In Telex from Cuba you write about revolutionary Cuba, and in The Flamethrowers you take on seventies Italian radicals. In some way, all art is political, but would you consider yourself a political writer?

I suppose I write on the latter end of a spectrum of types of novels, from the more intimate domestic sphere to the big canvas where you're dealing with history and political events. I'm a writer who goes for the broader canvas. But political does not mean my work has a message, explicit or not: the novel is a work of art and in that sense it transcends any kind of agenda, ideally anyhow. Still, I find politics somewhat inescapable. We live in capitalism and it's the horizon beyond which people have trouble thinking and as a writer I can work with that a little, and attempt to reveal certain contradictions, expose assumptions, and be contrary. But again, when I say "political writer" I mean I replicate or try to locate truthful aspects of modern life. I don't mean that I create books meant to propagandize. Not at all.

Were there specific ideas that sparked this novel for you?

I don't really start with an idea. I tend to start with a poetic image of some kind. In this case I was thinking about two events, crowd scenes, one in New York and one in Rome. The first   was the blackout that occurred in New York City in July of 1977--an unpredicted and sudden space of illegality--widespread looting, in other words--among totally unconnected groups of people (mostly poor, mostly not white) all over the metropolitan area. No one planned it. It just happened. The other scene was in Italy, the same year, but a few months earlier, when 100,000 people marched through the streets of Rome. There was a certain building up, in that event, a radical left movement in Italy that had really exploded. The blackout, the protest in Rome, each of these scenes had a historical specificity, but both seemed open-ended, mysterious. I wanted to put them into play as neighbors, aesthetically, but not link them. That pairing was something on the level of an image that helped lead to the writing of the book.

What's your advice to young writers?

If I had useful advice for them, I would give it to myself as well. Read widely. Take your time, be patient. It took me many years to write my first novel. I was not in a hurry to publish. Also, work hard. Writing takes work. Find a form to activate, and utilize, what is unique in your sensibility. And have faith. Some aspects of writing can actually be learned. 

Starting with the title, the book is studded with images and talk of flames. What is it about fire for you in this novel?

I don't know! Let's get a psychoanalyst--or literature grad student--to figure it out.  I should say that my editor, Nan Graham, actually thought of the title.  Fire is an agent of change. And I was interested in the Italian flame throwing regiments in World War I. My book to some degree takes on themes and imagery of revolt, and fire is often a part of that. A Molotov cocktail is often a tool of the provocateur, the saboteur, and never of the state. Still, the book ends not with fire but its opposite. Ice and snow.
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