A Conversation with Jerome Charyn By Frederic Tuten

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1992, Vol. 12.2

FT: Let’s begin this way: you’re a writer of-how many novels?

JC: Twenty-two.

FT: But before your “bande dessinee,” The Magician’s Wife, you had written about nineteen “straightnovels. How did the shift into the format of the bande dessinee come about?

JC: Well, I’ve always loved the idea of the graphic novel, but in the United States, where you have the Superman-Batman-superhero phenomenon in comic books,it seemed impossible to develop the form. In France, I saw that novels in illustrated form are very popular: we just don’t have that here, with the exception of an illustrator like Windsor McCay and his one-page wonders. Since I was living in France much of the year, I made a real effort to see if I could do one, and it worked out. I was interviewed by a magazine called A Suivre, and they sent me the issue in which the interview appeared: there, I saw these wonderful illustrated stories. About two years later, I wrote the editor of the magazine and said I wanted to do one; he didn’t speak a word of English, but we were able to communicate anyway, and I sent him the scenario of an abandoned novel.

FT: About characters in Saratoga?

JC: Yes; the ideas for The Magician’s Wife came from a novel which just didn’t work out. My main idea for the book was to have a lady werewolf who attacks men in Central Park—a comic theme against the backdrop of the 1970s. I never developed this into a novel, but in thinking about it for a bande dessinee, it was as if I were a kind of very weird movie director giving a signal and a word, and it comes back as an image. And I began to realize how, maybe unconsciously, I had always had the desire to turn words into images. The illustrator for the bande dessinee religiously followed the first chapter of the scenario I had outlined, and I was delighted with it—maybe even more delighted than trying to reread one’s own work; the illustrator gave a dimension to the words that they had never had before.

FT: So you sent them part of the unfinished novel, and they worked from there?

JC: I sent the outline of the story, and it was translated into French. The editor of the magazine liked it, and we found an illustrator who agreed to do it—that’s how we began. But we soon ran into problems because the illustrator didn’t speak English, and I wasn’t in Paris that often. So I think, after the first part, he went off on a tangent, which I didn’t like, though at least it wasn’t totally disastrous.

FT: Did he alter the story line?

JC: Yes. For instance, I had thought of a detective who was a tough New York City cop. He changed him into a kind of Hercule Poirot who, in my opinion, didn’t work well. So when the book was published in the United States, I changed the detective from a tough American cop into a comic French one, who is idiotic.

FT: So you discovered that doing a bande dessinee is like making a movie?

JC: Yes; you have all the problems of production, of working with a brilliant brute.

FT: The fortunate fact is that you have always had autonomy over your fiction. In truth, what you did was deliver up a script that goes through the same processes a movie script would go through. The book won. . . ?

JC: It won the prize at Angouledme given for the best bande dessinee published first in France, a kind of Academy Award for comics; there were hundreds of competitors.

FT: That’s extraordinary. I’d like you to talk a little more about your fascination with doing this kind of work.

JC: Well, you have to remember that I started as an illustrator, because comic books were the only thing I read as a kid. Unfortunately, in the high school I went to, where I took art classes, comic books were frowned upon, so I had to do “serious painting.And I never continued studying this particular form. But I always loved it; I was insane about comic books because they didn’t have to follow any kind of “realistic mode.In comic books, you can go backwards or forwards. Look at George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, for example, where the locale changes from panel to panel. And the humor. I think the possibilities for humor and romance and sexuality are infinite in a comic book; maybe they’re infinite in the novel, but not quite in the same way, where the page has to follow a certain structure.

FT: Doesn’t the form of the bande dessinee require a certain kind of precision and concision?

JC: I totally agree, but on the other hand because it is a “comic book,it doesn’t have the same demands on reality or logic that the novel usually follows, except for certain kinds of truly crazy books like Tristram Shandy. Usually, there’s a realistic mode built into the novel which you can’t get away from. There’s a logic of sentence to paragraph to narrative which you don’t have to follow in the bande dessinee.

FT: So this different form gave you a certain sense of your own liberty, and it excited you at a critical moment in your work.

JC: Well, I think that your life always takes a certain flow. When I went to Texas, suddenly Texas appeared in my work, When I worked at the Actors Studio, suddenly there was more dialogue in my novels, so I was writing plays in novel form. Actually, what I think I’ve been doing throughout my entire life is writing comic books in novel form. It doesn’t seem to me that I was ever interested in “realism,or logic, or traditional narrative. I think I’ve always been attracted by the surreal, the kind of fiction where anything can happen, where the form explodes and you have permutation after permutation like a chain reaction. That’s the kind of fiction I’ve always wanted to write. So I think the move into the bande dessinee didn’t come about because I was tired of writing fiction, it was a natural progression. Moving from novels into bandes dessinees, and from bandes dessinees back into novels satisfied some deep need.

FT: And, of course, it’s a logical extension of that idea to go from bandes dessinees into films? Can we talk a little about your film interests?

JC: Well, I’m very much interested in acting and in films which I want to do in France. Hollywood has made some incredible films, but I’m more interested in films where you have some kind of narrative outbreak, though this may be difficult or impossible to do in the way I would like to see it done.

FT: Give me an example of a model for this idea.

JC: Well, Prizzi’s Honor seems to me a film that does this, where you have parody upon parody. And we could go back to Howard Hawks’s classic—

FT: The Big Sleep?

JC: Yes, The Big Sleep. I think this is a wonderful film because it makes no sense whatsoever. There is no interior logic to it other than the movement from scene to scene. The same is true in His Girl Friday. Hawks was wonderful at creating his own weird logic in everything he did. You find the same thing in Gunga Din, George Stevens’s film, and of course Duck Soup is the archetype for the kind of film where nothing makes sense, and yet which has its own internal order. That’s the sort of work in film I would like to do.

FT: But in your fiction, there is a kind of realism; you wouldn’t call your fiction phantasmagorical?

JC: No.

FT: So the bande dessinee and film would allow you a kind of license, though I think your fiction combines realism, a concern for contemporary life, and what you’re talking about as occurring in films and comic books. For example, in Pinocchio’s Nose

JC: —you have permutation within permutation. And I became “Pinocchioin Pinocchio’s Nose, so that was as far as I could go. But that book was so poorly received in the United States, so misunderstood, that I didn’t know what to do after that. War Cries over Avenue C has the same kind of craziness, but again, the reception was so bizarre that I became incredibly discouraged. I didn’t have the energy or courage to just say “fuck itand do what I wanted to do; I had this sense of a marketplace and it frightened me, because I hate marketplaces. But I think in these two books, and in my novel about baseball, The Seventh Babe, and maybe in The Catfish Man, which starts out traditionally enough but then moves into a fantasy world . . . there was a kind of lyric joy for me in writing those novels, but the way in which they were received killed some of the joy, so I had to snake in a different direction.

FT: It seems ironic that you would have to go to France to find a form that amused and haunted you, and an audience who would be receptive to it. I think the narrative drive that you’re talking about exists in The Magician’s Wife, and it’s the sort of thing you would find in great films, where you are swept away by the first image to the last. But I also think this occurs in the novels you mentioned. Has The Magician’s Wife been a popular success?

JC: Yes, very successful and very popular, like many of the bandes dessinees; it’s been published all over the world.

FT: Including the United States?

JC: Including the United States, where again, it had nowhere near the reception it had in Europe, I think it’s because the graphic novel is not a form that is understood in this country. First of all, the European bande dessinee is very, very sexy. It’s rooted in the kind of sexuality which would be tolerated in a novel but not in image form.

FT: One of the things I think we feel is that what we call comic books are light entertainment for children or idiots who can’t read a text. I’d like to get back to film for a moment: do you have any aspirations to make a film?

JC: Well, not as a director, but I have written screenplays. I’m more interested in writing for the theater: I’ve written a play about King George III and I’m hoping it might be put on in France. But again, I find the screenplay a bastard form, a model for the director to play with. So what I would like to do is both write and act in films. I don’t have the technical facility to be a director, and I don’t have the interest in carefully editing images even though I love them. But the problem is that a screenwriter’s work is dismissed once it gets into the director’s hands, and that’s not the kind of brutality that I would like to see with my own work. The screenwriter never owns his work; it’s always bought out from under him. That’s not entirely true with the graphic novel: I feel it’s mine even though the illustrator’s work is probably more important than that of the person who does the narrative or the scenario. I have a tremendous amount of pleasure in deciding what might go into each panel, maybe something like Hitchcock, who outlined each of his shots. Of course, he was the director and knew what he was going to do, and I’m not the director of the comic book. But in a way, I am, because when you work with the right kind of illustrator, it’s a delight to see your words transcribed into images. Now, I’m working with an illustrator, Loustal, on a bande dessinee called The Boys of Sheriff Street, which is about two gangsters in New York in the thirties who are twins, one of whom has a slight hunchback. Loustal is wonderful to work with: he is probably the foremost artist in the form, and each panel is a work of art, extraordinarily beautiful.

FT: What other things has he done?

JC: There’s Barney and the Blue Note, about a jazz musician, which was very successful in France and has also been published here.

FT: Are you working on a novel now?

JC: Yes, I’m working on another book, and The Good Policeman just came out [published in July 1990 by The Mysterious Press]; it’s the fifth volume about a detective, Isaac Sidel. To go back to an earlier subject, I do feel that my novels are becoming much simpler in format. They’re not anywhere as complicated as, let’s say, Pinocchio’s Nose, and they don’t have that quality of the fantastic. Maybe, in a sense, they’re closer to being graphic novels without the graphics.

FT: There are some constants in your fiction, even though it has changed over the years. One of my favorites is the character of the idiot in your fiction, which appears in very early published work.

JC: Yes, in a novel called Once upon a Droshky, about an old Yiddish actor on the Lower East Side, published in 1964.

FT: How old were you then?

JC: Twenty-six, though there’s a story about a girl, “Faigele the Idiotke,which I published in Commentary a year earlier.

FT: So the theme of the idiot exists in your fiction from the earliest days, or more precisely the idea of the odd, the infantile, the theme of the helpless child?

JC: Yes. It’s like a video of myself. I often feel like an imbecile in that I’m incompetent in everything I do, maybe even in the writing. But the only thing that doesn’t frighten me is writing. I feel a tremendous sense of joy and power in doing the work, and I’m never frightened at all to do a book. But I have a fear of going places and of letting people down in some way, whether it’s a class or a friend—it’s a kind of disease of incompetence. But it doesn’t touch me when I write. That same sense of joy and power maybe comes only when you’re in love and making love to a woman, but that is very, very rare. The lyricism is what does it: the only time it didn’t work was when I was in California and very unhappy. So I was the imbecile for three and a half years—the same thing happened once when I was in Texas—and I was completely frozen, very frightened. My natural inclination is to be a hermit, to sit at home and do my work, which is a horrible kind of life. But it seems to me it’s the only way I can write, as a phantom moving from one culture into another culture. To go back to the idea of the idiot: I’ve always felt incredible sympathy for the figure of the idiot because he’s a kind of genius. You think of people like Einstein, misfits who just happened to have a particular flash of genius. Those are the people for whom I feel the most sympathy, and all of my characters—young, old, male, female—are like that, like perverse children, like the character in “The Man Who Grew Younger,a story about a Yiddish poet who writes a story about a man who grows younger. It’s an obsession that runs through all of my work.

FT: So there’s a sense that the characters you’re drawn toward are failures, but also “saintfigures, in that they don’t compete in the real world.

JC: Sometimes they do. For example Isaac, in his own way, is very successful. He starts in Blue Eyes as a deputy chief inspector, and by the time of Secret Isaac, he’s the police commissioner of New York. And how does he get success? By killing people. At the other end of the spectrum is the idiot hit man of Paradise Man.

FT: I found it remarkable that you made a hit man the protagonist of Paradise Man; he commits a crime, and there is no judgment made about it. Could you say more about this?

JC: Well, I think of the main character [Manfred Coen] in Blue Eyes; the reader must be shocked when “Blue Eyesdies. I think the reader assumes that Paradise Man is going to die from the first page, and he doesn’t. In the sequel, Elsinore, he goes from being a hit man to someone who tries to avoid killing people, even though it seems as if he’s going to have to kill everyone in order to avoid getting killed.

FT: You’ve already mentioned the film about a hit man in love, Prizzi’s Honor.

JC: Yes. I know other people have reservations about the film, but I think it’s one of Huston’s best works—it has a playfulness that had been absent from his films for some time. In a sense, it’s a film about a wolfman—Jack Nicholson even looks like a wolfman—but it’s also a film about pure, absolute play. I was delighted it was a success, because it is almost too intelligent to be successful.

FT: You don’t feel that either you or Huston make judgments about protagonists who are killers?

JC: I think you’re made to feel sympathetic; you don’t want them to be hurt. I wouldn’t say this of Prizzi’s Honor, but every murder Holden commits [in Paradise Man]seems almost to come out of a desire not to hurt someone else, and not to be hurt himself. He’s very much in tune with American culture, which is one great killing field.

FT: American culture?

JC: Well, American nonculture, since we don’t really have a culture. We have a history of amnesia, but not a real culture.

FT: There’s a lot of violence in your work; is that America, for you?

JC: There’s a lot of violence in the American landscape. I grew up, as you did, in an environment filled with violence. It was everywhere; you couldn’t avoid it.

FT: But we didn’t grow up in a place, in the Bronx, where there were hit men.

JC: No, but in my neighborhood, the great hero was always the local tough who never survived his own childhood. Every kind of “total gangsterthat I knew as a kid never reached the age of eighteen. And they were sad, tragic-it was like Sophocles in the Bronx! This was something I was really drawn to, and I always fantasized myself in this environment as being outside the law. But this was the romantic image of a ten-year-old imbecile. I’d never really read books when I was a kid.

FT: How old were you when you started to read books?

JC: Well, I read the things I had to in public school, but outside of that, I only read comic books until the age of seventeen, when I read The Sun Also Rises, which I thought was incredible. Other than Hemingway, and reading The Sound and the Fury and One Hundred Years of Solitude, there’s nothing, I swear, beyond the age of ten that has really influenced my work. Everything in the last twenty-five years of my work was already formulated when I was ten years old. That may seem a sad and pathetic thing to say, and it may be regressive to have moved backward. But I think I was defined by two things: World War 11 and the movies. Nothing ever touched me as much as films did, and still do now. I’ve never left in the middle of a film, except when I went to see Sea of Love—the projector broke down in the middle of the film, and I was destroyed. Not because it was a great film, but because I didn’t have the luxury of coming out of the movie and feeling that complete bliss of termination. The film is over, you feel great. You go to the movies, into this landscape—the idiot gets out of his own head, and then returns to the dark. For example, and I’m not lying to you, I’ve seen Prizzi’s Honor at least thirty-five times, and each time I see it, I enjoy it more; but what can I say, I’m an imbecile!

FT: What about growing up during the war, about your family?

JC: I come from a family that I find very bizarre. I’ve been angry at my mother for a long, long time, and it’s only recently that I’ve gotten rid of this anger. I was never really able to break out of my family and form my own family. I was married once, but I have no children; I was never able to leave my family, even though, in a literal sense, I left when I was twenty-four; but I never made a complete break. In some way, all of my work involves family ties, family relationships.

FT: It’s true; in the Isaac novels I see all of those rich, wonderful characters longing for an extended family, one that crosses all national boundaries, even time and space. The bloodlines go so deep that once you’re in those families you know you’re protected for life.

JC: Right.

FT: Even if you’re the idiot.

JC: Exactly.

FT: So, in a sense, you’re the eternal child?

JC: Yes. I feel incompetent, childlike, in every way outside of the writing. I mean, even coming back from Paris to New York, I had to orchestrate an entire scenario in terms of getting the ticket, getting someone to drive me to the airport, having someone hold my hand when I went to the ticket counter to make sure that the ticket was in my name. Because, to me, the world seems so perversely magical that I never believe anything is going to turn out right. I’m always terrorized.

FT: Do you think this has anything to do with being Jewish, and raised by people who were immigrants in America?

JC: How so?

FT: People who are always foreigners in this culture, who don’t understand the rules of the game. And, basically, the relationship of the immigrant to the culture is that of the child to the parent who is distant and powerful—

JC: And perverse?

FT: —and perverse. And you can’t be quite sure that today’s pat on your back won’t be tomorrow’s club on your head.

JC: Exactly. And you may escape it for a little while, but the hangman is always going to be there. If he’s not around this comer, he’s around the next corner. My worst suspicions are always confirmed in the world. Other people wouldn’t mind if they arrived at the airport five minutes before the plane takes off because they always have the trust that somehow the plane will wait for them; or, what is the real tragedy if I missed my plane—I can always get another one. But somehow it seems that the journey from Paris to New York is incredibly immense—it seems like you’re traveling to outer space, and that you’ll never get back. Other than the deep-rooted fear that there will be an air crash, there’s always the suspicion that you’ll be caught somewhere, and that the plane will never land. There are these immense journeys.

FT: So, in your novels, you always have to have a competent character to guide the idiot around.

JC: Yes.

FT: Getting back to your family: you have two brothers, and one is a police detective. Does he- that character in your novels—represent the good side of the world, or the character who escapes routine, who enters the world of fluidity and excitement? How has your brother influenced your work?

JC: Well, of course, the detective books that I have written are, in part, based on his own life and make use of his expertise. What I find interesting about my brother is the combination of sadness and intelligence I think most homicide detectives have, having seen the absolute brutality of life. And yet, in his own way, he’s also an imbecile. He’s also afraid of flying, but at least I was able to get on a plane: he refused to fly, I think, until he was forty-five years old. I would swear he still doesn’t have a checkbook, though I may be wrong. His competency is being out on the streets; my competency is in writing books, but I don’t think they’re that much different from each other. I think we share a similar intelligence, and a similar sadness. He’s one of the few people that I love and trust, because we come out of the same labyrinth, the same emptiness.

FT: Could you say a little more about that—where you came from?

JC: I couldn’t make any connections. I never went into Manhattan until I was fourteen. I think the whole Bronx was a world which had no context, no center of gravity. The borough itself makes no sense. It’s a kind of bedroom community that goes nowhere, comes from nowhere, and is always a path toward someplace else. People who are born in the Bronx don’t stay there unless they’re deeply troubled—it’s always a route to somewhere else. I always fantasize that I’d grown up on the Lower East Side, where there are real neighborhoods, contexts. But the Bronx is just endless streets and indistinct neighborhoods. Growing up there, I felt like I had fallen to the earth and landed somewhere, and just suddenly started walking away from where I fell.

FT: But there were neighborhoods in the Bronx when we were growing up: the Jewish neighborhood, where you were raised; the Italian neighborhood around Arthur Avenue.

JC: Yes, there were, but these were just pockets within a crazy island. The Italians always created a community, and the most extraordinary areas of New York are still the Italian neighborhoods, because Italians don’t have this desire to move from place to place.

FT: What about the Jewish neighborhood you grew up in?

JC: It was a neighborhood of Jewish louts. I was not only the first person in my family to go to college, I was the first one in the whole community to go to college. And this is not the traditional image we have of Jews.

FT: What kind of Jews were they?

JC: These were Jewish gangsters! These were people who had no education, and no interest in education. The only book in my house was the first volume of The Wonderland of Knowledge, which went from AA to BA. So I knew the history of the world according to A. I memorized the entire book, so you ask me anything starting with the letter A, and like an idiot savant, I would give it back to you. But that’s it; it ended at that particular point. I think that was indicative of the whole Bronx. The Jews I grew up with were the toughest kids in the neighborhood, therefore it was perfectly logical that my brother became a policeman, because it was a legalized way of beating people up! I don’t mean to say that this was his character, but it was the Wild West. It was absolutely primitive, so what could you do? I ended up writing comic books: the high point of culture for me as a child was something called “Classic Comics,which were comic books that took novels like Lorna Doone and turned them into an illustrated history. And even they, out of some kind of desperation, changed the term “comic bookto “Classic Comics”—later it became “Classics Illustrated”—in order to get outside of the genre. I remember the greatest blow of my childhood: I’d always wait religiously for the next issue of “Classic Comics”—I think they came out once a month or once every other month. And then when it became “Classics Illustratedit was a tremendous descent into nowhere, because suddenly it was terribly pretentious—even the drawings changed. So I couldn’t even read Lorna Doone and Ivanhoe in peace.

FT: How did you draw on your brother’s experiences in writing your detective novels?

JC: I ran around with him; I drew on his lingo; I listened to his stories. And I was tremendously moved by the cop stories, because they have lives that, in a profound way, are very grim. Many of them are alcoholic, divorced, very unhappy people. My brother was the protective guy who turned on me at a certain point; but I don’t think I would have been able to survive without him, because there was such hostility between my father and myself that only a moral buffer—my brother—could protect me. My father had a curious combination of rage and impotence, and I can remember one of the strangest experiences of my life was when my father got angry at my brother—I mean, it was a tremendous rage. He threw a broom at my brother which hit him right in the eye. It was just horrible. I don’t know how my older brother was able to contain his rage, because he was very strong; he was a weight lifter, and eighteen years old. He could have demolished my father, and somehow, he didn’t. I’ve never understood that: it was such a violent gesture, and his whole eye was bruised—he could have lost his eye. And he didn’t do anything. I was amazed, really dumbfounded; I don’t think I would have been able to contain myself.

FT: I thought you lifted weights, too.

JC: I did. I was the youngest weight lifter in the Guinness Book of Records. I began very early, when I was a skinny, wretched kid. And at the age of twelve I had enormous muscles. I thought it was tremendously boring and dropped it by the time I was fourteen. But for a while, I was this musclebound geek, the Li’l Abner of the Bronx! The first magazines I read were about bodybuilders—Steve Reeves, Mr. America—these were my heroes other than the murderers.

FT: Let’s skip to the present: what is the current book you’re working on?

JC: I’ve recently finished the sequel to Paradise Man, called Elsinore, and I’m working on a screenplay for Paradise Man. It seems strange to work on the screenplay of one’s own novel because you’re into the bones of the book; it’s like re-haunting one’s own work.

FT: You’ve also written a book on film [Movieland]. Can we talk more about your involvement with film?

JC: I’ve done several filmscripts, but the problem is that I’m not particularly interested in commercial film and the schematic impositions that go with Hollywood. So I’ve only had bad experiences in working with producers who hire you because they say they love your work, and then, when you try to be faithful to what they seem to think they want, it turns into a disaster. I suppose it’s just simple narcissism: they hope that you’ll give them back whatever it is deep inside them that they can’t reach themselves. And of course, there’s no way you can do that, so what they want is a phantom version of their own insanities. I’ve had nothing but the greatest displeasure working in film, and it seems to me it’s never even worth the money because, first of all, you don’t own the material, and second, it’s almost never done. So the screenplay I’m working on now is noncommercial, for a low-budget film. I wanted to work on it simply because I didn’t want anyone else to take the text and oversimplify it.

FT: Didn’t you once work for Otto Preminger? Would you talk about that episode for a moment?

JC: I was in my middle or late thirties, and he had fallen so low that no one would work for him. He hired me—you can see what despair he was in, because I had no film credits whatsoever. He didn’t know who I was, he had never read a word I’d written, but he hired me immediately because he was so desperate. I found him to be a wonderful, enchanting man. He had married, perhaps for the third time, and had a son and daughter, twins about twelve years old. And I was absolutely amazed to see what a wonderful father he was. He was totally delighted with these kids, and at the same time, he was the image of Otto Preminger the ogre, the man who fired Lana Turner and who had destroyed people’s careers. But I loved him because, first of all, I had never considered myself a screenwriter, so when he called me an imbecile and told me I didn’t know how to write and that I ought to be shot, I laughed! And he loved it. He couldn’t get to me. He’d say that my work wasn’t worth ten cents, and I would laugh.

FT: You weren’t hurt or chagrined?

JC: I didn’t give a shit! I never considered myself a screenwriter, and here I was, earning an unthinkable amount of money—$1500 a week, much more than I could have earned elsewhere. He demanded that I work six days a week, but of course I did nothing: I would piddle over two pages.

FT: What was the project?

JC: CBS had him on line to do a television project on the Supreme Court, focusing on Justice Hugo Black. And I reworked a script that had been revised several times already and was dreadful. I think I made it a little better, but he couldn’t get a yes even from CBS, he had fallen so low. It was sad, because he was a multimillionaire with his own film company, but he couldn’t get anyone to buy his work. I was just marking time. I wanted to get out of the arrangement, so I told him one day, “Otto, look, I’ll work for you one day for free if you’ll let me out of this.He was so taken aback, he couldn’t understand what I was talking about, but he saw that he was going to get one free day. So I worked the free day, which meant I worked for ten minutes on two pages, fell asleep, and left. He was completely shattered, not because anything had happened, but because having a writer gave him the sense that something was in process. He had an enormous office, like Il Duce, with an anteroom next to it, so I was at his beck and call-that is, he could come in through the rear door and spy on me anytime he wanted. It was a little like 1984. . . .I never thought he was a great director, though I loved Laura. I really loved him as an actor in Stalag 17, you know, as the eternal Prussian Nazi, like Eric von Stroheim.

FT: Were any of the screenplays you wrote close to being realized as films?

JC: I worked with Arthur Penn, and with Richard Harris. But with screenplays, they lie asleep for ten years, and then one day, who knows . . . maybe all of this stuff will be made, one never knows.

FT: Do you think that some of the constructions of your books have been based on cinemagraphic models?

JC: Absolutely. If you look at Paradise Man, it’s not only film, it’s theater. For me, films have always been a primal influence; I’ve always thought about the one sentence that will give you a complete picture. But I think it goes back further than that, once again, to comic books. I couldn’t stand not to read comic books. I had a collection of over a thousand comics: I read them over and over again; I can’t describe to you what they mean as the embodiment of an absolute sense of play. In film, even the craziest ones—with the possible exception of the Marx Brothers movies- here is a literal sense of reality that you have to adhere to. And this is never true in comic books. There is always that total, irrevocable sense of play where nothing is certain on the page. This is what I rediscovered when I saw comics in Europe in the eighties, and the wonderful things that the European illustrators were doing. That’s when I began writing scenarios.

FT: So, with the graphic novel, unlike film, it’s as if you own the book, and in a way, working with an artist doing the drawings is really about directing in a certain sense.

JC: Absolutely. In the case of the artist I’m working with now, Loustal, he shows me the pages he’s made from my script and I don’t think of it as mine or his; it really doesn’t matter: from a word you get a magic image.

FT: With comic books, we’re back to childhood again. Red Ryder and Prince Valiant and cap pistols.

JC: Yes, that magical world, though it seems to me that I was never happy as a kid, not for five minutes. And yet, adulthood seems like some horrible, strange, endless fall towards death, but without a release. The kind of wonder or fascination that you had as a kid, the leaps of imagination, not planning the future—it’s the magical possibilities that were out there. Let’s say in the comic book or the cap pistol: a kind of release. I remember getting a whistling ring, the gold special—I’d been waiting for weeks and suddenly this package arrived, and I was delirious. I opened it up and there was this wonderful ring, and I remember my brother had one of those guns that projected images on the wall. I must have been six years old, or maybe even younger, but I thought it was one of the most extraordinary things in the world, because he projected images on the wall, and the images told a story. I think that’s one of the reasons that I write: when we’re kids, we need stories, the line of history, the continuity of the tale; I think that need probably never leaves us.

FT: Is there a connection between the violence you remember in your childhood, and the sense of release or magic?

JC: I’m not sure. All I know is that my childhood seemed filled with outlaws. One of the most extraordinary events of my childhood was seeing two Italian twins—outlaw brothers—having a fight. It was like The Mark of Zorro: they fought up and down an entire street for three hours, an endless, irrevocable, medieval battle between two outlaws. And then, at the end of the fight, they were as loving as they had been hateful during the fight.

FT: Where was this?

JC: Back again in my neighborhood in the Bronx. It was, as Coppola would say in Apocalypse Now, the asshole of the world. No one ever went there, and if you go there now, either the streets are in ruins or they don’t exist or they’ve been changed into something unrecognizable. The fight happened on Seabury Place, right near Charlotte Street, but everything there has been turned into ranch houses; it’s now a field of ranch houses. In other words, the whole past that I had as a kid is in ruins; it no longer exists. It’s strange, but each time I go back there and see the streets so changed, I have a tremendous feeling of power—not fright, not regret. I have a magical feeling of revoking the past, even though the past has completely disappeared. I think of the past as horrible, unpleasurable, except for the movies and walking. I loved to walk those streets. For me, when I walk, I have no sense of time.

FT: Do you still walk, in New York and Paris?

JC: I walk everywhere.

FT: I think all of the women in your books are outlaws; they have a weird kind of autonomy that I don’t quite understand. They’re so magnetic and compelling; they’re powerful women.

JC: Well, they’re not women who are subject to men. They’re not “good wives”; they’re people who are completely and irrevocably independent.

FT: Which characters would you think of in this regard?

JC: The women in Paradise Man and Marilyn the Wild, or the women in Panna Maria. Even if they are happily married they’re never with their husbands. The essential situation is that the family has broken down. To go back to my own family, I’ve never written about my mother, but in a masked way, maybe some of the women in the novels are, not reflections of, but dialogues with my mother.

FT: Although she’s the perfect example of the mother who stays home?

JC: Yes, she’s the mother who stayed home; on the other hand, she had a peculiar kind of independence. I don’t know how to describe it: there was a creature locked within her, a kind of Marilyn the Wild who never came out. The older I get, the more it seems that I’m right back where I started with my family: so, literally, I’ve gone nowhere; it’s been a trek to nowhere. Which is OK, as long as you understand it and don’t grieve for it. I was married once, but I can’t seem to have a day-by-day existence with a woman; it makes me crazy. I don’t know why, but I can’t breathe.

FT: The characters in your novels seem to create relationships based on not having relationships.

JC: Yes, they’re nomads, strange creatures in an eternal desert. When I started coming to Europe, I thought I was a European rather than an American; now, I think I’m not even a European, but a desert creature. I don’t know where I came from, but it must have been from some landscape or atmosphere that is so overpowering there’s nothing else to do. When I read Paul Bowles’s Sheltering Sky, I thought it was an extraordinary book, because he deals with this very thing: the enigma of identity; whatever it is that keeps us going, is something we’re profoundly frightened of.

FT: Maybe that explains my sense that your fiction is filled with rich, complex, moving characters, that your imagination is one of the richest in American writing today. No one I know has the same range, or variety, or angle of vision, the varieties of vision, the literal sense of the streets and the world behind the buildings.

JC: Again it goes back to childhood: as a kid I was always playing, always going behind the couch and pretending, and it’s never left me. Sometimes, I feel exhausted as a writer, and I feel I can’t do the long books that I would have been able to do at one time, but so what? One of the things that is always delightful is when you invent a character on the page; that’s why I create so many characters, an endless sea of characters, rather than just sticking with two or three and analyzing them into infinity. I’ll have forty characters within the same landscape. I’m a little bit unhappy about a book like Panna Maria which, perhaps, is too rich, where the fantasy level of the imagination has gone too far, like a strange flower that strangles itself. But in that novel, I really wanted to tell the story of immigrant Americans. I didn’t want to write about a Jewish family, which would have been logical and autobiographical. I had to do it in a perverse way, so I focused on Poles, whom I hated, even though my father is Polish; but you have to remember that the Poles were terribly anti-Semitic. I created a Polish family, a tribe of prostitutes, and used them to make an image of the New World. When the book came out, I started getting hate letters from Polish generals, saying “Why didn’t you write about the Jews?That’s to assume that I could only write about Jews, and that I picked Poles because I was anti-Polish, that I was writing another Polish joke. But I picked Poles because I thought of them as a wonderful emblem of America—brutal, wild, unassimilated folk. The name of the main character in the book is Stefan Wilde—in a way, my own Stephan Dedalus. His job is to go to Ellis Island and take all of the unmarried women who come in, pretend to be their husband, and then bring them to the whorehouse. But I couldn’t stick with that one image; the book is full of mutant images that suddenly change the landscape. There was nothing I could do about it. Then there is a book like War Cries over Avenue C that, literally, doesn’t make sense unless you think of it in terms of music.

FT: Right.

JC: Or if you think of it in terms of Krazy Kat, where the panels keep changing . . . why do you need continuity? why do you need linear perspective? It means nothing. So it always saddens me when I see the reception to my novels because critics are always making realistic demands on works that aren’t meant to be realistic. I mean, as if I didn’t know what to do if I wanted to write a realistic novel. The fact is, I’m not dealing with a realistic universe and the expectations or distrust that a reader who wants realism might have. One of the reasons I’ve turned toward writing plays and doing the bandes dessinees is that I feel a profound sadness about the novel. Not that I will abandon the form, but that I have no expectations whatsoever.

FT: I wanted you to talk a little about some of your early novels, like Eisenhower, My Eisenhower, because we’ve only talked about the later books. I just looked at it again today, and I see that you use a quote from Ginsberg.

JC: Yes. “If we’re alive, then who is dead?It’s a perfect quote. I think Eisenhower, My Eisenhower is my first book, really. The ones before were exercises, but that’s the book where I found my voice. It’s probably a bit self- indulgent and overdone. . . .

FT: But it has a beat, an energy. Is it presumptuous to say that the prose has a kind of Beat Generation energy to it?

JC: Well, it was written after I’d been in California, from 1965 to 1968.

FT: What were you doing there?

JC: I was teaching at Stanford, and I was really involved in the antiwar movement; it was during the worst time in the Vietnam War period, and it was all very sad. I was married at the time, but very unhappily married. I came back to New York thinking that I wouldn’t stay because I was supposed to go and teach at Berkeley, but for some reason, I didn’t. When I first got back, I hated the city. I couldn’t stand the noise, and I would go into the subway and be frightened. Then suddenly, I began to love it again. I fell into the rhythm and wrote this very crazy book which is about gypsies with tails who are involved in an urban revolution. I really believed that something was going on in the sixties, that we were pushing the leviathan aside. I believed it foolishly, and that’s why I wrote the book. I felt that it was the first work of fiction where I found my voice. I had mimicked other voices in other books, but this was mine. And from that point on, I felt I had become a writer. It didn’t matter to me, at that point, how the novel would be received, even though I knew it was going to be bad.

FT: Why did you think that?

JC: Because the other books were so stupidly received, so in a way, I had given up.

FT: Which books do you mean?

JC: There was a collection of short stories, there was Going to Jerusalem, about a fanatical chess player, there was American Scrapbook, which was about the Japanese-American internment camps. There was Once upon a Droshky, which was my first novel. . . . But Eisenhower was the novel where I’d really discovered how to write. In a way, I had to be away from New York and then come back; I think it was the celebration of being back in New York after the experience of the California years that allowed me to write Eisenhower, My Eisenhower.

FT: Which writers have influenced you? I keep thinking that I see in your work the same passionate, driving energy, the ferocity of language, or trying to break through the skin of the real world, that you find in Melville, in Mardi or Moby-Dick.

JC: Yes, I love Melville. Faulkner and Nabokov are the two writers whom I absolutely adore. And I have a grudging admiration for Henry James, and for the power that he has, though I can’t love him because he’s always under such absolute control. Except for a few moments when his work breaks into a dream for me, as it does in “The Beast in the Jungle.And with Nabokov it’s a very short period, from Lolita to Pale Fire. It was during the last phase of his being in America, it seems to me, that it all came together for him. Lolita was the culmination of his attempt to trap the English language, to really catch the butterfly. I think he really caught the butterfly perfectly in Lolita.

FT: Speaking of Nabokov, what about your parody, The Tar Baby?

JC: The Tar Baby is in the form of a literary magazine. It’s a special issue devoted to this bizarre character who is a Wittgenstein fanatic, self-taught, who teaches at a junior college.

FT: Is the novel still in print?

JC: No, it’s out of print, but at least it was published in the first place. After I wrote The Tar Baby, I wrote a book about the Bronx called A Child’s History of the Bronx which no one would publish.

FT: I remember seeing part of it in Statements, the Fiction Collective’s anthology. It was one of the most beautifully written pieces of writing I’ve ever read. What came next?

JC: I wrote Blue Eyes, because I felt I was in some kind of hole.

FT: Blue Eyes was a big switch for you, because it’s your first police book.

JC: Yes, and it came out of a kind of desperation. The fiction I had been writing up to that point . . . maybe I should have tried a publisher like New Directions, but the kind of work I was doing, where I wanted to carry things to the ends of rationality, didn’t seem to have any advocates or fans. So I switched to the detective fictions, these police novels which bear no relation to any other police novels.

FT: How so?

JC: Well, they’re just as problematic as the earlier novels; they have nothing to do with police procedures; they’re not mysteries.

FT: They’re about men living at the edge who happen to be policemen.

JC: Exactly, and the nature of the novels seems to make them more acceptable to readers. The characters live in a world where there are no connecting links, because they are policemen and, therefore, they don’t need any connections. After Blue Eyes, I wrote another novel called King Jude, about a Nazi king in a very little country near Andorra which I named “Whalebone.The novel had no center, no focus in any traditional sense, and I didn’t even send it around. Then, because I had killed off “Blue Eyes,Manfred Coen, I became interested in that character and did a “prequelin Marilyn the Wild. Then, The Education of Patrick Silver and Secret Isaac followed in the series, but in between, I wrote a novel about Roosevelt called The Franklin Scare which, again, had no reception whatsoever. At that point, I felt I had gone about as far as I could go with those characters, and now, twelve-fifteen years later, I’ve gone back to the Isaac character in The Good Policeman.

FT: How do you feel about contemporary writing?

JC: I think most of it is journalism at best. Most of it has no sense of any aesthetic form and no sense of the beauty of words; play is gone. But one keeps on working; we were always amnesiacs, but now it’s amnesia squared.

FT: But obviously there’s an interested and intelligent readership for you. In a way, what more could we ask for than to get our books published, though there’s a certain sense of injustice.

JC: I don’t think it’s injustice; one never expects to have a just world. You have to think of your books in relation to everything that surrounds them. I find the whole mechanism of book publishing and book reviewing very disturbing. There’s very little place for the outlaw or maverick writer, but you still have to keep writing.

FT: Who do you consider outlaw writers today? Burroughs?

JC: Yes, some Burroughs; some of your work. Some of the early William Gass, Stanley Elkin, the very early Grace Paley. And of course there are many others, but it seems to me that the whole idea of language and the excitement of language is no longer there. You can’t pick up a page as you could, let’s say twenty-five years ago, and say “Ah! This is something I really want to read!I don’t find it anywhere.

FT: You’ve been teaching for many years, in California, at Princeton, and CCNY. What is your relationship to students in the workshops? What does it give you? What does it give them? What hopes do you see there?

JC: When the writing is serious, or when you see someone who really wants to be a writer, I think you can be very helpful. In most cases, you’re dealing with people who don’t have that much talent and you really can’t help them; but then there are always one or two people who will survive and who are very serious workers. Those you can help; you can show them what to do with a text. My real job is to take the writing and push it as far as it can go, without being cruel or judgmental.

FT: Would you say that the work of younger people has caused you to reconsider your own writing or affect it in any way?

JC: Very rarely. I really don’t think I’ve found that, though I’ve seen some extraordinary student writing.

FT: To get back momentarily to the problems of publishing: I have the sense that editors have very little freedom of choice in what they do, and that they are frightened. . . . I don’t even know if there is an editor that is equal to certain texts. It’s a real problem, apart from other considerations.

JC: Yes, it is a real problem, and I don’t think that it was ever that different, but there was always a little bit more of a chance to do work that falls outside the boundaries. Maybe there will be again, and I’m not mourning, I just feel that the landscape has shifted and that I don’t know where I belong anymore. I know I don’t belong here.

FT: Do you feel that Paris is better for you in that regard?

JC: For the comic books, the graphic novels, it certainly is. I feel very much at home in Paris, and I love working with the publishers and the artists on these projects. It seems like there is no ego, no self-importance. They’re not there to deal with “literature,they are there because they are people who have a certain expertise and who want to do the very best work they can. It’s a pleasure to work with them. There’s a wonderful energy in saying that you can do a novel in picture form with the same splendor, the same lyricism and emotional power.

FT: Maybe we should conclude with The Magician’s Wife. It seems to me to be one of the most haunting books of the genre, and all the themes of your work, the brutality and nostalgia, seem to cohere in it.

JC: Of course you have to remember to give a great deal of credit to the artist [Francois Boucq]. But it gives me such pleasure to see words translated into these marvelous . . . flowers, growing out of nowhere in some kind of wild landscape.

FT: Maybe out of the desert that you were talking about earlier?

JC: Out of the desert, yes. But I find it so strange that the French have taken a completely American form, and found the means to do exciting, original work that we simply never could conceive of, that we don’t have the imagination or technique to deal with. There’s something strange about a form which is so utterly and completely American that has been stranded somewhere—lost, stalled, deracinated—and then picked up and altered into something we could never dream of doing. It’s one of the things that drew me to France: the possibility of doing things there that I could never do here.

FT: Could you say a few last words about your involvement in theater?

JC: It came about as one of those fortuitous events. I never would have been able to work in the theater, but it so happened Mailer was the president of PEN, and I was a member of the executive board. He was kind enough to recommend me as a member of the Playwright/Directors Unit at the Actors Studio, and I began writing plays, sitting there working with Arthur Penn and Mailer and Elia Kazan, and it was a real education. Now, the Actors Studio is totally involved in naturalistic works, so my own theater pieces were bizarre and strange and didn’t fit. But it didn’t matter because somehow I was getting an education in the best sense of the word; I was going back to school.

FT: When did this occur?

JC: It began about four years ago. Arthur Penn was particularly wonderful in leading the classes, and I loved working with the actors. I’ve always loved actors, even as a kid. They’ve always been magical people to me, like idiot savants. When we were kids, we always thought the Actors Studio was a magical place, and here I was entering the temple, this strange usurper—again, the outlaw in the temple. I felt like an outlaw, but I did meet a few people who understood the crazy work that I was doing. The experience was enormously pleasurable, and I think it influenced books like Paradise Man. There is more dialogue in the later books, and that is partly because of dealing with dialogue on the stage, My own sense of theater was that it had nothing to do with words, but everything to do with choreography, with movement on the stage. So I wrote a play called George, about King George III, who is blind and deaf in his eightieth year. And his son, the Prince Regent, is a Jack the Ripper figure who goes through the palace holding up people because the king has left him penniless, with no allowance. The play was put on in Paris at the Maison des Ecrivains, and the French loved it.

FT: You mean, it was translated into French for the stage?

JC: Yes, and it was amazing to me. Suddenly, here is this play translated into French from another language, and the gestures of the actors, the interpretation of the director—they had understood the text! Here was my play in another language, and it was as if there had been no translation whatsoever.

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