Please welcome Seth Fried to The Qwillery as part of the 2019 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Municipalists was published on March 19, 2019 by Penguin Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece that you remember writing? Seth: When I was ten I decided I was going to write an epic novel about the Civil War. I’d been working on it for about three days when my mom, who was supportive of the project, asked me if I’d finished it yet. I remember being very offended by the question. Of course my sprawling Civil War novel wasn’t finished yet. Though, to be fair, I ended up abandoning the project later that same week.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Seth: Up until recently I’ve been very much a pantser. Though coming out of this project I’ve started to incorporate some elements into my process that probably make me more of a hybrid. For a project that’s as plot-driven as this I think it can be helpful to write a scenario before a chapter. That’s where you basically write a summary of what will happen within the chapter. I feel like that’s a nice compromise between outlining and winging it. Enough is left out of the summary that there are still lots of opportunities for discovery in the draft. But the summary also acts as a compass, keeping me from the sort of organic digressions and missteps that I would eventually have to cut anyway.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Were the challenges different while writing a novel than while writing a short story?
Seth: My short answer is just that it’s all pretty tough. But I’ve always loved this quote from Thomas Mann, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” It makes me feel okay about the fact that pretty much every aspect of writing can be perennially intimidating. A lot of aspiring writers assume that feeling is because they’re doing something wrong, but really I think it’s a pretty natural result of the fact that the work is important to you and that you’re expecting a lot out of yourself.
The specific challenges involved in moving from short stories to a novel were unique in that my short stories were what would probably be called experimental, whereas this novel is (though weird in content) pretty traditional in terms of storytelling. It was difficult not being able to rely on the idiosyncratic skill set I’d developed as a short story writer, but also a lot of fun to give myself permission to explore character, scene, plot, and all that fun stuff.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Seth: Something that’s had a big impact on me is the notion of lightness in literature that’s explored by Italo Calvino in his book Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Calvino furthers the notion that, although many associate lightness with frivolity, there is also such a thing as a lightness of substance. That’s something that’s evident in his stories and novels. They’re all light and playful, but incredibly substantial. That idea has really informed my values as a writer. I want the strength of my books to derive from a thoughtful lightness. In this book I’ve framed my very serious thoughts, hopes, and concerns about modern cities into a brisk adventure that I hope will be as fun as it is meaningful.
TQ: Describe The Municipalists using only 5 words.
Seth: PG Wodehouse meets Jane Jacobs.
TQ: Tell us something about The Municipalists that is not found in the book description.
Seth: I lived in Ohio for most of my life, then moved to NYC in my late twenties. Writing a book about cities was a way for me to process that culture shock and explore my curiosity about the new world in which I found myself.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Municipalists?
Seth: I got to read lots of great books about urban planning and infrastructure. Some of my favorites were The Death and Life of Great American Cities by the aforementioned Jane Jacobs. I also really enjoyed digging into the writing of Edward Glaeser, Richard Florida, and Kate Ascher.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for The Municipalists.
Seth: The cover was illustrated by an artist named Matthew Taylor (https://www.instagram.com/matttaylordraws/). It was designed by Elizabeth Yaffe. They’re both geniuses and I love this cover. It depicts our two heroes, Henry and his AI partner OWEN, walking down the streets of the great city of Metropolis, where the majority of the novel takes place.
TQ: In The Municipalists who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Seth: Henry and OWEN were easy to write. The tension between them and their burgeoning friendship felt very real to me and was fun to watch unfold. I think the hardest to write was probably Sarah Laury, since she and I are different from one another in a lot of respects. When you find yourself in a situation like that, I think it’s important to seek out some commonality between you and the character and build out from there. Later, when you’re revising, you should listen closely to your privileged readers and/or sensitivity readers to make sure you’re doing that character justice.
TQ: Does The Municipalists touch on any social issues?
Seth: It does! It deals with what’s great about cities, but also things like gentrification, inequality, and class conflict.
TQ: Which question about The Municipalists do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Seth: Great question! No one has asked if the book contains a series of subtle clues leading to an actual hidden treasure in southern France that was once guarded by the Knights Templar. The book, in fact, does not contain a series of subtle clues leading to an actual hidden treasure in southern France that was once guarded by the Knights Templar, but it would still be nice to be asked.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Municipalists.
OWEN unsheathed the katana and raised it over his head before letting out a blood-curdling howl. He kept the sword overhead for a moment, observing Biggs for any sign that his resolve had weakened. When Biggs only looked confused, OWEN frowned and put the sword away again.
TQ: What's next?
Seth: I’m currently finishing up a collection of short stories and am in the middle of working on the next novel. If you’d like to check out what my stories are like, some of them can be found here: https://www.sethfried.com/short-stories
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Seth: Thank you!
Penguin Book, March 19, 2019
Trade Paperback and eBook, 272 pages
A novel about an unlikely pair of lonely outsiders–one human, one AI–on an adventure to save the great American city of Metropolis written by “one of the most exciting new voices in fiction” (Charles Yu)
*Named Library’s Journal‘s “Debut of the Month” and one of NYLON‘s “50 Books You’ll Want to Read in 2019″*
In Metropolis, the gleaming city of tomorrow, the dream of the great American city has been achieved. But all that is about to change, unless a neurotic, rule-following bureaucrat and an irreverent, freewheeling artificial intelligence can save the city from a mysterious terrorist plot that threatens its very existence.
Henry Thompson has dedicated his life to improving America’s infrastructure as a proud employee of the United States Municipal Survey. So when the agency comes under attack, he dutifully accepts his unexpected mission to visit Metropolis looking for answers. But his plans to investigate quietly, quickly, and carefully are interrupted by his new partner: a day-drinking know-it-all named OWEN, who also turns out to be the projected embodiment of the agency’s supercomputer. Soon, Henry and OWEN are fighting to save not only their own lives and those of the city’s millions of inhabitants, but also the soul of Metropolis. The Municipalists is a thrilling, funny, and touching adventure story, a tour-de-force of imagination that trenchantly explores our relationships to the cities around us and the technologies guiding us into the future.
Seth Fried is a fiction and humor writer. He is the author of the novel The Municipalists (Penguin Books) and the short story collection The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press). He is a recurring contributor to The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” and NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” His stories have appeared in Tin House, One Story, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Kenyon Review, Vice, and many others.