Daniel Lefferts’s shrewd and exhilarating Ways and Means defies easy categorization, combining the social insights one would expect from E.M. Forster with the confident twists of a John Grisham novel. It’s the spring of 2016, and Mark and Elijah are young, attractive artists who have spent the past eight years half-heartedly attempting to finish their respective projects while living off Mark’s dwindling trust fund. In an attempt to smooth over their increasingly fractious relationship, they’ve invited a third into their bedroom. Their new lover, Alistair, is an ambitious finance student in his last year at New York University, devastated that he failed to secure a high-paying job that would pay off his debt and provide his mother, Maura, with financial stability. As Alistair becomes more enmeshed in Mark and Elijah’s lives, he quickly finds himself way over his head. Not only does he become emotionally entangled with the two men, but he also realizes his too-good-to-be-true part-time job with Herve, a wealthy acquaintance of Elijah’s, has far more nefarious roots than he realized. In his debut novel, Lefferts takes the reader on a suspenseful ride that bracingly confronts the financial and political moment of recent years. In its starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, “Lefferts’s nimble sense of scale enables him to convincingly depict the blue-chip firms who rejected Alistair and exploit the housing market, then zoom in for poignant and subtle psychological realism. The results are electrifying.” Lefferts spoke with us about finding his narrative voice, being drawn to characters experiencing alienation, and the novel’s surprising fusion of influences.
The book follows Alistair in his last year at New York University as he embarks on a relationship with a slightly older couple, Mark and Elijah. What was the origin of the book? Was it a specific character or the dynamics of the relationship among the three men?
I wrote half of a short story in college about a character with the same situation: finance student at NYU; very bright and confident, but also deeply anxious because he’s in this mysterious quasi-criminal trouble; and he was also involved with an older couple. That setup has been with me for a long time, but it was several years before I started the book in earnest. I think that character appealed to me for maybe mysterious reasons when I first wrote him. By the time I started the novel—I was in my late twenties by that point, I’d obviously gotten older—things had gone on in the world that helped me flesh out the thematic context for his story, what made his story interesting and important and worth telling. I began to see his story as a striving finance student from the rust belt who is forced into increasingly contorted and dark situations in his quest to lift himself out of debt and help his mother. It started to seem like a story about the American class system at that point. So it started with the character and then the world and the questions of the book built up around him over the course of a few years.
I was struck by how many of the characters really struggle with loneliness. Alistair leads a solitary existence in college and Elijah and Mark don’t have a real community of friends, despite seeming to have everything going for them. Even two very different characters on the periphery of the action, Maura and Herve, don’t seem to have a social life of any kind. Can you talk how that aspect of loneliness emerged in the novel?
I’m probably just naturally drawn to characters experiencing alienation, because I think that’s an inherently rich, dramatic starting point. It’s true of the characters that I cherish the most and books I’ve read, but I also think it may have flowed naturally from my setting the novel in a time in which economic concerns and material desires are supplanting genuine emotional connection. Maura and Alistair are very close to each other. They’re closer to each other than he is to anyone else in the world. But there’s this great divide between them that alienates both of them and puts a wedge in their relationship. It has to do with their very different view of the world and what it means to create a meaningful life for yourself. Mark, Elijah and Alistair are all obviously sexually involved and, to different degrees, romantically involved with one another. For Mark and Elijah, there’s a sort of toxicity in their relationship having to do with their economic imbalance, the sense that Elijah’s mooching off Mark and his love for Mark is sustained somewhat by Mark’s wealth, which gradually disappears. So I was interested in the ways in which the social, economic, and even political realities that we are experiencing at all times in an increasingly bizarre and frenzied way in the world of this book can open up gaps between people and isolate them.
The book takes place in 2016 and really confronts not only the political issues that people in the U.S. were facing but also the financial ones as well. What was appealing to you about diving headfirst into a time that some readers might find uncomfortable to revisit?
Yeah, I was very conscious of that potential discomfort. I find that there is sort of a trend in contemporary fiction about the contemporary era, or going back a few years, to really sideline the political realities that we were experiencing. While I get it, I think that there can and should be ways to address those political realities in fiction. I don’t think the solution is always to just sort of skip over them. I didn’t want the book to be about the Trump era, but I did think that election provided a rich thematic context for the book’s concerns. I wanted to cut it off right before the election, because I was writing it during the Trump presidency, which if you can remember, it was like every day the world completely changed with another tweet. I couldn’t imagine trying to keep up with the present I was living through, so I cut it off before the election. But that also felt like a dynamic and sort of perilous moment in time that made sense for what the characters were going through.
It felt like that was the beginning of the end of a certain kind of American innocence. Alistair goes to college and takes on a lot of debt in the assurance that the American and world economy that he’s grown up in will remain stable and powerful. The American political system that he’s always known, the sort of neoliberal order that that he’s always known—he has every assurance that will continue with the election of Clinton. Those things come to an end very soon. Because the story is a little bit about the end of a certain kind of meritocratic fantasy for Alistair, it made sense to set it at a time when that fantasy was ending for a lot of people more generally. I think that election really brought to more people’s attention, the ways in which the economy is weighted against people who are not born wealthy. Opportunities are increasingly drying up. Our narrative of class mobility in this country is optimistic at best and delusional at worst. His story is kind of taking him through that realization. I think that time in American history was when a lot of people had that realization too. I’ll just say, on a much more personal level, most of my life I’ve been dogged by economic anxieties of one sort or the other. I think it was my strange impulse to write into that rather than away from it.
Many of these characters are artists or writers and we get to see their struggle with the creative process. Mark has been toiling away at a novel for eight years, Elijah hasn’t painted since college, while Elijah’s friend Jay doggedly pursues his own project. What was intriguing about writing these characters who are all facing different creative blocks in one way or another?
When I originally conceived of this book, I didn’t want to write a book about a writer. I didn’t want to turn my attention back on the creative process as I was in the midst of the creative process. There’s lots of books like that and I love lots of books like that, but I didn’t want to do it. I really wanted to step outside of my own experience. I did all this research into finance. I really wanted to push these characters out into the world and get them near the levers of power, and that wasn’t my experience of artmaking at that point in time. But I think the more I developed the book, the more I realized that art for many of these characters is their way of processing the financial, political, and cultural worlds that the book is set in. It can be an antidote to some of the malevolent or just stressful forces out there, or it can be an exacerbation of them. For Jay, he certainly takes delight in the cruelties of the world. Whereas for Mark, I think it’s more of an escape from his family, his family’s wealth, and the iniquities of that wealth. It was interesting to think about different ways that art can respond to the systems in the book.
One of the real pleasures of the book is seeing how the three characters respond or avoid their creative process in a very relatable way.
I mean, the prospect of, in Mark’s case, an eight-year writer’s block. It’s just delicious, you know? I just couldn’t escape the comedy of that.
I wanted to talk more about Mark, because there’s a poignant moment where he’s in his dad’s office, looking at the John Grisham books on the shelf. Mark’s reflecting on his own novel and how he’s grown to hate it. He finds it derivative of E.M. Forester and other writers, and he has this insight that if he ever writes in the book, it should lean more into the John Grisham territory. That scene seems to almost be commenting on the book itself, especially considering that the book confidently moves in and out of genres and has this thriller element to it. I was curious to hear you talk about it that scene.
It makes me so happy to hear that moment in the book jumped out at you, because I really see that moment as the artist statement of the book. I am in no way like Mark. I’m not from a mobile home fortune in New Jersey, and I am not like him in really any other meaningful ways. But his experience as a writer plays parallel with mine. When I was first starting to write seriously I was extremely under the influence of Henry James and E.M. Forster. I was obsessed with Henry James. I was writing stories set in the contemporary period, but I was just imbibing Henry James so much that I was writing like him. it produced this very strange writing style where people were moving around the world with iPhones but sort of thinking and to some extent talking like they were in a Henry James novel. In retrospect, I had my fun and it was probably necessary to get that out of my system, but it was very strange.
As I was beginning this novel, finding my voice took the form of breaking away from that and allowing myself to bring in a type of writing and a type of narrative approach that I might have turned my nose at previously. Something like John Grisham, whose books I love, but I just didn’t see myself as writing like him. I found that the alloy between those things—taking what I’ve learned from Henry James and E.M. Forster and combining it with something that you would never expect to see it with—I found that to be very generative. That’s really the fusion of influences that the book emerged from, so I definitely had to have a scene in the book where that was nodded at.
You really dive into the lives of the supporting characters in a way that seems very generous. I’m thinking specifically about Maura, because you can see a version of this book where she would be not as fleshed out as she is here. How did you make the decision about what space you were going to devote to characters and which characters were not necessarily going to get that same spotlight?
Maura is obviously important in the book because she has an outsized influence on Alistair. She’s his reason for doing everything that he does, but as Maura points out later, maybe he’s wrong in [thinking] that. Maybe he’s actually more selfish than he thinks he is. It made sense to kind of explicate her pretty thoroughly from that perspective, but also I wanted to give a meaningful amount of space in the book to a person who was very unlike the other characters. Maura is older than most of the characters. She’s a woman and she doesn’t live in the city. She doesn’t want things that the other characters want. The character she’s probably most similar to is Mark, except they have very different economic circumstances, so their refusal to participate in fame-seeking and fortune-seeking looks very different. I saw her as the spiritual antidote to a lot of the other energies in the book. The book would not feel whole to me without that. It’s definitely a risk when you give a lot of attention to a character who’s not always playing an active part in the plot, but I felt that the book would have less heart without something about her life. So that’s where that decision came from.
My instinct is to give every character that kind of attention, but obviously, that becomes unwieldy. For example, Herve. You hear a little bit about his background, but not very much. Again, speaking to the genre elements of this book, I thought that he would be a more forbidding character if you knew less about him. I think that often the tendency when developing a villainous character is to find some sort of exculpatory backstory—this is why [he’s like this], he was traumatized as a child or whatnot. I didn’t want to do that with him. I just wanted to let him be who he was and own his ideas, and not necessarily have some sort of psychological excuse to have them.
And finally, what role has the public library has played in your life?
At every stage of my life as a writer and reader I’ve used the library. My parents took me to the library often as a kid. This is true of bookstores to some extent, but I think even more so for libraries, but it’s a space of play, even for adults. You get to roam and follow your instincts. What pops out at you? What do you want to take home? What do you not? And that’s how you develop your sensibility. You’re learning what interests you. There are so few places where you can explore your interests and knowledge and literary tastes as freely as the library.
I have a sort of funny story about a library, which is that when I was in high school, I wasn’t really into gym class. We were in some section where we’d be doing a certain sport for a few weeks. I don’t remember what the sport was, I think it was maybe basketball, but I really didn’t want to do it. So I pleaded with my gym teacher and said, “Is there any other work I can do so that I don’t have to participate in the sport?” And bless this gym teacher, he let me do a research report on the one sport that I did play, which was tennis, instead of going to gym class. So for a few weeks instead of going to gym class I would go to the library and research and write about tennis. I just remember thinking, “Well, Daniel, this is who you are you. You cried and moaned until your gym teacher let you spend this period in the library.” (laughs) So in that instance, absolutely, but then throughout my life and even now, the library is very much a refuge for me.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tags: Daniel Lefferts