Monte Schulz on This Side Of Jordan

This Side of Jordan
This Side of Jordan

Fantagraphics Books has surprised me on many levels this past year (all good levels, of course). So when I heard it was publishing Monte Schulz‘s prose novel, This Side of Jordan, I contacted the author (with some help from friend of the blog/Fantagraphics’ Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds) to discuss the book through an email interview.

As detailed by the publisher: “This Side Of Jordan is a story of another America, eighty years distant yet familiar, too, a vibrant and scandalous tapestry of eccentric characters from a nation embroiled in criminal liquor traffic, thrilled by Jazz Age fads and frolic, drunk amid the glittering showgrounds of a booming circus whose flag-topped tents are about to come down. Through mayhem and merriment, past the violence and hypocrisy of Prohibition, along miles of dirt roads and busy Main Streets, we see in this wonderfully evocative narrative a simple yearning for love and hope. This Side Of Jordan is about the distance we travel in America to find our rightful place. …

He spent ten years writing Crossing Eden, from which This Side of Jordan is drawn as the first of three interconnected novels; the second and third, Fields of Eden and The Big Town, will be published in 2010 and 2011.

Monte Schulz received his M.A. in American Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He lives in Northern California. He is the eldest son of Charles M. Schulz (PEANUTS).”

My thanks to Schulz for an interview in which the quality of his answers greatly exceed that of my questions. Once you’ve read the interview, please be sure to visit the Fantagraphics website for a 23-page PDF excerpt from the book.

Tim O’Shea: Your first novel, Down by the River, was published in 1991. How has your writing voice matured in the past 19 years?

Monte Schulz: My basic style of writing hasn’t changed in thirty years. The issue was always doing what I was best capable of. “Down By The River” was the pinnacle of what I could achieve in a novel back then, but after it was finished, I discovered I was capable of so much more. Stylistically, however, I’ve always favored and embraced a lyrical prose, and these ‘20s novels have just given me more room and opportunity to express it. Also, I’ve read much more than I had back then, so my work since that first novel has been informed by writers I knew nothing of at that time – Bellow, Marquand, Cozzens, Kantor, etc. Then, too, I think I’ve refined what I like best about artistic writing, while improving my sense of character and story, and better differentiating voices in dialogue, something that is very much on display now in “This Side Of Jordan.”

O’SheaThis Side of Jordan is the first of three novels, that will be published collectively by Fantagraphics as Crossing Eden in 2012. If you wrote these three novels–set in the Jazz Age–separately, what is the appeal to ultimately publishing the three stories as one?

Schulz: “Crossing Eden” was always one novel. I never conceived of splitting the book apart, and the whole novel is greater than any of its three parts. All three stories are interwoven together, much like the structure of John Dos Passos’s “U.S.A.” trilogy. So when you change chapters in “Crossing Eden,” you change storylines. I broke Alvin’s story off in 2002 and called it “This Side Of Jordan.” The others came apart a couple of years later. When Gary Groth agreed to buy the book, he said he’d be willing to publish it all as one book straight away, but the part I call now “The Big Town” still needs work. So I thought it might be better to offer them as three books, so as long Fantagraphics would put it all together again. And they will in 2012.

O’Shea: These three novels took 12 years for you to create, how did the time breakdown between research and the actual writing. What aspect of your research was most critical for the work?

Schulz: I wrote and researched simultaneously. I believe that doing research beforehand inhibits writing, at least it does for me. So I made sure to push the narrative forward in one place while researching and gathering material for other areas of the novel. I collected period arcana – catalogues, novels, magazines, etc – and drew inspiration and information from each: three books, for example on Prohibition written and published during Prohibition; twelve books on Spiritualism and séances from the period; a large library-bound collection for six months of Collier’s magazine from 1929. And encyclopedias from the era, medical books, etc. Then, too, I read extensively in the fiction from the period and took notes on idiomatic expressions and names of things to use in both narrative and dialogue. Reading Farrell’s “Studs Lonigan” and seeing how his characters speak showed me that I had done it correctly. “This Side Of Jordan” should feel like a period piece, as if the reader were transported back to the summer of 1929, and I believe it does so.

Taken all together, no single element was the most critical because I believe everything had to work together, all forms of language, for instance: poetic, lyrical, narrative, dialogue. The way the characters speak in “This Side Of Jordan” was especially important, given that I mix ordinary dialogue with lyrical exposition and both rural and Jazz Age slang. The latter was a big part of the entire book, because it took several years to figure out how to do. Just the idea of recreating period language in dialogue is unusual in modern fiction. It’s very difficult and time consuming to research and enact, but I do believe it’s one of the best, most impressive tricks in my novel.

O’Shea: Cory Doctorow’s rave review of the book includes the following interesting line: “I should reiterate that I didn’t like any of these characters.” How risky do you consider it to structure a tale populated with unlikeable characters, do you care if that might alienate some of your potential audience or is that a concern of yours?

Schulz: Well, I was very appreciative of Cory Doctorow for his great review of my novel. Every reader brings his or her own perspective to a work of fiction and it’s never easy to anticipate how art will be received. In truth, although Chester is not meant to be loved and admired, I like Rascal quite a lot, and have great sympathy for Alvin Pendergast, who is just nineteen years old, after all, sort of a dumbbell, and quite sick. If he’s not likeable, well, each of us like different people in this life, and different characters in works of fiction. I grew up in a rural community, so Alvin seems more familiar to me than, say, Philip Roth’s characters or the narrative focus in “Bright Lights, Big City.” As for Rascal, he just seems to be a kind and eccentric fellow, who was my father’s favorite character in the book. When I asked Dad what he liked about Rascal, he said, “Well, he’s just such a funny little guy.”

As for anticipating how readers will react to any characters in a novel, I do believe the writer can neither become overly concerned with how a reader will react to his or her creations, nor ever know with any true authority or consistency how any given reader will relate to or appreciate any given character. That’s just one of the mysteries of art.

O’Shea: How much input did you have with the book’s cover, designed by Al Columbia?

Schulz: That’s hard to say. Al’s drawings for the jacket art came to Adam Grano at Fantagraphics over a three month period, and initially I’d had a different concept for the cover, a photograph involving a river to reference the book’s title. But when I could not find just the right photo, I began to think about Francis Cugat’s original painting, “Celestial Eyes,” for Gatsby, and came around to agreeing with Gary Groth’s idea of an artist like Al, with his own fans and following, doing the jacket art. Once Al began sending further drawings and Adam designed the jacket, my input was mostly registered in great approval of what appeared. I was offered fonts for suggestions and also liked what Adam conceived, as I did with the interior guts of the book. But mostly, the process was only collaborative insofar as Adam Grano and Gary Groth showed me what they were doing and asked for my opinions, which invariably were enthusiastic. I just believe the cover art for “This Side Of Jordan” is fantastic, both Al Columbia’s wonderful artwork, and Adam Grano’s overall design. I am incredibly pleased with the result.

O’Shea: Why did you opt to go with a publishing house that typically does not dabble in prose novels? When you committed to Fantagraphics, was it always as a four-book deal, or did it grow to four books later?

Schulz: Yes, Gary Groth conceived of this as a four book deal, right from the beginning. It was easy to go to Fantagraphics because Gary wanted the book. And he was enthusiastic about all four, and loved my writing. The fact is, I’ve never met anyone in publishing more literate, erudite or enthused by the literary art and the written word than Gary and his people at Fantagraphics. They were a revelation to me regarding the world of publishing, at a time when I had come to feel that too many people in this business see books as commodities to be bought and sold rather than expressions of a singular art form. Yet, the truth is, I had no idea that Fantagraphics even published prose fiction until a friend of mine from Santa Barbara sent me an email regarding the publication of Alexander Theroux’s 800 page novel, “Laura Warholic.” Indeed, at that time I assumed it must have had some graphic novel-comic book connection, until Gary Groth told me that it was literary fiction, something he’d been wanting to publish for a long while and was finally able to do. But his view of literature suits me perfectly and there is not enough money at any larger house to draw me away from Fantagraphics now, so long as they want to publish my work. Fantagraphics Books, all the people there, really have been outstanding throughout this entire journey. They’ve allowed me to be involved every step of the way. It is a dream come true for an artist. So the fact that they don’t typically publish prose fiction is entirely irrelevant to me. I love where I am.

O’Shea: The novel was written at least partially in tribute to your father. Did you hesitate in going that route, knowing that it would open people to framing the work not as by “Monte Schulz”, but rather as “the son of Charles Schulz, Monte.” Or is that a nuance you cannot or will not worry about?

Schulz: I embrace my identity as my father’s son. Dad is, and always has been, a huge part of my life. He was not only a great influence on my work — directing to me to writers like Carl Sandburg, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, Carson McCullers, who became stylistic inspirations for me — but he also offered constant support and encouragement over the years I needed to grow and mature as a writer. So I am actually pleased when people identify me with my father. The work I do has to stand on its own, anyhow, and if somehow my family name might draw readers to my book, that’s all to the good.

O’Shea: This review by Bruce Grossman notes that: “Even though there are moments of brutal violence in the vein of Cormac McCarthy, JORDAN is more about the young man facing his future with uncertain terms.” Do you think the comparison to Cormac McCarthy is an apt one, does McCarthy inform your writing to a certain extent?

Schulz: I don’t see great similarities in my work that of Cormac McCarthy, though I do consider him to be the greatest living writer in American fiction. The violence in my book is more incidental, less integrated into the story, than it is in a novel like McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” But we both have that love of language, the poetic phrase, a love affair with place and setting, and a constant fascination with the notion of life and death as being central and integral to good fiction. While my literary antecedents in “This Side Of Jordan” are more properly Truman Capote, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, I am flattered that anyone would compare me to McCarthy, and his influence is present here and there in all my work, but more stylistically than anything else.

O’Shea: You’ve been on a book tour for almost a month, what’s been the most enjoyable element of the experience?

Schulz: Although I spent seventy hours in my car and drove more than four thousand miles in five weeks, signing books from San Diego to Seattle, I thought the best part of the tour was seeing the reaction from people at each stop as I read from “This Side Of Jordan.” And the gratification comes not from the size of the audience, and I had a couple big ones, but rather the response to what I explained about artistic writing and literary fiction, and how I was able to express that through my own work. People I’d never met before told me I had a passion for my writing, and that’s what came across best in my reading. Books are meant to be read and discussed, and we cannot judge the worth of a work of art strictly by commercial concerns. But two things I heard during my tour, I suppose, resonated most strongly: the first was up in Eugene, Oregon, where three young people, a woman and two guys, listened to my presentation, then told me afterward they were impressed enough to buy a copy of my book, even though doing so meant they would be eating Bisquick for breakfast the next morning. I found that very touching; and then, sometime during my talk in Santa Rosa, my wife noticed one of my eight year-old twins weeping softly; when she asked why he was crying, he told her, “I can’t believe that Daddy is my daddy.” That makes it all worthwhile.

O’Shea: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?

Schulz: I think it’s important to point out how writing literary fiction is not a market driven exercise. Once I saw “This Side Of Jordan” in print at last summer’s Comic Con, wrapped in that beautiful Fantagraphics jacket art, once I could lie on my bed with the book in hand and read from it at last, I felt that I’d reached the end game. The book was done, completed, finished, my part in its creation over. Which meant that reviews, interviews, touring and signing are postscript. I never wrote this novel with a thought for how it would be received. Obviously, I love this book and have great faith in its place within American letters. I would throw my novel on the table with anyone’s book today. But I never had any idea how it would be received, what kind of sales it might generate, or the publicity I might get for it. And all of that it is beside the point of writing, anyhow, as I see the literary arts. To find a voice to write, a story to relate, a language to tell it in, and a desk to work at, is what writing is about. I don’t try to anticipate my audience or my critics. I sit down at my desk, day after day, head focused on my work, and move the narrative forward. I never had writer’s block, never went away from my book, never tired of it, never quit until the novel was written. I gave a decade of my life to “Crossing Eden,” my entire forties, gone now, but with the contract offered me by Gary Groth, and seeing “This Side Of Jordan” appear at last, I feel vindicated. And now it’s time to get back to work again.