Need a great end-of-summer read? Pick up Augustus Rose’s The Readymade Thief for a thrilling adventure! Check out our interview with the author here.
Sitting in an abandoned aquarium, Lee Cuddy discovers a note tucked into the diorama — “Return what you have taken.” With that a gripping adventure unfolds through the underground world of long forgotten landscapes and secret societies.
Augustus Rose’s The Readymade Thief focuses on a variety of items hidden in plain sight. From the novel’s main character, to the clues left in Marcel Duchamp’s art, Rose strings together a web of a narrative that will leave you guessing until the very end.
Hypable spoke with Augustus Rose about his inspiration for the novel, why he chose Duchamp’s work, and writing advice he offers to his students, but doesn’t expect them to follow.
Augustus Rose Interview: ‘The Readymade Thief’
The novel jumps between great intimacy with Lee to a striking distance between her and the reader. Almost as if Lee realizes how much she has let you in. Where did the character of Lee originate?
I had already thought of the whole backdrop of the book first and what I wanted to write around. And Lee, as corny as it sounds, came to me in an image. This young woman sitting alone in an abandoned aquarium starting into this old diorama. Seeing a note there that was probably left for her.
Lee’s voice came to me sort of slowly, by degrees. Once it did, once I got to know [her], she took over the book and I was scrambling to follow her and her often poor decisions. But I think the poor decisions of a character make for a good book.
The voice itself, it’s somewhere between a narrative voice and her voice — it accordions in and out. Sometimes you’re really, really close with Lee and inside her head. And sometimes it pulls back a bit and we get a little bit more distance.
I know this isn’t a dystopian novel, but when you’re reading about secret societies and underground worlds, it feels as if you are in another world. When you were crafting this novel, did you start with the world building or the plot?
It was definitely the world building part of it. I love researching and I basically like to start with areas that I want to write about and write around. For this book, it was urban exploration and underground spaces and cults and secret societies and fringe science. These disparate areas that I am curious about and like to learn about.
I did a lot of reading up on things like this. Marcel Duchamp, the artist and his legacy was something that I wanted front and center. I’ve always been fixated with him.
I did a lot of reading around these subjects and started connecting my own dots. And as those dots started to connect a loose — I wouldn’t even call it a plot — started to form. Who these people were and what they wanted and what they thought was at stake started to crystalize a little bit. And I would say that the plot itself didn’t form until I was writing the book.
I never really knew where it was going. And I don’t like to know where the plot is going when I write. I don’t like to outline. I like to know where I’m writing toward, maybe a scene or two ahead. And then once I get to that scene or two I can see another few scenes ahead of that.
To me that’s the pleasure of writing — that act of discovery.
Was there anything you learned while writing this book that you brought back to your students?
I think everyone has their own process and I try not to impose my own process on my students too much. But I can give them what my process is and let them do whatever they want with it. Part of that process is called “writing into the void.” Not my term.
[It’s] that not knowing where you are going and just looking around and following your own curiosity and seeing where it goes.
Another narrative tool I use is to write my characters into really, really terrible situations by their own choices. Where your protagonist is consistently making bad, but believable, choices that lead her into worse and worse situations so that [she] is kind of forced to dig deep and use their own resources to get themselves out.
Those are some things I bring to my students — not being afraid of putting your character, who you hopefully love, into some really terrible places where you never want to see anyone you care about. But you are kind of forced to do that as a writer.
I want to talk a little about the art itself. What was it about Duchamp that led you to make him a central part of your narrative?
Oh gosh. I’ve [had] a low-grade obsession with Duchamp since I was in high school. He’s got a kind of otherworldliness about him. He completely transformed the whole landscape of art and the way we think about art. And the way we approach art.
When he was working in the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century, we appreciated art through our eyes. It was meant to be the beauty of a piece and speak to our soul in some way. But I think he was the first artist to bring [art] into the realm of the head and the intellect.
He’s kind of the father of conceptual art.
I always knew I wanted to write a book about Duchamp. And I tried writing him as a character and that just kept falling flat. I had to throw away lots of different drafts of stuff. I decided to write just about his art and his legacy.
When I started looking at his art, I realized how interconnected all his work is and how self-referential. If you look at it, it all forms this one big puzzle that doesn’t necessarily have an answer. Or if it does it’s so open that it invites the viewer to come in and make your own answer.
I really love that about him; he invites the viewer in to be a part of that process of what the art means, so to speak.
With this book I created my own answer for what his art might mean as a whole.
I recommend checking out Duchamp’s art while reading The Readymade Thief. It adds a great visual element to the story. When you were crafting this novel, what was your favorite thing to create from scratch?
I would definitely say the Societe Anonyme. This underground cult that’s obsessive about Duchamp’s work. Duchamp’s major work is called “Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,” and part of that work has a section called “The Nine Bachelors.”
I got to make a cult of nine men, each of whom takes a role as one of these bachelors in Duchamp’s work. I think figuring out who [the society was] and what they wanted was a lot of fun. I’ve always been interested in groups who start off with benign intentions and then go horribly awry at some point through some combination of pride, or envy, or greed, all these very human traits. I think this group was very much of that kind.
On the face of it, this group of men who are so obsessed with Duchamp’s work that they become rather nefarious is so fantastical. If you just describe it to somebody it sounds contrived, and my goal, and my big hurdle, was to make it believable. Like you said, it’s not exactly science fiction, it’s not even dystopian fiction, it’s this world that is our world, but so out there. It’s about making that believable in some way.
The Readymade Thief is available in stores now.