Eli Gottlieb, the author of the forthcoming novel Now You See Him, is making the transition from unknown writer to literary star in one giant leap. His novel, a tautly written suspense tale, has garnered superb bookseller reaction, received a starred Publishers Weekly review and has been optioned for a movie by Jeff Sharp, the producer of "Boys Don't Cry."
The attention might be a little overwhelming if Gottlieb were fresh from an MFA program or if he were a twenty-something wunderkind, but Gottlieb isn't a neophyte at the writing game. He has waited a long time for this moment, and experience has taught him to take nothing for granted. In 1997, his first novel, The Boy Who Went Away, was published to strong reviews and even won two prizes. Now, it's out of print and sells for a penny on Amazon. In between his two works of fiction, Gottlieb made his living in the decidedly unglamorous world of ghostwriting and editing for magazines. He is currently a contributing editor for 5280, a Denver magazine.
I caught up with Gottlieb, a Boulder resident, at my favorite sushi restaurant, to ask him about his new novel, the expectations for him and about writing and literature in general. Above all, I had one really pressing question: just how does a writer find himself anointed the "next big thing" in publishing? Why him? Why not one of the many other novelists with new books on the way?
He admitted that it seemed truly unbelievable how responsive booksellers had been to his book. He also credited the marketing department of William Morrow, his publisher. "I'm thrilled with what they are doing. I've never had anything like that before. My publicist seems to be everywhere. I don't see how he has time to do anything else. It's incredible." That may be true, but plenty of books get that type of attention and never even cause a blip on the literary landscape.
One interesting marketing tactic, however, was that Morrow sent out a whopping 7,500 reader's copies of the novel to booksellers. That's an incredible number of promotional copies. Some books don't get print runs that big. It reminded me of something that I'd heard many years ago from Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic. It was at a party for Leif Enger's debut novel, Peace Like a River. Entrekin mused that the most effective way to promote a book would be simply to give out 10,000 copies. Perhaps he was right. It seems that there are booksellers at every independent store in the country that have already read Gottlieb's novel.
Even so, a smart, intellectual novel that also sells amazingly well is a rarity. We've often been inundated with reader's copies for the supposed "next big thing" that end up unread and donated to the Salvation Army before the hardback has even been released. Every now and then one breaks out, like Zadie Smith's White Teeth, and becomes both a literary and commercial sensation. Did Gottlieb really think that was possible for him?
He laughed in response and told me that he knew Smith when he lived in Rome and was very impressed with her. "When that happens, the author seem to be coming from a different place, saying something original." I thought I saw him shrug just a little bit. "I'm a Jewish guy. I'm about 40 years too late."
When I pressed him on the qualities that Now You See Him might possess to cause such a groundswell of enthusiasm, he finally took a stab at the answer. "I think it gives sincere literary pleasure, while igniting suspense."
Suspense is the key word when discussing his novel. Gottlieb talks about writing the book in a "glide" -- although it did take two years of hard work. The first person narration of Nick Framingham is pitch perfect, and once that voice enfolds the reader, it's as if the story is told in a near breathless white heat. Gottlieb thoroughly inhabits his narrator, and the story naturally unfolds based on the fascinating cast of characters that Gottlieb puts in Nick's world. The reader is held in a position of suspense because Nick is not all that reliable of a narrator when it comes to his perceptions of people, and he also seems to be hiding something. The gradual discovery of what he may be hiding is one of the joys of the novel.
"Very early on in my life, I understood the importance of keeping a secret," Gottlieb said. "That aspect of hiding evolved as the story went on."
Gottlieb is not a writer who maps out his plots before writing. He lets the characters take his stories where they need to go. This is in contrast to many novelists. Last year, when I visited William Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, I was transfixed by the writing on the walls of his study. In Faulkner's hand, the entire outline for his novel A Fable, which follows soldiers for a week, was mapped out day by day. Needless to say, Gottlieb's walls are clean.
"A lot of writers create their novels by reading a printed circuit diagram of the whole plot," Gottlieb said. "I can't do that. I started as a poet, and poets make local connections. They aren't concerned with the big picture. Poets are addicted to local intensity. That's what's important. Obviously, in a novel I had to pull back and make sure that the larger elements cohere."
That intensity is felt acutely throughout Now You See Him. The suspense hums through Gottlieb's prose and helps create tension in scenes that otherwise might lay flat on the page. One of my favorite scenes is when Nick, a married man, is meeting an old girlfriend, and Gottlieb uses language that is both poetic and blunt to give the scene real visceral energy:
"She displaced any doubts I had about the purpose of our encounter by ignoring my inclined, politely pursed lips and pulling me toward her into a three-point stance of breasts, lips and cocked pelvis. Lucy was delicately made, but Belinda was built like a beautiful nose tackle, with all her physical features outsized, as if for the anatomically hard of hearing."
The language is punchy, packed with descriptive details and has a rhythm. But Gottlieb is not just using poetic language for its own sake. The description of Belinda throws Nick's reliability, and perhaps even his sanity, into question. It's hard to imagine anything less feminine than a football nose tackle. It's the most brutal position on the field, whose job is simply to run other players over. Nose tackles are destroyers, not mistresses.
Even though Nick is the heart of the novel, he is ostensibly telling the story of his childhood best friend, Rob Castor. Castor, who was a literary sensation about ten years earlier, has murdered his girlfriend and committed suicide before the novel begins. His actions have brought a media frenzy to the small upstate New York town where Nick lives (not unlike the media circus that Jon Benet Ramsey's murder brought to Boulder). Nick's life is falling apart as he tries to understand the crime. It's a thrilling story of deception and betrayal that gets told in bits and pieces between Nick's own tale of woe. Gottlieb related that the original idea behind the novel was a romantic scene between Rob and his girlfriend.
"It's sort of a bait and switch," Gottlieb said. "As I started telling Rob's story, I needed to show where he and Nick came from. I needed to go deeper into that past. After all, you can't expect a nebbish to lead. You have to present the charismatic guy first, and then let the nebbish guy step forward."
As I read the book and thought about Nick's yearnings to be like his friend Rob and his admiration for his childhood buddy, despite the horrible crime he committed, I couldn't help but think a bit about F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby. It's another narrating Nick telling us the story of a charismatic leading man, Jay Gatsby. Was this deliberate?
"I didn't set out to do that," Gottlieb demurred. "I haven't thought about it. But, Gatsby does ring true. I've read Fitzgerald, and all those characters are within me. When I think of the book, I think of Graham Greene and his novels. Graham Greene is my man."
Does all of this add up to a literary sensation? It's impossible to tell. Gottlieb had several questions for me. How important was it to be a No. 1 Booksense pick? Would it really help his sales to go up into the Colorado mountains and sign books? Would anyone want to see him? How many sales would constitute success? I told him I didn't know any of these answers for sure, and that each book is different, but I knew a successful book when I saw one. I assured him that everything was lining up just right for Now You See Him.
"I consider myself a good soldier. I'll do whatever it takes and go wherever they ask me to go," he said. "I've lived the bohemian lifestyle, going from hand to mouth, for a long time. I'm ready for success. I welcome it."
After reading his elegantly told story, which keeps the suspense flowing while delivering one beautiful sentence after another, I'd say that he deserves all the success that comes his way.