Stona Fitch Interview
Stona Fitch's second novel Senseless – the dark tale of an American businessman’s abduction, imprisonment and torture at the hands of terrorists – has been variously described as "Kafka in overdrive" and "one of the most gripping books of recent years". The feature film adaptation, directed by Edinburgh’s Simon Hynd, is to be shown at this year's Raindance festival, and is a nominee for best UK feature. On the publication of Senseless in the UK by Two Ravens Press, Fitch took time out to answer a few questions about his novels, the movie, and a publishing venture where the books mean philanthropy.
What was the catalyst for Senseless?
Here's a bit of context - a major publisher, Putnam, put out my first novel, Strategies for Success. What seemed like incredible luck at first (I shipped the manuscript to them in a box during my lunch hour, without an agent or a clue), ended up being a very mixed blessing. After my first novel failed to become a bestseller, I basically became invisible to American publishing. My editor disappeared. My agent fired herself.
This is the point where many writers wisely pack it in. Instead, I wrote constantly during this time, a novel every couple of years, each stranger than the last. When a manuscript managed to make its way to an editor, I kept hearing the same thing - fiction had to be over the top. When the idea for Senseless showed up one night, I decided to make this novel about extremists as extreme as possible, to take over the top into very new, very uncomfortable territory.
At the time, I was working in Antwerp, Belgium regularly as a technical writer for a chemical manufacturer. After work, I wandered around that semi-creepy city aimlessly all night, listening to everyone, watching everything. I am a relentless all-night city walker. Along the way, I picked up a lot of anti-American talk and a strong feeling that the golden years of the 90s were about to flame out pretty spectacularly, which they did.
What was the reaction to the book when it first came out, especially in the wake of 9/11?
Senseless was published days after 9/11 and almost didn't come out at all. It was virtually ignored here, except for a few reviewers who picked up on its odd resonances. Some of Blackbeard's rants sound remarkably Bin Laden-esque. And Gast's ordeal had a terrible parallel in the online beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl. The anti-globalisation, anti-EU groups - which were just beginning to appear when I wrote Senseless - moved to the forefront soon after. And reality television blossomed into a pop culture tumour ...
I think writers are the proverbial canaries in the coal mines. We smell the poisons first. So I don't think Senseless is particularly prescient. It just takes a hard look at the world as it is, like fiction should.
How much involvement have you had with the film adaptation?
Not much. And that was intentional. This was Simon Hynd's first feature film and I wanted him to have the latitude to do whatever he wanted. We spoke in the early stages, and I reviewed the script, making some very minor suggestions. In the end, he stayed very close to the novel's plot and dialogue, which I appreciate.
But I also think that you have to let your novels go wherever they're going to go and let others do what they want to in terms of interpreting them. I'm much more interested in seeing what others do with my novels than trying to impose my vision, as it were, on their second and third lives.
What's the concept behind your next novel from Two Ravens, Printer's Devil?
On the surface, Printer's Devil is a post-apocalyptic heist novel. Under, it's about tribalism - about two guilds of printers fighting it out in and below an urban bleakscape. They're warring about inane differences - serifs in typefaces, justified margins, inks. Meanwhile, the atmosphere about them is turning toxic, as oxygen becomes carbon dioxide, a small but deadly difference.
In short, Printer's Devil explores the notion that some differences that seem vast aren't, while others that seem tiny, molecular even, actually have a massive impact. Though it's set in the future, it reflects a current theme - nations at odds about religion while the world becomes uninhabitable.
What is Concord Free Press?
We publish books and give them away for free - online and via a network of independent bookstores. In exchange, we ask readers to make a voluntary donation to a local charity or someone in need in their community. And we ask them to pass the book on, so that every time the book changes hands, it generates more contributions.
What prompted your founding of Concord?
I spent most of my 20s in a punk rock band, my 30s directing a non-profit farm - Gaining Ground - that gives away produce to people in need. Concord Free Press is a logical next step, kind of. It combines the DIY ethos of the alternative music world with the lightness of spirit that comes from giving things away. When you take the money out of any equation, things generally get a lot less fraught with worry, more open, and a lot more interesting.
Concord Free Press is an experiment, one that I hope encourages readers to take action. Reading - potentially one of the most solitary experiences - is also one of the most unifying and catalysing.
The first novel with them is one of yours - Give And Take - what's that about?
It's a road novel about a jazz pianist who steals diamonds and BMWs and gives the money away - which ends up being harder than it sounds. As we say, Give And Take is "fast, funny and felonious". It's also thematically aligned with the concept of giving money away - that's why it's our first book. And in a way, the book helped inspire the press.
And what's next for you?
More novels, of course. And my wife and I are looking at flats in Edinburgh.
An American trade representative is kidnapped in Brussels by a group of terrorists who oppose the European Union. After seven relatively trouble-free days the American is made to lose his hearing, touch, smell and part of his sight. The American ponders his past and seemingly precarious future.