Today I would like to Welcome Jon Clinch to my blog and introduce him and his book, THE THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ.
I have not read his book, but it sounds wonderful.
Welcome Jon and welcome readers of this post.
I hope you enjoy his interview as much as I did.
Part One: On The Thief of Auschwitz
Q: Your first two books have been called “among a small handful of the most American novels since Huckleberry Finn.” What moved you to leave that territory behind and write about, of all things, the Holocaust?
A: Kings of the Earth was in many ways a memorial to central New Yorkers of my parents’ generation—country people whose voices are dying out and whose stories are on the verge of vanishing forever. In The Thief of Auschwitz, I hope to have created a second memorial to that same generation, this time honoring those on my wife’s side of the family of man—the Jewish side—whose stories are likewise in danger of being lost.
Reading and rereading the first-person accounts of Wiesel and Frankl and Nyiszli over a period of a year or two, I had no plan to write a book. But along the way I discovered something within myself that disturbed me to no end: the more closely I studied the raw materials, the more repellent they became and the more difficulty I had in maintaining my focus on them. It was as if the facts themselves, horrible and numberless as they were, were conspiring to drive me away again and again, preventing me from connecting with the people behind them as fully as I needed to.
Q: How much research did you do? Did you visit Auschwitz?
A: I did most of my research in books. Laurence Rees’ Auschwitz: A New History was enormously helpful, as was the BBC television series made as a companion to it. Mainly, though, I relied on the well-known first-person accounts of Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl and Miklós Nyiszli.
My aim was always to seek the heart of the experience, rather than to mire myself in technical and spatial detail.
There are drawbacks to not visiting the scene, of course. I'm sure to have gotten a number of details wrong and those details may trouble some readers. That's always the case, regardless of how well you research anything, if only because the demands of the story sometimes cause writers to take liberties with time and geography. On the other hand, I'm sufficiently aware of my limits as a researcher and as a writer to know that---in my case, at least growing too intimate with the physical details of a place can get in the way of following the needs of the story.
Folks have asked me the same question, by the way, about Finn and the Mississippi River—and the answer is the same. A few telling details are sufficient to bring a place to life in the reader’s mind, and that’s what’s important.
Q: We know from the beginning that certain characters in The Thief of Auschwitz are doomed. How do you go about maintaining interest and narrative momentum in a case like that?
A: That was an issue in Finn, too—except that it was Mark Twain, not the Third Reich, who had doomed my characters in advance. Either way it adds up to the same thing. In Finn, I played with the presentation of time—twisting and winding the narrative thread to bring the past and present together, just as they met in the mind of the alcoholic protagonist. In The Thief of Auschwitz I rely on Max, the only member of the Rosen family who survives Auschwitz, to provide some perspective. As one of the narrators—the rest of the story is told in the third person—he speaks for himself, reminding us that he’s escaped the horrors of the camp, and causing us to be curious about exactly how that might have happened. His periodic appearances, which bring the New York art world into contrast with the world of the camp, also lighten the book’s mood and provide a separate narrative interest of their own.
Q: Violence is a steady current in The Thief of Auschwitz—and yet the truth is that violence at Auschwitz was often even worse than you depict it. How do you reconcile that?
A: I was definitely sparing with the most brutal violence, but not because I wanted to spare the reader any pain. On the contrary. I wanted to keep readers engaged. It seemed to me that the key to communicating the true evil of Auschwitz was first to help readers commit themselves to a handful of vividly drawn, realistic, living, breathing people. That’s why the novel begins in a resort town in the mountains of Carpathia, where Jacob and Eidel meet and marry and begin their lives. Once readers have committed to the Rosens, I don’t have to punish my characters every second of every day. I can exercise restraint, keeping certain things off-screen and letting various horrors play out at second hand. The real truth, the compounding of wickedness documented in the first-person accounts, would have made the novel unreadable and therefore worthless.
Q. The Thief of Auschwitz is quite cinematic. Are there plans for a film adaptation?
A: Not at the moment, although you never know. Hollywood is a funny place. Finn has been optioned for several years now by a first-rate production outfit—I’ve read the screenplay, and it’s terrific—but I haven’t yet had the chance to buy a ticket at the box office.
Part Two: On Publishing
Q: We hear a lot these days about the death of big publishing. Are the rumors true, or premature?
A: It’s not over yet, that’s for certain. What becomes of publishing in the months and years ahead will be a matter of making the best use of technology on one hand and humanity on the other. Technology is really good at the physical stuff—at solving manufacturing and distribution problems. Witness e-books, and the electronic marketplace that has sprung up around them. But when you start looking beyond the physicality of the book as an artifact, you begin to see the parts of it that technology can’t touch. Not just the skill that goes into writing it, but the intelligence that goes into vetting it, the insight that goes into marketing it, and the personal connection that goes into getting it into the hands of readers. Big publishers have been fairly competent at those things all along—particularly as regards large, commercial projects—but the distribution side of things has begun falling apart under its own weight.
I believe that the technology-savvy independent who managed to deliver on the human part of the equation—the connecting with readers part—will be the one who thrives.
Q: What have you given up by going independent? Editorial input? Marketing support? Credibility?
A: Editing is a very personal thing that varies by the writer. When the time came for a detailed discussion of Finn, for example, my editor had three little Post-It notes stuck to the manuscript. We dispatched them in a couple of minutes.
Marketing support, of course, is huge. Big publishers create bestsellers by spending energy and money on them. They also create failed books by ignoring them. It’s pretty simple. As a long-time marketing guy myself, I believe that I can make something happen in that department on my own. I can certainly make enough happen on my own. (A big publisher will, of course, define enough very differently than I do.)
As for credibility, I’m lucky enough to have published a couple of novels that were extremely well received by the press. Finn was named an American Library Association Notable Book and was chosen as one of the year’s best books by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor. Kings of the Earth was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and led the 2010 Summer Reading List at O, The Oprah Magazine. So I enter into this with some good credentials and name recognition.
Q: Why haven’t other literary writers done this?
A: I have friends who write all kinds of books. Literary stuff, of course, but also thrillers and mysteries and horror and chick lit and so on. The genre folks have been much more willing to adapt to the new world of self-publishing than the literary folks have been, and I suspect it’s a matter of perspective. Literary writers revere the publishing system itself and everything that goes with it—the imprints where their heroes were published, the long apprenticeships through Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley, the physical weight of a hardcover book—far more than they revere the part of the business that has to do with commerce. They’re willing to take a small advance or no advance at all to be published by even the smallest of small presses, because it signifies that the house has found them worthy. Writers in the genres don’t see it that way. To them, a reader is a reader is a reader. I have to confess that they’re probably right.
Part Three: On Pen Names
Q: Why did you publish What Came After as Sam Winston, not as Jon Clinch?
A: To begin with, I wrote the book as an experiment. I was weary of seeing what at that time was a real spate of literary writers crossing over into science fiction and horror, only to bring with them their usual stylistic and structural tics. What was showing up in stores as a result was a bunch of genre books that didn’t feel right to genre audiences, and that literary readers turned away from because they were full of monsters.
I wanted to go all the way: to write a real science fiction adventure with a real rollercoaster of a plot, about real people facing real problems—problems that aren’t, as it turns out, a very big stretch from where we are today. That’s what sci-fi has always done best, right? And I wanted to write it in a style that was different from my own, with machine-gun sentences that just kind of rat-a-tat along to keep the reader in motion.
So that’s what I did. And then, to complete the experiment and see how the book did without interference from my name and reputation, I put it out there under a pen name.