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April 7, 2008

Approaching Authors, Dead and Otherwise

Posted by carol
In his debut novel, Finn, Jon Clinch imagines the life of Huckleberry Finn's father. Here he talks about drawing on one of Mark Twain's most beloved works, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for the seeds of the story, the risk he took in writing the novel --- and how books spark a conversation between reader and writer.

Every book is a conversation. Consider how a truly affecting novel can change your world; and by contrast, consider how the shifting points of view that you bring to a novel during multiple readings over the years can change the things that that very book seems to be about.

But the conversation between the writer and the reader can have other dimensions as well. Dimensions that go beyond the page, and beyond the head and heart of any one reader --- or any one writer, for that matter. Even if that writer is, well, no longer among the living.

I've been lucky enough to be a party to many of these kinds of conversations, during the creation and publication and reception of my novel, Finn. To begin with, I wanted to engage the spirit of Mark Twain in a conversation about his greatest work: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I wanted to dig underneath that book, to connect dots that had previously escaped notice, to ask questions that nobody had asked before: How did Finn wind up dead in that floating house, surrounded by that roomful of extraordinary objects? How did he become the strange, sad monster --- child abuser, bigot, and alcoholic --- that Mark Twain gave to us? And above all else, what kind of woman would have borne a child to him, becoming in the process that entirely unseen figure, Huckleberry Finn's mother?

I entered into this conversation with a certain amount of trepidation. After all, Huckleberry Finn is in many ways the centerpiece and fountainhead of all American literature. To dare re-imagine its underpinnings was to risk imposing my reading of the book upon the understanding of other readers. That meant potential rejection as a revisionist or a pretender, certainly not what I intended for myself in response to what I planned as above all a respectful piece of work. I also risked direct comparisons to Mark Twain himself, a fate that no writer wants to invoke.

On the other hand, the positive potential was huge. If I did my work carefully and well, I could create a book that not only reflected its source material honorably but stood alone as a unique reading experience --- as a new conversation between myself and modern readers. Think what Geraldine Brooks' March did with Little Women, and what John Gardner's Grendel did with Beowulf.

So I risked it.

On publication, I was thrilled to watch as the community of Twain scholars received Finn with open arms and open minds. (My brutal incarnation of Finn himself made sense to them, and my bi-racial Huck did, too. I was even fortunate enough to speak at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Connecticut on two different occasions, a thrill that I had not dared anticipate.) But above all, in the intervening months I've had the great delight of speaking with non-Twainians in book group after book group by telephone, exploring the fascinating ways in which readers all around the country are responding both to my book and to its re-imagining of the original.

A couple of interesting observations: Readers in a book club down south told me that they'd read Huckleberry Finn one month and then Finn the next, and they'd agreed that when they got to my novel they felt as if they were hearing the real story as it actually happened. Another group, which hadn't warmed up by reading Huck (you certainly don't need to; not by any means), reported that although they knew from the beginning that Finn would come to a bad end, they found themselves rooting for him page after page. In spite of the fate ordained for him by his original story, and in spite of his many profound character flaws, they found him a character who showed hope of finding redemption.

You can hardly imagine how rewarding it is to hear things like that. And to field the hard questions, too. Because either way, it's a case of continuing the conversation that began inside the book --- and moving it into the real world, where lasting connections get made between people.

Readers have questions that are explicitly beyond the page, too. Questions about the writing life, for example, which I'm always happy to field. What my day is like, how the publishing process works, and so on. Questions about dealing with controversy around books like Finn and Huck. Questions as basic as how I physically get words on a page (with a Mac laptop, thank you), and as complex as where my ideas come from (God only knows).

Regardless, I had no idea that the act of writing a novel could turn into such a busy two-way street. But I sure am glad that it did.

--- Jon Clinch, author of Finn