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Interview John Haskell

When John Haskell and I spoke last year in Amsterdam about his fascinating novel American Purgatorio, there were certain parts of the interview he asked me not to post on the website. Certain details that might spoil the fun for those who hadn't yet read the book. Obviously, I agreed.
For that reason, there are now 2 slightly different versions of this interview: the online (censored) version and the offline (uncensored) version. The online version speaks for itself - almost. The offline version is available at info@the-ledge.com - just write to us and we'll send it along.
In the online version, the bits we've left out - there aren't too many - are indicated like this (...). You have 3 choices: 1) fill in the gaps yourself, 2) run out and buy the book, or 3) give in to your curiosity and ask us to send you the offline text.
We won't tell.

- Stacey Knecht

with:
John Haskell
Stacey Knecht

books:
American Purgatorio
I Am Not Jackson Pollock


the ledge - flash version*

*

full text search:


SK — You’re not an easy man to google. Give me a little background info to start off with.

JH — Okay. Let’s see: I’m from California, went to University in Santa Cruz, and at a certain point – this is the brief version – I read an article about Chicago Theater. The Chicago Theater was very vital. David Mamet was out there, among other people, so I hitched a ride on a freight train –


SK — People really do that?!

JH — Well, I don’t know if they still do that now... So I went to Chicago, kind of got involved in theater, took some classes with David Mamet, then met some people and started my own theater company. I was the playwright, also acted and directed, but mainly I was the playwright. We did that for a while. And the plays that I was writing, the parts that interested me the most were the monologues. There was one play especially that started with a long monologue and it went through millions of changes, but the monologue stayed. Then I started writing individual monologues and performing them, onstage. Did that, then moved to New York, kept doing that but wanted another outlet for the writing, so I went back to school at Columbia, wrote a novel that didn’t really work, and finally shortened this novel to story length. I had enough other stories – all those monologues became stories – I had enough for a book, sent it to an agent, he sold the book to Farrar Straus and then I wrote the next book, American Purgatorio.


SK — That’s interesting, about the monologues, because I was wondering just now, as I was listening to you read the excerpt for the site, whether the piece had ever actually been performed onstage! It’s partly the way you read, of course, but it’s also the language you use. Jack, the narrator, seems to be thinking out loud. There are sentences that are unfinished, they backtrack, or break off and wander into other sentences, the way people often speak.

JH — That’s exactly right. That’s what I try to do, because I like that sort of thing when I read it in other people. And this whole novel is a monologue, in a way, a very long monologue.


SK — And throughout the novel, Jack is trying to figure out what’s going on. On the one hand, he’s analyzing every little detail, turning things over and over, but the whole time there’s something he’s missing. He says at one point: ‘I’m not seeing’. His wife, Anne, has disappeared and he’s exploring every possibility: she could be doing this, she could be doing that – so he’s looking for Anne, but also trying to figure out what happening to him.

JH — It’s partly that he’s trying to figure out what’s going on, but also trying not to admit what’s going on. If there’s been a loss, whatever’s happened, you know, I don’t think he’s ready to absorb it. Ready to believe it. And so there’s that unwillingness to see what’s happening and to go through all the things that we all go through sometimes to make what is actually happening make sense. It takes him a while to get to that point.


SK — He says he’s trying to preserve the illusion of normalcy.

JH — Um-hm. Yeah. Well, especially because the event has just happened. He goes and sits in his chair, and hopes that sitting in the chair, the same chair he always sits in, will give him the same feeling that it always does. But it doesn’t. So he tries something else, he tries to... to really not see. Which... I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, but... I think it’s something people don’t... You know that quote, ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ A lot of times we spend time not seeing what’s happening, because it would just be... well, I don’t know why, but we’re not used to it, or it would be too much... So Jack does the same thing. Especially when there’s been a big catastrophe in his life.


SK — Jack is on a journey, and of course there have been many books in the history of literature about journeys... Why did you choose to put him on the road?

JH — A lot of it had to do with what I said before: I hitchhiked a lot.... I’ve been on the road a lot. And when you do that, when you hitchhike around, or drive cars, whatever, naturally a lot of adventures take place. So there have been a lot of events that sort of fired my imagination. It was fun making up that journey – it was like going back and re-living vivid moments that I hadn’t recalled for a long time. The real events were triggers for the events in the story.


SK — When I first read American Purgatorio, it was still in manuscript form. And for some reason the titles of the seven chapters, which you named after the Seven Deadly Sins, weren’t there. It wasn’t until I got the book that I saw them as they were meant to be. It was fascinating. But why the seven sins? Weren’t you worried that people might say, aw, that’s been done before...

JH — There’s two things I want to say about that. One thing is: at this point in the history of the world, I think the idea of sin is a little outmoded. Maybe not for Catholics, but even there, I think it’s sort of an old-fashioned idea. But I think in most any belief system there’s this idea that if you follow this path, you’ll find happiness, but that path leads to unhappiness. So this general idea of things you can do to make yourself happy, and vice versa – I think that runs throughout human history. I’m calling them ‘sins’, and I’m taking the old-fashioned idea of sin, but even in the book I say something about: they’re just human attributes, or human impulses, or possibilities around which people rotate.


SK — Like anchors? Markers?

JH — Yes, markers, in a way. And that’s actually how I used them in the book. I made a point not to call them ‘Lust’, or ‘Pride’, or ‘Greed’, but to use the Latin names, because most people don’t speak Latin, so the words become a little bit abstracted, and the concepts become abstract. So for instance, ‘Superbia’: in that chapter I might talk about ‘pride’, but it’s just – as I said to somebody the other day – it’s just sort of a haze, an air of pride, but it’s not really about that. I didn’t want to get too specific about those things, because it wasn’t the thrust of the book.


SK — They’re like signposts. For the reader.

JH — Yes, and that’s where you get the Dantean part of it. The pilgrim in Purgatorio, ‘Purgatory’, is going through those sins – in a different order, and order is kind of important – to get to Paradise and Beatrice and all that stuff.


SK — Is the order important? I didn’t know that.

JH — Well, apparently. Because what got me going with the whole sin thing... after I started with the book, I read an essay by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. It was a book of essays, and one of them was about growing up as a Catholic, and learning some mnemonic device to remember the seven deadly sins. Dante changed the order – I think Milosz said he actually changed the order a bit. Mine’s different, too. Mine just kind of happened for the sake of the story.


SK — Are you Catholic?

JH — No! Not at all.


SK — What impressed me on reading this book for the first time – and I’m curious as to how you achieved this – what impressed me was not only the sense of loss, which is ever-present, but even more than that, a feeling of great alienation. It’s very unnerving. Even as you get further into the book, and there are people Jack meets, and travels with, there’s always a feeling that everyone is in their own little bubble, they’re never really together. The most unnerving part is that it’s sometimes very recognizable! How did you do that?

JH — Actually, the two other people I did an interview with here – I asked them this question, and they both had different answers, and I think I know what your answer is going to be: what happens at the end of the book? What do you think happens to Jack?


SK — At the end? You want me to put this on the website?

JH — No, I don’t want you to put it on the site. I’ll answer your other question, but first I want to hear what you thought.


SK — By the end of the book I didn’t believe anything anymore. I was very skeptical, because I’d reached so many different conclusions along the way, which turned out to be wrong. Or different than I’d assumed.

JH — Like what? The wife died: did you believe that?


SK — Yeah, I did, I did. For a while. And then I thought, hold on... I kept going back to the beginning, I thought I was probably missing things –

JH — No, I don’t think so, I don’t think so –


SK — No? Okay. Well, Jack says (...). So I figured (...), but then I wasn’t sure anymore. I really... I don’t.... I... I...

JH — That’s a good answer!


SK — (laughs)

JH — It’s a fine answer. But I’ll tell you this. But this shouldn’t be on the website either, because it gives away too much. For the British version, at the point the narrator says, I’m back at the gas station and Anne was in the car, and then this dark car came, and (...). In the British version, they wanted me to get rid of all that. They didn’t want – they felt that for the narrator to say (...) would undermine the whole story.


SK — So what? It’s fiction.

JH — Well, they thought that readers would feel that the people he’d met along the way, and the whole story, was like: in what land had that happened?


SK — Like they’d been cheated somehow.

JH — Exactly. So I just changed one little line. Instead of: (...) I said (...) meaning that he doesn’t quite know what’s happened, he thinks (...), but he doesn’t know. But I think I like that better, actually, the more I think about it. But... in my mind, he had (...). In the beginning there’s that scene on the bridge, he’s on the bridge and some man looks at him and (...). And so part of that ‘keeping away’, or actually part of the ‘holding on to’... (...) The last chapter, ‘Avaritia’ – its not about greed, it’s about grasping at life.
So, to get back to your question: I think possibly some of that alienation, even though I didn’t try to do it, I was just like... I think it’s possible that at the back of my mind I had the idea that he was not a... that he was a little different than everyone else in the book. That might be what you were picking up on.


SK — But did you know, as you were writing, why he was different?

JH — I did, but to me, it didn’t matter. (...). Except for that scene on the bridge, there was nothing where I though: okay, (...), so he’s going to act in a different way. No, he was very (...), very (...), very (...) throughout. But, (...). And only when he finally kind of accepted it, could he actually do it. And that’s another Purgatory aspect to it.


SK — I remember thinking, at one point: maybe this is Purgatory, and all the people he comes across are (...), and they’re all (...).

JH — Some people have mentioned the movie (...) in relation to this, but it’s different, because that’s the type of thing where at the end you go back and say, ‘Oh...now I understand!’ It’s kind of a trick. But in my book, I would say that it didn’t matter if people know (...), except that some people don’t... well, I guess most people think he... no, a lot of people just think (...), because he’s so distraught at the loss of his wife. So that would create a certain distance between the narrator and the world he comes in contact with. But I have to say, I was definitely thinking of him (...) as I wrote it.


SK — Do you know Tim Krabbé’s book The Vanishing?

JH — Somebody mentioned that yesterday, in fact. Several people in the States have said, you have got to see the movie! And here they say, you have got to read the book! But isn’t that more of a psycho killer?


SK — Yes. But there is an obvious similarity between the two books: a young couple stops at a gas station and the wife goes inside to get coffee and never comes back. What is also similar is the searching and the feeling of shock, trying to act in the face of fear.

JH — That’s interesting. I’ve read The Rider, by Krabbé. I didn’t realize he was Dutch!


SK — Yep!

JH — Wow.


SK — You’ve told me a little about your theatrical past. When you write fiction, aside from the monologue thing, are their other ways in which you’re thinking ‘theatrically’, if you know what I mean?

JH — Well, yes. Some playwright, I forget who it was, once said that when he writes for the theater, he thinks about people sitting on wooden benches, watching his play. Given that, you don’t want to be too self-indulgent! You want to keep people thinking about what’s happening onstage, rather than thinking about their bottoms on the benches.
I met this couple once who said, about my first book, the stories, ‘You must’ve been working on that book for a long time!’ And in fact I was, because I’d started writing the monologues quite a few years ago, and so it was in process for a long time. Some of the pieces were highly polished, so they just had a kind of – well, I don’t want to say ‘a crystalline quality,’ but you know, when you do something in front of an audience, you tend to get rid of the extraneous details, because people are sitting there. I like to get the audience energized. If people feel that they’re not part of the dialogue, they fall asleep. I strive to keep the audience’s – I mean the reader’s attention, in some way.


SK — I’d hope that all writers would strive to do that...

JH — Yes, you would hope that. But it is something to think about. And then the other theatrical thing would be just the idea of... I do like to read my work out loud a lot, as I’m working. It’s always fun to read that opening chapter, because there are pauses, there’s rhythm, there are a lot of repetitions...


SK — Did you write it for yourself to read aloud?

JH — Well, I didn’t write it just for myself to read, but I do think about it being read out loud. I think about how it sounds, more than just how it reads. And a lot of times I’ll read just for fun – you know, I’ll read Shakespeare out loud, or Pinter, I just feel good saying the words.


SK — I love to read plays, out loud or otherwise, but here in Holland there doesn’t really seem to be a play-reading tradition. When I was growing up in New York, we used to borrow plays from the library and read them out loud – sometimes with the whole family!

JH — And everybody took a different part? That’s fun!


SK — Yes, it was. I recommend it.
Did you ever imagine this novel, while you were writing it, or even now, as being produced for the stage?

JH — No, not at all. I see it in its setting: the characters are in the hills of Colorado, or actually they’re at a car repair shop, or wherever it is. But not a theatrical setting. Not at all. It’s a story. If anything, it’s closer to a movie. It’s ‘in the desert’, ‘on the beach’, ‘in the house’: wherever it is, it’s there.
In my next book, I’d like to try out some new things with perspective, point-of-view. In American Purgatorio it really is just one character moving through time and space and meeting other people along the way, some of whom are more or less fully developed. But it would be interesting to have more of an ‘ensemble cast’, so to speak, of people who reappear more, and you get to know a group, even just two, three, four people, a little bit more of that. In American Purgatorio I really like the Polino character, he kind of came out and seemed to have his own personality. I’d like to play around with that a little bit more.


SK — The Jackson Pollack book, the monologues: I’m assuming they were also single characters?

JH — No, actually they were all a little different. They were all third person, so there was no first person.


SK — Hey! How can you have a monologue in third person?

JH — Well for instance, at the beginning of the title story, ‘I Am Not Jackson Pollack’, the narrator says, ‘I should say I’m not Jackson Pollack the famous artist, when he walked into the Cedar Tavern and there was a girl sitting...’ And then he goes on to talk about Jackson Pollack. So in a way it is a first person, but it’s all in third. And then I do another thing where I take several different stories: for instance, the second story is all about Topsy the elephant, who was electrocuted at Coney Island in the 20th century, and the Hottentot Venus, and then the story of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant-headed god. So it’s about how the Hottentot Venus was brought over from South Africa and ended up in a museum, in a jar, then my own story of how Ganesh lost his head, and finally of how Topsy died. All different stories put together to make one story. There’s another one about Joan of Arc that has The Exorcist, Jean-Luc Godard, Hedy Lamarr... just a million different things put together.
But the characters from one story don’t interact with characters from another story. It’s not like a novel, in terms of character development. In American Purgatorio the story is told pretty much from a single perspective, and there’s a limit to what one person can see – unless you’re the Dalai Lama or something. Whereas if I was looking from above, I’d see you and your whole history and a whole thing about you, so that’s tricky... really tricky, actually... the first person and that omniscient viewpoint don’t really go hand in hand... I’d like to try it, though, in the next book.


SK — Jack is the sole narrator of American Purgatorio, and he makes the journey more or less alone. But of course there’s also Anne, or the memory of Anne. Tell me about her.

JH — Well, there may be some personal experiences there, but I don’t really want to... Originally, I was thinking about some event, like an accident, and then the loss. Anne herself... any personality or character she has came about through what happens between the two of them, her and Jack, and his memory of her. And I’m glad she does, because she could’ve just been a ghost, or just his fantasy, but as he gets farther along he also thinks about times that weren’t so pleasant, it wasn’t always perfect between them. Anne does actually round out a little more as the memories continue. I don’t know if I ever... this is a thing I don’t like to talk about too much... her actual physicality was not as clear as the other people in the book. Like Alex, or the other girl, or Jeff the British guy, or Feather and Fletcher – I know what they all look like. And with Anne – I’m not so sure.
I was thinking... my agent also sells film rights, so I was thinking, hey, wouldn’t it be great if they turned it into a movie! But then I realized it would be very difficult, and it probably won’t happen, because movies done like this tend to be ‘buddy pictures’: so if there were two guys traveling to find Anne, you would talk about the relationship between them. And the two guys would grow and become friends, as they were heading toward their goal. Or even a guy and his dog, or a woman and a dog – that could be sort of the story, the interaction between them, on their way to reaching the goal. My book is just a single guy, going forward. But then I thought, well maybe some creative person in Hollywood or somewhere will see – because in a way I think of Anne as being with him the whole time. He’s on a search for her, and yet the whole time he’s with her in the car. They’re together. So I guess it is kind of a buddy story after all.

The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, info@the-ledge.com
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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