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Jaime Clarke in Conversation with David Bezmozgis, Maud Casey, Ramona Ausubel, Hannah Pittard, Rebecca Makkai, Charles Bock, Brock Clarke, David James Poissant, and Lydia Millet

World Gone Water | Roundabout Press, 2015

Jaime Clarke’s new novel, World Gone Water, enlarges the portrait of Charlie Martens—first introduced in Clarke’s Vernon Downs (2014)—a young man grappling with how to navigate the world. Set in Phoenix, seven years before the events of Vernon Downs, Charlie finds himself released from a voluntary stay at a behavioral clinic in the Sonoran desert, the result of an incident with a woman he met while tending bar in Florida where Charlie had fled to forget his high school sweetheart, whose sudden marriage to someone else devastates him. But Charlie’s homecoming launches him into a chain of events with a cast of characters that assault his fragile state and further undermine his general impressions about life and how to live. World Gone Water roves the deep terrain of our want for emotional connection and is a devastating narrative about love, sex, and friendship.

David Bezmozgis, author of The Betrayers: How did you arrive at the form of World Gone Water?

Clarke: I’ve always loved books with titled vignettes. There’s something poetic about them. The first I remember really falling for was The House on Mango Street by the great Sandra Cisneros, who actually is a poet. Such a beautiful, haunting novel. Another, far on the spectrum in terms of style from Mango Street is American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, a book much closer in spirit to World Gone Water, at least subject-wise. The challenge in writing a book with shards of narrative is assembling them in a way that produces a propulsive narrative and, in my case, of creating a likable narrator who does unlikable things.

Maud Casey, author of The Man Who Walked Away: What books were most influential while writing World Gone Water? Were there other influences?

Clarke: In addition to Mango Street and American Psycho, I remember The Virgin Suicides as an influence, though it’s hard to draw a direct line to it. Perhaps the tone. That novel is very evocative and the world Eugenides builds perfectly encircles the narrative. I tried to emulate that idea by creating a world both recognizable but also specific and peculiar. The film In the Company of Men was also an early influence on my thinking. I remember seeing it and being shocked to have the baser instincts of men laid so bare, and wanting to do the same in a novel.

Ramona Ausubel, author of A Guide to Being Born: Your work has a lot of suspense in it. Readers experience this suspense over a few hours or days but you as the writer have to hold that tension for months or years. How do you do it?

Clarke: Funny to hear the word suspense used in reference to my work, especially because the bookstore my wife and I own is full of master practitioners of suspense. But I take what you mean. Because my work tends to be character driven—World Gone Water is the second in a trilogy about Charlie Martens that began with Vernon Downs and will finish next year with Garden Lakes—I’m conscious of trying to create a reason for readers to keep reading by doling out character reveals judiciously. And by injecting some semblance of plot at moments that seem organic. I mean, things do happen to characters in circumstances, just as they do to us as we live our lives.

Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion: Talk to me about sex, sexuality, or sexual tension. How do you write about any of those things without destroying the mystery?

Clarke: There are many gradations of love and sex in World Gone Water, and Charlie understands some of them better than others. Anyone who writes about these ideas quickly recognizes that they each have their own characteristic, that while we sometimes talk about love and sex as complementary, they can also exist separately, which they do in Charlie’s mind. And when he puts each under the microscope they appear mysterious, as anything would out of context. One of the overall themes of these novels is context, or rather Charlie’s lack of one.

Rebecca Makkai, author of Music for Wartime: What was the last major element you cut from the book? And why? And do you miss it?

Clarke: Most of the drafts contained scenes from Charlie’s voluntary stay in a behavioral rehabilitation center, where you see him participating with other patients in exercises, etc. I loved writing these scenes and thought it would be useful for readers to see Charlie interacting with people who were also emotionally damaged, but as I circled the last draft the scenes felt cartoonish to me and I cut them with no regrets.

Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children: Are there any autobiographical events in the novel?

Clarke: Not as many as my enemies would like to imagine. (Kidding.) There’s only one piece of autobiography in World Gone Water: Charlie joins the Mormon church in a grandstanding way to convince his high school girlfriend, also a Mormon, that he could commit to their relationship. It embarrasses me on a hundred levels to admit that I did the same. Another vaguely autobiographical element is the character of Jay Stanton Buckley, the CEO of Buckley Cosmetics, is very loosely based on my experiences working for Charles H. Keating, Jr., the savings-and-loan financier who went to prison.

Brock Clarke, author of The Happiest People in the World: At one point did you realize that you weren't done with Charlie Martens? Did you think, while you were writing Vernon Downs, that you wanted him to star in another book, or did the idea of his reappearance in World Gone Water come later?

Clarke: In truth, I worked on all three novels over a 10 – 12 year span, thinking that each was its own entity. But when I thought about them from the point-of-view of character, it was clear they were all about the same type of narrator, so I suddenly saw them as a trilogy. That idea didn’t appeal to me immediately—there are a number of writers who write multiple books about the same narrator, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be one of them, or could be. But when I realized the freedom to expand the investigation into Charlie’s character a trilogy would bring, the pluses won out over my reticence.

David James Poissant, author of The Heaven of Animals: And what made you choose to publish the second volume first? What are the risks of presenting books written out of order?

Clarke: As a reader, filmgoer, citizen—whatever—I prefer narratives that I have to piece together. Possibly all writers feel that way, though some are inclined to take the jumble of life and present it linearly. Linear narratives are less interesting to me personally. So within each book, the reader has to do some work to piece together what’s going on and then each book itself is another piece in the overall picture of Charlie Martens and how he learns to navigate the world. (Garden Lakes contains dual narratives, one involving Charlie in the present day and one that goes back further than Vernon Downs and World Gone Water.) It was also important to me that the books stand alone, too, so they can be read in any order. You could read one and be done but still get a portrait of Charlie, or you might hopefully be interested in another and see Charlie again in a different set of circumstances that continue to shape him as a person.

Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise: Which are more honest, husbands or wives?

Clarke: There is a lot of talk about marriage in World Gone Water, held up as some sort of ideal in Charlie’s mind, and the novel ends with his encounter with a truly devoted husband and wife. One of Charlie’s biggest problems is he takes everything at face value, thinks everyone is speaking from a place of purity and without agenda. Anyone who knows anything about the world knows that simply isn’t true, and husbands and wives might know it to an exponential degree. (The best answer a happily married man can give, Lydia.)

Jaime Clarke will be doing two readings in New York City this month:

KGB Bar: Sunday, April 12, 7 PM, with Jeffery Rotter

Center for Fiction, Thursday, April 30, 7PM, in conversation with Amy Grace Loyd

To celebrate the publication of World Gone Water by Jaime Clarke, Roundabout Press is offering a complimentary copy of World Gone Water and Clarke’s previous novel, Vernon Downs, to anyone who emails [email protected] with their mailing address. One per person and while supplies last.


Jaime Clarke

Jaime Clarke is the author of the novels World Gone Water, Vernon Downs, and We’re So Famous, editor of Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes, Conversations with Jonathan Lethem, and Talk Show: On the Couch with Contemporary Writers, as well as co-editor of No Near Exit: Writers Select Their Favorite Work from Post Road Magazine and Boston Noir 2: The Classics. He is a founding editor of the literary magazine Post Road, now published at Boston College, and co-owner of Newtonville Books, an independent bookstore in Boston.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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