the Little Red Reviewer

Kristin Centorcelli chats with Martin Seay

Posted on: May 11, 2016

Kristin Centorcelli, famously of My Bookish Ways and SFSignal, recently had the chance to talk with author Martin Seay about his debut novel, The Mirror Thief.  The novel weaves a tale of three Venices, following Venetian glass makers in Italy and those who would control their inventions, and newer secrets and schemes in Venice Beach CA and a casino in Las Vegas.  Publisher’s Weekly called The Mirror Thief “A true delight, a big, beautiful cabinet of wonders that is by turns an ominous modern thriller, a supernatural mystery, and an enchanting historical adventure story…A splendid masterpiece”.  Wow!  Please join me in giving Martin and Kristin a warm welcome. Let’s see what they got to chatting about.

mirror thief

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Kristin Centorcelli: Will you tell us a bit about The Mirror Thief and what inspired you to write it?

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Martin Seay: Sure! The Mirror Thief is a novel about Venice, although it doesn’t all happen in Venice. A third of it happens in Las Vegas in 2003, where a recently-retired U.S. Marine is searching for a famous gambler who’s gone missing; a third of it happens in Southern California in 1958, where a Brooklyn-born juvenile delinquent has come to seek out an obscure poet with whom he’s become obsessed; a third of it happens in the city-state of Venice in 1592, where a physician and alchemist is secretly trying to steal the technology for making flat glass mirrors on behalf of a certain foreign power. These three stories echo and intersect one another in a bunch of ways, some of which are clear, some of which are subtle.

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When I started working on The Mirror Thief, I had aspired for a while to write something about Venice, but that impulse was too broad to act on: I needed something to give me focus, and I found it when I learned that Venice maintained a monopoly on the manufacture of flat glass mirrors for about 200 years. That gave me the industrial-espionage plot for the 1592 sections, and the idea of the mirror led me (naturally) to motifs of doubling and iteration . . . which in turn led me to play with the odd fact that people keep trying to recreate Venice elsewhere. That was pretty much all I needed to get me going.

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KC: How did you decide on the settings for the book? Will you tell us more about your “world”?

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MS: Once I knew I would be writing about multiple Venices, the geographical and temporal specifics came together very quickly. Venice in Los Angeles was immediately interesting both because of its origins—when developer Abbot Kinney constructed it circa 1905, it had far more canals and explicit architectural quotations of Venice than it does today—and because of its later association with the Beat movement. Although we now recognize San Francisco as the center of Beat art and culture on the West Coast, at the time a ton of popular attention focused on Venice, largely due to the runaway success of Lawrence Lipton’s well-intentioned but sensationalistic book The Holy Barbarians in 1959; I decided to set my LA sections in 1958, the moment before the members of that scene abruptly (and fleetingly) became minor celebrities.

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Las Vegas was an easy call, too, because of its abundant narrative possibilities: its self-declared identity as a frontier of what’s legal, proper, and responsible. I started writing that section in 2002, and ended up setting it in (and writing much of it during) 2003, at a time when I and many other people were experiencing a kind of panicked despair about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The fact that the book took me five and a half years to write and another seven to get published has turned it into an entirely historical novel.

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I was initially worried that I might need to stretch a little to get the three settings to connect in conceptually interesting ways, but exactly the opposite turned out to be the case: I ended up with more connections between them than I could work into the book. (One that I did manage to touch on: the first modern mercantile casino of the sort that now dominates Las Vegas opened in Venice in 1638 . . . and several gaming-industry figures who went on to prominence in Las Vegas got their start running bingo parlors in Venice, California.) I gradually built the world of The Mirror Thief around correspondences like these.

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KC: What kind of research did you do for the book? What is your writing process like?

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MS: I wasn’t able to visit any of the three cities depicted in the book while I was working on it—and naturally, even if I had, all three have changed in significant ways since the times when my stories are set—so I did a bunch of reading. A couple of books were especially helpful: Venice and the Renaissance by Manfredo Tafuri is not only a great architectural history of Venice, but also a detailed explanation of the various political battles that determined the appearance of that architecture; it really helped me imagine the sorts of arguments and intrigues that might have been underway in 1592. Among several sources I used for Venice, California in the late 1950s, the most useful was Venice West by John Arthur Maynard, which is a great account of the Beat milieu, and also an extremely entertaining book that I’d recommend to pretty much anyone.

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So far as process goes, I tend to be a binge writer: while I admire (and envy) people who can wake up early every day and write for an hour before they leave for work, I seem to need longer stretches. With The Mirror Thief, each time I settled in to write, before I started anything new, I would read the last full chapter that I had written aloud—making revisions as I went—until I reached the spot where I’d left off. There were many days when I never did reach that spot. This is not necessarily a practice that I would recommend, but it felt like what I needed to do.

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KC: The Mirror Thief seems to defy genre. How would you categorize it (if you had to)?

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MS:  Thanks! This genre-slipperiness was definitely something that I wanted to play with. One of the interpretive decisions that readers get to make is deciding which genre boxes the book can fit in, which in turn very quickly becomes a question about how the book can be, or ought to be, read. You can make a supportable case that it is (or at least contains) a thriller, a detective story, a sword-and-sorcery yarn, and a ghost story, but I’m not sure any of those hats will quite fit. If people insist, I just call it a novel. If that’s not specific enough, I’d call it a literary thriller.

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KC: Have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?

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MS:  Yes. Absolutely. That said, I have gone through very long periods during which I was “not writing.” Although it sounds like—and indeed is—the sort of thing that innumerable pretentious coffeehouse denizens use to justify their disengaged and contemptuous idleness, I have reluctantly come around to the conclusion that a lot of the most important parts of the writing process look a lot like not-writing: absorbing, marinating, selectively forgetting, making sideways connections.

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Background-wise, I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, went to college in San Antonio, and lived in Austin for a number of years. In 2000 I met Kathleen Rooney—a very brilliant writer of poems, novels, and many other things, to whom I am now married—and she and I began to bounce around the country, living in Washington, DC, Boston, MA, Provincetown, MA, and Tacoma, WA before settling in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago, where we now live. During much of this time I worked as a bookseller for a large national chain (the one that still exists). Since 2007 I have been employed as the executive secretary of the Village of Wheeling, Illinois, a community of about 40,000 souls north and west of Chicago.

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KC: What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?

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MS:  The first thing that I remember writing that I really understood as fiction—i.e. not a “book” I made, or game I was playing—was a Sherlock-Holmes-knockoff murder mystery. This was maybe in eighth grade. I’m sure it evinced a profound misunderstanding of the rules and conventions of the analytic detective story that would probably be good for a chuckle today. Maybe my mom saved a copy.

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KC: What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that would make you put a book down unfinished?

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MS: Hell, I put down most books that I really like unfinished! I am a legendary genius at not finishing books. I’ve been reading The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro—which I love—for seriously like five years now.

I will say that I have a hard time mustering any urgency to finish—or even to start—books that obviously regard their sentences as machines to convey their content, instead of regarding their content as an opportunity to create sentences.

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KC: What authors have influenced you the most?

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MS: He’s a dangerous influence, and doesn’t always encourage good habits, but I have to admit that the novel that caused me to think that I wanted to write novels was All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I think it still holds up really well; I like it a lot better than Blood Meridian, which seems to be his most avidly-worshipped book. (Although I will admit that That One Really Amazing Sentence in Blood Meridian is indeed really amazing.)

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There are a couple of books that I have encountered over the years that always give me the sense that they are really capable of working a kind of magic, like they somehow succeed in being about EVERYTHING, like they manage to access and stake a plausible claim on a genuine mystery at the heart of existence. Moby Dick is one of these; another one—perhaps this is odd—is Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’s book about the Sex Pistols, and about the peculiar lineage of creative revolutionaries that preceded them. Both books always renew my enthusiasm about what books can do.

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This is also a good place for me to mention the writer Jane Alison, who was my thesis advisor in grad school, and who demonstrated to me—both through her constructive criticism and through the example of her own uniformly excellent writing—how best to honor implied contracts with my readers, my writing, and myself as a writer. Jane is very wise and very brilliant.

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KC: If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?

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MS: Oh man. I really love The Great Gatsby—I think it’s a perilously close to perfect novel—and I’m pretty sure that I was just not in the right place to get it when I first encountered in as a junior in high school. (My grasp of it was not assisted by the teacher who assigned it, who spent most class periods reading Glamor at her desk while her pupils silently copied pages Xeroxed from Cliffs Notes that she put on the overhead projector. Yes, really.) That said, I would probably want to encounter Gatsby for the first time prior to turning thirty. Do the rules allow that?

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KC: What are you currently reading?

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MS: The great book club that Kathleen and I belong to in Chicago—which has been in business for over twenty years, although we’ve only been in it for eight and some change—is currently reading In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, which I’m really enjoying.

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KC: What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?

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MS: For the past several years I have devoted most of my writing time to arts criticism of various sorts—music reviews and so forth—and in the near future I hope to produce more of that. I also hope to get back to fiction soon, and have a couple of ideas that I’m kicking around. I’ve recently begun thinking about the prospect of writing a surrealist novel about international finance, although I have a lot of work to do before I’ll even fully understand what I mean by that. I also have the germ of an idea for a novel about stunt performers and Texas in the early 1970s, but that one is years in the future, I suspect.

 

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1 Response to "Kristin Centorcelli chats with Martin Seay"

Nice. Thanks for giving us this interview.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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