Dialogue with Christopher Bollen

New York City journalist, born in Cincinnati, Christopher Bollen (V Magazine, Interview, New York Times) published The Destroyers, in 2017.

Could you tell us about your studies at Columbia University?
I was an undergraduate at Columbia, where I studied English and American literature—with plenty of writing and art-history classes thrown in. I never thought I’d be one of those strange souls who loves their schools, but I do feel Columbia saved my life. It got me to New York. It let me study with some of the greats. The university itself was sacred ground for me as a teenager: the Beats had gone to Columbia. During my time there, I studied poetry with Kenneth Koch (from the New York School of poets), theory with Gayatri Spivak, modern art with Benjamin Buchloh, and on and on… it was magical to be learning from these amazing minds. In college, I was intent on being a writer—then, like so many fools, I thought I’d be a poet. But I can’t underestimate how much New York City played a part in my time there. I didn’t really hang out around campus (although I did live in a brownstone of a dorm on 114th Street). I went straight downtown (this was in the mid 1990s) where all the fun was and returned for classes. When you’re that young, you don’t need to sleep.

In what circumstances did you join V Magazine and Interview?
I never meant to make my career in magazines. And I really didn’t have much interest in “pop culture” before I got into magazines. I always thought I’d go to grad school. I knew I needed a few years out in the world before I tackled a novel (I was wise enough to realize I wasn’t going to be a prodigy). But what magazines offered was an opportunity to be part of the economy and business of words. I could write and edit and read as a magazine editor. And let me say, magazines are such an important crucible for thoughts and projects and deft writing. You learn how to clean up sentences, how to sell stories, how to give punch and purpose to what might seem at first like dull material. But specifically working at V and Interview, it was really about being part of a community of creative New Yorkers. I started at V and they offered me such a high editorial position so quickly I really felt like a kid who got to run a country. There was so much freedom and I had so many artist, musician, and actor friends that I was hanging out with, I could draw material simply by going out at night. It was a wonderful time—I actually think it would have been impossible for a person to have more fun than I did in my twenties and early thirties. I saw and did it all in those years.

How do you explain the recent ending of the magazine ?
I’m very sad that magazines seem to be dying. As I said, they are really essential cauldrons and transmitters of creative. They weren’t democratic: you had to prove you knew your area as a specialist, and I believe in curation, in expertise, in levels of knowledge that aren’t simply Google-able. I don’t think, for example, a reality TV star with a big Instagram following necessarily should be advising who the best new artists are or how you should vote in the next election. This might be where I’m showing my age, but magazines were staffed with seasoned writers and editors. That’s a loss to connoisseurship. But if you’re asking me about Interview in particular, it was devastating when it looked like it was gone for good. It was such an important eccentric voice of New York. It was downtown/uptown, it was very gay and yet could also act straight at times, it covered a lot of people that weren’t covered elsewhere, and of course it was started by Andy Warhol and his factory of weirdoes. It has such a valuable legacy, and I think it basically functioned as advertising for downtown New York. All through the years of being an editor there, people would so often come up to me and say, I used to read Interview as a teen every month to dream about what was going on in New York City. A lot of young people got the first whiff of bohemian independence in those pages. All this said, I think Interview will continue. It will still exist as a magazine, just by different owners and with a different look and voice—but I’m hopeful it will continue. You can’t kill a cult.

Lightning People was released for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. What do you think of the writers who tried to approach this subject ? Is it possible to overcome such a traumatic event ?
As anyone old enough to remember the event knows, it was ALL people talked about for an entire decade. It afflicted the psyche of the city and of the nation and of world (all in very different ways) so traumatically that it took a decade for the scar tissue to begin to grow. As I was in New York that day (and could tell you my story, everyone has one, but I won’t), memories of the event still rise up and overwhelm me all the time. But here is how New York overcame it: by being a city inhabited by transients. New York City is too expensive for most New Yorkers to own their apartments. So the city has a population in constant flux. It isn’t like Cincinnati, where I grew up, where people stay in the same houses decade after decade. New York got over 9/11 because most of the people who live anywhere near the World Trade Center moved to New York in the past five years. They have no well of sorrow about the actual event to draw from besides what they witnessed on the television. So it’s really a different form of “getting over” a crisis. I tried so hard to write a novel that spoke about the weirdness and madness in the aftermath of that event on New York. It wasn’t an easy subject, I’m not sure I was successful, and it’s certainly the least popular of my novels. (It was also my first novel so I was learning how to write a novel on the spot). But one of the big topics I was trying to address was America’s love of conspiracy theories. It’s almost like the religion of the country, an alternative national folktale. There were so many conspiracy theories about 9/11. Then that mania died away. Strangely, now in the age of Trump, conspiracy theories are again back with a vengeance. Conspiracy theories allow people who don’t have real information and knowledge on a matter—sometimes because of ignorance, sometimes because they are permitted access to the information—to assume a position of expertise and erudition. It’s always political, and it’s usually xenophobic. It’s here again. So maybe Lightning People has more to say about our world.

The Destroyers takes place in the island of Patmos where Saint John wrote the book of revelations. How long did you stay there to prepare your book and did you take an interest in the religious scriptures to build the plot of your book ?
Funnily enough, I grew up Catholic and went to an all-boys Jesuit high school with no end of religious classes. My senior year, I chose to take a class on “The Book of Revelation” where we basically went chapter by chapter through that End Times book of the Bible. (Having a bunch of hormonal boys discuss the Beast with Seven Heads and the Whore of Babylon and a war in heaven is a very intelligent way to keep the class engaged on the subject of religion). So I knew about Patmos as the island where that text was written. Then, sometime in my twenties, I kept hearing from European jet-set friends about this gorgeous island in the Aegean called Patmos. These friends were such heathens I couldn’t believe it was the same island as the one that prophesized the end of the world and punishment of the wicked. But sure enough! It was that juxtaposition that fired up my fiction-writing brain. I went for three summers in a row to Patmos, staying about two weeks each time. I didn’t write any of the actual novel on the island but I took extensive, extensive notes. I spoke to everyone I could, from the Prince of Greece to the café owners in Skala—I even talked my way onto a yacht to make an important research trip to the coast of Turkey just to see if anyone checked passports moving between the two countries (they do not, at least if you arrive on a billionaire’s yacht). I love Patmos so much and I attempted to do it justice in my book. It’s a truly wild, special island, and certainly that feeling of being at the end of the world and the beautiful madness of the place informed every page of The Destroyers. The title is a wink that feeling of End Days.

Which are your favorite places in Patmos (restaurants, hotels, churches, beaches…) ?
I recommend staying in the Northern part of the island, near the little seaside town of Campos. You get away from the crowds of Skala and Chora, and yet you can always access them by motorbike or taxi if you get too lonely. But you won’t get too lonely, it’s so stunning in the north, you can have the island to yourself. There’s a hotel right in town called Patmos Paradise Hotel. I also recommend renting out a little house in the north as it can be cheaper and even more private. The best beaches are in the north too, like Viaga Beach near Campos, or the hard-to-spot Liginou Beach, with its twin beaches separated by a rocky promontory. Okay, there are a few delicious restaurants on the island, but the real prize requires a short boat ride (talk your way on a new friend’s yacht or rent a boat for the day). It’s a family-run restaurant called Pantelis on a tiny, tiny nearby island called Marathi, and it has some of the best seafood you’ll ever eat in your life. You can sit for hours watching the sea and drinking chilled wine. Of course, the Cave of the Apocalypse and the monastery in Chora are worth more than a passing gawk, but I recommend the very-hard-to-find convent in Chora called Zoodochos Pigi, where there is a mysterious three-eyed Mary icon painting.

Was Charlie inspired by Diego de la Vallée, who is used to sail on boats in Patmos?
Charlie was inspired by so many of his kind: these dashing, handsome, spoiled heirs of great fortunes that are too accustomed to the luxuries of their lives to even see them as privileges that can easily be taken away. Charlie is such a romantic and flawed figure and one of those rare people who is actually totally comfortable in his own skin. He wasn’t based on any specific person, but I do have a few friends who come from money and I was fascinated about their way in the world: never having to worry but also never having to fight to survive. I will also say that Charlie’s family fortune is based off a well know Cypriot billionaire.

Was Ian inspired Ian by some billionaire Nestlé heir ?
Ha! No. Ian is a different breed of rich than Charlie. I think we (who are not rich, and I am indeed not rich) can forget there are all these different divisions of money even amid those who are rich. Ian’s family falls in the well-to-do wealthy millionaire bracket, while Charlie’s money is the kind that can buy up small countries. I made Ian’s father the head of a company that makes baby food. I liked this idea not only of this product that is basically sweetened goop being spoon-fed to the world’s children, but also that both Charlie and Ian are in a lot of ways still children. They are adults but they are still swaddled, they have no survival skills, they haven’t had to face hard blows and repercussions—well, until they land in my novel on the island of Patmos. And then they do.

Several writer wrote about Patmos as Lawrence Durrell and Emmanuel Carrère. Are you familiar with their work ?
I didn’t know Emmanuel Carrere wrote about Patmos! (Le Royaume) Thank you for the tip. (I think one of the exciting parts of writing about a particular place is learning about all of these writers you might otherwise miss who have also tangled with the same geography). I do know Lawrence Durrell very well and you can’t beat his descriptions of flora and fauna. I’m surprised more writers haven’t tackled Patmos before me. But one that is very much worth reading is Renata Adler’s Speedboat. The protagonist spends a chapter vacationing on this Greek island and she notes run-ins with strange and fascinating characters. Renata told me she used to visit Patmos in the 1970s on a yacht with the photographer Richard Avedon. So it’s really been a hive of social activity for decades.

Are you worried about the regeneration of conspirationist theories Influenced by Supersessionist movements obsessed with apocalypse ?
Yes, I’m always worried about any movement that glorifies or celebrates the apocalypse. I don’t believe in breaking things. I don’t think the answer is to destroy by smashing everything to pieces for everyone. The fundamentalist Christian approach to getting to heaven faster by destroying the Earth is horrific, as is this Leftist Marxist notion of Accelerationism, whereby make the worst happen as soon as possible (like have Trump elected president) in order to spirit along the revolution. Making life more intolerable for the majority of earthlings—even if you personally decide there is a benefit waiting on the other side—is selfish and wicked. I don’t have a moral hang-up about suicide, but I do about murder, suffering, and genocide.

Can you tell us about what you have been reading yourself during the summer?
There may be no time in my life when I’m not reading Graham Greene. I actually think I may need to have his books boxed away where I can’t get them, because I can re-read and re-re-read them endlessly. But I’ve also been enjoying Rachel Kushner’s Mars Room, Edmund White’s The Unpublished Vice, Randy Kennedy’s debut novel Presidio, this novel I just started this morning, Simenon’s Tropic Moon, and a great young American short-story writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black.

Will you come back to Patmos?
Sometimes you spend so much time thinking about a setting when you write a novel, you feel like you’ve lived there long enough by the time you finish and can’t go back. That’s not that case with Patmos. I love it there and pretty much want to be back there every other second of any given day.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery since 2005. He lives and works in Paris.