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A Conversation With Jonathan Carroll
An interview with Rodger Turner
February 2001


Photo © Ekko Von Schwichow
Jonathan Carroll
Jonathan Carroll
Jonathan Carroll was born in 1949 in New York. His father was a screenwriter; his mother an actress and lyricist. He attended Rutgers University then the University of Virginia. He became an English teacher, eventually moving to the American International School in Vienna, Austria, in 1974. Carroll still lives in Vienna with his family.

Jonathan Carroll Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Wooden Sea
SF Site Reading List: Jonathan Carroll
SF Site Review: The Land of Laughs
SF Site Review: The Marriage of Sticks and Kissing the Beehive
SF Site Review: The Marriage of Sticks
SF Site Review: Kissing the Beehive
SF Site Review: From The Teeth of Angels


Rafal Olbinski
The Wooden Sea
The Marriage of Sticks
Kissing the Beehive

Joe del Tufo
The Land of Laughs

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People are constantly faced with making choices in life, little ones and big ones. All lead them in a particular direction, depending upon the choice made. Are there times when you squeeze your eyes shut and wish really hard that you could have taken the other road?
Yes sure. But the person who doesn't say yes to that question is a liar. Sometimes we regret the road we've taken, sometimes the road not taken. To me the more important criteria is this: If I live to a ripe old age, I would like to look back at my life and say I tried just about everything that interested me. Some of it crushed me, some of it caressed me. But I have blessedly few memories of thinking God, I wish I had tried that when the chance was there. I think Oscar Wilde said the only real regret in life is missed opportunities.

The corollary to making such choices is the mental impact of making one which leads to pain, harm or anguish, either personal or to a loved one. Many of your characters seem to take a path which leads to something they could have avoided and the result makes them wonder at the sheer simplicity that gets them into such a mess. Do you know, as you write, what is going to happen to them 5, 10, 20 pages ahead via an outline? Or do they make their own futures?
No, I never know what will happen to the characters. Right now I'm writing a scene in which a woman and her boyfriend are eating in a diner. Suddenly the woman jumps up and says we gotta get out of here -- something bad is coming. He follows but asks where are we going and what's going to happen? But I don't know where they're going and I don't know why they have to leave there. Honestly. I'll just get them walking and see where it takes us. I like writing under that kind of pressure. If my books succeed, it's because the reader can feel the characters' decisions result from really not knowing what to do next in life. Because that's what happened to me when I arrived at that spot in their story. What's next? Who knows. Let's see...

Without giving anything away, can you give us a teaser about what you plan to write next?
I created a character in two earlier stories named Vincent Ettrich. He's a cad when it comes to the ladies, but he's an interesting guy too. Someone you'd like to have a drink with at the airport bar late at night. At the end of one of those stories, he died. The new novel begins with him back from the dead, not aware of the fact that yesterday he was six feet deep.

I know a writer who hates writing the last few chapters of a book. It happens because finishing it marks the end of a beloved relationship and all that remains is the editing, the marketing and the shilling. What part of the process of writing a novel engages you the most?
I guess there's always a point in the writing of a book where you blink and say to yourself this is good, I like where this story or character is going. There's no telling where that will come about -- sometimes beginning middle or even the end when you you've brought the chickens home to roost. When I wrote The Wooden Sea it happened at the very beginning because the protagonist McCabe kept making me laugh at what he was saying and thinking. It was so much fun hanging around him that I thought this guy is good, I'm easy telling the story through him because he's just good company.

I'd have to agree with that. He's so caught up in events that he doesn't even flinch when his younger self shows up and leads him to events that'll shape his life. Most folks would pause and first ask about memories that have grown dim or how such a paradox could occur. Or they'd offer advice to their younger self on what's to come. Were you tempted to do any of this?
There's a section in The Wooden Sea where McCabe says to his younger self I'm going to tell you in shorthand what your future will be like. But the younger Frannie doesn't want to hear this and all but covers his ears with his hands to block the information out. If my younger self were to reappear, the only thing I would say to him is you may not like things now, but wait a few years because you are going to have a wonderful, romantic life. You couldn't even dream how great it will be, so hold tight.

What do you think your younger self would say?
When I was a boy, I was generally unhappy much of the time because I never really fit in anywhere. I constantly tried with little success to be part of groups I neither liked nor respected. First, I was a semi-hoodlum, then when I was shipped by my worried parents to a tight-assed boy's prep school in Connecticut, I tried being a preppie. Which was really absurd, because from the beginning, I loathed everything that had to do with that group and their values. So what would my younger self say when he heard things'll get better soon? He'd probably say tomorrow is a long time away. And he'd be right because I didn't start being happy and comfortable in my life until I was about nineteen.

Getting back to the writing process, do you ever find yourself stymied by painting yourself into a corner? By this I mean, are there points in writing a novel where you find yourself asking, "What am I doing here? This isn't where the story should be." and pause in frustration. Do you rewrite it until it is the way it should be or do you put it on hold and tackle some other part of the novel?
The only time that ever happened was with The Marriage Of Sticks. I wrote a hundred pages of it but then hit a wall. I didn't know where I wanted to go with it and it wasn't telling me. Luckily right at that time, I was invited to Los Angeles to write the screenplay to one of my novels. That trip lasted almost two years. The only writing I did there was for films. When I returned to Vienna for good, I considered going back to Sticks but Kissing the Beehive landed on me almost all of a piece. So I thought I'll write that first and then Sticks. And that's how it developed. I literally finished one and went right into writing the other.

From my reading, I get the impression that you find women intoxicating, challenging, fascinating, enigmatic. Whenever it seems a clue surfaces as to what they are about, they prove surprising and baffling and the struggle to comprehend begins again. Is this the case or am I reading too much into your work?
Nope, you're spot-on. In my experience, women are the only organic, constantly changing labyrinths in life. You go in and after a while think you know where you're going -- only to walk into a dead end (or a minotaur) one turn or one hour later. At the same time, they are so utterly compelling and interesting to be around, that I don't mind bumping into their "walls." Because unlike other labyrinths, the views and experiences at every turn are usually either hair-raising or magnificent and the resultant adrenaline rush is like no other in life.

While reading your books, I've been smitten with a number of your female characters. Are they based upon women you've met and things that they've done?
Yes certainly. The greatest women in my books have been based in large part on the women I've known. I've been very lucky in that respect -- I've known a number of great ones and they have been my inspiration for years.

I was a partner in an SF bookstore for many years and one of the constant demands by readers was to have more of the same type of books but different. When we were selling your books, and now based upon emails we get about you (usually after a review is posted), most fans don't seem to care about this. Have you ever had an inclination to write a 5-volume epic of 600 pages each -- what we term a "fat fantasy"?
An editor in England once offered me a lot of money to write a fat horror novel. The only requirement was that it be long and gooey. I thought about it for a while and then realized I would have to live with that story a long time. It takes me about a year to write a novel 300 pages long. If they wanted a 600 pager that would be at least two years. Eyeballs on the floor and blood on the walls for two years was just something I didn't want in my head all that time so I said no.

One of my favourite movies is A Fish Called Wanda. I've daydreamed about being the Kevin Kline character (mostly because he had a lot of great lines and got to hang out with Jamie Lee Curtis). I'm told that you like movies. Is there a character that pops into your head from time to time?
Sekourah the evil magician in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. When I was a boy that was my favourite movie for years. The actor who played him, Torin Thatcher, was the friend of friends of my parents. He came to a party at our house one night. When I walked into the room and saw him, Sekourah, ruler of dragons and cyclopses, capable of turning servant women into green snakes, I almost died and went to heaven.

Some authors impose an element of self-censorship. Many readers wish other writers would do it. The furor about the ending of Hannibal by Thomas Harris, perhaps one of the more fiercely compelling stylists I've read, is a recent example. Do you censor yourself? Is there any topic you wouldn't write about?
I don't write about things I find offensive or evil -- child abuse, horror, topics like that. I'm sure some of my disgruntled readers would say well there's a lot of horror in your novels. Which could be argued, but if I use something that is horrible or offensive, it is always for a specific purpose. The scene in Bones of the Moon, for example, where the narrator sees herself and her child crucified on a door is certainly gruesome. But when I wrote the book, I tried to come up with the most horrific image I could so as to keep the woman from opening that door and finding out what was inside. I didn't create it just to shock the reader. I think Harris, whose previous work I love, made a big mistake with Hannibal. The whole book is a kind of silly grand guignol, driven right off the cliff at the end with that absurd dinner scene. I think people love Lector because he is almost all understatement and nuance in the previous books and Demme's film. In Hannibal, however, he's just a sadistic nut with a flair for cooking.

Copyright © 2001 Rodger Turner

Rodger has read a lot of science fiction and fantasy in forty years. He can only shake his head and say, "So many books, so little time."


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