Exley, Brock Clarke’s third novel, is the story of Miller le Ray, a boy whose father may or may not have left Miller and his mother to go and serve in Iraq. Told from Miller’s point of view — and through the notes of Dr. Pahnee, Miller’s very conflicted therapist, who may or may not be in love with Miller’s mother — Exley is about Miller’s search for Frederick Exley, author of A Fan’s Notes, Miller’s father’s favorite book. Exley, Miller is convinced, can solve everything
Q: What I want to start with is your apparent distaste for producing work that's easily publishable. What I mean by that is that it seems like I've heard somewhere that writing about race, writing about writing, and writing about war — especially wars that are ongoing — is "topical" — topical being ugly and bad — and should be avoided. (Just to put a point on it, The Ordinary White Boy was "about" race, The Arsonists Guide to Writer's Homes in New Englandwas "about" writing, and Exley is "about" the war in Iraq and, again, writing.) Why is it that these types of issues keep coming up in your work? Do you deliberately try to engage "topical" issues? In other words, why can't you just write a damn coming of age novel? Why can't you just write about vampires?
Funny, because I've heard other people suggest that all of my novels are really coming of age stories, no matter how old the character is who is coming of age.
But these different ways of reading my books is a good thing, as I see it, and suggests what I'm up to, or what I might be up to, or what I want to be up to: I want to write books that have some connection to what's going on in the world, and at the same time I want to write books that are significantly different than other books whose authors want them to have some connection to what's going on in the world. This is another way of saying that those people who say that writers shouldn't write about race, or writing, or ongoing military conflicts, do so for possibly forgivable reasons: because there have been some terrible books written on those subjects, and those books are sometimes terrible because they're so subject and topic driven, because they're so self-serious and mordantly sensitive. But this does not mean we should give up on the idea that books can have something to say about race, art, politics; we just have to make sure that they're written in a way that's disarming, irreverent, surprising, non-doctronaire, genre-crossing. Hence, a coming of age novel that's also a novel about race, or about memoir and arson, or literary idolatry and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Q: Do your narrators come out of that desire to subvert your reader's expectations? The more I think about it, the more it makes sense: We have a small-town white boy talking about race, a non-academic talking about lit, and, in Exley, a kid dealing with the War in Iraq. It seems like your narrators are always very unlikely matches for the stories they tell. Would you mind writing a little on how Miller became the character that made this book go?
(I remember something Stephen King wrote. Literature, with the capital L, deals with extraordinary people in normal situations. The kind of fiction he liked to write was normal people in extraordinary situations. (How a kid who can "Shine," and a girl with telekinetic powers and all the other mutants he has as main characters, is ordinary, I don't know.))
I'm hoping Stephen King didn't really say that. God, did he? If so, it's more wrongheaded than the many wrongheaded things he's also said. I can think of hundreds of literary novels about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, including my favorite novel, Saul Bellow'sHenderson the Rain King, about a Connecticut pig farmer who goes to Africa. These tend to be my favorite books — ones that make the extraordinary ordinary, the ordinary extraordinary. Another way of thinking of this is that I love books that shouldn't have a chance of working, but do. A book reviewer said that about Exley — something to the effect of, It should have been impossible to make this even a mediocre novel. That it's good is something of a miracle — and I realized then that's the kind of book I've always wanted to write: one that has very little chance of working.
Padgett Powell said it better than I could: "The better writers are those who render the least plausible visions into the most imminently plausible accounts. The great the distance between implausibility of the vision and the plausibility of the account, the 'larger' the writer."
This is related, I think, to challenging one's reader's expectations: if they think they know all the ur narratives and their likely narrators, then my job, as I see it, is to do the unlikely. That was certainly true with Miller, for me: I wanted him to be the opposite of a certain kind of child narrator: sweet, guileless, innocent, cloying. I wanted him to be a deceiver, and a self-deceiver, and I wanted there to be a very good reason for his deception and self-deception. I wanted him to have a stake in the war, but I wanted his stake to be vague, and I didn't want him to have his mind made up about the war, or the people who fight it. In other words, I wanted him to both need and be afraid of the truth. This kind of narrator, I found, requires constantly tinkering, constant readjustment. Too much deception and the reader might stop trusting the whole business — not just the character but the writer; but too much sincerity and you risk your boy hero becoming the kind of boy hero you hate.
Q: In Exley, you have not one, but two narrators who are telling themselves — and your readers — very different versions of the truth. Would you talk a little bit more about the crafting of this novel and the challenges that these narrators raised for you in forming a cohesive story?
This is a good question, albeit a painful one, because it makes me remember how painful the composition of this book was. I actually wrote a first draft very quickly, and, I thought, brilliantly. Miller was its only narrator; the doctor barely existed in the novel. Anyway, I wrote it, sent it in to my editor, hoping to be anointed as a first-draft-is-actually-the-final-and-only-draft-needed genius. That didn't happen; while my editor liked Miller and his narrative, he thought (correctly, as it turns out, I see that now) that the novel was too suffocating, that as engaging as Miller's voice might and story and lies and questions might be, the reader was left with too many questions. This was painful not because I can't take criticism (I can! I can!) but because I was so far inside Miller's voice and story that I couldn't see that what I understood perfectly well was perhaps obscure to other people. I tell my students all the time that if they're writing an unreliable narrator, then it usually helps to also write, or employ, another character as a reader's advocate, or in Saul Bellow's term, a Reality Instructor.
Anyway, so once I realized this, I beat my head against the wall for a long, long time until I struck upon the idea of having the doctor be a narrator, too (my reader did suggest I consider employing another narrative point of view, but I don't think he mentioned the doctor in particular). Once I began writing the doctor's sections, I began to see the wisdom of doing so, and I also began to be able to see, and craft, the novel as a mystery, as one character trying to figure things out about the other character and his story. Of course, the doctor is in some ways as unreliable as Miller, and I don't think that's what my editor had in mind, necessarily. But I do think he makes certain things in the novel more explicable, and thus more rewardingly mysterious.
As for the Doctor's Notes: those came from my punning on "A Fan's Notes," and also from the doctor being required by his profession to keep notes, and especially by my puerile desire to have the doctor address his notes by name: Notes! And Miller's things he learned about his father...sections came from my desire, once I'd made the doctor a narrator, to provide even greater variety in the novel, to get things out of Miller's head a little and into scene.
Q: So another thing I wanted to talk to you about is how you go about generating voice in your characters. What got me thinking about this was Ms. Maslin’s review of your book in the “New York Times Book Review” online. In it, she basically says that Miller is not a believable child narrator. As you began writing in Miller’s voice, was this an issue you struggled with? the believability of a nine year old having this adventure and writing this narrative?
Of course, I had lots of reservations about coming up and using a child narrator, maybe because this is a kind of conventional wisdom: that one should have grave reservations about writing a child narrator. And, as proof to back up the wisdom, one wheels out a list of loathsome child narrators, narrators who are cute, innocent, all too plausible seeming. And I loathe those narrators, too. Which played a part in my conception of Miller: I wanted him to be unreliable, not innocent at all. But nor did I want him to be only manipulative. I wanted to him know only half the story, and to have him try to figure out the rest of the story and wanting desperately for the rest of the story to turn out in a way that would make his life livable. In other words, he's unreliable for a reason, a good one, I hope.
Along those same lines, I wanted him to be a reader, but I did not want him to one of those childhood geniuses that populate contemporary fiction (the only writer who has pulled this off, as far as I'm concerned, is Padgett Powell in Edisto); I wanted him to be more a speed reader, one who read, fast, but didn't necessarily understand totally what he read, or the relationship between the world in books and the world outside books. Maybe all this doesn't make him a realistic child narrator. I grant you, and anyone else, that. But I don't care whether he's realistic. I care more that he's plausible, which is not that same as realistic, nor is it the same as consistent. But of course I'd say that, having written an unrealistic, inconsistent child narrator.
Q: So what’s next? Novel, short stories?
I am, actually, working on a new novel. It's called "The Happiest People in the World," about a guy (based loosely on the Danish cartoonist who caused the shit storm by drawing the prophet with a bomb under his turban) who goes into hiding in upstate New York (Boonville, to be precise) and becomes a high school guidance counselor, and then, hit men still on his tail, has to flee back to Denmark, whose citizens are, according to a real life study, the happiest people in the world.