no one ever suggested changing them. (I’m honestly not sure if that’s rare or not.) Once I hit on this title, I loved it. “Revisionists” usually refer to historians who introduce a new slant on a historical subject, which alone made it right for the book. The term can also be taken different ways, speaking to how we alter our very selves over time and try to control the narrative of our lives.

What’s next?

I’m a big Boston sports fan, and a few years back I read an article about recently released FBI files on death threats that were made against Red Auerbach, the Celtics coach who fielded the NBA’s first all-black starting five. The story mentioned, off hand, that it was one of many examples of FBI involvement in Boston sports, a legacy that dates back at least to 1945, when the FBI was following a group of Communists who wanted to integrate baseball. What? 1940s FBI agents, Communist sports writers, and Negro League baseball players? I knew right away that I had my story. I’m nearly finished with the rough draft and I love it to death.

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About: Thomas Mullen was born and raised in Rhode Island and graduated from Oberlin College. He has lived in Boston; in Chapel Hill, NC; in Washington, DC; and he now makes his home in Atlanta with his wife and two sons.

When not reading or writing, his greatest interests are music, film, travel, and hiking. The best books he read in 2010 were Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, The Bridge of Sighs and The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer, Serena by Ron Rash, Caveman’s Valentine by George Dawes Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, Savages by Don Winslow, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisberg.

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