3 Questions

3 Questions With Author James Reich

On vanishing, tumult and identity

As SFR prepares for its annual Back-to-School Reading List issue next week, it seemed a pertinent moment to sit down with local wordsmith James Reich to discuss his sixth and most recent novel, The Moth for the Star. In an an international murder mystery of sorts, Reich’s protagonist Charles Varnas knows he’s killed someone, he just isn’t sure who that might be. Cue globe-traipsing hedonism and a borderline desire to simply disappear. Reich shifts his tale between Egypt, Italy and America, setting the book’s events in the late-1920s as homage not only to isolation and transition, but to both timely and timeless elements that put its principal characters front and center. You can pick up a copy of the books issue and catch Reich at a reading and Q&A with SFR’s Julia Goldberg next week (6 pm Wednesday, Aug. 23. Free. Violet Crown Cinema, 1606 Alcaldesa St., (505) 216-5678), and you can learn a little more in the meantime right here and now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I haven’t finished reading the book just yet, but these words from the dust jacket are sticking with me, which read that The Moth for the Star is ‘a tender ode to a dying future.’ Is this a societal thing? A climate thing? All the things?

It’s [set near] the 1929 stock market crash, which is a metaphor for all kinds of crashes in the novel. So, it’s the emotional crisis that accompanies the characters who are struggling with murder and with amnesia. But also, the crash is a projection of future crashes. What did you say? Climate? I mean, there’s something of that, yeah, but it’s multiple layers of existential and climate and economic and spiritual crisis. These things can only be articulated, at least in this novel, in, let’s say, an abstract way.

Let’s talk about the era in which you’ve set the book. You said it yourself—the stock market crash is such an iconic turning point in American history. Was the goal that the time in which the story is set would be as tumultuous as the story itself?

It was partly that, but it was also because it’s a time that lacks technology. That gets in the way of a novel these days—you don’t want to write defensively or think about whether the reader is going to ask about a camera phone. It’s like how The X-Files depends on them never having a camera. It was also nostalgia for that period when the novel opens, in Cairo, Egypt, and it just felt like since I was writing a book that was something like The Great Gatsby with extra Satanism, it needed to be of that period. The existential crises of the characters also required almost a period style of writing, and that just so happens to be close to my natural style. To blend in, say, with F. Scott Fitzgerald was the way to tell the story. His characters had that relationship to money, to alcohol, to each other—and to death. It felt like that was more possible in a different period.

They are, in many senses, alone. [In The Moth for the Star] the characters have each other, and that’s essentially it, because of the crime that has isolated them from society. And they can’t really really integrate ever again. They’re alien wherever they go. So that was the point of the different...the travel in the novel; through Cairo, through Venice, even Manhattan. They are alien to Manhattan—they treat it both like they’re tourists and like it’s a hedonistic environment.

There’s this story by Isabelle Eberhardt called The Oblivion Seekers, and that’s essentially what these characters are like. Hers are in a hashish den, but this is very much like that—that willingness, that desire to kind of fall off the map and disappear. I sort of relate to that. I think some of the things like melancholia, that sense of vanishing, the alcohol, the various devils that I understand...and also there are remedies.

In regards to relating to a desire to disappear and to remedies, if you’re getting this out on the page, do you let those things go on some level?

I think I already had let it go, otherwise I might not have been able to write about it. I think everything I write is pretty personal. There is a specific event in the novel, which is what might have happened to me if things had played out a different way. But if there’s something this book is about, it’s kind of cruelty, callousness. A lot of cruelty happens to us, and sometimes we don’t know it’s occurring, that people are being cruel to us. I think what a lot of the people a lot of the time are escaping is the need to negotiate identity. I think these characters I wrote about are trying to escape the transactional nature of identity.

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