When you talk to Brock Clarke, Bowdoin's new Associate Professor of English, bring a pad of paper. You're likely to get a whole season's worth of reading recommendations. The author of the hugely popular 2007 novel, An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Houses In New England, Clarke lives and breathes books. His new, much anticipated novel, Exley (Algonquin Press, 2010), is a bold, mind-bending exploration of what we believe, what we don't want to believe, and the fictions we create to fill in the blanks. Kirkus Reviews describes it as "another literary high-wire performance by a novelist who is establishing himself as a unique voice in contemporary fiction.” Clarke joins Bowdoin's English department after having taught creative writing and literature at the University of Cincinnati for nearly a decade. Previously, he taught at Clemson University. His short stories and essays have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, the Believer, New England Review, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Missouri Review, Agni, New Stories from the South, and many other publications. He won a Pushcart Prize for Fiction in 2009. Brock Clarke recently sat down for a literary ramble with Bowdoin Associate Director for Academic Communications Selby Frame to discuss his novel Exley, teaching, books he loves, and why simple stories never are simple.
Bowdoin: What are you teaching for your first term at Bowdoin?
Clarke: An Intro to Fiction Writing Workshop and a Detective Fiction class.
Bowdoin: Detective Fiction?
Clarke: Yeah, it's the first time I've taught that class. I'm a rookie at it so I'm looking forward to it. Mine is probably a backward-ass way of thinking about detective fiction because I'm not really interested in the works that usually go in the category, although I will include some traditional stuff, like Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. I'm more interested in literary novels that use the detective genre to get at larger issues of craft, or politics, or violence or whatever.
Bowdoin: Give me some examples.
Clarke: Well, Muriel Spark's first novel, The Comforters, which is this bizarre novel with two main characters. One is a snoop who discovers that his octogenarian grandmother is involved in a jewel-heist ring. The other is a modern fiction scholar who discovers that the book that she's trying to write is being narrated to her as she's thinking. Nobody talks about this book as a detective novel, but for me it's got all the classic elements: suspense and self-consciousness.
I also like a new novel called Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem. It's a Brooklyn gangster novel narrated by a guy who has Tourette Syndrome so it has all these linguistic flights of fancy. I assume students will like it too.
Bowdoin: What is it about mystery that you like so much? I mean, you could easily describe An Arsonist's Guide as a kind of mystery, and your latest, Exley is wildly, disorientingly suspenseful to the very end.
Clarke: I hope so. I guess I look at all of these generic conventions, and think that if the writer is any good, he or she will play with those and make the reader uncomfortable. I think readers should want that feeling of discomfort—not necessarily in a gratuitous way, but because they know they are in the good hands of the writer and he or she can be trusted to mess with the reader's sense of what is about to happen. If they don't, then they have betrayed the reader's trust.
Sometimes—and I hate to sound like this—readers want what they should not want. Sometimes a novel exists to show the reader that they should want something else, if that makes sense.
Bowdoin: Interesting idea. I think that's what made Exley such a tantalizing, even maddening, read at times. You have two unreliable narrators whose stories either confirm or erase each other and you can't decide until the end. There's Miller, a 9-year-old kid who is convinced he's found his lost father in a coma at the local VA hospital, home from Iraq. And his wonderfully clueless shrink, Dr. Pahnee, ("If there is one way in which I lack as a mental health professional it's in my inability to "deal" with my patients weeping."), whose quest to unlock Miller’s fantasy about his father sends him deeper into his own bizarre fantasy world. You really don't know who to believe.
Clarke: The whole book is about what lies people can tell themselves, until they realize that the truth is absolutely vital. The doctor doesn't know what Miller is lying to himself about throughout the book. He's trying to find out the truth, so in that way he's reliable. But they've both got these blind spots. This is where human beings and characters intersect. People can be unreliable in the same way: They seem trustworthy, but they are flawed.
I really wanted to write a very simple, sweet father and son story. But I'm unable to do that.
Bowdoin: Yes, in the beginning you say: "You need to say things simply, especially when they're complicated." Which is true, right? And then you tell a very complicated story.
Clarke: Well, we want a simple life, but maybe we shouldn't want it, because it is impossible. I wanted to write a story that has that sweetness, but have it be more complicated, as it always is. That's why I added all the lies, and the fantasies that Miller has about how he wants his father to be, how he wants his parents to be. Maybe we should be more realistic in our sense of the world and our families. I'm inclined to be incredibly sentimental and also cynical. I wanted a novel that would chart a path between those. And that's hard.
Bowdoin: You poke a great deal of fun at writers and the academy in An Arsonist's Guide, and to a lesser degree in Exley. There is that line from Exley where Miller is explaining to a friend why he wants to be an English teacher, like his father: "Because," my dad said, "that's what people want to be when they don't want to be anything else." True?
Clarke: [laughter] Well, I don't actually believe that. But that character would. I mean, that's the only thing I've ever wanted to be in addition to being a novelist, was an English teacher, so I hope it's a more noble or significant occupation than that.
Bowdoin: What do you think makes a good teacher?
Clarke: I think energy helps, but it's not an aerobics class. You have to have an ability to actually listen to students when they go off on a tangent to see if it might be productive. For me what works—but who knows?—is to have a general sense of where I want the class to go but not be so militaristic that you don't let things veer off a bit.
Bowdoin: Why do you like teaching?
Clarke: Partly it's selfish. Because when I'm by myself writing and my kids are in school, I'm writing 3, 4, 5 hours a day. And it's good to be able to talk about these things I'm thinking about with people who also care about them. It's not only a huge relief with my own writing, but it's a relief in the way I'm reading.
I think a lot of writers are mercenary. They are reading other stuff and trying to figure out something from this book or that book that will inform what they're writing. But when I'm teaching, I'm not looking at it that way. I'm thinking about what students might like to read. Looking at the material in a more expansive way. What works in a classroom is very different than what works on the page you're writing. I think that balance is good for a writer.
Bowdoin: So what books are you mining right now?
Clarke: I've just started a book called The Black Brook, by Tom Dury. It's a wry, deadpan story about an accountant who's with a woman who is painting fraudulent reproductions of Titian paintings. They turn state's evidence and have to go on the lamb in Belgium. It's a crappy part of Belgium that nobody ever goes to and everything is a disappointment. There's almost no plot. I love the tone and I'm trying to find out how he does it.
I often tend to return to older books, like Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, and Muriel Spark's, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I'll tell you a book published in the last six years I love—it's called U.S.!, by Chris Bachelder, who teaches at UMass. It's about Upton Sinclair and how the American right keeps assassinating him and how the left keeps reviving him. It's obviously a satire, but it's an ingenious novel about how political novels don't work often, but how we need them to. The writing is spectacular, artful, funny.
Bowdoin: You've helped develop a very strong creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati, where you taught for the past decade or so. What do you imagine happening with creative writing at Bowdoin?
Clarke: Well, Bowdoin already is a place where people want to come. We have Anthony [Walton] here, whose work is terrific, and we have a history of visiting writers that is incredibly healthy: Jane Brox, Margot Livesey, Richard Ford, and Mike Paterniti. I think there is a sense that ideas are generated here, that they come from a larger place of content, production and inspiration.
I think it's good for the students to have a sense that this stuff doesn't just come out of one genius brain. It comes out of an environment. And Maine has an almost nauseatingly huge population of writers to tap. Writers whom everybody has heard of, or if they haven't, they should. I can easily imagine having a Living Writers course that is half literature, half craft, where we invite the writers to actually appear on campus and give readings and come to classes.
This is how literature works, whether you're teaching it or learning it: Writers are around other writers, who have agreements, disagreements, from which are born stories, novels, plays that you love or hate. That's the genesis of the whole thing.
Clarke's faculty website
Clarke's personal website
Clarke on 'Tights and Camo' (New York Times Magazine)
Clarke discusses 'Exley' in TV interview (Maine's WCSH Channel 6)
Clarke discusses 'Exley' influences (NPR)
Posted February 28, 2011