David Shafer’s debut novel Whiskey Tango Foxtrot follows three young people as they entangle themselves in a global conspiracy. Two college friends, Mark and Leo, along with non-profit worker Leila, find themselves fighting a conspiracy to privatize all data. Shafer was joined at Community Bookstore by Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, a trilogy of books about a young man from Brooklyn who enrolls in a magician’s school.
Shafer’s book is both a portent of the future and a dark comedy. Shafer says humor and intrigue can help balance out the meatier portions of the book. With some of those elements, he draws on real life experience, like a family member who endured a stillbirth. Other personal experiences are less weighty. “Being drunk in East London–I don’t know where I got that…” he jokes.
The novel took seven years to write. There were moments during that period where Shafer felt very confident. “I thought I was writing the best novel ever written by a human being,” he says. But then reality sets in.
The first three chapters that he wrote came easily. They were good enough to land him an agent without the book having been finished either. At the time, Shafer lived in Dublin. His neighbor then was an Australian novelist who read his chapters. Based on the strength of that writing, she connected him with her agent. The rest of the novel took more time.
The second half of the book, for instance, was first written with a real time perspective. That wasn’t working. Several drafts later, Shafer changed the pacing. Another change that evolved–one both his agent and editor wanted–was the first chapter of the book. Leila is now the first perspective encountered in the novel, but it wasn’t always that way. It took four years of arguing before Shafer finally realized they were write. Ultimately he decided potential readers are much more forgiving of an attractive young woman opening a novel rather than a “depressing white boy.”
Shafter attended journalism school, but in retrospect he doesn’t think it was necessarily worth it. “It was do-more-school instead of try what you want to do.”
Grossman says that when he first read Shafer’s novel, his first thought was they had similar influences. “This guy must have read everything I read.” Then Grossman saw an interview where Shafer spoke about his influences–and Grossman’s next thought was a what the f–
Shafer says a lot those early interviews are the product of “the urge to sound more erudite than you actually are…”
Magic plays a role in both authors’ books. Shafer’s character Mark is good with his hands, and he uses tricks to steal cigarettes and flirt with women. Its largely Shafer’s own interest in the trade. He adds for twenty dollars a year and a name, you can join the magicians guild. He was “David the Baffled,” like Mark’s magician namesake.
Grossman says that as he was writing the first of the The Magicians books he would often fantasize about the eventual release of the book. He imagined he would learn tricks, like a disappearing coin, to dazzle audiences and interviewers. “Close up magic is really fucking hard,” he says.
Writing a novel is a lot like magic, Grossman says. Its about getting people to believe in this fantasy world with total faith, to get them to believe the world is real. Still, when it comes to sleight of hand magic, Grossman said, “I could only look at my hands.”
“If it were really easy, everyone would do it,” Grossman says, meaning magic, although also probably referring to writing.
The thing that most bothers Grossman about writing a fantasy world is inventing things. “I don’t like to make shit up.”
The two authors reminisce about an Atari 2600 game. Adventure was a very simple game where players navigated through a castle. Dragons would pop up and players could be eaten. Often the game would crash at this point with the player inside the dragon. Within the game there was also a bat that had the ability to fly through walls. Sometimes, if the player left the Atari on long enough, the bat would pick up the dragon the player was in and fly around through the walls. It was one way players would see many of the hundreds of rooms that were unnecessary to finishing the game. Grossman says he tried imagining what that was like while writing the The Magicians books, hoping to capture that fleeting, rapidly changing world.
Much of Shafer’s book reveals a society that is frightening similar to the contemporary one. Many of the revealed conspiracies of the last severals–wiretapping, Wikileaks, the NSA–are touched upon in his novel. Seven years ago, when he started, they were all just fantasy elements. “I got very lucky,” he says, “not as a citizen, but as a novelist.”
“I take no real precautions against surveillance, which some readers from disappointing,” he adds.
Despite how closely Shafer has come to the reality of today, he didn’t do much research. “I rather make things up.”