Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Seven Deadly Sins. These have been staple literary themes since, at least, Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in the fourteenth century. The American road trip is slightly more youthful, but perhaps no less worn as a conceit. It’s a brave writer then who overtly chooses all of the above as themes and structures in his debut novel.
Geoff Dyer, no slouch of a writer himself, about John Haskell’s American Purgatorio wrote: “I I liked its tone � from the first page: by page twenty I was completely in love with it and shortly after that I began to think that it might turn out to be a great book. At the same time, since it was so weird, such a high-wire act, I worried briefly that Haskell might blow it in some way. Such worries proved short-lived: American Purgatorio gets better and better”.
The story starts in a gas-station. Jack’s wife has disappeared, and he can’t remember how or why. John Haskell, former actor, playwright and performance artist was kind enough to spend some time with Three Monkeys Online discussing American Purgatorio
Let’s talk a little bit about the idea of the ‘coast to coast’ journey – it’s part of the American dream in many ways, encompassing liberty, heading west etc. but in your book it’s a purgatorio.
It’s a purgatorio in that the main character, Jack, is somewhere between life and death, and it’s also a purgatorio in that he’s going from Hell to Paradise, and it’s a purgatorio in that, as he travels across the country, he’s also travelling through a metaphorical land of the seven deadly sins.
Reading the blurb for American Purgatorio (Jack’s wife has disappeared. She was in the car when they stopped for gas, he knows that much. He walked back from the counter and then…), my first thought was of an ubiquitous hollywood movie scene (The Vanishing for example) – and yet from this almost standard scene you bring the novel somewhere else completely. The question – did movies inspire the opening?
Originally, the seed for the book was planted by another movie, by Claude Chabrol, translated in English as This Man Must Die[ Que la b�te meure]. In it, a father and his young son are walking home from the fishing pier and an expensive sports car comes down the road and kills the boy. So there’s an accident in the beginning but that’s just about it. That and a kind of monomaniacal search.
You’re a screenwriter as well. American Purgatorio, though, it seems to me would be particularly hard to film as a story. Would you agree, and how aware are you when writing a novel that it’s not a screenplay and vice versa? Are there fundamental differences, or are they all just stories in one guise or another?
First of all, although I appreciate being called a screenwriter, and although I have in fact written a screenplay, I wouldn’t say I’m a screenwriter. Be that as it may… you’re right that the book would be hard to turn into a (Hollywood) film. When I was just about finished with the book I realized this. I realized that this guy, the ‘hero’ is on his particular journey and he’s all alone. Movies tend to have buddies so that road movies become buddy pictures and it makes sense. If there’s someone (or something, even a dog) along then the two people, whatever their ‘quest’ have the story of their relationship with each other, and that relationship usually becomes the story.
My story is more on the Ulysses model, in that the story is about the people Jack meets along the way. I thought about the buddy idea, and it occurred to me that Jack’s wife, the person he’s searching for, is actually with him in the car in the sense that he’s remembering her and even talking to her as he drives along.
The book is divided into parts, themed around one of the seven deadly sins. Deciphering then becomes part of the act of reading, making the connection between the story and the sin. For gluttony (Gula) I scratched my head trying to make a connection, until I focussed on the car, and how that symbol of American freedom could/should be interpreted as the ultimate symbol of gluttony. How American is this American Purgatorio?
The reason I didn’t use the English words for Lust or Pride or Gluttony was because I didn’t want to be literal about it. I certainly didn’t want to be religious about it. For me the idea of sin is just a device, a way of thinking about how human beings live, and the ‘sins’ are just approximations, they’re just names that point to a few of the basic human characteristics. So sometimes the sin seems more appropriate, for instance Pride. Jack thinks he can find his wife, and in fact he thinks he can do just about anything. Anger and Lust and Envy are all pretty clear. Gluttony seems to me a less interesting ‘sin’, but I liked the idea of getting rid of things, of shedding the contents of life, as a kind of opposite of Gluttony.
There’s a solid architectural structure to the book (seven parts made up of seven chapters apiece, for example). How difficult/easy was it to write to structure? Is it a kind of writing that favours craft over inspiration, to an extent?
I chose the structure because I like structure, because, instead of favoring craft over inspiration, the structure, like any structure, gave me a scaffold on which I could trust the craft to be there and allow whatever inspiration there was to come.
There’s an overt nod to Dante in the title, but reading the book I picked up various echos of the Inferno. Echos by their nature can be uncertain. How much influence did Dante have on the writing of the book?
Dante (both the Inferno as Purgatorio) was a kind of spiritual role model.
What kind of writing do you personally like to read?
I like to read work in which the mind of the writer is clearly working on the page and as a reader I can follow the mind (including the emotions that I consider part of the mind) on a journey. Usually, if the intelligence is there the writing is good, and usually if the writing is good (remarkable) then the intelligence is there.
One of the things that most impressed me about the book was the way you managed to descend the reader into the illogical – the plot moves from a concrete, realistic start into a world where logic doesn’t have a particular place, and the crossover line is neither clear nor important.
Thanks. It seems to me that’s the way many things, many processes, are in life. We start to do something and without ever quite knowing when it happens we’re doing something else, or thinking something else, or that thing, which was just an enjoyable act has become a habit.
The ending of the book really surprised me – though in hindsight, like all the best surprises, it shouldn’t have. How important was suspense and surprise to you. Would you be dissapointed if a reader guessed the ending midway throught the book?
I was writing without knowing what the ending would be, but knowing that it had to be an ending like the ending that happened. If that makes sense. So it wasn’t about me creating suspense, like a suspense novelist. I was just writing the story, telling what happened, and if someone guesses what happened earlier than someone else, or earlier than I did, well, that’s great. Everyone can read the book in a different way.
American Purgatorio by John Haskell is published by Canongate