About River Run
Doug Hammersmith of “MicroMedia: A Reader's Blog" talks with novelist Kathelyn Clegg about her new book at Cafe Flore in San Francisco.
HAMMERSMITH: Welcome to my blog. I really appreciate being able to chat with you.
CLEGG: Well, the appreciation is mutual! The book is fresh off the press. I’m still a nobody.
HAMMERSMITH: Let’s see if we can’t do something about that. I’m hoping my readers will find the book as compelling as I did. Let me ask you about our friends over at Pandolf Press and how they came to take on your book.
CLEGG: You might have to ask them about that. I’d heard from a friend about Pandolf and how they were looking for authors. Since I’d just finished River Run and wasn’t having much luck with cracking the literary industrial complex, I decided to give them a chance. I liked the fact that they were, one, a small group of book lovers who were interested in a very hands-on approach to publishing, and two, wanted to publish fiction that was of a high quality but also accessible to a wide audience. I thought we were a good match, but I have to say I was quite surprised when they decided to take me on.
HAMMERSMITH: They like to call themselves The Fiction Collective.
CLEGG: Yes, I found that quite charming.
HAMMERSMITH: Tell me how you came to write River Run. This is your first novel, right?
CLEGG: The first published. Not the first. I’ve been writing since I was a child. My computer’s hard drive has about six previous books and a bunch of others abandoned and unfinished, poor things. As for why this one is different from the previous ones, I really don’t know. The material just comes out. Sometimes it works and sometimes not.
HAMMERSMITH: How did you come up with the idea?
CLEGG: I’d read about a case of amnesia so extensive that the personality of the afflicted person was obliterated. It seemed that a marvelous story could be spun out of the consequences of such a devastating disability. After that, the thing just emerged bit by bit, one idea after another bubbling up out of the unconscious. I try not to think about it and let it just happen. I’ve discovered that some of the best ideas come when I’m in the shower. My theory is that the hot water on my head stimulates the neurons.
HAMMERSMITH: Yeah, something about bathrooms. I get my best ideas sitting on the toilet. I don’t really have a theory why that might be so.
CLEGG: I’ll come up with one if you want.
HAMMERSMITH: Maybe later. We can get a drink at Absinth. So, why did you choose to have a male protagonist?
CLEGG: Mainly because I didn’t want the book to read like a woman’s novel. Maybe I shouldn’t have put it that way. It doesn’t sound like a kind thing to say about women’s writing, which I admire hugely and which I think can be just as good, and frequently much better, as anything produced by a man. But I wanted to see the world through a man’s eyes, not a woman’s. Plus, I wanted the book to be a critique of the male way of thinking and doing things. If I could, I would have published the book under a male pseudonym.
HAMMERSMITH: Wouldn’t that have been a hoot.
CLEGG: It’s just not me, sad to say.
HAMMERSMITH: By the way, the website is terrific. It's not your usual item. Did you do it yourself?
CLEGG: I did. I prefer handmade to bespoke. More importantly, I wanted more than your typical promotional website with its third-rate filler material and relentless attempts at flogging. I was going for something that in a very real sense is a continuation of the book in the digital world. The two are designed to work together. It's not just backstory. The story continues, and the reader gets to participate. For example, you can choose one of three alternate endings. And, if you're up for it, take a path that's similar to a maze or treasure hunt in which you get to discover the Enigma of Zero.
HAMMERSMITH: So what is that? I just took a quick tour of the site.
CLEGG: It's an obsession that one of the characters has.
HAMMERSMITH: The website associated with the Harry Potter books seems to be doing some of the things you described.
CLEGG: Yes. It was a huge influence, especially from the point of view of design. But it's really a kind of handbook to the Potter books, with lots of pictures, writing by other authors, and promotions for upcoming Rowling projects. It's not what I have in mind—a body of material that's an integral part of the published novel. At some point in the future, I anticipate the two will be joined in one electronic package, and we'll have a whole new narrative form.
HAMMERSMITH: Interesting. I noticed that the website, like the book, has a noticeable satiric streak as well as a sense of humor.
CLEGG: I have a hard time with humorless books or books that don’t take a stand on some of the world’s recurring and apparently incurable stupidities. Novels should be entertaining and take us out of ourselves but not erect deflector shields against incursions from the real world.
HAMMERSMITH: Let me ask you about the title. Is this a reference to the famous opening of Joyce’s Finnigans Wake? You know, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay . . .” And so on. That’s as much of that novel as I’ve ever read.
CLEGG: Not really. That’s also about as much as I’ve read. I needed a name for my Vermont town and I came up with that one. But having thought of it, it did give me the idea of narrative as a closed loop, an eternal cycle.
HAMMERSMITH: What do you think of Marisha Pessl, someone about your own age, who’s managed to come up with two remarkable successes?
CLEGG: Every author has his or her own audience and she’s to be commended for her talent, books and success. But that’s not who I am. I’m not interested in messing with the surface of the narrative for the sake of messing with it. The surface should be as easy as walking through an open door. Most people read for character and plot, which is fine and necessary. But there should also be some depth below the surface, with all kinds of critters living there.
HAMMERSMITH: You mean subtext?
CLEGG: I don’t like that word. It’s academic jargon. No, what’s below the surface is stranger than just another text. It’s the dream world below the waking world. When we read or watch a movie or play, we go into a kind of trance. We’re taken out of ourselves. That’s the magic of narrative. If the thing is done right, then we gain entrance into that dream world and become aware of things that are basically impossible to articulate any other way. The greatest works of narrative art achieve that. Look at the Bible—a series of stories. And look and how many hundreds of millions of people live and die by that book.
HAMMERSMITH: Have you achieved that? I mean creating a dream world.
CLEGG: I don’t know. Really, that mostly emerges on its own. The curse of the creator is never being able to fully enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. All you see is how far off you are from your original intention.
HAMMERSMITH: So why do it?
CLEGG: You do it because the act of creating, despite being so difficult and frustrating, is also so tremendously rewarding. There’s really nothing like it.
HAMMERSMITH: Better than sex?
CLEGG: Sex has its own recommendations.
HAMMERSMITH: You’re still single, right?
CLEGG: Yes, I am. I’m not sure the word “still” applies to me. At least I don't like to think so.
HAMMERSMITH: Sorry. You know, we should meet for a drink sometime.
CLEGG: A lot of bad plots begin with that line.
HAMMERSMITH: Not this one, I promise.
CLEGG: Okay, what's your pitch?
HAMMERSMITH: Attractive and brilliant novelist meets with a smitten influential blogger who comes to realize how incredibly much the two of them have in common . . . hold on, let me turn this thing off . . .