ALISON STEWART, host:
From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Alison Stewart. Admit it. You think you have a novel in you. Now, getting it out and on the page is the hard part. It's hard even for someone whose father is a well-known columnist and whose day job has him rubbing elbows with some of world's greatest authors and thinkers. But it was all worth it for Nathaniel Rich, the author of "The Mayor's Tongue." From member station KUSP, Rick Kleffel reports.
RICK KLEFFEL: His father is a famous op ed writer, and his mother works in the publishing industry. So Nathaniel Rich was always destined for a literary life. His parents weren't surprised when he started writing film criticism.
Mr. NATHANIEL RICH (Author, "The Mayor's Tongue"): A lot of other writers, when they tell their parents what they want to do for a living are often greeted with sort of looks of consternation or anger, so I got a little bit of that, but they couldn't really take it too far because they'd set the bad example to begin with.
KLEFFEL: First novels by young men often feature a young man of the protagonist, for example Eugene in Nathaniel Rich's novel, "The Mayor's Tonque." Eugene is hired to research his favorite writer, Constance Econs (ph). Rich interweaves Eugene's story with a story of two old men, Mr. Schmitz (ph) and Mr. Rutherford (ph).
Mr. RICH: And I realized at a certain point, I could not escape certain basic things, like one of the protagonists being a young man in New York, or at least starting there. But it was important to me to have the story be much bigger than that. And Mr. Schmitz and Rutherford strand is very much a part of that.
KLEFFEL: In "The Mayor's Tongue," when Eugene enters the library of his employer, it's as if he steps in to a novel within a novel. He's sent to Europe and given Econ's last known address, which proves to be a mystical borderland between Italy and the imagination. Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Schmitz also find themselves drawn to this landscape. In this reading from the novel, Mr. Schmitz lies awake at night before his departure and considers his aging wife.
Mr. RICH: (Reading) It occurs to Mr. Schmitz that beauty, unlike love, doesn't fade. It becomes grotesque. Yellow hair turns to straw, translucent pale skin folds up and coarsens like canvas. Bones push out the skin like tent poles. Eyes pinken and distort. Love, on the other hand, enters a desert and dies of thirst. If only love became grotesque, too, there would at least be some fascination in its decline.
KLEFFEL: Before he graduated from Yale, Nathaniel Rich was living in Italy and working as an intern in Milan for a publishing company, where he began making notes for "The Mayor's Tongue." Rich returned to the States and moved to San Francisco to start work on a second book, a non-fiction work of film criticism titled "San Francisco Noir." It was a straight forward project that he felt comfortable discussing with his parents and peers.
Mr. RICH: While I was writing the Noir book, I was doing that during the mornings. And in the afternoons and evenings, very secretly and without telling anybody, I was writing the novel. So I didn't want to talk about it to anybody, and I didn't want to be, you know, the guy who goes around town talking about his book, and then it never comes out, and it's - or it's a disaster.
KLEFFEL: Working on two projects at once gave Rich both perspective and inspiration. The nonfiction work went much quicker than the novel, which he'd started three years earlier. He realized he was going to finish his second book first.
Mr. RICH: The critical work was sort of like my schoolwork during the day, even though I loved the project, and at night, it was more - the untethered fiction writing, which felt like it allowed me to go to a different place.
KLEFFEL: But the discipline he learned writing nonfiction made him worry about working in secret with an unfettered imagination.
Mr. RICH: I thought maybe, because I wasn't talking about it, that it was just getting crazier. The book itself was getting crazier and crazier and crazier and going into some strange part of my mind because it wasn't being exposed to an outside reader who might inject some kind of logicality to it.
KLEFFEL: Rich finished his nonfiction book, then returned to New York, where he became an editor for The Paris Review. Though he worked with literary professionals who could have acted as first readers to give him feedback on his novel, he continued to write in secret.
Mr. RICH: I spent a long time reducing the craziness factor to a more manageable, manageable amount. I was the first through 12th reader.
KLEFFEL: Going it alone, it took Rich over five years to get his first book ready for submission. Working in isolation may have ensured that he wrote the book he wanted, but it also taught him how hard it is to be your own editor. He's working on a new novel called "FutureWorld," and he's not making a secret of it. For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.