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Writing On The Sly, Nathaniel Rich's Secret Debut

When he was working on his debut novel, Nathaniel Rich realized he was treading on familiar ground; first novels by young men often feature young male protagonists, and Rich's novel, The Mayor's Tongue, was no exception.

"I realized at a certain point I could not escape certain basic things — like one of the protagonists being a young man in New York," says Rich. But, he adds, "it was important to me to have the story be much bigger that that."

So Rich's novel features Eugene, a young man working for a moving company on the outskirts of Manhattan, as well as two old men.

The drama starts when Eugene, who has been hired to research his favorite writer, is sent to Europe to visit the author's last known address. His European destination proves to be a mystical borderland between Italy and the imagination — a landscape that the old men also find themselves drawn to.

'Going Into Some Strange Part Of My Mind'

Rich was a college student interning for a publishing company in Milan when he when he began taking notes for The Mayor's Tongue. But when he returned to the U.S., he starting work on a different book, a nonfiction collection of film criticism titled San Francisco Noir.

The new book was a straightforward project that Rich felt comfortable discussing with his peers and his parents. (His father is a famous op-ed writer; his mother works in the publishing industry.) But he deliberately kept the novel a secret.

"I was [writing the noir book] during the mornings," he remembers. "And in the afternoons and evenings, very secretly, and without telling anybody, I was writing the novel."

Rich says he didn't want to be the guy who goes around town talking about his book "and then it never comes out — or it's a disaster."

Working on two projects at once gave the author a unique perspective; he says that writing nonfiction felt like "schoolwork during the day," while his nighttime work on The Mayor's Tongue was more liberating — perhaps too much so. At the time, he worried that the novel was too loose.

"I thought maybe, because I wasn't talking about it ... the book itself was getting crazier and crazier and crazier and going into some strange part of my mind — because it wasn't being exposed to an outside reader who might inject some kind of logicality into it," Rich says.

Rich was still grappling with his fiction manuscript when he finished San Francisco Noir and returned to New York. He took a job as an editor for The Paris Review. Though he worked with literary professionals who could have acted as "first readers" to give him feedback on his novel, he continued to write in secret.

"I spent a long time reducing the craziness factor to a more manageable ... amount," he says. "I was the first through 12th reader."

Working in isolation may have ensured that Rich wrote the book he wanted, but it also taught him how hard it is to be your own editor; going it alone, it took over five years to get his first book ready for submission. Now he's working on a new novel — tentatively called FutureWorld — and he's not making a secret of it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rick Kleffel