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Nathaniel Rich Crafts a Novel for the Age of Anxiety

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Odds Against Tomorrow cover
Odds Against Tomorrow
by Nathaniel Rich

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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Nathaniel Rich
Author of Odds Against Tomorrow

By Ellen Birkett Morris

May, 2013

Every now and then a novel comes along that completely captures the tone and tenor of our times. Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich is that novel, a story that captures the physical and psychological implications of living in a time marked by catastrophe and terrorism.

The book centers on Mitchell Zukor, a math whiz hired to work for the mysterious financial consulting firm FutureWorld. At home, Mitchell obsesses over the health of Elsa Bruner, a former classmate with a heart condition, with whom he corresponds. At work, he predicts horribly detailed worst-case scenarios for his corporate clients, who rely on his scenarios for legal indemnity. As the book set in the near future begins Mitchell's obsessions seem almost funny. When catastrophe strikes he is forced to change from prognosticator to man of action as he survives flooding and anarchy to become a modern pioneer.

Rich admits to an early fascination with Stephen King that led him at the age of nine to spend time writing "creepy, disturbing short stories about a boy who was locked in a room and had to survive."

He kept writing and started a novel the summer before his last year of college at Yale, where he would earn a Bachelor of Arts in Literature.

"I wrote for five years in secrecy. I didn't know what I had."
RICH

"I wrote for five years in secrecy. I didn't know what I had. I wanted the novel to be its own integral universe. It was a searching, grasping time. I learned a lot about myself and about writing in the process," said Rich.

Rich credits writing daily and reading widely with a critical eye in his growth as a writer. Rich was also helped along by a nonfiction writing class he took from critic, teacher and author William Deresiewicz, where he learned discipline and critical thinking.

His education was furthered when he later worked as an intern and then assistant at the New York Review of Books under editor Robert Silvers.

"I was impressed by the critical attention he gave to each essay, and his determination to take essays about arcane subjects and transform them to appeal to a lay reader, by clarifying the language and creating a strong narrative. A great essay really tells a story," said Rich.

Rich also spent time at the Paris Review, where he served as fiction editor. He worked with writers he admired through the editing process.

"It helped me understand how a piece could evolve, from something rough to something beautiful."
—RICH

 

"It demystified writing and made it seem more possible and tangible. It helped me understand how a piece could evolve, from something rough to something beautiful," said Rich.

As a fiction writer, journalist and essayist, Rich honed his writing skills and sharpened the premise of his novel by exploring real life nightmare scenarios in articles on subjects including the connection between cell phones and brain cancer for Harper's, and the transformational effects of natural disasters on the landscape of New Orleans for the New York Times Magazine.

Rich noted that the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction is that the first draft of a novel means that 10 percent of the work is done, with lots of editing and rewriting to come, while the slow sentence-to-sentence construction of an argument needed for a nonfiction piece means that 90 percent of the work is done when the first draft is finished.

When he is working on a novel, Rich tries to write 1,000 words a day.

Rich's first novel, The Mayor's Tongue, was published in 2008 by Riverhead. Rich developed the premise for Odds Against Tomorrow when a friend explained a new form of catastrophic risk insurance. Then he began to ponder the affect of living in a world in which we are constantly exposed to bad news.

Rich's novel was informed by his own research into disaster scenarios for articles and essays he wrote and an extensive survey of information, including flood charts and what to have on hand in an emergency, from the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

"All of the facts in the novel come from research. All the bad news are real."
RICH

"All of the facts in the novel come from research. All the bad news are real. The book is about how we have become overwhelmed with bad news—about climate change, terrorism, pandemics, financial despair—you name it. How does this affect the way we live? Do we ignore all of the information, or become overcome with dread?" asked Rich. "Or is there another way?"

He cited Saul Bellow who said the novel's concern is mainly the human heart. Rich argues in a recent essay, published in the New York Times Book Review, that facts have a profound effect on our hearts.

The novel is narrated by a classmate of Mitchell's who appears at the start of the story and again at the end, having become a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

While Mitchell's neuroses are amusing at first, the novel doesn't shy away from depicting the horrors of catastrophic events. Rich sees humor and horror as both sides of the same coin, noting that both derive value from the level of surprise they evoke in the reader.

"The novels that I admire oscillate on an axis between humor and horror," he said.

As he is challenged, Mitchell is transformed from a passive character dogged by fears of the worst case scenarios he spins to someone who "determines his own fate in an active, aggressive way."

Rich said the greatest challenge of writing the novel was allowing himself permission to really explore obsession, to allow it to take dominance in the novel the point where it crowded out a potential love story subplot between Mitchell and a co-worker.

Rich worked with editor Sean McDonald at Farrar Straus and Giroux, who had edited his earlier book The Mayor's Tongue.

"He is excellent at forcing me to thinking about things that I hadn't considered. He helped reshape the book, and concentrate it more fully on Mitchell's obsession," said Rich.

His advice to apprentice writers is to expect rejection and know that even well-established writers experience it regularly.

"Writing is failure. It is bad for you physically. It is emotionally difficult. You put yourself in a vulnerable position on each page, because you share intimate parts of yourself with the world. The only reason to write is if you feel an urgency to do so—that there's no other way out."

About the Author

Born in New York City, Nathaniel Rich now lives in New Orleans . He is the author of The Mayor's Tongue and Odds Against Tomorrow. His essays have appeared in Harper's, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Review of Books. More information can be found at www.nathanielrich.com.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.