At first, N.J. Campbell‘s novel Found Audio reads like the kind of true-crime mystery that might inspire dedicated podcast listeners to trade theories, obsess over mysterious records, and ponder the ambiguities presented by the narrative. It’s the story of an unnamed journalist searching for a mysterious city–the kind of archetypal adventure narrative that has captivated audiences for centuries. But on closer inspection, the story gets weirder: while driven, the journalist at the heart of the book reveals less admirable qualities along the way, and the framing narrative adds additional mysteries to the picture. I talked with Campbell about the evolution of his novel and the challenges of writing a book in which ambiguity is paramount.
The bulk of Found Audio centers around three distinct recordings, each of which finds the novel’s central character on a kind of adventure. Did you have an idea of which of these setpieces would come first?
Yes. The first set piece was originally a short story idea that I decided to play with. In my initial conception, I was going to treat the material with a close third-person perspective, but since I had been wanting to experiment with voice, quite literally, I decided to approach the story from the first-person to see what would happen. When I came to the end of that piece, I just decided to keep pushing to see where it would go. I kept asking myself “what next?, what next?, what next?” And as it was a type of experiment for me that I wasn’t particularly attached to, I also kept trying to challenge myself with the work. I set up specific limitations, wrote myself into dead ends, and deliberately created uncooperative narrative conditions to see what I might be able to make out of what I was doing. I’m tentatively satisfied with the result. There were some limitations I had to bend and others I had to break, but for the most part, I think I got a better story out of trying to push and pull the piece as far as I could.
On one level, Found Audio takes a cue from pulp adventures, sending its protagonist to mysterious locations around the globe. On the other hand, its structure incorporates layers of narrative and adds plenty of ambiguity into the mix. How did the structure of this novel evolve as you were writing it?
The structure grew organically out of experiment: the more severe the limitations I placed on the project, the more imaginative the solutions had to be. For a decade, I had written almost exclusively in a style of terse realism, and I found that the more ambitious I made my designs, the less suited the project would be to the style I had been writing in, so I went nuts. I borrowed from speculative genres for certain motifs, and then gradually broke every structural form. When I came to a crossroads, I looked anywhere and everywhere for a solution to my narrative problem. As that process went on, I found that the broader structure of the novel needed as much flexibility to remain engaging as the content did, so I slowly found myself borrowing from every form of literature I had ever read. Section A was best treated as a novel; Section J was best treated as poetry; Section L, T, and Q needed to be structured as a play; Section S should be formatted as faux-non-fiction; Section R should be experimentally treated; Section B needed to be song lyrics; so on and so forth. By the time I had come to the end, I had something very textured, nuanced, and layered.
At the center of the novel is a journalist working for various travel and adventure publications in the late 20th century. Did you delve at all into this world, or did you prefer a more stylized approach?
I did research, yes, but not extensively. As a writer, I’ve read lots of articles and books about writing, and I was fascinated upon hearing about people’s experiences with non-fiction work. I’ve never really written non-fiction, but from some of the articles I read about it, there can sometimes be quite a bit of money in it for what seems like very simple assignments. For instance, I read about a novelist who once got next to nothing for a novel they had spent a decade on, but because the main character was a gourmand, they were offered something like 15k and given an all-expense-paid trip to China to give a review of some new restaurant for a major periodical. I was shocked, enraged, and entertained. I laughed at the absurdity of the world, and celebrated the author’s easy payday with a fist raised quickly into the air and a not-so-quiet ‘Hell yeah!’ Over the years, I’ve read some similar, but not quite so extreme, versions of the same phenomenon. So, I decided that if my characters had been in the right place at the right time, they could have made a fair living doing that kind of thing.
Since you’re dealing with the idea of a narrative as a found object, with gaps and mysterious and unnamed supporting characters, how did you find the balance between suggestion and being more explicit?
I naturally tend toward ambiguity as a writer. What interests me is the line between what can and can’t be said, and what is and isn’t really there. Many of my favorite writers walk that tightrope, so I studied their prose for technical ideas about how to engage that kind of style. I read Jorge Luis Borges, Yasunari Kawabata, Murasaki Shikibu, Françoise Sagan, and Ernest Hemingway all very closely.
There are such fine lines in trying to write in that style, and since they are so fine, you’re almost always going to cross them from time to time, making the prose cryptic and abstruse, or, conversely, dull and obvious. So, when I got to the editing phase, I asked people what they had a difficult time with or what they thought was too obvious and listened to what they said. It was a lot of trial and error. If everyone was lost in a certain section, I changed it. If two people were lost, I changed it. If one person was lost, I left it alone. I knew going in that I would lose some people and that many might become impatient with what was happening, but it’s the type of thing I like to read, so it’s the type of thing I tend to write.
To what extent is the central character intended to be sympathetic, as opposed to more of an Ugly American type, stumbling into things that he doesn’t understand? His initial description of Otha Johnson, for instance, references how race was handled in early-20th century pulp magazines, which weren’t exactly known for being deeply enlightened.
I approached this question very deliberately in the narrative. In the first tape, the narrator approaches his story very explicitly as exotification, and that first reference to Otha was meant to bring that sort of insensitivity to mind while setting up the possibility for the narrator to be an Ugly American. After setting up that expectation, however, I then sought to dissect the narrator’s preconceptions within the narrative. Otha is not a simple character that can be superficially summarized in a cursory piece of travel journalism. He tells the narrator as much and then cuts the narrator loose.
From that point on, the narrator’s interests in stories are directed toward trying to understand other people’s worlds from the inside, rather than just what they appear to be from the outside. As my intent was to show that progression compassionately, I see the narrator as sympathetic. We all make mistakes. We all have the ability to learn and grow, and the narrator of the book is no different. I worked to display individuals and their actions, rather than exotifying their personalties. The people he meets all have their own motivations. Otha is not particularly helpful. The monk in Kowloon is genuinely taciturn, as his understanding of life seems to be enigmatic. The Turk in Istanbul has more of an edifying disposition and attempts to be helpful and up-front.
The central mysteries in the book are the common denominator, one that I feel everyone, regardless of race, creed, color, orientation, or religion shares in being alive, just as they are shared across borders both physical and ideological in the book. I attempted to portray these shared mysteries through the perspective of a narrator who was initially not particularly aware of their universality or necessarily very sensitive to their manifold implications for the individuals he encounters. And as the book progressed, I tried to show the narrator learning about some of the different approaches individuals have to those mysteries. For instance, Otha is private about his mysteries and his approach to life, the monk is very open, but taciturn, the Turk is playful in his treatment of the strange nature of the world, Bianca is open to the oddities of existence, but a bit more interested in a more stable life, and the narrator himself discovers by degrees that he is obsessed with trying to solve the complicated ambiguities at the core of human existence.
In general, I really try to shy away from explaining what I tried to do, as I don’t think it’s very helpful. The interpretation of a book or any of the core mysteries in life is fundamentally individual. That said, our world is very broken in many ways, and with my book I did try to display what we all share and how we are all both different and alike as human beings in this strange place. Had I not been asked this question, I would never have talked about any of this. I was grateful for the opportunity as well as very ambivalent about what I might say. It was a great question, Tobias, and I can only hope the way I’ve answered it won’t limit anyone’s individual reading of the material.
Do you have a sense of what’s next for you, literarily speaking?
This question is like the happiest form of plague. It’s so, so, so, so, so flattering to be asked what I’m going to do next, and yet I never want to talk about it out of respect for both myself and anyone who might read my work and be interested in what I do in the future.
I had a friend when I was young who was much older than I was and who had been in Alcoholics Anonymous for decades. His name was Milt. I learned quite a bit from Milt, but one of the things that really stuck with me was a phrase he had picked up in AA. “Expectation is a pre-meditated resentment.” That is, if you expect something and don’t get it, you’re going to be pissed, and whatever you expected will probably not be the thing that you end up with. I see this statement as perfectly applicable to almost every situation in life, including writing. If I promise something, say a story about a man in a boat going to visit a woman in another boat, then I’m stuck writing a boat drama. If the boat drama sounds interesting to some people, they’ll be upset if I never finish it. If the boat drama sounds boring to another group, then I’ve already lost part of my audience right off the bat. And, as I like to keep my word, I’ll feel super disappointed in myself if I don’t keep it and really deliver on this boat drama. So, I’ll spend all of my time thinking about how I could make the best man-in-boat meets woman-in-boat story ever, and I’ll probably over think it, or by the time I’ve finished writing it, it will end up being a man-in-boat meets woman-in-boat story written by a character in my novel where the character writing the boat drama is enmeshed in a pre-industrial revolution supernatural political thriller.
Over the years, I’ve found it’s best that the first draft be mine. The second draft is for friends and anyone I might do business with, and the eighty-fourth draft can be for everyone else, or as much of everyone else as I might be able to capture with my metafictional 17th century vampire high seas dynastic thriller.
Also, so that no one is confused, I’m not writing the story I just described. I honestly feel guilt over the fact that someone might think that I am. I’ve been hovering over the delete key with this whole answer high-lighted for twenty minutes now.