by Lisa Peet
Every author, no matter how traditional or experimental, is a teller of tales in one way or another. But the writer who chooses a fellow storyteller as his subject has particular responsibilities—both to the narrator in question and to the story itself. Jon Clinch’s books cover wide-ranging territory, from the pre-Civil War Midwest to contemporary rural New York to a broken-down future East Coast to Auschwitz in 1942, but all are deeply concerned with the work of the storyteller. The fact that he has taken his time getting them out in the world—and has done so playing by his own rules—only reinforces their integrity.
Jon Clinch grew up in Oneida, New York, a small, middle-class town 50 miles south of Lake Ontario. He was a bookish boy who liked science fiction best of all, leaning toward Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. He went on to major in English at Syracuse University, where he met his wife Wendy and supported himself working in factories and playing folk music in clubs. After graduating he taught high school English in Bucks County, PA for three years, at one point winning the Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year Award in the same week that his superintendent recommended he be fired for demanding too much work of his students. Out of a job, Clinch turned to advertising—starting out as a copywriter and eventually owning his own Philadelphia shop, but always writing his own copy, throughout an eventual 30 years in the trade. “To me, that was the most important part of the whole business,” he admits. “In some measure the size of my own shop was limited by the fact that I could never, ever hire somebody else to write for me.”
That perfectionism is a blessing for his readers. It also makes for slow progress: “The truth is that I can’t leave a single unlovely sentence behind, so I polish as I go and scrub up after myself before moving on. It’s definitely the opposite of the ‘get something on the page and clean it up later’ school.” Clinch’s first novel, Finn, was a critically acclaimed tour de force, dense with inventive language and a craftily twisting timeline; and not a word is out of place or hastily written. But the road to its 2007 publication was scattered with abandoned projects. You could call them false starts. Clinch, on the other hand, considers them his do-it-yourself MFA.
There was his first effort, a tragicomic whaling novel, which he describes as “John Barth riffing on Herman Melville.” While that manuscript was making the rounds, he began his second, which also remained unclaimed. He then turned his roving literary eye to his roots—Oneida, and the Oneida Community, John Humphrey Noyes’s infamous commune built on free love and a twisted form of Christianity. The combination of sex and religion seemed like a surefire formula. The final product, though, ended up burdened by his painstaking research. For all the allure of the subject matter, the novel felt dry. One agent suggested he get rid of “all of the religious and sociological crap that slowed down the first three-quarters of the manuscript,” which would essentially leave him with a 19th-century potboiler.
There followed a collection of linked short stories, which agents loved but couldn’t figure out how to sell, and a tragicomic historical novel that met with similar difficulties. At this point, a less tenacious writer might have stuck with advertising. Clinch realized, though, that while his eclectic interests provided the needed spark of inspiration, the material didn’t connect with readers. He was writing books that were, as he admitted, “extremely hard to explain.”
But at the same time, he was working: refining his technique, improving his craft:
Every aspiring writer likes to hear stories about somebody who wrote one novel and got it published for a huge advance and sold ten million copies overnight, but there’s a reason stories like that stand out: They’re not normal. The way it usually works—and there’s good reason—is that a writer puts in lots and lots of miles before anyone begins to notice him.
In most cases, including mine, that’s good.
At first glance, Clinch’s next venture could not have been more accessible. Finn explored the backstory for Pap, the father of Huckleberry Finn, one of literature’s most beloved boy heroes. But Finn is a dense, dark work, and Clinch’s narration owes as much to William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, and Cormac McCarthy as to Mark Twain. Finn is a spiritual cousin to McCarthy’s Suttree, but where Suttree is something of a dark angel, Finn is a white devil incarnate.
The details from Huckleberry Finn that inspired Clinch’s novel are recognizable—he is faithful to them throughout. But the rest of the story twists and veers, moving forward and backward in time to offer up tales of the elder Finn’s own Pap, the fearsome Judge, and Huck’s mother; as well as an explanation of Finn’s final appearance in the original, lying dead in a cabin floating downriver.
Avoiding both Twain’s linear narrative and discomfiting vernacular, Clinch opts instead for a loping, almost baroque style that carries the story forward as confidently as the currents of the Mississippi. Finn is a drunk and a son of a bitch, but the pictures he paints of his own falls from grace—sometimes literally, in charcoal on his bedroom wall—are as beautiful as they are horrible. Finn tells his grim story as loquaciously as any Southern riverbank raconteur, and Clinch abets him with grace. Even the smallest exchange has its own rough gravitas, such as one dinnertime moment between Finn and his host’s small son, the boy flush with fascination over a mysterious dead body found floating downstream at the novel’s opening—which turns out to be a bit of a sore spot for Finn:
“That dead body that came down the river awhile back: Did you know some folks thought it was you?”
Finn holds his fork in his fist like a club, and he freezes with it poised over a dessert plate clotted with syrup. For some seconds he does not move, not so much as an eyelash, and his presence at the table takes on by its very stoniness a kind of fearsome potency, like a mountain lion coiled to leap or a hunter waiting behind some leafy blind for the inevitable moment when his prey will step into full and vulnerable view. He is pure potential, dead silent and for all human purposes outside time, and as he hangs there during those few interminable seconds the boy realizes he has made a dreadful mistake—until with a visible effort the dinner guest slides his lips back over blue teeth as tipsy as tombstones and gives the boy a ferocious smile and moves his head toward him just perhaps a quarter of an inch or even less, a cobra lining up his strike, and returns question with question: “What body?”
Finn was accessible enough that an agent and then a publisher—Random House—took it on before it was finished. It went on to be named an American Library Association Notable Book and chosen as one of the year’s best by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor. Clinch was 53 that year, and just getting warmed up.
Three years later, in 2010, Random House published his next novel Kings of the Earth, whose roots lay in a 1990 news item that had drawn national attention. One of four brothers living together on the fringes of a rural upstate farming town was found dead, and the stories and rumors that sprung up around the investigation became the subject of a 1992 documentary film, Brother’s Keeper. Clinch was fascinated by the story for several reasons, not least because his family had roots in the same area. But he was moved, once again, by the idea of how a tale is told—here revealed over the course of 60 years through recollection, confession, conversation, and gossip. Kings is a story of what is said and what never will be. Clinch explains:
I reached back into memory for incidents and stories. Stories my dad has always loved to tell about growing up with five brothers in a rough-edged and fatherless household. Stories that I felt an obligation to preserve by retelling in my own way. They’d never before had to make any kind of linear or emotional or conceptual sense, because true stories don’t have to do that. Yet as I worked to fit them into the Proctor family timeline, to make these events come alive in their lives, I found connections.
The result is a haunting chorus of voices, opening with the surviving brother’s testimony: “My brother Vernon went on ahead.” Vern’s passing brings a host of prying eyes into their isolated life, setting off a chain of unwelcome events. But as Clinch makes clear, the roots of community stretch in many directions; the novel is an unsentimental look at the ties that bind people, even against their will, and the ever-changing ways there are to see someone you’ve known your whole life. As the town’s police captain muses,
I don’t know how much a person is built to endure, but I believe that living under those conditions would be a test of it. Those brothers got whittled away a little at a time. Worn out and used up just going from one day to the next. It’s like how a science program on television will say a rock formation has weathered and you don’t even think twice about the meaning of it, until later on you realize that they were talking about actual weather. Rain, wind, some freezing and thawing. One day after another. The ordinary things that wear the world down.
The elegant Kings of the Earth, one of the Washington Post’s best books of the year, also led the 2010 Summer Reading List at O, The Oprah Magazine. But that issue came out seven weeks before the book went on sale, and Random House wasn’t able to push production up to capitalize on the publicity. While having a large publishing house behind his work made for a certain sense of security, Clinch was unhappy with its inflexibility, and was rapidly losing his initial enthusiasm for their collaboration.
So he decided to try an experiment: Why not self-publish? The platforms were becoming both more sophisticated, in terms of finished product and market reach, and simpler to use. With his background in design and marketing, his experience as a published author, and a comfort level with technology, Clinch believed it was worth a try. In the spirit of true scientific inquiry he would make it a control group of one: a science fiction novel written under a pseudonym, which would have to sink or swim on its own merits.
Thus What Came After, by one Sam Winston, was published in December 2011 using Amazon’s CreateSpace platform. And it was a hit—it seems there was a healthy audience for a dystopian odyssey without vampires, zombies, or robots, set in a not-too-distant future where the government has fallen victim to corporations, and edible food and health care are among the first casualties. Within a few weeks, it was Amazon’s #8 bestseller for science fiction/adventure—a category that included not only e-books, but print as well. While Clinch was happy to embrace the genre and its conventions, the book still had a strong crossover appeal, and he was constantly surprised by friends and fans telling him about the great new author they’d discovered.
Emboldened by the book’s sales and its warm reception from readers, Clinch opted to bypass the traditional publishing establishment again for his next work, The Thief of Auschwitz. It would be available in print and electronically on a variety of platforms, with a strong independent bookstore presence. Clinch enlisted trusted readers as editors and designed the cover and layout himself. The result is as professional—and handsome—as anything produced by a major imprint.
The Thief of Auschwitz, released on January 15, is more linear than his previous books. But it, too, is concerned with those who bear witness, and the stories they need to tell. Jacob, Eidel, Max, and Lydia Rosen are interred at the camp in 1942. Jacob is a barber, Eidel an artist, and these talents determine all their fates. When Jacob’s skill with a razor earns him a job shaving the camp’s officers, he in turn gets Eidel a commission painting a portrait of the deputy commandant’s family, buying the Rosens a small amount of grace. But such a dark place necessarily breeds a world of shadow storytellers as well; Eidel secretly capturing what she really sees, etching a family of grotesque creatures into her bed frame at night, and nervous little Gretel stealing every spare moment to write, scribbling on scrap paper with a pencil stub, rolling each one tightly, and stuffing it into a bottle to bury in hopes that someone, someday will find it and read the truth.
Clinch has talked about his immersion in Holocaust literature and how its horrors forced him, after a point, to look away; with this novel, he hopes that readers will gain entry to the larger story through his smaller, gentler one:
Everyone has a lens through which he must understand the world of the camp. Gretel herself, for example, having seen the transaction between the two of them, reflects only for a moment on the poor junkman before she begins to wonder what fate might lie in store for the scrap of unburned cigarette paper or bit of foil that will remain…. She vows to keep an eye out, already adding this potential treasure to the storehouse of material that she keeps for her project. So it is that riches trickle down, even here.
The Thief of Auschwitz is, of course, heartbreaking. But it also offers redemption—not through human nature, or the persistence of hope, but in the act of writing it all down, drawing a picture. Giving the storytellers dignity, and voices of their own, is a writer’s small recompense for the world’s evils. The fact that Clinch keeps doing so—and has made it a point to proceed entirely on his own terms—is a story worth telling in itself.
For a more in-depth look at Jon Clinch’s self-publishing ventures, check out our very interesting Q&A session.
Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, Library & Information Science student, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.