"The Lost Americans" Is the Latest Gay-Infused Thriller from The Dashing Christopher Bollen
The veteran "Interview" mag journalist and writer of juicy intrigues set in glamorous locales talks about being American writing a gay Arab character—and what it's like to be single again after a LTR.
Happy April, Caftan readers! Is it really the cruelest month? The past few days of lovely NYC weather have me thinking otherwise. I am totally here for soon being able to walk out of the house in a T-shirt and shorts…yes, please, Mama Natura!
Should you continue to read, you will see that my latest interviewee is the handsome and talented fellow journalist and novelist Christopher Bollen, who has a wonderfully readable, page-turn-y, sophisticated and suspenseful new novel out, The Lost Americans. (Please note I linked to Bookshop.org, not Amazon…please part, if you can, with a few extra dollars to support your local independent bookseller instead of the undercutting behemoth!)
You may also notice that he is in his forties, and then you may remember that last month’s interviewee, the NYC nightlife icon Kevin Aviance, is 54, and wonder, “Has Tim entirely abandoned his initial mission of interviewing gay gents 60 or over?” The answer is a resounding NO. But a few candidates I’d hoped would happen for April fell through, and in fact, as soon as I finished The Lost Americans, I’d intended to do a little chat with Christopher about it anyway—that’s how good I found it.
So I very much hope I’ll have one of the older gents on board in the weeks ahead—it’s an endless process of following up again and again (which is why I am always open to your suggestions, especially if you have an in to someone; email me at email@example.com.
In fact, in May I hope to have someone whom I absolutely idolize who is a true legend and is in fact NOT gay—but his life’s work has been intimately bound up in gay culture. I’ve gotten a soft yes from his team for when he frees up in late April, so cross your fingers with me. He will, I hope, inaugurate my new tack of interviewing not necessarily just older gay men—but ALWAYS someone whose backstory is tied in some important way into our gay men’s history and culture.
Meanwhile, I give you Christopher Bollen, whom I first had the pleasure of meeting when he interviewed me in 2016 for Interview magazine, his longtime writer’s home, about my then-new novel Christodora. We’ve stayed in touch since then and a few weeks ago I absolutely adored his The Lost Americans book launch at a branch of the NYC bookstore McNally-Jackson, at which he did a little talk with gay literary legend Edmund White. Here they are together:
The Lost Americans is about a messy young American woman, Cate, who learns that her brother, a technician for a powerful and shadowy American weapons company that sells to countries including Egypt, has “killed himself” while working in Cairo—jumping from the third-floor balcony of his hotel room—not high enough to kill oneself, mind you—but not before sending her a cryptic postcard the night before. Cate, convinced there’s more to his death than what the Egyptian government and the arms company are telling her family, travels alone to Cairo for the first time in her life and, despite nearly being kidnapped right out of the airport, starts snooping around relentlessly to get to the truth. (I always love a bit of yummy implausibility in a thriller.) In the process, she befriends, via a wealthy Egyptian-American contact, and seeks help from Omar, a privileged young London-educated Egyptian who wants to get out of Cairo again so he can live a free gay life.
So that’s the set-up, and from there, it gets very twisty-turny and nail-bite-y—and I truly did not see the reveal coming. But the novel has political and emotional depths, particularly concerning the inner life of Omar. It’s just a really good read and a perfect summer beach or getaway read as well. And Christopher is a very elegant stylist, as you’ll see. And once you’ve read The Lost Americans, he has many prior books you can crack into.
I loved talking to another novelist about what we do and how we do it. And then we get a bit personal toward the end! I hope you enjoy. Thank you as ever for reading and supporting Caftan, especially those of you who pay the (mere!) $5 a month to afford me the time to do this. I hope your April is enchanted! xo Tim
Oh! One more thing. I want to give a plug to the Substack of my longtime friends Tom and Abi at Gayletter. Lemme put it this way—if I do us old gays, Tom and Abi mostly do the new gays, and they do it so well, so consider supporting them as well if you can. They even have a brand-new interview with my current all-consuming crush, the singer/songwriter Omar Apollo.
Tim: Hi there, Christopher! So first of all, the plot of The Lost Americans is very intricate, a steady trail of mysterious clues and unveilings and then a lot of twisty-turny reversals in the last third of the book. Did you sit down and plan your plot impeccably before starting to write?
Christopher: Not at all. I always promise myself that with each new book, I'll do a blueprint because I waste so much time going down blind alleys. I usually have an idea of what the murder was about and build it as I go. It becomes a puzzle obsession. The actual writing comes sitting at the desk, but the plotting happens when I'm grocery shopping or going for a run, trying to put the knots together. My second novel, Orient, it's the size of a Bible. And I'm still learning how to put a big plot together.
Tim: But there are so many seemingly carefully planted clues and signals in this book though, like the postcard "from Jamaica" that Eric sends his sister Cate from Cairo shortly before he dies with something cryptic written on it. You didn't—
Christopher: I do that to make characterization as well, give people or the situations a few weirdnesses where I don't know how they'll play out in the plot, but they're weird enough that I know I'll be able to use them somehow, and, I swear to God, later I think, "Yes, I know how to incorporate that." Like with the postcard, I loved the idea of reaching out in this old-school way to someone who was going to be a main part of the plot, but I didn't know how it was going to be used.
Tim: So in other words, you don't figure out the end-point first and then reverse-engineer from there?
Christopher: Sometimes I'll erase elements that didn't work out later on. But the plot is always up in the air and change on a dime at any moment.
Tim: So you don't figure out "whodunit" at the beginning and work backward?
Christopher: Not at all. But I did know in this book who I wanted to die and who I wanted to live.
Tim: I would tell my students in fiction workshops that you are showing your values, politics and empathy points, knowingly or not, when you choose your characters' fates.
Christopher: True, where the author's mercy ends up.
Tim: Right, whom we choose to dispense with or spare, and why—to what ends. But I like what you say about not fully knowing where your book is going as you write. My approach is to set up like four or five big tentpoles of what's going to happen, including how the book is going to land, but leaving all the rest to the moment of writing, so in that way the act of writing somewhat mirrors the act of reading, the anticipation and suspense, because you don't quite know where you're going.
Christopher: I like books that feel jittery—as in, not badly made, but nerve- or anxiety-inducing, that deep unease.
Tim: Me too, very much. Things feeling a bit off and unstable. This book of yours really has that feel, very successfully so. So of course I wanted to ask you, and I assume the answer is yes, but have you been to Cairo?