Your themes - loss, identity, solitude, memory, chance - have remained relatively consistent throughout your career. How does The Book of Illusions differ from your past novels?
Every writer is trapped by his obsessions. You don't choose your subjects - they choose you, and once you enter a book, you're powerless to escape. Writing novels isn't a science, after all. You grope your way forward, eliminating and adding material as you go along, changing your mind, discovering what you are attempting to do in the process of doing it. And in the end, all you really discover is yourself. Again and again.
Still, every time I set out to write a novel, I make a conscious effort to reinvent myself, to work against the books I've written before. No matter how far I think I'm getting away from myself and my past, however, I can never really escape. The thumbprint of my obsessions is all over the final result.
So yes, in answer to your question, The Book of Illusions explores many of the same ideas and subjects I've dealt with before. It's recognizably a novel by the same author who wrote my previous novels. Where it differs somewhat form those earlier books, I think, is in the mournful, grief-stricken tone of the narration. David Zimmer is a man literally fighting for his life, looking for a way to go on living. But I've known him for a long time, and this isn't his first appearance in one of my novels. He was Fogg's friend in Moon Palace, and in that book the reader also learned that he was the person Anna Blume was writing to in In The Country of Last Things. (There's a subtle reference to Fogg in The Book of Illusions: Zimmer's second son, Marco, is named after him.)
Another difference in this book, perhaps, is the emphasis placed on imaginary works - Hector's films and David's book about them. There have been "fictive novels" in my books before - stories within stories, so to speak - but never so fully fleshed out as in this one. In The Book of Illusions, Hector's films are an essential part of the narrative.
Hector Mann, the silent comedian at the heart of your novel is a complex, enigmatic and vivid character. Who is he? Is he based on a real-life figure?
Hector Mann is a pure invention. He appeared in my head one day about ten or twelve years ago, and I've been walking around with him ever since. My original plan for the book - which was born about twenty seconds after Hector was born - was simply to make a collection of his silent comedies, to describe the movies in words. That impulse remains in The Book of Illusions, but a large and complex story grew up around it.
As for Hector's characteristics - the handsome face, the white suit, the black mustache - I believe those were inspired by Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce Italian Style, a film from the 60s. His performance made a great impression on me, producing what I would call a kind of perpetual inner grin. If I had to choose one actor that I preferred above all others, I think it would be Mastroianni. For the depth of his humanity, for the uncanny way in which he can simultaneously embody the serious and the comic. Like Cary Grant, he's an Everyman who remains a distinct individual.
But Mastroianni's influence is only a guess. I can't be absolutely certain. Hector also shares characteristics with Max Linder, the earliest of the great silent comedians. And there's a touch of Raymond Griffith in my portrayal of Hector as well. Most of Griffith's work has been lost, so he's become a rather obscure figure. But he played a dapper man of the world - just as Hector does - and he also had a mustache. But Hector's movements are crisper and more artfully choreographed than Griffith's.
In The Book of Illusions, we see an intersection and give-and-take between literature and film. How did your experience as a screenwriter play into the writing of this novel?
Movies have always been a great passion of mine. When I was 19 or 20, I seriously considered going to film school and trying to become a director. But I felt I had the wrong personality for the job. I was too timid, to afraid to speak in front of others, and I decided that I probably wasn't cut out for it.
The irony is that once I started publishing novels, I was brought into contact with the film world. Directors approached me wanting to adapt my books into movies or to ask me to write original screenplays for them. The first time I ever visited a movie set was when Philip Haas was shooting a screen version of my novel The Music of Chance. And then, of course, I became involved with director Wayne Wang, who had read my piece on the Times Op-Ed page, "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story." That led to work on two films together, Smoke and Blue in the Face. We spent two solid years on those projects, and that was when I learned everything I know about filmmaking. By the time I wrote and directed my own movie, Lulu on the Bridge, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.
Fiction writing and screenwriting are very different activities. In both cases, you're trying to tell a story, but the means at your disposal are totally dissimilar. Novels are pure narration; screenplays resemble theater, and as in all dramatic writing, the only words that count are the dialogue. As it happens, my novels generally don't have much dialogue, and so in order to work in film, I had to learn a completely different way of writing, to teach myself how to think in images and how to put words in the mouths of flesh-and-blood human beings.
Each form has its strengths and weaknesses, the things it can do and the things it can't do. The question of time, for example, works differently in books and films. In a book, you can collapse a long stretch of time into a single sentence. "Every morning for twenty years, I walked down to the corner and bought a newspaper." It's impossible to do that in film. You can show a man walking to a corner to buy a newspaper on one particular day, but not every day for twenty years. Films take place in the present. Even when you use flashbacks, the past is always presented as another form of the present.
What intrigued me about The Book of Illusions was that I had set up a story in which I had to use both kinds of writing in the same book. It was an immense challenge, and I must say that describing Hector's films, especially the silent films in chapter two, took a great deal of work. All the visual information had to be there, the physical details of the action - so that the reader could "see" what was happening - but at the same time, the prose had to move along at a quick pace, in order to mimic the experience of watching a film, which is rushing past you at twenty-four frames per second. I had to go over those passages many times before I felt I had them right. Too many details, and you get bogged down. Not enough, and you don't see anything. It was all a question of striking the proper balance.
The Book of Illusions is unabashedly about loss. It is obvious that you come to this subject with the experience of an older, more seasoned author. Could you have written this book ten years ago?
No, I don't think I could have written this book earlier. I'm well into my fifties now, and things change for you as you get older. Time begins slipping away, and simple arithmetic tells you that there are more years behind you than ahead of you - many more. Your body starts breaking down, you have aches and pains that weren't there before, and little by little the people you love begin to die. By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us, and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. A young person can't understand this. It's not that a twenty-year-old doesn't know that he's going to die, but it's the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person-and you can't know what that accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself. Life is so short, so fragile, so mystifying. After all, how many people do we actually love in the course of a lifetime? Just a few, a tiny few. When most of them are gone, the map of your inner world changes.
Do you think that people can find solace in reading about other people's loss?
I think it's possible, yes. I can vouch for it from my own experience, and it's a continual reminder to me of the power and importance of books. It's been twenty years since The Invention of Solitude was published, and in that time, I've received scores of letters, hundreds of letters, from people who've told me how much the book helped them get through the rough experience of losing a parent. I didn't write the book in order to console anyone. I was simply trying to tell the story of my father's death and the effect it had on me, but in writing my own story, I seemed to touch on something bigger than myself, something that other people could respond to. For a writer, working alone in his little room, there's no greater reward that that. To know that your words have actually gotten through to someone.
This is your tenth novel. You are leaving a legacy for younger writers. How do you see that legacy?
I can't look at myself from the outside. I simply don't have the mental equipment to do it. I don't think about my reputation, I don't think about my so-called "career." What I do is push on every day, doing the best I can to write the things I feel I have to write. It's for other people to make judgements about what I've done, and I wouldn't want to presume to have an answer to that question. I wish I could, but I still haven't mastered the trick of being in two places at the same time.
What is next for you?
Another novel. I'm back in the trenches, plugging away at it every day. Feeling lost again, which seems to be the only way I know how to go about it.
© 2002 failbetter.com