20 January 2015

The Detman Files, Pt. 2

Today I continue my chat with author Robert Detman about his new novel IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS. (Intro here, Pt. 1 here).

Jim H.:  Because he’s an observer by nature, it’s hard to empathize with Harry Ogletree’s quest up front. Early on we don’t know enough about him to care. And he seems to defer such closeness. As the book progresses, though, I feel we get closer to him—despite himself. We don’t necessarily like him—and that may be the writer’s intent—but we come to understand what drives him. He's complex and interesting. Some readers, however, feel they can’t enjoy a novel unless they 'like' the characters. Do you have a position on this point?

Detman:  I used to believe wholeheartedly that you can’t write about characters that you don’t like, or are unloveable. I don’t think in general that I ever write anyone that terrible, but now my notion is that you come to love a character in the writing, or else you won’t want to invest the time in their story. I have written a number of possibly despicable characters, and in the end, they’re not that terrible. They’ve become complex, through that process. At the worst, they’re fuck-ups, perhaps, but I find them admirable, even heroic in a sense. Writing an interesting character might be aspirational for me as a writer, not that Harry’s life is anything to aspire to, though his curiosity and perseverance maybe is. But I don’t worry too much if people like them or not.

Jim H.: Here’s a question that typically comes up at readings: To what extent is ILoBT based on your own experience? For example, the scenes of wintry Michigan, of underground Paris, of Baja and Yucatan/Guatemala seem so vivid as to be authentically observed.

Detman:  I’ll take that as a compliment. I’m from Michigan, and much of the Michigan material was recalling certain places there, but giving the towns different names. Some of Michigan was imagined from parts that I’d driven through over the years. I’ve been to Paris, Baja and the Yucatan, so a lot of those locations are again based on approximations of the actual places. I’ve never been to the Paris catacombs, but read about it in Vollmann. My version of Guatemala was completely made up, though I’ve wanted to go there for a long time—maybe after I started writing about it—so I had some notion of what it might be like. I keep thinking someday I’ll travel down there to find the towns that I made up. I find Google maps a fascinating tool for letting my mind wander to places I’ve never been--but in the original writing, I didn’t have even Google maps (most of this novel was originally written in 2004-2006).

[Jim H.:  Interested readers can find my own pictures from the catacombs here. It's really a remarkable place, and I can only imagine what an all-night rave there would be like!]

[Back to ILoBT] Jim H.: The politics of the Reagan-era 1980s is always just out of the frame in the novel but seems to inform much of the action. What is your view of the political role of the fiction writer or the role of politics in works of fiction, if any?

Detman:  I’m not sure if there is a political role of a fiction writer. I think in some way you can comment on a situation, and perhaps by the action of your narrative you can highlight some point of view or alternative to the status quo that maybe doesn’t normally get voiced. If anything, the unpopular, the anti-heroic, are more interesting as character studies, and if these seem to be in opposition to prevailing thought, it’s all the more interesting to me as a writer. Basher I think could be seen as a pawn of a system, though his freedom to himself seems apparent, even privileged. And to the liberal Western mind, having a life such as his might seem like an ideal as a creative person, but with such things, there are always darker forces at play, and I think I’ve kept many of these somewhat at bay to concentrate more on the dynamic of the friendship. In general, I would say, “I’m not political in my writing,” but of course, writing about an era—the late 70s and early 80s, the cold war, the central American situation, Jonestown, etcetera,—which is the period I grew up in and recall strangely vividly in the news during my childhood, plays a big part in my memory and imagination, and since this novel is set then, it had to come into play. I think the retrospective act also highlights it. I probably have less to speak of with current events, but as time goes on, you gain a perspective. I think this is why we are seeing more post-war and post 9/11 type narratives that are taking into account a larger perspective. We’re not just seeing it happen, we’ve had years to digest it now and we’re able to process it in a more historical context.

Jim H.: Let me ask you a question as a fellow writer. Something I think about in every piece I read and, more importantly, every thing I write is the overarching emotion of the main character(s), maybe call it their fundamental attitude toward life and the human condition—their stance. From my reading, the overwhelming emotion of Harry's story seems to be one of an obsessive yet confused nostalgia for something he never quite understood at the time and a longing to recapture something of that early experience. Is that a fair reading?

Detman:  That’s fair, maybe a bit simplified.

Jim H.:  Of course.

Detman:  I’d say Harry is nostalgic, perhaps the way I just explained. His sense of his life is from his friend’s dramatic arc through a period of time that he didn’t understand when it was happening. His retrospection is perhaps that of someone finally taking account of their life’s purpose and meaning. I think this is something I do all the time.

[to be continued]