Robert Freeman Wexler snuck onto the scene last year with his novella In Springdale Town (PS Publishing),
which garnered well-deserved praise from John Clute and many others, including myself on Locus Online. In
addition, the novella was taken for The Best Short Novels of 2004 (SFBC). Prime
Books has just published his first novel, The Circus of the Grand Design.
A graduate of the Clarion West Writer's Workshop, Wexler lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with his wife, the writer
Rebecca Kuder. I interviewed him via e-mail in November 2004.
Now that you've had a chance to sit back and reflect on Circus of the Grand Design, what do you think the book is about?
I think it's a straightforward story about a restless guy who doesn't have a lot of friends and joins a circus,
not knowing that it's a fantasy circus and he's totally fucked. Which is probably a metaphor for something. Probably
has to do with me, feeling like an outsider, wanting to find someplace where I'm not an outsider. But since I'm pretty
sedentary, I sent Lewis out in my place, to have some adventures.
You say Lewis is "totally fucked," and you mean that literally. Did you know from the beginning that there would be sex
scenes in the novel, and were they difficult to write?
I didn't plan them at the beginning. My original notes said: "Man meets woman in circus of course for romantic
angle." Once I discovered that she was a fertility goddess, the sex followed of necessity. They weren't difficult
to write, other than technical aspects of trying to keep them from being clichéd or boring. It's rare to find sex
written in interesting or even erotic ways. And I suppose a good sex scene should arouse the writer a bit while
writing. It's kind of embarrassing to think about some of the people who might be reading the sexy parts, my parents,
my wife's parents, other relatives, people I meet in town who have no idea what my writing is like but say
they want to get my book.
And you think they'll vacillate between thinking you're a pretentious Are No and a swingin' ladies man?
You get the sense that no matter how deep into the surreal world of the circus Lewis gets, and no matter how
exasperated, he'd rather be there than in the more mundane world. Do you consider Circus to be an escapist
fantasy? Is it about Lewis' inability to face his problems in the "real" world?
Well, not everyone can face real-world problems. It's escapist in the sense that he's left his world for
another. The idea of a person leaving our world for some kind of alternate one has been done a lot in fantasy,
and I probably read too much of that when I was younger. But escapist, to me anyway, has more to do with people
entering an alternate world and finding love and adventure, which they somehow couldn't do in the real
world. Obviously I'm borrowing some of those tropes (Lewis finds a sword and uses it). I suppose I think of
"escapist" as somewhat derogatory, a term for shallow entertainments, so I'm trying to distance myself from
it. Maybe that's a dumb thing to do. There's nothing wrong with entertainment.
I like having the fantastic intrude on the real world and real-world characters. Lewis has to figure out
what is going on around him. He's continuously doubting his place there, questioning his attitudes, the way
he talks and interacts with the circus people. And when he finally feels that he's fully part of things, he
gets kicked around. One problem with writing this kind of normal-person-encounters-the-fantastic is that
I have to balance his world view, in which the fantastic hadn't previously existed, with the expectations
of the reader of fantastic fiction, who might become impatient with Lewis's slowness in figuring things
out. Lewis has never seen this sort of thing, but the reader has.
Where do you find this sense of dislocation in the real world, do you think? And have you ever felt that way?
I haven't found any portals to other dimensions, and haven't had anything fantastic mingling with my life. There
can be a dislocation between inner, creative life and the surrounding world, between being a writer and earning a
living doing other things, between thinking creatively and listening to the surrounding clang of minutia. Dislocations
of feeling like an outsider, of being an atheist Jew in an increasingly conservative Christian country. Transforming
these dislocations into the literature of the fantastic is a way enabling myself to cope with the world.
Also, the situations or worlds I create, whether surreal, violent, or peaceful (or everything at once), are
separate from my real-world life. I can be a responsible person who pays bills on time, etc., and an artist with
a head full of strange places. Art doesn't have to come from irresponsibility.
Is Lewis is a sympathetic character?
Yes. Assuming by sympathetic you mean that he's someone the reader will care about. He's not exactly likeable
(Faren Miller, in Locus, called him a "restless mundane jerk."), and to some readers (and writers) a character
has to be likeable to be sympathetic.
What does Lewis learn from his adventures? Or is it necessary that he learn anything at all?
He'll probably be calmer. People like Are No won't bother him as much. I don't think he has to learn something. I
don't like fiction in which you can see, as you read, where the character starts to go through "character change" in
a textbook, writing manual way, then later the change increases, so that by then end it's obvious they've "changed."
Maybe he just learns that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the world remains a mystery? Do you believe in revealing
mysteries in your work, or in perpetuating mystery?
Oh, both. I don't like explanations for mysteries, but sometimes they're necessary because the characters would want
them. And sometimes they're not necessary. In The Circus of Dr. Lao there's a part describing the peep show. Here's a
circus in a small, dusty Arizona town during the Depression; the peep show is in "a small tent off by itself," with a
curtain that has holes for people peer through. They see things like fat nymphs lounging on rocks by the ocean, and
there's no questioning by the characters, or the authorial voice; the scene is presented as is, with the reader
interpreting it however they might. That's the kind of fantasy intrusion on the real world that I like best.
How did you come up with the character Are No?
Are No (and his house full of crappy art) is based on someone from whom I rented a vacation house on Long Island. There's
a clue about his real name in there somewhere, but I'm not saying. I reserved the house for four nights, two alone and
two with my girlfriend at the time. I didn't much like it. The upstairs heat didn't work (though the guy swore it did),
there wasn't enough firewood, the walls were covered with pretentious art. So I left after two nights (with the house
intact). On the train ride home, I wrote. It was the first time I've fictionalized an experience immediately after it
happened. Because of that, I now have trouble remembering what actually happened and what I made up. My brain never had
time to absorb the experience. I do know some things. No locked cabinet full of fishing lures, though there was a locked
closet upstairs. He didn't allow meat in the house, so my big revenge for the useless heater, etc., was to cook a pot
of stewed beef tripe. I know that's not as exciting as burning the place. My purpose in going to the house was to come
up with a new beginning for the novel, so it worked out. Before, I didn't have motivation for Lewis to join the circus.
However, you can't offer definitive proof, since you're unsure what you made up and what actually happened, that you
didn't burn the place down. Is it at all possible that "Are No" will read this interview and call you on your tripe revenge?
It's possible. If he really exists, and it wasn't some fantasy house I found myself in, from which I was fortunate
to escape before I really did burn it down and join Dillon's circus. What if that had happened? Then I could have
written a circus memoir and made barrels of money, would have a huge print run from Bantam or some other giant
conglomerate instead of a small press limited edition. Then the movie, with Ben Affleck as Are No, Liam Neeson as
Dillon, Julia Roberts as Bodyssia, the giantess, and of course Matt Damon as Lewis.
Do you plan to write about Are No in the future? He's a very compelling and unintentionally funny character.
His artwork appears in my current novel, which is about a sculptor named Jacob Lerner. Lerner's gallery
also represents Are No, and when Lerner goes to visit the gallery owner (a man named Ventricle Savage):
In Savage's gallery, Lerner encountered an exhibit of Are No's iridescent flop.
What role does humor play in your fiction? Clearly, Are No and Ventricle Savage are not particularly serious names.
I like humor. I like absurdism. In the past, I've had a tendency toward trying to be funnier. I try to be careful
with it. I'll take some stuff out in revision because I don't want humor to overwhelm the rest of the story.
"If you have any questions about the artist, we have information handouts at the desk."
The speaker was a thin, youngish man. He smiled at Lerner and pointed to the desk in a back
corner. Some new imp-hireling of Savage's. Obviously started after Lerner's last show. When was that -- September? Already nine
months. Long enough for him to have gestated a whole new body of work. Savage likely wouldn't give him another solo
exhibition so soon. His general rule was every other year. And if someone's work didn't sell adequately, even more time
passed. Sometimes Savage would arrange a small, group show of one or two new pieces by his main artists. Lerner wanted
some of his recent sculptures to be seen. He asked the young man to get Savage, and waited, focusing on an area of floor
out of sight from any of Are No's rancid shapes.
An inescapable fact -- he had to share the same gallery with mindless crap. Are No's pieces,
made using spray cans of insulation foam, the kind that expanded and hardened in the air, then painted in neon colors,
sold well, and sales drove any gallery's list. Fortunately, Lerner liked and respected most of Savage's other artists,
Grace Pendleton, Scott Eagle, Jane Andrews, Olaf the Wise.
There's a North Carolina folk artist named Mary Paulsen. Behind her house/studio/yard gallery are piles of junk
that goes into her art, or rots. A sign in the driveway says "Savage." I assume it means "Salvage." I thought, what
if someone from that background ends up as a gallery owner in Manhattan. His re-invention of self (everyone who goes
to New York re-invents themselves) would take something from his background, hence Savage. Ventricle probably has to
do with gallery owners being heartless bastards.
Do you think you'll ever write something where the humor is meant to overwhelm the story?
Probably not. Maybe if I was asked to write a story for a themed anthology on one-legged penguins, or a guide
to fake diseases (if there could ever be such a thing).
Changing direction for a moment: Have you been to many circuses?
Not really. Maybe three in my life. The sister of my college girlfriend had been in Ringling Brothers and
was married to a Hungarian teeter-boarder. I spent some time with them, the teeter-boarders' teeter-boarder
brother, other teeter-boarders here and there. At some point before I came along, a whole camper full of teeter-boarders
and who knows what else spent a winter at my girlfriend's parent's house, which I heard stories about.
What is a teeter-boarder, for those who, like me, won't know?
It's the big seesaw thing that acrobat types use, jumping on one end to send the other person into the air so
they can somersault, backflip, land on another acrobat to make human pyramids, etc.
Have you ever performed in a circus?
Would you like to? What type of circus performer would you be?
A clown. I'm not coordinated enough to walk on a rope. I would be a self-conscious performer. It
would be hard to keep from smiling stupidly, but as a clown that would be built into my costume and
act. Obviously I couldn't be a sad clown.
Do you have any favorite circus short stories or novels?
Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus. The Circus of Dr. Lao, which I just finished. I didn't
read Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes 'til maybe a year ago. I thought it was great. I wish I'd
read it a long time ago. Also Katherine Dunn's Geek Love. There's an amazing book. I'd love to be able to tell
a story like that. Quin's Shanghai Circus, which isn't really about a circus although there is one in the book.
What, in particular, did you like about Nights at the Circus?
The freedom of it. The barely-restrained chaos. The fully imagined characters, the story, the stories within stories,
the lustiness. I consider it my inspiration, but I wasn't trying to emulate it. I don't think I'd be capable of emulating
it. Though Lewis is based somewhat on Jack Walser. Walser the reporter/Lewis the publicist, both wanderers, but somewhat
blank, waiting to be filled. I read Nights at the Circus and Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale about the same time, and they
exploded my ideas of the fantastic.
Out of curiosity -- what did Helprin's novel explode for you, specifically?
Style, for one thing. Slow, descriptive passages, fantasy that builds layer by layer, including landscape and city that
feel familiar but aren't quite real. Style that differed from the more plot-oriented genre books I had been reading. Also,
the timing of when I read it was important. Soon after college I got a job at a Waldenbooks, but because it was a small
store in an old, 50s era shopping plaza, it didn't have that plastic, shopping mall chain store feel, and everyone who
worked there was into books (which I doubt is true in the shopping mall stores). We could get away with a lot of special
ordering of books that the store wouldn't normally carry. So if I heard about a particular book, or writer, I could order
books for the store and read them myself. During this period I also got into J.G. Ballard, Robert Coover, things with fantasy
elements but published outside of the genre (aside from Ballard of course, though at the time his books were being
repackaged as literary rather than genre).
I started working there in the summer of 1984. Neuromancer came out that year, as did Nights at the
Circus and Empire of the Sun. Winter's Tale came out in 1983, with the paperback in 1984. I loved
Neuromancer, but stylistically, it wasn't my kind of thing. Unfortunately, reading all this non-genre literature
of the fantastic led me to believe that literary journals would be open to my style of writing, which turned out not to be true.
What do you think is the appeal of the circus for a fantasy novel?
Having a bunch of odd, flamboyant characters to play around with. The theatricality. Also, it's a closed
community. A newcomer is always an outsider.
Do you see the circus characters in your novel as ultimately alien or unknowable?
They're alien to Lewis. For him to be accepted he has to accept them. They possess their own way of being,
and he can't make them conform to his idea of what a person is.
How different is writing a story from writing a novel, for you?
They're similar, in that either way I have no idea what I'm doing or what is going to happen. I usually start
with maybe a character and a situation, and keep moving. With Circus of the Grand Design, I knew it was a
novel. A good bit of the framework popped into my head at once. I thought I knew the ending, but before I got there
I realized it wouldn't be the right one. I do think it helps to have more of something, outline, framework, before
getting started with a novel than with a story. It's exhausting to keep at it without knowing where it's going. With
a story, you get there sooner. The novel I'm working on right now was something I thought would be a long story,
maybe 10,000 words, but there was more to it than I realized. Certain things led to other things.
Now, Circus of the Grand Design was written before In Springdale Town, your novella from PS Publishing. Did
you learn anything writing Circus that you could then apply to Springdale?
Yes and no, and more no than yes. With Circus, I suppose I learned something about writing a long, simple
narrative, but Springdale is a shorter, more complex narrative. Aside from learning to write better from the
act of writing, I learned a lot about perseverance, learned that it's okay to set things aside and get back to them,
to keep pushing with something if you believe in it. Circus took shape (and reshape) over a long period, and I wasn't
having much success getting anything published. It would have been easy to give up.
What is the novel you're working on about?
More of that fantastic brushing up against reality stuff. It's tentatively called The Painting and the City
and is set in New York City in late Spring/early Summer 2001. A sculptor named Jacob Lerner sees a painting by (fictional)
19th Century Dutch artist Philip Schuyler and becomes obsessed. The book is all from Lerner's point of view, but I also
include two sections of Schuyler's journal. The first journal section, from his 1842 visit to
New York, appears in Polyphony 4.
How is it different from your previous work?
It's more political. I use Lerner's time in the studio to express various things that go through his mind as he
works, rants about big business, art and commerce, repression, homelessness. Also, I tend to write these "man alone"
stories, so I tried to make him less alone.
Have you been pleased with the reaction to the novel thus far?
Yeah, so far. There haven't been a lot of reviews yet, but the few I've seen have been positive. Because
In Springdale Town received a fairly positive response, I've been worried about how people will
respond to Circus. "So he writes a decent novella, well then, let's see about this novel...."
You're a book designer, in addition to being a writer. Did you enjoy doing the interior design for the novel?
I did. After doing In Springdale Town, last year, this was easy. With Springdale, [when I started
the design process,] I wanted to delete everything. I kept looking at what I'd written (especially the side-notes) and
saying, "Who's going to want to read this crap?" I had to separate myself from being the writer and get on with it. The
publisher hadn't paid me for a blank book. For Circus, I used the typeface Sabon because that's what was used
for the U.S. edition of Nights at the Circus. Maybe the British edition too, I haven't seen it. For the press
release and other typed bits that Lewis writes, I searched the Internet for a typewriter font that I liked. Overall,
I wanted a look that would help the reader. Small press books can be pretty unattractive. Sometimes large publisher's
books, too. A lot of emphasis goes toward the cover and less on the inside. The cover may help sell the book, but an
ugly interior can make the reader put it down.
I know you're making steady progress on the new novel. In the meantime, can we hope to see any new short fiction in print?
No. I have a couple of older stories circulating, but I haven't been working on anything new. I only
work on one thing at a time, so I can't do a new story till I finish the novel. I started a story and thought
about taking a break from the novel, but decided to wait. I have several fragments/ideas to get into after the
novel is finished, which is how I usually work. Springdale started that way while I was doing a rewrite of Circus.
In closing, what's your favorite line in Circus of the Grand Design?
I can't think of one offhand. It's weird, looking at the book and seeing different words from different stages of
the book's evolution. There are a few sentences that are pretty much original. The Locus review quoted from some
of the newest stuff, from a few paragraphs early in the book that I wrote right before starting on the layout. Seeing
those lines in the review made me happy.
Copyright © 2005 Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly,
The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime published
his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat?.