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vol 8 - issue 04 (dec 2005) :: interviews
JONATHAN CARROLL
Interview by Night Watchman

JONATHAN CARROLL IS NOT ONLY ONE OF THE BEST NOVELISTS ALIVE TODAY, HE IS ALSO ONE OF THE INDUSTRY'S BEST-KEPT SECRETS. WITH THE RELEASE OF HIS FIFTEENTH NOVEL, GLASS SOUP, HE HAS CONTINUED TO CREATE HIS OWN LITERARY WORLD-- ONE THAT AMAZES READERS AS MUCH AS IT DEFIES CATEGORIZATION. NIGHT WATCHMAN CAUGHT UP WITH CARROLL IN VIENNA, AUSTRIA ON THE EVE OF GLASS SOUP'S UNITED STATES RELEASE TO GET THE SCOOP ON HOW HE WRITES AND WHERE HIS IDEAS COME FROM.

 

Night Watchman: Your books have always been very genre defying. But now that you have so many novels under your belt, are people more relaxed about where to put you? And has it always been a struggle as far as how youíre categorized?

 

Jonathan Carroll: I think it's more about what people donít want you to be. Itís a reverse field sort of thing. I always hear that Iím not this, Iím not that. At this point, itís a little tiresome. You fight this battle eleven times, and after a while you say, "Whatís the point of number twelve?" I really donít think that the battle is over. The reviews that I read of my books are often, "Well, itís not this or itís not that, so I donít know what to make of it." Which is strange because, particularly in America, there seems to be a need to categorize things so everybody feels more comfortable. "Oh, thatís like Kurt Vonnegut," or, "Oh, thatís Stephen King land." Itís almost as if, if youíre comfortable, you can read the book. But if youíre uncomfortable not knowing what it is, then it kind of makes you edgy.

 

NW: The thing thatís always struck me about your work is that someone might label you as "fantasy" or whatever--

 

JC: In America they do. The interesting thing is that-- again, in America-- itís a convenient thing to say, "Oh, heís fantasy or heís horror or heís science fiction or whatever." But outside of America they just say, "You either like his books or you donít." Whenever someone says to me, "What are you? How would you define your books?" I say, "Theyíre like a mixed salad. You have onions, tomatoes, and lettuce, etc. So you have a little bit of this and a little bit of that." But then somebody says (exhales), "How do you categorize that?" And I say, "Well, the only story that I can give you is that one of my early books-- which is called Bones Of The Moon-- was chosen by the Fantasy & Science Fiction Book Club as the main choice." Unfortunately, it only sold, like, two copies, because people said, "This is not fantasy. This is not science fiction." So everybody had a lot of egg on their face because the die-hard fans were appalled, which kind of makes me happy. IĎm not a big fan of fantasy and science fiction, so if those people that really know the field look at it and say, "Itís not our stuff," then itís not mine.

 

NW: Iíve always seen your work as philosophy in the guise of a novel, or how [Franz] Kafka would touch on fantasy elements. Like how The Metamorphosis has that element of being turned into an insect, but the root of the story has nothing to do with insects, but about society.

 

JC: Exactly. You know my website?

 

NW: Yeah.

 

JC: Thereís a really nice quote that someone just sent me, so I posted it. The guy who edits Locust Magazine, Charles Brown, he had a real nice comment. He said he had just re-read Outside The Dog Museum, and he said he liked it a lot more than the first time he read it. When he first read it, he thought it was a fantasy novel without much fantasy in it. But he said itís really a mainstream novel with fantasy tropes in it. So, hooray! Finally, somebody says it out loud! Itís funny because, for instance, when you think about the way Japanese kids dress-- you know, kind of crazy; some girl will wear a ballet dress and high heels and pink leotards and mukluks-- we say, "Oh, isnít that interesting?" Itís different, itís kind of eclectic. They can do that. Japanese kids can dress like that and be considered wild and woolly, but if you get a book that goes outside of any kind of boundaries then it doesnít work.

 

NW: Yeah, people just donít know what to do with it.

 

JC: No, no.

 

NW: You have a lot of themes and interconnectivity with your characters. They either know one another, or they show up from place to place. Was it a conscious thing to create a Jonathan Carroll world?

 

JC: Yeah, I think so. I can pinpoint exactly when it happened. What happened is that I wrote the first book, and then in the second book, at one point one of the characters gets a call from a director in Hollywood to come and act in a movie. So I said, "Whoís the director? Oh, itís that guy from the first book." So at that point I knew there was going to be some carryover. I didnít know it was going to go on for six books, but that was the moment I knew they would weave in and out of each otherís stories.

 

NW: I always found that very cool, especially in White Apples, where you start talking about the mosaic and how everything is intertwined. It really seemed to fit in well with your world.

 

JC: Well, I donít know if youíve seen Glass Soup, the newest book. It's book two of White Apples, so the book begins three months after White Apples ends. Whatís really interesting is that one publisher overseas is going to publish it as one book-- White Apples and Glass Soup together as a 600-page book-- which I find very interesting. Itís never been done before.

 

NW: That does sound very interesting. Iíve just read the first chapter of Glass Soup so far, but I really enjoy the character creating his own dream world and heaven.

 

JC: Yeah. That becomes a major part of the book, but I wonít give you anymore.

 

NW: Youíve always touched on that spiritual side, but I donít really equate it with any particular religion.

 

JC: No, no.

 

NW: It feels much more like a philosophy, without the dogma.

 

JC: Well, you know, people often say, "Are you religious?" And I go, "I guess Iím religious, because I think about that stuff a lot." "What religion?" I say, "I donít know." In any formal Buddhist or anything, no, not at all. I grew up in a religious family, but everybody was something else. One was an Orthodox Jew, one was a Muslim, and one was a Christian Scientist, so that stuff was around me a lot when I was younger. And, you know, you get older. I assume any semi-intelligent person starts to think about stuff larger than tomorrow, you know?

 

NW: Sure. How did all those different outlooks and religious views gel together?

 

JC: Interesting dinner conversations.

 

NW: (laughs) Yeah, I bet. The fantastical elements in your novels always seem to be brought about in a way that answers big questions like that-- everyday kind of questions.

 

JC: Some people donít like that. For example, in my book The Wooden Sea, some people said, "You have these aliens...." But theyíre not aliens at all. So then they say, "Yeah, yeah. Theyíre aliens-- they say theyíre aliens." Again, itís that kind of convenient way of saying, "This is a fantasy novel because you have aliens in it." Theyíre called aliens, but theyíre really not aliens. If you look a little bit deeper youíd realize itís just a surface thing. But because people grab for that kind of stuff they miss something that I think is there.

 

NW: Do a lot of your novels start out as questions like that? "What if my 17-year-old self met me as I am today? What would he think?"

 

JC: No. Usually when I begin a novel, I have another title and/or the first paragraph. When I wrote The Wooden Sea, I did the first sentence, which is: "Never buy yellow clothes or cheap leather." That line came to me and it made me smile, so I said, "Okay, that will be the beginning of the book." Then you go through a reductive process, which is who says this, where are they, and whatís happening. When I wrote The Wooden Sea I knew that it was going to be the third book of a trilogy, and I knew that it would probably concern this guy McCabe because he interested me so much and I had a lot of fun writing him. Basically, thatís all I knew when I began.

 

NW: So when you write, you generally donít have an outline?

 

JC: No idea at all.

 

NW: Wow!

 

JC: None whatsoever. Literally, from page to page I donít know whatís going to happen. And thatís nice because, hopefully, if a book is good, itís a process of discovery for both the reader and for me. Itís a process of discovery for the writer. For example, you said you read the first chapter of Glass Soup. I wrote that as a separate short story, but then I realized I wanted that as the beginning of a book. So I said, "Well, now what?" And then I thought, "I know what-- Iíll have three women having lunch. A complete change of pace. I donít know who these three women are, but I like the idea of three women having lunch." And then it just went from there.

 

NW: I know youíve said before that there are two kinds of writers-- a putter-inner and a taker-outer-- and that youíre a taker-outer.

 

JC: Yeah.

 

NW: So are there just hundreds of pages that end up not making it into your books?

 

JC: No, not so much. My writing process is so bizarre that everyone who knows about it laughs. Itís fast, slow, and slower. I write very quickly on the computer, then I write quickly by hand, and then I write very slowly by hand. So there are basically three... I donít even know what youíd call them. Versions, drafts, or whatever. The slowing-down process is basically the weeding-out process. So by the time I get to the third one, which is written in calligraphy-- very, very carefully written-- everything is there. When thatís done, I go back to the computer and make the little changes that took place between the typed computer version and the final handwritten version. So in a sense, I donít throw out pages. But so much goes on between version one and version three that the weeding-out process is done right there instead of in the wastebasket.

 

NW: So doing that final handwritten version makes you slow down and really analyze everything?

 

JC: Absolutely. Itís that old adage that when you put something on a computer that it looks finished. With me, itís like a police force-- you cannot see that as your finished thing. Youíve got to physically write it out at least once. Sometimes I find myself writing it four or five times. And somebody might look at it and ask, "Whatís the difference?" And maybe only three words change, but itís got to feel right. Once it does, then itís done.

 

NW: Iíve always found when reading your work that there will be these moments-- a sentence or a paragraph that just leaps out at me like poetry-- that makes me stop and stare for awhile. It seems like your word choice is so very deliberate. Is that a big part of the refining process, or is a lot of that natural?

 

JC: I think itís a refining process. Basically, as a reader, you can read a book for two things. You can read a book for story, which is great, like a thriller. Itís like eating comfort foods. Thereís nothing more wonderful than reading a 500-page thriller if itís well-written. And then the next level up-- and I donít mean this in any kind of snobbish way-- is is it written well. So if you read a really good thriller, you whiz through it. Itís terrific, youíve had a satisfying comfort food meal. If you have a book that tells both a good story and itís really written well, then you can go off in different directions. You can enjoy the language or you can go with the story. And if itís really good you can enjoy both. My favorite writers are very good storytellers who also happen to write very well. So thatís my goal if I had to put one down.

 

NW: What writers do you feel most akin to?

 

JC: I guess the closest I feel is to a Canadian writer named Robertson Davies who wrote The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World Of Wonders. He died a few years ago. He was pretty well-known in his time, but heís disappearing now. It's an absolute shame, because I think heís one of the great writers of our time. I would recommend to everybody that they read The Deptford Trilogy. They can be read as three separate novels, but itís kind of like what I do: if you like one book you're gonna wanna see these characters again, so he lets you have them in a continuing story.

 

NW: I was reading about your background, and it sounds like you went through a young and rebellious phase.

 

JC: Quote, unquote.

 

Both: (laugh)

 

NW: Yeah. Were you fighting being a writer because you were raised around it?

 

JC: No. My father was a very well-known screenwriter, and it was purely stereotypical: "I ainít gonna do what he does." I was the youngest child in my family, and all my bothers and sisters were all glow worms-- summa cum laude at Harvard, London Drama School, stuff like that-- so I became an asshole. I burnished my black sheep image because thatís what my identity was. I didnít really start to read until I was 17 or so, so writing was the furthest thing from my mind.

 

NW: How did that shape you? Because most people are reading their whole lives, so those things subconsciously affect them. When you were starting to read at 17, could you then look at things from a fresh perspective?

 

JC: Well, I donít know. I was a teacher for twenty years, and very often you have students that just werenít interested in reading. Particularly today with so much else out there, like video games and DVDs and stuff. I would often tell their parents that if Johnny is any indication of what I used to do, let him do what he wants to do. If he wants to watch TV twenty hours a day, let him watch TV twenty hours a day and maybe heíll come around... or maybe he wonít. Thatís all I did when I was a kid. I watched television every waking minute I could, and then one day it clicked. Bang! I discovered reading, and I was crazy hungry for it. Sometimes that happens.

 

NW: What was the breakthrough book or author for you?

 

JC: There wasnít so much of that. I kept failing out of school, so I used to have to go to summer school. I had to take summer school in mathematics, so I figured I might as well take a course in writing. The teacher read us a lot of stuff, which was interesting. It was kind of like when a dog hears a whistle and twists his head. I was like, "Wow. This is kind of interesting." That started it.

 

NW: Dogs are another thing that people latch onto in your work. They seem to be this bridge between the real world and the other fantastic elements. What brought that idea to the forefront of your mind? Iíve heard the quote that animals are the camcorders for God.

 

JC: I always say-- itís a clichť now, but clichťs are clichťs because theyíre true-- that I think that animals, dogs in particular, are minor angels. Look at a dogís qualities: they love you completely, theyíre totally devoted to you, if you step on them they forgive you immediately, and if you say to them at three in the morning, "Letís go eat pizza," theyíre the best friend youíve ever had. They have all of these marvelous qualities, which if you attributed them to a human being youíd say, "Thatís the greatest person that ever was." But itís a dog that has those qualities, so people may go, "Well, itís a dog being a dog." But actually it's not. They have these enormously admirable qualities that are dismissed simply because theyíre four-legged. So in that sense, if you look at them for what they really are, theyíre kind of minor angels. And I just like dogs. I always have one and they crack me up, so I put them in my books.

 

NW: We have this question that we ask everyone we interview, and youíre probably the perfect person to ask since dogs can talk in your books. We always ask people if they think that dogs have lips.

 

JC: Do dogs have lips? Thatís interesting. Ummm... I donít think so. But a friend of mine trained his dalmatian to smile, so thatís a really weird thing. Can someone smile who doesnít have lips? Thatís an interesting question. But Alphonse, he does. He smiles on cue, so itís kind of a tossup.

 

NW: Thatís a little disconcerting. I donít know what I would do if a dog smiled at me.

 

JC: Itís really weird. This guy told me that dalmatians have this thing about the musculature of their mouths, so theyíre easily trainable. But itís weird. They go, "Alphonse, smile." And thereís this big grin-- itís pretty peculiar.

 

NW: I think I mentioned in my first email to you that I had been going through a long phase where I just couldnít read fiction. It was a period of years where I was reading non-fiction and biographies. But I just couldnít get past the first chapter or so of any fiction until I started reading your work. I was instantly blown away by your writing, but something that really stuck out for me-- especially in your first few books-- is how they build up. There is all this rich character development and conflicts that build to a point, where in any other novel there would be a huge battle, a finale, or a resolution to everything that has been happening. But thatís where many or your novels end, just before that resolution. Whatís the motivation behind that?

 

JC: Well, thatís also a common gripe with people who donít like my books: they say the endings all stink. But you know something? My point is that my books are like life in that respect, which is basically that life doesnít end, you know what I mean? Thereís no "happily ever after", thereís no riding off into the sunset, thereís no big battle. Did you read Neil Gaimanís American Gods?

 

NW: Yeah.

 

JC: I thought it was so clever of Neil, because the whole book is this buildup to this huge battle of the gods that doesnít happen. I thought that was really clever of him, because thatís cornball that doesnít happen in real life. Some people say, "Well, itís not real life. Itís fantasy." And I say, "Yeah, but you know something? If you think of real life as a marmalade that you spread over a piece of bread of fantasy, then it brings us back to our own experience." And this is one of the things Iím trying to do in my own books. Yes, the dogs talk. Yes, children fly. But a lot of this stuff youíve experienced, too. For example, if you take Wooden Sea, how would you feel if you were to talk to your 17-year-old self? What would they think of you? What do you think of them? Was that 17-year-old self right? Now thatís a fantasy situation, but itís also very disturbing. Did you read where I got the idea for Wooden Sea, about the 17-year-old self?

 

NW: Yeah.

 

JC: A friend of mine is a really famous rock 'n' roll star, I mean really famous. Weíre having dinner once, and he said, "You know, sometimes I wonder what my 15- or 17-year-old self would think of me." I said, "Are you crazy? Youíve sold 200 million albums, everybody loves you...." He goes, "Yeah. But Iím kind of an asshole. Iíve sold out. Joe and the Coconuts plays my music on Muzak. Heíd think that I was a sellout." And I thought, "Oh my God. If this guy thinks that...." So the idea rattled around in my mind like a marble in a dryer for a long time, and then I thought, "I wonder what would happen to Joe Blow-- just some guy whoís a cop in a small town?" Excuse me for patting myself on the back, but I think itís a really profound question. What have you done with your life that your teenaged self, if they were to look at it, how would they judge it? Maybe theyíd think that youíve done real well. If my 17-year-old self saw me now theyíd be both amused and shocked, because theyíd probably have thought Iíd end up in jail or something ugly. But Iíve done okay.

 

NW: Yeah. Everyone has had those kind of questions before, or at some point realized that they are that person they used to stare at in the mall or whatever.

 

JC: Right, exactly. And another aspect of this is, and I was just saying this to someone the other day, is that usually the person who was a creep or a weirdo in school has a greater chance of being an interesting person when they grow up. The person that was completely scorned by their social group, more often than not, turns out to be the photographer for TIME Magazine or invents a computer chip or something, because they marched to a different drummer.

 

NW: And they didnít peak in high school and are always looking back at that point as the best time of their life.

 

JC: Right. Itís like that Bruce Springsteen song "Glory Days". I think itís very true. But what would the 17-year-old Bill Gates think of Bill Gates now? Maybe heís a jerk... I donít know.

 

NW: Your characters are always in-depth and well-written, especially your female characters. I really get the sense that you love and enjoy women and the way they look at the world. Are most of your characters based on people you know?

 

JC: Sure. Itís like a buffet: you pick and choose. So-and-so had this quality, so-and-so had that quality, and you kind of whiz it around in the Cuisinart of your imagination. Itís some of her, some of her, and some of your own. People often say, "Your women are so marvelous and strong and this and that." And I say, "You just havenít met the right people. Theyíre there. These strong marvelous women are out there. But either you donít know them, or they scare you and so you stay away from them." But theyíre definitely out there.

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