An Interview with David Puretz

What inspired this story?

In my early twenties, I developed a particular affinity for self-reflexive fiction, metafiction, and metanarration. Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy was a revelation. I lapped up all of Auster’s stuff, his early stuff, anyway. And Coetzee’s Disgrace. And Slow Man. And Murakami. Vonnegut. Barth. Borges. Pynchon. I couldn’t get enough of frame narratives—stories within stories, coupled stories, sub-narratives, stories that abutted a series of others, stories about characters who were telling their own stories—of being sent down these rabbit holes as a reader and trying to find my way back out. I found this kind of story layering, when done right, rousing, fascinating.

Soon I was writing fiction about fiction writers who were writing their own fiction, and I wanted to see how deep of a rabbit hole I myself could dig. But these stories often ended up being just too confusing and abstract for readers, too bizarre. Readers had too hard a time connecting, empathizing, caring.

I still knew I wanted to write a story about a writer, but I was also—somewhat begrudgingly—coming around to the importance of reader accessibility. Eventually I returned to a short story I wrote when I was in college, and that was the impetus for The Escapist. The short story was about identical twin boys born to an evil scientist father who carried out psychological experiments on them, principally to see if he could cultivate, and in turn, exploit, their powers of psychic telepathy. Instead of developing that story line further, I decided instead to develop a character portrait and storyline for a troubled young writer who would craft such a story about identical twins and their evil scientist father. That’s how Billy, the protagonist of The Escapist, was born, an early version of him, anyway.

Now in its final form, many years later, The Escapist has no sub-narrative about the twins and their evil father. Eventually I realized that this story worked best when Billy’s writing was confronting his own, real, experiences. Billy reflecting on his own life experiences in his writing, on his relationship with his own father, just ended up being much more compelling than Billy’s fiction.

Keeping your readers invested in your story and in your characters should be a writer’s top priority, and it took me a long time to fully appreciate that. But The Escapist never would have happened if it weren’t for that original story about the telepathic twins.

Billy Chute struggles with drug addiction and is a compulsive liar. Would you say these traits make him an unreliable narrator? Should the reader trust him?

This is what makes the frame narrative structure work for this story. The third-person limited narration allows the reader to identify when Billy is acting or speaking deceitfully and when he is being authentic, in his own writing and in his dealings with others in the story. Billy is an escapist. He withdraws from reality and creates these false personas for himself. But a central component to Billy’s character arc is his attempt to finally face reality, face his past. His maneuvering between these two modes of behavior helps build the dramatic tension of the story.

Billy writes to make sense of his circumstances. Is his writing also a new escape for him? Do you see writing as a form of healing, escape, or both?

It’s both, and a central theme of the story. I am writing a work of fiction. I myself am fabricating this character and life story. Billy, then, is one of my fake personas, just as Billy has his own fake personas that he tries on for size. So I may also be the escapist here, or the third person narrator may be the escapist. But just as Billy moves toward authenticity and truth-seeking (and backsteps from it, too), my growth as a writer is also on display, as the act of writing it over the years has been an exploration toward deeper meaning and resonance in my own life. I hope it resonates and has meaning for readers in equally important ways.

Billy is confronting the truth of his past circumstances in his writing, and for me, writing fiction is a way to confront truth. These versions of reflection can be quite healing. Yet we are both moving internally by doing so, leaving the external world. A healthy escape.

We all have our own escapes that we employ. Sometimes all we want to do is escape from the hardships of our own realities. Many of us do it already in our own little ways in order to cope. Writing has been my outlet. With Billy Chute, we get to go inside the head of a young man that has become quite skilled at the art of escape. What sets him apart from many of us is that it becomes pathological. And readers come to see why. One escapes for self-protection, self-preservation. For sanity. Comfort. But escape is supposed to be impermanent—utilized in times of need. It becomes destructive when we can’t stop running.

Why did you choose the early 2000s as the story’s setting?

Much of the story is set during the aughts, with the Iraq War troop surge that Billy’s brother and his father were a part of, up to the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Billy stumbles into in the latter half of the book.

This is an important time period for me personally. I was twenty years old on 9/11, so it made sense to place Billy, who is around the same age, in that same era.

Billy’s father, Alan, and his brother, Peter, are in the military and fight in the Iraq War. Billy comes from a long line of military men. Men that go to war. Men that face the enemy. Billy chooses not to enlist. Not to fight. This further delineates his own escapism, but also shows that Alan and Peter have their own, different modes of escape. It shows how these military men, America’s most courageous, the American heroes of the day, can simultaneously be one’s personal enemies—Billy’s demons personified.

The war is peripheral in the story, but the repercussions of the war play a large role and are central to the different character arcs for Billy, Alan, and Peter.

The aughts was also an important time period as it was the prelude to the opioid crisis of today, and Billy was an early victim when that major influx of drugs into the country was taking root.

One of the reasons I chose to use Occupy Wall Street as a backdrop for the latter half of the story was that the movement was transitory in nature, and we see it as such now but didn’t see it that way at the time. It quickly took such a strong hold on the country and then almost just as quickly fizzled out, and this parallels how the drugs, or the other various forms of escape for Billy, were momentarily monopolizing and, just as quickly, fleeting. It played well into the story’s larger theme of transience.

What experimental writing style choices have you made, and how do those connect with our contemporary lives?

I wanted to give readers an intimate look into a writer’s lived experiences which inspire the work they set down on the page. The Escapist chronicles a young man’s journey trying to find his father, an Iraq War vet, which functions as the exegesis for his own writing. These dual narratives complement each other and provide readers with a deeper understanding of Billy Chute’s complicated psyche—something that more traditional novels often don’t do. This is a work of fiction that dramatizes how writers use writing. This book is the story and the story behind the story. It will inevitably lead to questions about the story behind the story behind the story and my role/active participation within it—in that sense, a work akin to those I cut my teeth on. It’s very much, then, about the act of writing, the act of storytelling, and both the healing power and the danger of engaging in these kinds of in-depth escapes.