"Orient" (Harper, $26.99), the second novel from Interview magazine editor-at-large Christopher Bollen, is a complex psychological murder mystery set at the tip of the North Fork, where Manhattan real estate money wraps its tentacles around a new target. The book is a classic page-turner that would make a fine companion to a towel and beach chair, but also delves deeper into modern paranoia regarding money, class and sexuality. Bollen spoke about the book by telephone.
Have you spent much time in Orient? Why did you choose this stage for your story?
Some artist friends of mine started renting and buying homes there in the 2000s as weekend retreats, so I was spending a lot of time out there freeloading, and it really just captured my fascination, this little hamlet on the tip of the North Fork.
I worked there for a week on the edits of my first novel, "Lightning People." I remember the day I arrived. It was so beautiful, I could see the bay, and all the sword grass blowing in the backyard, so peaceful. And then night crept in, and it was so dark. I'm from Ohio, and I'm used to country at night, but I became absolutely terrified of the darkness. I was acting crazy, I knew it, but I was so scared. So I was interested in this tension between dream by day and nightmare by night. It seemed like a wonderful place to set a series of crimes.
Could the same story have been set somewhere else?
I really thought of Orient as the main character of the book. It is kind of an ideal place becase it is so isolated and all its own. Those North Fork towns have been until recently somewhat untouched by Manhattan real estate millionaires. So it has this wonderful dimension of being for so long left
Did you have an idea of how you wanted the novel to end from the beginning?
Well I knew who did it, but I didn't know how or why. It came while moving along with it. It was less a blueprint that I had at the beginning, and more playing off the characters as they were being developed and throwing things together and seeing how it was shaping itself. What's so interesting about writing a mystery is that you realize that you spend a lot of your time not solving a mystery but preventing your reader from solving a mystery. You throw in a lot of sleight of hand to divert attention from what you're doing.
I think this book is about secrets. There's the larger secret of the murders, but also the personal secrets that many of the characters wish they could express.
I agree that it is about secrets more than anything else. Of course, everyone has secrets and wants to protect them, and we're living in an age where that's harder and harder to do. I think that when a secret is revealed, there's the implication that there are others behind it, and other people have them, and it starts to create sense of paranoia about what you do and don't know about one another.
It's interesting that in a small town where you would have the most reason to keep secrets, it's the hardest to keep them.
Exactly. And I think the harder you try to keep secrets, the more it shows that you have something to hide.
Do you think that themes of homosexuality are underrepresented in genre fiction?
I was thinking a lot about how being gay is sort of the classic secret that you're supposed to keep, especially if you live in small "heteronormative" town. The detective in so many mysteries, so many iconic detectives, you're not quite sure of their sexuality: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe. Yeah, maybe they were heterosexual, but there was always sort of a hint that they might be gay.
Certainly always unattached.
Yes, always. I think it goes back to Tiresias, who was a Greek prophet who was both male and female. There's this idea that if someone is unattached and you don't know their sexuality, they may have this gift of second sight, or at least they're not easily seducible.
I have a similar analysis of Dumbledore and Yoda.
Exactly! However, there aren't a great number of mysteries that deal openly with homosexuality, except when the gay person is either the villain or the victim. A lot of my gay friends, when they learned I was writing a mystery with a gay male character, begged to please not make the killer gay, because they're always gay -- there's always this evil person who was hiding their sexuality and ended up on a murder spree. And I took that to heart.