September 2007

Shawn Miller

features

An Interview with Brock Clarke

Brock Clarke has done a dangerous thing. He has written, in An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, a novel about writing. The venture “terrified” him.

“I hope my treatment of the issue is ambivalent enough that it’s not too academic,” Clarke said.

In the comic novel, 18-year-old Sam Pulsifer inadvertently burns down the Emily Dickinson House, killing two lovers in the process. For this he is sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Sam tries to live a normal life upon his release and almost succeeds. He goes to college, falls in love, marries, starts a family and moves to Camelot. When a number of other authors’ homes are set alight, however, Sam finds that he is unable to escape his past.

Throughout the book, Clarke explores the efficacy of fiction, issues of memoir and the death of reading.

Clarke is a novelist, short story writer and an associate professor at the University of Cinninati. His previous work includes Carrying the Torch, What We Won’t Do, and The Ordinary White Boy. Clarke spoke with me by phone while on vacation in Cape Cod.

You mentioned in a September 2003 interview that you were "trying to finish a difficult to finish novel called An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England.” Why did it take you so long?

I was enamored with the idea of the book, but I had a terrible time with it. I was reminded of E.L. Doctorow's remarks about Book of Daniel, where he despaired over how he was screwing up this potentially great novel, which of course he didn't.

I kept changing the point of view, changing other things. I'd get 100 pages in and I'd change tactics completely. I was writing about things I was very angry about -- the suburbanization of places I was fond of, book culture in general. But it's not good to come across as self-righteous in novels. Then I came up with the idea of the narrator Sam as a bumbler and that helped the book along.

You seem to poke fun at book clubs in "Arsonist’s Guide" as well as the Harry Potter phenomenon. Now that the final book of the Potter series is out, are you happy to see it at an end?

Those were the earliest themes of An Arsonist's Guide that I was especially cranky about. I don't care much for Harry Potter. I've read four of the books to my son. I don't mind kids reading them, but adults turn them into an event.

I hope the book ends up making as much fun of Sam and me as the book club people. I mean, the book club people are happy and Sam is trying to be happy and for that matter, so am I. The book club people in the book hope reading a book will make them feeling better, but I'm not sure it will. I'm not convinced that books can do this. But I haven’t totally given up on the prospect, either.

You also have Sam go to the College of Me while in prison where he learns, among other things, that it is “healthy and necessary to tell the people we love everything.” Is this a shot at a cultural narcissism and self-absorption that one sees in book clubs?

The book clubs seem to be as much a way for people to talk about themselves as about books. Although that said, I wish as many book clubs as possible would read my novel, as a way of talking about themselves, or politics, or whatever they want. But the College of Me business comes from a remark one of the "Friend's" actors made, post bender, about enrolling in the College of Me. I just loved the idea.

You call Sam a bumbler. Lamar from The Ordinary White Boy, your first novel, is also a bit of a bumbler. Are you drawn to this sort of character?

There's a basic similarity between the two. Sam is more generous. He has more at stake. He has parents and a wife, and he's also more self-deprecating. Sam is more innocent than Lamar, too, or at least he likes to think he is. I'm fond of Sam; I really felt engaged with him, precisely because he is a bumbler.

I'm not really crazy about first-person narrators who are heroic. Saul Bellow's narrators are better as narrators -- if not as people -- because they are flawed. Both Sam and Lamar are trying to be good but are ethically compromised. These are the kinds of narrators and characters I’m especially interested in.

An Arsonist's Guide is obviously explicitly about fire. But in The Ordinary White Boy, Lamar's uncle burns down the house of an African-American couple. Sam also says it is impossible to be alone in the presence of fire. Is there something about fire that interests you as an image?

I can't say I'm more attracted to fire than any of the other elements, though it's a galvanizing image. I don't care one way or another about fire, but I can see why it interests Sam. Fire is something we remember. When I was writing the book, Thomas Wolfe's house in (Ashville), N.C., was severely damaged in an arson fire. And see, I remembered it.

What sort of research did you do on the book?

I visited a bunch of writers’ homes. I’d been to the Emily Dickinson home when I was an undergraduate. I visited eight to 10 in all (including the Dickinson House, the Wharton House, the Twain House, the Stowe House), though I didn’t use them all. A Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Miriam Levine was useful in researching the book.

I’m really bad at research. I’m impatient and sloppy.

And why use writers’ homes?

Writers’ homes have a goofy charm to them. They always seem crowded (with people visiting). And the people running them always seem very, very serious about the writers. Maybe with the Dickinson house, for instance, people get something out of it that they don’t, or can’t, get out of the poetry itself. I don’t know how the popularity of the houses fit in with the idea of the death of reading in American culture. But I enjoy going to them.

The character of Lees Ardor in An Arsonist Guide, who is a literature professor, is interesting in that she hates literature and she’s strangely inarticulate in that she has one word for everything: cunt. Is she an embodiment of the shortcomings/foibles of academia?

It’s partly a commentary on university culture. She’s frustrated by university culture. You begin to see yourself in your characters -- good and bad -- and she doesn’t want to become a character in one of the books she studies. This makes reading a fraught situation. She wants to avoid becoming a stereotype.

You have Sam become a packaging scientist. When I Googled packaging science the first hit comes from Clemson University, where you used to teach.

I just loved the idea that Sam tries to find something as far from literature as possible. I loved that he became the guy that made the tear-strip in the packaging of chips.

I didn’t know about packaging science at Clemson, but that’s great that the field of study exists.

Did you do any research on packaging science?

I didn’t do any research at all. Literally none.

Once, when I was taking a flight, as is my wont, I got a package of pretzels and tore it open with my teeth. The guy next to me on the plane showed me a tab that makes it easier to open. He said to me, “I designed that.”

You teach creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. Do you consider yourself a teacher who writes or a writer who teaches?

Depends on how well each is going. Sometimes when I’m writing really well, I wish I could only write. But I’m loathe to rank them. Teaching is a great job for a writer, at least it is for me. You get to talk about literature with people who are interested in it. I’m really lucky with the University of Cincinnati in that I teach half the year. That gives me a ton of time to write, and to read.

In many places, An Arsonist’s Guide is explicitly about writing. The judge at Sam’s trial gives a short speech about stories and how they work and if they are good for anything or can do anything. And Sam is writing An Arsonist’s Guide, which is a memoir but he also wrote the novel An Arsonist’s Guide, which the reader is reading. And the title isn’t even his, it’s from the memoir-writing bond analysts he meets in prison. Were you worried about making the novel too explicitly postmodern or metatextual?

I was terrified of that. That was one of the problems I had writing the book. I ended up just bloviating about literature in the beginning. It was becoming awful. But I think about these things and I think the answers are usually too simplistic.

I hope my treatment of the issue is ambivalent enough that it’s not too academic. Sam, after all, isn’t a reader. I try to come at it sideways. Believe me, I read novels that cover this ground and I tend to loathe those books about what novels can do.

Do you worry about what novels can do? You’ve talked about fiction writing being no more noble an occupation than other jobs. Do you sometimes have doubts about the worthiness of writing novels or their importance or the lack thereof?

Once in a while I have doubts. I tell my undergraduates who sometimes have grandiose ideas about what the writing life is like, many without doing any actual writing; I tell them that writing is no better than, say, being a plumber. Though, I think if you have an affinity for something, you have an obligation to do that thing.

You write a lot about memoirs in An Arsonist’s Guide. Sam comments in the Book Warehouse that there are memoirs about how to write a memoir.

Memoirs are an interesting thing. The James Frey incident was coming to a head when I was writing this and I felt bad for him. The relationship between truth and fiction is a really complicated problem.

In both An Arsonist’s Guide and The Ordinary White Boy, the narrators speak aphoristically. In An Arsonist’s Guide, for instance, Sam says things like, “Exasperation, that testy cousin of resignation”; “You can’t expect love to be unaffected by pity, nor would you want it to be”; “We hate our fathers only as practice for hating ourselves"; and “All men are but slight variations on the very same theme.” Then you address the issue directly when Sam says, “For those of us who've lost it, love is also the thing that makes us speak in aphorisms about love, which is why we try to get love back, so we can stop speaking that way. Aphoristically, that is.” Do you write aphorisms and drop them into your novels or do they arise organically from the characters?

They’re a product of the narrator. Sam is trying to find certain truths. Aphorism is a sort of half-baked truth. It’s how you strive toward things, but they are truths, they are reaching toward profundity. Twain had people pull aphorisms from his work all the time. But I don’t think about aphorisms explicitly.

When did you finish An Arsonist’s Guide?

2005.

Now that you’ll be talking about the book, do you feel removed from it?

Not really, because the issues in the book are things I think about all the time.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the middle of another novel. It’s about the writer Frederick Exley. It will be an extension of An Arsonist’s Guide -- it will be about memoir, among others things. I’m not far enough along for me to talk about it. I do know that it will be called Exley.

How do you maintain confidence in a novel when they take so long to write?

Well, I’ve abandoned novels before, so it’s not that big a deal. I think about the issues in novels all the time, so I’m never that far away from them. But what else am I going to do? Start building things?

What sort of writing schedule do you maintain?

I’m less militaristic than I used to be. I usually go from about 8 a.m. to noon. I used to write at the same time whether I was on vacation or my grandmother died. I’m more laid back about it now, though I think I put in the same number of hours per week as I always have.

How do you know when your writing is good? Do you have a pretty good idea internally or do you show your work to others?

I’ve gotten to the point when I know things are working well. I do show my work to three or four other writers. They’ll tell me when things aren’t working.

Sam says that all words are “lousy and inadequate.” Is that something you believe?

Sam would say that because for him they are lousy and inadequate. But I feel that way sometimes, too. They’re all I have, though, so I try to make them as unlousy and as adequate as possible. I can’t think of another tool to use. Words are what I have.

Is there a question you haven’t been asked in an interview that you wish you had been?

Um, isn’t there a better thing I could do instead of being a writer? I guess if I could watch baseball for a living I’d do that (my favorite team is the Boston Red Sox). Other writers I know could have been other things, had other skills. But I had writing. It was the only thing I had.

Shawn A. Miller is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the founder and editor of Criticalcompendium.com.