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Atlantic Unbound | January 9, 2004
Jazz, Flappers, and Magazines

Thomas Mallon talks about his new novel, Bandbox—a madcap caper through the zany publishing world of 1920s New York.



[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Thomas Mallon
320 pages, $24.95

he year is 1928, and a once "sclerotic" men's fashion magazine called Bandbox is in the throes of an unexpected renaissance. At the top of the masthead sits the colossal figure of Jehoshaphat "Joe" Harris, a headstrong, explosive personality whose recent success with Bandbox has brought glory to a waning career. But everything he has achieved could be in jeopardy: his star editor, Jimmy Gordon, has decamped to a rival publication and is doing his utmost to run his old boss out of town. As Harris tries to hang on to his hard-won subscribers and precious ad pages, all kinds of adventures ensue.

This is the set-up for Thomas Mallon's new novel of the same name—an exhilarating ride through the antic twenties and a comic tour-de-force. The magazine's troubles start in earnest when the winning entry in its annual fiction contest is revealed to be a creative bit of plagiarism. Things go from bad to worse when its cover model—an "omnisexual cocaine addict"—is picked up for narcotics possession, and the magazine is implicated in some shady dealings involving pay-offs to the NYPD. And then there is the mysterious kidnapping of John Shepard, the bright-eyed subscriber from Indiana who hopped a train to New York to visit his favorite magazine and then vanished without a trace. While Bandbox's employees scramble to turn these publicity disasters around, a painfully shy copy-editor-cum-animal-lover pursues his own vendetta against a koala-abusing fashion photographer.
In a single movement he knocked down the photographer's assistant and scooped the terrified koala into his arms. Running toward the subway, as fast as he could with twenty-five pounds of marsupial clinging to his bony torso, he put a cough drop into the creature's mouth. It had been too late last night, and too early this morning, to get hold of any eucalyptus leaves for the animal to eat. Maybe the lozenge would satisfy until she was safely hidden and Allen could lay in a supply of the foliage from a flower shop he knew on Sixth Avenue.
Thomas Mallon started publishing fiction at the tail end of an academic career, when he was still an English professor at Vassar College. Since then, he has staked out his territory as a historical novelist, with such books as Henry and Clara—about the young Washington couple whose tragic fate was sealed when they accompanied President and Mrs. Lincoln to Ford's Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865—and Two Moons, a heady mix of love, astronomy, and politics in 1870s Washington, set in the United States Naval Observatory at the time of the discovery of the two moons of Mars.

A connoisseur of details and a consummate stylist, Mallon infuses his texts with the tone and rhythm of a given period, fluently transporting readers to a different place and time. An added "historical" dimension in Bandbox is Mallon's own experience in the magazine world—as GQ's literary editor and books columnist in the 1990s.

Mallon's other novels are Arts and Sciences, Aurora 7, and Dewey Defeats Truman. He has also written two essay collections (Rockets and Rodeos and In Fact) and three nonfiction books: about diaries (A Book of One's Own), plagiarism (Stolen Words), and Kennedy's assassination (Mrs. Paine's Garage). His criticism appears in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C. We spoke by phone on December 11.

—Julia Livshin

Thomas Mallon
Thomas Mallon   

How did you come up with "Bandbox" as the name for the men's magazine in this novel?

I was looking for a period word, a word that was suggestive of men's fashion from a long time ago. And I remembered the phrase "You look like you stepped out of a bandbox." My mother used it and I'd heard it other places, come across it in books. One of the epigraphs to the novel is from an old Somerset Maugham short story that uses that phrase. Harry Truman's daughter, I believe, used to say about her father, who had been, of course, a haberdasher, that he looked like he stepped out of a bandbox. The bonus, though, was that "bandbox" has a double meaning, which is actually why I put in a dictionary definition under the epigraph. It also means fragile, cheesy, silly. It's kind of an insulting word. I've seen the description "bandbox architecture." And I think Leslie Stephens, Virginia Woolf's father, talks somewhere about somebody having a "bandbox intellect," which you could probably crush with your hand, like those little balsa wood boxes that small articles of clothing were kept in. So the magazine's name is "Bandbox," and it's also a kind of bandbox in the sense that it's fragile and ephemeral.

Joe Harris, the editor in chief of Bandbox, is a dead ringer for Art Cooper, the longtime editor of GQ. And Jimmy Gordon brings to mind David Granger, who of course left for Esquire. To what degree did you want GQ and the people you worked with there to be recognizable in the novel?

I plead guilty to the Art Cooper likeness. It was done with great affection. Art was wonderful to me when I was his literary editor and his books columnist. A couple of years ago, when he knew that I was writing the book, he immediately figured out what I was up to and he looked at me and said, "You do know that the only way I'll be mad is if people fail to recognize me." Which was very Art. And at one of his retirement parties, just several weeks before he died, he said to me, "Have them send me the galley. I want to blurb it!" Which was also very typical of him. But he never actually read it. I would say that Art was one of the most outsized characters I met in my life. He was this rich, juicy figure. He cried out for a novelist. But the truth is that everybody else in the book, all the other characters, are so mixed and matched and time-transported and composited and inflated ... The only thing that comes close to being a portrait in the book is Art, that's for sure. But it is true that I worked at GQ in the nineties, and David worked for Art and then he went to edit the rival publication. The two of them liked and admired each other, without question. There was obviously a competition going on in real life in the nineties, but the notion of this kind of zany, ludicrous feud with all of the sabotage and plots—that's all my doing and invention.

How did you have the idea to take this contemporary feud in the magazine world and set it in 1920s New York?

I had really wanted to write about the twenties for a long time, because it seems to me the quintessential New York decade, somehow more New York than any other. My father left school at fourteen in 1928, the year the novel is set, and he went to work in publishing as an office boy. He used to tell me things about that time. So I did want to write about the twenties, and I did want to write about my improbable decade in the magazine business, which I never expected to have in my life. I was a contributor to magazines, but I had been an academic up until the time I was almost forty. When I left Vassar, I left a permanent position there for a job as Art's literary editor. It was a very improbable move. I loved—and I hope the novel reflects this—I just loved my time at Condé Nast. I had a ball. I loved the magazine. It was a rich experience for me, and I just knew that someday I wanted to write about it in some way. How the things came together—how a desire to write about the twenties got attached to this idea of writing about my time at the magazine—I can't honestly remember.

One of the things I discovered in the course of writing the book was how many parallels there were between the twenties and the nineties. The two decades had so much in common: that fast stock-market prosperity, which ultimately proved quite ephemeral; the worship of celebrity, which was a very twenties phenomenon, the twenties being the era of the ticker-tape parade, and the nineties being the era of the mad proliferation of gossip even in serious papers. The twenties were preoccupied with travel speed—everybody was always setting new records for air travel and things like that. The nineties were preoccupied with communication speed—the era of instant messaging. There was a wonderful sense of revival in New York in the nineties, that it was coming back in all kinds of ways.

The language and pacing of Bandbox really capture the boisterous energy of the Roaring Twenties. What do you do to immerse yourself in the speech patterns and general rhythm of the time period that you're writing about?

I often tell people who want to write historical fiction: don't read all that much about the period you're writing about; read things from the period that you're writing about. There's a tendency to stoke up on a lot of biography and a lot of history, and not to actually get back to the original sources. I say, reverse the proportion, try to read more of the stuff that actually comes out of the time. I read twenties novels, listened to a lot of twenties music, often had it on while I was writing, which was a first. And I read the newspapers. For almost every novel I've written, I've read the daily newspaper of the time almost as if it were my current subscription. For Two Moons, which was set in 1877, I think I read just about every day of the Washington Evening Star for that year. For Henry and Clara, I read the Albany Evening Journal of the time. For Dewey Defeats Truman, I read the local paper in Owosso day after day on microfilm for 1948. To me, the newspaper is always the closest source that you can have.

In the case of Bandbox, you'd think that I would have read more magazines than newspapers since this is a novel about the magazine world. But I read the tabloid newspapers of the time because I knew this was a comic novel, it involved exaggeration. I did go back to The New York Times, but I read a lot of the Daily News from 1928, I read the New York Evening Graphic. I think some readers are going to think I made up that whole publication, because it seems so outrageous. But the Graphic really existed, and all those composite photographs really existed. Bernarr Macfadden, the publisher, is a real person. In fact there's a fellow in New York, Mark Adams, who's working on a biography of him right now. The Graphic is actually hard to get hold of. The New York Public Library has it on microfilm, but there are gaps in the issues. In its day, in the twenties, the public library wouldn't even subscribe to it, they didn't even want it in the reading room. It was considered too down-market and disreputable.

The trickiest thing in terms of capturing the language is always the actual narration. Dialogue is in some ways not as hard. I've written six novels, and I've never written one that has not been in the third person. I think that comes from having been an essayist before I was a novelist. I'm very reluctant to let go of my third-person prerogatives, where I can comment on anything in what's technically my own voice. If you're writing in the third person, that narrative voice is disembodied to a certain extent. It's not like the dialogue of a character who has to speak in language that's appropriate to the time. The question then becomes, how do you make the narrative voice efficient for all your purposes as a novelist—logistics (moving the story along) and commentary (directing the reader's attention to what you want the reader to think)? How do you do all that and at the same time suggest the period? You can easily overdo it if you throw in too much slang and that sort of thing. But you also don't want it to sound like the voice of 2003. It's very difficult to do this consciously, I find, but after a while, particularly if you do immerse yourself in a lot of material from the period, you sort of hit the sweet spot.

And how do you know when you're there?

Well, good question. This is one of the most ineffable things—narrative tone, narrative voice. You sort of have a sense that you're there or you're getting there when you're reading your drafts and they begin to sound less bad to you, or less funny. They just begin to sound a bit right. You can also begin to hear that the gap between actual narrative sentences and dialogue has narrowed, and that the transition from one to the other begins to seem smoother.

Do you research and write at the same time?

I don't think you can wait to do all of the research before you start to write. If you do, you'll fall into dissertation syndrome. I remember from my academic days, there were people who could never begin writing because they hadn't read every single thing on their subject, which is a surefire prescription for writing something completely unoriginal. And they became paralyzed after a while. They couldn't keep up with the stuff that was coming out, and they never got started. I research enough to get things going and then typically research on a need-to-know basis. Okay, I've reached the point where I have to send one of these characters to Hollywood, so I have to know something about what hotels were in Hollywood at the time and I have to know more about some film actress, or something like that. And then I just do the spot research for that chapter. That's a pattern that I've had that goes back at least to Henry and Clara.

One thing that was a little different about Bandbox for me: it's historical fiction in the sense that it's set in a different period, but unlike most of the previous novels it's not historical fiction in the sense that there's a big piece of history in it. Most of my novels have been organized around some kind of big public event—a space flight, an assassination, a presidential election, a scientific discovery—and that's absent in this novel.

You've written that your fiction "often take[s] the bystanders at American historical events for its subject matter." What is it about bystanders—as opposed to the main players—that interests you?

I think with these bystander characters there's a certain way in which you can have your cake and eat it too. Because they happen to be present at—or in some quirky, incidental way participating in—these big historical events, you can write about the event from close up. But you can do it in a way that is strangely more believable than if you were to write about, say, Lincoln's assassination from the point of view of the big characters, Mary Todd Lincoln or Booth. One decision I made in writing Henry and Clara was that I would keep Lincoln's appearances and any dialogue by him to an absolute minimum, because I think readers don't quite believe it when novelists have Lincoln walking around and saying things. They just know they're in the presence of stage machinery. Whereas if you have somebody they've never heard of—either a character you've made up who is part of the scene, or some minor character like Henry or Clara, who were actually there but whom readers probably have never heard of—I think there's an intimacy and a plausibility that you don't have if you concentrate on the actual big figures. For instance, asking a reader to identify with one of the big astronomers in Two Moons is going to be much harder than asking a reader to identify with this woman who has a drudge job at the observatory. Her experiences in life are just going to be much easier for the reader to enter into. And yet, here she is plausibly on the edge of this big event. That's what I mean by having your cake and eating it too.

There's this feature in American Heritage Magazine called "My Brush With History," in which ordinary persons write about big events that they were drawn into. It has proved to be an interesting template for me, and has even influenced my nonfiction in a way. I wound up writing this little book called Mrs. Paine's Garage, which grew out of a long New Yorker article I did. It was working on Henry and Clara that revived in my mind the story of Ruth Paine, the Quaker woman who'd innocently assisted Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife in the months before the Kennedy assassination. I remembered it from my childhood. And I thought, Somebody should get this story down on the historical record in a complete way. Somebody should try to see this from her point of view, which seemed to me very interesting: how does one survive an experience like that? And so I wrote to her as early as 1995, asking to do this, and she politely resisted for several years. One of the reasons for that was that she just didn't want to relive all of that terrible time, and another reason, I think, was that she feared I might put her into a novel. I assured her that no, this is a chance for me to write actual history. But obviously, as a piece of nonfiction, it still fits in some ways that template we've been talking about, of the bystander on the edge of the big event.

And it reads very much like a novel, actually.

I wanted the first half of it, especially, to read as narrative, instead of as essay. And that was a big challenge to me. I couldn't really have Ruth walk across the room and say something that she didn't say. I couldn't have her wearing a dress that she wasn't wearing. I had to be absolutely faithful to the historical record. Trying to construct this narrative was more difficult than writing a novel, because there was no wiggle room, it had to be all true. What made it somewhat easier was that Ruth's memory was so very good, and she was so articulate. And she allowed me to interview her at such length that I was able to come up with the kind of detail that you require for a narrative. Also, because the assassination was so thoroughly investigated by the Warren Commission, there were thousands and thousands of pages of testimony, of FBI interviews. The Paines were of course investigated very aggressively to see if they could possibly have had any connection to the assassination. So I had this gigantic quantity of raw material to use. It was a novelist's or a biographer's dream, in a way. That made it easier, but obviously my fictional prerogatives were gone.

Speaking of Henry and Clara and Mrs. Paine's Garage, are assassinations of particular interest to you?

[Laughs] I'm laughing because a couple of weeks ago ... You know how they run that column in the Times Book Review called New & Noteworthy Paperbacks? They were nice enough to put Mrs. Paine's Garage in there, and the little capsule review began, "The novelist and assassination buff ..." I was appalled by that description, and I thought, Oh my God, it makes me sound like some of the people I'm writing about in that book. On the other hand, I suppose I have to plead guilty to that to some extent, having written a fairly large novel about one assassination and a short nonfiction book about another. But I can assure you that I have said my last words about presidential assassinations.

But you know, the two events—Lincoln's and Kennedy's assassinations—were linked in my mind from the time I was a child. I remember when the Kennedy assassination took place we were in the middle of the Civil War centennial, which went on from 1961 to 1965. I was twelve in November of '63 and to any kid who was interested in history, the Civil War was very much on one's mind. All kinds of things were coming out about it. And I can remember on my closet door at that time I had these stickers of big events of the Civil War, including Lincoln's assassination. So the night Kennedy was killed I was falling asleep in a room with this little picture of Ford's Theatre stuck on the closet door.

Is there a recent public event that you think would make a particularly good backdrop for a novel?

I'm sure there will be an enormous number of 9-11 novels, some of which will be of interest to me, because in a sense all of the victims of 9-11 were bystanders. The average person who died in the trade towers was somebody we'd never heard of, but someone fate decided to put into this huge event that morning. I think there's also probably a very good Watergate novel to be written, although that may be an instance of an event in which the plot is so complicated and intricate and fascinating that maybe it doesn't require fiction. And the whole Clinton thing. Of all the Presidents in the last few decades—to go back to this idea of people who cry out for a novelist—Clinton is at the top of the list, I would say, in terms of being this rich, complicated, sometimes admirable, often infuriating character. Clinton is certainly someone who catches the novelist's eye—not as a bystander, of course, but as a main historical figure around which a novel might swirl. But we've already had Clinton in a novel, we've already had Primary Colors.

Why do you think Henry and Clara is your best-known novel?

I think mostly it's just the subject matter, the fact that everybody knows something about the Lincoln assassination. But I was tremendously lucky in that there had been almost nothing written about these two people. They were literally a footnote to a lot of the accounts of the assassination I saw. Nobody really knew who they were. If you asked the average person, "Who was in the balcony with Lincoln on the night of the assassination?" he either didn't know or assumed it was the Grants, who actually were supposed to be there that night. Henry and Clara were more or less substitutes. I thought I knew a fair amount about Lincoln's assassination, but I didn't know that these two people who had been in the balcony with them had later suffered this terrible fate. I knew nothing about Clara's murder or Henry's confinement in the asylum. And I thought, for something that is so close to Lincoln it's amazing how unknown this story is.

Do you think Henry and Clara is your best novel?

I would say no. I don't know which is my best novel, but in terms of actually achieving something on the page in literary terms my guess is it's not Henry and Clara. I think it works well enough, but making an evaluation like that, what the novelist is going to remember is the challenges that different novels posed and how well he or she thinks they were overcome in the course of the writing. And with Henry and Clara, which is very dense on the page and very thick with historical detail, I had my plot given to me by history. All of the major events in that book are true. I filled in incidental ones where there were gaps in the historical record, but all the major events of the characters' lives—how they came together as children to be raised as stepbrother and stepsister, how they got to Washington, how Clara's father went into the Senate, Henry's war experience, what happened in Ford's Theatre and just after, their lives in Lafayette Square after the births of their children, the murder of Clara, Henry's confinement—all of that is historically accurate. One of the things I was struck by in writing that novel was the way in which these events already had a narrative arc to them. I had to figure out how to pace it, and I had to worry about questions of proportion, but the plot was pretty much there. Whereas in the books that followed—Dewey Defeats Truman, Two Moons, Bandbox—the plots are really all my invention. And they were much more complicated to write in that sense.

I don't think I really understood plotting until I wrote Dewey Defeats Truman. Arts and Sciences is this very slight farce, almost like a comical essay about graduate school. Aurora 7 is a little collage of things happening moment by moment during a five-hour space flight. But the plot of Dewey Defeats Truman is actually very complicated, and there are a lot of subordinate plots. I think in that book for the first time I was plotting very intricately. And Bandbox, as inconsequential as it is, probably has the most complicated plot I have ever written—with the subscriber's kidnapping that everything depends on. And it was complicated for an additional reason: I had to make the book move fast. The chapters are very short. It had to have that frantic, zany pace of the twenties. In some ways, Aurora 7 remains the favorite of all my novels, but I think that's mostly because it's got my parents and my own happy childhood in it.

Do you write short stories at all?

No. I've published one short story, which was a fantasy set in the National Archives a hundred years from now. That was published in GQ and came out around the time of the millennium. It's funny, when I was literary editor at GQ I saw the work I was considering partly from the point of view of a practitioner, since I wrote fiction, but mostly from the point of view of a critic, because I didn't write short fiction, which is what I was buying for the magazine.

Why do you prefer the longer form?

I think that has to do with being an essayist, and being interested in history. I want to comment on events, I want to recreate a place and time with a kind of density and texture. And in some ways short fiction doesn't really allow for that.

What made you leave academia after twelve years of teaching at Vassar?

Mostly, just becoming ambitious to write, and having a little bit of success at it. I was beginning to write a lot of literary journalism while I was still in academe and was beginning to make a portion of my living doing that, and was then starting to write fiction. And I thought, If I'm going to do this, I really need to jump into it wholeheartedly. There were things about full-time academic life that I wasn't wild about. I didn't like being Committee Man, and the whole politically correct atmosphere of academe at that time was not very attractive to me, although I hasten to add that I was very well treated by Vassar all the time I was there. In fact, they made my transition very easy in a way. I gave up tenure about eight or nine years into my long run there, and the last three years I was part-time, but I was kept on part-time in very generous circumstances. That was very important to me in finding my feet as a writer. And then, sort of fortuitously, the literary editor's job came along at GQ and that's when I gave it up entirely. I think my colleagues were both aghast and envious. Academics are usually envious when somebody jumps over the wall. This seemed to them, I think, kind of like the little red sports car that the male reaching menopause goes out and buys.

But Vassar was sort of remarkable with respect to the amount of creative work that came out of people who had been hired as PhDs in literature. There were actually a lot of us in the English department who went on to creative literary careers, somewhat unexpectedly. One thing that is really odd about literary criticism in general and maybe academic literary criticism in particular is that you're always writing about a medium in essentially the same medium—you're writing about words with words. It's a very different situation from, say, an art historian, who is writing about painting in words. For an art historian, I don't think the tendency to want to take up painting is there as strongly, and I don't think it frustrates art historians in the same way it often frustrates literary critics. As a literary critic, there's a sense that you're always just one tantalizing step away from actually doing what you're writing about. And I think the desire to crash through that last screen and do it eats away at critics, particularly academic ones. It makes for a certain unhappiness. It's an opportunity, in a way, but it's also a burden.

The novels you've written over the past decade have all been works of historical fiction, whereas your first two novels—I think you've said elsewhere—were loosely autobiographical. Why did you make the switch to historical fiction?

That's true. My first book, Arts and Sciences, was about my time as a graduate student. If you can imagine a more unpromising subject than graduate school, I'll give you a prize. I don't know what ever possessed me. And Aurora 7, which took place on the day of one of the space flights, was very much about my childhood. But you know, even there I think I was on my way. I sort of think of Aurora 7 as my first historical novel. There were definitely large components of my own childhood in there—it's very much a portrait of my father in that book, for instance. Even so, I was writing about all that twenty-five years after it had happened, and there was the big public event—the space flight—that became the pattern for a lot of the novels that followed.

As for the disappearance of autobiography ... My own life is not very exciting material for fiction. It's a pleasant life, I enjoy living it, but history offers you everything in terms of subject matter. These great gaudy stories. Also, I have little desire to write novels in order to understand myself better. I've found that history offered me freedom from my own experience, to a certain extent. In some respects, you're always in the books, even though they're historical. There are characters in these books that may have lived 150 years earlier, but they'll say things that I would say, or have said, as a general remark about something. And that I think is unstoppable. That just happens while you're writing. But to me, the fact that it's inadvertent and incidental is more satisfying than inventing some close persona who lives in my own time.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Julia Livshin is a staff editor at The Atlantic and the editor of Classic Christmas Stories: Sixteen Timeless Yuletide Tales.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.