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David Shafer 'chuffed' by success of 'techno-thriller'

David Shafer's new novel is getting a lot of attention.David Shafer is the toast of the literary community. His debut novel, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” has been met with rave reviews by some of the country’s harshest and most influential critics.

The New York Times wrote: “Is it too late to nominate a candidate for novel of the summer?”

USA Today wrote that the book is “just in time for your August beach trip.”

A Portland resident, Shafer is “chuffed” with the good ink.

Yes, chuffed. See, with the praise suddenly turning him into a literary supernova, Shafer cannot express his feelings in English. Instead, he has to use a word that his Irish wife Fiona McCann taught him.

“It’s sort of Irish for a combination of flattered and puffed up and happy,” Shafer says. “I’m just enjoying it. Of course I’m surprised. This is as much as I’ve ever hoped for.”

There are many great stories of soon to be iconic writers first hearing that the novel they penned was a critical success. For instance, legend goes that Jack Kerouac and his then live-in girlfriend Joyce Johnson went to a newsstand to read the New York Times review for “On the Road” shortly after midnight and took it to a bar to read.

Shafer was outside watering his strawberries when he found out about the review in the Times.

“I have a wife and agent that always get to the good news before I do,” Shafer says. “I was outside watering the strawberries and my agent called and informed me we had gotten a rave review in the Times. My dad does an exhaustive Google search first thing in the morning and informs me of any good press.”

Like “On the Road,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is highly relevant to our world today.

It delves into the world of computers, governments and paranoia.

The idea for the novel first came to Shafer during the last years of George W. Bush’s presidency.

“In 2006, or 2007 it was the apex of our War on Terror,” Shafer says. “It was post-9/11, pre-Obama, the security state that we didn’t yet quite know of. I had a good friend who was tipping into some hypo-mania, but nothing too clinical. He would send me connections he had seen on the Internet. I thought, ‘What if you were having problems with reality and an online underground contacted you to oppose a nefarious world plot?’ It would be very confusing.”

The first three chapters, along with the first three characters (Leila, Leo and Mark) came easily. The rest of the 432-page novel ($26, Mulholland Books/Little Brown and Company) came much more slowly.

“It was arduously long, about seven years,” Shafer says, of writing the book. “From what I understand of other accounts of first novels, that’s often the case. You have a good idea, and you get it down and then the rest seems much more of a slog.”

Spending so many years on the book added depth to the characters.

“Years-long work will have the maker in various states and moods,” Shafer says. “It’s unavoidable. Those various states and moods increase the fidelity of your characters’ inner states.”

Shafer’s style is sometimes complex and complicated, much like one of his literary inspirations, David Foster Wallace. There are other authors who have inspired Shafer, but they are difficult for him to come up with quickly.

DAVID SHAFER“I have to go down and stand in front of my bookshelf,” Shafer says. “Though I wish to be an erudite and well-read and a reader with good recall, I’m someone who, I think like most of us, can forget a book after he’s read it and can only remember that it had an impact.”

One of the first readers of Shafer’s book did not live long enough to see the publish date. Lola, Shafer’s “North Portland Brown” dog, passed away just before the book was published.

“Lola died a month ago,” Shafer says. “She did not get to see my publication date. But, she read every draft.”

Shafer found a way to honor Lola in his novel, though.

“There’s a brief cameo of a dog called Cola in the book,” Shafer says. “Like most first-time authors, I had more of my dog in the book than people cared about. Her role shrunk, and she appears in one scene.”

Shafer, who has a 3 1/2-year-old daughter named Finn and a 6-month-old son named Cormack, says it is still too early for a new dog.

“I couldn’t think about that now,” Shafer says. “With a 3 1/2-year-old daughter, I fear we’re entering the guinea pig, gerbil phase.”

If you asked Shafer a year ago if he would have been okay with his novel being called a “techno-thriller,” he would have said no. He is more comfortable with the term now, though.

“A year ago, I would have resisted the notion that it was a techno-thriller,” Shafer says. “I always wanted it to be seen as a novel of ideas and characters. I’m not as snooty about that right now. The techno-thriller shape, the conspiracy story, brings in a lot of readers. The depressive white guy in Portland story, you can push some of that if you earn your readers’ attention. I’m perfectly comfortable in the techno-thriller as long as the reader finds more than that after the first few chapters.”

Shafer is especially proud of the parts of his book about Portland, which he first came to in the 1990s after being invited to visit by one of his professors at Harvard.

“I am so proud of its Portland cred,” Shafer says. “I’ve lived here for half my life and seen the city change. I liked writing with local knowledge. There are writers who can write about a place without having been there. But Portland is a place near and dear to my heart, so I hope Portlanders will get some of the jokes for them. Though, I had to reduce the amount of it from early drafts because not everyone lives in Portland, and that joking can get pretty tiresome.”

It took the 41-year-old Shafer quite a while to become a novelist.

Raised in the upper west side of Manhattan, he got his undergrad degree at Harvard.

“I kind of floated around at Harvard,” Shafer says. “I was a psych major, and due to my own nature I didn’t engage as much with the English department there, even though it was the degree I graduated with.

I mainly kind of stayed in the background there.”

He later went to journalism school at Columbia. He learned some important things about writing that he would use in “Whiskey.” He also learned that he was not cut out for journalism.

“Journalism school taught me about precision and clarity,” Shafer says. “I also discovered there that I’m not the most well-suited to journalism. I write slowly, I don’t naturally talk to strangers comfortably. Those are very important skills in journalism.”

Still, Shafer would later work as a journalist covering music in Ireland after he moved there with McCann, who was then his girlfriend.

“It was enough to feel connected to the place,” Shafer says.

Writing about Irish music was just one stop on Shafer’s factotum job resume. He also has been a taxi driver and a carpenter. “And my wife essentially supported me for a couple of years,” he says.

Now, Shafer plans to be a fulltime writer.

“I’ve got to get back to work in a more rigorous manner than I did for the first one,” he says.

Shafer also will be working a bit on the publicity trail for “Whiskey.”

“A book tour is too grand a word,” he says. “I’ll go up to Seattle and down to San Francisco and maybe to Austin (Texas), just because I have friends I can stay with. The Little Brown jet is not filled in PDX for me. I’ll go back to New York in October for whatever press I can drum up in a four-day trip.”

Shafer already is working a new book, which he describes cryptically.

“It’s too early to say much at all except I think it ends up in Oregon,” he says. “I like to write about a lot of characters, so this one has a large cast. That’s about all I can say.”

Shafer hopes the next book will be finished more quickly than his first.

“I aspire to the two-year plan now,” he says. “You do see working writers pull that off. If it turns out that in two years the book isn’t good enough, then I’ll keep working. But I would like to be back in the consciousness in a few years if I can.”

And when that novel is finished, Shafer will hope that he again feels chuffed.


Notable upcoming readings

• Annie Bloom’s Books, annie blooms.com, 7834 S.W. Capitol Highway: Aug. 21, 7 p.m., Dana Haynes presents “Gun Metal Heart”; Aug. 25, 7 p.m., Elizabeth Murray presents “Living Life in Full Bloom”

• Broadway Books, http://www.broadwaybooks.net, 1714 N.E. Broadway, Aug. 21, 7 p.m., Chris Leslie-Hynan, “Ride Around Shining”

Powell’s Books, http://www.powells.com, 1005 W. Burnside St.: Aug. 21, 7:30 p.m., Carl Adamshick; Aug. 26, 7:30 p.m., Paul Collins