Tag Archives: Ben Dolnick

Q&A with Ben Dolnick about AT THE BOTTOM OF EVERYTHING


Ben Dolnick, courtesy of his website. Photo credit Michael Lionstar.

One of my favorite things that has come from writing this blog is the great fortune I’ve had to interact with authors after I’ve read their books (and sometimes even while I am reading them).  Luckily, authors answer my emails and tweets, and they take time from their busy lives to answer my questions and indulge my amateur theories about their books.

This time, Ben Dolnick, author of At The Bottom Of Everything (reviewed here) responded to my questions with some fascinating and very satisfying answers. They really enhanced my understanding of the book, and were a lot of fun to read. Thanks, Ben, for taking the time and sharing your thoughts.

(And, EDIWTB readers, if you haven’t already, go read At The Bottom of Everything!)

Here is the Q&A:

Q: I’ve been noticing a lot lately that sometimes authors isolate their characters from modern conveniences like cell phones and computers so that they can make their characters truly “lost”. In At The Bottom of Everything, email plays a limited but important role. Did you think about how much access you wanted Adam and Thomas to have to email throughout the book? How did you decide when to let them communicate with others?        

A: That’s very interesting about authors having to cut their characters off from electronics — I’d never thought of that, but it makes a lot of sense, plotting-wise. There are those funny Geico commercials about Christopher Columbus having a speedboat, or Paul Revere having a cellphone: good for convenience, bad for storytelling (for which obstacles and misunderstandings are crucial). As for my book, I didn’t think consciously about cutting them off from modern means of communication (though the plot would certainly have worked differently if they could just have called each other in India). I did decide to include emails, because I liked the density of information they could convey and time they could cover. Also, and just as importantly, the standard style of email — the informality and relative brevity — provided a contrast I wanted with the main narrative of the book.

Q: The part in India, when Adam goes in search of the cave… how did you research it? Did you go to India? To a remote village? To a cave? 

A: I have been to India, though I didn’t go specifically for research. What happened was, I was already working on this book — I wasn’t yet sure what country I wanted to have Thomas disappear to — and I happened to visit my brother, who was working for the Associated Press in New Delhi. Within hours of getting off the plane I think I realized: it would be very easy to get into deep trouble here.

Q: You have an amazing eye for detail. You drop in little descriptions –of people, of objects, of sights – that seem random but are so uncannily accurate that whatever is happening becomes very real and immediate to the reader. Um.. how do you do that? I am in awe. 

A: Thank you! To the extent that there’s something that comes naturally to me about writing — and there are huge number of things about writing that I find bewildering and agonizing and impossible — it’s probably describing stuff. I have no idea why this is so, or what good it does me, but it is, for the time being anyway, one area in which my brain seems to fire away happily, so I don’t ask too many questions about it.

Q:  On a more serious note, around p. 214, Adam truly believes he is about to die. He starts experiencing “life flashing before his eyes”, but it is different from what he expects. Did you base this chapter on something that has actually happened to you, or did you conjure up what you thought he must have been feeling? (I guess that is what writers do…). 

A: No, happily, nothing like this has ever happened to me. I have, in I’m sure the ways that everyone has, felt myself in danger at various points — near-miss car accidents, standing too near a drop-off, etc. — so I think I probably just extrapolated a bit from what that sort of situation can bring up. But mostly it was just guess-work and a question of what felt right to me, for better or worse.

Q: Why did you pick India as the setting for the second half of the book? The combination of chaos and spirituality?

A: Yes, chaos and spirituality sums it up pretty well. Because my brother happened to be working there, there was also a certain amount of arbitrariness/serendipity in the book being set in India, but it ended up being very much in keeping with what I was after.

Q: Who is the “real” Thomas – the one desperate yet lucid lying at the bottom of the cave, or the one from the hotel and the final email? 

A: I don’t know! I know that’s an unsatisfying answer, and if I were a reader of my book, rather than the writer of it, I would certainly expect me to have something more intelligent to say about it, but I really don’t think I do. Part of what I wanted to do in the book was to write about what it would be like if there were an actual, enlightened being alive today, and to some extent that I think the two Thomas’s you describe represent two phases of his development in that direction.

Q: Ok, I have to know – have you read Elliott Holt’s You Are One Of Them, and have you two compared notes at all? Your books are so similar in many ways, and I loved them both. I keep imagining the conversations you two could have.

A: I did meet Elliott at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and she seems so totally great that I’m delighted to have my book overlap with hers, but I actually haven’t read her book yet, and most of our conversation was about where we went to high school (we both grew up in DC) rather than anything literary. I’m eager to read it, though!

Q:   What can we expect next from you?  More novels, I hope.

A: I’m still in that early phase of sorting out the shape and direction of my next book — it feels like a very prolonged period of dating someone, getting to know their personality and interests and etc. — but I’m hoping that we’ll commit to each other soon.


So… I just read the second of two books in the space of two months about: 1) kids growing up in DC who 2) had a best friend in 7th and 8th grade but 3) then they grew apart, and 4) then the former best friend disappeared after the estrangement, and 5) then the main character, in their late 20s, went abroad to an exotic locale 6) to try to find that former best friend and resolve the issues that plagued them as adolescents.

What are the odds of that?

The first book was Elliott Holt’s You Are One Of Them (reviewed here), and the second was At The Bottom Of Everything by Ben Dolnick.

(Of course, I spent the first half of Dolnick’s book wondering if Holt and Dolnick have read each other’s books and if they are friends and huge fans of each other’s work. I did some Googling and learned that they recently were on a panel together, so I am going to assume that they are at least each familiar with the other’s book).

At The Bottom Of Everything is about Adam and Thomas, boys who became inseparable best friends in middle school. Thomas is an odd kid, smart but socially inept and not interested in mainstream social activities, and when Adam starts to become more popular, the two end up growing apart. But before that happens, the boys are involved in a freak accident with terrible repercussions. They keep the accident a secret, and the book is really about the different ways in which they each carry the burden of the secret. After ten years of silence between them, Adam ends up traveling to India at Thomas’ parents’ request, to find him and bring him home. What happens in India is an incredibly intense experience that forces Thomas and Adam to reconcile their feelings toward each other and try to find redemption.

At the Bottom Of Everything was a page-turner. Dolnick is one talented writer, that’s for sure. He’s incredibly observant and perceptive, and he made me laugh, gasp, wince, and nod in recognition, page after page.  Like this passage: “Adult friendship is all talking and laughing and bickering and planning; teenage friendship can be more of a joined solitude, like oxen yoked together. The not-having-to-do-anything can be the whole point.” Or this one: “I’m not sure there’s any emotion worse for you than jealousy. Anger, sadness, pity – even at their worst, they have a kind of purity to them; you’re suffering but you’re righteous, the world is failing to cooperate. But jealousy, oh, what a shameful and wincing performance. You’re not just suffering; you’re afraid of being exposed for your suffering.”

The book is not perfect. The India part went on too long, and the figuratively and literally cavernous climax was a bit much for me.  Like in You Are One Of Them, I preferred the first half of the book, which focused on the boys’ friendship and the roots of what drove them apart. I understand why the second half was necessary; I just didn’t find it as successful as the first.

Once again, I loved the DC setting. The accident happened about three miles away from where I am sitting right now, and being able to picture it so vividly made the plot turn that much more powerful for me.

I have so many questions about how Dolnick thought up this story, and how he then researched and wrote it. The anguish of Adam’s guilt, not just psychological but physical too, was so beautifully communicated in this book – I want to know how Dolnick accomplished it.

I really enjoyed At The Bottom Of Everything, just as I liked You Are One Of Them. Both got a little lost in their second halves, but ultimately, the rides were well worth it.