AN INTERVIEW WITH JON CLINCH, AUTHOR OF MARLEY

In Marley, Jon Clinch brings back to life the famous ghost, Jacob Marley, who appears before Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Wrapped in chains, he warns Scrooge of the dangers of not changing his cold-hearted ways. But why? How did Scrooge become so miserly and unfeeling? And what exactly went on between these two men in the past?

These are the questions Clinch examines in his grim, yet humorous, prequel to A Christmas Carol. Allusions to Dickens’ 1843 novella appear like delightful Easter eggs throughout the book, as Clinch tells the story of Scrooge and Marley from their meeting at a miserable boarding school for boys to their years as young men in London. As the two become unlikely business partners, they engage in several illegal and immoral schemes and amass a fortune. And yet, they both struggle to connect with the women they love.

Marley is Clinch’s fifth novel and follows in the footsteps of his debut, Finn, an exploration of Pap Finn, Huckleberry Finn’s violent, alcoholic father. Clinch doesn’t shy away from the darker issues of the times in his new book either, addressing prostitution, corruption, and slavery.

I couldn’t agree more with the New York Times Book Review’s glowing words: “By some uncanny act of artistic appropriation, [Clinch] has, without imitating Dickens, entered into the phantasmagoric realm that is the great novelist’s quintessential territory…Startling and creative…Remarkable… Masterly.”

If you love A Christmas Carol…and even if you don’t…you need to read Marley. And, if you’re looking for the perfect holiday gift for your reader/writer friends, give the two books together!

Read on…you’re going to love what Clinch has to say about Dickens, Twain, and how he created a must-read, modern tale out of a perennial classic we all know and love.

TRACEY PALMER: I really enjoyed this book—the rich language, the wry narrative voice, the vivid characters, the laugh-out-loud satire—but what really amazed me was how I couldn’t put it down. I knew exactly how the story was going to end, yet I couldn’t wait to see how it would all unfold. How did you build that suspense?

JON CLINCH: Thank you for those kind words. I like that readers don’t need to worry about what might happen at the close of Marley (spoiler alert: the poor guy’s doomed), because I’d rather they thought about how it all might work out, and why. That’s just a different focus for the suspense, really, and setting things up that way lets me spend my energy on the things that I value the most: character, language, pacing. I remember a writing exercise that called upon the student to compose a scene that was so suspenseful that the reader would want to jump ahead, yet so dense and so beautifully built that nobody would want to skip a word. That’s the trick, isn’t it? To make every single word its own reward.

This is your second novel based on a beloved classic written over a century ago. After writing about Huckleberry Finn’s troubled father, how did you settle on Jacob Marley as your next victim? 

Plenty of people know Pap Finn, but everybody knows Jacob Marley. And yet no one really knows him all that well. Dickens withheld everything that wasn’t necessary to kick-start A Christmas Carol and get on with the hauntings. We know that Marley was Scrooge’s partner in a firm that had a warehouse and a bookkeeping operation. We know that he lived in a small apartment within a great house that was otherwise let to commercial enterprises. We know that he was greedy and cruel in life, and that his afterlife is one of never-ending torment and regret. Beyond that, we’re on our own.

As lightly-sketched as Marley is, Ebenezer Scrooge himself isn’t much more than a stock character. We know that he’s a miser who in his early days had moments when a different course seemed possible. We know that even though Marley endures eternal punishment in the afterlife, he still retains a spark of brotherly feeling toward his old partner. Inventing what might have come before for both Scrooge and Marley requires only that they end up the way Dickens gave them to us. The absence of much detail gives a writer like me great deal of freedom.

With that in mind, I gave Scrooge and Marley contrasting character trajectories. Marley starts out wicked and struggles to find a hint of redemption, while Scrooge starts out innocent and hardens into the character we know so well.

Finn was very well-received, but did anyone advise you not to tempt fate and try it again? Was there anything you learned from writing Finn that you applied to Marley?

Actually, it went the other way. Lots of folks told me not to mess around with Huckleberry Finn—they nodded sagely and advised me that Mr. Clemens would be looking over my shoulder—but once that first novel was out there in the world, the door was open. I would even say that Marley was welcomed into the world all the more warmly because of Finn, since the industry—agents, editors, retailers, investors, readers—favors the author who will work a particular angle more than once.

You’ve now reimagined the work of not one, but two authors known for their distinctive literary voices. Yet in each case you crafted your own narrative voice that feels both true to the original, yet modern and fresh. How did you do that?

Any attempt to mimic Twain or Dickens would have landed me in trouble, for a multitude of reasons. First, I’d have failed, and readers with a good ear would have called me to account. That would have put me at a disadvantage with the critics. Second, people as a whole really don’t have a taste for the language and cadences of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century anymore. That would have put me at a disadvantage with readers. Third, and perhaps most important, spending several months of my life aping the voice of Twain or Dickens is just not my idea of a good time.

What I did instead was to create voices very specific to each book, suited to my purposes and evocative of different kinds of antiquity. For Finn, that meant a big, authoritative kind of voice that echoed the King James Bible, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner. For Marley, it meant a lighter, airier kind of tone, still a bit learned-sounding but closer-in and more personal.

I’d go so far as to say that the voice of this book, at least when it’s on the sunnier side of the street, owes more in the way of language and rhythm to Twain than it does to Dickens. They were contemporaries, after all, so it makes sense that an American writer rebuilding Dickens’s world might use some of Twain’s tools.

One interesting aside: There is a single scene that occurs in both Marley and A Christmas Carol: the moment when Belle breaks off her engagement with Scrooge. I had the idea that I should try lifting the dialog in that scene straight from Dickens—perhaps not intact, but at least in bits and pieces—and so I worked it all out that way. When I sent the manuscript off (without comment) to one of my early readers, he wrote back that there was something odd going on in the breakup scene. It simply wasn’t convincing. I knew then that I’d made a mistake, so I tossed out my Frankenstein’s monster and rewrote that part without a trace of the original Dickens. Live and learn.

How much research did you do to familiarize yourself with 18th and 19th century London, and how did you know when you’d done enough?

I was very serious about getting the dates right—Scrooge and Marley’s story hinges on the history of the British slave trade—but the mechanical bits of scene-setting were a different matter. Remember: I wasn’t trying to evoke 18th- and 19th-century London, I was trying to evoke 18th- and 19th-century London as Charles Dickens gave it to us. Just getting some of his memorable details right—the church towers, the icy fog, the rusty bells, the filthy streets—goes a long way toward orienting the reader to that world.

Beyond that, I always put my faith in the imaginative power of the reader’s own mind. If I can evoke a small and highly appropriate detail here and another one there, and make them very clear and very memorable and very vivid, then the reader’s mind can take over and fill in the rest.

I’m a great believer in not overdoing research anyhow. Knowing too much detail can get in the way of imagination, for one thing. And there’s nothing I hate more than a book that’s lumpy with background stuff that the author thought was interesting enough to jam in.

How have fans of Dickens and Twain responded to your work? Do you think you’ve brought new readers to these classics?

I’m not sure that A Christmas Carol could possibly acquire any new readers, although some folks who think they know the book could use another visit to the text so as to wash away the stuff they’ve picked up from various film versions. Huck is a little different, I think. It’s not as widely read these days as it might be, and there are probably some fair reasons for that.

What delights me most is when people who know Huck or the Carol tell me that I’ve changed the way they look at the originals. It suggests that I’ve done something right—that is, something fair and honest and respectful—regarding the worlds and the characters that Twain and Dickens gave us.

It’s too early to tell regarding Marley, but Finn has served to introduce me to a whole wide world of Twain scholars—some of whom have decided that I’m a Twain scholar as well, just one who works with a different set of tools. They see Finn as an act of criticism as much as an act of imagination, and I can appreciate that.

Marley is a dark book, but really funny. Was it as much fun to write as it is to read?

Of course! If you ask me, my books are always a lot funnier than people think. Even Finn has its moments. Dickens’s writing was frequently hilarious, of course, and he could deliver humor right alongside tragedy. It was all one grand thing to him. If I tried to adapt anything from his style, that would be it.

Was there a beloved part of the book you had to cut…your favorite Dead Darling?

Quite the opposite, I’m happy to say. I was able to bring back a favorite character from the very first novel I ever wrote—a manuscript that no agent would represent and no editor would buy—to kick off the financial battles that consume Scrooge and Marley. He’s a confidence man of a very high order, and he’s the only character I can imagine who might get the better of my Jacob Marley.

Here he is, from the text: “The fellow is sleekly groomed, his mustache clipped thin as a dueling scar and his jet-black hair greased into submission. The clothing in which he has attired himself for the evening is so understated as to be overwhelming, meticulously though invisibly tailored, with not a thread out of place. To Marley he smells of pomade and money.”

His name is Valentino Monteverdi, and setting him into motion for Marley made me very happy.

Is there another classic work you’d like to work your magic on? Is there one you’d never touch?

I’ve always thought that Long John Silver would make a good subject, or Mr. Kurtz from Heart of Darkness.

That said, I’ve recently come up with another mysterious troublemaker whose possible story interests me even more—and as much as I wish I could name him right now, I’d hate to give away the subject of my next book before I’m done writing it.

About Jon Clinch

Clinch’s first novel, Finn, was named an American Library Association Notable Book and was chosen as one of the year’s best books by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor. It won the Philadelphia Athenaeum Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Sargent First Novel Prize. His second novel, Kings of the Earth—a powerful tale of life, death, and family in rural America—was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and led the 2010 Summer Reading List at O, The Oprah Magazine. In 2008, Clinch organized a benefit for the financially-ailing Mark Twain House and Museum that literally saved the historic site from bankruptcy. Clinch lives in Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter @jonclinch.

 

1 comment

  1. Julie Peterson

    Great interview! I’m intrigued and love the suggestion of reading A Christmas Carol and Marley back to back. Adding it to my TBR list right now.

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