I’m going to break from my tradition of regaling you with my own literary thoughts, and instead devote today’s post to interviewing author Jon Clinch, whose new novel The Thief of Auschwitz has just been released. The book is described as follows on Jon’s website:
Told in two intertwining narratives, The Thief of Auschwitz takes readers on a dual journey: one into the death camp at Auschwitz with Jacob, Eidel, Max, and Lydia Rosen; the other into the heart of Max himself, now an aged but extremely vital – and outspoken – survivor. Max is a world-renowned painter, and he’s about to be honored with a retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington.
The truth, though, is that he’s been keeping a crucial secret from the art world – indeed from the world at large, and perhaps even from himself – all his life long.
The Thief of Auschwitz reveals that secret, along with others that lie in the heart of a family that’s called upon to endure – together and separately – the unendurable.
If you’ve ever read any Jon Clinch – such as his debut novel Finn, an American Library Association Notable Book, and named one of the year’s top novels by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor; or Kings of the Earth, lauded in Oprah’s “O” magazine as a “masterful and compassionate novel” – you’ll know that this guy has some serious game. I got to know Jon through the Backspace online writers community, and I’ve benefited from his friendship and counsel over the years, as well as from watching him navigate the ever-changing waters of this river we call Publishing.
What follows is Jon sharing his thoughts with me on writing, publishing, music, reading for an audience, and, um… tattoos. Trust me – you’re going to want to read the whole thing, so grab a cup of your favorite beverage, and come ‘n’ listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jon…
Keith: I’m lucky enough to have an “I was there when…” memory associated with your new book. I recall when you first posted the book’s title in a comment on Facebook, and the rather unusual way it came to you. Care to elaborate?
Jon: The mind works in peculiar ways, and this was one of them: the title, The Thief of Auschwitz, came to me in a dream. I woke up with it, wondering who the thief was, wondering what he might have stolen, wondering how he got away with it. Wondering if perhaps the thief was Auschwitz itself.
I usually don’t have much luck with stuff that comes to me in a dream. Once, though, probably thirty-five years ago, I did come up with a terrific song. It was full-blown in my mind as I came awake, and only about halfway down the stairs did I realize that it was “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” from Neil Young’s second record.
Keith: (Laughs) Well, at least you have good taste in whom you copy. I once woke up from a dream with what I thought was a brand new song fully formed in my mind, and it turned out to be one of Cher’s hits from the 70’s – I think it was either “Half-Breed” or “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves.” While we’re talking about music, you’ve spent time on stage as a folksinger. How have your musical tastes and experiences shaped you as a writer?
Jon: I’m a sucker for the way things sound. Most of my earliest reading memories are of that famous over-writer, the breathless and word-drunk Ray Bradbury. Other influences that came early were the gospel hymns of Fanny Crosby and Charles Albert Tindley. Their rhythm and language got under my skin from the start. It wasn’t so much their beauty that caught my imagination, I think, as it was their power. The incantatory power of repetition and meter and phrasing.
No wonder my favorite singers tend not to be classically trained or even conventionally skilled. Go through my iPod, and you’ll find Tom Waits and Guy Clark, John Hiatt and Bruce Springsteen, each one of them endlessly resourceful when it comes to shaping a musical performance – loud or soft, fast or slow, into a thing with great impact. Power doesn’t have to be noisy or big or overwhelming, that’s the thing. Which is another way of looking at what I set out to do with The Thief of Auschwitz, the idea of keeping things simple and small and restrained, and letting the material do the talking.
Keith: So, do you “hear” your writing as you write it? Do you read it aloud to check it?
Jon: When I started writing novels, I was working full-time at the ad agency that my wife and I ran. I’d write before work, setting aside an hour to produce 250 words – one page. And then, when Wendy arrived in the office, I’d read her what I’d written. The reading-aloud component made the goal a whole lot more complicated and demanding, because I no longer had to produce just a page of text, I had to produce a page of text that would stand up to being read aloud.
The confounding thing, of course, is that what sounds right on the page isn’t always what would sound right coming out of your mouth. Even if it’s dialog. There are always subtle differences, and the trick – one that I studied for thirty years, more or less, as an advertising writer – is to get on the page something that persuades the reader’s brain that it’s the stuff of actual human communication. In other words, actual speech doesn’t match written speech doesn’t match read speech.
In other words, actual speech doesn’t match written speech doesn’t match read speech.
As a result, when I do a reading, I usually work from a marked-up version of the text that takes out some words and puts in others, that plays the rhythms a little differently. Woe unto the poor person in the audience who tries to read along.
Keith: What an interesting thing to reveal – thanks for that! Having attended one of your readings, I can say that your attention to detail and nuance pays off – I’m not blowing smoke when I say you give the most compelling readings of any novelist I’ve seen. While the end result seems effortless, it’s now clear that you put some real time and effort into preparing.
Jon: It’s all about connecting, isn’t it? One crucial element in readings is that if a given selection isn’t working for the audience, you’d better be prepared to move along to something that will. They’re not necessarily on your schedule, and their minds aren’t necessarily where yours is. People bring all kinds of personal issues to a reading, just as they bring them to a nightclub or a concert. How their day was. Something their spouse or child said just before they left home. What they need to accomplish tomorrow. To lead them where you want them to go, you have to meet them where they are. Above all, you have to respect them. You have to appreciate that they’ve generously given you a few minutes of their lives.
Keith: Your previous novels have been characterized by dense, rich language, sometimes biblical in its gravitas, as well as complex literary architecture and technique. By contrast, the language and structure in The Thief of Auschwitz seem far more straightforward and lean. Was that intentional, and if so, why the change?
Jon: It’s definitely a move in the “less is more” direction. The reason was the subject matter. Given the nature of the story I was about to tell, I didn’t want to disguise anything and I didn’t feel the need to use verbal effects to create some kind of false credibility. Above all else I didn’t want to make the reading difficult. What happened at Auschwitz is difficult enough to look at already. I wanted, on the contrary, to make the story and the reality behind it as accessible as possible. To keep the reader’s eye on it, instead of letting him look away.
I’ve always been a kind of miniaturist, when you get down to it. My focus tends to be very close – on a small group of characters in a confined setting. It’s proven to be a useful way for me to look at issues that turn out to be pretty big, There’s definitely a miniaturist quality to The Thief of Auschwitz, along with that expanding sense that by examining a few grains of sand you might be able to get a handle on the whole universe.
The simplicity of the story matches the simplicity of the language, I think. I hope.
Keith: Although your first two novels were published by Random House, with THIEF you’ve opted to “micropublish” through your own imprint, unmediated ink. Clearly the times they are a changin’. So where do you see the publishing industry going?
Jon: What becomes of publishing in the months and years ahead will be a matter of making the best use of technology on one hand and humanity on the other.
What becomes of publishing in the months and years ahead will be a matter of making the best use of technology on one hand and humanity on the other.
I believe that the technology-savvy independent who manages to deliver on the human part of the equation – the connecting with readers part – will be the one who thrives.
Keith: Makes sense to me. I read a that you felt the need to honor your Jewish wife’s parents’ generation as you’ve done with your own family’s roots in previous works. Can you elaborate on that?
Jon: The acknowledgments page in Kings of the Earth begins with this sentence: “In literature as in life, we have a duty to see that nothing important should ever be lost.” I really believe that.
KINGS was about my parents’ generation of country people in upstate New York, and for the record it contained a thousand little details – some of them not so little, some of them in fact whole extended bits of drama – that had been passed down to me from that crowd. I didn’t have access to that kind of detail for constructing The Thief of Auschwitz, so I drew on the various published histories and first-person accounts. That meant that I wasn’t by any means adding to the trove of information available about the people of that time and place and the trials they endured, but rather recasting it, dramatizing things that otherwise might prove too naked and painful to look at.
There was one exception, I guess. My wife remembers visiting her grandparents’ house, and seeing tattoos on the forearms of her grandmother’s friends as they sat playing cards. There’s a moment in THIEF when Max speaks for Wendy, wondering about the popularity of tattooing these days. He asks, “how you can disfigure yourself in advance, when if you wait long enough someone will come along and do it for you?”
Keith: Ahem (rolling down his sleeves to cover his tattoos). Although none of your books have been autobiographical, you consistently imbue your work with the kind of detail and intimacy that suggest a deep knowledge of your topics, as if you have indeed lived them. Is there a deeper level of “writing what you know” that extends beyond simple firsthand experience?
Jon: As you and I have both seen, “write what you know” should never be construed as permission to put a thin veneer on your life story and pass it off as fiction. It’s actually an injunction to invest everything you’ve ever learned – concerning human nature, mainly, but concerning other things too, like music and fly fishing and superconductors and whatever else matters to you – into everything you write.
As you and I have both seen, “write what you know” should never be construed as permission to put a thin veneer on your life story and pass it off as fiction.
It’s easy to make the physical stuff seem real. First, you have to get a few specific details of place and time absolutely right, and insist on them. Then you have to get your characters moving around in that place and time with a kind of weight and physicality. If they’re carrying a bag of groceries to the front door, make sure they shift it around or put it down on the porch or do whatever else they have to do in order to find their keys. That kind of stuff. The stuff that by its absence would make your characters seem phony.
What brings everything to real life, though, is focusing your attention on the things that really mean something to you. In my books, for example, you’ll find recurring insistence on thinking about the connections between parents and children, the necessity for faithfulness in relationships, the struggle to understand another person’s point of view when it’s at odds with your own. Those concerns and a number of others come up again and again and again. They’re my real subject matter. Everything else is just the frame.
Keith: Amen to that. Jon, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us – it’s always a pleasure to talk with you!