The Hard Parts, The Genuine Parts
A Conversation with James Charlesworth
by Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice
James Charlesworth and I were first introduced by my husband who repeatedly mentioned a writer friend I should meet. I was skeptical. You’ve probably had a similar experience. You say you’re a writer and everyone in the room/coffee shop/doctor’s waiting room says they are too. Turns out my skepticism wasn’t warranted as I was soon chatting with James about all things writing, complaining about the loneliness of submitting and revising, and celebrating when James sold his novel.
Spanning seventy years of American life, The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill is a marvel. Cinematic in scope, Patricide is a family saga about the birth (and death) of the American family and the American Dream. Reading James’ long, exacting sentences I was taken with his ability to write intimately about family, love, and grief, while also tackling big, divisive topics like capitalism and the patriarchy.
A few weeks ago, James and I sat down for a three-hour chat about writing and writing slogans and why we think writing rules do more harm than good. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice: Okay, so the first thing I want to ask you about is the title. You said you knew it before you started writing. For me personally, I can’t write until I know the first and last sentence. Is knowing the title up front like a road map?
James Charlesworth: This is the first time it's ever happened to me like that. Usually the first thing I know is the first line, and generally it’s something that comes to me out of the blue when I'm not even thinking about it.
It’s kind of an unconscious thing; it appears like magic and then a story grows naturally out of it in my mind. But in the case of this book, the first thing that came to me, in that unconscious way that first lines usually do, was the title.
I was kind of in a really frustrated place at the time. I’d just abandoned a novel I’d been working on for four years—this 800-page opus that was supposed to be my grand debut—and so I was thinking a lot about ambition, about the struggle for success and the fear of failure. Those were the themes that sort of motivated Patricide. I knew early on that I wanted the eponymous father character to be this prolific and careless figure of white patriarchal capitalist society, and I wanted each of his children to become emblematic of some aspect of the disillusionment or insecurity or paranoia that is its byproduct. Having the title was helpful, because it began to tell the story of the book in a way that allowed me to focus on character; it gave me a destination and a framework that made it easier to keep my interests from wandering.
So yes, I guess in a way the title did sort of serve as a road map while I was writing this book, in that it kept me from getting off track, which is usually a problem for me. I have a tendency to blindly follow my instincts and end up in the weeds.
KAR: You mentioned recently that your earlier writing was funnier; that you liked to write with humor but then stopped trying to be charming and wrote Patricide, which is much more obviously serious (and fairly dark). Why is charming bad?
JC: I don’t think being charming is bad. I totally don't think charming is bad! I think it's great. But the question of how funny to be in my fiction has always been something I’ve struggled with—something I've gone back and forth on. Humor was the first thing I latched onto when I first started writing and first started figuring things out. I was working on this novel all through college, this terrible, thinly-veiled autobiographical novel…
KAR: Everyone has done that, right? Got to get it out of your system.
JC: Right, that's how everyone starts. Write what you know, they say. But when I first started working on it, I didn't have any kind of style. I hadn’t read enough books to have any inkling of what my voice should sound like. So it turned into this story of a teenage kid running around with his friends getting drunk written in this very stark, very serious Hemingway-type style. It was completely terrible because I didn’t understand how to match a voice to subject matter. What started to change things for me was when I read this book by John Irving called The Water-Method Man.
KAR: I don’t know that one.
JC: Yeah, it’s one of his early novels and is basically forgotten. But it's completely hilarious, and it breaks every single writing rule that you could ever possibly break. The point-of-view changes just about every chapter. First person. Third person. A little second person. It’s completely non-linear and some sections are in past tense and then it randomly switches to present tense. It was also the first piece of so-called literary fiction I’d ever read that was just unabashedly and unapologetically funny. And for me it was like, holy shit, I'm allowed to write this way? I'm allowed to just be a smartass and make people laugh? At the time, this was mind-blowing, because it made me realize that it was okay to use my sense of humor that I use in everyday life in my writing. I instantly became 1000 times better as a writer, because I felt permitted to use language that was mine instead of trying to sound like “Hills Like White Elephants” or some shit with all this stupid understated gravitas.
KAR: I think it's still a problem in the literary world. If it’s funny it’s not serious, which means it cannot be taken seriously, right? George Saunders mentioned this during his AWP keynote, how he was attempting to imitate the greats and it wasn't until he just started writing like him that he felt free.
JC: I had forgotten about that. But, yeah, I remember listening to that speech and really identifying. But what happened to me was that I kind of took it too far. Or maybe I just had a hard time harnessing it. I remember in grad school, I used to write these stories that I thought were really funny, and like, really great. And most people in workshop would really like them and I’d get a lot of positive feedback. And then I remember this one guy, when it was his turn to opine about my latest comic masterpiece, he just said, “Too many jokes.” That’s all he said. “Too many jokes.” With this really pompous look on his face. At the time it pissed me off, but I think he was probably right in a way. He was just making the point that, after a while, no matter how hilarious you are, it gets old. And it stops being funny. At some point, he wanted there to be something more than just me doing a stand-up routine on the page. At a certain point, the comedy got in the way of telling the story. It became a way of avoiding writing the hard parts, the genuine parts.
But I don’t think I really got the message until years later, after I’d worked for four years on that 800-page opus I was telling you about earlier. I finally finished it and sent it off to agents, and a lot of them basically said the same thing as that dude back in workshop. Too many jokes. So that was where I was at when I started Patricide, and so for this book the pendulum swung in the complete opposite direction. I’m already thinking for the next book that I might try to find more of a happy medium between serious and funny. I just need to remember not to tell too many jokes, or that dude from workshop will show up in my brain with that smug look on his face.
KAR: Your novel is pretty dense with spellbindingly long sentences—a style of writing that does not seem to be in vogue right now. People are much more minimal, more interior with their narratives. But your novel is more of a quintessential epic, the all-American third person family saga with a shifting point of view and a very expository style, and I’m wondering how that came to be.
JC: I think there are a couple different answers to that question. But I think the first is that the long sentences may have been the result of trying to figure out how to access those things that were missing in my previous more humorous stories. With this book, I was really trying to focus on character in a way that I hadn’t before, and part of the process of delving deeply into that was switching off my conscious mind and turning the storytelling over to my subconscious—sort of feeling the story instead of thinking about it. I was also sort of getting my feet wet with third person after writing mostly first person for a large portion of my writing life.
KAR:: It’s interesting. I find that in third person I can be much funnier. But I don't get as deep into the emotional part of it. If I go into first person, often it is like a thinly-veiled version of me and I can access something I'm not able to normally access. If you want to access something personal, you almost have to word-vomit it up.
JC: For me it’s the opposite. Writing in third person helps me get deeper into character and motivations. But yeah, I agree about the word vomit thing. A lot of my first drafts are written in that style. I usually write them out longhand using pen and paper. I scribble them down super fast, and my handwriting is really sloppy, especially when I'm writing fiction. And I do that partially because that way as soon as it's down on the page, I can't read it very easily, and so it’s harder for me to revise when I should be just creating.
Whenever I try to type a first draft on my laptop, I'll type one sentence and then read it fifteen times, then move around some of the words. Type another sentence and read it fifteen times and decide, oh, maybe the second sentence should come first. Or maybe I should throw out that first sentence and just use the second one. Or maybe I should combine them? So the word vomit thing helps me avoid that immediate urge to edit and just get the ideas out on the page without overthinking and polishing too much. I always say that you can’t start figuring out the best way to assemble your material until you have material to assemble, so word-vomiting helps me create the material. It also helps me focus on emotion rather than phrasing, which activates that unconscious region of the brain that I was talking about earlier. And then stuff starts coming out that you don't see coming until it's out.
KAR: It’s freeing to just let it all go. If I read a novel, and the action is really descriptive—like, I opened the door and then I went into the room—I kind of tune out. And actually something really amazing about your novel is how cinematic it is. The moving forward action, these big sentences acting as the camera taking me from place to place. I might as well just been moving with you. But a lot of fiction is not like that. It's much more mechanical
JC: That sort of leads me to one of the other answers to your previous question: the question of how the style of this book came about. I’ve always been interested in stories that operate in a circular way, that move you around in time and reveal things early on that you’re not quite sure what to make of at first. But then they’re explained later in a way that makes the story more revelatory. It’s a style of storytelling that’s used a lot in film but maybe not so much in fiction. I think immediately of Pulp Fiction, that scene when Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are dressed in suits and ties and they go to the guy’s house and steal his hamburger and shoot him, and then the next scene they’re dressed in T-shirts and shorts when they show up to meet Marcellus Wallace. It’s only much later in the movie that you’re shown the scene that was skipped over earlier, the scene that tells you why they were wearing T-shirts instead of suits. There’s something about that manipulation of time and detail that fascinates me. And I think some of those long sentences that inspire a more cinematic experience came out of a desire to create and then manage that circularity, of trying to create a sort of revelatory drama by leaving gaps in the story and then tying them up later.
Another one of the obvious challenges of putting this book together was that I knew there was just way too much backstory.
KAR: I was just about to ask you about that. Your novel is basically all backstory. And this is something that also comes up for me a lot. I'm mostly interested in backstory
JC: But you're not supposed to do that, right?
KAR.: Right! How did you convince yourself to break that rule?
JC: I was just being stupid and irresponsible and getting carried away with myself again, the same way I used to get carried away with all the jokes until I got called on it. But I think maybe what helped me convince myself that I could make this book work was that road map you talked about earlier: the road map of the title. I knew I was dealing with a family saga with a twist, that this novel was going to be the story of a family but also suggestive of a broader story, backdropped by American history and swirling with its mythology, steeped in its ideals and tarnished by its corruption. I also wanted the stage to be expansive and incorporate settings that would feel linked to American ideas about ambition and striving, hence New York City and Las Vegas and Alaska and Los Angeles.
KAR: That expansive stage with all those disparate settings is one of the things that makes your novel so great.
JC: Well, thanks. But I mean, the fact remains that the book is like ninety-percent backstory, and you have this present tense story that basically just serves as a hook. It functions as a storytelling frame that mostly exists as a vehicle to tell you about these characters, right? I was just really interested in situating the narrative in a way that would keep the present-tense story—the story of the four siblings traveling to Omaha to confront their father—as simple as possible. Beginning at the end like that necessitated a lot of jumping around in time—a lot of backstory and “flashbacks,” some people would call them. I wanted the reader to begin with this idea of what these characters are up to but really no idea why. And then the project of the book was to sort of circle back and gather the details of their lives and then arrive back where we started, back in the present tense, in a way that would make the reader feel these characters’ grievances and sorrows in a dramatic way, that would make the reader maybe not entirely sympathize—that’s not necessarily what I was looking for—but at least feel an authenticity in their journey.
But, anyway, I think that was yet another reason for the long sentences. A lot of it came out of this idea of like, holy shit, I've been in backstory for thirty-five pages and I need to get back to the main story. But I need this to happen first, and oh, wait, the reader also has to know about this in order for what the character does next to make sense. So in places it was kind of like a rushing or a pouring-out of components of the story as quickly as possible, because I knew I was totally breaking the rules. Like, constantly. And yet, the breaking of those rules was a huge part of the conceit of the novel, so I was just trying to figure out ways to make it work. The long sentences with these dramatic rushes toward climax were a part of that. A lot of them were the result of heavy cutting and pasting. They were originally like four or five different sentences in different parts of the book that I grafted together in order to streamline and create effective tension and release points.
KAR: Really? I would not have guessed that. But so then how did you convince yourself it was okay to break all these rules at the risk of not getting read. Not that people aren’t going to read this book, but you had to be thinking in the back of your mind when you were working on it—knowing you were breaking all of these rules—that it might never see the light of day.
JC: I actually think I got so caught up in the process of trying to figure out how to make the book work that I stopped thinking about whether or not it would sell. I was really thick in the weeds with this book for a long period of time, and while I was in that place, I honestly wasn’t thinking about getting an agent or selling the book. I just wanted to solve the problems I’d created and figure out a way to make this weird narrative framework that I’d devised work. I also just sort of had faith that there would be enough people who were interested in that tendency toward non-linear storytelling—because you’re seeing more and more of it on television and things like that—that it would be okay.
KAR: Maybe that’s partly what makes it what feel so cinematic—the fact that most narratives on the screen are not linear.
JC: I sometimes feel like if this book were made into a television show or a movie that the flashback thing would seem a lot less risky to people in that medium. Television shows have become so sophisticated in their methods of storytelling, which is kind of funny. You used to think of TV as this unsophisticated mode of storytelling. And novels and short stories were where the weird and innovative shit went down. Now I think it's become the opposite. A lot of fiction works in a much more straightforward way, and television shows are the groundbreakers. I wonder sometimes how that happened. It seems like there are all these rules that we apply to fiction now that don’t necessarily translate to a lot of really experimental stuff getting produced.
KAR: I agree. Sometimes these blanket statements about what a writer should or should not do can turn people off from trying something new, like writing long sentences or not using backstory or writing the story backwards.
JC: I remember watching this interview with one of the writers of Game of Thrones. I absolutely love that show but what this guy said annoyed me, and the reason it annoyed me was because he trotted out one of those little tropes that you hear in writing workshops all the time. He said there are no flashbacks in Game of Thrones because flashbacks are lazy storytelling. And I was like “How can you make that statement? Especially now when there's so much TV out there that operates completely on flashbacks and in a non-linear way?” There are now entire shows built on slowly finding out the backstory. And for me a story like that is way more sophisticated and interesting, so I don’t know how you can call it lazy storytelling. For me, it’s less lazy, because it’s more intricate and layered and compelling.
KAR: I worry that we all start to internalize these statements. It must impact our writing.
JC: Right. And there’s an impulse in the literary world to sort of throw out these slogans.
KAR: Like what?
JC: Like flashbacks are lazy storytelling. Cut all your adverbs. Show, don’t tell.
KAR: I always think that’s hilarious. Because showing is what you’re doing. Writing is telling.
JC:I always get confused about that distinction too. Or at least the way it’s applied. I need someone to define “show” for me and then define “tell” for me. I think the original idea was that you should write something like, “Joe punched the wall” instead of “Joe was pissed off,” which makes sense and is a pretty solid recommendation, but people have started to misinterpret it or try to make it into a more abstract thing. Like if you use exposition then you’re automatically telling, even if it’s very visual exposition involving a lot of “showing” of action. I mean, I understand what people are getting at when they interpret it this way—and my novel has a ton of exposition, which is obviously not for everyone. But when you’re dealing with these generalities, I think the further you get from the original advice, the more you try to make them into these grandiose commandments, the more you start putting blanket statements over stuff that’s open to interpretation and gradations of style and taste.
KAR: “A little on the nose” is the other one. And what does that really mean? It’s too obvious? Maybe obvious isn’t always bad.
JC: That one’s just kind of stupid and meaningless. Sometimes a phrase arbitrarily becomes the preferred shorthand of a moment. Who knows why? Sort of like “It is what it is.” If I hear one more person say that, I swear I’m going to move back to Maine and build a cabin in the woods. And plus, sometimes there are places to be obvious, right? Every once in a while, you just have to tell the reader what the hell is happening.
KAR: I think also the writing workshop creates this need to impress people. Sometimes you just need to write in a vacuum and avoid people.
JC:A lot of Patricide was written in a vacuum. I agonized over the details and the structure for years, and it felt hard to show it to other people because it wouldn’t have really made sense until I had the structure figured out and each of the different pieces resolved. I mentioned earlier that each of the four siblings has this elaborate backstory? Well, the worst thing about writing this novel was that for almost three years I was working on the backstory for just one of the siblings. The entire rest of the novel was basically finished, so like ninety-percent of the book was done and I was just spinning my wheels arranging and figuring out how to handle this one character’s backstory.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stages of a writer’s development. And the first stage is when you write just for sheer enjoyment. You sit down, armed only with your love for the books you’ve enjoyed and the desire to create something similar, and you write purely for the pleasure of it. And then the second stage is the process stage, where you take that personal and private joy and try to craft it into something that you can give to the world and have the world understand and relate to. That second stage is necessary if you eventually want to sell your work. But if you get stuck and spend too much time in that second stage, it can become really hard to get out. I’ve been stuck in that second stage for the last decade and a half. I’m not sure yet if there’s a third stage or what it looks like, but I’m hopeful that there comes a point when you can find a way to return to that blissful unselfconscious invention of the first stage, because that’s the magic for me. That’s where all the magic happens.
KAR: This feels like a good segue to talking about the American Dream, which is its own sort of elusive magic. George Benjamin Hill spends his life pursuing the American Dream and then basically destroys the dream for his children. The whole time I was thinking of 9/11, which was a formative moment for me as an American, and which is actually happening in the background of your novel in an incredibly subtle way.
JC: Right. I mentioned earlier how I knew early on that I wanted the story of the Hill family to be backdropped against American history. One of my blurbers said that the title character of my novel is like a “malevolent Forrest Gump of American capitalism.” Silly as it might sound, there are definitely comparisons between my novel and Forrest Gump in the use of historical moments to sort of ground the story culturally and thematically. So you have the Great Depression in the 1930s, the birth of fast food in the 50s, the Kennedy assassination in the 60s. The oil crisis of the 70s comes up when the Hill family moves to Fairbanks, Alaska during the building of the trans-Alaskan pipeline. The disenchantment of the Vietnam era is evoked in a surrealist way through the character of Jamie, one of the sons, who has developed this delusional alternate history for himself. And then of course 9/11 is sort of in the background throughout the present-tense story.
KAR: What’s fascinating is how you don’t explicitly mention 9/11. I just know from my own experience what’s happening.
JC: There are a couple of different places where I decided to sort of leave the historical significance unstated, meanwhile knowing or hoping that the reader would make the associations. Some of that was purely for pacing and some of it was more of a moral decision. For instance, there used to be a section about the Valdez oil spill. I wanted to make obvious the connection between the father’s single-minded pursuit of wealth and one of the biggest environmental disasters in history, but it just became too much. So I ended up cutting the section that took place around the time of the oil spill and instead allowed the book to rely on the reader’s knowledge of that history to make the connections.
With 9/11 it was a little bit different. It felt like a book like this one, that was so tied up in American history, had to acknowledge that moment. And yet it still feels so fraught for me. I was really cautious because I didn’t want people to think I was somehow exploiting it. For a long time I thought about removing those sections, but in the end I decided to keep them, to let the post-apocalyptic sensations of that day and its aftermath serve as a sort of underlying mood palette of the book, sort of like somber music playing throughout. That's also the reason why the very first thing you see on the first page is the date. It was my way of saying gently to the reader, we’re going to be dealing with this, okay? I felt like I had to announce it. You certainly can't get to like, page 280 of a novel and be like, oh, by the way, it's 9/11.
So yeah, some of the historical stuff is done really carefully and subtly, and then other parts are a bit more, dare I say, “on the nose?” The commodities trading and securities fraud stuff at the end, for instance, is pretty obviously based on a certain company that went belly-up in unprecedentedly spectacular fashion right around the time of 9/11, and for that one I decided it was okay to be much more overt.
Anyway, I think all of that usage of American history to show the steps George Benjamin Hill takes in his relentless pursuit of wealth sort of implies all of these thematic things about America and the so-called American Dream.
KAR: So is there such a thing as the American Dream?
JC: Sure, there is. Or there was. I think maybe it’s become a bit outdated. Maybe it’s not as relevant anymore. Maybe it's based on values that were created hundreds of years ago by a culturally and racially homogenous society, and so it's probably no longer reflective of the reality and identity of the country. And yet we’re at a place in history in which there are still people like George Benjamin Hill pulling the strings, even though their values are no longer the values of America, or at least huge portions of America. And that’s really partially what the book is about. The decline of white patriarchal society, its lingering consequences, and the slow movement toward something else, the recognition that maybe it’s time for a new sort of leadership, the arrival of a new aspect of the American identity that will hopefully come to the forefront.
KAR: My last question is the one I ask for every Split Lip interview, though it is not very complicated. Do you write to music?
JC: No. I need complete silence. Or else white noise. I’m too easily distracted. If I tried to write to music I’d just end up Googling the song or the band and reading their Wikipedia page for an hour. I’m also definitely not one of those people who write in a coffee shop or something like that. That just makes no sense to me.
KAR: Where do you write?
JC: I have a couple different places. My current apartment is on the top floor of this old mansard-style building a block from the ocean in a town a little north of Boston, and my writing desk is in this weird alcove half hidden behind a book-case. It’s a nice little retreat with a view of the ocean. I also sometimes write at my kitchen table because it’s closer to the coffee maker.
KAR: Actual last question. If Patricide were an album, what would it be?
JC: Hmm, that’s a tough one. Something dramatic and backdropped with American history, I guess… I think I’ll go with Born in the U.S.A. Or is that too “on the nose?”
James Charlesworth grew up eighty miles east of Pittsburgh and attended Penn State University and Emerson College in Boston. His writing has appeared in Natural Bridge, was awarded finalist status in Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers, and has earned a Martin Dibner Fellowship from the Maine Community Foundation. The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill is his first novel.