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Drinks with Ben Dolnick, Author of "At the Bottom of Everything"

An interview series in which Amazon Editors meet authors at their favorite bars.


During a surprise thunderstorm, No. 7's cozy, Edison bulb-lit aesthetic was the perfect hideaway from the rain and lightning. The restaurant's classic look — dark wood, tiled floors, vaulted ceilings — is starting to feel scarcer and scarcer in Fort Greene, an old Brooklyn neighborhood that is seeing a lot of change and development since the installation of the massive Barclay's Center just a few blocks away.

This was the place picked by Ben Dolnick, author of the new book At the Bottom of Everything, a swift but haunting meditation on guilt and friendship. Though Everything is a fairly dark novel, Dolnick was cheery and energetic. I spoke with him about his neighborhood, his book, and how he wrote in the dark.

Why this bar?

Most importantly, it's around the block from my house. So it's where I stumble by default when I need a bar. It's weirdly non-crowded and the French fries — as we are discovering — are delicious. I feel like Fort Greene is one of those neighborhoods that seems like it should have excellent bars and excellent restaurants and it weirdly doesn't. There are very few places that lives up to the mental ideal of the neighborhood.

How long have been you living in Fort Greene?

We moved here right when I graduated from college, which was 2004, so I've been here nine years.

And you wrote all three of your novels in Fort Greene?

I started my first one in college, but yeah, basically.

So what are you drinking?

This is a Solid Gold, which is some combination of things I don't remember: amaretto, honey...

I think there's rye?

Yeah, they change their menu a lot, which is one of the things I like. I think what won me over was that I was here once, sitting at the bar, saying to my friend, "No I'm not going to drink tonight. I'm a little bit sick." The bartender, without saying anything, appeared with a warm cup of tea and honey and just gave it to me for free. So I was like, Wow, this place is mine.

That's very neighborhood-y.


So tell me about the book.

At the Bottom of Everything is my third novel. It's about two guys, one of whom kind of goes off the rails and disappears in India. The one who doesn't go off the rails has to go bring him home. They share in common a terrible secret that I can't get into without ruining the book.

The book is largely about guilt and how people deal with guilt. Why did you want to write a book about this? Are you a guilty person?

It's weird. I don't think so. I haven't done anything that terrible in my life, but it does seem to be a preoccupation of mine. When I was young and in college, freshman or sophomore year, I was like, I'm gonna write a novel, and in it, guilt will be embodied physically. I was reading a lot of Stephen King at the time. Guilt will be a monster, a very physical version of guilt.

So for some reason, I have always been vaguely obsessed with it. But I can't trace it to any particular thing in my life.

That's probably a good thing.

Right. Better than the alternative.

The novel starts in D.C. and quickly goes to India. Why did you start it in D.C. and move it to India?

I grew up in D.C., so it's a landscape I know. You know how during the [presidential] campaign, Mitt Romney went to Michigan and said, "The trees are the right height here" and everyone made fun of him? I actually thought that was a very beautiful, weird sentiment. Whenever I get off the train in D.C., I think, The trees are the right height here. I know it's not a special city at all, but just because I grew up there, the sidewalks and the trees and the air — I know this stuff.

Does it feel more familiar to you than Fort Greene does?

Not more familiar, but I think you need a little distance from something in order to evoke it on the page. Or at least I do. It feels a little more vivid and precious because it's a little bit gone from me. My parents don't live there anymore so it's a little bit of a lost world to me.

So India.

India — when I started this novel I knew the guy was going to go crazy and disappear somewhere, I just didn't know where. I thought it was Thailand for a while, then Mexico, maybe Japan.

Somewhere distant.

And somewhere where there would be potential for the spiritual aspect of the meltdown. My brother at the time was working for the Associated Press, and he was a reporter in New Delhi, so I went to visit him. The novel was brewing in my mind, and at some point during the visit, I was just like, This is an excellent place to get lost. You could really get into a lot of trouble here. It's interesting and bustling and busy. If your mental state was at all off, you would be in such deep trouble in India.

Which, for a novelist is great. Bad news, how excellent!

If your brother was stationed in a different foreign country, do you think the novel could've taken place there? Is the point that it's distant and spiritual, or that it's specific to India?

No, I think it could take place other places. India ended up working. It wasn't just that he was a reporter there. His knowing people there meant I could email people and say, "Explain to me if a spiritual guru was running a quasi-rip-off thing, how would that work?" Even really mundane stuff, like, "What are those little cars that look like little Flintstones vehicles?" But as a literary thing, it could've been other places.

The most resonant parts of the book for me was toward the end — without spoiling anything — when the characters are in total darkness. You captured it in a way that was kind of scary and kind of foreign. Is this something you've experienced?

Oh, no. That experience has a really mundane corollary. I wrote that part of the book in my bathroom, which is the only room in my apartment that doesn't get light. I went in there, put a towel under the door, turned my laptop's brightness completely off, and put on headphones and played, for some reason — I don't know why these albums exist — an album on Spotify that is fire sounds. The first track is like "Crackling Fire" and the second track is "Bonfire."

That actually sounds kind of nice.

It is really nice! And for some reason I have had it in my head — I might've read it somewhere — that you can start to hear sounds that sound vaguely fire-esque when you're in a cave. I read a little bit about cave rescue for the book. So I went in the dark, put on the album, and wrote. An amazing way to get typos is to have no light at all.

Oh, so you were literally typing in the dark?

Yeah. So I did that for a couple days.

Whole days?

Well I wasn't sleeping in there. But whole work days.

You were in the dark for eight hours?


Did you... go a little crazy?

No, no. I had to walk the dog, so I had some sanity mixed in. But that's the closeset I've experienced to that, which is not that close, obviously.

Was it still kind of scary? It's pretty scary in the book.

I'm a fairly anxious person, but my anxiety — like most people in New York — relates to what is essentially stupid stuff: social stupid, professional stuff —

— the subway.

Yeah, really stupid shit. So I wanted the book to build a situation where it'd make sense to be anxious. A real-life, external situations that explains all of the horrible feelings that go on in an ordinary person.

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