One of my favorite books last year was Martin Seay‘s debut novel The Mirror Thief, set in three different time periods and three different versions of Venice. It won the first-ever Chicago Review of Books Award for Best Debut, and a year after reading the ARC, I’m still thinking about its bizarre, metaphysical mysteries.
This week, Melville House will publish the book’s paperback edition, so I caught up with Martin Seay — who lives in Chicago with his spouse-novelist, Kathleen Rooney — and asked him to shed more light on Renaissance Italy, the “science fictional” nature of Venice, and how he wrote a 600-page labyrinth.
Adam Morgan: What initially drew you to the city of Venice? To the 16th century?
Martin Seay: I had wanted to write about Venice ever since I spent a couple of days there twenty-some years ago; I just thought it was the craziest place I’d ever been. It almost seems like the product of a science-fiction premise: it’s different from other European cities in ways that are so fundamental it’s hard to wrap your head around them. Other cities are walled; Venice is open. Other European architecture is massive and fortified; Venetian palaces are permeable, vented to let air and light pass through. And obviously the main thoroughfares in Venice are canals rather than streets, but that understates how weird the city’s relationship to water is: it’s important to remember that most of the city’s structures weren’t built on islands, but rather on pilings pounded into the sandy bottom of the lagoon. Venice is literally built on the ocean.
I guess that’s what interested me about it the most: like any city, it was constructed in ways that respond to its geography, but because that geography just consisted of an expanse of shallow water, every urban project the Venetians undertook had to be extremely deliberate. Venice was also a functioning independent republic for a thousand years—not a very inclusive or democratic one, but still—and taken together, these facts led me to imagine its form as a very pure expression of the collective aims of its residents: like a city grown in a petri dish.
I didn’t really have a good way to start writing about Venice, though, until I learned that among its many other economic innovations—in textiles, banking, printing, salt-making, dye-making, shipbuilding, etc.—it maintained a two-hundred-year monopoly on the manufacture of flat glass mirrors, and did so with impressive ruthlessness in the face of aggressive attempts by foreign powers to steal the technology for their own craftsmen. I decided to set the core of the novel during this period, which ran from about 1500 to about 1700. I specifically picked 1592 because that’s the year Giordano Bruno—the Dominican friar, polymath, heretic, and humanist martyr—got himself arrested by the Venetian Inquisition. Even though Bruno is more of a background presence than a character, he gave me an opportunity to expand the scope of the book and work in a bunch of other concerns.
Adam Morgan: Have you spent time in all three Venices, for research or pleasure?
Martin Seay: With the possible exception of the Venice in Los Angeles, I had visited all three places before I had the idea for the novel; I’ve also visited all three since I finished the book. I was not, however, able to make it to any of them while I was actually writing: my research on the three settings was all done online and in libraries; none happened onsite.
A couple of years ago my spouse Kathleen Rooney and I were able to spend a few days in the original Venice, and I was surprised to discover that I could get around pretty well based on all the reading about it that I had done. We walked most of one of the routes that Crivano takes through the city, and fortunately I didn’t notice anything that I had obviously screwed up. A few years before that, we visited the Venice-themed casino on the Las Vegas Strip for the wedding of our mutual friend Angela, who introduced us. (Angela got married at the Venetian, but Kathleen and I stayed at Treasure Island; I’ve never been inside a hotel room at the Venetian.) I may have visited Venice Beach in LA prior to starting the novel, but it would have been when I was a kid; I had no first-hand memories of it to draw on while I was writing. I’ve now spent a total of maybe two hours there, on two separate occasions, the most recent of which was a few weeks ago, during the book tour for The Mirror Thief.
Adam Morgan: Did the novel always begin with the prologue, or did you add it later in the writing process?
Martin Seay: Great question! It always began with a prologue, just not the prologue that it ended up with. The opening has always been written in the second person — i.e. addressed to an unnamed “you” from a very close distance — and largely in the imperative mood (mostly to conceal the fact that it’s written in second person). It’s also always been set where it’s set, time- and place-wise; I won’t be more specific than that to avoid spoilers. But I rewrote every sentence of it many, many times. It’s definitely the most worked-over material in the book: the first section that I wrote, and one of the last that I finished.
Adam Morgan: Why was it important for you to ensure each time period was written its own voice? Was one of those voices more natural for you to write in than the others?
Martin Seay: The distinctive voices in the three major sections were a semi-incidental side effect of pursuing another major priority: I wanted the dominant point of view in those sections to be an extremely close third person. My rule — which I bent a little in the first chapter of each section in order to get the reader situated — was that the narration can only mention something when the protagonist is aware of it. This has the obvious effect of obliging the reader to see through the protagonists’ eyes, but it also has the (I hope) more subtle effect of hiding things from the reader that the protagonists have stopped being aware of just because those things are too obvious, or too close. (Visibility and invisibility are big concerns in the book, and I’ve tried to play with the fact that things are actually more likely to slip past us when they’re being taken for granted than when they’re being hidden.)
Because the narration is so close to the consciousness of each of the three protagonists, the sections necessarily sound very different from one another — and I’m glad that’s the case, because I really wanted the reader to feel the strangeness of historical distance more through the language of the narration than through my descriptions of the setting. (Again, the protagonists aren’t aware of how strange coastal Los Angeles in 1958 or the Venetian lagoon in 1592 would seem to a visitor from the present day — and because they aren’t aware of it, the narration must pass over those peculiar details quickly and without much fuss.)
Although his sections were the hardest to nail down the plot for, the sixteen-year-old Stanley was the easiest character to write, largely because he’s the most driven and the least introspective, and he has less of a past than the other two (although he does certainly have a past). Summarizing Stanley’s motives in their entirely would require one side of a three-by-five index card: for better or worse, he’s clear about what he wants. My other two main guys are more conflicted, and more inclined to second-guess themselves (although they still both manage to do some pretty dumb stuff).
Adam Morgan: How did you balance writing a 600-page book with your presumably demanding day job in Wheeling? How long did it take to get a queriable draft?
Martin Seay: Well . . . I can’t take credit for that, actually: I started working in Wheeling (and for Wheeling) in early August of 2007, and I finished the book about ten weeks later. Since then my Mirror-Thief-related activities have been more administrative than creative: finding an agent, finding a publisher, doing some light edits, and now helping Melville House get the word out about it. I’ve written stuff since I started working in the Village, but for the most part it’s been arts criticism of various sorts; it hasn’t been fiction.
Regarding how long it took to get a solid draft: I wrote the first thirty pages or so in 2002, I figured out what I was doing while working on my MFA at Queens University of Charlotte’s low-residency program, I wrote a bunch of the book while on a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and I wrote most of the rest while living in Tacoma, Washington, where Kathleen taught for a year. It was a total of five and a half years between writing the first sentence and finishing a draft that I thought was ready to be seen by agents.
Adam Morgan: What has your experience been like since publication, i.e., book tour, praise, attention in major outlets?
Martin Seay: Oh, it’s been great! The attention that the book has gotten has put me back in touch with a bunch of fantastic people with whom I had not done a good job of keeping up, and has also given me an opportunity to meet a lot of new folks who are doing cool things. This particularly includes booksellers from around the country — crucial early support for The Mirror Thief came from the American Booksellers Association, which named it an “Indies Introduce” pick — which has served as a helpful reminder of the extent to which we all depend on independent bookstores. (By “we” I mean not only “we writers” but also “we who participate in culture in any capacity.”)
Regarding reviews and other media attention, it’s all been extremely gratifying — both because the book is getting read, and because people seem to be reading the book that I think I wrote. After a lot of years of waiting for it to become available, it’s a huge pleasure just to see what people are doing in this weird playground that I built.
Adam Morgan: What are your post-Mirror Thief plans?
Martin Seay: The folks at the Village have been super-supportive the whole time I was trying to get The Mirror Thief published, and now that it’s out, we’ve been able to arrange a part-time schedule that will allow me the freedom to get a second novel off the ground. I have some ideas that I’m playing with in that regard — as well as a couple of nonfiction projects that I may also decide to pursue — but everything is still quite foggy at this point, which is a frightening and exciting state of affairs.
The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay
Published May 10, 2016
Paperback release April 11, 2017
Martin Seay is the executive secretary for the village of Wheeling, Illinois. The Mirror Thief is his first novel.
Are you passionate about diverse voices and genres in literature? Do you wish small, independent, and university presses got just as much attention as the Big Five publishers? You can help the Chicago Review of Books and Arcturus make the literary world more inclusive by becoming a member, patron, or sponsor. Each option comes with its own perks and exclusive content. Click here to learn more.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.