Kurt Andersen on His Novel True Believers, His Crush on Daniel Craig, and His Aversion to Porn

Kurt Andersen. Photo: JIMI CELESTE/Patrick McMullan

Kurt Andersen’s new novel, True Believers, purports to be a memoir by Karen Hollander, a celebrated attorney and law professor who removed herself from consideration for appointment to the Supreme Court because she has a dark secret to hide: “I once set out to commit a spectacular murder, and people died.” The novelist — and former New York editor-in-chief — then sets up a story that travels through time, back to the sixties as Karen and her friends begin to take an obsession with 007 to extremes Ian Fleming would never have predicted, and to the near future, as Karen writes the book itself and uncovers unsettling truths while checking in on old ghosts and chaperoning her granddaughter Waverly to an Occupy protest in Miami that feels like it could happen today. (Watch the book trailer, below.) Andersen chatted with Vulture about his own early spycraft, his crush on Daniel Craig, and his aversion to porn.

Your main trio bonds over Bond, reenacting espionage inspired by the stories — LARPing before there was LARPing. Was this a detail from your own youth?
I had read none of the books before, so I started reading them, from the beginning with Casino Royale, and I did about half of them. I just followed the advice about which ones were the best ones. I skipped the newer ones, the non-Ian Fleming ones. I skipped Octopussy. I read Back in the U.S.S.R., I mean, From Russia, with Love — I’m mixing up my ‘60s references! Did I read Thunderball? I think none of the ones after 1964. But I didn’t have a Bond phase myself as a kid — at the age they were when they gorged on Bond, I was gorging on Kurt Vonnegut, although a friend and I did keep a file box of 3x5 cards about people we knew in some non-specific spy capacity.

So you were a spy?
A little bit! [Laughs] And I did buy this thing at Radio Shack, this “Big Ear,” this parabolic microphone that looked like a giant Frisbee from 100 yards away. But that was the extent of my spying.

Were your parents encouraging or discouraging of this? Because this could have been the beginning of your journalism career, if you think of gathering information on people as a precursor to reporting, not just a precursor to going on actual missions as they do in the book.
I think they had no fucking idea! [Laughs] They had no idea what I was doing. It was nicely laissez-faire. But yes, there is a connection between journalists and spies, and my being on the school paper was probably an extension of that. And that’s why in the 1950s and 1960s, about half the journalists — I’m overstating that, but a lot of them — were on the CIA payroll. But I’ve been thinking about the germ of this, the idea of turning James Bond playacting into real life espionage for a while, so it seemed like the perfect vessel to sort of describe the sixties and the shift between ages 11-12 and 17-18 at the same time. For better or for worse, the thing that so many people, and especially that generation have, is they think they’re experiencing life and truth for the first time. When you’re a teenager, you think you’re inventing love, irony, rock and roll. And the teenagers in the sixties, times ten.

You’re writing in the female first person. How did your wife and daughters help you with the details to get that voice right?
My wife didn’t have that experience of getting her period in church, but my wife’s mother did — when she was wearing some beautiful white thing and had the spotting on the back of the dress — so that moment was stolen from her. I’ve been living in a house of girls and women for twenty years now, so they gave me notes, like how Waverly would not be sunbathing naked in her grandmother’s backyard in L.A., or whether Karen would be watching porn. But I know for a fact women do watch porn, even if I don’t. I’m not a porn hound. It’s one of the unmanly things about me, in terms of what I see in the statistics and references to pop culture, that men supposedly spend all their fucking time watching porn. I’m not a prude, but it doesn’t interest me as much. So that’s what one of the discussions was about. I really enjoyed writing in the voice of a major female character; I thought it was more interesting if you’re going to have a 45-year-long chronicle that I should make the main character a woman, because the lives of women have changed more dramatically than the lives of men in that time period.

So what’s the celebrity math on Karen Hollander? Who could play her in the movie version?
She’s Hillary Clinton if Hillary hadn’t married Bill. She’s pretty Hillary-esque. The other thing, of course, is Meryl Streep. I suddenly thought, Oh my gosh, Meryl Streep could play her in her later years, and one of her daughters, like Mamie Gummer, could play her as a young woman. Or one of those Fanning girls.

Hillary wouldn’t write a memoir like Karen’s, though.
The particulars of Karen’s life aside, no, Hillary wouldn’t write a book like this. Katherine Graham’s bio was so good because it was more frank and intimate and funny, and while that wasn’t a model, I thought of it as I was writing this, how you might be thought of as a grand dame, but still have a messy animal life inside. But most people who write memoirs are still protecting themselves. Would someone publish a memoir like this in real life? Probably not. I would want Hillary to, but the problem is that people who write stunningly frank memoirs aren’t famous until they do so, like James Frey. It’s the honesty that makes the memoir readable, and everyone who writes one makes an agreement with themselves about how dissembling they’re going to be. I guess the point of writing a tell-all is that you don’t tell it all, and even if you did, you’d have to be a supremely entertaining writer, lots of encounters with interesting people, and self-aware thoughtfulness. 

Karen’s friend Alex is directing a remake of The Third Man starring Daniel Craig and Philip Seymour Hoffman, set in Afghanistan.
Alex, by the way, would be a very unreliable narrator. He is much more extravagant and theatrical and it would be more like pastiche, mixtape, mash-up. He invented pastiche. And he would be Malcolm McDowell. But I had that idea about eight or nine years ago, and I thought, Oh, fuck it. Let’s not keep it in a storage cabinet. And Daniel Craig is the best Bond to me, absolutely. You look at the old Bonds, and it’s almost apples and oranges to compare Sean Connery to Daniel Craig. They’re different species. And of the Bond movies I’ve seen as an adult, Daniel Craig is the one I’m most gratified by. And I actually got to meet him, because he was at this dinner after a screening of a documentary, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, and we talked afterwards. It was kismet. I’ve got a crush on him. [Laughs]

If this was before he married Rachel Weisz, you might have had a chance.
I don’t want a chance. I just want him to be my friend! Not my boyfriend. [Laughs] Besides, he was short, and I’m a little tall.

Have you had any discussions about movie rights to this story yet? Wasn’t Peter Bogdanovich turning your debut novel Turn of the Century into a film? What’s happening with that? Who would you want to play George and Lizzie?
Someone did approach me last week, so we’ll see. And they just renewed the option for Turn of the Century. I originally adapted it for Village Roadshow, and then Curtis Hanson was going to direct, and then this other film company wanted to have Peter direct and he got involved. I always thought Tom Hanks would make a good George, but I’d be happy to have George Clooney in any and every movie. Lizzie, I could see Claire Danes in that part. It’s a 600-page novel, so it’s going to lose tons, but the basic story is there. It feels like a period piece now, because things have changed so much.  

Even so, both Turn of the Century and True Believers have all these little things that you’ve dreamt up for the near future — like the Paul Plan, the identical bills from Ron and Rand Paul to offer all Israelis automatic U.S. citizenship until 2020, and authorize the creation of a new commonwealth on American land that could be self-governed like Puerto Rico.
It’s one of my tiny pleasures to come up with those kind of things, but I was actually worried that once I had locked that down, Ron Paul would die, because once you start getting that close to reality and using real people, you don’t know if the real world will cooperate.

Occupy Wall Street cooperated. Did you have to change the language or situations in your book after that happened?
It happened a year into my writing this, where I had Waverly involved in these anti-globalization things, and if it had just happened a year later, I would have looked really prescient! [Laughs] It was kind of amazing to me. It was interesting to be dreaming that up, but when I heard the news, it wasn’t instantly, Oh my gosh, because it just seemed like there were all these people in Zuccotti Park. And then I realized a few weeks into it, I’m going to have to look at these elements through another lens. I had to figure it out, now that it had a name. It’s funny when the news cooperates with you, like with the drone thing as well, which was obviously in the news as I started writing, but it’s even more in the news now. It gives you a selfish way of looking at the news.

Do you think we’ll ever see something like Viztontin, the new serotonin reuptake inhibitor that’s supposed to enable and enhance religious feelings?
I asked someone, “I want you to read this part,” and he wrote me back, “Give it a few years, and there will be something like this.” I haven’t researched whether it’s actually in the works, but it seems like it could be and will be, because the religiosity of America, the yearning to feel religious, is not totally a new thing.

That idea, coupled with the book’s point about the scarcity of admitted atheists in a government which is not supposed to require a religious test as qualification to any office, might be why people are asking if you’re an atheist on Internet search engines.
It’s funny, the idea that Google would tell them. [Laughs] I’ve never really written about a belief in God one way or the other, and I don’t define myself as an atheist in that aggressive Christopher Hitchens/Richard Dawson way. If my choice is that or a passionate faith, I would choose the former, but I’ve always liked agnosticism. It doesn’t have the certainty required of hardcore atheism, because I am uncertain in a certain way, still.

Or maybe they’re just asking because the book is called True Believers.
Oh, maybe that’s it! [Laughs]   

Kurt Andersen Isn’t All That Into Porn