An interview with Nick Arvin, builder of novels and power plants

Noir Nation’s managing editor Cortright McMeel sat down with literary wunderkind Nick Arvin — a  writer, an engineer, a literary savant and versatile truth-seeker — to discuss Arvin’ brand of Noir and what the genre means to him. Arvin’s new novel The Reconstructionist was just published this March to great literary acclaim. Amazon added it to their Book of the Month list. His oeuvre ranges from war novels (Article of War), to literary short stories (In the Electric Eden) to his newest novel, which could best be described as an exploration of where the collision physics of car crash science meet love, revenge, and death in America’s heartland.

Noir Nation: What does Noir mean to you.

Nick Arvin: Crime, mystery, doomed romance, tough guys, the streets, schemes, death, pursuit, tragedy, irony, danger, dread — a list like that could go on for pages without really getting the thing.

There’s a certain feeling associated with great noir. It’s not a feeling that the characters experience, but a feeling created in the reader — it’s a feeling of a certain kind of paranoia, a claustrophobic paranoia. Not a paranoia of grand plots, government helicopters, alien mind control, but instead a smaller, closer paranoia — that the world may be even darker than you knew, a pervasive darkness that reaches intimately into everyone and everything. Great noir, when you put the book down or the movie ends, leaves that feeling of claustrophobic paranoia inside you, so that you find yourself glancing over your shoulder, questioning the motives of those you love, watching for the random accident that is the manifestation of physics’ conspiracy against you. And of course it’s inside ourselves, too, and the real secret that noir knows is this: you don’t need a grand conspiracy to betray you, because in the end you always betray yourself.

That’s noir to me — not a particular set of plot elements and themes, but a feeling. It’s a feeling that can be created by a book like The Big Sleep, but it can also happen in a painting or music or a place (for example, the deeply strange museum in Wisconsin, the House on the Rock).

My new novel, The Reconstructionist, isn’t strictly traditional noir by most measures, yet it’s often been described as noir, and I think this feeling of paranoia is the reason. One of the things I wanted to do in the book is get into the reader’s head with a reminder that even an ordinary life in modern America is dangerous and compromised to an extent that we mostly ignore or forget.

Noir Nation: Many of your stories and your novel, The Reconstructionist, take place in the Midwest. Does the Midwest lend itself to a noir sensibility? If so, how?

Nick Arvin: Cities gorgeous with rot, low gray skies, small towns and city neighborhoods where everyone halfway knows everyone else, nouveau poverty and old poverty, the toughness and duplicity of stoicism, great swathes of empty land where any kind of strangeness can hide in plain sight, hunters and mobsters and unions and gangs and militias and “regular” folk — how could such people and settings not lend themselves to noir?

Noir Nation: You are a literary writer and just on a panel at Lighthouse Writers Workshop called Death Match: Literature vs. Genre Fiction. Can you discuss the elements of that discussion to NN readers? What is your attitude towards “genre” crime fiction? Please discuss strengths and weaknesses.

Nick ArvinRobert GreerConnie Willis, and Nic Brown were also on the panel, and it was a great discussion, a blast. On the one hand everyone agrees that the literary/genre distinction is a false dichotomy, created by the publishing industry for marketing purposes. But on the other hand, literary writers can’t help feeling a little jealous of the popularity of stuff labeled genre, and genre writers can’t help feeling a little jealous of the perceived respectability of stuff labeled literary. So the division may have been created artificially, the way the colonial powers drew lines to make nations, but now the line exists and two sides still can’t help attacking across it a little, or a lot, depending on the personalities involved. (Our panel was quite congenial until the end, when Nic Brown suggested that the death of a robot will always be less meaningful than the death of a human, and then all hell broke loose.)

I think that the genre/literary distinction is arbitrary not because any fiction can be literary but because all fiction is genre. I can’t think of a book that doesn’t owe something to established conventions and tropes. Those conventions might come from noir or Sci-Fi, or they might come from romantic comedies or war stories or chick lit or westerns or domestic dramas or campus comedies or sports stories or postmodernism or etc. The question isn’t whether a book will relate itself to the conventions of one genre or another, but HOW it will address those conventions, or mix them, or update them, or thwart them.

Noir Nation: In your view what is the “perfect” noir tale?

Nick Arvin: I hate picking between great works because it’s like trying to choose between air and water, but I’ll tell you what I’ve been thinking about lately, because I’ve been thinking about noir and I’ve also been thinking about Sci-Fi — Blade Runner. Blade Runner creates the noir feeling of claustrophobic paranoia as well as any movie ever has, but the genius of the movie is the way it combines that feeling with Sci-Fi’s embrace of big ideas and questions, about the nature of humanity, the role of God, our place in the universe. It’s a tricky combination to pull off. There are other good examples (China Miéville’s The City and the City but Blade Runner does it as seamlessly and perfectly as anything I’ve seen.

Noir Nation Your fiction has been called “icy smooth,” “brilliantly detached,” and “colder and more real than the loneliness of life itself.” What is it that drives your tonality?

NA: My brain. My brain has two halves. I like Julian Jaynes’ theory that consciousness arose from the breakdown of the bicameral mind — basically, when the left brain began to dialog with the right brain, consciousness was the result. And I believe fiction is deeply rooted in an exploration of consciousness.

I’m a writer, but I’m also an engineer. In my day job I design power plants and oil and gas facilities. My prose is the tool for intermediating between those two halves of myself.

Noir Nation: What do you have in store next for the fans of Nick Arvin?

Nick Arvin: I have a group of new stories that I’m excited about, and I’m just starting to try to figure out how to get them into the world, both as stories and as a book. The working title is “An Index of Human Properties.”

And I’m working with an idea for a novel that would be very paranoiac and involves a kind of Sci-Fi. It’s only at the flirting stage right now between me and this thing, but we’re looking deeply into each other’s eyes and touching each other on the arm. I think it might get serious.

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