'What's it about?' you ask?
"Documentary filmmaker Harry Ogletree lives in the shadow of his friend Basher Thomas's fame as an internationally renowned photojournalist, but when Basher disappears in the jungles of Guatemala, his life transforms from a mystery into an enigma. Two decades on, sifting through an archive of Basher's effects, Harry will undertake a dark pilgrimage, from Middle East war zones to third world favelas, to create a documentary about Basher's life. Confronting the malleability of memory and the inescapable desires of his past, Harry will ultimately arrive at the site of Basher's death. This masterful and evocative exploration of the IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS reflects our willingness to reveal truths about ourselves as we search for elusive answers."It is available from Figureground Press and, of course, other commercial outlets.
Publisher's Weekly gave ILoBT a glowing notice:
"Detman pulls together various forms and styles in an ambitious novel composed of transcripts, letters, and footnotes, told in sharp prose. On August 17, 1982, renowned photojournalist Nathan “Basher” Thomas is fatally shot. Decades later, Harry Ogletree, one of Basher’s closest friends, decides to write a screenplay about the murder. Harry visits Basher’s mother to speak with her about the project and collect a box of Basher’s personal effects. The contents of the box spur recollections of a road trip across the Mexican Baja peninsula, arguments in Michigan, and drug abuse in Paris, and also provide insight into Basher’s death. Harry follows these clues to Rancho Nacon, a mysterious Guatemalan jungle villa with an enigmatic caretaker. On his pilgrimage, Harry hopes the people he questions and memories he uncovers will help to deconstruct the mystery of Basher Thomas. Because of the book’s unconventional structure, the narrative is fragmented. Although the disjointedness complements Harry’s fractured search for information and meaning, the story’s momentum is often slowed by passages that are needed to prevent confusion and explain earlier elements of the novel. The best scenes focus on the intimate details and relationships between the characters. Detman’s stylistic choices succeed in the moments when Harry’s memories and Basher’s documents blur into the present, layering various methods of storytelling to create a fresh and intriguing work."Detman, proprietor of the blog The Literary., agreed to sit for an interview, and I am pleased to bring it to you in its entirety in the next several installments.
Watch this space.
I'm very excited! Today begins my interview with Robert Detman, writer, blogger, and author of the new novel IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS ["ILoBT"] published by FigureGround Press. (Introduction to the book here.)
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.
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]
Today I conclude my interview with author Robert Detman about his new novel IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS.
Jim H.: Do you feel that Harry is ultimately disappointed with what he finds at the end of his quest, or, in your mind, is it the journey that matters most—i.e., how he got there? Or are you making a more general statement about the bleakness/emptiness/ghost town-like nature of memory and desire?
Detman: I think Harry might be a perpetually disappointed person, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. I think of him as someone who is looking to find himself, after the dawning realization that he might have missed his chance. Personally, I think the journey is what matters, and if you are confused and aimless, you might then be searching for a remedy to that. This is the process of finding oneself, perhaps.
Jim H.: I like that: the finding is in the looking. In this regard, the titles of the six sections—Artifact, Memory, Material, Amalgam, Pilgrimage, Offering—feel somehow sacramental.
Detman: I thought of the novel as a quest, in a sense. My advisor at Goddard, Carla Harryman, told me early on she considered it a mystery, at least, having the movement of a mystery. I’d say it’s an oblique mystery, since I left it somewhat open at the end. It’s a mystery that doesn’t get solved, per se. As for the quest, and the sacramental notion, the quest is meant to be a pilgrimage. It’s like the Police song, “When you’ve made your secret journey, you will find this love you missed,” even though he’s not necessarily looking for love, the sentiment is the same: he has to make this ritualistic passage to arrive at something he can’t know of. I think I skirted right up to the notion of any religiosity with the cross imagery and such, as well as the titling of the sections. Mainly I intended a reverence for Basher’s life, from Harry’s point of view.
Jim H.: When JFK was assassinated by such a virtual nobody as Lee Oswald, it shocked the world. The general feeling was that such a great man would have to have been taken down by a vast conspiracy. I got a similar feeling reading your novel. Basher is larger than life (certainly in Harry’s appreciation), and though all the evidence points to his death having been accidental and, importantly, meaningless, I wanted to discover a larger plot against him. And apparently so does Harry. But sometimes there is no closure, emotional or otherwise. The reality is that danger is out there and sometimes things go horribly wrong. How will Harry reconcile such a meaningless death to the vaunted memory he hangs onto of his beloved friend without losing either his sanity or himself?
Detman: I got the idea of Basher from a story I recalled from childhood, where a similar event was broadcast on the national news. It was shocking to me as a ten or twelve year old, and though I’ve never gone back to find the original material, I let that impression inform my novel. I took it a step further. Of course, now we have youtube videos, and the subject seems timely to me.
I don’t know if Harry’s sanity is at stake. I think it’s more that he is driven by the injustice of his friend’s death, and the need for closure of some kind. That’s the driver of the novel.
Jim H.: What of the person who filmed Basher’s death? What happened to him? Do you think Harry tried to find him?
Detman: That’s Simon Rasmussen. I suppose I could have had a chapter on that, but that thread came up late in the writing, and I worked it in as a way of establishing that someone had to have filmed it. It’s a thread I could have explored more, though it would have become a different novel.
Jim H.: A sequel perhaps? Can you tell me something about your publisher: Figureground Press? Any other books in the works?
Detman: Figureground Press is an imprint I established when I wanted to put out IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS. I thought it would be an opportunity to put it out and do it the way I wanted, which is to say, as a slowly becoming enlightened publisher. I’ve learned a lot on the way, and I hope to not make the same mistakes twice. I designed everything, did all the work myself. It’s been an unimaginable headache. But also a lot of fun. I now have the ultimate respect for publishers.
As for a sequel: there was initial material on Harry’s life and his family in Michigan, for an entirely different novel that preceded this one, a prequel of sorts, though I don’t know if it is as interesting as IMPOSSIBLE LIVES, so I may just leave it in the drawer or harvest it for the future. I’m beginning to see this novel as one part of a trilogy, which is an idealistic way of figuring out how to organize the novels that I’ve written since IMPOSSIBLE LIVES, and seeing that they are actually related thematically.
Jim H.: I'll be first in line! Tell us something about yourself. What else have you published? Can we find any of it online?
Detman: My work is out there. I’m google-able. I have a website and a blog, and I am writing all the time. I write a lot of book reviews, which I discovered early on was a good way to get published. I love reading and writing.
[editor's note: If you're interested in reading other of Robert's work, here's a good start.]
Jim H.: Finally, what next? What are you working on now?
Detman: I have a novel I’ve been working on, which is somewhat of a cross genre science fiction meets Philip Roth thing. It’s a story of a writer who survives a disastrous Everest climb and loses a bunch of fingers, based on a story I wrote that was published in the Antioch Review. In one of those happy accidents (or miracles) that happen when you go on vacation, the title for the novel came to me just last week: INCIDENTAL MUSIC FOR TWO HANDS.
I have a stack of writing—stories and essays—that I’m continually working on. So I usually just pull something out and edit like crazy till I’m happy with it, then I send it around. I’m always working on something, I have about three or four stories that I will send out soon, and a number of pieces under consideration. Writing is a long process that requires immense patience, but it’s also one of the best things I can think to do with my time. Writing has taught me patience.