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On Obsession, Happy People, & Arson: A Conversation with Award-Winning Author Brock Clarke

On Obsession, Happy People, & Arson: A Conversation with Award-Winning Author Brock Clarke

Interview by Nathan Leslie

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Author Brock Clarke

Brock Clarke is the author of five books of fiction, most recently the novels Exley (a Kirkus Book of the Year, a finalist for the Maine Book Award, and a longlist finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) and An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (a national bestseller, American Library Associate Notable Book of the Year, #1 Book Sense Pick, Borders Original Voices in Fiction selection, and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice pick). His books have been reprinted in a dozen international editions, and have been awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize for Fiction, the Prairie Schooner Book Series Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and an Ohio Council for the Arts Fellowship, among others.

Clarke’s individual stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times MagazineBoston GlobeVirginia Quarterly ReviewOne StoryThe Believer, Georgia ReviewNew England Review, and Southern Review and have appeared in the annual Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies and on NPR’s Selected Shorts.

His sixth book, the novel The Happiest People in the World, was published in November 2014. He lives in Portland, Maine and teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College and in the University of Tampa’s low residency MFA program.

First of all, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. It’s an honor for me. I love the job Sam Pulsifer did interviewing you in my edition of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. I know I can’t do as good of a job as one of your characters did, but I’ll try! Do you think Sam will ever branch out and write a book of his own? In all seriousness, what are you working on these days? I’m sure your many fans want to know…

arsonists-guide-coverWell, I just finished a collection of stories (The Price of the Haircut) and am trying to finish a novel (I Am Calvin Bledsoe). The former is basically composed of stories I’ve written since I moved to Maine. I’m not sure why I mention that—there are no lobsters or racist governors or rich summering people in the stories. The novel has a bit more of Maine in it, but only insofar as it’s something from which my protagonist flees.

You’ve had a great run of novels over the past few years. Are your fingers tired?

Man, I’m all-over tired. The fingers are the least of my problems.

what-we-won't-do-cover“She Loved to Cook but Not Like This” (from What We Won’t Do) is, I’m guessing, the genesis for An Arsonist’s Guide. When did you know that this story was really the beginning of a novel? What about this particular story and character gave you the impetus to stick with it?

I was never happy with that story. I mean I was happy with it insofar as I sent it out to be published and then included it in my first collection. But I always felt there was some unfinished business with the character of Sam. I was more curious about what his life was like after burning down the Dickinson house than I was with what led him to burn down the house in the first place. And my curiosity coincided with the boom in memoirs, which gave me the form. I’m acting like this happened naturally. In fact, it took me a few years to figure out the form. Before I hated myself: because I liked the idea, and I couldn’t believe I was fucking it up.

I have to say, I really enjoyed the stories, “Compensation” and “A Cabin on a Lake,” from What We Won’t Do, also. Do you have any particular favorite stories from this book? Stories where you just think you really nailed it. Sorry, I know these stories are not as recent as the novels.

“The Fat” is my favorite story in that collection. I also liked “Plowing the Secondaries” and the story about the fathers starving themselves to death. Stories about fuckups trying to convince themselves they’re not fuckups, rather than just apologizing for being fuckups and then trying not to be fuckups anymore.

One of the aspects of your work that I admire is your willingness to explore a variety of different points of view. You seem to embrace the first person, but also the collective third person, a kind of omniscient point of view in at least one story in What We Won’t Do, among others. Talk a bit about your approach to point of view, if you can. Also, what is it about the first person that appeals to you, in particular?

In that first collection, I wrote in first person so often because I often felt detached from the story if I wrote it in third person. That’s changed over the years, and I think I’m as comfortable in third as I am in first. But I do like to interrogate form, and play with it some. In this collection I just finished, there are several stories that begin in first person plural, and then I try to make sure that the first person hiding behind the “we” can’t hide by the end of the story.

exley-coverExley is wildly unique and I especially enjoy the way you update A Fan’s Notes, which itself is a story (in part) about obsession. I’ve noticed this theme in your work in general. What is it about obsessives that obsesses you?

Obsessives are lonely. And lonely people do desperate things to be not lonely anymore. But they also don’t want to stop being obsessive. Which creates an essential, and interesting conflict—for me, at least.

I enjoy the way in which you embrace difficult subjects—class, race, unstable psychologies. Talk a bit about your interest in “dark” subjects that many writers ignore. Do you think writers have a social responsibility to tackle “issues”?

I don’t think anyone has a responsibility to do anything. Or at least, I don’t think any writer has a responsibility to do anything. But speaking for myself, I do have this goofy notion that I have something to say, and then I feel a responsibility to say things in a way that other writers wouldn’t, or don’t. William Kennedy once said something to the effect that we can’t keep talking about the same problems in the same way, because then neither the problems nor our stories about them will mean anything anymore. I’ve never forgotten that, and when I do forget it, I’m guessing I won’t feel like writing anymore.

So is Denmark the happiest place in the world? 

Absolutely. As long as we choose to not look at the people in Denmark who are very unhappy.

the-happiest-people-coverCan you talk a bit about the genesis behind The Happiest People in the World?

I went on vacation there with my family. I knew nothing about the place, but I fell in love with it, totally, the way you do with unlikely places. I was happy there. It did, in fact, seem like a place full of happy people. I went home, and I thought a lot about the place, how I could get back there, how I could feel the way I felt there. And then the cartoonists drew those cartoons about the Muhammed, and then some people tried to kill those cartoonists. And then I realized I was foolish, naïve, for thinking the place, and the people, were happier than other people in other countries. So I sent them all to upstate New York—where I’m from, which is notorious for being home to the least happy people in the world—as punishment.

Do you ever want to go back and rewrite a section of a book that is already published or do you “let go”?

I’m done with it once it’s published. I’m actually done with it at least a year before that. And if I’m lucky, or if I’m working hard, or both, then I’m working on a new book that I’m very much not done with.

I’ll bypass the traditional “influences” question. Who are some of the contemporary writers you enjoy reading when you aren’t teaching or writing? I’m sure you have a laundry list, but talk about a few if you would be so kind.

I love Sam Lipsyte and Paul Beatty—very funny, very perceptive chroniclers of our troubled times. I like Dana Spiotta for her unique work within the Don DeLillo mode, and I love DeLillo. Kazuo Ishiguro. Padgett Powell. Joy Williams. Tom Drury. All odd, rigorous writers who wear their rigor lightly.

I read online somewhere that you are a big Boston Red Sox fan (I’m an Orioles fan). Any baseball fiction in the works?

I am a Red Sox fan, and as I answer these questions, the Sox are a couple of games behind the Orioles and so we really shouldn’t be talking. But no, no baseball fiction. Baseball is one of those subjects about which literary fiction writers get mordantly sensitive. One can’t blame baseball for that, but one doesn’t have to contribute to the problem, either.

Thanks again, Brock, for taking time to chat with me for a bit.

Illustrations: Ryan Garcia

How Fast Can You Run by Harriet Levin Millan

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