An Interview with Novelist Sean Ferrell
Over at the Atlantic, I’ve reviewed Sean Ferrell's latest novel, Man in the Empty Suit. The story—and I’m borrowing a bit from my piece—follows a a time traveler who celebrates every birthday at an abandoned hotel in New York City in the distant future. Accordingly, he is gathered annually with sixty or so of himself, each from a different year of his life, some older, some younger. When the narrator (age 39) arrives at the party and stumbles upon an inexplicably murdered self from six months in the future, he becomes the prime suspect and chief inspector of his own murder, and has to figure out what happened before he becomes the corpse.
I’m a big fan of Sean’s work—Numb, his first novel, is a masterwork of transgressive fiction—and I was fortunate enough to chat with him about his latest novel. Here is that discussion.
First: Are you a time traveler?
So far I’ve only traveled in one direction and I’m moving at a pace of one second per second. The short answer is yes. The long answer is also yes.
What was the origin of Man in the Empty Suit?
I think that most of the time the things I write start off as the voice of the main character. I get a sense of who they are before I get a sense of what they’re doing and I had this—I wouldn’t call it a vision, but I just knew there was this guy and he was fed up with everything and he was standing over his own body. And he was more put out by the fact that he had to figure out what the hell was going on than he was by the fact that it meant he was going to die. So I kind of knew immediately that it was a man who was spending a lot of time with himself in a literal way as opposed to the usual meanings of that phrase. And it started to grow from there.
There are so many “versions” of the narrator at the party and throughout the story, each a different age and thus connected by memory. What happens to one might affect forty other characters—how did you keep track of everything? I imagine there was a pretty epic outline.
This was actually the first novel that I’ve written where from start to finish it’s in the same order now as when I wrote it. I just followed the narrative, and so the loops in time and the interaction with the various ages, that all just came out as it’s there. And I didn’t outline; I trusted that if there were any problems I would be able to find them later and iron them out. For me the important part was the emotional journey that he was going on, as opposed to the ins and outs and technicalities of time travel.
So what I ended up with was—I’m just going to guess—ninety percent of what was in my first draft is still in the book. Not in a sentence-by-sentence measure, but in the sense of I had managed to get most of the plotting right, even before I tried to figure out if it made sense. When I sat down and worked with my editor I did draw out the timeline. And it was forked; at one point he breaks his nose and at another he doesn’t. At one point he has so many bullets in the gun, and at one point he has fewer. I had to lay out multiple timelines to see when he would cross paths with given people who would have a broken nose and who would have a gun. And I think the biggest tripping point was where the gun was and where the bullets were. That was where things got the muddiest. But for the most part I was pretty happy with hitting the conclusion of writing the first draft and then going through the editing process and finding that there weren’t any major knots in the narrative that threw everything out of the window.
That is an impressive feat. The whole time I was reading it I imagined how you might have it laid out. To have it come from your head is pretty remarkable.
I know people who draw very careful outlines and put three-by-five index cards on the wall and work out the timelines and plot lines and that sort of thing. I’ve tried doing that, but I go off-script too much and then feel beholden to an outline that I’m no longer emotionally committed to. And it strangles me. Happily when I was writing this book I paid attention to the voice saying, Just go with it, just follow his plight.
How was the writing process for this book different from the process for your last book, Numb?
Numb was written much more piecemeal and out of order. A few years before I started the project, I’d read Jesus’ Son, and that was my model for what a novel could be—short episodic moments holding hands, as opposed to a clear novelistic through-line. And that’s how Numb got put together. Originally it was a short story, but it became clear to me that it was bigger, and so it ended up becoming two chapters and I realized I was writing a novel sort of by mistake.
The characters who come into the narrative, each one of them got their moment, and each moment was a chapter. So I explored the central character through episodes and the book was in his interaction with characters who came in and left his life. When I was finished writing it, it was 200 pages of mush. I had to lay it all out—I literally laid the manuscript on the floor of my apartment. I had to take big batches of writing and move them around so that I could figure out the timeline. I had—okay a character dies, but in a later story he’s still alive, and how could I make that timeline work? Ironically that book required more heavy lifting of the timeline than my time travel book.
So the first book was written very much out of order without it being viewed even as an understandable whole, and it was through the editing process that the plot-line emerged. I think that book is largely character driven as opposed to plot driven, whereas Man in the Empty Suit had a lot more plotting to it. But they both feel like my work to me.
What was your experience working with Soho?
It was terrific. They are an incredibly talented group of people. They’re all so energized about their books. It’s really great to be there, and I think that you want to be around people who don’t necessarily care about you as an individual, but care about the sort of material that you’re involved in. They, as a group of people, are really charging forward with the battle-cry of Make really great books. Get the best work out there possible. I look at the books they’ve got coming out from other authors and I’m astounded that they think I’m worth including with that group of people. The other authors are just tremendous and I’m very honored to be a part of that.
Describe the time traveler in Man in the Empty Suit.
As I see him, in the place that he’s in when the novel happens, he’s an unhappy soul who doesn’t know why. And he’s lost any sort of connection to—he’s done all these tremendous things, and yet he’s not sure what the point of it all is. So for me, I think the book is about the discovery of place and the discovery of owning not only your successes but also your failures, and coming to terms with your own humanity. Sometimes our best moments are recognizing our worst, and our responsibility in them. I think he has that moment where he realizes that he’s largely responsible for the burdens that he has to carry around with him. And not that it’s okay, but that it’s what life is sometimes, and moving past it.
What are you working on now?
I’ve got a book that’s probably—I don’t know if it’s done; it’s hard for me to know. It’s a modern retelling of a Greek myth. I’m also working on a couple of other things that are more—basically they’re for my son. I’ve been working on something for a while that’s a book for a younger reader. When I first showed my son Numb, he was four years old at that point, and he tried to grab the book and rip the cover off. He didn’t like the book because there are no pictures in it. He said, Write something for me, and so that’s what I’ve been doing.
[N.B.: This is the first entry in a little experiment I’ve been thinking a lot about. I’m going to try writing companion pieces here at Medium for some of my work elsewhere. Hopefully this will find a nice audience, and you guys will enjoy.]