Alex Gilvarry made a pact with himself.
If his first novel got published, he would continue writing. If not—if the manuscript was rejected and left to yellow in his desk drawer—he would relinquish his dreams of becoming a storyteller and move on with his life.
“I knew how hard it was going to be,” Gilvarry explained on Tuesday evening at Northeastern University, “but I wanted to take that chance.” He was discussing the trials and tribulations of writing his debut novel with the university’s 117th entering class. “I could either fail miserably,” he said, “or get published.”
As it happens, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant was published by Penguin Books in 2012 and quickly began generating buzz in the literary world. The 320-page satire—which follows Boy Hernandez, a Filipino fashion designer and Guantanamo Bay detainee—won a prestigious Hornblower award and garnered critical acclaim as a “left-handed love letter to America.”
The rest is history. Gilvarry went on to contribute to Vogue, The Nation, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He was named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list in 2014 and is currently teaching fiction at Wesleyan University.
‘The sentences tickled me’
Some 2,800 first-year students filled the floor of Matthews Arena for Gilvarry’s talk, which was moderated by Elizabeth Dillon, professor and chair of the Department of English. She began by asking him to describe how he became a writer.
“I wanted to become a writer when I was in the third grade,” he replied. “I liked the way it sounded, and I liked the reaction I got from the other students.”
Gilvarry went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Hunter College, where he worked under Gary Shteyngart, the author of Absurdition and Super Sad True Love Story. Shteyngart, Gilvarry explained, “was writing the kind of books that I wanted to read,” and quickly become one of his favorite authors.
Another writer who inspired Gilvarry for his “technique, language, humanity, and humor” is Don DeLillo of White Noise fame. As Gilvarry put it, “The sentences in that book tickled me.”
“Good books have the power to provoke thought in a way that no other art form can,” Gilvarry explained. “For me, reading literature is like meditation, it’s concentrated thought.”
‘A happy accident’
Dillon, for her part, praised Memoirs, saying that it was “simultaneously quite serious and quite funny.” She asked Gilvarry to explain how he dreamed up the novel, which follows a New York glamour junkie who is locked up in Guantanamo and accused of being linked to a terrorist plot.
Gilvarry said the award-winning results were “a happy accident.” First and foremost, he noted that he wanted to capture the post-9/11 years, the decade in which he came of age. He was particularly captivated by Guantanamo, he said, where hundreds of suspected terrorists were being held in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.
“I would turn on the radio and hear something about the detention camp,” he recalled, “especially stories of men who were captured there without due process.”
At the same time, he had been watching Project Runway and working in SoHo, a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan rife with models and famous designers. “Fashion is easy to poke fun at,” he said, “and I could get a lot of humor out of it.”
One of Dillon’s favorite aspects of the novel was the dialogue, which she called “deeply pleasurable.” “Your characters jump off the page through dialogue,” she told Gilvarry. “How do you get into character?”
In the case of the Boy’s FBI interrogator at Guantanamo, Gilvarry looked to TV, to late actor James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano. “I had never met an FBI agent, so I didn’t know how they talked except for what I heard on TV,” he said. “I had been watching The Sopranos, so I just started writing dialogue for Tony.”
‘Reading literature is like meditation’
Later on, Dillon noted the decline of the book lover, citing a recent study that found that 25 percent of Americans did not read a book last year. Then she asked Gilvarry to explain why fiction matters, why reading is good for all students regardless of their major.
“Good books have the power to provoke thought in a way that no other art form can,” he explained. “For me, reading literature is like meditation, it’s concentrated thought.”
The Q&A proved that students had carefully contemplated the ins and outs of Memoirs. One freshman asked Gilvarry whether he wanted readers to feel sorry for Boy, who is something of a womanizer.
“As a novelist, I don’t tell you how to feel,” he replied. “I just want you to experience the feeling.”