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Sergio De La Pava

The New York public defender on the world at large, being noticed and A Naked Singularity

It’s 2008. New York public defender Sergio De La Pava self-publishes the imposing, genre-busting 690-page novel, A Naked Singularity. It is his literary debut, the result of nearly a decade’s work, and is pretty much ignored.

Flash forward five years: after a slow trickle of fanatical reviews, and an eventual re-release by University of Chicago Press, the novel wins the PEN American Center’s prestigious (and lucrative) Robert W. Bingham Prize.

The book itself is a wild, linguistically ambitious assault on the ubiquitous modern crime thriller. It’s about a lot of things but revolves around a young public defender’s internal and external struggles with the American legal system. It’s comfortingly difficult to categorise: the scale of comparisons it has drawn from critics—from maximalism to Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment to Pynchon—is pretty impressive on its own. We talked to him to try to find out how and why he writes, what he cares about, and what he thinks might be next in America’s War on Drugs.

Dazed Digital: The book is an incredible achievement. Tell us a bit about what provoked you to write it.

Sergio De La Pava: I would say the novel arose out of a kind of dissatisfied anger and, for better or worse, that probably ended up permeating the whole thing.

DD: And what about the process: did you really (as I’ve read) write it linearly, by hand? And was this the first book you sat down to write or were there earlier foiled attempts that are maybe still sitting in boxes under beds or recycling bins somewhere?

Sergio De La Pava: Linearly, yes, but by hand only partially, depending on my access to the usual implements. And there were no foiled attempts, you trying to jinx me? 

DD: A Naked Singularity feels teeming and lived in, which is understandable because the world it features is so similar to your own, but it also features some pretty esoteric discourses on things like 1970s boxing matches, quantum physics and empanadas. Which parts of the book were the most fun to write, if that’s a viable adjective? Or which came out the most easily? 

Sergio De La Pava: Alas, nothing worthwhile comes easily, or much resembles fun in the classic sense. However, I will say that writing the more comedic elements beat the hell out of depicting grim human failure.

DD: Like you, Casi is a public defender. How do you feel the job fed into how you decided to tell the story?

Sergio De La Pava: A great many of the formal elements of the novel were an attempt to convey what is in fact an uncommonly sensational segment of our world. This was a form of translation of course, but what always controlled were the demands of the novel as a work that wanted to cohere into attractive meaning, so that the world of a New York City public defender became something like the key the work was set in, to steal from Music.

DD: The novel takes place in a more-or-less pre-Internet world. What are the main effects you feel that the Internet is having on literature?

Sergio De La Pava: The effect has been salutary. Vital criticism is as important to literature, if not more important, than the creation of new works (the clear majority of which will be worthless) and the internet has been nothing short of a boon for this practice.

DD: You originally self-published A Naked Singularity in 2008, in 2010 there was a glowing review in The Quarterly Conversation, then there was The Millions’ review and increasing coverage last year. Now with the PEN prize, republication in other countries, your second novel coming out... has there been an “I made it” moment?

Sergio De La Pava: Two such moments, six years apart: when I looked at the two novels, which then consisted of dog-eared loose-leaf, and concluded there was nothing more to do—the rest is frivolous nonsense in comparison.

DD: In its discussion of the justice system, your book touches on a lot of similar topics as Eugene Jerecki’s documentary The House I Live In. Has America reached a “moment” regarding The War on Drugs, or is that wishful thinking?

Sergio De La Pava: I don’t think it’s just wishful thinking, I sense something legitimate if only incipient. Truth is, large-scale deformities like this will always wither into obsolescence because they’re not being fed any truth. Some of us are just trying to hasten its death.  

DD: Why do you write? What is writing for?

Sergio De La Pava: I don’t have a great answer to the question of why I write. Good lucidity on this question would require a significant mental investigation into the issue and I refuse to undertake one. Here, the unexamined life is preferable to me; preferable to narcissistic navel-gazing and exploration of things like my personality and deep seated motivations. What fascinates me is the world at large, in all its compelling variety. Of far less interest to me is the claustrophobic nutshell I’m bound in and, happily, that outward focus coincides nicely with what I view as the proper aim of literary work.

DD: You’ve stated that you think it’s no coincidence the form is called a “novel”, because it should feel new and fresh. What’s the most recent thing you read that made you feel that way?

Sergio De La Pava: Most recently, Swift’s A Tale of a Tub and if you respond that said novel is more than three centuries old, I’ll say that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make about this magical entity.

DD: While trying to find out a bit more about your forthcoming novel, Personae, I found this. Any idea who’s behind that one used copy for sale?

Sergio De La Pava: No idea who’s behind it but I’m prepared to diagnose a case of delusional optimism. 

DD: Do you have a favourite word?

Sergio De La Pava: Any word that’s developed a juicy built-in ambiguity, so like great or terrific.

DD: What about a favourite building?

Sergio De La Pava: Too many to list but my recent infatuation is Gehry’s Spruce Tower, which I get to eye almost daily, suckers 

DD: A favourite drink?

Sergio De La Pava: No idea how to make it, its name, its contents, or even if it really happened, but last year in Cali, Colombia I had this drink(s) whereby a sprig of mint was riding a lava-lamp wave of orange and red and all seemed right with the world, or maybe it was just the attendant circumstances.

DD: And do you have one piece of advice - writing or otherwise - to share?

Sergio De La Pava: I would advise people not to take advice from unhinged maniacs who overreact with attempted art to every mental stimulus.