An Interview with Norman Lock, by Celia Johnson
May 12, 2014
Imagine: Mark Twain’s classic characters Huck and Jim get swept through time, into the future, on the raft they share. They witness and, like curious tourists, explore the changes on shore. And they experience all sorts of tragedy and revelations on their journey. It’s an unusual concept for a novel, but Norman Lock is a master of the unusual. Cast through his inimitable creative lens, this novel is much more than a unique concept. It’s a rich, textured story that’ll leave you unsteady on your feet, as any great water adventure should. I spoke with Lock about the inspiration behind his novel, his research (an old job as a yacht builder copywriter comes into play), and how his characters negotiate different periods in time. There’s an excerpt from the novel after the interview, too.
What was the catalyst for The Boy in His Winter?
Huck and Jim first materialized fifteen years ago, as I was walking Delaware Bay’s desolate shore, waiting for my daughter to prepare algae to be fed to oyster spat at a Rutgers University research facility there. Most of “The Brothers Ascend,” published in Love Among the Particles, in 2013, by Bellevue Literary Press, came to mind during that summer afternoon in New Jersey. In this short story, Huck and Jim join an improbable cast of characters – H. G. Wells and his Time Traveler, Mata Hari, Horatio Alger, Freud, the Wright Brothers – in an Africa located in the realm of metafiction and metaphysics, constant preoccupations of mine. (At the time, I was finishing the writing of A History of the Imagination, published in 2004, by Fiction Collective Two: a postmodern novel-in-stories set in that Africa, which bears only slight resemblance to the real one.) I’d always thought that “The Brothers Ascend” should become a play, and for a long time I tried to make it one.
My wife, Helen, and I live in retirement, near Raritan Bay. In October, 2012, we were caught by Hurricane Sandy, which devastated coastal towns on either side of the bay. As I lay in bed during a nine-day power outage, I thought again of Huck and Jim and what I might make of them – this time, in a novel. Sandy inevitably brought to mind Katrina, and in a flash of inspiration (striking me while in the supine position favored by my muse), I saw Twain’s two Mississippi River travelers blown by hurricane from their raft and the timelessness of American literary history onto dry land and into historical time – the twenty-first century, south of New Orleans.
How has Mark Twain influenced you, as a reader and a writer?
Not at all, although it is a pleasure for me to read his stories and novels. To be fair to Twain and to so many others in my life as a reader, the books I’ve read may have had an influence on my life and on my writing that is (with the exception of obvious debts to this writer or that one) subtle and difficult for me to isolate or acknowledge. For a writer whose unconscious and its voices are a primary source (I often feel I’m the ghost writer of myself), I am doubtless the beneficiary and at the mercy of uncounted influences.
I will say that reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time as an undergraduate was a happy experience. I admired the narrative voice, the “picturesqueness” and picaresqueness, the colorful qualities of the text and of the characters, the satire and naughtiness – all the usual reasons a reader will adduce for having enjoyed any of Twain’s fiction. I will also say that I deliberately refrained from rereading the novel while I was writing my own variant. In that my Huck and Jim and their story were to be my own and not an adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, I wanted to remember the original text only imperfectly. Being impressionable and a facile mimic of others’ narrative voices, I was also afraid to fall into Twain’s cadence and idioms. I did not want to write in the vernacular; did not want to produce anything that might be mistaken for parody or a work of American regionalism.
Did you conduct extensive research for the novel?
Not in the usual sense. Apart from my subconscious, with its magpie hoard of stories (half-forgotten and many times falsified by memory and imagination), I count as sources, during the writing of The Boy in His Winter, these: Ken Burns’s The Civil War (for Part One of the novel), brochures I wrote while a copywriter for yacht builders and the sportfishing business (for Part Two), and, overwhelmingly, Wikipedia and Google Maps (for all three parts).
I write as though at the behest of some other. (I’m not unique in claiming to take dictation from my unconscious mind.) Many times the barest sketch of an idea, a scene, a minor character will occur to me that I flesh out, refresh, or recover from obscurity at an internet site – most often Wikipedia, which I trust for my own non-scholarly requirements. The Google search engine is always open and available beneath my work in progress with a click of the mouse. I do click often – impulsively and compulsively. Before the internet, I used a set of Funk & Wagnall Encyclopedia, bought in weekly installments from a supermarket, to clothe my stories and novels, which are – more often than not – reliant on historical facts, which I am not afraid to appropriate and, if need be, adjust. I’m quick to add that the history underlying The Boy in His Winter and the second novel in my proposed trilogy of “American Novels” (American Meteor, due next May, also from Bellevue Literary Press) are largely faithful to history and geography. My purpose, however, in writing these books is different from that of the historians and the writers of historical fiction. I am neither of those. It interests me, however, to recall that the reading that incited in me the wish to be a writer was the Kenneth Roberts novels I read in 1965.
Time is basically its own character within the book, volatile, unpredictable, and yet somehow familiar after a while. Did you have a solid grasp of how time would function within the story before you began?
I knew only that Huck and Jim would depart Hannibal, Missouri (the Mississippi River town Twain fictionalized as St. Petersburg), in 1835, and, after a long, long journey in mythic and also in historical American time (the legend of it), come ashore near the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 – their biological clocks restarted by Hurricane Katrina. At the outset, I believed the novel would end when Huck and Jim came off the river for good. But before I had reached the end of what is now Part One of The Boy in His Winter, I knew there would be two additional parts: the second, in which Huck recounts his life immediately following his Mississippi River journey; the third, in which Huck – having become an old man – relates his mature years.
The great gift to me during the writing of the book was the idea that the raft could be a time-machine of sorts. On it, Huck could travel nearly the length of the river, from 1835 to 2005 (witnessing all that vital American history) without aging. Being a thirteen-year-old boy still in 2005, he could survive in time into the 2070s and reflect on almost three centuries of American history, past and to come. I’m interested always in writing stories and novels of ideas, and The Boy in His Winter is packed with ideas about time (a favorite theme of mine) and social history (a new theme for me, which I take up again in American Meteor).
Huck Finn is a fascinating narrator. His perspective from the future often undercuts his ignorance as a boy. So we find Huck writing and rewriting the story, a man wisened with age, trying to capture that lack of maturity in youth. Did you find it difficult to maintain that balance in Huck, as the man and the boy?
The balance you speak of is the accommodation we all must make, at last, with our youthful selves. Like anyone, there are things in my past I regret. To answer your question, Celia: It was hard for me to tell the truth about Huck’s social and political immaturity – hard to permit myself such unattractive candor. But the book would most certainly have failed if Huck, in his winter, had been given the high ground of moral enlightenment without that undermining. If he had been permitted to denounce the iniquities of the American past without implicating himself in them, the story would be pretentious, solemn, and false. The truth about Huck and ourselves would have been concealed behind a screen of self-righteousness. The hateful attitudes of the past persist in the American grain. This is the irony and the sadness of the book.
Jim is also a complex character, prophetic and tragic. Did he evolve in any unexpected ways as you wrote?
Jim’s evolution was in many ways more surprising for me than Huck’s. At the outset, I thought he would be no more than the helpless, faithful, hapless victim of racist antebellum society and of the casual cruelties inflicted by Huck and other townspeople – the Jim of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But I soon realized that I could invest Jim with a rich humanity – its pain and indignities, its possibility of grace and fineness; I could make him sentient, intelligent, and a man – I could, in other words, give Jim his due and tell the truth about people we defame or neglect to see fully, if at all. It was an opportunity to rehabilitate the fictional character who is the moral core and tragic epicenter of The Boy in His Winter. I discovered how important Jim could be to my Huck (who is, in the telling of his own story, revising Twain’s portrait of his black friend) when I had the happy thought of resurrecting him in Part Two as James Touissant, the Trinidadian boat captain, and in Part Three as Jameson Tarn, the black woman Huck meets in Holland and later marries in Santa Monica. I doubt a character could have evolved more radically than this.
You write fiction in both short and long form. Did you prefer one over the other? And what are you at work on now?
For most of my forty-five years as a writer (a would-be one for a good many of them, or let’s say an “apprentice” to be kind to the young man I was), I wrote short-fiction collections – often coherent ones that functioned like novels. (I wrote a great many plays, too, that are their own category of fiction and continue to influence my non-dramatic work in readily apparent ways, as does the poetry I wrote in the 60s and 70s and again in 2009 through 2012 for The Book of Imaginary Colophons and In the Time of Rat, a book-length poem about the Thirty Years War.) I found writing novels (as opposed to novels-in-stories or novels-in-prose poems) difficult while I was working and commuting. While I did produce two novels and a novella, I tended to write short things that I could compose, refine, and remember during the three hours spent in the car each day. When I retired four years ago, the novel became truly possible and desirable; I could spend six or seven hours each day at the keyboard.
While I enjoy the short form very much, I hope to devote myself exclusively to the novel (and to plays for stage and radio). What I want to say requires the long form.
What I’m thinking about now is the third novel in the trilogy: one that will again use a first-person narrative voice (the dramatic monologues I’ve loved ever since reading Browning’s in high school). My third “American Novel” will be told by a woman working in a turn-of-the-century (the twentieth, I mean) office in New York City. The book will be a woman’s story, told by a woman, and will concern itself with equality, just as the first two novels do. If The Boy in His Winter and American Meteor are animated by Twain and Whitman, respectively, the new novel’s “ghostly” presence will be the American anarchist Emma Goldman. I hope to begin writing it in late summer.
“The Death of Tom Sawyer”
From THE BOY IN HIS WINTER, a novel by Norman Lock
Published May 2014 by Bellevue Literary Press
At Baton Rouge, we entered the twentieth century. We did so by night, like thieves stealing into a house we would ransack for unimaginable treasures and horrors. We knew nothing of what lay ahead on that river in space and in time. Not even Jim’s prophetic gifts could enlighten us about the future’s somber recesses, other than we would die in it. But we were entranced as anyone would be who sees for the first time a town made incandescent by Mr. Edison’s lightbulb. At first, we thought the cause of our astonishment must be a myriad of candles or oil lamps strung among trees for some grand civic occasion. We had been born, remember, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the infant science of electricity produced little other than parlor tricks, and we had been well insulated from progress of most every sort on the raft.
“Looks to me like sparks blown up a chimney,” I said. “Or else shooting stars laid thickly on the hills.” I was an almost mythological boy who might have been expected to have a poetic streak. “Only it ain’t. What is it, Jim?”
Jim said nothing, but I could tell he was becoming unsettled.
“I don’t know, Huck. But I have a bad feeling all of a sudden.”
“But it looks swell!” I said, falling into the vernacular, which is to proper speech what mud is to a shoe shine. (I can’t explain why my life should have been tainted by the character Mark Twain made of me. I’ve never forgiven him.)
“If you were to see a fire burning way off in the distance, you’d think it looked swell, too – even if it was somebody’s house ablaze.”
Jim was deep, as I’ve said on more than one occasion. But at the moment, his depth was that of someone who had sounded to the bottom of despondency. Yes, it had a bottom. Jim suffered much, but he did not seek, like some others, to make his life more tragic than he could bear. Or I could stand to listen to.
“We ought to investigate,” I said, hearing in those words the voice of Tom Sawyer, whom I had nearly forgotten during the years since we left Plum Point. “We could work our way up the cove and slip into town. Streets are likely to be empty this late.”
Tom would have suggested a lark: minor vandalism of public property, a skirmish, a small robbery, bullying a defenseless boy, or a visit to a whorehouse, where he would hop straight out of bed and then out the window, without paying. (Women. Did we miss them? I was thirteen. Jim mourned his lost wife and children. Sexual desire was not part of our journey.)
Jim would not agree, no matter how I declared my wish to discover the nature of the light – unnatural in its cast and stillness; there was a small wind that night that would have set ordinary flames shivering or scattered the will-o’-the-wisps you sometimes see in marshes. No, these town lights were unmoving, and so was Jim in his refusal to go ashore. In the end, I had to respect his conviction that the lights – at first, so astonishing in their novelty – did not bode well for two travelers in flight from their origins. I guessed that the town was under a curse, unless it was only Jim and I who were. Whatever uneasiness he felt about this place, at this time, soon jumped from his mind to my own, like a flea from one body to another; and now I wanted also to be gone.
“We should get to Mexico,” I said, having understood that America was dangerous.
Jim smiled at me as you would a child who has just said something wise. I was, remember, a child and I spake as one, while Jim was foolish only occasionally, like anyone who is mostly wise. For the first time since leaving Hannibal, I was afraid. I wished Tom could be with me, but the wish was momentary; for I knew – despite the namelessness of my dread – that not even the indomitable Tom Sawyer could prevail against it.
Jim and I were no longer aimless, although it could be argued that we were never so, having borrowed, unconsciously, the river’s own ineluctable end: steadfastly south to the broad Delta and to the Gulf and from there to the world’s far ends in space and also in time. I think now that we had been all along at the service of time, whose perfect materialization in history was the Mississippi, the great river, the father of waters. For good or ill, like it or not, it colored our thoughts and shaped our consciousness to its own unfathomable purpose.
“We should go,” Jim repeated as he worked with his muscular arms the raft’s long sweep until the current had caught us up.
We had gone only a little way south of Baton Rouge when a steam launch came alongside the raft and a Western Union boy shouted, “If you’re Huck Finn, as I suppose, and you want to see Tom Sawyer before he departs this world for the next, then you’d better hurry.”
Suspicious of chicanery, Jim tried his best to dissuade me, grasping my wrist; but I shook off his hand and went aboard the launch. Several minutes later, I was deposited on the quay and directed to the place where my old friend lay dying.
I had no difficulty in finding the house, because of the electric lights that shone down upon the streets and from the homes of the well-to-do. Apparently, Tom was not one of them; he had fetched up in a small and shabby room of a dilapidated boardinghouse, like a piece of driftwood brought by the tide (his tide, the last but one, which would, at the moment of his death, carry him out onto the limitless ocean beyond the reach of history). The world had turned gaily for Tom Sawyer, though not for me; and shortly, it would turn for him no more. (And me? I had no idea of what lay around the bend any more than a fly does – nervously pacing a windowsill as winter’s imminent death chills the sash.)
I took my friend’s hand and wondered at its dryness, the wrinkled skin, fingernails long and broken, and at how a ring hung loosely on one finger. I brought the candle that burned with a meager flame on the bedside table nearer to Tom’s face and saw – with a shock of surprise and disgust – that my friend was an old man. I did a quick calculation in my mind and realized that Tom Sawyer had used up nearly eighty years and would have no others to call his own. I closed my eyes and saw again the reckless, scheming boy who’d set Hannibal on its ear and, much later, the naval ensign aboard the Confederate warship General Sumter. I shook off the vision, which frightened me for a reason I almost understood – shook it off with a violent movement of my head and allowed the light to swell against the darkness, until it splashed the wall behind poor Tom’s pillow and fell over the sheet shrouding his ruined frame. Then it was Tom’s turn to open his eyes, and, having done so, his look registered a dismay and confusion the equal of my own.
“Huck?” he said weakly, so that I was forced to lean over him. When I did, I started at the smell.
“Tom,” I said, and then said again, stupidly: “Tom. It’s your Huckleberry come off the river to give you a send-off.”
“I was dreaming of you,” he said, and he seemed to come alive for an instant as he told me his dream: “We were back in Hannibal, out behind Miss Watson’s house, and we had stuck Jim’s hat on the branch of a tree. Remember how we persuaded him that witches had taken him all over creation while he was asleep?”
I nodded gravely, aware that Tom was about to be ushered into eternity, or extinction. You can’t help feeling solemn in the presence of a dying man. I’ve known people to be boisterous around a corpse – I’ve seen the Hannibal constable summoned to a wake for a disturbance of the peace – but bearing witness to the approach of death tends to dampen even the most exuberant spirits.
“I knew you’d come to see me off,” he said. “I sensed you in my dream, out there on the river.”
For a second time, I nodded, having known stranger things than this in my lifetime. If Jim and I partook of the supernatural, I reasoned, then why not Tom Sawyer, who was more advanced in age and intellect than Jim and me put together? Looking back now from the vantage of my seniority (waiting for my own tide to go out, and with it me), I can’t be sure the Western Union boy was of this world or some other. I wouldn’t put it past Tom to have summoned him telepathically, in dots and dashes, if he was keen to have me escort him to the gate of eternity. As for the steam launch, it could readily have been of otherworldly origin: Ghost ships are familiar to anyone who has been to sea or even, like me, on a river as extraordinary as the Mississippi.
“Isn’t Jim with you?” asked Tom, attempting to see past me into the shadowy recesses of his narrowing room.
“I ate him. Don’t you remember?”
He gave a feeble laugh and said, “That was nothing but a hunk of fatback! You could fool those Johnny Reb sailors, but not Tom Sawyer. Pretty piece of legerdemain, though, Huck. My hat was off to you.”
I was shocked to hear Tom confess so blithely to a serious dereliction of his duty as an officer.
“I left him on the raft,” I said. “He’s scared to come ashore because of the lights in the town. He took them for a bad omen.”
“I’d like to have seen Jim,” he said peevishly.
I couldn’t guess why he missed Jim, whom he’d tormented in his childish humor, unless it was to ask for his forgiveness. But I wasn’t much interested in Tom’s mental workings, which could scarcely have been in order. I’ve since regretted the lack of curiosity, because of my own guilt in the matter of Jim.
I mistreated him. Not in the ordinary way of a bully or an ignorant white child lording it over a black man. That’s not it, although I did behave sometimes as if he were inferior. I had the faults of my time and race. But I wrong Jim by reconstructing him in these pages. I’ve done to him what Twain did to me because I need Jim with me once again and cannot resurrect him any other way. Memory holds nothing in its sieve, except rubbish we clutch until the last hour, mistaking it for the truth, the facts, the real McCoy. I need Jim to make me real.
Tom shut his eyes and died without another word. I thought it a shame that he went before he could tell me if he saw anyone coming for him in the dark. I’d always imagined that someone would come, stealthily, even if all that could be seen of him were his shoes stepping in and out of a circle of lantern light, like a town watchman.
I looked through the dresser drawers to see if there was anything worth taking. I knew Tom would not begrudge me. None of the clothes fit, of course; and I had no use for a hairbrush nested with Tom’s silver, a razor bearing Tom’s stubble caked in dried lather, or a celluloid collar yellowed with Tom’s sweat. But I liked the title of the book he’d been reading and took it with me: The Time Machine, by Mr. H. G. Wells. How very like Tom Sawyer to own such a tale of outlandish adventure! I realized when I was back on the raft that he had borrowed it from the Baton Rouge Public Library. I’m ashamed to say, it is long overdue. I’ve read the story many times since then and never fail to picture the Time Traveler as Tom himself, how he looked on the skiff, coming toward me from the General Sumter.
Yes, I’d been taught to read haltingly, in Hannibal by Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas as part of their campaign to civilize me.
I thought the book was a sign – not a bad omen, but a harbinger of good fortune; that it was a guarantee of safe conduct through the streets of Baton Rouge, which Tom had consecrated by having lived there and having also died there (which the more powerful juju, I could not know). My ideas were hazy and unformed about the meaning of Jim’s and my journey downriver, but I guessed it had something to do with time travel. If not, why was Tom an old man while I was still a boy?
What year was it?
Nineteen hundred and three. April. The sixteenth day of April, in the year 1903. What day could have been more auspicious? The beginning of spring, of new life, the dawn of a new century. A new age. Charmed! And I supposed that the enchanted life Jim and I had on the raft was joined by a benevolent hand to the place where Tom and I met for the last time. I sensed (a raw boy could not have articulated it) that I stood at the convergence of two currents, two electrified rails – two “mystic chords of memory,” as Mr. Lincoln said – and the rare, scarcely possible occasion of their meeting would protect Jim and me. I nearly called to Jim in my mind, with the intention of urging him telepathically to join me in a send-off Tom missed by too promptly dying. I felt he was owed an incomparable escapade, a grand bust-up, a rambunctious carouse. I wanted to run outside, into the streets of Baton Rouge, and commit high jinks and devilry in honor of our friendship. I was young, remember. My imagination was of a heroic cast and did not yet encompass low boozing and sex. I went through Tom’s pockets but discovered nothing except an ancient letter from Becky Thatcher, a yellowed and brittle greeting from Jeff Davis, and some silver money – none of which had any value for me. (We had no use for money in those days. God Almighty, I’d whistle a different tune once I was off the river for good and understood that it is the universal balm and nothing whatsoever can be done without it!) I arranged Tom’s hands as I had seen people do in Hannibal and pulled the sheet over his face. Then I snuffed out the candle, closed the door, tiptoed down three flights of stairs, and stepped out into the street with a sense of ecstatic relief that I had the power in me to escape the gravity of the deathbed. I was already forgetting Tom – so dismal is the idea of oblivion, so strong the attraction of life, even for someone like me who has kept his distance from it.
Darkness reigned, but not oppressively. The stars seemed hospitable fires in the April night, the moon smiled like a simpleton, and people milled noisily in streets made cheerful by electric light. I walked slowly toward the river, reluctant to enter the blacked-out stage of our little raft. I was sick to death of loneliness – of the absurdity of our journey. I felt like Hamlet when he was delivering his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, which I’d heard the Duke rehearse years and years before. I cursed myself for a fool because I hadn’t sense enough to turn back when I could. I was homesick for dry land and an ordinary life where a boy can be counted on to grow up and die, which is the natural way of things. Maybe I was feeling no more than the restlessness of youth, which would will itself into adult life if it were able. Whatever the cause, I felt discouraged and forlorn. I put off returning to the raft awhile; I went to find myself some cheerful noise and light and people, no matter that I was already tending toward misanthropy. I clutched Wells’s book for courage, while I walked streets made dangerous by my friend’s death.
I rode a trolley up and down the bluffs, exhilarated by the luxury of horseless travel inside a conveyance illuminated by the same electric light that made the place a fairy town. I had no money, as I said; but I was used to getting inside circuses, magic-lantern shows, lectures on the pygmies, and other public entertainments without a nickel to my name.
On one street, people were jostling at the door of a building that had been converted from a grocer’s store into a nickelodeon. I had no idea what a nickelodeon might be, but I was attracted by the bustle and laughter, which defeated solemnity and, with it, death. I slipped inside, as though I had no more substance than a shadow. Maybe I was one; maybe I could’ve strolled, brazen and unseen, through the streets, sat inside the trolley car while it lurched uphill and down again, and walked into the nickelodeon without taking pains to make myself inconspicuous. Maybe on that night in Baton Rouge, I was invisible to everyone but Tom, whose eyes were fixed on ghosts. In my life, I’ve often had the sensation that I was unnoticed to an unnatural degree; that I made no impression on others’ optic or auditory nerves. Then in sudden terror, I’d act in an outrageous manner to make myself apparent. I was like a clean windowpane, unregarded until you accidentally shatter it.
Death had no dominion over me once the moving picture had begun. It routed the darkness, overthrew the gloom of melancholy. It astonished me as nothing before or since has done. A Trip to the Moon. The spaceship of the astronomers, their landing on the moon and battle with the Selenites, their escape back to earth, the rocket’s sinking to the bottom of the ocean among strange yet familiar fish … The people who saw it with me that night were struck dumb with wonder. How much more must a boy born three-quarters of a century earlier have been? I never forgot it. A Trip to the Moon – by Georges Méliès; I suddenly remember the magician’s name! – and The Time Machine have been for me bulwarks against the night. Not an April night in 1903, but those at the terrible end of days – without light, without a kind voice, without courage. The moving picture stopped, but the illusion of fantastic life continued awhile. I walked to the river and boarded the raft because it could not have been otherwise for Huck Finn.
Excerpt reproduced with permission by Bellevue Literary Press (blpress.org).
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She has written two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway (both published by Penguin/Perigee), and her articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Writers’ Digest and Poets & Writers.
Norman Lock’s recent books are The Boy and His Winter, Love Among the Particles, In the Time of Rat, Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions, Three Plays, and Grim Tales. The House of Correction played recently in Istanbul, Athens, and Torun, Poland. Mounting Panic was broadcast by WDR Germany, in 2013. Lock has won The Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and writing fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Aberdeen, New Jersey, nearby Raritan/Lower New York Bay. More at www.normanlock.com.
Author Photo Credit: Andrew Comi.