Today I’d like to return to an author I’ve spotlighted before: Jon Clinch, whose latest novel MARLEY hit the shelves earlier this month. I’ve known Jon for a dozen years or more, and have always admired his dedication, his work ethic, and his damn good writing.
Jon’s “serious author street cred” is undeniable, with his debut novel FINN earning him acclaim from the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, and the American Library Association, among others. Oprah’s “O” magazine praised his next novel, KINGS OF THE EARTH, as “masterful and compassionate.”
With MARLEY, Jon offers us a reimagining of the characters made famous in Charles Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, exploring the complex and ultimately toxic relationship between Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley. Make no mistake: This is not a retelling of the Dickens classic; rather, it sets the stage and helps us understand what made Ebenezer such a, well, Scrooge. And we finally learn why Marley’s ghost kept rattling those infernal chains.
To get a sense of the reading experience that awaits within the pages of MARLEY, check out this to-die-for New York Times book review, in which reviewer Simon Callow praises how Jon “endows Dickens’s snapshots with a three-dimensional, often alarming, life,” and concludes that “Clinch has done something remarkable in ‘Marley,’ not merely offering a parergon to Dickens’s little masterpiece, imagining the soil out of which the action of ‘A Christmas Carol’ grows, but creating a free-standing dystopian universe.”
(No, I’m not jealous of that NYT review. Not at all.)
Ahem. Back to Jon. He was gracious enough to take a break from the whirlwind of activities and obligations that accompany a major book launch to answer a few questions for our WU audience. Read on for a thoughtful glimpse into the mind of a master storyteller.
Keith: MARLEY marks your second time developing a character from a major novel written over a century ago, in each case fleshing out what was previously a supporting character into a memorable and compelling protagonist. When working with such well-known source material, how do you make it a springboard for creativity, rather than a straightjacket?
Jon: The key, for me, is always to take the novelist’s word as gospel—and therefore to work within his world as if it’s a real place occupied by real people. The first requirement, then, is to study the original work in a particular kind of way.
In an essay I wrote for a book of fresh looks at HUCKLEBERRY FINN, I described the process as “a reading of the original that was both close and expansive, an approach that instead of being critical or scholarly was engaged and sympathetic. It would be the willful act of a reader prepared to enter the author’s world via both the text on the page and the text left unwritten. Such a reading of HUCKLEBERRY FINN could not focus directly on Twain’s technique or methods. On the contrary: my intent was to be captivated only by the narrative, immersed completely in Huck’s story as if it had actually taken place and could be discovered in full if you believed in it completely enough.”
Any other approach, to my mind, would disrespect the source material. And once you’ve gotten yourself accustomed to the idea that, say, Jacob Marley had a full and interesting life before he appeared in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, you’re free to figure out what it might have been.
Keith: In MARLEY we are seeing new and sometimes shocking actions, motivations and backstories for Marley and Scrooge, without ever contradicting or negating their roles in the book that introduced them. Instead, MARLEY sheds a new light on their behavior and helps us understand them even better. And, true to the tenets of good fiction, both Scrooge and Marley go through growth and transformation. How do you pull that off with established characters everyone already knows?
Jon: We know very little about Scrooge, actually, and almost nothing about Marley. We know that Scrooge is a miser who in his early life had moments when a different course seemed possible. We know that Marley has arrived in the afterlife bearing eternal punishment, and yet he still retains a spark of kind feeling toward Scrooge. Accepting them as they are at the beginning of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and attempting to write what came before, requires only that they end up the way Dickens gave them to us.
With that in mind, I set Scrooge and Marley on contrasting character trajectories. Marley starts out wicked and struggles to find a hint of redemption toward the end, while Scrooge starts out innocent and hardens into the character we know so well.
Keith: You’ve now taken on the work of not one but two authors known for their distinctive literary voices. Yet in each case you crafted your own narrative voice, which somehow still captures the “oldness” and gravitas of the original. What sort of stylistic gymnastics are required when writing the story of characters who came from the minds – and voices – of other authors?
Jon: Any attempt to mimic Twain or Dickens would have landed me in trouble, for a multitude of reasons. First, I’d have failed, and readers with a good ear would have called me to account. That would have put me at a disadvantage with the critics. Second, people as a whole really don’t have a taste for the language and cadences of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century anymore. That would have put me at a disadvantage with readers. Third, and perhaps most important, spending several months of my life aping the voice of Twain or Dickens is just not my idea of a good time.
What I did instead was to create voices very specific to each book, suited to my purposes and evocative of different kinds of antiquity. For FINN, that meant a big, authoritative kind of voice that echoed the King James Bible, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner. For MARLEY, it meant a lighter, airier kind of tone, still a bit learned-sounding but closer-in and more personal.
Keith: That’s a very helpful glimpse into how the narrative voices of these books were conceived and implemented. But how did you approach your characters’ voices? Let’s turn our dialog to the subject of, well, dialog.
Jon: Getting dialog right in an historical novel—particularly one that refers to an existing novel—is always going to be tricky. I avoided the issue altogether in FINN, opting for hyper-realistic dialog meant to capture the rhythms of ordinary conversation with no attempt whatsoever at copying the dialects that Twain used.
I took a different approach in MARLEY, doing my best to create period-sounding dialog that didn’t overdo it. One advantage I have is that I tend to keep dialog brisk—one sentence to this speaker, one to the next—rather than having my characters lean up against doorframes and spout entire paragraphs. This produces a rhythm that seems realistic and works well for me.
One interesting aside: There is a single scene that occurs in both MARLEY and A CHRISTMAS CAROL—the moment when Belle breaks off her engagement with Scrooge. I had the idea that I should try lifting the dialog in that scene straight from Dickens—perhaps not intact, but at least in bits and pieces—and so I worked it all out that way. When I sent the manuscript off (without comment) to one of my early readers, he wrote back that there was something odd going on in the breakup scene. It simply wasn’t convincing. I knew then that I’d made a mistake, so I tossed out my Frankenstein’s monster and rewrote that part without a trace of the original Dickens. Live and learn.
Keith: After reading your books for more than a decade, I noticed something new in MARLEY: a certain playfulness with the language I’ve not seen before. Examples include your slyly sibilant description of “barrels slowly aslosh with molasses,” or your account of a bass singer in a church choir who vocalizes in “tones that might be more audible to the larger members of the cetaceous family – the finback, perhaps, or the mighty blue.” One gets the sense that you are having far more fun writing than your usually furrowed authorial brow might suggest. Was that a conscious effort on your part?
Jon: Without question, humor is almost everywhere in Marley. That was a very conscious decision.
It would have made perfect sense to take this book and its voice directly to the dark side of the street. A CHRISTMAS CAROL, after all, was terrifying at its core. It was a ghost story, to begin with, and by the end of it Scrooge was frightened not just out of his wits but into an entirely new and enlightened state of mind. Given that framework, writing a grim and airless horror novel—painting Marley as some kind of natural-born Mister Hyde, whose every thought was vile and whose every action was warped and who went about his business in a haunted landscape—would have been an easy option. That didn’t interest me.
One of Dickens’s great strengths was his ability to blend comedy and tragedy into one grand thing, and in devising the narrative voice for this book I wanted to follow that model and take advantage of the freedom that it provides.
Humor, as you well know, is a delicate thing—even in small doses. The line above about the bass singer’s voice is really just an elaborate way of saying that it might be audible to whales, which isn’t a very interesting observation on its own. By substituting the slightly pedantic-sounding “members of the cetaceous family,” and then clarifying that usage with “the finback…or the…blue” as a courtesy to readers who don’t know the word “cetaceous,” and then dolling that last bit up into “the mighty blue,” you end up with something that sounds authoritative and antique and funny too.
I’d go so far as to say that the voice of this book, at least when it’s working the sunnier side of the street, owes more in the way of language and rhythm to Twain than it does to Dickens. They were contemporaries, after all, so it makes sense that an American writer rebuilding Dickens’s world might use some of Twain’s tools.
Keith: I was lucky enough to watch from the sidelines as MARLEY snowballed from an idea to a draft to an agented manuscript to a high-profile sale. But what amazed me more was the speed of everything that happened next. If I’m not mistaken, MARLEY rolled off the presses less than a year after it sold, something I have never seen happen with a conventionally published novel. Has Big Publishing finally dragged itself into the 21st century, or were there other forces at work that accelerated the publication process for MARLEY?
Jon: MARLEY did happen fast, but it’s not because big publishing has changed. It was kind of a special case, timing-wise, and the folks at Atria did everything right to make it happen.
I had my first talk with Peter Borland, Atria’s Vice President & Editor-in-Chief, on the morning of the day before Thanksgiving. By early afternoon we had an agreement, and things started moving. From the start we agreed that publishing MARLEY in a year’s time, per the usual routine, would have been a terrible mistake. It’s not a Christmas book, by any means, and to send it out into the world for the holiday season would have sent all the wrong messages. For one thing, it would have set certain incorrect expectations on the part of readers. For another, it would have suggested to retailers that it’s a seasonal book with a year-end sell-by date. So we set our sights on October, and the earlier in the month the better. October 8, as it turned out.
The manuscript required very little in the way of editorial work, which helped speed things up on the front end. On the back end, we had grand support from the publishing and sales teams, who got busy making way for the book in the fall schedule. And finally there was that great, great cover design—a concept that brings together the chains that Marley wears in A CHRISTMAS CAROL with the chains worn by the slaves upon whom so much of his business rests. (The cover, too, was built to say very clearly, “This is not a Christmas book.”)
Keith: Maybe not, but I’d argue that it would still make an excellent Christmas gift. Just sayin’.
Okay, you’ve generously shared with us some philosophies and techniques that are clearly working for you, which I think many of our readers may also find useful. But let me flip the script for a moment, and ask: What’s the worst piece of writing advice that you hear people give far too often?
Jon: That’s easy: Find your voice.
Usually, what people mean by “finding their voice” is getting used to the way they put words on paper most naturally, and calling it good. It’s not good. It’s just lazy.
Voice isn’t something you find, it’s something you invent. And after you’ve invented one, you should get busy inventing another one. Writing in the first person can help, provided you are really serious about establishing the language and cadences and thought processes of a particular speaker. There’s nothing worse, to my mind, than reading one of those books with dual first-person narrators and discovering that the author has not gone to the trouble of making them distinguishable from each other.
Keith: Ouch – you’ve touched on one of my pet peeves, and the only thing worse than cardboard characters: carbon-copy characters, which are the careless byproducts of inattention to voice. This is stuff I’m passionate about, and I’ll be leading a session on voice at next month’s UnCon, where you are pretty likely to be quoted more than once. (Let me know where to mail the royalty check.)
Back to the subject of advice (with a quick detour into the subject of time travel, because hey, that’s just how I roll). Here’s the situation: You’ve been given the ability to travel back in time and give YUJC (Younger, Unpublished Jon Clinch) three pieces of advice. What are they?
Jon: Stay happy with your abilities and choices. I don’t have the kind of mind that produces horror novels or murder mysteries or other books that are readily categorized. That puts me squarely in that no-man’s land called “literary fiction,” a place where attention can be particularly difficult to attract and market traction can be particularly difficult to achieve. More than once I have thought that my life would have been different if I had focused on serial killer books or whatever. That kind of thinking, while attractive, is unproductive and wrongheaded.
Understand that the world has changed. When I was younger, good writers could get away with taking all kind of creative liberties. John Gardner could write a big novel of ideas one year and a full-length epic poem the next, followed by a serious pastoral novel with a trashy science fiction book buried inside of it. And so on. That kind of thing doesn’t wash now. Readers—and agents and editors and sales departments and international investors—want to know what to expect.
You’re right not to give up. You know how people say that the only way to know you’re cut out to be a writer is by soldiering on through failure after failure, and keeping at it because you somehow need to? That’s me. I wrote five complete—and very different—novels that no agent or editor in America had the slightest interest in before I got started on FINN. Quitting is always an option, of course, and sometimes it’s the best one. Anyone who wants to take up writing will know when it’s time to try something else instead, like watercolors or brain surgery, and that’s fine. Life is short. Do what moves you.
Keith: Well, I’m sure I am not alone in being glad that the thing that moves you is still writing. Thanks for taking us behind the scenes – and under the hood – with MARLEY.
To learn more about Jon and his books, please visit his website. Until next time, thanks for reading!