Brock Clarke teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College in Maine and is the author of three novels: The Ordinary White Boy, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, and most recentlyExley. I have yet to read the first one, but the other two were both exellent and unique enough that I wanted to ask him some questions about his writing. Here's what he had to say:
I've read your last two books and the thing that stood out to me the most in both of them was the main character. Both Sam Pulsifer and Miller Le Ray were very intriguing and not what I'd consider typical protagonists. What was the reaction you received from your readers regarding them?
The reaction has been mostly positive. I mean, if you like these books, then you like their narrators, and I'm supposing the opposite is true, too. And when I say "like" I mean aesthetically (which is to say, people like the way they're written) and also, I guess, personally. I only mention this because occasionally people complain that my characters/narrators are unlikable. By which I think they mean that my characters/narrators are not people they necessarily want to marry, or something. And my reaction to that is, good: because sometimes the people we marry would make bad characters.
While reading both of those books, I spent most of the book wondering how much of what was going on was reality or merely a product of the main characters' imaginations. Before you write the book, do you have the story pretty well mapped out in your mind from beginning to end, or how much do the story and the characters evolve during the writing process?
I don't have it mapped out, for better or worse. I had a clearer conception of things with Exley--about what was going on in Miller's head, and what the reality was--and I ended up writing a fairly finished first draft pretty quickly. But then, upon smart second look, I realized that my conception of things was a little too certain, and that what was going on outside Miller's head wasn't as clear as it needed to be for the reader. Which is where Doctor Pahnee ended up coming on. He was the best thing that happened to that book's second draft: he became a reader's advocate, even though he himself is not necessarily totally reliable.
With Arsonist's Guide, I had nothing mapped out, which ended up getting me into considerable trouble with my early drafts, after which I was in total despair. But then, once I hit upon Sam's voice, things came relatively easily and plot points appeared as needed, which is sometimes better than as planned.
Both Sam and Miller seemed to have a difficult time dealing with and accepting the world around them as it actually was and tried to make it conform to their own senses of reality. Where does your inspiration for characters like that come from? How much do you think all of us do that to one extent or another?
I think that's true of some of us. I wouldn't want to presume to speak for the entire human race. But for me, the most interesting people--on page, and otherwise--have a difficult time dealing with and accepting the world around them. Because when they try to change the world, or lie about it, or themselves, then odd things happen, and then other people react to odd things happening, and before you know it you have a book, or a life.
What type of a reaction to your books do you hope for when you write them?
Universal admiration. But I'll settle for, and welcome, random bits of praise from strangers over the internet. I do love that. Although universal admiration would also be pretty great.
What can you say about what you're working on right now and when might it be published?
I'm working on a novel calledThe Happiest People in the World. It's about people from Denmark and also people from upstate New York, and also terrorists, cartoonists, and high school guidance counselors. It's due to my publisher within the year. It's actually due within the half year, but I'm just going to go ahead and say "within the year" and hope that sticks.