Actually writing the novel took almost five years, but the original idea came much earlier. It began as a proposed pilot for a television series for the PNT network, around 1999. Nothing ever came of it so I put it aside. But because the story was set in my neighbourhood, I kept coming into contact with all kinds of things I wanted to put into it.
So what happened?
I got two years into the novel and got completely stymied and felt like it was an utter flop. I wanted to put it aside but my wife talked me out of it. She said she cared too much about these characters and wanted to find out what became of them. I had to start all over again, keeping the characters but reinventing the story completely and leaving behind almost every element with the exception of the birth that goes wrong – that was the only significant element that I preserved.
You've had this experience before…
It happens with every book now, I hate to say. I abandoned my second novel completely. Writing Kavalier & Clay, I had several moments of utter collapse. Same with The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I'm obviously just not very good at this.
But you persevere.
Usually thanks to my wife: her role is often to lash me to the tiller and keep me there long enough to get through the bad patches. The lesson I've learned is that you do come out the other side with a clear understanding of what you're doing.
Did you do much research for this book, given that it was set in your neighbourhood?
In some ways, this was the most easily researched book I've ever done. Just walking out my front door, I was doing research. My other books, with the exception of Wonder Boys, have been set in the past or in some alternate version of the present. Even something like how do you communicate with another person had to be researched. That whole element of it was taken off the table here. The research that I did need to do was primarily centred around music… I say "research": what I was really doing was buying records and listening to them.
What's your average writing day?
I work at night, starting at around 10 o'clock and working until 2 or 3 in the morning. I do that usually five days a week. In Berkeley I have an office behind our house that I share with my wife, who works more in the daytime. It's always been my tendency: working at night just seems quieter and I can focus more easily and the words tends to come more readily.
What's the last really great book you've read?
I recently discovered the Edward St Aubyn novels, the series of five books beginning with Never Mind. I sat down and read them as one book and I loved them so much. It's always thrilling to encounter the sweep of time in a work of fiction in a way that feels authentic and real.
Do you have to be careful with what you read in case you fall under another author's influence?
No, I don't worry about that too much. If, say, I spend the whole day reading Moby-Dick and then sit down and start writing, I might notice little echoes of Ishmael creeping in here or there. It's not like: "Oh my God, there are weeds growing in my garden. I must eradicate them." If a little blossom of Melvillean prose pops out in the middle of one of my paragraphs, I like to stand back and admire it.
Do ideas come easily to you?
Ideas are the easy part. I spend a lot of time batting them away, trying to keep them from distracting me from what I actually have to focus on and finish. A lot of times they are a siren temptress beckoning me with the promise of a much shorter, simpler, more slender novel over the horizon, but of course that's very dangerous.
You've done some work for Hollywood over the years, most recently as a writer on the movie John Carter. Does that kind of work suit you?
I'm taking a break from screenwriting right now, although I'm developing a TV project with my wife for HBO, a second world war spy series called Hobgoblins, about a bunch of magicians and con-artists who are hired by British intelligence to perpetrate cons and scams against the Germans. We completed the pilot script for that and it was liked enough for them to request a second script, so that's what we're working on now. That's been a very positive experience. I was disappointed by what happened with John Carter. I thought we'd made a good movie and it didn't get treated at all fairly – it had already been condemned to death before it had been seen by anyone. I think the audiences who did see it generally really enjoyed it.
Any more novels brewing?
I definitely have some possible novel ideas and one that I've already started tinkering with. They always seem like they're going to be very slim, elegant novels when the idea first sells itself to me, but that almost never turns out to be the case.