Tentative and fogbound, writer Robert Prowe, the protagonist of Chris Power’s A Lonely Man, finds himself in the middle of his life much like the Dante of The Divine Comedy. But for the city of Berlin in 2014 instead of a darkened wood, an unfinishable manuscript in his hands instead of those same hands together in prayer, Robert’s existential position in front of the entrance to hell resembles the Florentine’s in more ways than one. A pilgrim, searching for a way past the blank page towards the paradise of fame, Robert feels mediocre at best; his stalled-out career—a series of subtle, ultimately fruitless tensions prodding him merely in the direction of failure—is sourly echoed by his inability to find joy in his family.
And then Robert, a British expat, meets another British expat, Patrick, a man who—with his alcoholism and his perturbed, needful personality—could easily be a harried character from an airport thriller. A ghostwriter himself ghosted, doggedly trailed by men from the shadows as he navigates the streets of ever-haunted Berlin, Patrick had a writing relationship with a Russian oligarch recently discovered hanging “from an oak tree in the woods outside his Buckinghamshire estate.” He has information, a nervous Patrick tells Robert, drawn from his research and time spent with this millionaire, that he suspects other people don’t want him to possess. Drawn in by this tale, as if drawn in through Inferno’s gates (“Abandon all hope…”) Robert senses a story he could take, make into a novel, a fine, lucrative one. The story of A Lonely Man is the story of a writer who trades away his own reality, however poor, for the bitter fiction of another.
Chris Power, a columnist for The Guardian since 2007, is the author of the short story collection Mothers and a writer for the BBC, The New York Times, and the New Statesman. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him.
How did A Lonely Man initially take shape in your mind? Did you have the concept for the parallel lines , or did you work your way into it?
I was delayed in beginning the book for a year—just by life, children, etc.—but that period was hugely valuable as it allowed me to turn the idea over in my mind for a long time before getting anywhere near a keyboard. By the time I did, I found I was able to summarize most scenes from beginning to end and write the book in a linear way, first page to last, and then go back to the beginning and do it again. I think I rewrote it six or seven times this way.
Structural stuff definitely changed during that process, and some developments or twists arrived organically as I struggled with certain sections or pursued previously marginal elements, consigning other things, which previously I’d considered essential, to the bin. In other words, all the euphoric and despair-inducing parts of wrestling something into shape.
The stories of the haunted ghostwriter and the Russian oligarchical underworld eventually become intertwined, highlighting, among other notions, the pains of the creative process, and the profound loneliness of the fiction writer. Each strand bound together, reflecting one another like a helix. Was this what propelled you into the writing? Or did the book emerge from simpler circumstances?
The Russian story came first, or rather the stimulus that led to it came first. Ever since the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006—a murder that left a trail of polonium-210 through the center of the city, leading to various places he or his killers had visited being sealed and decontaminated—I’ve been grimly fascinated by the growing list of murdered Russian journalists, politicians, and exiled oligarchs. Many of these deaths occurred on British soil, and there were many irregularities in the way they were investigated.
I think the desire to write something about this world originated five or six years ago. I was working at an advertising agency in central London, and I realized that the sushi bar where I sometimes went to get lunch had been Litvinenko’s favorite restaurant—in fact, he went there on the day he drank the radioactive tea that would kill him (it was one of the places that was later sealed for decontamination). We intersect with history all the time, of course, particularly in large, old cities, but there was something about this particular intersection between the kind of events that could be found in a spy thriller—and which are consumed, sometimes, via news report, as if they’re not entirely real—and the absolute mundanity of a work lunch hour, that really impressed itself on me.
It was as I began to read and research more that the idea of the ghostwriter suggested itself: I wanted someone who could be in that world without being implicated in its operations, as a fixer or lawyer might be. Someone who, in this regard at least, was an innocent. The additional layer provided by my character Robert, a writer of fiction, developed by way of my thinking about a Roberto Bolaño story called “Enrique Martín,” which is about this tense, mistrustful relationship between two writers. They were disparate ideas, but as soon as I started seriously thinking about the Russian story this other one forced itself into the frame.
With respect, Ryan, I would protest your description of the profound loneliness of the fiction writer. I get what you’re saying, and writing a novel is inherently lonely—not least because you probably have to work on a particular thing for months, maybe a year in the case of a novel, before it’s ready for any kind of feedback whatsoever. But at the same time, I think everyone’s lonely to some degree. The loneliness of a fiction writer isn’t any more profound than the loneliness of a construction worker. The writer probably just harps on about it more. Admittedly, yes, I have written a book about not just one writer but two, but I think their loneliness has its roots in other things than their shared profession. Their flaws are actually ones many men possess, and which afflict a lot of people in the orbit of those men.
In fact, the quality particular to writers that interested me most in this book is their habit of taking material from other people’s lives; the callous, parasitical element of writing that is, to a greater or lesser extent, present in all fiction. Some of the choices Robert makes in the book are very much about the ethical entanglements of that.
You take full advantage of Berlin’s noir richness. Was there a specific reason you decided upon that major setting (London, secondarily, adds its presence to the novel, as well)?
It’s a city that’s meant a lot to me, personally, for the last twenty years. I started travelling there pretty much solely to visit techno clubs. Then in 2006, when Germany hosted the World Cup, I stayed for a few weeks, sleeping on the couches of German friends, and got to know the city better—during daylight hours, for one thing. It’s an incredible environment: complicated, exciting, maddening, inspiring. My wife and I gave serious consideration to moving there a few years ago. It didn’t happen, so perhaps there’s been an element of wish fulfilment to spending so much time there in my head for the last few years. Every city is a palimpsest, but the magnitude of historical events that layer Berlin makes it unique. Its relatively recent past as a divided city makes it irresistible for a novel that contains so many dualities: truth and deceit, domesticity and adventure, loyalty, and betrayal.
How deeply have you read the classics of the espionage genre? le Carré, Forsythe, Ludlum, Greene, etc. Was there assistance for you in these dark corridors, or did you enter the world of the spy novel as a relative neophyte?
I’m not deeply read in espionage fiction. I’ve read some le Carré and seen adaptations of work by Ludlum, and Greene’s The Third Man, of course, which I love. But really, I think I was helped more by my approximate idea of the genre than by any actual in-depth knowledge. I had in mind a rhythm and tone that were probably more my own idealized, not to say idiosyncratic, conception of that genre. It’s probably also worth saying that some of the things associated with that type of book—a certain tautness to the prose, for example, and perhaps a sparse level of detail—were things that characterized my writing before it had anything to do with secret service agents or assassinations. I’m always drawn to the tension in situations, whether that’s being drunk at a wedding or pursued down a city’s streets.
How intense, possibly disturbing, was the research you had to do regarding Russia’s oligarchy and its many-layered criminal doings? I can imagine there’s much material there to work with, and I can also imagine you had an occasional second thought about working with it.
The research I conducted was intensive, but my nervousness throughout this project had more to do with portraying that world convincingly, without caricature, than any fear of repercussions. That said, it’s a world you don’t need to penetrate very deeply before encountering unease and fear. I wanted to show the manuscript to a woman who tutored an oligarch’s kids, to see what she thought of the portrayal of that environment, and she was very nervous about being emailed anything for fear of her account being monitored.
Can you talk technically about what it meant to you as a writer to move to the challenges of the novel form? Were there unexpected talents unearthed by you? Unwelcome obstacles?
I’m someone who finds writing very difficult, so in terms of the daily struggle of trying to put the right words on the page, and then somehow get them into the best possible order, moving from short stories to novels represented no change whatsoever. But, of course, there’s the question of scale, the challenges of which didn’t manifest so much in terms of architecture—once the novel was a certain way along I actually really enjoyed the fact that changing something on page 10 might trigger the thought of a related change 200 pages later—but more in the length of time in which I experienced doubt.
This book took me two-and-a-half years to write, and for probably the first year of that I would regularly stop dead—washing the dishes, walking along the street, taking a shower–and think, “But what if it’s shit?” This sudden apprehension that the entire novel might give way, like a rotten floor—that such a thing could possibly, or very well, come to pass–would overwhelm me. Then I’d forget about it and carry on, as you must, and just worry about the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, which are, of course, the things most worth worrying about. But the persistence of this feeling was difficult to deal with. A short story might take you years to finish, but you know within a week or two if there’s something there worth pursuing. With a novel, that period of not knowing is much, much longer. Brutally long.
As a debut novelist, what do you feel confident you achieved in A Lonely Man? And what do you give yourself much credit for in terms of ‘pulling off’ what you thought you might not be able to?
I was very anxious about whether I could portray this world of extreme wealth, political intrigue, and recent Russian history. Looking back, it occurs to me it’s not a coincidence that the elements of Patrick’s story Robert is most dubious about are the ones I was particularly worried about getting right. It also took a lot of hard work, and I would say obsessive thought (which feels a lot more like panic than contemplation from the inside, to be honest) to make the mechanics of the plot cohere. But even though I think I’m making the individual elements of writing this book sound awful, I actually really enjoyed the experience. It was never dull! And I think I’ve learned a lot from writing it. I’m very proud of it, but really that’s by the by. All that’s important now is the relationship that develops between it and the person who’s reading it.
Do you have an interest in returning to the novel, or do you now yearn for the narrower parameters of the short story? What are your ambitions?
I have a novel I’m extremely keen to start work on. I had to postpone doing so because, here in the UK, our schools have been closed for a lot of the past year, and remote learning with a seven and five-year-old requires pretty much constant tech support. I now know way more about Microsoft Teams than I’ve ever known about literature. Actually, just in the last week I had an idea for a short story that’s really pushed its way to the front of the line, so I’m going to try and get a draft of that down first and check if I still remember how to do it. I’m primarily interested in telling particular stories, and stories tend to suggest the size and shape they need to be, so I think— I hope—there’ll be more stories and more novels to come. I’ve said it now, so I need to make it happen.
A Lonely Man
By Chris Power
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published May 4, 2021
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer and educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and writes for Chicago Review of Books and Kirkus Reviews. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he has published criticism in Creative Nonfiction, The Review Review, and the film journal Kabinet, journalism in Bostonia and other Boston University publications, and fiction in the Harvard Summer Review. His poetry has been published in The Newport Review, The Broad River Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Compass Rose, and Mandala Journal. Twitter: @RyanAsmussen. Website: www.ryanasmussen.com.