Today, I turn the blog over to author Jonathan Carroll who has kindly taken the time to drop by and field your questions about his novel The Land of Laughs, his work in general, and his affection for bull terriers. If you enjoyed The Land of Laughs and would like to know more about the author, head on over to his blog (here: http://www.jonathancarroll.com/). And if you have yet to read any of his books – seriously, what are you witing for?
Michael A. Burstein writes: “How did you come to bring together so many bizarre, disparate concepts to create this charming, whimsical, and offbeat story?”
JC: At the time I was thinking of writing TLOL, I was fascinated by reclusive artists like Salinger, Pynchon, B.Traven, Joseph Cornell and others. Simultaneously, I read an early novella by Saul Bellow entitled THE GONZAGA MANUSCRIPTS about a man who becomes obsessed with an enigmatic writer and searches for his last, unpublished manuscript. The combination of the two threads gave me the lift off necessary to begin the novel.
“1)Why did Thomas not destroy the people of Galen after they killed Saxony? Did he need Saxony to affect France’s creation?”
JC: I don’t think he’s that kind of person. To me he was always cowardly and passive. He allows Saxony to leave with almost no protest. He allows Anna to digest him and pretty much take over his life. Only at the end when he’s really cornered (in Switzerland) does he lash out and do something aggressive. He’s not like one of those characters in a cowboy movie who swears to get even after the bad guys have murdered his family. Also he says at the end of the story he misses Saxony more than he ever loved her, which to me means he’s okay with not having her around. Also, I get the feeling deep in his mind he knows that if he did bring her back, she’d have a bunch of uncomfortable questions for him to answer about why he behaved the way he did, and he would rather avoid them.
I don’t think he needed Saxony to bring back France, but he did need her for balance and genuine love– two things that would have made him whole (r). But he doesn’t fight for her so obviously those things were not important to him.
“2)Did you know the contents of Marshall France’s books as you were writing the story or were they just some nebulous idea of children’s novels?”
JC: No, I made them up as I went along. I sort of followed CS Lewis’s tenet that “he wrote the kind of books he would like to read.” As I wrote about France’s books, I kept thinking if I were a kid what sort of stories would I like to read? I followed that yellow brick road.
Sparrow_hawk writes: “1. Was there a special reason that you chose to make France the writer of children’s books?”
JC: I think children’s books are often a first step into the world of art for human beings. They come into it with the open wonder of children and the glee of someone who discovers something new to like for the first time. I believe part of the huge wave of love for the Harrry Potter books is kids discovering they actually LIKE to read given the right story and that means a lot of enthusiasm. Also, we tend to look at children’s books as innocent things. But we know after reading TLOL that France’s work both on and off the page was anything but.
“2. Why bull terriers?”
JC: My favorite dogs. They’re funny and beautiful and very very odd. I have had bull terriers for thirty years and will likely have one at my feet the day I keel over for good.
“3. I think that Thomas needed Saxony when he was bringing France back to Galen because the obsession and research was a joint venture, but did not need her to bring his father to Europe in the end since it was all Thomas’ (and his mother’s) personal knowledge so he was able to do it himself. Do I have it right or am I totally mistaken in this? If so, where did I go wrong?”
JC: I think you’re half right, but remember my opinion is no more valid than yours. I always believed he alone had the Marshall France magic ability to recreate worlds. But going to Galen simply made him realize that (the idea of unrecognized or hidden talents fascinates me. What if you were an enormously talented chess player but never learned the game for whatever reason so that talent lay dormant). Remember too at the end of the story we don’t know if he’s nuts or really has done these things, like bringing back his father. I love the idea of first person, untrustworthy narrators. They keep popping up in my books. So I’d take what Abbey says with at least several large grains of salt.
“4. I know that you have written a lot of other books; do Thomas Abbey and Marshall France have any encore performances?”
JC: Smiling. People who like TLOL have often asked if I think about writing a sequel. Stephen King once said if I wanted to make a lot of $$, I should consider writing THE LAND OF LAUGHS– THE RETURN! But for better or worse, the thought never crossed my mind. Other people have asked if I’d write the books of Marshall France. I always say that would be very presumptuous of me.
AvidReader writes: “1. Mr. Carroll, your work is incredibly unique, defying any attempt to assign it a specific genre label. I’ve heard many describe your books as “magical realism”. How do you feel about this description? And how would you describe your work?
JC: Whenever people ask what kind of books I think I write, I always say the same thing– mixed salads. When you make a mixed salad you include all kinds of different ingredients– radishes, tomatoes, lettuce, etc. Cover it all with a good dressing, and toss it to spread the stuff around. The same with my books: they’re filled with many genre tropes– Sci Fi, horror, romance, psychology, but they are not one of those genres specifically. If they work, they’re sui generis– they don’t fit into any one specific category. If they’re failures, they’re just failed wannabes.
“2. I hear you now call Vienna home. I hear it’s a beautiful city. What made you decide to settle in Austria?”
JC: I’ve lived in Vienna for over 30 years. I came here originally because I was offered a job teaching at the American International School. Time passed and eventually the town became home even when I stopped teaching.
“3. What are you working on at the moment? Are there any new books in the offing?”
JC: I’m about 100 pages into a new novel but it hasn’t emerged from its shell fully so I’d rather not say anything about it just yet. Also Neil Gaiman asked me to contribute a story to a big anthology he is putting together so that’s in the works too.
Thornyrose writes:”If not too late, I do have a couple of questions for Mr. Carroll. First, in the book Marshal France’s method of creating characters is discussed. Does this reflect how you approach such a job? When writing a story or novel in general, how do you go about it? Idea and let it run, outline and follow a predetermined course, or reverse engineer from a set point? Another poster mentioned disappointment that we didn’t see excerpts of some of the Marshall France stories inside Land of Laughs. Have or had you considered doing any of these? Are there any plans to follow up on this novel? I have to admit I’m intrigued at the idea of two people with such dangerous powers facing off, and how their battle would affect both their own creations and the real world around them. Also, how much free will do you see France’s creations as having? I found this and the idea of how such creations might evolve as some of the most thought provoking aspects of your story. Finally, what genre or genres do you find most interesting to work in? Thank you for taking the time to participate in Mr. Mallozzi’s blog, and to Mr. M. for making that participation possible.”
JC: I’m one of those writers who doesn’t know what will happen from page to page. I always compare writing (for me) to walking a big dog: you put it on the line, open the door, it flies out and you hold on for dear life going wherever it wants to sniff. I admire those writers who know everything they want to write when they sit down but that is as far away from my sensibilities as Novosibirsk.
As I mentioned earlier, I have no desire to write either a sequel to TLOL or the books of Marshall France. The world of Abbey, France and Galen are far away in the distance, receding more every day.
I don’t think the inhabitants of Galen have any free will at all, but they are content with that. How nice it must be in certain respects to know you are not the master of your own fate, you will die on this known specific day in this way, and that your life is out of your hands. A brilliant friend of mine, a real original thinker, once said to me he loved his four years in the army because he never had to think about anything– it was all done for him. And that was hugely relaxing. So to the Galeners.
Airelle writes: “I guess if I had a question it might be, why didn’t Thomas write Sax into being after he lost her? and maybe why it was written in Parts with subsection, not chapter, maybe that is his way, since this is the first of his books I have read. Thank you Mr. Carroll. Looking forward to your answers.”
JC: Because I wrote the book over 30 years ago, I don’t know why I chose to divide it into sections instead of chapter breaks, so I’ll have to shrug at that question. If you look at one of my earlier answers here, I think it tells you why Abbey doesn’t bring Saxony back. Also you must remember he might be mad and all his story is just a madman’s tale. So we don’t really know what the “truth” is. Saxony helped him to realize his dream in many ways but her great and genuine love did not heal him. At the end I think he is worse off than before he met her. Do we really want to see again the person who showed us our faults through their strengths?
Mishmee writes: “1. The book centers around the collective works of a children’s author. Did you have a relationship with a children’s author or a book like Saxony and Thomas?
JC: No, I never read as a child. I was a thug who was more interested in stealing things and getting into fights. Reading was for losers. Only when I was about 15 did I “discover” books and suddenly almost every part of my life was affected by that discovery and its resonance.
“2. Thomas chose to work as a teacher, why do you think he was drawn to that profession? Did he see it as the opposite of his father’s profession as an actor?”
JC: Teaching at a private boarding school is a good way to retreat from the world. It seemed to me Thomas did that both because he is a shy introverted man (particularly in contrast to his famous father), and because it is so very different an occupation from what his Dad did.
“3. When Thomas received the letter from his student, it seemed to be a very pivotal moment for Thomas. How did this letter change him and his understanding of himself?”
JC: I honestly don’t remember this part of the story so I’ll have to take a pass.
“4. How do you imagine Galen would be with the return of Frances? What would change, or would anything change there?”
JC: No, I think the people of Galen would be delighted to have their God back and would willingly do whatever he thought was best for them.
“5. When you look at a copy of The Land of Laughs, what comes into your mind? Who do you think about when you look at the book? What feelings and memories does it bring to you?”
JC: Books are like your children– they all have individual personalities in your mind and memory. This book was difficult to write. This one was easy. I was horribly depressed when I wrote that one, etc. As a result, you think of them in retrospect very differently. Because TLOL was my first published book, I think of it now with great fondness but real distance. It’s like a 30 year old child coming home to visit for a weekend. You’re glad to see them and there’s lots to talk about, but they live separately from you now and have been for years. You just want them to be safe out there in the world. Safe and content.
“6. What are you reading now?”
JC: AWAIT YOUR REPLY by Dan Chaon.
“7. What are your top 10 favourite books?”
JC: I’ll give you 3: THE GREAT GATSBY, FIFTH BUSINESS by Robertson Davies, SHANTARAM by Gregory Roberts
“8. What genre of books do you usually browse at the book store?”
JC: mainstream contemporary fiction
“9. What was the worst subject you ever taught and why?”
JC: I coached 7th grade baseball.
“10. Tea or coffee?”
JC: Coffe, always coffee.