When I graduated from university in 1989, I’d somehow decided that I wanted to be a novelist when I grew up. At that moment I had nothing in particular to say, no story I needed to tell. I hoped that one would come to me someday, but in the meantime I started working a series of odd jobs in publishing. I was a marketing temp for a company that published periodicals about sexy subjects such as accounting and middle-market lending; I edited a weekly newspaper sold by homeless people on the streets of New York City; I was an editorial assistant for crossword-puzzle magazines. I loved puzzles, and still do.
Then I got a job as a copy editor at Doubleday, where the editor at the end of the hall was Jacqueline Onassis. Doubleday in the early 1990s was a terrific place to work, publishing great books and wildly successful books and even some books that were both, in an office filled with smart fun ambitious young people. For a few weeks every winter, the firm’s top priority was to turn John Grisham’s typescript into two million-plus hardcovers as quickly and as typo-free as possible. One of my tasks was to merge the author’s first-pass changes with the proofreader’s. Then I’d get in a taxi with the master pages, then hop on the shuttle to Washington DC, then drive to the printing plant in rural Virginia, then hand the pages to the typesetter, then wait around to review the second pass—all because this rigmarole was faster than FedEx. This was, obviously, before the internet streamlined such tasks. And also leached away a lot of the fun. I loved these trips to the printer’s.
I never met John Grisham back then, but those early thrillers of his were the first contemporary bestsellers I’d ever read. Those books changed the way I looked at commercial fiction, and opened my eyes to the idea of creating suspense against a background of important issues—toxic pollution, the death penalty, big tobacco, sexual assault.
In the mid-90s I also spent a month helping Pat Conroy bring a novel called Beach Music to the finish line. He was rewriting the whole thing by hand on legal pads, and the book was extremely late, and his work schedule was not one hundred percent reliable. So in the mornings I’d go meet Pat at his hotel to collect his prior day’s work—and to make sure he’s awake, and working—and we’d take long walks in Central Park. He was a tremendous talker, and very generous with advice. “Listen to other people’s stories,” I remember him telling me, walking through the zoo in a cold drizzle. “Listen carefully.”
A dozen years later, I’d end up editing what would turn out to be Pat’s final novel. Over the intervening years, I’d held positions of increasing responsibility, as people do. With each new job title, my day-to-day responsibilities had migrated further from the words on the page, and ever closer to the cash register, a part of the publishing world that I didn’t love as much. As my fortieth birthday loomed, I thought: if I get out now, I still have time for that career as a novelist. At least that’s what I hoped.
I eased in. I ghostwrote a couple of nonfiction books of the sorts I used to edit. I doctored proposals. I was one of those people you see pecking at laptops in cafés, who might be writing an editorial letter to a famous novelist for the final book he’d ever write, which would also turn out to be the final book I edited. Because suddenly my wife got a job in Luxembourg, and we moved abroad, and I became a trailing spouse, taking care of the children and the dog and the whole household, living in a strange land among strangers, trying to reinvent myself in middle age.
This, I realized, was my novel. At first all I had was the title, but that was enough to get started: The Expats.
I’d gained some perspective in two decades of working in commercial publishing. I no longer wanted to prove to the world how brilliant I was, because I’d long ago accepted that I wasn’t. Like Pat Conroy advised, I’ve listened to the stories around me, carefully. Like John Grisham, I’ve tried to set human-level drama against societal-level issues. And like the assistant I’d been at Dell Magazines, I still love puzzles. My favorite is the New York Times’ Thursday, which contains a tricky theme within the puzzle, creating a much more satisfying payoff than either the twice-as-hard Saturday, or the twice-as-long Sunday. As with the counterpoint of a Bach fugue, it’s the complexity of overlapping themes that creates the elegance, the elegance that makes it so enjoyable to me.
Those are exactly the sorts of novels I’ve tried to write, each with a puzzle within a puzzle to create a surprising paradigm shift and a tremendously satisfying payoff. But unlike Thursday crossword puzzles, every reader will solve mine.
As with most people doing most things, I’ve gotten more comfortable writing fiction in the decade-plus that I’ve been doing it. And I think Two Nights in Lisbon is the best of my five novels, not least because it’s the most relevant, the most driven by important concerns in our real world, an inflection point we will all recognize.
The initial spark was the release of the Access Hollywood tape in 2016, which revealed Donald Trump appearing to brag about committing sexual assault as a sort of hobby, and the indifferent response from a large swath of America. One of the most dispiriting things I’ve ever seen was a news segment about a group of suburban women responding to the revelations. What’s the big deal, they were saying, dismissing the so-called locker-room talk, as well as the sexual-assault allegations that had been made by many different women. Then a couple of years later I watched the congressional hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which included another collective shrug at another sexual assault.
I couldn’t understand what it was about these crimes that made it so easy for so many people to discount them, to excuse them. I despaired about what was wrong with our society, about what could be done about it. Then I realized one small thing I could do about it.
Two Nights in Lisbon looks at first like a book about an American man who goes missing while on a business trip in Lisbon. It’s really a book about something else entirely.