Mark Doten has until now been better known as a Senior Editor at Soho Press, but last month he launched his own debut novel, The Infernal. The book’s surreal personalities coalesce into a dark and humorous collective narrative. He was joined by Justin Taylor, author of the story collection Flings for a conversation at Greenlight Bookstore.
Doten began the novel years ago while in his second semester of his MFA at Columbia. He spent much of his first semester writing stories of gay men in other people’s styles. Over the winter break, he began working at a literary agency reading slush pile submissions. He realized nobody was going to be interested in publishing a manuscript of stories about young gay people, particularly in styles borrow from other others.
Obsessed at the time with Dante’s Inferno as well as the Bush administration, Doten set to work on an early version of the novel. About one-third of the novels characters are invented while the others are satirical versions of real people, with many coming straight out of the Bush administration. He compares it to the short-lived, underrated Comedy Central cartoon Lil’ Bush.
Doten says he had been reading a number of novels that felt like short stories connected with italicized sections. He cites the earlier novels of Jayne Anne Phillips as an example. That seemed easier than writing a novel, and he decided to focus on shorter narratives linked together. His first draft sprawled out to well over seven hundred pages and included drawings. He would hand draw them and then trace them on his computer into the document.
The goal was to have a book with many different ways to enter it. But that draft of the book, which eventually got closer to a thousand pages, began to collapse under its own weight Every other year he would send a draft to his agent. He says he cringes now thinking that one of those earlier drafts might have been published.
For five years, he let the novel spread its tentacles. He then spent another five years chopping them off. “I kept deluding myself that I was almost done,” he says.
Though Doten spent plenty of time reading political blogs–a personal interest regardless of whether he had been writing a novel–he didn’t do much serious research beyond Wikipedia. He didn’t read any persons’ biography. One thing absent from the book is 9/11. While most of the characters seem to have some hazy childhood trauma, none of them mention the 9/11 attacks. It was a specific choice to avoid it.
Ultimately, what stands at the heart of the book–war–is about people. “It is still humans pushing buttons and making decisions,” he says.