Capturing the Hum and Anxieties of the Times: An Interview with Edward Carlson, author of All The Beautiful People We Once Knew

book cover for All the Beautiful People We Once Knew

The United States has been at war for the better part of two decades, and while many of us remain distant from the costs of these wars, the extent of the damage, in human pain and suffering, should never be minimized. Edward Carlson’s debut novel, All The Beautiful People We Once Knew, delves into the world of former soldiers and military contractors seeking compensation for their injuries. Carlson, a lawyer by trade, based the novel on his past work defending insurance companies against such claims. The novel is steeped in the culture of New York law and insurance, but never loses its moral focus on the individuals involved. These are complicated issues, and complicated lives, and Carlson deftly avoids the temptation to make the story black and white.

He recently shared his thoughts with Cease, Cows.

Q: If you were in a bookstore and saw a potential reader holding a copy of All the Beautiful People We Once Knew, what might you say to entice him or her to read it?

A: I don’t think I would say anything. I can’t imagine myself saying “Hi, how you doing? That is my book you are holding. Look at the picture on the back inside flap, yes that’s me, here is why you should buy my book.” It’s not my style. I’ve been contemplating what I would say if I saw someone reading the book on the New York subway and I think the same applies in that scenario as well.

But let me step back from that initial curt response. If I was compelled to do so, if I forced myself to do so, I would advise this prospective reader that I did my best to write an honest and relevant book, and if they are in the market for a book that is honest – i.e., raw about the state of our current predicament as humans – and relevant – in that it grapples with our current political and sociological predicament – then they should give this one a shot.

Q: Tell us about your main character Stephen Harker.

A: Stephen is a young man who did what he thought he was supposed to do – get an education, pass the licensing exam to obtain the requisite qualification (in this instance a law license), marry, build a career – and even after he does what he believes he is supposed to do, it all comes up short. There is no immunization against failure and there is no panacea against loss and pain. And as he is emotionally struggling with his own losses, he is also struggling against, and succumbing to, the system in which he operates, which is this New York system of law, finance, risk and insurance. Until the system rejects him, tragedy befalls him, and he is forced to act more in accordance with his natural state than before he assumed the mantle of who he thought he was supposed to be.

Q: All the Beautiful People We Once Knew is your first published novel. How did it come about? What was the initial inspiration, and was there an “I’ve got this” moment where you felt in control of the process?

A: I wrote a novel years ago, when I was in my 20s, that will forever sit in a box on a shelf. When I sat down to write a second novel, I came up short, threw in the towel, started studying for the LSAT to attend law school, and stopped writing the notes that serve as the organic matter for the books I wrote and want to write. Years pass, I attend law school, pass the bar, start working at a law firm, get married, move to the West Village, and while walking down the street one day the compulsion to write returned. And I promised myself that I would write another book and not stop until it saw the light of day. That was almost seven years ago.

There was no initial inspiration; it was more of a grinding it out. And I don’t think there was ever an “I’ve got this” moment, except for maybe when I received an email from an editor interested in maybe possibly discussing publishing the manuscript on the condition we built a couple of additions to the narrative frame. As for whether I knew or know the book will be successful, I never contemplated the book in those terms. It was something I wanted to do and I set out to do it. But I don’t take any massive amount of satisfaction or sense of accomplishment from this. The reward rests in the almost mendicant process of writing the story and shaping it to my satisfaction. I’m more concerned with trying to summon the focus and intensity to start a next book while still working full-time and raising my son than I am with toasting the potential success of a book that took seven years to write.

Q: While the novel could be described as a legal thriller, it features a distinct, first-person narrative-voice that sets it apart from most works in that genre. What drove the decision to use a unique first-person voice rather than an omniscient narrator?

A: The first couple years spent writing this book were dedicated to finding the story’s voice. It was countless hours of experimentation, and initially I wanted to tell the story from multiple first-person perspectives until I settled on just one perspective, that of Stephen Harker. And I think a lot of that decision resulted from the process of finding the story in addition to the voice. Every effort to outline the story more than the next couple chapters resulted in frustration. When you employ a first-person voice, you can keep the story close, hold it close to the chest, and let the narrator follow where the story leads, and that voice can ferry the story in the direction of and towards the discoveries that naturally unfold during the writing process. Anyone interested in this should pick up a copy of Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art; Mailer does a good job explaining why outlines are an obstacle.

As for the use of an omniscient narrator, I hold this in very high almost Tolstoyan regard and I wasn’t physically and mentally ready to employ it in a first book. When you’re trying to figure out how to tell a story and create realistic characters it’s a stretch to also play god with the voice. At least it was for me.

Q: All the Beautiful People We Once Knew revolves around an Afghan war veteran, PTSD, and a workers’ compensation case. You’re a lawyer by trade, and have experience working such cases. How did you balance your professional knowledge of the law with the need to craft a compelling narrative? Did the two ever come into conflict?

A: My tendency when drafting the book was to venture off into long ramblings about case management and legal procedure and case theory. Fortunately, I had a good editor who objectively pointed out that some of what I had written about the law was either too abstract or esoteric to remain interesting, let alone serve the story. So balancing the story with the law was a challenge, but I had a good editor who kept me from dumping too many spoonsful of legalese into the narrative. But there was a conflict and it required an objective observer to effectively manage it.

Q: A major theme of the novel is the plight of veterans and the emotional and physical toll faced by those who have served in combat. What do you hope sticks with the reader regarding this theme?

A: One, that the adversarial litigation system is a poor mechanism for treating mental illness which results from serving in the US military. Two, that the country is reeling from a collective PTSD which results from the death and destruction we have wrought and which has been wrought upon us since 9/11. Three, that we are light years away from healing these wounds and addressing the country’s mental health as a whole because the political system is so completely adversarial, and rather than appealing to the collective whole, one half of the country is assigning blame to the other half and focused on settling scores. We’re becoming factionalized and I have little faith or hope that the Baby Boomer white men in power have the personal conviction or interpersonal skills to grasp the reality of where the country and the planet are heading.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel? Were certain parts more difficult than others to get right?

A: Initially the challenge was determining whether the story moved, was compelling, was worthy of publication. Then the struggle was finding an agent (I never did) and/or a publisher to shepherd the book to market. Now the biggest challenge is engaging in the process of publicizing the book and getting others to pay it some attention. I find it challenging to write about a book you have written without sounding like an asshole or as a self-serving charlatan. It’s a little bit like having a child. You get them to the point they can walk and talk and fend for themselves. But you don’t want to sit around all day talking about this personally very important aspect of your life. You want to get back to figuring out what’s next, how to learn and grow.

Q: You mention that you connected with an editor without first acquiring an agent. How did that process work?

A: I couldn’t land an agent. Which I understand, because they’re inundated with queries and their default is “no, not interested.” Especially when the author is someone they’ve never met, have never heard of, and who doesn’t have an MFA. I sent out many queries and none ever stuck. One night I met a friend for a drink, who had a friend, who had a friend, and so on, and she forwarded me the email address for a publisher. I queried him directly, followed-up a couple weeks later, and a few weeks after that I received an email from an editor saying he was interested in the project. Which is a good place to be, because at that point you can focus solely on the book, instead of book plus pitching plus networking plus managing the anxiety of having written something that needs to be birthed.

Q: With the genre of legal thriller, many readers expect a strong plot more than carefully crafted language, yet All the Beautiful People We Once Knew is particularly strong at the sentence level. The rhythm of the prose is reminiscent of Don DeLillo’s work. Do you consider him an influence?

A: I never set out to write a legal thriller. I wanted to write a relevant book set in the arena I knew – which was practicing law. And for the story to be compelling there needs to be some tension and movement towards a dramatic climax. Otherwise it’s a post-modern collection of emotionally evocative images with no core, which I didn’t want to write. This label of literary thriller I presume and suppose results from the fact it’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end involving lawyers. But I never set out to write a legal thriller, per se.

As for Mr. DeLillo, the only book I’ve read of his is White Noise. Yet I continue to receive these comparisons, of which I am very appreciative, but also a little suspicious, as I don’t entirely know what this means. I honed and polished the story to the best of my ability from a collection of notes and impressions, influences, hopes and fears and I wanted the story to move. For there to be no superfluous words or sentiments while also trying to capture the hum and anxieties of this time. Perhaps we have both attempted to do the same, which is the origin of the comparisons.

Q: Any advice for writers working on their first novels?

A: Focus on the characters and the language to the best of your ability and the story will fall into place. No one owes you anything. And try to hold a job or build a career while writing. Though it will significantly limit your writing time, it will keep you connected to, frustrated by, and ultimately engaged in the world in which you live. We are on the cusp of an era of intense political instability. As a writer you need to understand this and figure out your role in it.

Chuck Augello is Head Editor of Cease, Cows. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.