"Numbers Stations, 90s Indie Rock, Conspiracy Theories" David Whitton on Turning His "Nerdy Fixations" into a Stunning Debut Novel
In unnamed luxury hotel, seven employees work quietly, unobtrusive amongst the rest of the staff. Nothing could be more ordinary. Except that these seven people aren't ordinary employees at all — they're deep cover agents, and a single code word sent to them will trigger a shocking assassination.
So opens David Whitton's spectacular debut novel, Seven Down (Rare Machines/Dundurn Press), a darkly funny, worldly, fast-paced character study. When the long-awaited trigger finally comes and the meticulous plan goes utterly awry, the titular seven are left picking up the pieces in unexpected ways.
Written in the form of debriefing transcripts from the shadowy organization that ran the seven, Seven Down examines how and why each of these people came to be who they are, and to do what they've done. The story Whitton teases out will keep readers guessing, equally amused by the absurdity and spooked by the underlying darkness at the heart of this deeply human, entertaining, and unique literary debut.
We're thrilled to speak to David about Seven Down today. He joins us as part of our Long Story interview series for novelists and tells us about how the book allowed him to explore "a variety of nerdy fixations" (including numbers stations, the death of a Russian defector, and more), shares why the caterer at the hotel is his favourite character (and now ours too), and gives us the best "one sentence" description of a book that we've seen.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
The first chapter, or interview, started as a short story. Like everything I’ve ever written, it was scrawled out in barely legible marks on lined paper in a state of confusion and low-level panic. I certainly didn’t know I was going to write a thriller, if that’s indeed what I made. I was just writing about a person caught up in a mysterious Pinteresque situation, full of menace and unease. What exactly was happening to this character would come to me much later.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
I set the novel in a luxury hotel because Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector and former secret service officer, was murdered by Russian assassins in a luxury hotel in London, England. The killing of Litvinenko, who was poisoned with Polonium-210, a radioactive isotope that eats up your innards if you’re unlucky enough to swallow it, was a nerdy/morbid preoccupation of mine when I started the novel, in 2014. Seven Down really was an excuse to indulge in a variety of nerdy fixations: numbers stations, steganography, Havana syndrome, the rise of private “security contractors,” 90s indie rock, conspiracy theories. I guess I figured that if I was interested in this stuff, a couple of other people might be too.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
I love the character named Kathy Borschke, who is a caterer at the hotel, because she’s: a) similar in aspect to me and a few of my friends, b) tripping on mushrooms, c) in extremis, d) filling the silence she faces with nervous, ill-considered, and inappropriate commentary, and e) horny. So, I mean, how could that not be just a bunch of fun to write?
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If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
It’s a story about toilet steaks; baby ducks; Glidden wallpaper designers; Blood Death Knights; Courtney Love; the North American Council of Churches; smoke breaks; the psychopathic capitalists and wealth-hoarders who have, under the directive of some mysterious death cult or their own mental illness, conspired to destroy our entire beautiful world; Beverly Hills 90210; hotel security systems; David Bowie; cocaine hidden in boxes of Honey Smacks; commuting on Toronto transit; anarchist subcultures; Soren Kierkegaard; and the lives of seven unwitting participants in a botched assassination attempt at a luxury hotel.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
A global pandemic swept through various animal populations of the earth. The resulting governmental lockdowns, with their consequent boredoms and isolations, were a terrific boon to productivity. Bands recorded albums; actors filmed themselves singing inspirational songs; Nick Cave painted ceramic figurines; and I finished my book.
Did you celebrate finishing your final draft or any other milestones during the writing process? If so, how?
There were so many milestones, drafts finished, contracts signed, forms filled out, and they were all an excuse to smoke a bunch of cigarettes. Instead I urge-surfed, explored the contours of the craving, understood it for what it was, a transitory experience, simple passing weather, a chemical manipulation engineered by evil tobacco scientists, and after a few minutes it was indeed gone and I was fine.
Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?
The book is dedicated to one of my dearest friends, Jonathan Dewdney. We were tousle-haired teenage bohemians when we first acknowledged each other’s existence, at the front entrance of a repertory theatre in London Ontario, a thousand years ago. I forget what movie was playing, but I remember meeting Jon, who I instantly recognized as my kind of person.
When you get sick, as I did a few years ago, and are no longer delightful to be around, you can be sure that most of the people you’ve ever met will magically turn to dust and blow away on the breeze. The ones who survive this rapture, who check in and talk for hours and take you out for chicken and waffles or a tour of the Museum of Jurassic Technology and give you a metaphorical smack across the face and don’t let you wallow in your own dumb delusions are solid gold. I love him, he’s my brother, and I have dedicated Seven Down to him.
David Whitton is the author of The Reverse Cowgirl, a story collection. His short fiction has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Darwin's Bastards, Best Canadian Stories, and The Journey Prize Stories. He is a graduate of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA program. He lives in Toronto.