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A Conversation with Best-Selling Author and Oscar Winner, Graham Moore

LastDaysGraham Moore's The Last Days of Night, which we chose as one of our August Best Books of the Month, goes on sale today. It's a novel about the 1888 lighting of New York City, a story (and a Gilded-Age thriller) built around a real-life lawsuit that Thomas Edison brought on George Westinghouse during that time. Moore is the best-selling author of The Sherlockian, and he won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay with "The Imitation Game."

The best-selling author Erik Larson had this to day about Moore's new novel:

"In The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore takes us back to the dawn of light—electric light—into a world of invention and skulduggery, populated by the likes of Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla, and the novel's hero, a young lawyer named Paul Cravath (a name that will resonate with ambitious law students everywhere). It's part legal thriller, part tour of a magical time—the age of wonder—and once you've finished it, you'll find it hard to return to the world of now."—Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City

Last week, I talked to Graham Moore. Here's part of our conversation...


Chris Schluep – Why did you decide to write this particular novel?

Graham Moore – I was really excited about digging into what seemed like a hinge moment in history, when America and New York were lit up at night for the very first time. In reading about this period, the first thing that was shocking for me, so to speak, was how shocking light bulbs were for the people alive at the time. We tend to take light bulbs for granted now, but if you look at the diaries, the journals, the newspapers of the people alive in the 1880s, they don't even know how to talk about it. They're so overwhelmed by the sight of the lightbulb. People talk about it like they're seeing a new color. And when I started reading about this new period, the first question was Wow, when is the last time we've seen that? When was the last time any of us saw something that seemed totally and completely new in that way.

CS – When did you decide to tell the story through the eyes of the twenty-something attorney Paul Cravath?

GM – That was the first major creative decision that went into writing the book. I knew I wanted to write about the period. I knew that I was fascinated by this rivalry between Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla. The question that was animating me to do all this research was, How did these three guys all think that they were the one who invented the light bulb? How did three people think they did the same thing? Why did they hate each other so much? And as I was reading through biographies and autobiographies, the question was Well, if I'm going to tell this rivalry, whose story do I want to tell? Which one of their perspectives? And then one day I read this single sentence buried deep within a Thomas Edison biography that made me jump out of my seat. It was talking about this lawsuit in 1888—Thomas Edison sues George Westinghouse for violating his patent on the lightbulb. This lawsuit we can currently value at a billion dollars in 1888. So this is perhaps the largest lawsuit in American history. And Westinghouse as a response does something totally insane: he hires as his lead litigator a 26-year-old attorney, eighteen months out of Columbia Law School, who'd never tried a case before and never really had a client before. That lawyer is Paul Cravath. And I thought, Oh, wait, is that the same Paul Cravath who later becomes well known in legal circles because of his law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore.

CS – Paul was your way into the story?

GM - He was the perfect way in. I realized that he was the perfect narrator and protagonist for the story I wanted to tell. What if I could tell the story of the rivalry between the ages' three greatest geniuses, but tell that story from the perspective of this ambitious, hungry young attorney who's in way over his head? Someone who's not a scientist. In a sense, Paul felt like me. I am not a scientist. I did not invent the lightbulb. And I was trying to fathom the minds of someone like Edison, Westinghouse, or Tesla in the same way that Paul had to.

CS – I think of Edison as both the hero and the villain of this book. Was this your intention?

GM - That was very much the intention. When you first meet Thomas Edison in Chapter Two, he could not be behaving in a way that is more villainous. And he gives this big long monologue that's very scary and seems very kind of evil. I would suggest, though, to the reader that after finishing the novel, if you go back and read his monologue in Chapter Two, he has a point. He's being kind of blustery about it, but the actual point he's making isn't wrong. And that was one of the great thrills about being able to tell this story from Paul Cravath's perspective—we're going to meet everyone by the way Paul would meet them. So Edison is a villain, and Westinghouse is in need of protection, and Tesla seems just like a lunatic but needs someone to help him. We meet them all through Paul's eyes, and we have no other information about them besides what Paul would know and what he would observe. And then as the novel goes on we begin to see other sides of them and we begin to realize that it's more complicated than that. It's something I think about a lot, on all the pieces I've worked on. I would suggest that actually there aren't real villains in anything I've done. At the end of the day, everyone in The Last Days of Night has a point. And they may do certain things that are certainly unethical, certainly immoral, but they're doing it for a reason that hopefully the reader will eventually come around to understand. They're not just insane; they have a logical framework for their actions. And that's something that's really important about every character. I feel like I can't write a character unless I understand her in some way, unless there's a little part of me that gets her point. Which is what's exciting when you have characters like this who are in great conflict with one another. Even if they're in conflict, as the author I sort of see both sides of the argument.

CS – Is that what you took from writing this novel?

GM – There's something humbling about that. I think about it with my own life. Everyone paints themselves as the hero of their own life, but there's someone else who would disagree. I'm sure there are people who do not look at me as the hero of their life. I assume I'm someone's villain. I'm not entirely sure who's, but I'm sure there's someone out there. And I think how we draw those narratives is very important.

CS – Your three projects have all been historical. What is it about historical projects that drives you?

MooreGM – I'm privileged enough to be able to work on projects that I love and I'm fascinated by. One of my favorite things about my job is that I get to pick these subjects that I want to learn a lot more about, and then I get to learn a lot more about them over a period of years and craft narratives to exist within them. I think one of the reasons I tend to be drawn to historical things particularly is, in some sense, I feel I'm not creative enough to write fiction from a blank slate. With historical fiction I almost feel like someone's done the first draft already. I can look at the primary sources and say, Oh, here's what actually happened. There is already an amazing story right here. It's just my job to fashion it a bit, to chip away some of the excess and fashion it into a narrative. And I think that every time I get stuck on a story, when I'm sitting at my desk and staring at the screen and thinking I really don't know what should happen next, everything seems really boring or illogical and I'm totally stuck in the narrative, I can always ask myself, Ok, what was actually the next thing that happened. Literally, what happened in the real world the next day? And I can look it up. And sometimes we don't know—but when we do, or when we at least have some sense of it, it's always more interesting than anything I would have been able to come up with.

CS – What do you like to read when you're not researching?

GM – I love mystery novels. Mystery novels were in some sense my bread and butter growing up, and as I became more voracious in my reading, that's still in some sense what I go back to. Or at least books that have mysteries in them. I would say that if you look at the things that I've written—certainly Sherlockian, but even "Imitation Game" and Last Days—they have mysteries in them. They still function as mystery thrillers because somehow even if I try to get away from it, it's in the blood now.

CS – As a writer, is it important to you to write both novels and screenplays?

GM – Yes, it's something I think I will always go back and forth between. I think of myself as a novelist first and foremost. That's my first love. I will never, ever, ever stop writing novels. That's where my heart really is. But I also learn a lot about screenplays from writing novels. And I've learned some about novels from writing screenplays. The media inform each other in some ways, because they're so different. So I think I'll do both. In my mind, my self-conception is that I'm a novelist who writes scripts every now and again, when a specific project seems so exciting and the subject matter is just so overwhelming that I can't imagine not doing it. I'm sure I'll move back and forth as I find more topics for novels and topics for films that make me want to get out of bed every morning and work for the five years that it takes to complete one.


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