Jaime Clarke’s new novel, “Vernon Downs,” follows protagonist Charlie Martens from Phoenix to New York City in a quest to reunite with his lost love Olivia. Along the way, Charlie’s obsessive acts of impersonation draw him further into the world of Olivia’s favorite author, the book’s namesake Vernon Downs. A co-owner of Newtonville Books, and founding editor of Post Road, Jaime took time out to speak with Dead Darlings about his new project.
What drew you to this material, and this structure?
When I was a teenager in Phoenix, I saw the midnight movie of LESS THAN ZERO, and as someone who had moved around a lot, I was drawn to the portrayal of friendship between the main characters, the hurt caused when Clay, the main character, left for college, leaving his high school friends behind. The film was emblematic to me in a way that no other piece of art yet had been. I noted that the movie was based on a book and went to the public library to look up something about its author, Bret Easton Ellis. The feeling from the film was so powerful that Ellis became a talisman for something important in my life. In later years, I would recognize this transference on my part, this projection of something very personal on to a favorite author, the way people do with celebrities, and I wanted to write a novel about a narrator who confuses one thing for another, like Charlie in VERNON DOWNS does when he sets out to meet the favorite writer of the girl who has dumped him in a bid to win her back.
As for the structure, I respond strongly to in medias res, but also recognize the need for backstory, which is why the first section of the book is Charlie idling in a cab in front of the author’s building in the East Village while we hear how he got there and why.
Interesting that Ellis played such a key role in your development as a writer. I felt a deep resonance with another novel from the 80’s, Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” especially given the strong New York sections. What do you think Ellis and McInerney captured sucessfully about that era?
I can’t speak to McInerney–I only read BRIGHT LIGHTS, which I liked–but for me Ellis captured something timeless, which is the feeling of being displaced. All the characters in his books are living in a world they don’t comprehend, or feel uncomfortable in. I gravitated toward that idea as a teenager and in my early twenties, along with many, many other readers. And while the dressage for books like LESS THAN ZERO and AMERICAN PSYCHO et al is the 80s, you can just switch out the current pop culture and the narratives are as relevant today as they were then and will be in a hundred years.
Building on this theme of displacement, can you talk about Charlie’s various acts of impersonation that provide much of the book’s narrative tension?
What interested me most about writing this novel was creating a character who has never known the consequences of any of his behavior. Because Charlie is shunted around as a kid from distant relative to distant relative, he learns a certain social skill set that allows him to navigate his ever-changing landscape. And along the way, inadvertently, he comes to recognize that he can say and do anything without consequence. So when he meets the titular Vernon, Charlie has the ability to ingratiate himself but also can’t resist impersonating someone whose identity is so closely tied to something seemingly important to him, namely Olivia, whom he hopes to win back via his association with Vernon.
Writing fiction in some sense is an act of impersonation. What parallels exist between Charlie’s brand of impersonation and the writing process, and where might those parallels break down?
Creating characters on the page is a bit like an impersonation, I suppose, but maybe more like ventriloquism since writers hold a lot of voices and viewpoints in their heads. Charlie’s impersonation in VERNON DOWNS begins benignly enough, and he quickly realizes how seductive and freeing it is to become something other than yourself. But the other half of the impersonation is how readily people are willing to accept the fact, or how little attention we pay to the details of our own lives.
For a thirty-something aspiring writer with few accomplishments at the outset, one irony is that Charlie is very good at being an impersonator. Starting in Vermont at Camden College, and continuing on to Manhattan, he enters new worlds and identities with remarkable ease. How did you negotiate the line between showing Charlie to be a skilled fabricator, versus making his progress look too easy?
Charlie’s skills go back even further: his having to move around so much as a kid, shuttling from new school to new home to new environment imbued him with chameleon-like qualities, which he can summon effortlessly and, as we see in the novel, unconsciously. Charlie’s background borrows from my own a little and I remember when I realized that adults were mostly making things up as they went along, and how that exposed a seam that could be exploited, if one was so inclined. So I gave Charlie that instinct. And while it’s not probable that he could impersonate an airline pilot (though he could likely weasel his way into the cockpit), or a surgeon (ditto the operating room), the atmosphere around writing and books is such that it’s easy to pick up the lingo, and to express a thought or two about this or that, especially because there are no right answers. There’s no expertise, that is, which is what I love about reading and writing. Everyone’s opinion is valid and is mostly personality based, meaning their opinions are more about them than whatever is being discussed. Anyone dropped into that environment would find it easy to play along, I think.
Some of the funniest material in VERNON DOWNS involves the wacky individuals Charlie encounters during his impersonation binge in New York City – Jeremy Cyanin the dissipated writer, Christianna the hanger-on neighbor, Kline the celebrity journalist. Did you research these characters, or derive them from past experience, or some of both?
What I love most about New York–why I wanted to live there and did for a number of years–is that it draws the most interesting people together from everywhere and legitimizes their ambitions, whatever they might be. Which isn’t to say that other cities and towns and countries aren’t full of the same kinds of characters, but New York gives them a patina of normalcy where they may otherwise stand out in, say, Phoenix, where I grew up. So while writing VERNONDOWNS, these characters seemed more or less like the kind of people you’d run into. Not necessarily drawn on anyone I know or knew, though Jeremy Cyanin is an obvious anagram.
Given recent gyrations in the publishing industry, has the role of celebrity author changed? Is Vernon Downs the same guy in 2014 as he was in 2004, 1994, or 1984?
Vernon Downs is obviously based on the novelist Bret Easton Ellis and I remember back when I became interested in him, I had to go to the library in downtown Phoenix and look up articles about him on microfiche. And there were only so many articles. And hardly any photos. And Ellis was by no stretch J.D. Salinger in terms of reclusion. If I’d developed the same interest now, I’d know more than I ever wanted an hour later (and possibly feel like I’d exhausted my interest, sadly) and so from a fan’s viewpoint, times have certainly changed. Writers have Twitter feeds now, and Facebook pages, so they’re more readily available to their fans than in days gone by, too. There’s less mystery, surely. Though conversely writers like Donna Tartt are still able to maintain an illusive persona. But if you ask celebrated writers, they’ll probably tell you that they do not generate publicity but rather publicity seeks them out. And publicity used to be concentrated to the usual outlets, not dispersed like it is now across multiple platforms. So Vernon Downs would be the same person/writer, but he’d be more of a blip on the pop culture radar rather than the intense focus of it.
VERNON DOWNS is a lean machine of a book, in that it packs a lot of action into 160 pages. No fat, only meat. What are the opportunities and challenges of writing a novel with this level of narrative compression?
I came of age as a reader and writer in the mid-to-late 1990s and writers like Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel and Denis Johnson were the rage, especially in the creative writing program at the University of Arizona, where I studied. (And I actually studied with Amy Hempel at Bennington.) So I’m naturally drawn to narrative compression, the search for meaning and sentiment and even plot in small, deft strokes. Since I’ve owned the bookstore and become a better reader, I’ve added Modernism to my list of likes, but I was raised in the Post-modern tradition and will never be the writer with the thousand page book.
Speaking of the bookstore, you wear many hats in the New England writing scene – author, co-owner with your wife Mary Cotton of Newtonville books, founding editor of Post Road. Beyond the obvious, which is that multiple involvements expose you to a lot of good writers and their work, what other perspectives do these roles bring to your own fiction?
In truth, it diffused my personal ambition to become a writer. Two creative writing degrees, working at a literary agency in New York, and even POST ROAD both dovetailed and fuelled my ambition to write. When I published my first novel, some of that ambition dissipated in that a goal had been achieved (regardless of reception, sales, etc.) I was a bit adrift after, and so I taught creative writing at UMASS Boston and Emerson College and then met my wife Mary, who was working at Newtonville Books. When the bookstore was going to close, we rescued it and an entirely new avenue having to do with books opened up to me. And then I edited a couple of anthologies, which is highly collaborative, which I enjoy. And while I never lost my interest in writing, it moved from the center of my life to an interesting component of, hopefully, a much richer life.
Given these varied experiences in the writing world, and with the publication of VERNON DOWNS, do you feel an urge to write a certain type of story now, in a certain form, or are you likely to take a breather for a spell?
I haven’t really broadcast this, but VERNON DOWNS is part of a trilogy featuring Charlie Martens. The other two novels, THE MELISSA PROCESS and GARDEN LAKES, are finished. (I worked on all three novels on and off for the last fifteen years.) So I’ll spend my writing time seeing those two into print, likely. I’m also a family man now, so writing falls yet another peg down. But it’s all pieces of a whole, as I said.
You mentioned the Post-moderns – Carver, Hempel, Johnson – as strong influences on your work. What other bodies of literature to you return to year in and year out for inspiration?
It’s no shock that I’m a huge Fitzgerald fan. In fact, the literary agency I worked for, Harold Ober, was Fitzgerald’s agency. So I return to GATSBY, like so many other writers. I also read a lot of contemporary fiction, owing to the number of authors we host at the bookstore. Also, THE SEA, THE SEA by Iris Murdoch is one of my favorite books. It’s messy, but amazing. (The irony is the same lit agency where I worked represented her American rights, but I didn’t know her work then.) I recently realized that I’m most drawn to fiction that fetishizes sadness. And a ton of favorite work falls under this large umbrella: A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman MacLean, HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson, NEVER LET ME GO by Ishiguro, BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin, BLACK SWAN GREEN by David Mitchell, DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox, STONER by John Williams, THE BELL JAR by Plath, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED by Waugh. Exley, Didion. THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. INVISIBLE MAN is another book I read later in life, and continue to think about. An amazing book, really.