February 2007

John Zuarino


An Interview with Clifford Chase

Winkie is a story about an 81-year-old mangy teddy bear who can think, a la The Velveteen Rabbit. When Winkie wills himself to life one day, he crashes through a little boy's bedroom window and escapes into the wild, where he learns to shit, miraculously gains and loses a child, and becomes subject to the world's scrutiny when put on trial as the next big threat in the War on Terror. Through retrospection, Winkie ponders his existence in his maximum security cell amongst the hard, absurd world he lives in.

Clifford Chase's novel was released in June 2006 to rave reviews from the likes of David Rakoff and Stephin Merritt. He also wrote The Hurry-Up Song: A Memoir of Losing My Brother and edited the collection Queer 13: Lesbian and Gay Writers Recall Seventh Grade.

How did Winkie start out?

It began as a short story. I started by writing about Winkie running away, and that story surprised me. Then I went on to write another story about Winkie in the forest where he encounters the Unabomber character. That was written way back in '97, not long after the Unabomber had actually been captured. I was interested in the Unabomber as a fairy tale figure and the way a figure like that becomes a sort of two-dimensional ogre, so it kind of made sense to me that Winkie would encounter him in the forest.

In the course of that I developed the character Baby Winkie, Winkie's child, as a creature that speaks only in quotations. In some ways I think of Winkie as the essence of my childhood, and then Baby Winkie is the essence of an essence, so I was trying to understand what that would be. And intuitively I figured that she would only speak in quotations.

And they happen to be the right quotations at the right time.

She's not necessarily using those quotations correctly, but she knows what she wants to say, and she doesn't want to say it herself. There's a playfulness to it, really, and the book begins as an act of playfulness. What happens if Winkie runs away? What if he learns to shit? What if he gives birth, etc.?

How did the Winkie snapshots come into play?

When I visited my parents in California, where Winkie resided at the time, I took my camera with me and took pictures of him. I thought that if I were going to write more about him, I would need to find more information for practical reasons. I was previously working off of memory, and I felt like the descriptive stuff I was writing was getting stale, and I needed more information. So my mother and I took pictures of him. With half a mind, I thought I might use them also as illustrations, but again as another purely playful act. We thought "Let's have Winkie smell a rose" or "Let's have him looking behind some vines." Then the film came back, and the photographs were just very odd. I suppose it tightens the illusion of him being sentient and alive because in the photographs it looks like he's really smelling a rose and thinking.

Is there a different process that you go through when writing fiction as opposed to memoir?

It depends on what you're writing. I approached my memoir [The Hurry-Up Song] as a fiction writer, so when I began I approached it in a way where I was writing scenes for characters with a lot of interpretation. There was a lot of the standard "show, don't tell" approach to narrative. On the other hand, I have a strong autobiographical component in my fiction. It was exhilarating walking out on a limb while writing the Winkie scenes with pure invention. It was thrilling and scary. When working autobiographically, you're weighted down to earth with facts, but it's really about how you arrange them. Obviously with fiction you're not tied like that. I suppose, in reaction to just having written a memoir, I wanted to do something that was really playful and inventive as opposed to a realistic novel. Then again, I had to do a lot of that when writing about my mother. They were very somber, realistic chapters.

Tell me more about your mother's role in the book.

I began writing a chapter about Winkie grieving for his child, and that's when I started writing about my mother's childhood. That was another way of having Winkie as a useful tool to enter into my mother's childhood as sort of a fly on the wall and to think about that in a different way than before. In my memoir, I talk about her upbringing as a Christian Scientist, but there's not much about it in there. So I wanted to go back and re-imagine her as a kid, partly because as an adult, she was very playful among other things. For instance, when I said that I wanted to take pictures of Winkie, it wasn't like she was the type of person that would say that's really weird or ridiculous. In fact she thought it wasn't ridiculous, and she even helped me take the pictures. There's a wonderful picture on the Grove Press website of her holding Winkie like a baby and looking down on him, cradling him. She could be a lot of fun in that way, and I wanted to know where that came from. She was already in her 80's when I started writing the book. She was the way old people would begin to seem like children.

There's a scene that sticks out where Winkie witnesses the casual racism at the dinner table and wholly disapproves. Where did that scene come from?

That scene was part of my childhood memories, and it was pretty difficult to write about. There were a lot of difficult decisions like showing two children acting in this shameful way, and it's a part of my childhood that I often wanted to write about. I had written already about my parents' racism in my memoir, but I had never written about my own. Winkie reacts as a wise innocent. He speaks kind of naively, but he's also seen and lived through a lot. I wanted him to react in a way where he didn't understand the political implications of it, but he just sees it and doesn't like it. And there's a bit of a racism theme in my mother's childhood too because of what was going on in Chicago. Winkie's a minority of one and sometimes the subject of persecution by the authorities, who arrest him and accuse him of a laundry list of bizarre charges.

Who were the influences for Winkie? How did they play out in the origins of the book?

Donald Barthelme is a big influence. I studied with him at City College. I went there in order to study with him because I really loved his writing. He also turned out to be a really good teacher. You know, he writes in a very playful and postmodernist way, and that's a way of seeing literature that has always made a lot of sense to me. In terms of how that played out in the book, I went back to his novel The Dead Father the summer before last when I was revising Winkie for my editor and was stumped. I went back to that novel to try and loosen up my mind and pay attention to how he went about putting together the novel, and he's very playful about it.

I also studied with Frederic Tuten. His novel Tintin in the New World has similarities where he takes a children's book character and transplants it into an adult literary novel. That's what Winkie is doing. There's also a story by Kafka called "Josephine the Singer" that I kept in mind a lot. It's sort of a cute, furry little Kafka story. It's not dark and scary and tormented, it's just about a little mouse that's a diva and her following. The mice risk their lives to hear her sing, and it's just a cute and lovely little story.

Midway through, someone told me to look at Jan Svankmajer's films which I was unaware of, and I felt validation from his stop-action animation. It's not trying to be believable, it's trying to be something else, and that's a way of approaching aspects of Winkie.

Were the terrorism themes highlighted after 9/11?

Yeah, that came to the fore. As the absurdities of the situation began to pile up, the Times ran a couple stories about people being rounded up and mistreated by guards. Then I thought maybe I could keep this as a theme in the novel, and maybe Winkie being accused of terrorism could make a lot of sense as a way to address what was going on. Not to make light of it, but to address it in a comic way. When John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," was captured and tortured, I followed his case carefully. There was this total abuse of power going on. When I decided that Winkie would be arrested, I realized the authorities in the book didn't even know what happened, so I used Lindh's case as a template.

Are Winkie's judge and prosecutor based on real people?

Not specifically. John Ashcroft was on my mind, though, because he would go out and make these charges against people in the press, and again and again they would bring the charges to court like nothing. He was just a big incompetent blowhard. I just hate him. I think he abused his power and is one of the people responsible for Abu Ghraib. Otherwise they're cartoon characters. I just let myself give in to a very comic-cartoonish portrayal of the war on terror through Winkie's trial. Winkie is more multi-layered and three-dimensional next to the human characters .

Last question: How does a teddy bear become pregnant?

It's a mystery, like the Virgin Birth. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happened. It was one of the first things I wrote, and I spent a long time trying to understand that. It was one of the questions my editor asked that I couldn't answer. In my little world, it's a mythic element, the uncanny thing where he got what he always wanted without knowing it. It's a stamp in history.