BORN IN UPSTATE New York, Jon Clinch graduated from Syracuse University in 1976. The same year, he married Wendy Harris, and began his career as a high school English teacher in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The couple has one daughter named Emily, and they currently live in the mountains of Vermont. Clinch taught for three years until he switched to the advertising world, working as a copywriter and creative director until 2007. The following year, in 2008, his first novel Finn was published by Random House and was named an American Library Association Notable Book, won the Philadelphia Athenaeum Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Sargent First Novel Prize. Two years later, Clinch published his second novel, Kings of the Earth. He recently released his third novel, The Thief of Auschwitz.
Shenandoah: How would you describe your life as a writer?
Jon Clinch: As for my life as a writer, it’s quiet and methodical. I write at least five days a week, about six hours a day, with a goal of producing somewhere around 1,200 words. Unlike many of my fellow writers, I didn’t come up though the MFA system; therefore I don’t teach much and generally keep to myself. My life as an advertising writer taught me not to wait for inspiration, but to sit down in front of the keyboard and get the work done on a regular and methodical basis.
S: Mark Twain once said, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that is not what ships are for.” Do you feel that writers in the university can be like ships in harbors?
JC: I certainly don’t blame folks for seeking out a secure situation, and God knows that the more serious you are as a writer the less likely you are to earn a living at it.
That said, there’s no question in my mind that advanced writing programs produce a flattening of both style and content. Only certain subjects are fit for writing about, and only certain creative methods are worthy of pursuit. Those are both, of course, bad things that limit artistic expression instead of enhancing it.
These programs can be mightily incestuous, too. Here’s an example. Shortly after Finn arrived, with its many rave reviews and its place on several papers’ lists of best books and its various awards, I wrote the folks at Breadloaf (in my back yard here in Vermont) to see if I might be able to drop by sometime during the summer for a reading or some such. They invited me to submit some samples of my work, with the aim that if I proved worthy I might be invited to enroll in the program as a student. Needless to say, I let it drop.
S: Where did you get your inspiration for Finn?
JC: I first read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was eight or ten years old, and I was memorably terrified by the dead man in the house that comes floating down the Mississippi in Chapter 9. Reading the book many times as an adult, it seemed to me that the scene’s place in the novel (just where Huck and Jim’s story starts taking off) conspires with the dead man’s anonymity (the corpse isn’t identified as Finn’s until the end of the book) to keep readers from giving it too much serious attention. No doubt plenty of people slide right past the details: the markings on the walls and the calico dresses, the black cloth masks and the child’s speckled straw hat, the baby bottle and the wooden leg. There was an adventure getting started, after all, and this mysterious scene—populated as it was only by an unidentified corpse—was just one more picaresque detail.
The more I thought about the whole business, the more I wondered how Finn had come to die surrounded by those mysterious artifacts. The conventional wisdom—that the floating house was a brothel—didn’t wash. I preferred to believe that Twain had left in that crowded room a set of clues—not just to Finn’s death but to his life. In writing Finn, I set out to follow those clues wherever they led.
S: Where did you find resistance to or encouragement of your work?
JC: At the outset, a famous novelist warned me that if I insisted on writing Finn I ought to be constantly on my guard. “Mr. Clemens,” he said, “will be looking over your shoulder.”
He didn’t know the half of it. And frankly, neither did I. Only when I showed early bits of the manuscript to other writers did I begin to understand. There was plenty of encouragement, of course, and lots of praise, but beneath it all was an undercurrent of “How dare you?”
Funny thing is, it had never occurred to me that writing a novel about Huck Finn’s father was all that daring. Plenty of other folks have spun out metafictions involving characters from other people’s books—my long-time favorite being John Gardner’s Grendel. (To tell the whole truth, Grendel inspired Finn as much as anything. Gardner retold Beowulf from the monster’s point of view, and that’s pretty much what I set out to do for Huckleberry Finn.)
S: What was your process like in writing Finn?
JC: My process was pretty much what it always is—a methodical grinding out of text for hours at a time. I’m a great believer in the power of steady work, and writing Finn was no exception. I was working full-time in advertising in those days, and by writing both before and after work I was able to put something five or six hours a day into the manuscript.
When people learn that I wrote Finn in only five and a half months, I remind them that although it’s not much time to be writing a serious novel, it’s a long stretch to be nursing a serious illness. Which is pretty much what writing Finn was like: a violent, feverish dream that I could escape only by surrendering myself to it entirely. Finn’s story and his world took over my life, and I believe that a good amount of that strange intensity remains upon the page.
S: Did you do research on the early 19th century other than reading Huckleberry Finn?
JC: Once I had the idea for Finn, I re-read the first nine chapters of Huck and jumped right in. I re-read Life on the Mississippi as I worked just to provide some context, but that was pretty much all I did in terms of research. My intent was always to honor the imaginative world that Twain created in Huck Finn rather than enslave myself to the details of geography or history. Some scenes from Huck replay whole in Finn, except for point of view and subtext. Some scenes that Twain only sketched or suggested—Finn and the professor from Ohio, Finn and Judge Stone—are fleshed out fully. Other scenes that my narrative required—Finn’s discovery of Huck’s escape from the squatter’s shack, for example—called for interpreting the events of Huck in new ways. And Twain’s decision to have a child tell his own story gave me the freedom to consider Huck an unreliable narrator, particularly when it came to describing the wickedness of his own father.
William Faulkner was another inspiration, obviously. I’d always wanted to write a novel with a powerful motivating character who remained just behind the scenes, like Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! The Judge fills that role in Finn, although as draft turned into draft he moved more and more out of the shadows. Herman Melville was a great inspiration, too. The Santo Domingo sequence where Finn abducts Mary is in some ways a retelling of his novel Benito Cereno. Then there’s music. Many rhythms and phrases and references in Finn come from the magnificent Gospel hymns of Fanny Crosby, Charles Albert Tindley, and others. I came to love these as a child, and they stay with me to this day. Other musical touchstones are the fine banjo-and-fiddle recordings of John Hartford and Texas Shorty, whose plaintive and stately melodies form the secret soundtrack of this book.
S: What are the upsides and downsides of creating work based upon previously created characters?
JC: The upside is that they arrive in your manuscript fully imagined. The downside is that even though they come that way, other readers may have fleshed them out in their minds differently than you did. So you still have plenty of convincing to do — perhaps more convincing than you have when you start from scratch. Everything that any borrowed character does must be consistent with his appearance in the original text, and yet everything must also extend what’s gone before—building upon a network of elements over which you had no control. That’s probably the toughest part. But I always enjoy operating against a set of constraints, so it’s OK with me.
S: This question comes from our editor Rod Smith, and he asks if you intentionally played around with language in the novel. There are many times where you are playful with language, such as “cutting the two in twain.” Pap Finn also primarily goes by Finn–Twain gives us that name but you put the character by the water, in the water, or drinking whiskey like water. Were you trying to be constructive or fun with this? What about biblical undertones for this character? Matthew 4:19 reads “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Is Finn a spinoff of a Christ figure? How have readers responded to this?
JC: Finn is definitely saturated with biblical imagery and language. There may be too much of it to make any kind of final sense of, to tell the truth. Big stuff and small stuff and everything in between. Mary’s name, for heaven’s sake. Which would make Huck…well, you know. “Unto us a child is born.”
The sparks that whirl up from Bliss’s fire when we first meet the bootlegger echo the Book of Job, where we learn that man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.
All of the references to sacrifice and sacrament and mystery. Even in the worst and most violent moments, I tried to maintain an atmosphere of something that we might call holiness. Whether or not I succeeded is another issue.
S: Where do you believe religion to lie in the text? The whitewashed markings on Finn’s bedroom wall are extremely powerful, as well as religious images. Do you believe that the markings on the wall could act as a map of the novel?
JC: Religion is everywhere in the book. I hadn’t thought about it, but the markings on the wall are definitely a map of the narrative. They’re Finn’s primarily non-verbal confession, so they pretty much tell his story.
S: Who do you believe to be the most evil character in the story?
JC: That’s a tough one. The Preacher, probably, for the absolutely appalling things he does during the short time he’s on stage in the book. That’s probably a tribute to Twain’s artistry in creating the King, who was his model, as an individual who troubles me a good deal whenever I encounter him.
On the other hand, I could readily make a case for the Judge. So could Finn, I’ll bet.
S: Finn has some moments of grace but ultimately cannot sustain them, like in his relationship with Mary for example. To what degree is the reader supposed to pity Finn?
JC: I root for Finn on every page, wishing that he had even the slightest chance of making something decent of himself. I hope that readers feel the same way, in spite of themselves.
S: What do you expect the reader of Finn to experience if they have not read Huckleberry Finn or Twain’s other work?
JC: With any luck, they’ll understand it entirely and need no further context. I really did strive to make it a freestanding piece of work that anyone with a little basic knowledge of American history would be able to appreciate and follow.
In some measure, particularly when divorced from Huck, it’s actually something of a page-turning thriller.
On the other hand, I buried a zillion small things in the book that serve as rewards for the reader who comes to it with a real knowledge of Huck. Phrases, scenes, cameo appearances, themes, motifs…
S: What is your latest project/ what are you currently working on now?
JC: I’m writing a novel that’s much like Finn, very dark and very dense and very tragic. It’s about two remarkable families that lived during the nineteenth century in the county where I grew up: the Oneida Community, which was a repressive utopian organization founded on free love; and the Loomis Gang, which was the nation’s most notorious crime family.
Praise for Finn:
“Clinch reimagines Finn in a strikingly original way, replacing Huck’s voice with his own magisterial vision—one that’s nothing short of revelatory.” –The Washington Post Book World
“Remarkably honest… Clinch admits the distance between that which we know and that which we dare acknowledge of the human condition, and that which we can only shudder to imagine.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“A decidedly dark and especially compelling read… With a keen eye and character detail and an uncanny gift for storytelling, the author has invented an outstanding tale that stands up and walks around on its own—out of the shadow of Mark Twain’s masterpiece.” –Seattle Post-Intelligencer