Jonathan D Clark is author of philosophical novel Arcadia, and his short story The Video was published in our recent anthology, Vast. As part of our Writers on Lockdown series, he joined me to discuss isolation, paranoia, and the dark side of our relationship with technology.
Hi Jonathan, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!
Thanks for having me as part of this series. It’s a pleasure.
How are you surviving in these crazy times, do you find isolation is a help or a hindrance to your writing process?
I’ve always been a rather reclusive individual (going to and from my day jobs throughout the years without speaking to anyone), so besides the limitations on what there is to do around town—and having to snipe for groceries—not a whole lot has changed for me due to the lockdown. Although, it did give me the chance to tell my more extroverted friends “welcome to my domain.” And as for productivity, it did witness a spike in the first week, but it has since slowed back down to its original pace.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
For the past year I’ve been working on my next novel, along with the occasional short story here and there when I feel I need a break from the grand narrative.
Can you tell us anything about the new novel at this stage, or is it top secret?
Unlike Arcadia, my current WIP (titled False Cathedrals) will have a more contemporary setting; taking place in 2012 in the fictional town of Midtown, Vermont—as well as a few chapters taking place in the mid-to-late 90s. At the heart of the novel is Daniel Bloom, a middle-aged psychotherapist who can’t seem to escape the haunting memory of his first wife, Karen; even after fourteen years have passed since her untimely demise at the hands of a crazed shooter, now dormant. Hoping to distract himself, Daniel puts all his focus into helping a patient find lucidity after well over a decade of uncertainty. But it doesn’t help when he hears that the shooter has started a new, violent rampage.
Also, while not a direct sequel to Arcadia, False Cathedrals will feature a few characters who were players from Arcadia, but in a completely new context.
You describe your work as philosophical fiction. Are there any particular philosophers or schools of thought that inspire your stories?
Three philosophers I’ve read and have resonated with were Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard—although I also have been inspired by Absurdism. But of the three philosophers mentioned, I would say Dostoevsky has had the most influence on not only the themes I explore, but also in how I write: using a polyphonic writing style to tell one story.
For those unfamiliar with the term, could you describe what a polyphonic style is?
Polyphonic means having many voices. Where many novels have one or two (and sometimes three) narratives or POVs to tell a story, I felt Arcadia needed as many voices as I felt necessary to tell the story I wanted to tell, which ended up being sixteen; even if some of them only came up once and then fell off the face of the earth.
In Arcadia, I noticed numerous references to other authors: Bret Easton Ellis, Philip K Dick, Thomas Pynchon, George Orwell, and others. Are these influences of yours?
The authors mentioned throughout Arcadia—with the exception of Ellis—had one thing in common: paranoia. It was the combined paranoia of the three other authors which influenced the paranoia I wanted to work throughout the novel. Their mentions were my subtle nods of acknowledgement, thanking them for having had such an impact on my life; both as a reader and writer.
As well as paranoia, there’s a strong theme of questioning the nature of reality throughout the novel. Did you do a lot of research into theories in this area?
During the years leading up to drafting for Arcadia, I did a lot of research on not only simulation theory, but also nuclear armament—how many nukes the world’s countries had during the mid-1990s, which cities were viewed as targets which would cripple each country’s economic, political, and military foundations. As for the infamous date which permeates the novel (25 January 1995), there was actually a real life incident surrounding it called the Norwegian Rocket Incident. I found it fascinating that we came so close to nuclear annihilation on that day that I started to ask myself “what if Yeltsin didn’t get the call telling him it was just a weather rocket sent to fly over the Aurora Borealis? What if all we know from that point in history onward has been nothing more than a digital projection and we’re just floating through ones and zeroes while our bodies lie quiescent somewhere being monitored?” From there, that’s where the inkling of an idea that became Arcadia stemmed.
Something that struck me immediately about your writing style is your use of run-on sentences. Side notes and italics and parentheses all in one flow make it feel like we are dipping in and out of each character’s head. Was this the intention, and if so, what made you decide to put the reader right in that flow of consciousness?
It was my intention to make the reader feel they were finding themselves in the thoughts of every character on-screen. Being a fan of stream of conscious writing (and being a fan of Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, and the aforementioned Pynchon), I studied their writing techniques with each production of theirs I read. When it finally came time to draft Arcadia, I wanted to see if I could execute a story with a similar spirit as the writers of the past.
That’s a very Joycian approach! One thing in common between the novel and your short story from Vast, The Video, is a questioning of morality in our use of science and technology. Is that an important issue to you?
It’s almost an obsession, honestly. Having grown up in a transitory period—watching the world go from analogue to digital, and having easier access to the world around us—I’ve noticed how obsessed with tragedy and violence mankind has become: binge-watching murder documentaries, having an almost misguided fascination with serial killers (take Ted Bundy as an antiquated example), and the current obsession with the actions of the characters from The Tiger King. It’s something I wish to understand: what is it about the horrific actions of a stranger that arouses people’s interest? Has humanity secretly always been a vile species, prone to violence, now confined to the laws of man (and of a God) to avoid the act of killing all together; left to feed their once natural, uninhibited instincts vicariously through another, and rejoicing in the guilty actions of an otherwise condemned soul—if only for a moment as it plays on screen?
There were certainly some unexpectedly vile scenes in Arcadia. Do you feel that exploring the dark side of humanity through your writing helps you come to a personal understanding of it? Or is it more about exposing this underlying nature to readers?
I’d have to say it’s a bit of both. While I’m drafting my novels the goal is to gain an understanding, to make an attempt to comprehend what makes humans act the way we do. Once I’ve finished drafting, and the act of fine tuning comes into play, that’s where I aim the lens outward—to pose the question to my readers while, as you said it, exposing the underlying nature of humanity to them. I would never want to tell my readers what to think, only to pose the question and see which path their mind decides to travel down.
And finally, a question I’m asking everyone on these interviews. Which three books would you recommend to readers on lockdown?
This is always a tough question, because how do you pick only three in a world full of books dying to be read? I guess I’ll give it my best shot:
1. White Noise by Don DeLillo – novel that’s proven itself to be more and more relevant as time presses forward, tackling themes such as rampant consumerism and media saturation.
2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – a novel I would recommend to anyone looking to retreat to a time period other than the current day. Perhaps not a simpler time, but one can forget about the worries of our current pandemic for a little while as they journey along with the Bundren family to Jefferson, Mississippi.
3. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – a sci-fi novel full of humor and a fun read from beginning to end.
Fantastic. White Noise and Cat’s Cradle are already on my list to read. Well, thank you very much for your time, Jonathan, it’s been great.
I had a blast! Again, thanks for having me! This was fun, and I look forward to every interview you end up doing for this series.