Jon Fasman was born in Chicago in 1975 and grew up in Washington, D.C. He was educated at Brown and Oxford universities and has worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., New York, Oxford, and Moscow. His writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Slate, Legal Affairs, the Moscow Times, and The Washington Post. He is now a writer and an editor for The Economist‘s Web site.
Find out how Russia, language, lack of friends and money all helped in the creation of Jon Fasman’s thrilling novel The Geographer’s Library.
When did you begin writing your first novel The Geographer’s Library?Actually, this is not exactly my first novel: in my very early 20s I wrote a rather puerile and boring novel and a half on an old computer in my mother’s attic – to which I quite soon intend to take a sledgehammer (the computer, not the attic). After that, I put fiction aside for a while and turned to academia and then journalism. But I had never lost the desire to write, only, I thought, the habit and the ability. Increasingly, my interest turned back toward mystery stories, which had been my first love as a reader (specifically Sherlock Holmes and Tintin stories, as well as modern crime writers like Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos, and writers who play with the form of mysteries, like Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Haruki Murakami).
Meanwhile, my wife persuaded me to move with her to Moscow, where she had lived the first three years of her life, and to which she had always intended to return. I began working on The Geographer’s Library shortly before I left, but wrote the bulk of it there. I can recommend no more conducive conditions to writing than travelling to a country where you can barely speak the language and lack both friends and money: privation concentrates the mind. Also, I learned so much in such a short time, and was surrounded by a profoundly rich culture about which I knew shamefully little – although I am partly of Russian extraction, I never studied the language or culture before travelling there. I wrote the novel at my desk beneath a bookshelf crammed with complete sets of Turgenev and Tolstoy in the bedroom of a huge, old, unrenovated Soviet flat, with worryingly powerful plumbing, a hot-water heater that nearly blew our eyebrows off every time we lit it, and windows that didn’t quite fit in their frames. My wife taught and left for work early in the morning, I wrote until I left in the afternoon to go to work at The Moscow Times (an English language newspaper) and when she returned home my wife read what I had written that day; then we would do it all again the next day.
And did you think while you were writing it that this one would be different than the others and would become your first published novel?One of the strangest things about this experience is that up until Penguin bought the book, I really had no sense that I was writing it for anyone other than my wife. I was fuelled by a mixture of unease (at being in a city where I was a functional illiterate), and a sense that I was both doing precisely what I wanted to do and could not possibly sink any lower: as my friends were advancing further and further in their careers, here I was, broke and freezing cold, in Moscow. Anyway, that was our life – cloistered, basic, sort of creaturely, but totally fulfilling. And everything I learned there just seemed to take root: conversations I overheard at the newspaper about Turkmenistan, articles I read about Siberia, discussions with my one friend there about hitchhiking across Russia. I just figured I might as well throw everything I could into this one book and do exactly what I wanted to, because I wasn’t writing it for anyone but me and my wife (who seemed to like it).
Alchemy features heavily in the plot of your novel. Have you always had a special interest in it?Not really. In graduate school I studied Renaissance English literature, and worked on a thesis having to do with medical history and the philosophy of emotion – melancholy, specifically, with a heavy reliance on Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, which dealt glancingly with alchemy. When I first started thinking about my book I happened to pick up A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery by Lyndy Abraham, which discussed the symbology of alchemy: the ways in which the discipline’s literature renders concepts concrete. That reification – a formalised but not systematic system in which tangible objects stand for ideas – was what appealed to me most about alchemy, and was what allowed for the imaginative leaps that led to the interchapters in The Geographer’s Library.
Tell us about the interchapters.The main narrative follows Paul Tomm, a cub reporter for a small New England paper, who is investigating the mysterious death of a local professor. Interspersed among the strands of Paul’s story are chapters which each chronicle a different object from twelfth-century geographer Al-Idrisi’s collection, or library. They tell a parallel story to Paul’s, one that allowed me to indulge my imagination in a freer way.
Your novel seamlessly interweaves history and imagination. Why did you choose to include some real historical figures and events?As a writer, but especially as a reader, I have always enjoyed the slipperiness of Borges, Calvino, Eco, and Conan Doyle – the way these writers mixed fact and fiction in a particularly wanton way. I allowed myself a similar freedom, and enjoyed the challenge of disguising history as fiction and vice versa. So Al-Idrisi, for instance, is an actual figure, who did live around the time I say he did, and who did, in fact, undertake an expedition to Estonia at the behest of the King of Sicily, who was, if you can believe it, named Roger. Some of the objects described in the interchapters are based on real items. An alembic is, in fact, a distilling apparatus (used today not to turn lead into gold, but for the infinitely more noble purpose of making whiskey), but the specific alembic I mention is a product of my imagination. The same holds true for the ney. Similarly, some of the books I mention are real books; most aren’t, and the quotes that form the epigraphs are all fictive, as are their sources.
Did you conduct any research on these characters and objects?I remember reading an interview with E.L. Doctorow in which he advised writers to do as little research as they could get away with, and I more or less agree. As a journalist, I am bound to report what happened, and to limit myself to the truth; as a novelist I feel absolutely no fidelity to history as anything other than an inspiration.
As for the way I did the research, I tried to be as asystematic as possible, stealing and forging together bits of information from books, films, conversations, newspapers, and – the most indispensable tool of all for asystematic research – the Internet.
How much are you like your protagonist Paul Tomm?Like Paul, I graduated from a liberal-arts college in Rhode Island (where I lived a block off of Wickenden Street, which gave my fictional Providence its name), and my first job out of college was at a small weekly newspaper. I think we have similar senses of humor, and a similar misdirected streak. Our parents are both divorced; and while I don’t come from Brooklyn, of all the places I have lived in the world that’s where I feel most at home. For all that, Paul is braver, sweeter, and more patient than I am, and I suspect his future in journalism is far brighter than mine.
You’ve said that you find plotting one of the more difficult aspects of fiction writing but, at its heart, The Geographer’s Library is a mystery and has a complex plot full of twists and turns.