RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Rachel Kushner's new novel, "The Flamethrowers," begins with a crash. A young woman named Reno is trying to set a record on her motorcycle at a racetrack at the Bonneville Salt Flats. She wants to photograph the tracks she leaves in the sand, as an art project. But her crash takes Reno in a different direction. Her artistic ambition thrusts her in the middle of New York's chaotic art scene in the 1970s. And eventually, Reno finds herself embroiled in radical political movement in Italy.
Rachel Kushner joined us from NPR West. And I asked her where she got the idea to marry these seemingly incongruous ideas - an American girl from the West who likes motorcycles and this countercultural movement of the 1970s.
RACHEL KUSHNER: It's interesting that it seems incongruous because she is a young woman. But actually quite a bit of work was made by artists in the Western desert. But these were sophisticated conceptual artist from New York City who went west to make these works. She, perhaps in contradistinction to that actually is originally from the West; goes to New York, gets more of an education, becomes more sophisticated about art and then lands on the idea of doing this project.
MARTIN: So, Reno finds her way to New York City. What kind of New York does she descend upon? What is happening culturally at the time?
KUSHNER: Yes, she descends upon New York at a time when SoHo was the preeminent locale for the art world, but not in a glitzy, galleries and fashion boutiques shortly to follow sort of way. In the mid-1970s, it really was a kind of playground for artists because there were these vast, old factories and manufacturing warehouses that had been taken over by artists, so they had lots of space to work. Rents were inexpensive. You know, the streets are dark.
And I think that that made for a much more free space for artists because it didn't require a lot of money. And a lot of people also making work that wasn't even meant to be sellable. Some works were just gestures, you know, like a dance performance in a warehouse or on a roof. So it was a very free and open time, I would say, the 1970s in the New York art world.
MARTIN: So your main character is entranced with this place in this world. She meets a man named Sandro, the son of the famous Italian motorcycle empire, the successor to this empire. She falls in love with him. How does he influence her? How does he end up changing her life really?
KUSHNER: Well, he has total access to the art world because he's a well-known and successful artist. And so, he grants her that same social access and she gets to be around this very sort of haughty, blue-chip crowd. But he also connects her with a motorcycle from his family's company, which is what allows her to do this land speed test at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
MARTIN: Her journey takes her to some complicated places. She and Sandro end up going to Italy and she falls in with a complicated kind of crowd, this radical movement. There are a lot of different aspects to this novel. How in the world did this story come to you?
KUSHNER: I always knew that I wanted to write a novel about the New York art world in the 1970s. It has a sort of mythical hold over me perhaps from my own childhood because my aunt Dede Hellick(ph) is an artist in New York and I would go to visit. And I lived in New York for a summer in 1980 with my best friend and her mother who worked for Donald Judd. And I thought it would be interesting to try to recapture that time. I had just fallen naturally into an interest in Italy also in the 1970s the same year that I was focusing on New York 1977.
The Movement of '77, as it's called, overtook Italy. And it really almost tore the Italy state apart. It is a remarkable series of events that culminated in the fascination in 1978 of the former prime minister, Aldo Moro. And it seemed like a terrific thing to work on for fiction. And any novel is going to be, you know, built of various ideas but I guess I do sort of go for the broader scope. It's what interests me and challenges me.
MARTIN: Why motorcycles? Do you ride motorcycles?
KUSHNER: I used to ride motorcycles when I was in my 20s and I eventually gave them up because of the danger. And now I'm a mother and it doesn't seem right to risk my life when I'm needed by someone. But I always gravitated toward the culture of machines - cars and motorcycles. From when I was a very young girl, I was interested in that world. It still has a certain hold over me even though I don't ride anymore. But I did ride them quite a bit in my 20s.
MARTIN: There's an element of speed in this book, what it feels like to go beyond what you think you're capable of.
KUSHNER: Yeah. I mean, I'm not a very athletic person and yet I was a ski racer and I still ski a lot. And I rode motorcycles for a while, which is all about speed, and I rode very fast ones and crashed one going 140 miles an hour. I don't totally understand my interest in it but sometimes the things that you don't totally understand but gravitate toward are good subjects for fiction because it's through the long and murky process of forming the novel that one can understand these things, come to understand these things better.
MARTIN: Rachel Kushner is the author of a new novel. It's called "The Flame Thrower." She joined us from our studios in Culver City, California. Rachel, thanks so much for being on the program.
KUSHNER: Thank you for having me.
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