Sympathy for the Rich? A Conversation with Christopher Bollen
The Author of The Destroyers on the Moral Failings of the Incredibly Wealthy
When I picked up the new novel from Christopher Bollen, The Destroyers, I was surprised: It had nothing, not one thing, in common with his debut, Orient. “They’re very different books, aren’t they?” he tells me, via telephone from his Manhattan apartment. “Sometimes I feel like I’m doing this thing where I finish a book and run in the very opposite direction for the next one.”
Since Orient was set in Long Island and The Destroyers is set on the Greek island of Patmos, “the very opposite direction” can almost be taken literally. Do the books have anything in common? “I feel like, quality-wise, I’m consistent. But sometimes it’s hard to talk about the reasons why and how.”
While the books may be quite different, they are both thrillers—and far from the traditional sort. Orient follows two outsiders trying to solve a murder in a tiny North Fork town, with a fascinating look at how gentrifying affects what we think of as authentic. The Destroyers invites readers in to an exclusive community sheltering an island of rich gadabouts that changes drastically when one young man vanishes and leaves his oldest friend holding a lot of secrets and mysteries.
Bethanne Patrick: How difficult it must have been to have to go to a Greek island for research purposes, Chris. . .
Christopher Bollen: [Laughs.] Orient was much easier to research, actually! Once I got the place down, it went so quickly—and I could go back there easily, too. With Destroyers I had to sort of hoard my research time in the summers I could spend there. I could always tell when I needed to go back to Patmos when I described a beach and it sounded like it was in Jamaica. I had a lot of beach scenes wind up on the cutting room floor.
But I wanted to write about people who were not always having existential crises. I wanted them to be out in the sun, to use their bodies and lie in the sun and dive in the water. It was such a joy to write about people in summer, on vacation, wearing swimsuits. I needed that escape, myself, as an artist. But I also wanted The Destroyers to be faster and to feel much more visceral than the last book.
BP: What was it like to work on your second novel?
CB: I became insanely addicted to it, it was somewhat scary to start doing it. I really see every day that I don’t write as a missed opportunity to advance the story, and am afraid that I’m going to lose it, almost like marathon running. It’s really, really intense when I get in there, and I always feel like when I turn a really solid draft in for the first time at least there’ll be something done.
I feel like everyone who read early drafts of The Destroyers thought I would do that postmodern thing where we never find out what happened. I don’t outline these things in advance; I have a lot of different alternative endings in my head. It’s tempting to start a mystery and not solve it, and I feel like a different writer would do something totally different with it. Yes, that’s a temptation. On the other hand, there’s something very satisfying about a solution and a conclusion. It seems to be a slight copout from the writer to say “Charlie was never found.” You’d have readers throwing things at you! I mean, it’s much harder to come up with a solution that makes any sense, but it’s worth it.
BP: Talk to me about Greece, and why you set The Destroyers there.
CB: You’ve gotta go to Greece! It is so wonderful, so stunning—bare and minimal, such the opposite of Italy. It’s the beginning of the world, the end of the word. Sea, rock, tree. There’s something very magical about it. You could easily join a cult in Greece, it has that maddening, wondrous feeling to it.
I had gone to Greece in 2003 the year before the Olympics. I went with friends and we went to Athens and a number of islands, but not Patmos. I didn’t get back to Greece until 2012, and that’s when I first went to Patmos, which I’ve always been obsessed with because I went to Catholic school. When we studied Revelation, well, that was every boy’s favorite book because you just can’t top its amazing characters—and I was dying to see their amazing home.
I work at magazines as my day job, and I end up going to a lot of these places with a lot of wealthy, jet-setting people. In the mid-2000s I started to hear a lot about Patmos from these folks, and I thought: How can you superimpose those two realities on each other? There’s this side of Patmos about a new Christian end of the world, a very holy, religious, frightening aspect; then this other side, shoulder to shoulder with it, that’s all about expensive yachts and beautiful Hora mansions. There are so many layers to Patmos, it felt like there had to be a great novel there. It’s tempting to turn it over to the Apocalypse, turn it into a Dan Brown novel but I didn’t want that to be the case, I just wanted it to simmer in the background, just be part of the island.
BP: Your new protagonist Ian Bledsoe has a lot of contradictions, but he’s also trying to be a decent man.
CB: I’m so glad you brought this up—I’m so interested in the trope of the decent man and no one has ever talked to me about it. How can you be good when you’re raised a certain way that isn’t good, like Ian?
Ian is good in that way that you see in some people where the choices are so naïve, like when you go to college and you come home your first year and say you’re a Marxist. Ian so badly wants to do something good, but he goes about it so wrong. He is so inept, his goodness is trapped in his socioeconomic background. He’s not a revolutionary, even when he almost becomes one by accident. His idea of good is so questionable. Is he good? Or is he just trying to make himself feel better? He’s really kind of a sucker, as much of a pawn as anyone else, he’s sort of used.
I relate to that wanting to do good and not being able to understand how you fit in. When you’ve lived so comfortably for so wrong, doing good seems glamorous. It sounds really fun, building bridges in Sri Lanka. But those gestures are good for you, the individual, and there’s a very big difference between wanting to be an actor in the world, and actually doing good for the planet or for people. It was very fun to play with that with Ian. I think he realizes over the course of the book how tricky that line he’s on is, a razor wire.
BP: You are obviously interested in how wealth changes people—and how it changes an island, too.
CB: Something you see in real life, especially here in New York City, is extreme wealth and these little ecosystems that feed off it. It’s parasitic in a way, all these people feeding off this body, this bloated corpse, that they all need. When the person or family or group feeding these parasites goes missing, it’s very threatening. As someone who is very middle class and not from wealth at all and just participating at the fringes, it’s fascinating. Yes, I am guilty of luxury travel!
I went to Patmos three times for the book, for three consecutive summers, from 2013 to 2015, and each time I did something absolutely different. The first time I went to the northern parts which are very quiet and beautiful, much more the authentic character of Patmos. The second summer I was in Hora, which is full of lively old beautiful mansions around the monastery; there is a pecking order of society up there. Finally, I went to Skala, the more tourist-y part of the island. . .
BP: Your characters spend a lot of time on the water. . .
CB: It’s a luxury to be on a boat, on that kind of boat, but you’re really closed off and trapped with people as well. Talking about the ocean, the sea, it’s really attractive to me to write about… I wanted to get the details right as much as possible, so I spoke with many captains of boats and even sailed from Patmos to Turkey and back.
BP: I was fascinated by your use of the island and Greek police.
CB: I never want to write about police, about police. I don’t want to get into the science of police work, I’m not interested in blood testing and all that. I like the more psychological aspect of these stories. But I am fascinated by role of police officer as authority figure, as someone you’re supposed to go to for safety, who can be corrupt or ineffectual—and also because you’re an outsider you’re seen as a possible criminal or guilty party. The Greek police need Ian because his friend Charlie’s family is so powerful that Ian is a window into their doings. The detective interviewing him feels he has to be nice to Ian, to keep that access, while trying to use him for information. It’s a funny dance happening in those scenes.
There are very few murders in Patmos, really, and their police have a rule, they can’t investigate—they have to call in an outside investigator. What always intrigued me, as a writer, is seeing a place with minimal police presence. That provides all these vulnerabilities you can exploit: Characters on vacation, characters not locking doors, characters with their defenses down who don’t know how to cope with any kind of emergency.
BP: Are the rich actually different from you and me?
CB: Wealth is its own country, I think that’s a quote. It’s so true. It’s so funny about this book. When I decided to write on wealth—inherited wealth, something I was really interested in writing about—it seemed completely un-American. That was a few years ago—and now, of course, the carelessness of inherited wealth and the power the rich have, the feeling of being able to do whatever they want is actually on daily display. I actually based Charlie’s family’s Manhattan duplex on Trump Tower long before the campaigns began—that place is just the right kind of tacky.
Wealth is such a strong indicator of personality; that’s frightening. No wonder a man like Charlie is the way he is and does what he does. If you can just leave whatever you don’t like, it instills a different kind of character than if you need a paycheck. However, Charlie does have his own worries and ideas. I really tried to get at that in the book, the idea of wealth and how it works, while still acknowledging that the very rich are human, too.
BP: What can we learn from the wealthy?
CB: Watching from a close distance seems to me a really easy way of writing about wealth. My book is asking: Can you feel sorry for any of these characters? Should you? There’s a lot of loneliness in these pampered and abandoned young people. Charlie really desperately needs a friend. You don’t see that vulnerability a lot, paying for a friend to be there as he does Ian. To Charlie’s credit he decided to leave New York, leaving the playboy idea; he kind of retired. That’s a little bit different to me, not explored as much. Does your sympathy/empathy extend to the wealthy? Do we just instantly hate them and dismiss their problems as not real and not worthy?
“He’s the poor man’s idea of the rich” quote about Trump, that is absolutely the case but it’s a little more complicated. He is so vulgar but there’s a lot more complication to money than Donald Trump. I don’t want to be a defender of the rich; I wanted to raise the question. I wanted to at least complicate the question, not to just dismiss a whole caste of problems. You don’t find many difficult books about money.
BP: Speaking of a whole caste of problems: The super-rich support many different castes of people, not just parasites.
CB: There are humongous repercussions when you take a family like Charlie’s out of the picture—all of the Greeks on my fictional Patmos depend on them! In the real Patmos, inhabitants depend on summer homes, restaurants, hotels. Take those away and there’s not much left. I would love to say we shouldn’t rely on the rich, that it’s terrible how Western economies are structured, but at some point we have to acknowledge that we live in a world where money really does change and influence all the decisions we make. We all have bosses.