FOR The EDGE Magazine by Gerald Houghton
I DID FIND a body as a kid," says novelist Jonathan Carroll from his home in Austria, "and the descriptions of the event and my reaction in both A Child Across The Sky and Kissing The Beehive are exactly as it happened."
In his first new novel in four years, Jonathan Carroll revisits that story through the eyes of Sam Bayer, successful novelist and unsuccessful husband. "I do not like to eat alone and that is one of the reasons I became famous," he tells us. There is a string of failed marriages and one daughter, the teenage Cassandra, to whom he is devoted. But as we arrive in his life even the threads of professional success have started to fray. Sam Bayer is blocked on his new novel.
Which is why he finds himself returning to the small town of his birth, Crane's View, the town where he grew up and where he lived the life of a small town American boy. "Memories like slow-moving tropical fish swam through my mind as I rolled towards Crane's View," he writes. Like those of being a 15-year-old and discovering the corpse of Pauline Ostrova floating in the river. That's the spur that sends Sam Bayer on his own investigation into the murder: was it really her boyfriend, Edward Durant, who was tried, convicted and imprisoned? Sam can't ask him because Edward Durant died soon after in Sing Sing. And where does Sam's beautiful but mysterious fan-turned-lover Veronica Lake figure in his story?
"The girl I discovered was from the next town over," Carroll himself explains, "was very beautiful and her school's head cheerleader - a very prestigious thing to be in a 1960s American public high school hierarchy. I didn't know her and had never seen her before that day. The rumor we heard was her boyfriend hit her and threw her into the Hudson River, but we never found out the real truth. It was a long time ago, but I remember for some reason the whole thing was hushed up and little information came out about it afterwards.
"When I tried to find out more before I started writing Kissing The Beehive, the police in my town said all records of the crime had been destroyed years before. That seemed odd, particularly because it's a very small town and a murder is a rare occurence. After I'd finished the novel and people began reading it, a number of them commented on the similarity between its plot and Lynch's Twin Peaks. Which amused me because I never thought about it till then. I was simply retelling an old piece of my history with a different hat on."
It's not the first time, and almost certainly won't be the last, Jonathan Carroll's life is reflected back in his extraordinary fiction. It may even help explain why, unusually among contemporary authors, it's difficult to be ambivalent about his work. "His extraordinary gift," wrote Michael Moorcock of the novel From The Teeth of Angels, "to trick us into confronting the stark truth of his revelations and keep us reading, terrified and illuminated, to see where we may have made our private compact with darkness." The new novel is dedicated to Moorcock and Stephen King, among others, and the biography on his book jackets these days is invariably a list of his celebrity fans: "Jane Campion, Thomas Harris, Sting and the President of Poland." (Reportedly under pressure from his publishers - "you're not J.D. Salinger," they told him - he reluctantly surrendered the enigmatic "Jonathan Carroll lives in Vienna".) And, it seems, the late and very great Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieslowski: "When I was last in Poland, one of his assistants told me that right before he died he read Voice of Our Shadow and was very excited about the possibility of making it as one of his next films. That would have been wonderful because [Three Colours] Red and The Double Life of Veronique are way up on my hall of fame-favorite films list."
"I think all writing is autobiographical in some sense or another," he continues. "Whether you use the literal facts of your life or experiences, or you change them so they fit some ideal life you wish you had (or didn't), it's all you up there on the page but you in various different hats and makeup. Sometimes it's just you in a good black suit and white shirt.
"Then there's someone like the beautiful Veronica Lake who is a combination of someone I once knew and loved and then didn't love (just as strongly), and a spooky Rumpelstilskin type woman who stalked me for a year. The result of this odd mix was Veronica Lake in Kissing The Beehive - a beautiful nut who makes the main character's life difficult but interesting too. I just slid two people together and called them one."
JONATHAN CARROLL was was born to a Jewish family on January 26,1949, in New York, NY, the son of Sidney Carroll, screenwriter of Robert Rossen's The Hustler (1961), and actress and lyricist June Sillman, one of the New Faces of 1952. His upbringing, however, was Christian Scientist, the religion to which his sister and mother still hold. His other brother is a devout Sufi, while half-brother Steve Reich - along with Philip Glass, one of the world's leading minimalist composers - remains an Orthodox Jew: "Table conversation is interesting."
His early life was not one restricted to the straight and narrow, however. "I was a deliquent because everyone else in my family was such a glowworm," he said once. "I was always in trouble with the police as a kid and for a few years the scourge and worry of my parents' life. I've written about it a number of times both with amusement and memory spilling out of the pen as I go." Fictionalised accounts of Carroll's lost years appear repeatedly in his fiction, most noticably in his second novel, the aforementioned Voice of Our Shadow, and 1990 novella, Black Cocktail.
Worried parents packed their son off to Loomis, a Conneticut prep school, and it wasn't until mid-way through college that he decided that he wanted to become a writer. He graduated B.A. (cum laude) from Rutgers University in 1971 and duly set his sights on the University of Virginia, where his mentor Peter Taylor accepted him on a creative writing programme as an M.A. student. Visiting authors included John Casey and Paul Theroux. He earned the Emily Clark Balch Fellowship in Creative Writing at the University of Virginia in1972, having married his wife, Beverly Shreiner , on June 19, 1971. She is an artist whose work regularly graces the covers of her husband's work in Germany. They have one son, Ryder Pierce.
Jonathan Carroll's career has always been a divided one. Best known as a novelist, he has worked extensively as an English teacher since 1971, initially at North State Academy, Hickory, N.C., and the St. Louis Country Day School before landing a position at the American International School in Vienna, where he has lived ever since. "Vienna is important to me in the way any home is important - it is where we are most comfortable, where we are at ease and feel safe, where we feel the psychic freedom to do the work we feel is necessary. My perspective of the town has changed in recent years, one because I left for some time and lived in Hollywood, and two because as I become better known, the less anonymous I'm allowed to be, and that disturbs me."
Carroll's realtionship with Hollywood is a curious one - the four year gap between From The Teeth of Angels and this new book was largely the result of being summoned by La La Land. By his own admission he has worked on a number of well-known films, both as scriptwriter and polisher, but when it comes to specifics, he is notoriously reluctant:
"I don't take credit because I've usually been brought in at the last minute to put some brass polish on someone else's plaque. Consequently it's not mine - it's theirs with my 'Brasso' on it. I'm just as egotistical as the next person. When I think something really is mine, my name will be on it as big as it goes.
"I went to L.A. because someone hired me to write a screenplay of After Silence. After I finished, other people who knew my books and knew that I had done a lot of screenwriting asked me to stay and do other things. I was there almost two years and as usual, did a lot of work that ended up in someone's desk in some building on some corner of some studio lot, never to be heard from again. Whenever I'm asked what it was like in Hollywood, I say read any good H'wood novel and that's what it's like. I have nothing new to add. Recently I read what I think is the greatest Hollywood novel ever written, Bruce Wagner's brilliant I'm Losing You. If you want to know what it's like in movieland, read that and you'll really know. I wish I read the book before I went.
"My hero is Fellini. Everything in life is in Amarcord or La Strada. Everyone has their heroes and villains list for film and I'm no exception. But if hell was a place where they made you watch one person's films again and again into eternity, the only filmmaker I could imagine the long haul with would be Fellini because of the humor and humanity in his work."
EDGE: Which of your own novels would you like to see on screen?
J.C.: " I'd love to see certain books filmed. Outside The Dog Museum, From The Teeth of Angels, Voice of Our Shadow, After Silence, in particular. All of my books have gone in and out of film options for years like they were on carousels, but no one's ever taken them beyond a certain point. I think because Hollywood is wary of such strange stories. The independent producers who option them say they love them, but when studio bigwigs hear what the stories are about they frown, which starts the once-devoted producers shivering and backing away from them. I have a feeling though that someday one will be made, and once that happens, people will see it is possible to do them well. Then there will be a number made all at once. But you need the one intrepid soul to go for broke making the first one and so far that hasn't happened."
EDGE: Some writers would shy away from the actual job of penning the script itself because they see the work as finished and successful in its intended medium, and that it somehow compromises it to adapt it for an entirely different one. Does your writing of After Silence indicate that you don't agree with that, or simply that you are protective of the work itself?
J.C.: "I have always been interested in movie work. Writing the screenplay of your own novel can be like having sex with your children if things go wrong. But if they go right and you have interesting people on the project, it can make your original story a whole new thing. Gabriel Marquez said Gregory Rabassa's English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude made it a better book. In some cases I think good movie work improves certain novels. The English Patient comes quickly to mind. I don't know one person who actually finished the book (although most lied and said they did), but everyone liked the movie."
SHOULD YOU ACCEPT the dubious assignment of explaining Jonathan Carroll's appeal, then you will soon find yourself adrift in ill-defined ideas of truth and spirituality. Michael Moorcock called his books "dangerous" and their author "a moral visionary" who "writes about active evil." These books take us to strange and fantastical places, like Galen, the small town to which Thomas Abbey travels in The Land of Laughs, to write the biography of reclusve children's author Marshall France. Or Rondua, the literally magical dreamland at the heart of the surreal Bones of The Moon. Or the desert kingdom of Saru in Outside The Dog Musuem, where architect Harry Radcliffe is to build the titular structure for its Sultan, to pay hommage to all the dogs who saved his life.
But equally, these are not fantasy novels in any meaningful sense. The Los Angeles Times described Carroll as "a movie-generation virtuoso with the literary sensibility of a metaphysical eccentric." His work is not some easy, throw-away concoction of the peculiar, meant to entertain us for the two or three hours we spend in their company: he is deadly serious. "Editors are generally uncomfortable with work that is sui generis. Particularly when it comes to marketing. It's easier to put a monster on the cover of a book so bookstore employees will quickly know where to display it. Hairy beast with fangs? Next aisle over. But in a way it's the same with mainstream literature: I think Chris Fowler said that in the UK at least, if the cover pictures a dessicated leaf and/or a clock, particularly in collage format, then that signifies it's a serious novel."
No, if we are looking to place Jonathan Carroll anywhere then it seems to be far away from those shelves on which his novels are so often placed: horror, alongside Dean Koontz ("the same book for the past 25 books") and Stephen King ("a very wonderful writer"), or fantasy, with Pratchett and his copyists. But for a triple-barrel name and a home south of the border, they would be calling Jonathan Carroll a Magic Realist.
"I don't read horror or fantasy," he says. "That's not a criticism, it's simply not my taste. My imagination is vivid enough and there's enough real time horror in life to fill my dance card. Reading it does not enhance my life and in many ways, I think that's what books are about. Enhancement, expansion. When people say I write horror or fantasy, my first question is define the genres and then tell me why my stuff fits into your definition. Because the dead are in the stories? Because bad things happen outside the ordinary? There are certain points I want to make, certain things I want to say in what I write. If that means employing ghosts or aborted children or whatever tools or devices, then it's okay (and not necessarily genre) if in the end they accomplish your purpose.
"As far as horror is concerned, I don't set out to scare a reader. I think that is one of the tenets of horror writing. You want the person scared who's reading your story. I don't. I want them moved. I want them to doubt and question and think about things they're not used to thinking about. But scare them? No, that's not part of the agenda. If it happens, it's only a spinoff of something else. And fantasy too much of the time is simply authors showing off their vivid and colorful imagination. Weird and sometimes wonderful worlds, but not often well presented or filled out."
THE EDGE: I think it's a tribute to your work that, whoever the narrator, the novels always read like autobiography - they make an extraordinarily direct connection with the reader. How vital do you think it is to their success?
J.C.: "I think writers try on different skins when they are beginning to see which one best fits the task they are trying to achieve. Skins, narrative voices, call it what you will. I found early on I was most comfortable telling stories via a first person voice. Whether it was a man's or a woman's, I felt it generally it made for a more immediate, more tactile connection with the reader. 'I shot the woman' seemed to be more of an affecting first sentence than 'Hughes shot the woman.' If 'I' did it, then I'm in trouble from the start, whoever I am. The reader too is 'I' so it hits home faster. If we know nothing about Hughes, his shooting someone isn't interesting or distressing until we've gotten into his world and know enough about him to worry. I have written a bunch of short stories from the 3rd person point of view but that's only now and then and more the exception than anything else."
THE EDGE: I've seen you quoted as saying, "I feel that writers nowadays don't have any courage. They have cleverness..." Do you feel at odds with a publishing world where irony now seems to be the stock in trade?
J.C.: "Very successful writers like Paul Auster and John Irving (for example) annoy me because their success comes at least in part from a kind of snideness towards both their stories and characters. It's always easier to be ironic because you never have to change the crayon you're coloring things with. You see everything as flawed and fatal and feral and so why bother. Love washes away, hope goes out the window, belief is just another word for uncool or naivete. I believe and want to believe in the big matters. Writers like this never take off their sunglasses and smirks when they write. It's like they're in a perpetual frozen pose for a GAP ad. As a result their work is shallow, one dimensional and ultimately repetitive. I think Irving has been rewriting different versions of Garp for twenty years. Compare the great Dutch writer Harry Mulisch's monumental new novel The Discovery of Heaven to Irving's A Widow For One Year or Auster's Mr Vertigo and it's the difference between steel and styrofoam."
THE EDGE: In countries like Poland and Japan you are enormously successful, while in more (English) speaking ones like the UK and US you are a cult writer. Why do you think that is, and how do you feel about translation? I've been reading Japan's Haruki Murakami recently, obviously in translation, and his work reminds me a great deal of yours, but I do wonder if anything is being culturally lost in the process.
J.C.: Murakami is one of my favorite writers, although I haven't tackled his newest [The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle] which I hear is both difficult but also his best. I think my books might be popular in Japan because in certain ways they do bear a likeness to his, and he is the most popular writer there, bar none. What do I think of translations? I can only respond to that as a reader and say I'm grateful to be able to read people who, without translations, I'd never have access to. The problem with being translated is you hear from all over the place that the translations are simultaneously good, awful, perfect, so so, indecipherable. But unless you speak Khazak, you'll never know. What makes me smile is when I'm sent a translation of something of mine in a language like Greek or Japanese where I literally cannot make out one letter. Yet it's mine. Strange feeling.
"It would be nice to be lionized in my own language but success is a combination of talent and luck, usually more luck than anything else. The fact you have luck in one country and not another is the mystery. But sales in both the UK and US have picked up a lot over the last few books so who knows where it will lead. I'm just grateful that I make enough to keep at it, filling my shelf."
EDGE: In Kissing The Beehive, Sam says: "I always like book-signings. It is one of the few times when you are face to face with the people who have shared the most important part of your life with you - the time when you are telling them stories." Is that Jonathan Carroll speaking? Do have an audience in mind when you are writing, or are the readers a by-product, so to speak?
J.C.: "Yes, that's me speaking. I very much dislike hearing about writers who don't want to have anything to do with their audience. In the new novel by John Irving he explains via his female protagonist why he feels this way but he ends up sounding only petty and vain and pompous. Over the years I've heard of writers like Irving who won't even sign reader's books because they can't be bothered. Artists don't have to love their audience but they should certainly appreciate them and treat them with respect. Is it really so much to ask to write your name in someone's book or have a two minute conversation with a devoted fan who's been willing to give up their own world for days on end to live and play in one you created? What's interesting is that the most famous people I know in the arts - writers, rock singers, architects, whoever, are the most generous of all with their fans. Fans pay our bills and we should be profoundly grateful to them for allowing us to sit at our desks all day and make up stories. As to whether I have a specific audience or reader in mind I suppose not, but when I learn that a beautiful, funny, clever woman likes what I've written I'm more than delighted."
EDGE: From personal experience I'd say that people often have a very passionate connection to the books, but do you ever get equally negative responses?
J.C.: "Generally speaking, my books polarize people. They either LOVE or HATE them. I think because they begin realistically and then slowly begin to fly off into space like balloons. People get used to that realism and then can't believe they're suddenly off the earth alongside talking dogs and flying children. Very rarely does someone (including critics) say " I read your book and it was okay." In effect, responding with a kind of verbal shrug. I once gave a reading and as I was leaving, a guy from the audience was so offended by what I'd read that he took a swing at me. Luckily having been a juvenile delinquent as a kid, I was delighted to be fighting again and I knocked him out. In the bookstore. In front of several hundred people. The mail and phone calls I get is about 90% positive, but that other 10% makes my skin crawl. Fortunately in recent years both my publisher and agent screen the stuff so I generally see only the nice thing, but I know the other is out there, glowing like radiation."
EDGE: How, practically, do you go about the writing process - everyone it seems has their own idiosyncratic method?
J.C.: "I usually start a book when I have either the first line and/or the title. Either one will do. I trust my instincts in that regard. I came up with the title of the book I'm just finishing now, The Marriage Of Sticks, five years ago. In the story that phrase represents a very important gesture on the part of one of the characters. I didn't know that when I initially wrote the title, but the idea of what it meant came to me later and then I knew I could begin. When I wrote Dog Museum, the first line and a picture of a man in bed with one lover talking on the phone with another came almost simultaneously. I was off and running. I know there are writers who wouldn't dare put pen to paper without at least some idea of where they wanted to go, but that has never bothered me. The same is true with short stories, although with stories I usually need a voice before I can begin. I published one recently in the Time Out Book Of New York Short Stories. I was able to do it when I realized I was eager to write in the voice of a genuinely stupid man. A guy who misses the point most of the time but is just smart enough to know it. That perspective interested me. So I took the voice for a spin and the story was the landscape we drove through."
EDGE: You have been quoted as saying Bones of The Moon is "too experimental for most tastes", and it does rather stand out from the other books as being more overtly fantastical. What did you mean? And why did the first UK edition have a different ending from the US one?
J.C.: "It's the book where I allowed my imagination the most free reign. Almost anything that wanted to go in there, could. I never knew from one chapter to the next whether the realistic or fantastical side of the story would take place and that was all right. It was like a pianist sitting down and improvising for days. Obviously some of it sounded good and some didn't. I liked the experience but I wouldn't want to repeat it. The end of the British version is different from the US because the US editor, David Hartwell, thought it needed more closure. I think there's a page added. David read the little bit I added and said fine - now you're there."
EDGE: You haven't written a great many short stories. How do you see them in relation to the novels? You've mentioned before that From The Teeth of Angels began as a short story.
J.C.: "That's right. The story was originally called 'The Moose Church', and I wrote it because the great Omni magazine editor Ellen Datlow asked me to come up with a vampire tale for an anthology she was doing. When I finished the story I was still interested in what happened to the characters so I just kept going. Normally that doesn't happen. Short stories are like motorcycles - very exciting, very fast and dangerous, but I wouldn't want to ride one across Europe. They tire you out and too often you're apt to try things, maneuvers, you wouldn't dare in a car (or a novel) because they're too suicidal. Sometimes you can get away with that showy stuff in a story because it's short and over fast but if you were to try it in a longer piece it would fall flat because it doesn't have any kind of staying power. A friend said some story writers write to the head, some to the heart, whereas my stories often go straight to the 'OH!' in a reader. Meaning, I suppose, there usually comes a moment when something happens that's so nuts and off the planet that the reader takes a fast shocked breath. Try doing that in a sustained way in a novel and see how effectively it works. I write a story or two a year. I do them when they come to mind but never force it. That way we're on good terms with each other and they know they can visit when they want."
EDGE: Black Cocktail. As a separately published novella, it stands out from the other work. How did you come to write it, and where do you think it sits in relation to the novels?
J.C.: "An editor at Century named Deborah Beale had the interesting idea of asking a bunch of diverse writers to do novellas. JG Ballard, Lucius Shepard, James Morrow..there were a bunch of us. She pretty much gave us carte blanche to do whatever we wanted so long as it was about 20,000 words. I had been toying with the theme for some time although I had no idea where to go with it. Deborah's invitation gave me the necessary shove. I don't know where it sits in the oeuvre (or as a friend says, the urve). It's bigger than a breadbox but smaller than a sofa. i.e. too long to be a story, too short to be a novel and who knows what a novella is, really. In the American edition of my short story collection The Panic Hand the editor Gordon Van Gelder had the clever idea of including it, but at the end of the book like a big caboose. I liked that very much."
EDGE: Which authors do you admire?
J.C.: "The books I've liked most this year were Murakami's Hard Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, Robert McLiam Wilson's Eureka Street, Bruce Wagner's I'm Losing You, Cees Nooteboom's Rituals (an all time favorite), Stephen Dobyns' The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini, Robert Nozick's The Examined Life and the poetry of Thomas Lux."
EDGE: Is there any one of your own novels of which you are particularly proud, or is that really like choosing a favourite child?
J.C.: "There are two ways of looking at that - which book are you most proud of. Meaning which would you want carved on your gravestone along with your dates. For that one I would say From The Teeth of Angels or Outside The Dog Museum. The other part is which book do I suggest people start with if they haven't read my work. Usually I say Sleeping In Flame or Land of Laughs. People keep telling me which one is best (according to them), but I don't always agree."
THE SIX BOOKS that transcribe the arc of the "Answered Prayers" sequence make up one of the most potent and unique libraries in contemporary fiction. Each stands alone in its own right, but through shared dreams and shared characters, the books generate a startling energy.
The series, which starts with the striking fantasty Bones of The Moon, introduces Carroll's most enigmatic character, the modest, maddening and very not New Age shaman Venasque; a kind of Doctor Doolittle on acid. "For thirty years of hungry customers," he writes in A Child Across the Sky, "he was only a chatty Frenchman who made delicious sandwiches because he liked to see people eat. Other things he liked? His animals, cooking, watching television, magic." Venasque can talk to those animals, walk on water, even fly. When film director Philip Strayhorn asks him why his kind won't demonstrate their powers to the world, the bearded sage replies, "Why should they? You think they care if you know? ...He does it to find a place on his map: not get on The Tonight Show."
EDGE: Could you tell us a little about the character of Venasque. He seems to embody much of the spirit of, especially, the earlier novels, something I've seen described as being "casual magic". He is capable of extraordinary things, and yet is one of the most grounded people we meet.
J.C.: "Venasque is the embodiment of the way I wish both life and mankind worked. Fair, funny and loving, capable of extraordinary things, grounded. People keep asking if there is a Venasque but unfortunately there isn't. I have met several holy men and the only thing they had in common was that groundedness - they were very much in the room with you, not floating above it on a golden flying carpet. They also had wicked senses of humor. They liked to laugh and they liked you to laugh too. One of them told me 'You're too serious. You think God doesn't like to laugh?'
"One of the more interesting things to me about Venasque is he is the only one I have ever created who said things I had no idea were coming. It was almost like automatic writing. There would be a Venasque scene and he would enter the room and do or say something and often I would literally be taken aback or even surprised by what it was. He came from my mind but often he was walking me rather than vice versa. I loved that when it happened."
EDGE: You say Venasque is the one character who would take even you by surprise, but how do characters come to a story? Are they ready-made, just waiting to walk in when you need them, or do you have to construct them to fit a narrative? They certainly have memorable names.
J.C.: "I like names and titles. Someone was telling me the other evening about a down and dirty Italian restaurant in the Bronx called 'Louis'.' The favorite dish there is called 'Chicken a la Louis' which made me laugh. There's something so goofily contradictory (maybe it's the chicken along with the 'a la') there that I know someday I've got to write a story called 'Chicken a la Louis.' 'Venasque' comes from a tiny town in the south of France where I once spent time and was very happy. I think certain writers are name junkies. You hear a good one and you have to write it down or you'll go nuts. As to the characters themselves, they just pop up like jack in the box figures. As I mentioned earlier, my books often begin with a first line. More than once I have written a first line and then thought 'Who said that? Man or woman? Young or old?' The dance proceeds from there."
EDGE: They also tend to be successful people - writers, directors, TV stars - who are then visited by extraordinary events. Is this merely a consequence of writing what you know, or does it point to some deeper seated anxiety about creative people?
J.C.: "No, I'm writing about people I know. Trouble is, I've become so reclusive in recent years that I don't know anyone new anymore. I'm going to be in trouble soon for new material. Maybe I should join a social club..."
EDGE: And I think it's incumbent on me to mention dogs. Whether they talk or not, are they a source of magic in the real world?
J.C.: "To me the only thing magical about dogs is their unswerving love and devotion. Throw one out the window and he'll trot through the front door in a few minutes with today's newspaper in his mouth. It is a kind of magic, albeit small. I have no new insight into dogs. They're simply wonderful and one of the few things in life that is always a delight to me. I like to have them in my stories because I think the way people relate to them says a lot about character. I met an extraordinarily beautiful woman recently. She was marvelous in just about every way and a real pleasure to be with. But for some reason we eventually started talking about dogs. It came out she really didn't like them for no reason other than they were dirty and inconvenient. I must say it made me wonder about her and took away some of her shine. On the other hand, I always liked Harry Radcliffe more because he allowed Big Top into the shower with him."
From Bones, the series shifts into the dizzying love story of what, for many, is Carroll's masterpiece, Sleeping in Flame (1988), described by fellow author Lisa Tuttle as "like dreaming with your eyes open." His own Hollywood novel, the dark and troubling A Child Across The Sky followed in 1994, with its rich stew of celluloid evil and pregnant angels. Outside The Dog Museum appeared in 1991, and the hellish After Silence a year later. From The Teeth of Angels (1994) tops the series out in most extraordinary fashion with a novel in which Death appears as a character: "Are you the Devil? Or only Death, or something else? I don't care. No matter what you are, you're jealous. You're jealous of every human being who has ever lived on earth. Know why? Because you've got limits and we don't. With all the power you have and all the fear you put in us, there's really only one thing you can do and that's scare us...Because we have the capacity to create and forget." The final word in the six book sequence is "Amen".
If these novels are about anything then it's exactly that final confrontation . Carroll's books are more often than not love stories, about the power of human beings to understand and transfigure their own and other lives in the face of death. The key moment in the last book comes when a character finally decides to sleep with an HIV+ partner rather than in anything more fantastical. Which would, on the face of it, seem to trivialise his purpose - after all, isn't all fiction, in a sense, about choices and about idelaised lives? But Carroll's is an unsparing fiction. Tragedy, violence and death rise again and again in these books - achiving transcendence is no easy ride. But we can get there, he says, no matter how bloody the path. And don't run away with the idea that the "faith" in Carroll's work is one easily defined in terms of church rhetoric - he might be a believer, but his books, like his upbringing, tap into a deeper vein. Jonathan Carroll's fiction requires more of a leap of faith in the reader than virtually any other writer currently working.
EDGE: The critic John Clute called the series of six novels the 'Answered Prayers' sequence. Do you recognise the description?
J.C.: "John Clute is the most original, intelligent critic around. He tells you things about your own work you never knew were true until he said them. Years ago he mentioned in passing the theme of answered prayers in those books. I think I smiled oddly and said something along the lines of 'I've been trying to find a title for this series and you just gave it to me.' I agree with him completely."
EDGE: Would you agree that your books have become somehow less 'magical' as they have progressed? A book like The Land of Laughs certainly contains more obviously fantastical elements than, say, After Silence.
J.C.: "I would have agreed with you until about a year ago when I started The Marriage of Sticks. This one is pretty magical."
EDGE: I think it's fair to say that, given the type of book you write, it surprises people that the endings are seldom ambiguous: there is a very raw, almost embarrassing directness to them - a real sense of closure - just when another writer would leave the gate swinging. The end of From The Teeth of Angels is a good example, I think, with only Sleeping In Flame seeming to buck the trend.
J.C.: "The question makes me smile because the most complaints I have had about my books are the endings. Many people hate my endings because they feel they are utterly ambiguous and thus utterly unsatisfying. You're one of the first critics I've ever known who says the opposite. As far as I'm concerned however, the people who don't like my endings can go for a swim, or sushi, or a high colonic. They seem to want things spelled out (HE DIED. THEY MARRIED), but that's not the way life works-- either real life or the life I create on the page. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold... etcetera. If things made more sense we wouldn't take out so much insurance on ourselves. That's what the endings of the books are saying. The story doesn't end, it just stops now and who knows what happens after the end."
EDGE: I'm prompted to ask the role of death in your work and the suggestion that in some way it is the abiding theme - the understanding of it, its confrontation, maybe even its transcendence. I read that someone once held a gun to your head?
J.C.: "For some strange reason, I've seen death a lot in my life and once did have a gun against my head and the guy had every intention of using it. I think the only thing we can do about death is to find ourselves a place, a job, a mate and a life that enables us to forget it, as I mentioned in Angels. The most religious people I know when actually faced with their own mortality were as stiff and helpless and scared as anyone. That led me to believe that no matter how much you believe in a greater power, when it comes to death, we're all stripped of our pride, courage, individuality. It really is the great leveller but if we can create a life that's brimming and valid, it allows us to concentrate happily on the moment rather than worry about what it'll be like when. I'll tell you what it will be like when - it'll be horrible. Now that we've answered that question, find a life that makes that irrevelant because there's so much that you want to do right now."
"I remembered a passage from Rilke that I think says it best. It's from a poem called 'The Lace':
And if someday all we have done
and all that has happened to us
seems so inferior and strange,
as though there's no point
in taking the trouble to outgrow our first pair of shoes
just to come to this -...Shouldn't this
strip of yellowed lace, this tightly meshed
flowery border of lace suffice
to keep us here? Look: at least this got done.
A life was ignored in the process, who knows
A delight was there, was going to be sacrificed,
and finally at any cost
there would exist this thing, not easier than life
yet finished and so lovely, as though it weren't too soon
to smile and soar."
KISSING THE BEEHIVE is Jonathan Carroll's first new novel in four years: surprisingly for his admirers, it's an almost straight thriller. We do, you will be pleased to know, discover the truth behind Paula Ostrova's death, but the journey we travel to get there is clearly mapped from the same pen as the other dark and wondrous by-ways that make up Carroll's fiction. To use Moorcock's word again, it is no less dangerous. As the character Cassandra says in the epilogue, "No showy stuff. Just this vivid and strange life."
"From The Teeth of Angels was the last of a six book series which could best be described as magical realism. When I finished I knew the next would be the collection of short stories The Panic Hand but there was nothing to write there - just sort through twenty years of stories and pick the ones that worked best. So I was stuck with what to do next. At the time I was in Hollywood writing screenplays and didn't have the time to work on a novel which was fine because I didn't really have a firm idea for one. Eventually when I staggered back to Vienna and it came time to once again write 'Once Upon a Time' instead of 'CUT TO' I thought why not write something completely different - do something realistic and see what happens. Just follow the instinct and see if you end up some place interesting.
"The reaction to Beehive has been mixed - some people are pleased with the departure, some very disgruntled. The only negative reaction that genuinely bothers me however is when someone says I don't think the story works, magical or not. I've just finished a new novel which will be called The Marriage of Sticks. It returns to a magical world, so those who were unhappy with the realism of Beehive can take heart. [It's] about responsibility and memory, about what we do vs. what we should do in life. The main character is a woman and the main idea is a love story but then again, most of my books are love stories so that's nothing new. Love found, love lost, long loves and short loves."
EDGE: I'd like to throw a quote at you here from Krzysztof Kieslowski that seemed to suggest many of the truths in your own work: "I think we're fighting our fate, our destiny, all the time. There is something like fate, but there is also our resistance to it; and perhaps that's the reason for our suffering, our feeling of not having fulfilled ourselves...But I am not a fatalist; I don't think that everything's written up in black and white in advance."
J.C.: "The quote reflects so many of the things he says in his movies and maybe that's why I like them so much. I don't know if our fates are carved in stone, but one thing that's happened to me over the years is I've grown sadder and more skeptical about how life unwinds. Perhaps that's why I ended From The Teeth of Angels with one person saying to another there isn't a whole lot I can do for you, but I can cook you soup and hold your hand. Small things, but valuable. No matter how much you go through, it seems the older you get the more you throw up your hands and ask the very naive question "Why did that happen?" Someone close to me died recently. Nice woman, good mother, wonderful wife. Dead before sixty. How do you explain that, particularly in light of the fact that most of the most awful people I've had the (dis)pleasure of knowing are doing just fine. Thriving even. And this woman is dead. I'm almost fifty and I still don't get it. Neither did Kieslowski - he died just as he was going to start back to work again."
EDGE: Who do you think Jonathan Carroll would be had he not become a writer?
J.C.: "Because in many ways books 'saved' me from a life that was turning increasingly nasty, there is a very real chance I would have been somewhere very not nice if I hadn't found them when I did. Beyond that instinctively I would say a director or a cartoonist, but that's probably just blowing ego smoke."