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Finnby Jon Clinch
Author Q & A
ON THE ROAD AND ON THE PHONE: A CONVERSATION WITH JON CLINCH
During his tour for Finn–and in telephone calls to book groups ever since–Jon Clinch has been collecting interesting questions. Here are some of the best, by way of sparking discussion at your group meeting.
Question: Early in Finn, we know that the two main characters will die by the end. What kind of problems did that pose for you?
Jon Clinch: More than a few–but I wanted to start out with that ﬂoating corpse for a number of reasons. First, it never hurts to start with a body–especially one that’s been mysteriously ﬂayed. Second, I wanted to echo a scene from chapter three of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where people ﬁnd the corpse of a man drowned in the river (for a while they believe it’s Finn himself ). And last, this particular body belongs to a character who will be the emotional center of the novel and its chief revelation.
Beginning with this moment left me with two choices: I could either write the rest of the novel as a ﬂashback leading up to this point, or I could structure the narrative in a much more complex way to focus more on character than on plot. Obviously, I chose the second path. My goal from that point on was to create a story that developed its urgency by means of intense focus on a handful of characters– mainly Finn himself.
In the end, this structure served thematic purposes as well. Finn is in many ways a novel about imprisonment–Finn physically imprisons both Huck and Mary at various times–and taken all around there’s really no character who functions with the absolute freedom that he desires. It seems to me that the novel’s structural conﬁnement reinforces that point.
Q: Why didn’t you use dialect in Finn?
JC: I set out with two clear aims for the way that Finn would sound. First, I wanted an archaic and mythic kind of narrative voice that would give the novel a sense of timelessness and truth. That meant calling on the language and cadences of some large and imposing models: the King James Bible, for one, and the work of American masters like William Faulkner and Herman Melville. My second goal was to honor Twain’s grand use of dialect in Huckleberry Finn without attempting to mimic it in any way. By stripping the speech of characters like Finn or Bliss down to its barest essence, I was able to create a contrast between narrative and dialogue that conveys the impression of dialect without giving in to speciﬁcs.
As for Finn’s “I know it,” I hear this vocal tic as a statement of mingled assent and defensiveness and one-upmanship–as if he believes that merely agreeing with another person is too passive and undigniﬁed an act. With this little formula he simultaneously assents and defends his independence and declares his awareness of any knowledge possessed by whatever person he’s speaking with. Plus I believe that the Homeric quality of repeated, formulaic expression–coupled with the naming conventions in the book, where certain characters are identiﬁed only by their roles and Finn himself has no known ﬁrst name–works to advance the novel’s mythic scope.
Q: How careful were you to match events in Finn to events in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
JC: Extremely, although I always gave myself a certain amount of leeway. As Twain himself wrote: “Get your facts ﬁrst, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” My intent was always to honor the imaginative world that Twain created in Huckleberry Finn, rather than enslave myself to the details of geography or history. Some scenes from Huckleberry Finn replay whole in Finn, except for point of view and subtext. Some scenes that Twain only sketched or suggested–Finn and the professor from Ohio, Finn and Judge Stone–are ﬂeshed out fully. Other scenes that my narrative required–Finn’s discovery of Huck’s escape from the squatter’s shack, for example–called for interpreting the events of Huckleberry Finn in new ways, ways that I think are often more credible than Huck’s reportage.
Twain’s decision to have a child tell his own story gave me the freedom to consider Huck an unreliable narrator, particularly when it came to describing the wickedness of his own father. (One key example of this is the scene in Huckleberry Finn where, his escape from the squatter’s shack having left the people of St. Petersburg thinking him dead, Huck describes seeing a search boat that carries practically everybody in town–including Judge Thatcher and Pap. I couldn’t see Finn playing the good father here, even for pay, any more than I could see him falling for Huck’s clumsy “escape.” So I chalked Huck’s report up to wishful thinking, and let Finn go on his way up the river.
Q: Other than Twain, what were your inspirations?
JC: William Faulkner, obviously. I’d always wanted to write a novel with a powerful motivating character who remained just behind the scenes, like Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! The Judge ﬁlls that role in Finn, although as draft turned into revised draft he moved more and more out of the shadows. Herman Melville was a great inspiration, too. The Santo Domingo sequence where Finn abducts Mary is in some ways a retelling of his novel Benito Cereno.
Then there’s music. Many rhythms and phrases and references in Finn come from the magniﬁcent gospel hymns of Fanny Crosby, Charles Albert Tindley, and others. I came to love these as a child, and they stay with me to this day. Other musical touchstones are the ﬁne banjo-andﬁddle recordings of John Hartford and Texas Shorty, whose plaintive and stately melodies form the secret soundtrack of this book. You can hear one of them, “Midnight on the Water,” at www.ReadFinn.com.
Q: How have people responded to the notion of a biracial Huck?
JC: Finn deﬁnitely has Twain scholars talking, and by and large their opinion is that although my book’s revelations won’t satisfy everyone, they provide some important and convincing answers to questions posed by Twain’s novel. This gratiﬁes me, not because I set out to please the academics or to advance some kind of scholarly agenda, but because I set out to write a book that was true to its raw materials and true to its deepest impulses and true to my own worldview–particularly to my understanding of how human nature functions at points of extremity. That it’s being received as a convincing extension of Twain’s world seems to me a great reward for my efforts.
All of which leads me back to the central question of Huck’s blackness. As Shelley Fisher Fishkin demonstrated in her provocatively titled monograph Was Huck Black? Twain’s worldview was much inﬂuenced by the black children with whom he grew up. Their manner of speech–their manner of thought, come to that, since language both reﬂects and inﬂuences cognition–was enormously important in shaping his own modes of expression. Particularly his taste for satire and irony, without which we wouldn’t have much in the way of a Mark Twain at all. With Fishkin, I believe that there is most certainly a whole black culture at work behind the character of Huck Finn, regardless of the particulars of his pigmentation.
Q: What about the level of violence in Finn? How does it align with the world of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
JC: While he was composing Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain lamented that the strictures of polite culture–and the limits of writing for an audience of boys–kept him from describing in its pages the hair-raising violence that he had seen on the Mississippi of his youth. He felt constrained, in other words, from telling a truth that I was free to describe.
But I was more than free to describe it, really. I was obliged. First because of my commitment to Twain, and second because of my deeply held belief that we live in a world where it’s easy–in fact, almost inevitable–to become inured to violence. There is plenty of brutality in Finn, but there’s nothing in its pages that you can’t see on the evening news or in a thousand other less serious corners of popular culture: movies, cop shows, video games, the latest thriller on the library shelf. If some of Finn makes readers ﬂinch, and I hope it does, it’s only in the service of awakening a kind of primal human reﬂex that I fear we may be on the verge of dulling to extinction.
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