In 2011, Stewart O'Nan got a fan letter from Thomas Sweterlitsch. O'Nan, an acclaimed novelist (Last Night at the Lobster), had just moved back to Pittsburgh; Sweterlitsch, an aspiring writer, was a customer-service rep at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. But O'Nan agreed to critique a short story Sweterlitsch sent, a science-fiction work titled "The City That Lies Within."
O'Nan was impressed, but told Sweterlitsch, "It really wants to be a novel." Sweterlitsch was thrilled but sat on the story. Soon after, at a reading O'Nan was giving at Chatham University, Sweterlitsch introduced himself and O'Nan responded, "How's that novel coming?" Sweterlitsch says, "I thought, ‘His enthusiasm's real. Maybe I should really write this novel now.'"
Long story short about a short story that got longer: Thanks to O'Nan's agent and further rewrites, Tomorrow and Tomorrow comes out July 10 on Putnam, part one of a two-book deal. Perhaps more amazingly, this debut novel sparked a movie-studio bidding war. Sony Pictures bought the film rights to Tomorrow and Tomorrow — a "six-figure" payday, Sweterlitsch says, that let him quit his job of 12 years to focus on book No. 2.
The 339-page Tomorrow and Tomorrow is set in 2058, 10 years after a terrorist's bomb has incinerated Pittsburgh. The protagonist, John Dominic Blaxton, lost his pregnant wife in the blast and now lives near Washington, D.C. But he's addicted to reliving his Pittsburgh days via the Archive, an online virtual-reality document of the city. Depressed and abusing drugs, he loses his job researching bomb deaths in Pittsburgh for an insurance company. Then he's hired by a software magnate to investigate another mysterious case — an assignment that plumbs a really dark rabbit-hole.
The novel's Pittsburgh is a phantom, but Sweterlitsch's 2048 'Burgh is a good deal like today's model, with shout-outs ranging from Phipps Conservatory and Butler Street coffeehouses to local circa-2013 indie bands. Another key premise is that in 2058, we'll all be using Adware — a sort of 10th-generation Google Glass implanted in the scalp and retinas that definitively retires privacy. Dominic is literally wired into the Internet. He can instantly access information like people's online profiles, but he's a sitting duck for 3-D ads incessantly anticipating his desires.
The novel (whose title quotes Macbeth) blends detective fiction and a dark futuristic vision. Asked what struck him about the book, O'Nan says, "That combination of both the addiction and the virtual assault upon [Dominic] reminded me weirdly enough of both Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs."
"I often write about what I fear the most," says Sweterlitsch. The author lives in Greenfield with his wife, the painter Sonja Sweterlitsch, and their young daughter. He says Tomorrow and Tomorrow grew from his concern over "the distraction the Internet created, the Internet plus cable TV. Just how it filled my mind with images I didn't necessarily want to fill my mind with."
Chandler was in there, too: Sweterlitsch started reading the hard-boiled master based on recommendations from readers he served at the Library for the Blind, a storehouse of audio books. The Canton, Ohio, native's interest in science fiction dates to the days after he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. "It wasn't until my mid-20s that I read Philip K. Dick for the first time, and I kinda realized that was the door I wanted to go through," he says. "He sort of led me into the wider realm of science fiction as literature."
O'Nan's literary agent, the Gernert Company, actually rejected Sweterlitsch's first draft, but recommended changes that included moving to page one a murder scene originally set much later. "They saw if you put that murder scene at the front it becomes a thriller, instead of just a moody kind of thing," says Sweterlitsch. After his rewrite, the manuscript sold quickly; while several publishers were interested, Sweterlitsch chose Putnam "because that's where William Gibson publishes!" he says. "I didn't know what I was doing. But William Gibson is a hero of mine."
Gernert — whose clients include John Grisham — routinely markets books for film. Sweterlitsch says he was "shocked" by the bidding war. "That doesn't mean they're actually going to make the movie," he adds, laughing.
Pre-publication, the book itself is off to a running start, with positive notices from Kirkus Review and Booklist. And Playboy magazine just named it Book of the Month.
Kirkus described Tomorrow and Tomorrow as "vividly and beautifully written but extraordinarily bleak." Sweterlitsch acknowledges the book's grimness, even though the mood hardly seems to apply to the daily life of a newly successful novelist.
"I have a lot of dark, brooding thoughts, like most people do," he says. "I just harness them for the fiction."
An excerpt from Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Thomas Sweterlitsch
Gazing out the window at a heavily armed cop talking to a boy with eyebrow studs and lip piercings. ... What's going on? The boy's profile lights long enough for me to scroll his Twitter feed, @MimiStarchild — Body in the bathroom, it says. Joanna, it says. Found her, it says. A twitpic of the mess: the victim stripped, the remnants of her dress binding her ankles. Blonde, but her face is ruined. She'd been bent over the toilet, hands tied to the pipes, breasts down in the water. "Jesus Christ," I say, and close out Twitter, but the Washington Post feed's already picked up the story, knocking Chance in Hell from the top DC trends: Joanna Kriz, a student at George Mason, found dead in Fur. Pics of her flood the streams, discovered by tabloid Facecrawlers that hacked private accounts. A gorgeous girl — a student of architecture. Jesus Christ. The Post feed displays 3-D renderings of her school assignments, buildings she'd designed, architectural models. Pictures flash of her high school graduation and with her family at Thanksgiving, but I'm watching her life unspool, and now I'm watching sexts she'd sent to boyfriends, found by the Facecrawlers, nude selfies posing in front of mirrors, drunk tongue-kissing a girlfriend while a crowd cheers her — within minutes the feeds are only interested in Joanna Kriz if she's fucking or mutilated, they've reduced her to the essence of what the viewing public will click on and trend. I ring the bell and leave the bus, the feeds saturated with Joanna Kriz. ... Within minutes the murdered girl's family signs with Crime Scene Superstar, grieving but ready for their opportunity to share their daughter's beauty with the world and collect royalties. #Kriz trends in the feeds, critiques of the dead woman's body — face too horsey but nice tits — rating her fuckability based on the crime-scene photographs. I reach my apartment, out of the range of the public Wi-Fi. Everything in my apartment is silence and the only thing I can do to fill it is cry.