Bradford Morrow's The Forgers is a dark literary thriller set inside the world of rare books. The incomparable Karen Russell is a big fan of The Forgers and caught up with Morrow to talk to him about his new novel.
KAREN RUSSELL: The Forgers is a totally sui generis existential thriller that introduced me to the world of rare book collecting, a world where I know you have serious street cred. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how the idea to write The Forgers came to you?
BRADFORD MORROW: The Forgers opens with a simple, disturbing, and to me compelling sentence, “They never found his hands.” My editor, Otto Penzler, had asked if I would write a story for a series of bibliomysteries he publishes, and once I’d settled on exploring the rarefied, high-stakes world of literary forgeries, I thought to myself, What would a ruthless forger most want to deprive a rival of having? Pens, nibs, inks, antique papers, subterranean connections in the rare book world? No, his hands, of course. So I began with that single image and all the narrative possibilities and challenges it offered. The rare book community, a collective of brilliant eccentrics among whom murderers don’t generally mingle, is one I have been a part of for my whole adult life—first as a dealer, later as a collector—so most of my research was already done by the time I wrote that sentence and those that came after.
My experience of writing The Forgers was one of extraordinary, unstoppable momentum—the story very quickly matured into a novella and the novella soon burst into a novel. And while, yes, it is a literary thriller, it is also a heartrending (at least to me) love story—love between two people, as well as a love of antiquarian books that, for some, crosses ethical borders into a place of bibliomania, of psychopathy.
KAREN RUSSELL: This novel is Morrow magic at its best—I’m thinking of the awake-with-a-flashlight feeling I had reading The Diviner’s Tale, a novel that explores the quest for truth through the character of a female dowser, and the gothic spawn you’ve gathered in your story collection, The Uninnocent, which, like The Forgers, is always honest about the best and worst parts of our natures. But The Forgers also feels like new ground to me. The lyricism of your prose, its humor and its unbelievably beautiful insights into human relationships and human nature, seem to challenge narrow definitions of what a “thriller” can do. I confess that I’m never sure how genre lines get drawn, and your book seems to me like a glorious hybrid creature, a genre pegosaurus, your own Morrow-mutation. Were you consciously setting out to rattle the cage bars of genre?
BRADFORD MORROW: I love great genre writing, but talking genre can sometimes be a tricky business, in part because certain tropes over literary generations have become codified, and wherever there’s a code, there are some out there who would enforce the code, others who are strict practitioners of the code, and so on. That said, many writers I admire have embraced the worlds of genre, imagining and inventing wonderful books that often push beyond traditional dictates. And readers are a far more resilient, edgy, engaged group of literary explorers than some give them credit for being. I love working with genre, playing with expectations, so long as I can write the narratives I’m driven to write. If anything I do challenges narrow definitions, why then, that must be a good thing, I have to believe.
KAREN RUSSELL: As far as love stories go, this is a terrifically original one. I was riveted by the tension between the narrator’s private life as a forger and his public one with Meghan, the way his desires seem absolutely incompatible. “Do what you love,” as you tell us, is an adage that can underwrite all kinds of unspeakable activities; and loving someone might require forfeiting a beloved activity that structures one’s identity. How does this narrator’s secret life as a forger impinge on his aboveground relationship?
BRADFORD MORROW: While our narrator operates in a world deeply cast in shadows and secrets—he only mentions his own name once, and grudgingly in passing at that—his love for Meghan is unquestionable. To my mind, his private identities as a man who loves creating literary forgeries and a man who loves Meghan Diehl, incompatible as they may be, are equally powerful. Though his technique and literary historical knowledge as a forger are so exceptional that on occasion he feels he’s created work that is, to borrow a line from U2, “even better than the real thing,” it is very telling that he never gives Meghan, who runs an East Village used bookshop and loves books too, any forgeries.
KAREN RUSSELL: As the editor of the in-every-sense-fabulous journal Conjunctions, you’ve helped me and countless authors to firm up the “reality” of their imaginary worlds. From your books, I know you to be an expert deceiver, and one proof of this is that I feel as if your books are a stranger’s memories that I am importing into my own body. When you are working on your own forgeries (stories and novels), how do you vet for yourself when something feels emotionally true, even in a superficially outlandish or wild tale? And how can it be that we can all sense truth in art, even as it everywhere announces itself as imaginary, false?
BRADFORD MORROW: Truth is a pretty holy tabernacle of a concept, but all art, no matter how original and even unprecedented it is, constitutes a kind of forgery in that “forgery” is tantamount to “making.” One forges ahead. One can just as easily form, shape, produce, forge something that’s a true contribution not just to the arts but the world of wrought iron, for instance. Literary practitioners of the imaginary must create language that provides a gateway to a kind of separate reality, one that is both fictional and authentic at the same time, contradictory as that might seem. I used to worry about writing something emotionally true, but now I focus on language, trusting that the language I craft will articulate an experience of truth that my readers will share.
KAREN RUSSELL: How pervasive is forgery in the rare book world, do you think? Do you have a favorite anecdote from your time as a dealer or a collector?
BRADFORD MORROW: Every reputable rare book dealer who has been in business for any amount of time has encountered forgeries. Because reputation is paramount—these are smart, often scholarly people, some of them living encyclopedias, and proud of their legacies—most booksellers are intensely scrupulous about the manuscript materials and inscribed books they handle. This doesn’t mean that fakes don’t get into commerce. I can’t say I have a favorite anecdote, but earlier this year at a rare book fair in New York, I saw an autographed copy of the first American edition of a Virginia Woolf book in which the signature was wrong, embarrassingly wrong. From an oversized “V” on, the letters were inaccurately formed and far too large, the baseline was weirdly stepped up from her first name to the surname, the ink color was atypical, and so forth. This didn’t stop the seller, who I assume didn’t know better, from asking a very pretty penny for the piece. When I mentioned it to a dealer friend, an expert I trust who was also showing at the fair, he confirmed without having to look at it a second time that it was a forgery, and not a very sophisticated one at that. “Too bad,” we agreed. “It would have been a pretty nice book.” As for my own experiences, back when I was a rare book dealer in my twenties, I went out of my way to stay clear of any autograph material that seemed even slightly off, and as a collector I still do. Did any forgeries slip past me? Impossible to say impossible.
You know, there are forgers from earlier centuries who are actually collected, because they were so sophisticated or brazen or both. Thomas Chatterton and William Ireland come to mind, as does Thomas Wise. Even the infamous in the arcane world of literary forgers have their fanciers, their biographers, their colorful histories.
KAREN RUSSELL: The Forgers has epigraphs from Jorge Luis Borges and Arthur Conan Doyle—in terms of assembling a family tree for The Forgers, that sounds spot-on to me. What other influencers might you include, literary or otherwise, if you were tracing this novel’s lineage? Who are some of your favorite liars, er, authors?
BRADFORD MORROW: Friends who know my great admiration for William Gaddis may see hints of The Recognitions in The Forgers, since the former engages art forgery and the latter literary forgery, but if there was any influence of the one book on the other, it is lost on me, as I never consciously looked to Gaddis for any inspiration for this novel. When traveling in Ireland while writing the book—it was written quickly, by the way, in a matter of months, after some serious time stewing over it—I had a drink with John Banville, and had long been a fan of The Book of Evidence, which I see as a distant cousin to this novel, not plot-wise but tonally somehow. I did go back and reread most all of the Sherlock Holmes adventures as research for some of my forger’s more inventive counterfeits, and have to feel that Doyle’s pacing infected me, quick movements whereas I often love to linger. Nabokov’s short novels I can cite as a direct influence. Orson Welles’ last major film, F for Fake, about the superlative art forger Elmyr de Hory, I watched at least three times. De Hory was in a league of his own—the shamelessness, the sheer genius, the scope of his ambition were altogether galvanizing to me as I plumbed this netherworld. Welles admired him too as a fellow “liar,” a fellow bodhisattva in search of the believable sham.
As for my favorite writers, they are many and various, and only some of them would cotton to the idea of being called liars or forgers. I’ll let you guess who would and wouldn’t.In no order other than their names come first to mind, I think of Beckett, Cather, Woolf, Angela Carter, Hardy, Nabokov, Gass, Thomas Bernhard. I’m purposely leaving out the living and the Homers, Shakespeares, Donnes, and Swifts. But these are some whose work I go to for solace the same way others go to their Bible or whatever holy book they hold in high esteem.
KAREN RUSSELL: I love the book, and was struck by your ability to channel some of the deep metaphysical preoccupations from your earlier books into a heart-in-your-throat page turner. How do you see The Forgers as connected to your other work?
BRADFORD MORROW: That’s an interesting question, a tougher one than it might seem. I can’t truthfully say that I have some overarching philosophical system that informs my novels and stories. That said, certain themes have seemed to crop up in all eight of my books, including The Forgers, and they’re also there in the novel I’m finishing now, The Prague Sonata. Searching for an impossible place to call home in this world is one. The subjective nature of history and malleability of what’s “real” is another. I am fascinated by treacherous people who see themselves as spotless innocents—in other words, the kaleidoscopic range of self-deception available privately to all of us who ever breathed. Those are a few, anyway. I’m sure there are many more abiding preoccupations that thread through my work, but Steven Millhauser recently wrote me that he’s not much of a Steven Millhauser scholar, and I feel much the same way. Others will be able, if they’re of a mind, to identify recurrent themes and ideas. My job is just to make each book as good as I can and hope it connects with sympathetic readers such as yourself.
KAREN RUSSELL: How does the “act of faith” of book-collecting relates to love, for this narrator?
BRADFORD MORROW: That’s easier to unravel over the course of a novel than in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that the greatest book collectors I have known are less interested in rare books as investments, say, than in the preservation of culture. There’s a devotional element and historical imperative behind the impulse to gather, in obsessive depth and with bibliographic erudition, a collection of early arctic exploration, of Vladimir Nabokov, of Italian incunabula, of early comics, of antique cookbooks, you name it. As our narrator’s father, a great and scrupulous book collector himself, tells his young son about the passions behind collecting, “Books make us feel alive, and though we obviously won’t live forever, they make us feel as if we might. These walls of books in this room? They stand between us and the unknown.... We shore them against our ruins and they give us poor mortals comfort and joy like religion does.” Not dissimilarly, love makes us feel alive and, despite our mortality, prompts us tell the people we love, “I will love you forever.” Love is devotional, obsessive, protects us from the harshnesses of the world, affords us comfort and joy, and promises to shore us against our ruins, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. So definitely, in the context of this novel, human love and the totality of passion that informs the collector, not to mention the world-class forger, conflict with and yet weave in, around, and through each other.