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Find That First Sentence: The Millions Interviews Christopher Amenta


The Cold Hard Light, published this week from Blackstone, is Christopher Amenta’s debut novel. Set in Amenta’s hometown of Boston, the novel follows Andrew, who goes by H—a new father who becomes obsessed with the man who assaulted his sister. The drama plays out amid the indignities of urban life, touching on racial and economic injustice as well as H’s own thirst for vengeance. The result is taut and gritty—a heavy dose of reality and scathing indictment of American cities. We talked with Amenta about the journey to publication, writing high stakes for his characters, and how his bike rides through Boston shaped his writing.

The Millions: The Cold Hard Light is your debut novel, so I’d love to start by asking you about the path to publication. What was the book’s genesis? What was the publishing process like?

Christopher Amenta: I began working on a version of this book in 2010. I’d had the idea to write about a young man who became obsessed with the guy who had assaulted his sister. However, I couldn’t seem to find the right tone or the right character to put at the center of this story. I put the idea aside for a few years. Then, in November 2017, shortly after a gunman murdered 60 people at a concert in Las Vegas, I started working again. I finished in March of 2020, a few weeks before George Floyd was murdered. The Cold Hard Light isn’t a novel about mass shooters or racially-motivated police violence, but tragedies similar to—and all together unique from—these two were happening throughout the years that I was writing. Some of my frustrations and anxieties and questions began to seep into the work.

When I finished, I passed the pages to my agent Christopher Vyce at the Brattle Agency. He and I had been working together on another manuscript, and he immediately began to pitch this new book. We got a few rejections, but Blackstone Publishing acquired the book in early 2021, less than a year after we put it up for sale. I was extremely lucky to sign with Christopher, and he deserves all the credit for matching us with Blackstone. Years ago, he was good enough to read a manuscript of mine from graduate school, and we’ve been working together ever since. The pages we delivered to Blackstone were pretty polished, and though we went through an editorial review process, the team didn’t request any significant changes.

From there, it’s been a surreal year and a half as their team has designed a beautiful book jacket, reviewed and edited and strengthened the prose, enlisted the very talented Chris Ciulla for the audiobook, and began connecting me with readers and outlets. I’ve been incredibly lucky. Many, many terrific writers never catch a break. I’m grateful to the people who have taken a chance on this book.

TM: What is your process for writing fiction generally? Do characters come to you fully formed, or do they reveal themselves to you as you write? How and where does a story start for you?

CA: I do my best writing when I can find that first sentence that sets the tone and gives voice to the work. But that’s not to say I sit around and wait for one sentence to arrive. I usually take a lot of missteps before things come together. I’ve changed narrators. I’ve tossed off entire drafts and entire novels. And, in the case of The Cold Hard Light, I put the idea down for about five years until I could hear it more clearly in my own head.

I like to chase the characters across the page. I tend to learn, through writing, how they talk and what they might do. Some of the best moments in this novel, I think, are passages I didn’t plan to write and bits of dialog or action that seemed to spring from the characters themselves. The good stuff surprises me. And it’s only after a first draft that I can step back and start to understand what the book’s problem is, where all the little devils are, and whose soul is at stake.

TM: You’ve previously published several works of short fiction—how does the experience of writing a novel compare to short stories? Are there unique challenges to each? Do you prefer one over the other?

CA: Great short story writers are able to distill a whole life into a few pages so that the reader steps away knowing that nothing will ever be the same. A novel achieves a similar result, but the pressure is really on in the short story. Lots has to be done by implication. What happens, I think, becomes critically important. Conflict and resolution have to come in scenes because we haven’t the time or space to expound. I still have plenty to learn about the art of writing short stories, though I’m not sure I would return to the form any time soon. I prefer to write novels. The stories that seemed to turn out best for me started with a very clear sense of character and voice and a very well-defined problem that I could explore. I’ve brought that framework to writing longer fiction.

The novel works by addition, so starting in the right place seems important. This is partly because it takes so long to write. I work in the mornings, before heading to my office job, so The Cold Hard Light was assembled in something like 45-minute increments over a stretch of years. Each day’s work depended on what preceded it. Once I had it all down, I leaned on the skills I developed while working on short fiction to refine the book into something more focused. The Cold Hard Light deals with a single narrative arc and a handful of characters. The questions that are being asked in the first chapter are being answered in the final pages. When I was revising the book, I would create a new blank document for each chapter and try to form each segment into something like a short story with a setting, a few characters, and in which something irrevocable happens that steers the book onward. This process helped tighten the story into the novel it became.

TM: I think a lot of readers might be surprised by how many iconic novels are, like The Cold Hard Light, set in Boston—Infinite JestThe Bell JarWalden. Do you see your novel fitting into a larger canon of Boston literature? And how do you approach the work of conjuring place, of honoring a city’s specificity while exploring universal experience?

CA: There are so many great novels set in or inspired by Boston or New England, all of which are to be admired and many of which I could have learned from. For me, though, the most instructive examples came from books that, regardless of setting, conjured a specific tone and employed a contained, dramatic arc. Mine is a gritty, little thing that had to feel real—not just that it could happen, but that it might be happening right now, somewhere nearby, for all we know.

Setting was an important part of making this world feel lived in. I borrowed a lot. It’s wonderful to be in a city like Boston where so much is happening, where there’s interest everywhere. When I was writing this book, I was riding my bike to work on a route that cut right through the neighborhoods in the novel. I noticed places and people and interactions. Watching and listening gave the book its specificity, but what makes it feel universal, I think, is how H feels about this setting. Boston had been his home, and then it changed, and he’s surrounded by evidence that it continues to change right around him. He doesn’t recognize anyone, anymore. He feels like an imposter. That’s something that anybody in any place can relate to. So though this book is about a Boston that’s inspired by what I saw and heard, the reader is hopefully experiencing a sense of alienation which we all have felt at some point in our lives.

TM: Boston is more than a setting for the novel, it’s also your hometown, so you have a unique perspective in terms of portraying the city authentically—as well as critiquing some of its faults. The Cold Hard Light deals explicitly with the inequities of urban life, racism in the justice system, and gun violence, in Boston and in the U.S. as a whole. How did you approach writing from this vantage point and about such urgent social issues? 

CA: These terrible headlines were everywhere when I was writing. Another mass shooting? Another Black man murdered by police? Whatever nonsense was happening in the White House this week or that. On every street corner I saw cranes and development. Every ad was for luxury condos. When did we all start demanding so much luxury? I’d see these massive SUVs rolling through the city, in which gig workers were shuttling around the business class. Everybody had their faces in their phones all the time.

These things are part of everyday life in this city and in countless others. Some may seem benign, others are outwardly nefarious, but they all seemed of a piece to me. If I was going to set this book in Boston, and I wanted the story to feel real, then I needed to try to capture how these circumstances would matter to someone like H, someone like Billy, someone like Williams. It became clear to me that a city like this could stack up on a person, could start to feel lonely and inescapable, could make a person feel like they’d be lucky to get out alive. I was always trying to work from that point of view, which belonged to my characters, as I was writing about this city in this country.

TM: One of the challenges of writing a novel that contains social commentary is how to balance story and critique. How did you approach this balance when writing The Cold Hard Light? And how do you think fiction can deliver social commentary differently from nonfiction? 

CA: Flannery O’Connor wrote an essay in which she argues that the task of fiction is to tell “how some specific folks will do.” This feels like the right way to go about it. I think it’s risky to start writing fiction to try to make a point. But if you start writing about people and what they might do, perhaps some wisdom or truth asserts itself. In the case of this book, if those people are inhabiting a world that resembles our own, that’s troubled by some of the issues that we deal with, then, suddenly, the story can contain a critique. That’s nice. It feels organic and, therefore, more true.

I don’t think anyone would be interested in an essay from me about a broken criminal justice system or the absurd relationship this country has with its guns. I’m certainly not an authority on any of that. But I did think I could write about a couple of people bumping into each other as they try to make their way through a world where unequal and unreasonable circumstances can lead to extreme behaviors and violence. And the result is pretty dark. But maybe that’s appropriate, especially if some readers get to the end and think more critically about how an America like the one in the novel might drive some folks to live and behave as these characters do.

TM: The Cold Hard Light is characterized by a tense and gritty realism—characters confront job insecurity, postpartum depression, violence, incarceration. What draws you to writing in this mode rather than, say, more escapist fiction? What value do you feel readers derive from stories that closely mirror reality—even, perhaps, uncomfortably so?

CA: I like to read stories that are tense and gritty and realistic. One of the advanced readers, author Thomas O’Malley, called the book Doestevskian, likening H to a modern day Roskolnikov, and another, author Jack O’Connell, wrote that the book reminded him of George V. Higgins and Raymond Carver. These comparisons flatter the novel and are more than generous, but I saw those blurbs and thought, yeah, that’s the sort of thing I was hoping this might be.

When I finally finished writing the book, I handed the draft to my wife—who is always my first reader—hangdog. It’s not a lot of fun, I warned her. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t trying to write something fun. Not everybody gets the opportunity to say something. Were I to get mine, I ought to stand up and speak clearly. If this novel feels tense and gritty, and if its world seems authentic and familiar, and if you believe that these characters might exist and behave as they do, then maybe there’s value in reading and feeling a little uncomfortable. Escapist fiction can, of course, be as beautiful and powerful and transformative as any realism, but it’s just not where my interests lie.

TM: You received your MFA in fiction from Boston University, so I’m sure you’re asked not infrequently to weigh in on the great debate about the value of an MFA. What was your MFA experience like and how do you think it shaped both you as a writer and your writing career?

CA: I owe the publication of this novel to the MFA program at Boston University, without a doubt. There, I learned several invaluable skills, the most important of which, and arguably the least cited in the great MFA debate, is the ability to read my own work as another might. Like everybody else, I went into the program thinking I would learn to write great, important things. Thankfully, I was quickly relieved of that misconception. The program I attended focused on writing a lot, as clearly as possible, in a very short amount of time. Through that process, I learned about craft. I feel as though the program rinsed my prose clean. One of the critiques of the MFA is that everyone comes out sounding the same, but I don’t think that’s right. My education helped me distill and clarify my writing, and then, in the years since, I learned how to layer voice back in—not mine, but that of my characters. Learning the craft gave me a very good foundation.

But the reading is the useful part. You spend all your time critiquing others’ work. Your own writing gets dinged around the room while you sit there and bite your tongue and wait for your turn to defend your own poorly realized vision. That’s good stuff. It helps you learn to write for an audience. If it were up to me, I’d make the fiction workshop a requirement for all first-year college students because it’s in there that the writer begins to work on behalf of the reader. And that’s the big thing I got out of the MFA. Before I went into that program, I would read fiction and ask, “What does it mean?” Now, I understand that the right question is, “What does it do?”

The MFA doesn’t work for everyone. Don’t go in expecting a big break right away. Don’t spend very much money on it (unless you’ve got it). But, if you can do it like I did—find a well-funded program, work while you go to school, take on no debt, and practice what you learn for years, seriously, after the fact—then I doubt you will regret it.

TM: You’re currently at work on your second novel—is there anything you can share about it? 

CA: I’ve finished a novel that’s set in the fracking fields of North Dakota in the dead of winter. It follows a young father, separated from his wife, as he tries to cope with the very difficult, very lucrative job of being a roughneck. It seems like an interesting place to focus some attention right now as we perpetuate our dependency on fossil fuels.I also started working on a novel that tells the story of an emergency room nurse who, exhausted and emotionally drained from the pandemic, quits her job, and moves in with her boyfriend, an eccentric, brilliant, and very successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I’d read about a number of wealthy individuals who bought up helicopters and land in New Zealand so that they can live off the grid when global warming finally and at last results in mass migration, food scarcity, war, and suffering. And I thought: how callous. I wondered what’s going on in the heads and the hearts of these people. So I thought I’d dive in and see what I could find.

Surprise Me!