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Rachel Kushner's new novel, The Flamethrowers, begins with a crash. A young woman named Reno is trying to set a record on her motorcycle at a racetrack at the Bonneville Salt Flats. She wants to photograph the tracks she leaves in the sand, as an art project. But her crash takes Reno in a different direction. Her artistic ambition thrusts her in the middle of New York's chaotic art scene in the 1970s, and eventually, Reno finds herself embroiled in a radical political movement in Italy.
It's a perilous journey for a girl from Nevada, set at the dangerous intersection of art, radicalism and international terrorism. Kushner joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss fast motorcycles, the '70s New York City art world, and why she's fascinated by Italian radicalism.
On how Reno, a young woman from the American West, became immersed in the New York City art scene
"It's interesting that it seems incongruous because she is a young woman. But actually quite a bit of work was made by artists in the Western desert. But these were sophisticated conceptual artists from New York City who went West to make these works. She, perhaps in contradistinction to that, actually is originally from the West, goes to New York, gets more of an education, becomes more sophisticated about art and then lands on the idea of doing this project.
"She descends upon New York at a time when SoHo was the pre-eminent locale for the art world, but not in a glitzy, galleries-and-fashion-boutiques-shortly-to-follow sort of way. In the mid-1970s, it really was a kind of playground for artists, because there were these vast, old factories and manufacturing warehouses that had been taken over by artists, so they had lots of space to work. Rents were inexpensive. You know, the streets are dark.
"And I think that that made for a much more free space for artists because it didn't require a lot of money, and a lot of people also making work that wasn't even meant to be sellable. Some works were just gestures, you know, like a dance performance in a warehouse or on a roof. So it was a very free and open time, I would say, the 1970s in the New York art world."
On how Reno's romance with Sandro, the successor to an Italian motorcycle empire, changes her life
"Well, he has total access to the art world because he's a well-known and successful artist. And so he grants her that same social access, and she gets to be around this very sort of haughty, blue-chip crowd. But he also connects her with a motorcycle from his family's company, which is what allows her to do this land speed test at the Bonneville Salt Flats."
On what inspired her to write about art in New York and radicalism in Italy
"I always knew that I wanted to write a novel about the New York art world in the 1970s. It has a sort of mythical hold over me, perhaps from my own childhood because my aunt DeeDee Halleck is an artist in New York and I would go to visit. And I lived in New York for a summer in 1980 with my best friend and her mother, who worked for Donald Judd. And I thought it would be interesting to try to recapture that time. I had just fallen naturally into an interest in Italy also in the 1970s, the same year that I was focusing on New York 1977.
"The Movement of '77, as it's called, overtook Italy. And it really almost tore the Italy state apart. It is a remarkable series of events that culminated in the fascination in 1978 of the former prime minister, Aldo Moro. And it seemed like a terrific thing to work on for fiction. And any novel is going to be, you know, built of various ideas, but I guess I do sort of go for the broader scope. It's what interests me and challenges me."
On the allure of motorcycles and speed
"I used to ride motorcycles when I was in my 20s, and I eventually gave them up because of the danger. And now I'm a mother, and it doesn't seem right to risk my life when I'm needed by someone. But I always gravitated toward the culture of machines — cars and motorcycles. From when I was a very young girl, I was interested in that world. It still has a certain hold over me, even though I don't ride anymore. But I did ride them quite a bit in my 20s.
"I'm not a very athletic person, and yet I was a ski racer and I still ski a lot. And I rode motorcycles for a while, which is all about speed, and I rode very fast ones and crashed one going 140 miles an hour. I don't totally understand my interest in it, but sometimes the things that you don't totally understand but gravitate toward are good subjects for fiction, because it's through the long and murky process of forming the novel that one can understand these things — come to understand these things better."