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A poet and a soldier collaborate on novel about Seattle millennials

May 25, 2015 


Best friends Christopher Robinson, left, and Gavin Kovite co-authored the novel "War of the Encyclopaedists," about buddies whose lives diverge after graduating from the University of Washington.

Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, best friends and co-authors of the debut novel "War of the Encyclopaedists" (Scribner, $26), are a bit of an odd couple.

Robinson, 33, is a poet, a MacDowell Colony fellow and a Yale Younger Poets prize finalist. Kovite, 34, fought in Baghdad from 2004-2005 and attended New York University’s law school. He is an Army lawyer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord until June, when he becomes a full-time author.

In a recent interview, the two lobbed opinions back and forth over beers, rarely coming to agreement: Has technology changed more radically in the past 10 years than in the prior 100? Is the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia an example of crowdsourced objectivity or of majoritarian viewpoints winning out? Should they describe their friendship as a "bromance?"

The lanky Robinson looked the part of a poet, sporting a plaid button-up and a beard shaved in vertical stripes. He sat next to the stocky Kovite, who paired a casual, off-white collared shirt with his military-style shaved head and face.

"War of the Encyclopaedists" follows buddies Halifax Corderoy (an academic) and Mickey Montauk (in the military) as their lives diverge after graduating from the University of Washington and drinking their way around Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Corderoy moves to Boston to study literature in graduate school. In 2004, Montauk heads to Baghdad as part of the National Guard, keeping a checkpoint in the Green Zone secure. Messy relationships and existential questions of their post-grad paths dog both characters, who stay united by updating a shared Wikipedia page.

Corderoy and Montauk, like their authors, are unmistakably Seattle millennials. Robinson said they wanted to delve into Seattle in the early 2000s, when the city and the Internet were just beginning their explosive growth. Everything was still fledgling in a new world of information —even YouTube hasn’t been invented when Corderoy and Montauk roam Capitol Hill.

Kovite said they chose to portray Seattleites from that period partially "because it’s us." Robinson grew up in Federal Way and Kovite in Bothell. They met while attending the UW. Both live on Capitol Hill now, Kovite with his wife, Molly.

But, Robinson added, the period of their book was also inspired by the time "when the tools of self-creation have been gifted to you like fire from Prometheus." It was a turning point, Robinson said, "when everything became all about everyone’s subjective opinion, and that became the content we were all consuming."

Montauk and Corderoy eventually leave Seattle for their higher purposes. Corderoy might look like the typical millennial of the couple, but Kovite said they wanted to show Montauk as a military millennial, too.

"Nobody talks about millennials as soldiers," he said. "But who do you think is over there?"

The authors said they wanted to raise big questions in "a very unpretentious way," Kovite said. Including plenty of absurdist humor.

For "War of the Encyclopaedists," Robinson would often lay down framework for character emotions, plot events and themes. Next, they would separately write the first drafts of chapters, then often trade, edit and rework the chapters of the other.

That collaborative writing process and a shared sense of humor melded their styles into one voice over the 4 1/2 years of making the book, they said.

The 429-page novel races, thanks to its accessible emotional depth. The distorted Wikipedia page tracks Montauk and Corderoy’s peaks and valleys with a poetic eye that warrants a deeper, careful reading that Corderoy and Montauk themselves might mock (or laud) depending on their mood. The New York Times review noted that the two have "written a captivating coming-of-age novel that is, by turns, funny and sad and elegiac — a novel that leaves us with some revealing snapshots of America, both at war and in denial, and some telling portraits of a couple of millennials trying to grope their way toward adulthood."

Up next for the pair: Kovite and Robinson will continue their unique arrangement while embarking on their next book (they plan to set it in Detroit) as a full-time job. They haven’t found answers to all their millennial questions, but the fun was in the telling.

"We want people to be happy," Kovite said. "If people read [our book] and like it ... that’s really important to us."

That much, they can agree on.

 

 


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