Best-selling author, acclaimed “Studio 360” radio show host and Omaha native and Westside High grad Kurt Andersen is back on the bookshelves with the recent release of a summer must-read entitled “True Believers.”
The novel is a mystery-thriller-comedy-social commentary about Karen Hollander and the memoir she’s writing — a book exposing a dark secret that forced her to remove herself from consideration for an appointment to the Supreme Court. The chapters alternate between the 1960s and the not-too-distant future, and Andersen’s innovative, time-traveling structure and writing hits with the precision and rhythmic brute force of a booming Keith Moon drum riff, as sampled and looped by Kanye West.
Andersen will be at Film Streams on Aug. 17 for a special 50th anniversary screening of the first James Bond film, “Dr. No,” as well as a Q&A and book signing. We caught up with him about the new novel, his hometown, the 1960s and the future.
Q. “True Believers” takes place in the 1960s and the near future. You’re younger than your narrator, Karen Hollander, and you were growing up in Omaha as the 1960s became The Sixties. Looking back, what are some of your impressions of the city at that time that might surprise younger people in Omaha today?
A. My older brother, David, was a rock-and-roll musician from age 12 on, a drummer in The Impacts and then his own band Naked Afternoon. So he was my in-house connection to The Sixties. He also did work for the underground newspaper, whose name I don’t remember, but it had its office in the Old Market, so at 13, 14, I became familiar with head shops, black-light posters, the Grateful Dead (who played the Music Box in 1969) etc. I saw an Andy Warhol film in a little ad hoc storefront theater in the Old Market. When I was 14 or 15, I tried to become a rock concert promoter, and had correspondence with the managements of the Dead, the Rolling Stones and Alice Cooper about playing at the Civic Auditorium, and got a friend of my parents to agree to back me financially. Fortunately, probably, I never managed to produce a concert. And in retrospect I think what would surprise all kinds of people of all ages, Omahans and not, is that there was this robust countercultural node in Omaha from the get-go. The Old Market was Soho before Soho was Soho.
Q. Do you like where Omaha’s heading?
A. I think Omaha is kind of amazing. The idea, when I was young, that the Old Market would grow to many times its original size, and that the city would have such robust visual art and music and literary scenes — and Film Streams — would have been unimaginable. I’m encouraging young artists I meet to get out of New York and move there.
Q. The near future in your novel is bleak, but certainly not unfamiliar. Have we lost our national soul?
A. Bleak? If you say so. Some days I think that, some days not. Definitely strange. America is no longer young (the way it was in the 1840s, the era of my last novel, “Heyday”), and we have to grow up, finally. I guess I sort of think the country is having a midlife crisis. So what’s the national equivalent of drinking too much and getting divorced and buying a Porsche?
Q. Why did you choose to write this particular story at this particular moment? What was the biggest challenge for you in constructing the novel?
A. It just felt right. I tend to write things that I want to read or see or hear but haven’t found. I wanted to read a novel that tries to get a fix on what the ’60s were like and how America’s changed in the half-century since, but one that doesn’t do so pretentiously or solemnly. So I wrote one. And it was a challenge technically. I’d never written a novel with a first-person narrator before. And especially given the mystery part of the genre jambalaya, the shifts back and forth between the 1960s and the 2010s required a lot of careful wiring and rewiring to dole out key information at the right moments.
Q. A big theme in the story is idealism turned bad. You had even created an “Occupy”-like movement in an early draft of the novel before the actual Occupy movement began, and then had to revise a bit on the fly when it became a real thing. What’s your take on where it stands now and into the future, and what good, if any, came of it?
A. Not so much “idealism turned bad,” I’d say, but idealism gone extreme (in the ’60s) and youthful idealism necessarily having a half-life. As for the Occupy movement, I think that like in the ’60s, the protesters’ disgust with a lot that seems wrong and dysfunctional right now reached critical mass, and they felt like they had to make a big noise about it — inequality greater than it’s been since the 1920s, money ruining politics, a historical imbalance in the interests of short-term private profit versus the general social good. Protesters of all kinds can also be annoying, as I make clear in the novel. The good that came from Occupy is making that basic critique prominent in the national conversation in a way it wasn’t a year ago — and, in this digital screen-entranced age, getting people off the couch and into the physical public squares rather than just clicking “Like.” Unlike in the ’60s, Occupy has no one big demand: Civil Rights Now, End the War. That diffuseness and lack of programmatic agenda was useful in their first few months of existence, but probably not so much now.
Q. Will a head-mounted iPhone and “Google Glasses” be a final stake through the heart of civility and manners in our culture?
A. Just one more step along the way in our journey to the Singularity, when we are subservient to machines. Kidding! Sort of.
Q. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are a crucial part of the lives of characters in “True Believers,” but you had actually never read one before working on this story. When you were young, who were your favorite authors, and was there any particular book that turned the light on and made you want to start writing yourself?
A. As a little kid I loved the Tom Swift books, and then discovered the science fiction classics — Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov. At 13, 14, I loved Kurt Vonnegut. And “Catch-22” and “Huckleberry Finn” and, thanks to my Westside English teacher Gary Sedlacek, Thoreau and Emerson were adolescent favorites. But the single book that thrilled me and probably more than any other one made me want to become a writer was Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” which was published in 1968, and which I checked out from the Omaha Public Library at 90th and Dodge Streets when I was 14.
Q. What’s the best advice about writing and, in general, about living you’ve ever received?
A. On writing: My friend Susanna Moore, who’s a novelist, told me right before I wrote my first book that “every good novel is a mystery.” With “True Believers,” I took that to heart literally. And on living: My father more than once told me that the correct and useful definition of “sophistication” was to be able to connect with people from all different walks of life.
Q. What was the last book you read, what are you reading now and what’s next up?
A. I just finished Susanna Moore’s forthcoming novel “The Life of Objects,” about an Irish girl living in Germany during World War II, and I’m in the middle of “The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker, a novel about life after the earth’s rotation suddenly slows down. I think next is probably “The Impossible State” about North Korea. I’m slightly obsessed with North Korea. It’s so horrific it seems fictional.
Q. You were at the Aspen Ideas Festival recently. What new concept or idea made the biggest impression on you?
A. A panel on the future of war with a really smart female general, an admiral, a former deputy secretary of state and a brilliant think-tank guy. (See my answer above about our journey toward the Singularity, when we will be subservient to machines.)
Q. What’s your next big project?
A. Definitely another novel or a nonfiction book — I want to decide which this summer. Or a TV series I have in mind, although I always discount the chances of any and all show-business projects actually happening to zero. And/or something I don’t know about today — for instance, I just hosted a new live public radio variety show in New York called “Kings County,” three episodes, and a year ago that wasn’t even on the horizon.