A lover of bull terrier dogs, coffee, fountain pens and pocket knives.
I saw him only once in real life, when he signed for me Bones of the Moon on the Book Fairs in Warsaw some 15 years ago.
I remember there was a long queue and he was seated at the table, dressed in black. There was a man who took the book from me and passed it to the author whose writing has shaped the literary world of a young girl; of a girl who, a couple of years later, decided to study literature.
Jonathan Carroll (1949- ) is an American writer, the author of novels, short stories and screenplays, often associated with magic realism or fantasy (but, in fact, he escapes any generic categorization). If you seek prose that is like a dream in translation – he is the author for you.
I’ve been thinking about this interview for a long time. Becoming a finalist in SAVEUR magazine’s blog awards competition was a spark that made me believe that everything is possible. Enjoy.
Barbara: I know you hate labelling your prose. This is why, instead of calling it one genre, I closed my eyes and the first thought that came to me was: “Language packed up with poetry and truth.” To me, your prose is very cinematic. What metaphor would you choose to describe your writing style?
Jonathan Carroll: Tactile. I would like readers to feel so into the story that they can smell the coffee brewing on the stove, feel the softness of the lover’s skin, squint their eyes because of the brightness of the sun through the window as described. If there is any truth or poetry there as you describe it, it is simply because I think there should be both in literature, or the writer should always try for both, in whatever he or she is attempting.
B: You’re a prose writer, a “master of the short form”; The Idiot Heart and Shoes at War are screenplays. What is your attitude to poetry?
JC: Many people say all novelists are at heart failed poets. There is some truth to that. I always say poetry is like the hashish of language because hashish is marijuana burned down to its powerful essence, in effect. Poetry does that too. What the poet does in two lines often takes the novelist a page or more to achieve. When it’s done well, poetry is the magic all writers hope for.
B: Neil Gaiman wrote this about you:
A very nice recommendation indeed. I remember that I read David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan thanks to what you wrote about him. He’s a great author too. Is there someone in the literary world now whom you find interesting?
JC: If you are a serious writer you should also be a serious reader. In the last few years I’ve read several books I liked enough to tell friends: ‘you really should read this.’ SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts (which I know has been translated into Polish), ELLIS ISLAND by Mark Helprin, COLD DOG SOUP by Stephen Dobyns are a few.
B: How did your teaching experience change you as a writer?
JC: Teaching writing is really the art of teaching people to read well and deeply. Teaching literature is the task of pointing out wonders in a work young minds often don’t pick up on unless they’re directed to it. I taught both—writing and literature and they complemented each other well.
B: Would you ever agree to lead a creative writing department or a summer school? If so, what would be your first tip to your students?
JC: Probably not, although I’m asked to often. My teaching days are behind me because I think to be a good teacher you must feel a fire in the belly to show students why writing can be so transcendent when done right. Teaching, good teaching, is usually done by the young and impassioned. I figured out not long ago that I taught over ten thousand classes in my time. Teaching is very much like stage acting—you go out on stage every class, five times a day, and if you don’t perform well then your audience is lost. To teach well is a really tiring job.
If I were to teach writing again, my first tip to students would be to make a list of five books that you really loved and thinking hard, explain why you loved them. List the elements you fell in love in the story. Then let’s talk about them.
B: What is one thing (object) that you keep out of sentiment (a thing that travels with you)?
JC: The MontBlanc fountain pen I wrote part of THE LAND OF LAUGHS with over thirty years ago.
B: In The Ghost in Love you wrote:
Did you have such an object? Do you part with things easily?
JC: No, I don’t have that kind of special object in my life. I have a theory about possessions that has always made owning easy: Buy whatever you want or can afford, be it a Porsche or a pencil. But if it’s lost, stolen or destroyed be able to walk away from it without looking back or regretting you no longer have it. When I lived in Los Angeles years ago while out there writing films, I bought some beautiful furniture for the house I rented. A week after I returned to Vienna, the friend who was living in the house called and said the house had been robbed and all the furniture was gone. I grimeaced but then said “Okay, so long as no one was hurt, I can live with that.”
B: What is your favourite everyday object? I know you’re a fan of fountain pens – anything else?
JC: Pocket knives. I love folding pocket knives. Fans give them to me often and I’m always delighted.
B: I loved your story Carried by Paul Newman. How do you recall Hollywood from the 1960s?
JC: I wasn’t out there much in the 60’s because my parents had sent me to private boarding school in Connecticut. When I did go, I remember how sensual everything was even though I probably had never heard that word before and wouldn’t learn what it meant till I went to college. Everything in California smelled wonderful, tasted good, the girls were more beautiful than anywhere, the beaches pristine, the surfer boys larger and more heroic than life. Everything was clean and big and beautiful.
B: In The Jane Fonda Room we learn about how you imagine hell. Borges imagined heaven as a sort of a library.
B: If you were Paul Domenico from your story, which room would you choose?
JC: Fellini, followed by Emir Kusturica. I want to both laugh and cry in eternity and both were masters of that.
B: What breaks your heart?
JC: The right person’s hand in mine.
B: Finish a sentence: “A writer must…”
JC: …never forget he’s writing for two—both himself and the reader. If you don’t do both, you’re much more likely to fail.