Meeting your heroes isn’t supposed to work, but Kurt Andersen has been nothing but nice to me since I met the cofounder of SPY—the magazine that made me want to work for magazines—more than a decade ago. Andersen has been a writer at TIME and the editor-in-chief of New York magazine, and hosts public radio’s Studio 360. His third novel, True Believers, is about an attorney, Karen Hollander, who withdraws her name as a Supreme Court candidate and confesses to participation in a 1960s radical plot.
TIME: This is a novel about baby boomers, whom I have been dying to learn about. Why haven’t we heard more about the baby boomers?
KURT ANDERSEN: I know, I know. Fortunately, Karen is somebody who understands the tyranny of her generation. She’s only a little more than five years older than I, but baby boomer is a big vessel. It always seemed to me that people born in the first seven years of it are different than the rest of us.
Do you feel like you missed a key part of it because you missed out on the Summer of Love?
Totally. That sense was exacerbated by the fact that I was the youngest of four children. When I got to college in 1972, I felt that everything just ended. I missed it. A very few years made a difference then that it hasn’t since.
I can’t relate to that, having grown up in the 1980s.
Yeah, you tell me the difference between 1983 and 1989. As opposed to going from the Kingston Trio to Jimi Hendrix in four years.
Had you read a lot of Ian Fleming novels, like your characters? You don’t strike me as a James Bond guy.
That’s correct. I had not read a single one until I decided to write this book. Then I read about half of them. I was a pretty big junior spy guy, however: Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Prisoner, Secret Agent. I tried eavesdropping on my neighbors and buying miniature cameras.
I heard your nickname in high school was Explodo.
It was a family nickname at age 11 or 12, because I was a pyromaniac. I once took an interstate bus from Nebraska to Missouri just so I could buy fireworks.
Did that make you feel connected to this character?
In the liking-secret-cameras-and keeping-dossiers-and-pretending-I-was-a-spy in an 11- or 12-year-old way, sure. I never made the transition that Karen and her friends made to becoming a fight-the-power radical. Because I was a wussy. And because I was born after her. The big ’60s radicals actually were born before, in the ’40s or late ’30s.
Were you thinking of any real-life people for Karen?
No. After I was done and people would ask, “What’s your book about?” and I’d give the 10-word description, they’d say “Oh, like Bernardine Dohrn.” I’d say, “No, exactly not like a Bernardine Dohrn.” Not one of these super-committed lifelong radical fugitives. I started realizing that the thing to say is it’s Hillary Clinton if she never married Bill Clinton. Then I realized, in a semi-conscious way, there are two friends who reminded me of her spunk in middle and later years: Nora Ephron and Susanna Moore.
Why do people make such a big deal out of the fact that your main character is a woman?
I was talking to the novelist Lionel Shriver, who just published a novel that’s first person from a man’s perspective, and she gets it, too. She said, “I couldn’t just think every day, I’ve got a penis. Okay, I’ve got a penis.” You imagine a character for whom one important thing is her gender. I chose a woman because I thought the changes in women’s lives that began in that time were more interesting and significant than in men’s. And because she wasn’t vulnerable to the draft, I thought that was a more interesting way to become radical: “I’m just a girly bystander, so I need to prove I’m tough.”
You wrote Heyday, set in 1848, and no one asked how you could get your head around people without cars. Meanwhile you’ve met actual women who grew up in the 1960s.
It’s because, thanks to the 1960s, we live in a personal identity age. Can white people write about black people? Can men write as women? But it was much more daunting to figure out how people in 1848 thought. How honor and duty felt to somebody 160 years ago. No one ever questioned my ability to do that. It’s Gender is an easy thing to fix on.
That’s why I did it. Do you think it’s harder to be young now or in the 60s?
Harder? I don’t know about harder. The generation gap was a real thing. Today that’s much less true. Every parent says, “Isn’t it weird that I listen to the same music as my kids?” Based on my own children’s adolescences, it’s kind of easier today.
I got that from the questions for discussion on your publisher’s website.
That wasn’t me. They expect book clubs to have discussion starters. You went directly to the Spark Notes section for True Believers.
If you were to write a late-life memoir, what would you confess to?
I was terrible thief as a child. I stole a lot of money from my parents and would launder the money by buying stamps for my stamp collection. There was a club in our grade school called the George Washington Club where you got inducted for doing honest things, so I stole a dollar from my mother and said, “Look! I found a dollar!” and got inducted into the George Washington Club. I called a kid who turned out to be gay a sissy, which I felt bad about at the time and ever since, which is another reason it’s impossible to believe Mitt Romney doesn’t remember holding a kid down at age 18 and cutting his hair. But as a person who has never done anything very terrible, how can I identify with someone like Karen, who did? How do you live with such a big, dark secret? That was interesting to me.
If you told me back when I reading SPY that in 20 years the Internet is going to be a huge deal, I would have said, “Well, then, Kurt Andersen is going to do something really crazy on the Internet.” And instead you’re writing novels. Would that have surprised you, too?
The attraction to me is that with a novel, unlike anything else I know about, one is in complete control. You’re the movie director who writes it, shoots it, designs it, edits it, everything. One of the pleasures of SPY magazine was that we had total control. It doesn’t feel to me like I’ve moved to Vermont to be a woodworker.
There’s nothing on the web that has the kind of impact that even a novel has.
Exactly. At least for a few weeks, people are talking to me and crowds come when I go to read something. There’s that modicum of impact. When people say SPY magazine should exist again. I say, no, SPY magazine was what it was because there weren’t a million websites and blogs trying to be funny and do what we were doing. The difficulty of having impact in the digital age in terms of media—there’s a gigantic difference between now and 20 years ago. There are so few things that have any impact. I think it’s why so much attention is given to people dying nowadays. Everything is so fractured that it’s only when Michael Jackson dies that we can all feel we’re thinking the same thing.
Do novels still culturally matter at all?
Novels don’t matter the way they did when I was young. Back in the day, when Philip Roth and John Updike and Norman Mailer were on the cover of TIME, did that make them matter more? I think so. But Fifty Shades of Grey, they’re selling a million copies a week. It must have some kind of impact. At least to middle-aged ladies buying butt plugs.
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