Sean Ferrell’s genre-bending new time traveling tale, Man in the Empty Suit, just came out in February, and Sean was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.
Also, the lovely folks at Soho have offered up a copy of the book to one lucky winner, so be sure to check out the giveaway details at the bottom of the post!
Your second novel, Man In the Empty Suit (after Numb), is about a time traveling man who’s confronted with his own dead body during his 39th birthday, which he always spends with different versions of who he has been , and who he will be. Frankly, this is a rather awesome and ambitious concept! What inspired you to write this novel?
It started simply, with an image and a voice. The image was a man standing above his own body. The voice was that of the narrator: jaded, tired, self-involved and nonplussed. It was simply a sighed “Why is this my problem?” that set me to wondering about him, why he was there and what was going on.
In addition to your novels, you work has appeared in numerous journals. Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit about your background?
I’ve always been a reader. The idea of writing as something people do didn’t occur to me until I was in college. The idea of writing as something people get paid to do didn’t occur to me until… what day is it? No, I haven’t always been a writer but I’ve always had a very strong creative, artistic drive. I was an art major at one point, wanted to be an illustrator. When I got burnt out by that I switched to studying literature and philosophy and those two necked in the backseat of my brain until a fiction-writing urge took over.
What kind of research did you do for Man In the Empty Suit?
During the first draft, not much. For me, first drafts are the “just get the furniture in the room, we’ll decorate later” stage of writing. Lots of brackets and triple-X marks left behind saying, “Look this up later.” Then, during later drafts, I had to do research on clothing of various epochs (the narrator attends his own party in various outfits from his travels; these include 9th century Chinese robes, Puritan doublet, 18thcentury French aristocratic dandy, and South American gauchos, among others), historical figures from several eras (the narrator name drops a few times), the trees native to the New York City region, parrots, New York City geography, etc…. etc….
I imagine there were quite a few things to keep track of while writing it. How do you keep your plotlines organized while you write?
A large part of the novel started off as it ended up being published. That’s not to say there weren’t revisions—there were. But the overall loop of the plot is pretty close to how it was when I first wrote it. I wrote it without an outline—that’s how I do all my work—and when it was done, then I went back and looked for conflicts, contradictions and errors. I drew up a map/timeline so that I could see who had what when. There’s a broken nose in there, a gun, a tattoo. Which versions of the narrator had what? That timeline saved me as I did my final edits. I was able to refine the narrative based on that.
Man In the Empty Suit obviously has elements of both SF and mystery. What are some of your favorite mystery and SF authors or novels? Have there been any that have particularly influenced your work?
I don’t think it’s too hard to see that Philip K. Dick has influenced my work. I’m also a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan. Both of them blurred the lines between genres in ways that I enjoy. Recently I’ve been soaking in Roberto Bolaño’s work. His 2666 is a massive, sprawling what-genre-is-it with elements of mystery, thriller, newspaper journalism and magical realism. I’m also partial to Jim Thompson and other noir writers.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
There are so many, but the first to jump up and raise its hand was Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I remember sitting in the window of a coffee shop in Boston, Charles Street buzzing on the other side of the glass, and I was ignoring the work I had to do for a class that evening because damn Mr. Pynchon just got away with anything and everything he wanted. That book ruined me in graduate school. Ruined in the best way.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time (assuming you have any!)?
Between writing, parenting, and a full time job there’s not a lot of free time in the sense of “time that doesn’t have a commitment.” You have to make “free” time. I have to schedule, usually a couple weeks in advance, trips to see family, evenings out with friends, readings, movie nights, museum visits. I like to paint and draw, very badly and very experimentally. I usually pick a night or two a week that will be my sit-around-and-deflate night. Those nights usually involve my brother and some video games.
What’s next for you this year, and beyond?
Right now I’m working on a story that’s too long to be a short and too short to be a novel, or even a novella. We’ll see what it is when it’s done. And I’m also working on a story for my son. It’s something that was a bedtime story I made up for him when he was three and it’s become longer and more complex. And then there’s the next novel. I just try to keep myself chipping away at a rock somewhere.
About MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT:
Say you’re a time traveler and you’ve already toured the entirety of human history. After a while, the outside world might lose a little of its luster. That’s why this time traveler celebrates his birthday partying with himself. Every year, he travels to an abandoned hotel in New York City in 2071, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and drinks twelve-year-old Scotch (lots of it) with all the other versions of who he has been and who he will be. Sure, the party is the same year after year, but at least it’s one party where he can really, well, be himself.
The year he turns 39, though, the party takes a stressful turn for the worse. Before he even makes it into the grand ballroom for a drink he encounters the body of his forty-year-old self, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. As the older versions of himself at the party point out, the onus is on him to figure out what went wrong—he has one year to stop himself from being murdered, or they’re all goners. As he follows clues that he may or may not have willingly left for himself, he discovers rampant paranoia and suspicion among his younger selves, and a frightening conspiracy among the Elders. Most complicated of all is a haunting woman possibly named Lily who turns up at the party this year, the first person besides himself he’s ever seen at the party. For the first time, he has something to lose. Here’s hoping he can save some version of his own life
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