Reif Larsen: the Making of the "Spivet" Legend


Reif Larsen: stories, pictures and margins!

Maybe there are two Reif Larsens. One is, at 29, the precocious savior of the collapsing book business — the game-changer, anyway, who in a desperately down market got $900,000 for his first novel, with foreign rights on top of that. His assignment, apparently, is to do with his story-telling, illustrations and marginal commentary in The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet roughly what Yo-Yo Ma, with his tangos and Appalachian tunes and the Silk Road Project on top of his Bach cello suites, did for classical recording. This is Reif Larsen, the hope of an industry.

The other Reif Larsen is the young man in our conversation, in his mother’s art studio in a three-flat house on the Cambridge-Somerville line near Boston. We are sitting in front of one of his mother’s images: black-and-white female figures with slides projected onto their skin. “You can see,” he says, deadpan, “how I became fascinated with scientific diagramming.”

This Larsen is the child, as he says, of “an extraordinary collision of naturing and nurturing,” whose devoted parents and teachers have been getting out of his way all his life to let him be who he really is. This is the boy who drew ant anatomies for the sociobiologist and preeminent ant scientist E. O. Wilson. He’s the boy who never forgets the 7th grade teacher, Lois Hetland, who instructed him to draw his own detailed map of the globe; the same boy who hasn’t forgotten the coastlines of all the continents. The wonder of this Reif Larsen, you sense, isn’t really that he emerged so young. It’s rather that he took his time and poured all 29 years of his life so far into producing the Spivet yarn, about a 12-year-old mapmaker on a ranch in Montana who wins a grown-up prize from the Smithsonian Institution and wends his way to Washington to claim his victory. Spivet is a multi-media journey through a young man’s multiple intelligences. Here is Reif Larsen, the experimental story-teller, who would have found his own way, no matter what.

Reif Larsen speaks about literary influences, early and late, from Tedd Arnold’s No More Jumping on the Bed to Salinger’s stories, to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, to Conrad and Garcia Marquez, to Tolstoy and Gogol, and now the Bosnian-American Aleksandar Hemon. He speaks also of the modern writer’s inescapable entangements with technology, and in particular of his resistance to the “hypertext” fiction that Robert “The End of Books” Coover was advocating when Larsen was a student at Brown a decade ago.

Of course the great irony is that [Spivet] is really an exploded hypertext book. I’ve come back. Thank you, Coover, is the moral of this. So, yes, I wanted the tenets ot narrative and character to be in place, but within that format I found… Originally all of the subtexts were in the footnotes. I had almost no images in the first draft. I have a love-hate relationship with footnotes… With some writers like Junot Diaz and Nicholson Baker and some of David Foster Wallace’s stuff, it really works. But often it’s an authorial intrusion where the author is saying “I know so much more about this.” There’s almost a pompousness in the writer saying: “you’ve got to do this, reader.” And as someone who’s interested in narrative and how we read, how we form stories in our head, the footnote didn’t feel right. Also T.S. wouldn’t have liked it. T.S. is a spatial thinker. He would have seen the page as a sort of map. So at some point in the process I made this really key breakthrough: They’re not footnotes! They’re going to be marginalia! From a reading point of view, the real breakthrough was the arrows, because suddenly you’re following a kind of diagram, you’re following a map, but you’re also doing a lot of lateral movement which mimics (at least in Western culture) the eye reading, how the eye reads. So I quickly found there was a key relationship between the main text and the subtext, or the sidebars. In that T. S. is almost most comfortable in these exploding diagrams, or in these annotations; and he’s willing to make observations, or risk a sort of emotional literacy that he wouldn’t in the main text if it’s tucked away. He dips his toe into the pond of adultness, often in the last line of a sidebar. So seeing how these two things react to each other was really interesting from a writer’s point of view. And pretty early on I wanted the reader to know: I can’t skip the margins!

Reif Larsen in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 8, 2009.

His next book, Reif Larsen says, will be “about an underground troupe of puppeteers, traveling around to places under siege, performing strange shows about particle physics, for the masses!”

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