An Interview with Matthew Sharpe
So the Bush administration or some other horror show ends up destroying America -- literally dissolving the Constitution and fracturing the nation into city-states. People are starving, most of the food is poisoned, and you see a hare on the side of the road biting off a small rodent’s head. Manhattan and Brooklyn are at war, trying to take control of the boroughs, and you’re sent down to Virginia on an exploratory mission on a ratty bus full of murderers and sociopaths. Your leaders will eventually decide that exploiting the Indians would be a lucrative investment. This is the opening premise to Matthew Sharpe’s new novel Jamestown, a retelling of the historical settlement in a post-apocalyptic future. The novel has been likened to both Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and it fully departs from Sharpe’s previous novels on coming of age in the American middle class.
I sat down with Sharpe before his reading at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction in New York, where we discussed the amount of research that went into the novel, homosexual tendencies in the 17th century, and the feud between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
There’s a huge stylistic difference from The Sleeping Father in Jamestown, and there was also a great deal of research that went into the new novel. How did your research inform the narrative voice this time around?
The research was mostly of the historical variety. I would say I spent about a year of just reading about the history of Jamestown and the other things that were happening in the early 17th century before I started writing anything. It probably took about another year to begin, or maybe another six or eight months of just messing around with ideas about how to tell the story before I started to develop the voices.
I guess the research informed the voices insofar as I tried to use a lot of Elizabethan/Jacobean diction and syntax. I certainly read a bunch of Shakespearean plays, since that was also the period that he was writing. The Tempest is based on one of the settler’s accounts. Actually, one of the ships crash-landed on Bermuda before it made it to Jamestown. A guy name William Strachey, who came over on the same boat that John Rolfe came over on, wrote one of the more eloquent accounts of Jamestown. Shakespeare, who was an investor in the Virginia Company, got a hold of an early copy and used it as one of his source texts for The Tempest. Just reading lots of primary sources was helpful in developing the voice. But I knew pretty early on that I didn’t want to write a strictly historical novel; in fact I realized that I couldn’t -- I just don’t have the writing chomps or the historical knowledge, so I had to figure out, “all right, so what’s this going to be, what’s it going to sound like?”
What made you decide to write something like this, departing from the middle class family themes in The Sleeping Father?
I think it’s fair to say that my first three books (Stories From the Tube, Nothing is Terrible and The Sleeping Father) are all in one way or another about late-20th-/early-21st-century middle-class, mostly white or alternative, family structures. I figured it was time to depart from that, and I think I had been long wanting to write something much more explicitly political -- I feel like the politics in the other books are part of the fabric of the novel, but they’re not explicit.
I happened to be working for a non-profit called Teachers and Writers Collaborative, which sends writers into public schools. One of my jobs for them was to teach teachers how to use creative writing across the curriculum. I had a group of social studies teachers who were about to teach a unit on Jamestown to their middle school kids. They said, “Would you make up some creative writing exercises for us about Jamestown to help our kids sort of imaginatively enter the period?” Not knowing a whole hell of a lot about Jamestown, I started reading John Smith’s accounts of his sojourn there. He wrote quite copiously about it and was really attentive and just jotted down every single observation he made. Things about zoology, botany, ethnography, and then of course all the things that happened to him, all the plots that he was involved in against the leadership and all the plots that the leadership was involved in against him. So I made up some creative writing exercises based on John Smith’s narrative, and I road-tested them. I had so much fun writing them that I decided to do a big creative writing exercise myself, thus was born Jamestown. I also, I think, maybe pre-consciously satisfied this wish I had had for a long time to make something overtly political. I started researching the book in the beginning of 2001, and of course, once the terrorist attacks happened and America [had it’s] horrifyingly idiotic response, that’s where the material and thematic issues I wanted to deal with really came together.
One of the major points in the novel was the methods of communication between Rolfe and Pocahontas. It goes from diary entry to instant messaging and WiFi to, I think it’s telepathy, isn’t it?
I think so. At the beginning, the novel is narrated in alternating chapters by Pocahontas and Johnny Rolfe before they’ve ever met, so each, in a sense, is blogging to no one. And then they see each other, they have this odd embrace, and they don’t see each other for a long time. Then introductions are made on their behalf by other people, and they are put in touch via IM. I guess you could say that there is a sort of movement towards greater and greater communications-intimacy, if you will, from blogging to an unspecified recipient to IMing, which is still quite remote in some ways, to the next step, which would be conversing face to face, and finally conversing telepathically. So there is this movement towards more and more closeness until they are transcending space and time via their thoughts.
There’s sort of a rampant, open bisexuality in this future.
Is there not in the present?
Well, it’s more spread out and overt…
[Laughs] Yeah, I suppose that started from my own interest in sexuality and being a little less rigid in the categories than the people in the dominant culture tend to be. Also, there were 100 guys who came over on the first boat from Jamestown. It was a year and a half before any women arrived, so I’m thinking these guys were not celibate the whole time...
It’s the sailor syndrome.
Yes, and in fact there was one very brief mention in all the primary accounts that I saw of men loving each other. The crew of the ship had their own food supply, while the settlers had theirs. The settlers used theirs up and had to trade with the crew. There’s this one guy among the settlers who says, “We traded whatever we had with the crew for food,” and he gives a list of things: hatchets, beads, copper trinkets, coins, muskets, and the last item on the list was “love.” I just thought that one word was like a little peephole into what must have been a whole host of activities.
I’ve actually read more recently that Larry Kramer has been doing more research into Jamestown, and he has discovered some kind of documentation that shows that men set up house with each other. I didn’t come across this when I was researching, but one of these days I have to get in touch with him and see what he’s found. I suppose it just seemed like here are all these people interacting with each other in all kinds of different ways and different conditions, some of them quite extreme. And sure, when some of the social strictures break down some terrible things happen, like people killing or betraying each other. But maybe some good things can happen too, like polymorphous loving.
Coming back to communications between the settlers and the natives, in the back of your book you list Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America as a reference. You really play up the language barrier, especially between the lovers.
Everyone involved in Jamestown was in a situation where they didn’t speak a word of each other’s languages, so I was really fascinated with the idea of having such an enormous obstacle of communication and how they must have gotten around it. I guess the big challenge for me was whether or not I could represent, in English, two peoples speaking two different languages trying to communicate with each other. I suppose the metaphor, since there’s a love story at the heart of the book, is that anyone trying to communicate with another is actually someone speaking one language who is trying to communicate with someone speaking another -- even if they’re speaking the same language. In a sense, any meeting of two people is a cross-cultural encounter.
Another encounter like that might be Pocahontas revealing her real name, which is supposed to be cursed; she later comments that Rolfe’s incredulous misinterpretation of the name upon hearing it is actually what killed her.
I think she was also chiding him for not being careful enough with the revelation of this tender information. He sort of didn’t take it seriously enough or didn’t embrace it fully. He was a little skeptical or surprised that her name was something that was unappealing to him; she was trusting him with this most intimate fact about her, and he wasn’t ready to deal with it. But everybody in the book experiences the world through a highly subjective distortion, so just because a character says it doesn’t mean it’s true. There are constant miscommunications, and people are constantly lying to each other or misrepresenting their own thoughts, so there also can be a miscommunication with the self.
Time Out NY mentioned that Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian heavily influenced the book.
I came to it rather late in life, I had actually not read it when I started writing Jamestown, but somewhere relatively early in the writing process I read Blood Meridian. I felt deep revulsion and a strong kinship with McCarthy.
It’s a nasty book that reveals something deeply horrifying about human nature. There’s that judge who seems to be, oddly enough, the protagonist, or at least one of the contenders for that title. He’s this big, seven-foot-tall, bald, pale guy who’s kind of a giant baby, and he behaves and looks and speaks revoltingly. But he also seems to be the soothsayer and poet of the book, and he seems to be the repository of the most amount of cultural knowledge, so he’s in some way, undeniably, one of the book’s moral centers. I was also just struck by the beauty of the writing and the high formalist tone that McCarthy takes and all the Biblical references. I guess I was after describing much of the same thing. You can call “man’s inhumanity to man” the monumental aspect of who we are. I was after describing other things, as well, but that feature of what I wanted to talk about, as well as the relationship between our history and who we are now, is something I think he represented beautifully in all its horror.
Brooklyn vs. Manhattan: if nobody intervened, who would have won?
[Laughs] I don’t know, that’s a tough call. I guess the parallel to the 17th century history is Manhattan as the equivalent of England and Brooklyn as the equivalent of Spain. England did kick Spain’s ass eventually, but I would hesitate to wager. Manhattan is bigger and has more resources, but Brooklyn is really feisty.