By Guest Contributor Melanie DeCarolis
There are a lot of supposed rules about first novels that Martin Seay breaks with his debut, The Mirror Thief.
It’s a publisher-unfriendly 592 pages. It’s a mashup of three ambitious yet interconnected time-hopping storylines: a damaged veteran’s neon noir manhunt in Las Vegas 2003 at the Venetian casino, a teenage hustler’s wallow among the Beat demimonde in 1958 Venice, California; and a provocateur’s dreamlike skulk through 1592 Venice, Italy. Much is left up to the reader’s interpretation. It’s a book without a single quotation mark, even.
And yet it’s elicited the heady critical praise that first-time writers dream of from Publisher’s Weekly (a starred review), NPR, Buzzfeed, The Rumpus, Flavorwire, and the New York Times, along with comparisons to David Mitchell, Umberto Eco, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and James Ellroy.
Born in Texas, Martin has lived in Washington DC, Boston, and Chicago, where he currently makes his home. He received his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.
What was the genesis for the novel?
I was taking a course called “Experimental Fiction,” taught by the great Richard Peabody at Johns Hopkins in Washington, DC. One of the assignments was to “write a story in which someone tells a story in which someone tells a story.”
Even since visiting Venice for a couple of days in the late ’90s I had vaguely intended to write about it. The assignment—which implied three stories set in three different times—seemed like a good occasion to give it a shot. I didn’t have enough to get started, though, until I blundered into a book about an interesting historical episode: the virtual monopoly that Venice ruthlessly maintained on the manufacture of flat glass mirrors from about 1500 till about 1700. That gave me an early-modern-industrial-espionage plot to play with, as well as motifs of mirrors, reflection, doubling, and so forth, which led in turn to the idea that my other two stories could be set in copies of the original Venice. Once I had the three Venices, it was just a matter of looking for connections between them and building a narrative around those.
Your director’s cut draft: six storylines and two thousand pages, right? How much of your original manuscript did you have to cut just to get it to 592 pages?
Believe it or not, I’m pretty sure the notes I got from [publisher] Melville House made the book longer, not shorter, although not by much. After I finished a complete draft—before I started sending it out—I think I went back and cut maybe three or four pages, but that’s about it. Because I had the structure before I had anything else, and because I rewrote extensively as I went along, I didn’t make many drastic edits during revision, either on my own or at the suggestion of my editor. My original manuscript was about 700 pages, and design and typesetting yielded the slightly-under-600-page book that ultimately got published.
The 1592 storyline deals with Muslims and mistrust of them. Was that why you set the Las Vegas storyline in pre-Gulf War 2003?
I wrote a lot of the Las Vegas sections in 2003, as the invasion of Iraq was about to happen, and then as it was happening. A lot of my impulse to write the book came from despair over the war, which seemed obviously wrong and yet also impossible to stop. I started to entertain the theory that if you got your information about the world in general, and the Islamic world in particular from print sources, then you probably recognized the invasion as the ill-conceived, unethical, opportunistic, and fraudulent disaster that it was. If you got it from televisual sources, then you probably didn’t. That’s a drastic oversimplification, of course, but that’s where my head was. I started thinking about screens—featureless surfaces that produce illusions through which we hope to better understand ourselves and our circumstances. The Venetian glass mirror was arguably the first to become available on a commercial scale. And I started thinking about what screens help us see, and what they encourage us to ignore.
I was also thinking a lot about a weird and amazing passage in “Freaks,” Dave Hickey’s great essay about psychedelic art, in his book Air Guitar. In situating psychedelic art among other “anti-academic” styles, he makes a passing reference to “that Venetian moment before East and West diverged;” while it’s common enough to understand Venice as the pivot-point between the Christian and Islamic worlds, I thought it was interesting to link that status to a style of visual representation, particularly one that constitutes a semi-hidden third way that reconciles, defuses, or just ignores the seemingly insurmountable obstacles between supposedly clashing civilizations.
How did you write the three interspersed storylines?
With very few exceptions, I wrote everything in the same order that you read it. That was convenient, because Las Vegas in 2003 required the least research and Venice in 1592 required the most. I research faster than I write, so I was continually able to educate myself ahead of whatever I was working on.
What kind of research did you do for the 1592 plot? It reads like you have a PhD in Renaissance Studies.
I have a small bookcase in my apartment that’s almost entirely full of books I used to write it. I also spent many days at the Boston Public Library, flipping through academic press titles, to get detailed nuts-and-bolts information about glassmaking, alchemy, naval warfare, and other specialized topics. I’m definitely not an expert on early-modern Venice, or on anything else!
One of the book’s fun puzzles is how motifs replay themselves out across the three timelines. Were these deliberately planned?
They were all probably somewhere between deliberate and extremely deliberate. I literally had a Word doc full of these—titled something embarrassing like “motifs.doc”—which I created very early, when I hadn’t written more than fifty pages. A ton of scenes in the book were actually created in order to include some of them. The challenge became to get them to stand on their own, and pushing the motifs far enough into the background that they’d seem subtle and natural.
Let’s talk about the theme of The Other. Reflections and mirrors aside, each of your protagonists is a stranger in a strange land. And each of them in turn is helped/guided by yet another stranger/Other who’s even more of an outsider.
I mostly wanted to present examples of characters who are even more disadvantaged by their statuses than the three main characters, and who are still able to navigate the three settings more gracefully, mostly because they aren’t as given to perverse self-sabotage. The outsiders helped me make it clearer that my protagonists bring a lot of their trouble on themselves.
You spent five-and-a-half years writing this, and seven-plus years hoping to get it published. Any advice to other writers out there about perseverance?
I’ve only written and published one novel, so I don’t pretend to be an authority, but for me the key things were to maintain a very clear sense of what I wanted my book to be, to hold myself responsible for making good on that idea, and then to be confident enough in the finished product to wait for a break. I’m also fortunate that every time a submission went out, I got at least a little bit positive reinforcement. That helped a lot, even if an actual deal remained just out of reach for a long, long time.
Your spouse, Kathleen Rooney, has published numerous books of non-fiction, poetry, fiction, and is a small press publisher. In your thirteen-year journey to publication, how did you negotiate that one marriage-two writers thing, especially when one half is so prolific?
It has been very, very helpful, actually. It’s very cool and inspirational to see someone you love do awesome things, as well as for the practical reason that I had her experience to draw on. I’ve seen Kathleen work with agents and editors, sign book contracts, and promote her writing and the writing of others. By nature I’m not at all competitive, so plugging away on my single project while she succeeded at all manner of undertakings never really bothered me. We’re both big fans of each other’s stuff, but our projects tend to be very different.
Melanie DeCarolis is a graduate of GrubStreet’s 2015-16 Novel Generator program. A full-time copywriter and part-time wine educator, she’s appeared in the Wall Street Journal, 580 Split, and the Surreal South anthology series.