Q & A with Jon Clinch:
(See my review of The Thief of Auschwitz and enter the giveaway!)
Part One: On The Thief of Auschwitz
Q: Your first two books have been called “among a small handful of the most American novels since Huckleberry Finn.” What moved you to leave that territory behind and write about, of all things, the Holocaust?
A: Kings of the Earth was in many ways a memorial to central New Yorkers of my parents’ generation—country people whose voices are dying out and whose stories are on the verge of vanishing forever. In The Thief of Auschwitz, I hope to have created a second memorial to that same generation, this time honoring those on my wife’s side of the family of man—the Jewish side—whose stories are likewise in danger of being lost.
Reading and rereading the first-person accounts of Wiesel and Frankl and Nyiszli over a period of a year or two, I had no plan to write a book. But along the way I discovered something within myself that disturbed me to no end: the more closely I studied the raw materials, the more repellent they became and the more difficulty I had in maintaining my focus on them. It was as if the facts themselves, horrible and numberless as they were, were conspiring to drive me away again and again, preventing me from connecting with the people behind them as fully as I needed to.
Supposing that other readers might face the same difficulty, and intent on the preservation of these voices and these stories, I wondered if fiction might provide an answer. I hope that it has, at least a little.
Q: How much research did you do? Did you visit Auschwitz?
A: I did most of my research in books. Laurence Rees’ Auschwitz: A New History was enormously helpful, as was the BBC television series made as a companion to it. Mainly, though, I relied on the well-known first-person accounts of Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl and Miklós Nyiszli.
My aim was always to seek the heart of the experience, rather than to mire myself in technical and spatial detail.
There are drawbacks to not visiting the scene, of course. I’m sure to have gotten a number of details wrong, and those details may trouble some readers. That’s always the case, regardless of how well you research anything, if only because the demands of the story sometimes cause writers to take liberties with time and geography. On the other hand, I’m sufficiently aware of my limits as a researcher and as a writer to know that—in my case, at least—growing too intimate with the physical details of a place can get in the way of following the needs of the story.
Folks have asked me the same question, by the way, about Finn and the Mississippi River—and the answer is the same. A few telling details are sufficient to bring a place to life in the reader’s mind, and that’s what’s important.
Q: We know from the beginning that certain characters in The Thief of Auschwitz are doomed. How do you go about maintaining interest and narrative momentum in a case like that?
A: That was an issue in Finn, too—except that it was Mark Twain, not the Third Reich, who had doomed my characters in advance. Either way it adds up to the same thing. In Finn, I played with the presentation of time—twisting and winding the narrative thread to bring the past and present together, just as they met in the mind of the alcoholic protagonist. In The Thief of Auschwitz I rely on Max, the only member of the Rosen family who survives Auschwitz, to provide some perspective. As one of the narrators—the rest of the story is told in the third person—he speaks for himself, reminding us that he’s escaped the horrors of the camp, and causing us to be curious about exactly how that might have happened. His periodic appearances, which bring the New York art world into contrast with the world of the camp, also lighten the book’s mood and provide a separate narrative interest of their own.
Q: Violence is a steady current in The Thief of Auschwitz—and yet the truth is that violence at Auschwitz was often even worse than you depict it. How do you reconcile that?
A: I was definitely sparing with the most brutal violence, but not because I wanted to spare the reader any pain. On the contrary. I wanted to keep readers engaged. It seemed to me that the key to communicating the true evil of Auschwitz was first to help readers commit themselves to a handful of vividly drawn, realistic, living, breathing people. That’s why the novel begins in a resort town in the mountains of Carpathia, where Jacob and Eidel meet and marry and begin their lives. Once readers have committed to the Rosens, I don’t have to punish my characters every second of every day. I can exercise restraint, keeping certain things off-screen and letting various horrors play out at second hand. The real truth, the compounding of wickedness documented in the first-person accounts, would have made the novel unreadable and therefore worthless.
Q: The Thief of Auschwitz is quite cinematic. Are there plans for a film adaptation?
A: Not at the moment, although you never know. Hollywood is a funny place. Finn has been optioned for several years now by a first-rate production outfit—I’ve read the screenplay, and it’s terrific—but I haven’t yet had the chance to buy a ticket at the box office.
Part Two: On Publishing
Q: We hear a lot these days about the death of big publishing. Are the rumors true, or premature?
A: It’s not over yet, that’s for certain. 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. Technology is really good at the physical stuff—at solving manufacturing and distribution problems. Witness e-books, and the electronic marketplace that has sprung up around them. But when you start looking beyond the physicality of the book as an artifact, you begin to see the parts of it that technology can’t touch. Not just the skill that goes into writing it, but the intelligence that goes into vetting it, the insight that goes into marketing it, and the personal connection that goes into getting it into the hands of readers. Big publishers have been fairly competent at those things all along—particularly as regards large, commercial projects—but the distribution side of things has begun falling apart under its own weight.
I believe that the technology-savvy independent who managed to deliver on the human part of the equation—the connecting with readers part—will be the one who thrives.
Q: What have you given up by going independent? Editorial input? Marketing support? Credibility?
A: Editing is a very personal thing that varies by the writer. When the time came for a detailed discussion of Finn, for example, my editor had three little Post-It notes stuck to the manuscript. We dispatched them in a couple of minutes.
Marketing support, of course, is huge. Big publishers create bestsellers by spending energy and money on them. They also create failed books by ignoring them. It’s pretty simple. As a long-time marketing guy myself, I believe that I can make something happen in that department on my own. I can certainly make enough happen on my own. (A big publisher will, of course, define enough very differently than I do.)
Part Three: On Pen Names
Q: Why did you publish What Came After as Sam Winston, not as Jon Clinch?
A: To begin with, I wrote the book as an experiment. I was weary of seeing what at that time was a real spate of literary writers crossing over into science fiction and horror, only to bring with them their usual stylistic and structural tics. What was showing up in stores as a result was a bunch of genre books that didn’t feel right to genre audiences, and that literary readers turned away from because they were full of monsters.
I wanted to go all the way: to write a real science fiction adventure with a real rollercoaster of a plot, about real people facing real problems—problems that aren’t, as it turns out, a very big stretch from where we are today. That’s what sci-fi has always done best, right? And I wanted to write it in a style that was different from my own, with machine-gun sentences that just kind of rat-a-tat along to keep the reader in motion.
So that’s what I did. And then, to complete the experiment and see how the book did without interference from my name and reputation, I put it out there under a pen name.
I must say that how nicely it took off came as a surprise. A few weeks in, it was actually Amazon’s #8 bestseller in the category of science fiction adventure. Not just e-books, but printed books as well. George R. R. Martin, watch out.
Q; Having been published conventionally as a literary writer, and then having published yourself independently as a sci-fi writer, what have you learned?
A: I’ve learned that the dynamics of literary versus genre writing are nothing compared to the dynamics of conventional versus independent publishing.
The whole do-it-yourself aspect has set the bar pretty low in self-published books. How low? Low enough that among certain crowds a review on Amazon or Goodreads that says, “This book didn’t actually have too many typos,” is a rave. I know. As Sam Winston, I’ve been proud to be on the receiving end of it.
On the other hand, folks whose expectations can be satisfied by one good round with a spell checker can bring other limiting expectations to a book. I have a feeling that if I had published What Came After as Jon Clinch, literary novelist crossing over into sci-fi, its highly stylized and telegraphic prose style would have been recognized (at least by some folks, and for better or worse) as an interesting experiment. Coming from a total unknown, on the other hand, it seemed to a certain percentage of readers as if poor Sam Winston simply lacked the basics of a third-grade education. Was that a miscalculation on my part? Should I have established a different and more conventional narrative voice? Hard to say, and what’s done is done.
Pricing is strange in the world of independent e-books, too. Amazon encourages giveaways, and Kindle owners seem to be overloading on the endless stream of free and nearly-free books. That means the market’s understanding of a book’s value is changing, and not entirely for the better. Still, readers are readers. And when one of them writes your alter ego on Facebook to say, “I love your book; please don’t yield to the pressure to give it away,” you know you’ve made a connection.
Q: Do people respond to Sam Winston differently than they respond to Jon Clinch?
A: Oh, for sure. We’re talking about public response on the internet, of course—since that’s the only kind of response Sam can get, given that he doesn’t exist in the real world.
Total strangers seem a little more eager to “friend” and “follow” Sam than to do the same to me. (That could be because I’ve been around for longer, or it could also be just that I’m amazed when anybody wants to connect with a nonexistent individual. I can’t say for sure. I think they’re a little bit faster to write Sam an email, too.) Regardless, I suppose the reason gets back to that literary-versus-genre divide. Genre writers are more approachable than super-serious literary guys, even when they’re not real. Perhaps especially when they’re not real.
On the other hand, Sam behaves himself a little bit differently out there than I do. He’ll never fail to respond to a kind note from a reader by suggesting that he go write a review online someplace when he gets the chance. I’d never think of doing that. But it does let readers know how they can do you a favor that adds up to something tangible.
Q: How much fun has it been, keeping Sam a secret?
A: Tons. And it’s been eye-opening, too. The best thing is that you can get a square and unbiased response to your work from people you know. For example—my wife and I were having supper a couple of months back with a friend who asked what I’d been writing lately. I told her I’d done this science fiction book, but had ended up publishing it independently under a pen name, Sam Winston. She just about dropped her fork. “You’re Sam Winston?” she said. “My husband bought that book, and he loved it! He told me I absolutely had to read it, and I loved it too!” So that was cool.
Another cool moment was when the novelist and critic Caroline Leavitt sent Sam an email, saying that she was crazy about the book and would like to interview him for her blog. Now it was my turn to drop my fork. I confessed right up front, of course. There would have been no honor in keeping up the charade. But I went ahead and did the interview as Sam, since I wasn’t ready to show my hand to the wide world.
Here’s the resulting story: http://carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/2012/01/sam-winston-talks-about-his.html
(This interview was provided to me by Kelley and Hall Book Publicity.)