Brock Clarke is the author of the national bestseller, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, as well as Carrying the Torch, What We Won’t Do, and The Ordinary White Boy. His work has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, One Story, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, and The Southern Review; in the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies; and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He was a 2008 NEA fellow for fiction. His fifth book, Exley, is forthcoming in September 2010.
I met with Clarke in his book-filled office at the University of Cincinnati, where he currently teaches creative writing and literature and edits The Cincinnati Review. (He begins a new teaching position at Bowdoin College in September 2010). Clarke is a fluent talker—precise, profane, self-deprecating, and hilarious. His conversational topics ranged from the state of contemporary literature to Caddyshack-era Bill Murray, his choice to star in the as–yet unmade film of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.
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All your characters drink Utica Club beer. What’s the fascination?
It’s made in Utica, obviously, and I love that it actually has “Utica” in the name. It stands for all that I love and other people hate about upstate New York—it’s obscure, shitty, and depressing. I love that area for the same reasons a lot of people are fleeing it—the fading grandeur of the architecture and the sense of longing by people who have lived there forever. It’s on the verge of being something you don’t want it to be; it’s precious. Plus it’s always cheaper to live there.
Have you always written about Little Falls, the upstate New York town where you grew up?
When I started writing with some seriousness, I kept wanting to not write about it—it felt easy and cheap. When I finally did, in the stories that ended up in What We Won’t Do, just calling the town “Little Falls” allowed me to exaggerate the corruption, the fucked up-ness of the people, the landscape, the architecture, in productive ways. It’s perverse—the minute I actually named it after a real place, I stopped feeling the need to be accurate in my depiction of it. Not only that, the more I wrote about it the fonder I became of it; once I realized it meant a lot to my writing, it meant a lot to me.
I should say that my fictional Little Falls is more Gothic than the real Little Falls, a faded mill town but not totally in the crapper. Even so, there’s a feeling that everything is just one factory closing or new maximum security prison away from going completely to hell.
Place is important to your fiction.
It is. When I write about setting, I’m also arguing about why you should set a novel or story there in the first place. I don’t like when the writer’s mind is made up about the place and why it’s worthwhile, as with some southern novels. That was important to me when I was writing the Carolina stories in Carrying the Torch. When my high school buddies talked about how great life in South Carolina was since they left Little Falls, I didn’t believe it. Living in a place requires some sort of lying to one’s self in order to live there.
Many of your stories explore ideas of history, both public and private. I’m thinking in particular of “The Reason Was Us.”
That story came from several hellish parties my wife and I attended in South Carolina. That part of the South is obsessed with history, so the idea of having historical parties seemed fitting. All the characters have histories they want to run away from—my job was both not to let them escape entirely and to make their attempts as entertaining and sad as possible. I resisted doing a cartoonish hatchet job as much as possible in order to imagine their reasons, the stories they wanted to forget.
To say you write about history is another way of saying people often narrate their lives through their jobs or obsessions. Shifting the fiction from New York to South Carolina was an attempt to reflect something about the way jobs and people were moving, and also to imagine the price to be paid for that, without slagging on South Carolina.
You tackle the topic of race explicitly in The Ordinary White Boy and many of your stories.
It surprises and annoys me how little white writers write about race. One, it’s as though they feel there’s nothing more to say about it; two, they can’t say anything about it; and three, when they do say something it’s totally predictable, profoundly starry-eyed, and stupid, like To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve always hated the idea that if you identify racism and punish the racists, that means racism is solved. Race is the most important subject we have as Americans, and this is all we can do in terms of literature to cover it?
You also write about white middle-class masculinity.
Yeah, I write about privileged characters, white guys who think they deserve something. I like to abuse them over whatever assumptions they have. It’s like race; how could you not write about this if you were a person like me? A sense of entitlement lies behind so many bad decisions, in terms of the characters and also our country and the world. It’s the white middle-class elephant in the room, so why not address it?
In your stories about middle-class white men—“ordinary white boys”—one of your recurring themes is the nature of personal responsibility, guilt, and intent.
In The Ordinary White Boy and Arsonist’s Guide, men fuck up their lives, then try very hard not to apologize for the fucking up of it, to act as though it didn’t actually happen, in itself empathizable but also a clear example of them fucking up even more. I want to satirize that impulse without dismissing the people who have the impulse.
I’m embarrassed for male writers when their apparently autobiographical male characters are victims of women. I never wanted to be guilty of that—I always had male characters fucking up in spectacular ways as a way of being self-deprecating.
The title story of What We Won’t Do is about accidental evil, the kind that happens when you let it.
All my characters do things they wish they could take back later. This doesn’t make what they do evil, but it does compromise them.
I hope what I’ve just said is not taken as “a call for personal responsibility.” I just don’t want my characters to get what they want if they want what they shouldn’t, to be proclaimed innocent. At the same time, I don’t punish my characters as much as, say, Flannery O’Connor or even the Coen brothers, who must be the most punitive filmmakers on the planet—the minute their characters are about to achieve happiness they whack them with something else. [Laughs] There’s a visceral thrill and honesty in that, but I don’t want to leave the characters with no hope whatsoever. John Cheever is good at this: he puts his characters through the wringer, but at the end they have some hope, if only because they’re fooling themselves.
The surreal often hijacks the real and the domestic in your stories. Were you always a fantasist?
No. For years I tried to write Carveresque stories and they were terrible—lame imitations. His fiction was instructive but a little too alluring; it made it seem awfully easy, but you could come off as mannered. Same thing with Cormac McCarthy. For a long time I was trying to imitate him. I initially wrote “The Fat,” about two guys whose car gets drenched in chicken fat, in a high McCarthy Old Testament style. [Laughs]
When I started reading O’Connor, Cheever, and Donald Barthelme, and later Padgett Powell, Barry Hannah and Lee Abbott, I realized, Oh, I can write these kinds of stories. I recognized that I wanted to write stories that were not Barthelme but influenced by him, set in the world of guys working dead-end jobs but not social realism. Barthelme takes over Carver and kicks him off the boat.
“The Fund-Raiser’s Dance Card” reminds me of Cheever’s “The Swimmer”—there’s even a character named Cheever in it. Did you deliberately set yourself the task of writing a Cheever story?
Actually, there are a couple of Cheever-influenced stories in the collection: “The Reason Was Us,” “The Ghosts We Love,” and “The Hotel Utica.” I think of “The Fund-Raiser’s Dance Card” as my final tip of the hat to Cheever.
I often write stories that bear the mark of writers I’m reading at the time. In high school I read the crappy Cheever short stories that are always anthologized, like “Reunion,” which I loathe. I dismissed him, but years later I opened The Stories of John Cheever and was blown away. I decided I wanted to write stories about South Carolina without writing a stereotypical Southern story, set in ridiculously named subdivisions outside Clemson University instead of Shady Hill and Bullet Park. In some ways this is what Cheever’s world would look like forty years later, had he moved to South Carolina.
Arsonist’s Guide satirizes book groups, memoirs, New England writers, and Jane Smiley. Did you worry about stepping on people’s toes?
Nah. They’re composite figures, apart from Jane Smiley, who’s gone on record for ranting about Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. Your main moral choice is to make sure that whomever you satirize, the satire’s worth it. The stereotype of the dour New Englander has been bugging me for years—it was doing harm not only to the books about New England, but our general sense of the region.
What about the women in the book group? Did you worry about antagonizing the main buyers of fiction in America?
I realize book club members buy books and I shouldn’t badmouth them, but that presumes someone’s going to buy a book of mine in the first place. [Laughs] Anyway, if I worry about offending nonexistent readers and buyers of my book, I’ve already lost the battle. Seriously, if I’m writing about contemporary book culture, I have to write about book clubs, and book clubs are 99 percent women. Book club members—maybe people in general—tend to use whatever they’re reading to talk about their own lives. This is not necessarily bankrupt, but as somebody who writes books I feel a little disturbed by it. My inclination is to talk about the book itself; if something personal arises, I’ll talk about it after.
I’ve met with book club members who ask aggressive questions—not about particular scenes but, why is your character so unlikeable? And, is your unlikeable character like you? And [Laughs] I’m like, Why did you invite me here to ask these hostile questions? At least they’re not talking about their feelings.
You lampoon memoir writers and readers in Arsonist’s Guide. Why the disrespect?
Memoir is like cable TV—I’m disgusted but can’t look away. I find it obnoxious, self-righteous, and hypocritical, especially when it veers close to self-help. When I was writing this book, readers were coming to memoir because it made things easier, it seemed directly applicable to their lives. It was a cause-and-effect relationship—you pay your money at the drive-thru and get your hamburger. But if you come to a memoir with absolute expectations, you may get your knickers in a twist when you discover it’s partially fabricated. “We read to find out the truth!” Well, that’s not why I read—it’s the opposite of why I read. That there were so many people who felt this way made me full of despair.
At the same time, in Arsonist’s Guide, I mock the memoir-ish tendencies of my first novel, The Ordinary White Boy. Sam picks it up at a bookstore and reads the first line. As Twain teaches us, if you’re going to make fun of people, you better make fun of yourself.
Was Huck Finn a model for Sam? You use his voice to lambaste contemporary literary culture the same way Twain uses Huck’s voice to skewer the south.
Yes. With Sam, I was able to find a narrative voice in which it was almost impossible to hold forth because he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Once I had his voice, I was able to write a novel, as opposed to a tract.
Sometimes Sam is not consistent, but as long as he’s plausible, that’s fine. I wanted him to be part of the recognizable world of adults in that he had a family, and to care about this family but not be brave enough to tell the truth. And then for the family to suffer the consequences.
We’ve talked about some of the ways—humor, fantasy—you write about politically-charged issues. In your essay about Lionel Trilling and Richard Rorty (“What Literature Can and Cannot Do: Lionel Trilling, Richard Rorty, and the Left,” Massachusetts Review 41, Winter 2000–01), you admire Trilling’s analysis of the relationship between political and artistic impulses.
I still do. His readings of literature are incredibly sophisticated. There’s that great line, “Literature, in a political sense, is not in the least important.” This is from someone who clearly values literature more than anyone else. He argues not that we shouldn’t mix politics and literature, but that we should be more open to the one’s demands on the other, otherwise we’re going to do a disservice to both. I still haven’t read anyone who said this so eloquently and subtly and forcefully.
Trilling’s known as an elitist, but he says people want to hear people talk about books—they just want the writing to be beautiful. I’m not talking about millions of people, but I am talking about more than ourselves. Trilling’s kind of writing holds out hope for that. Even when prescriptive, the writing’s so beautiful, it entrances the way fiction does.
You’re working on a collection of literary essays yourself.
Yes, but unlike Trilling, who did it as a matter of course, I sit on something for a long time until I get a reason to write it.
Why literary essays, as opposed to literary criticism or scholarship?
Literary essays champion things. When you champion something, you automatically take a more approachable tone because you want people to pay attention to that which is championed. For me that entails some swearing and aggressive language but also an impassioned defense of a particular writer. We’re not going to be able to convince people that books matter if we keep talking about how writers we love are past their prime. I’ve done this with Muriel Spark and Cheever, whom I feel are unjustly neglected. It’s a kind of public service announcement.
I’ve read essays in which you thoroughly take down writers, like your essay “The Novel Is Dead, Long Live the Novel” (Virginia Quarterly Review Summer 2006). That one includes a hilariously nasty critique of Tom Wolfe.
Yeah. That essay attempted to trace the lineage of the post-9/11 notion that if novels are going to be relevant after this big historical moment they have to be more like journalism. And I’m like, Where did that come from exactly? I sloppily trace it back to Wolfe, who made similar claims twenty years ago. I felt compelled out of a visceral reaction of anger to provide a counter-example. The prevailing wisdom on literature after 9/11—“Irony is dead”—seemed like transparently self-serving bullshit. I thought my job was to prove the notion wrong, because it hurts the chances of writers I love to get their work read. That the essays might come off as situational or intemperate is fine with me. That might be the difference between literary essays and scholarship: literary essays don’t have to be temperate. Trilling is one of the crankiest writers I’ve read, but he’s awfully beautiful, beautiful in making the crankiness useful as both pose and entry point.
In that essay, you praise Heidi Julavits’s The Effect of Living Backwards.
Which I love, and sometimes you’re looking for an excuse to write about the books you love. With Spark it was her death, with Cheever the pissy reactions to Cheever’s literature sparked by Blake Bailey’s biography. Now I’m just waiting for someone to start slagging Saul Bellow so I can write about him. [Laughs]
In that essay, you also write, “Fiction can restore the world to its full complication whether the world wants it to or not.” How do you see the state of contemporary fiction these days?
I agree with Ben Marcus’s Harper’s Magazine piece on the death of experimental fiction. It’s damaging to literary culture that books not deemed commercially viable are so difficult to find—they’re not in bookstores, they’re not taught. During the seventies, New York houses published a real range of work, from Raymond Federman and Steve Katz’s metafictions, to Barthelme, Robert Coover and Grace Paley, to straight-up realistic work. Now, when people talk about serious novels, they mean realistic or self-consciously big American novels, but not experimental fiction.
Remember the hue and cry when the National Book Awards committee picked five obscure writers as finalists? That seemed to me not the sign of a healthy literary culture. There’s a knee-jerk reaction that whatever the public demands, they should get. As much great work of every stripe is being produced now as ever—we just have to find different ways to get it out there.
I worry that traditional publishing has no idea what it needs. It’s like, If you knew what made money, you wouldn’t have this problem in the first place, so why not try some of these books and make a case for them? A lot of magazines and journals tend to have a big-tent approach to fiction. If commercial publishing took the same tack, we’d be in better shape.
What experimental work do you wish were getting more attention?
Sam Lipsyte’s new book, The Ask, is truly startling. Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? is the latest sui generis book by one of our smartest, least predictable writers. Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! is one of my favorite novels, experimental in all the ways we tend to mean and it’s really accessible—you just have to be open to it.
In your Believer essay “Why Good Literature Makes Us Bad People” (September 2004) you criticize the way literature is sold as good for you.
Part of this comes from teaching at universities where the humanities are under constant pressure to prove their utility. English departments argue that reading makes us better people. And my argument is always, How? The idea that literature automatically makes us better, more open to those unlike ourselves, seems to fly in the face of all evidence and also puts undue pressure on literature to do something it can’t be expected to do. Literature does not make us well-rounded; it makes us react to literature and the world in a certain, not necessarily more open, way. Harold Bloom is not the most open person on the planet, but he is an adept reader of text. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough to say we teach people how to think about, appreciate, and challenge assumptions about literature?
And sometimes literature makes us worse people. Sometimes it’s about terrible people, and if literature is good it doesn’t only condemn them. If we assign a moral imperative to literature, how do we explain the allure of Iago or those Edith Wharton characters whose attraction lies in their nastiness?
You write, “Reading makes us worse, unproductive citizens.” Do you really believe that?
If by productive we mean going out and doing something besides reading, then absolutely. Reading often leads to more reading. It’s a gateway drug. [Laughs]
Take Frederick Exley. Literature mattered intensely to him and yet did not make him a good human being. In fact, it made him less capable of living in the world outside books and less willing to, because the world inside books is so rich. And this is the point— literature sometimes makes us not want to face the world. This is a testament to the power of literature. Sometimes it opens us up to the wonders of the world, but not always. It doesn’t always make us good people, nor should we expect it to.
But don’t you think Exley and his ilk were alienated before they came to books? Books didn’t make them that way.
Part of the attraction of literature is making the abhorrent seem alluring. We should not just ignore that for the sake of trumpeting the moral and intellectual health benefits of reading. It’s like people who say “Don’t do drugs,” without recognizing that people like the way drugs make them feel. Part of the power of literature is that it’s transgressive. Literature can make us petty or single-minded or distracted or dreamy; it puts us in our heads, and if the world values productivity, being in our heads is not necessarily productive, nor should we want it to be.
Literature makes us less fit to be good, productive cogs in the machine?
Yes, although I don’t think there’s anything inherently noble about unproductivity. The bad is part of the beauty of reading fiction. Sometimes it makes us less productive, but that’s part of its beauty.
While we’re on the subject of Exley, can you talk about your upcoming book, Exley?
It’s hard to talk up because not everybody’s heard of Exley. As you know, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes: A Fictional Memoir is a heavily autobiographical novel whose protagonist is named Exley. My Exley is about this kid whose father goes to Iraq and returns in a coma. The father’s favorite book is A Fan’s Notes, so naturally the kid tries to get Exley to visit his father. It’s a heartwarming tale, a boy trying to search for his dad’s favorite writer. [Laughs]
But the book is a fraud book. The kid is a horrible liar and the father might not really have gone to Iraq; the guy in the hospital might not be the kid’s father; for that matter, he might not even be alive. And of course, the kid is looking for somebody, Exley, who’s dead. It’s a book about why literature matters to us—this kid wants a book to help this poor bastard in the hospital with a head injury—but also about how the war is changing our culture. It’s about memoir—the boy wants to believe A Fan’s Notes is absolutely true and the world keeps getting in his way. At the same time, it’s one of my books, so you know a bunch of ridiculous shit is going on.
The boy’s father is an Iraq War veteran. Did you deliberately set out to write about the war?
No. It started out simply about Exley and his novel, but became about the war, too. Exley lived in Watertown, which has grown exponentially larger over the past fifteen years because of an army base, Fort Drum. I wanted to show the effects of the Iraq war on people who actually live in Watertown.
I pretty much loathed the quasi-fictional character of Exley in A Fan’s Notes. What draws you to him?
It’s true, the real-life Exley was an incredible bastard, but A Fan’s Notes is one of the most compelling books of obsession I’ve read—it renders me obsessed. How can this nasty, offensive book produce this effect? Exley’s incredibly misogynistic, yet I can’t believe only misogynists like him. It all comes back to the questions the judge asks Sam in Arsonist’s Guide: “Can a story be said to produce an effect at all? Should we expect it to? Can a story actually do anything at all?” Those questions continue to interest me. What good are books in a world in which people are slaughtered overseas?
Knowing your professed hatred of memoir, I’m surprised you like A Fan’s Notes. Doesn’t Exley commit many of its sins: self-indulgence, narcissism, pettiness?
It’s true, in some ways the book’s appeal is inexplicable. It’s earnest, self-aggrandizing, mopey, and cutting. I don’t understand why I love it, which makes me want to write about it and understand why.
I will say that the minute Exley indulges the tendency to be a victim or lionize his suffering he mocks himself. The energy and language is absolutely incredible. He breaks so many rules, like the one about never writing about writing—that’s all he does. [Laughs] I love that books are embedded in his fantasy life, as they are for the narrators of The Adventures of Augie March or Henderson the Rain King or The Great Gatsby.
Remind us when Exley is coming out?
September 2010 on Algonquin. I’m proud of it. And I think readers will like it, too. In fact, it will make them better people.