“The emperor is naked,” author David Perlstein says. He’s channeling the boy from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor's New Clothes, but what Perlstein is really talking about are the strange truths that are the satirist’s job to lay bare to the rest of the world—if the world is willing to look.
Perlstein knows something about making people look. Until he retired five years ago, he made his living as a freelance advertising copywriter. His first published novel, Slick!, follows the beleaguered Bobby Gatling through a funny yet piercing take on American foreign policy in the Middle East and the hypocrisy of Gulf politics. Its deft blend of thoughtfulness and humor, a telltale sign of successful satire, earned the book an Indie Kirkus Star.
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Here, Perlstein tells us about writing Slick!, his choice to self-publish and how Bobby limped into the spotlight.
What was your goal with Slick!? To entertain or to inspire political activism as well?
I would say the most important thing is to entertain, to tell a good story so somebody can say, “Hey, I enjoyed that.” The second thing with a book like this is to tell a good story that has—I’m not talking about inspiring activism—but that might enlighten some people to take a look at the world with a slightly different viewpoint. Maybe you’ll be more open to seeing what’s really going on beneath the surface and to be more aware of the hypocrisy in our world and more aware of the issues. But the key is you’ve got to tell a good story. Otherwise you've got nothing but diatribe, and it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Are there parts you wish you could have included, but that you took out for the sake of a better story?
No, at the moment…Let me put it this way: there are elements of backstory that were in earlier drafts that would have been nice to have that aren't there now. But it doesn't bother me because I look at writing a novel as doing an impressionist painting, you don’t have to say everything. You can suggest, and sometimes the suggestion is more real than the specific.
As a retired American soldier working as a consultant for the sultanate, Bobby has a great perspective on Moq’tar. How did you come up with his character?
Originally the story was going to involve a young guy in the State Department who had been sent to Moq’tar. Well-educated but relatively innocent in the ways of the world. And one of the things I had set up was an active-duty Army colonel, a very minor character that was going to walk over to this hotel and brief the young guy over dinner. And I wrote maybe two sentences—I don’t know where it came from—but suddenly he’s Bobby Gatling and he’s 6-foot-5, and he’s walking with a limp. And I said no, it’s all about this guy. He has his own personal problems, but he’s also able to think about what is going on around him and to question when we don’t expect him to. I think of Bobby as the eye of the storm. He’s a career military man. Why would he question things around him? But he’s us, or should be us, questioning what’s happening when he can see things are not being done correctly.
What made you decide to self-publish?
Slick!, as I brought it out, represents six drafts. After draft four, I started to pursue agents. A few people wanted a look, but nobody wanted the whole thing. But I kept working on it. I decided that I'm nowhere with agents, and it’s impossible to get into a publishing house without an agent, so I'll bring it out myself. With today’s print-on-demand and other digital capabilities, you can do that.
But as a self-published author, you had to be your own editor. How did you decide that draft six was the one?
At some point you just have to pull the trigger. I reviewed comments from an agent with whom I had a bit of a relationship who had written, in effect, about a follow-up book. I also worked with a fiction teacher in the Bay Area named Tom Parker, who was a great help in guiding me. I realized the front end of the book needed changes, and when I made them I said, “This is the way to go and now I’m ready.” You could hold onto a book forever and nothing would ever happen. You just can’t do that. There comes a point when you say, “I’m done, I feel I've done the best I can do.” The sixth draft gave me that feeling.
You mentioned a follow-up book. Can you tell us about it?
There are a couple of next books, but this fall I’m going to bring out another book with Bobby as the protagonist. It doesn’t directly follow, but it takes place after Moq’tar. It’s set in Central America, and it deals with the far left and the far right, American capitalism and Central-American socialism. That's written and done, except for a few tweaks. I will probably bring that out this November.