Jim H.: Robert Detman, I loved your book. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and readers of WoW about your new novel.
One of the first things I like to think about when reading a new novel is the writer's choice of character names. I was particularly struck by the main characters’ names in ILoBT. They resonate somehow. Harry Ogletree: I free-associate that with hairy = mammalian, ogle = see, tree = life. As a filmmaker, he’s an observer and somehow is trying to see and understand life (in general, and his own and Basher’s in particular), yet he’s limited by his physical nature, his humanity—his desires and feelings and longings. Basher’s nickname is stark and establishes him right away as an Alpha male. This hunch, if you will, seems to play out in the book; so much of Harry’s world seems hand-me-down from Basher: from Christiane and Mayor to Harry's career choice (photography—>documentary film) and the places Harry visits. Did you intend such connotations or am I reading too much into it?
Detman: In the original manuscript, there was a section that explained how Basher got his name. I dropped this chapter because I wrote it long before the other material, and it didn’t fit tonally with the rest. I tend to write interesting names down whenever I come across them, and I believe some of the names came from street names in Los Angeles. I sometimes name people I pass on the street (naming them in my head, of course), and this can sometimes suggest a character to me.
I like your notion of Harry’s world being hand-me-down from Basher. I think that works well because so much of Harry’s existence—in the context of the novel—is based on this almost nostalgic childhood impression of his friend he’s never let go of.
Jim H.: You’ve chosen what some might call an experimental or at least a non-mainstream form of narrative technique for your novel. For lack of a better word, let’s call it a pastiche. You employ memoranda, correspondence, transcripts, interior monologue, straight narrative and dialogue, experimental sentence structure, even footnotes. What led you to choose such a mixed presentation? Does it add, somehow, to the richness of the detail? Was it the only way to convey this particular story?
Detman: The mixed-media or pastiche as you’re calling it (though I don’t like that word pastiche, I believe it has a cheap connotation to it) came about through writing this work for my MFA thesis. I was reading a lot of experimental and non-traditional narratives, and at the time I applied my own interpretation of these methods to my work. I was pleased with the result, because it led me to an idea that I’ve used ever since about how to break out of a rut in my writing (what is commonly called “writer’s block”, also a term I don’t believe in, however). I’ve reworked much of the material to bring it closer together and stripped away some of that experimentation, but perhaps the patina is still there. There’s perhaps another 200 pages of this novel that never made it into the final draft.
Also, and this is a kind of justification for this style, I thought it worked quite well for conveying Basher’s itinerant life, using a kind of trove of written and transcribed documents. It began life as an ur-epistolary novel.
Jim H.: What is the word from the art world? Pentimento? The traces of that earlier foray are still there.
I like to think of stories like ILoBT as "Gatsby" stories. The narrator is seeking to understand the life and death of a larger-than-life figure. But, as with Fitzgerald’s novel, when you get right down to it, it’s the Nick Caraways of the world who are at the heart of their stories. Here, it is Harry’s quest that matters. Is that a fair reading?
Detman: Harry’s quest is definitely driving the story. This points to another idea that I was trying to convey, this notion of two lives within a narrative, parallel narratives, so to speak; how Basher is present in his own words, and also mediated through Harry’s skewed impression of him.
Jim H.: Following up on the previous question, does Harry learn something about Basher that causes him to grow or change or, importantly, understand something crucial about himself?
Detman: I think that by the process of Harry’s “excavation,” he perhaps comes away with a sense of resolve about his friend’s life and death, by having made his treacherous pilgrimage; then he’s able to move on and pursue the actual documentary, which may or may not happen beyond the novel.
I like the idea that the novel can give you something beyond what I might have intended, and I feel like if anything, I’d want a reader to come away from this novel with these open questions. What do you think—did Harry come away with anything?
Jim H.: Harry, it seems to me, gains experience, but it's hard to say whether it is authentic or hand-me-down, whether it's a realization that that experience can be meaningless and brutal or that the whole thing wasn't worth the candle. I like that the book leaves that open.
[to be cont'd]