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It was an ambitious novel, an attempt to merge Turgenev’s into a seamless tale of generational strife and mysticism set in southwestern Wisconsin. A great deal of the material came from my own personal life, and thus the novel was easy to write, particularly because the main character, Zeke, was sort of an amalgamation of all of my worst tendencies and tactics.Zeke is so weird and intellectually obscure and lonely that he has increasing trouble functioning in contemporary society.
Somewhere around the time I turned in the second draft of this novel to the woman who was once my editor and whom I thought would be my editor for a long time—this was in December of 2007—Mark Gates was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, which had spread to the brain.
The next weekend I went over with my laptop and a desk lamp and tried to write. Something about the claustrophobia of a dank, antique basement seemed well suited to the sort of novel I was trying to write, and I wrote faster than I have ever written before.
I was in that cautious phase of a new project, when a writer worries that he or she will wreck the flow of words. Within four months, I had finished a 450-page draft of a novel called .
Most of my time on Capitol Hill consisted of meeting with (and occasionally lusting after) twenty-two-year old staffers, dressed, for the first time in their lives, in professional and dapper business wear, all of whom made me feel impossibly drab, chubby, and poorly dressed.
I did have a meeting that afternoon with a real live congressman, Wisconsin’s Jim Sensenbrenner, who was, in fact, the last congressman I thought I’d get any face time with at all. He had, also, no idea, or the desire to have an idea, about the difference between the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.