In from the Fringe
David Goodwillie '94, who won praise for his 2006 memoir Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, has just published his first novel. American Subversive (Scribner) is narrated in alternating chapters by Aidan Cole, a failed journalist turned gossip blogger, and Paige Roderick, a budding political extremist whose brother has died in Iraq. Both characters are frustrated with their lives and their inability to change a country that seems to be crumbling around them. The Bulletin interviewed Goodwillie this spring as he kicked off his national book tour at Kenyon.
American Subversive is about homegrown terrorism. What inspired the subject? I've always been fascinated by American extremist movements, especially the Weather Underground. Imagine something like that occurring today-an organized group of middle and upper middle-class students using violent means in an attempt to end a misguided war. It sounds absurd. But that's the problem. We've been so conditioned to worship at the altar of untethered capitalism that a dangerous close mindedness has come to define our politics. You can look at the characters in American Subversive and see that violent extremism is no cure for what ails us, but neither is burying our heads in the sand.
Aidan mirrors your life in many ways. How much did you draw from personal experience in the novel? Having already written a memoir, I was keen to get far away from writing about myself. The two protagonists in American Subversive represent extreme views that are nowhere close to my own. Paige is an intense girl from a military family, and she cares too much about the world. Aidan is a cynical, disillusioned New York City gossip blogger who drips in apathy. Because I live in New York and hang out with media people, and occasionally stay out too late, I'll be compared to Aidan. But we couldn't be more different temperamentally.
The novel, like your memoir, features New York as a strong presence. The city in the book is very much the city I know-and usually love. I've lived in New York since 1995 and am still in awe of the place. I remember venturing down south and east of the Bowery looking for a tenement building that might serve as a safe house for my characters, and after wandering furtively around for the better part of an afternoon, I turned a corner and there it was, almost exactly as I'd imagined. You can still find anything in New York, if you spend the time to look.
How did you research the terrorism angle of the book? I'm a stickler for facts. I read dozens of novels and memoirs, from political thrillers to extremist tell alls-even bomb making manuals. I also interviewed experts, including an FBI ordnance specialist and a former member of the Weather Underground. Most were helpful, some were wary. One former Weatherman told me, via e mail, to stop dredging up the past, and he got pretty angry. When I told my agent, she laughed and asked me what I'd expected. These people blew up buildings. Some of them might not be the most stable members of society.
Would you describe American Subversive as a love story? Very much so. When I first sat down to sketch out the novel, months before I came up with the plot, I wrote Paige and Aidan's names on opposite ends of a large sheet of drawing paper. Then I drew two arrows that met in the middle. Three years later, that initial sketch remains the crux of the book-two people pulling each other in from the American fringes, and saving each other in the process.
Your books are full of social commentary and politics. Is it safe to say the litany of drink, drugs, and sex you put forth in your memoir will keep you from running for office any time soon? It seems like drinking, drugs, and sex are prerequisites for higher office these days, no?