Things You Will Never Understand: A Conversation with Robert Jackson Bennett
The writing of The Troupe started for Robert Jackson Bennett with the image of "a boy in the dark, muddy and wounded, holding a body in his arms, and singing." He wrote the novel to understand who the boy is and how he got there.
Bennett jokingly calls himself an "accidental horror" writer. Much of that self-identification comes from simplifications and from his having won the Shirley Jackson Award for his first novel, Mr. Shivers. As Bennett discusses below, there are elements of horror in his fiction, but there seems to be more of the strange and weird—the unknowable, the un-understandable—than the scary or terrifying. The unknowable coupled with a desire to know, to learn about the world and oneself, fuels his fiction with a tension that is at times unbearable.
"Writing fiction is an interesting form of self-deception, because it's a self-deception you're aware of, and one you consciously initiate," said Bennett. "It's a strangely schizophrenic, disparate process: your attention and personality are put through a thresher, split up into facets, and set to work independently on different questions and problems. Your left hand has no idea what your right hand is doing until your left hand encounters a problem and stops, wondering how on Earth it's going to get out of this one, which is when your right hand swoops out of nowhere with a solution you had no idea you were even working on.
"You learn a lot about yourself, writing fiction," he added. "You just have to hope the end product is fun enough for everyone else."
Indeed, his novels are "fun" and disturbing and a pleasure to read. There's his first novel, Mr. Shivers, a dark fantasy set during the Great Depression as seen from the perspective of hobos riding the rails. His second, The Company Man, pits industry and unions, technology and telepathy. And his forthcoming third novel, The Troupe, which is set in the delightfully strange world of vaudeville.
The Troupe focuses on George Carole, a sixteen-year-old piano prodigy. Carole travels the Vaudeville circuit under the guidance of Harry Silenus, who teaches Carole about the First Invocation (also known as the First Song) which is the very tune the Creator sang in the beginning. It is their job to sing the song of creation to lift the shadows of the world. Here lies one of the fundamental differences in The Troupe as compared to Bennett's first two novels.
In Mr. Shivers, Bennett uses a shadowy mood, layered atmosphere, and painfully real characters to reveal the darkness of the world; The Company Man takes a scalpel to the heart of capitalism to shake out the grit and grime of corruption. The Troupe, on the other hand, sings of... "hope" isn't quite the word, but it's close.
Below, Bennett and I talk about vaudeville, writing, and the search for peace.
First things first, what compelled you to set a novel in vaudeville?
Vaudeville is a fascinating time in American history: it's when the rails really started to open up, and all sorts of barriers started becoming permeable. The great melting pot that is America actually began to percolate.
Entertainment is always a fascinating expression of a nation's subconscious, and vaudeville, which was meant to be light, frothy, diverting entertainment for the masses, suddenly became a huge source of cultural cross-pollination: anything strange or exotic would do. Modern country music owes the slide guitar to vaudeville, for example, due to country acts touring the circuits alongside Hawaiian bits.
But moreover, The Troupe is a story about the building blocks of creativity, and how they still resonate today. And vaudeville might have been the first definer of modern American entertainment, so the building blocks it created can still be found now, whether it's in Looney Tunes, sketch comedy, stand-up, musicals, or even comic books (is there any bigger vaudevillian than Batman's arch-nemesis?). The people who made movies, and especially comedies, what they are—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy—all started out on the circuits, and none of them have lost their verve.
How much of vaudeville is improvised, I wonder? Is any of it off the cuff, responsive to the audience?
The best vaudevillians had their acts fine-tuned and prepared to the smallest degree. And once they had something down, they never changed it—which is why film killed off vaudeville so quickly. There was never anything new there.
How does orchestrated music like, say, Aaron Copland, speak of a different America? Or is it that Copland speaks differently of the same America?
I would probably say that Aaron Copland speaks more to a Mid-Century America, one that had seen a great deal of trouble and wanted to re-envision itself as something more pastoral, majestic, and peaceful. Aaron Copland wrote about a home we all wanted to go back to: vaudeville, on the whole, just wanted to entertain.
Whose music is likely to show up on a soundtrack for The Troupe?
Probably Bert Williams. I listened to a lot of The Magnetic Fields while writing it, probably because of the whole overly-earnest-emotions thing. But I feel like the 78-version of Tom Waits' "Innocent When You Dream" captures something that's in The Troupe.
Where does a novel usually start for you—image, plot, character, historical event, somewhere else altogether? And how do you develop the novel from there?
I usually start with an image, frequently an image of the ending. The image comes loaded with atmosphere and subtext and other vague abstracts I can't immediately define. Defining those things, and figuring out how we got there, is the interesting part.
It is probably the least efficient way to start writing: I start with nothing concrete. Not even names, which is quite inconvenient. But I don't get to choose these things.
What is it about transience (Mr. Shivers) and touring (The Troupe) that sparks your creativity?
Well, there are two practical matters to take into account. One is that it's a classic story template, going off into the wide world to seek your fortune and all. It's something the human mind is geared to accept. The second is that the traveling mode usually makes it easier to introduce interesting and surprising situations than a static mode. (Though it can make things a logistical nightmare—readers might wonder, "How does the antagonist keep up with them?" or, "I thought she lost that in Cheboygan. Why does she still have it in South Dakota?")
But the thing that chiefly interests me is the question of identity. There are some characteristics and beliefs we have solely because of where we come from. Taking characters out of their homes and putting them into strange, challenging circumstances essentially nullifies those characteristics: it forces characters to ask themselves who they are, and to decide how they will act when their friends and family are not watching.
When the world is changing around you, a lot of you will change with it. But some part of you will not. That part you cannot change is who you are.
You were born, raised, educated, and currently reside in the South. Are you a Southern writer? What of the South appears in your writing? Or, put a little differently, what are some of those beliefs and characteristics that you have or had by grace of being born in the South... and how have those beliefs and characteristics been challenged in your writing and travels?
I actually spent most of my formative years in Houston. Which is not really part of any region—it's Houston. Just as London is not England, and Tokyo is not Japan, Houston is neither quite Texan nor Southern. It's a huge, huge metropolis, made of satellite towns with no real, definable center. It is also profoundly international—most of my friends were Korean, Pakistani, and so on.
My parents, and a lot of my extended family, are probably a lot more Southern than I am. And I do not think much of that Southern sensibility finds its way into my work. Except possibly drinking.
The interesting thing about growing up in Houston is that Houston—a city which is now founded mostly on large corporations and suburbs, where your neighbors are always in flux and there is no agreed-upon "hangout" for anyone—is largely bereft of intrinsic culture. It is not like New Orleans, which is definitely New Orleans; it is not like Austin, which is most certainly Austin (in fact, the first time I saw someone in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots was when I came to Austin; it was also the first time I saw someone covered in tattoos and piercings, but... that's Austin). There are definitely parts of Houston that have a sense of character—the Rice Village, Bellaire, the Museum District, and so on—and I got to visit them quite frequently, and I'm happy for that—but my experience of the whole does not.
It is this sense of communal identity, or lack thereof, that has probably shaped a lot of my beliefs and outlook. I always want to ask people—who are you? Is that something you decided, or something that was impressed upon you? Was it really impressed upon you, and did you really choose that, or do you simply think you did?
After all, "character" in Greek translates into "that which is engraved." The question, then, is who, or what, is doing the engraving.
How much of you is there in George Carole?
Probably more than most characters, and probably more than I'd care to admit. George was initially hard to write for reasons I will explain a little later, but I will say that if I were to meet my sixteen-year-old self today, it would take an awful lot for me to resist punching that condescending little shit in the face. It would probably do him some good.
What makes for a compelling protagonist? How do you create one?
A good protagonist must 1. have functionally believable and preferably interesting characteristics that 2. result in or directly affect clearly-defined, active goals that 3. the protagonist keeps to consistently throughout the story, though 4. keeping to those goals either changes A. what the protagonist thinks of themselves, the world, or both, or B. what the reader thinks of the protagonist, the world, or both.
A lot of the actual character is not determined by a trait of characteristics, but by voice, which is the manner in which things are described, the process of logic their thoughts follow, the way the character engages a scene or other characters, and much more besides. Voice is both the most important quality of any protagonist, and indeed any story, as well as the hardest thing to learn or to teach. Naturally.
George was actually a bit of a challenge, at the start. I first wrote The Troupe from a fairytale perspective, and as such George was initially a naive, soft, somewhat mopey and painfully earnest character. Overall, he was very bland and, as one early reader put it, "kind of a pussy."
When I heard this, I knew that I had problems with numbers 1 and 2 of the formula above.
Which is when I realized that, if he grew up without a father figure, George would naturally overcompensate, and emulate a discerning maturity as much as possible, and if he'd grown up marvelously talented, he would also be conceited as hell, much more so than the average teenager (which is already plenty).
So I re-imagined him as a bit of a vain, self-important young man, the sort of kid we all know who tries to talk about things he doesn't know much about while everyone else at the table exchanges glances as if to say, "Well there he goes again, just don't say anything." Then he became quite easy for me.
It's worth keeping in mind that the rules I laid out can, of course, be broken by anyone with a large enough vision or talent. Passive, wandering protagonists don't matter if the prose, world, or story itself is involving enough.
What about an antagonist?
Antagonists just need cool hats, really, preferably black.
Atmosphere is so central to your novels. How do you capture and create atmosphere?
A lot of atmosphere is in voice—the "how" of looking and talking about things. But there is a sense of physical movement to atmosphere: zipping or touring or stumbling through a background or location. The way this occurs—whether it's a plod, or a cruise, or a downward climb into what feels like a dark tunnel (though it may be a hallway)—is what builds atmosphere the most.
Description is not necessarily just a means of relaying characteristics: when you describe an object, you inadvertently imbue that object with new characteristics, just as a result of the way you describe it. Describing it shapes the way the audience perceives it. So, you have the option of imbuing objects which are quite still and static with a sense of action. Or you can reduce that feeling of action in a room until it feels like not only is nothing happening, but nothing has ever happened in that room, nor will it ever.
In what ways, if any, is The Troupe a horror novel? In what ways isn't it?
The Troupe is a horror novel in that it contains creatures and elements that are dark, unnerving, and disturbing.
However, to me, true horror inculcates in the reader a very vicious sort of loneliness: any horror, be it cosmic or slasher, makes you feel powerfully alone, vulnerable, and helpless. That is its chief goal.
The Troupe does not have that goal. It is not so much about feeling helpless in the world, but rather learning about the world and gaining perspective and, most importantly, understanding that there are things you will never understand. It could possibly be about learning to move past that deep loneliness inherent in all of us, and finding peace.
Have you found peace yet?
On occasion. Peace, like happiness, is not a destination at the end of a road: it's momentary, and frequently coincidental. It just takes work, and a lot of luck, to become the sort of person who can feel happy, or peaceful, with more ease and frequency. I do not think I am quite there yet—but no one really does.
So if you were in vaudeville... what would your act be?
Do you know, I have no idea. A lame answer, but a true one.