By Mark L. Blackman: In an unprecedented bit of scheduling, on Sunday, January 22nd (Happy Lunar New Year!), 1 pm in Brooklyn, 7 pm in Vienna, the New York Review of Science Fiction Reading Series presented a virtual reading by and interview with magical realism author Jonathan Carroll. The one-hour event was curated by executive producer Jim Freund, with Amy Goldschlager conducting the interview and Barbara Krasnoff serving as “audience wrangler.”
Carroll, who has lived in the Austrian capital since 1974, is the author of the novels The Lord of Laughs, Outside the Dog Museum (which was honored with the British Fantasy Award), Voice of Our Shadow, Uh-Oh City, A Child Across the Sky, Bones of the Moon, and, most recently, Mr. Breakfast; his short fiction notably includes “Friend’s Best Man,” a recipient of the World Fantasy Award. One critic characterized his books as both “melancholy and joyous.”
He read from the beginning of Mr. Breakfast. The protagonist, artist James Graham Patterson (so not the mystery/thriller author), having failed as a comedian, decides to drive cross-country, but is diverted by a tattoo parlor in North Carolina. Carroll too took a chance and made a decision at a crossroad. He spent two years in Hollywood writing screenplays (his father was a successful screenwriter) before deciding that he was more interested in writing books, and returned to Vienna.
In “a lot of” his books, there are everyday shifts in reality that awaken his characters, noted Goldschlager; does he believe that there is a secret underlying reality? Carroll professed to be “an agnostic on that,” but didn’t dismiss others’ experiences. A Child Across the Sky is a Faust story, about temptation; we all wonder about making different choices in life.
An audience member wondered about the writing community in Vienna. There likely is one, but not in English. It’s a whole different culture; people are more private, less open and friendly than Americans, so he is “isolated a bit.”
Carroll’s artistic impulse is evident in his work. When he wrote Outside the Dog Museum, he was interested in architecture and spoke to several architects. He explained why he gives dog characters strange names: dogs are individuals and deserve individual names, “not Spot or Bowser.” A dog’s name – and, of course, security questions often use one’s first dog’s name – “opens up an abracadabra;” the most mundane thing can lead to the most magical thing. He cited the French word “sillage,” in which a fragrance as when someone passes through a room sticks with us. There are connections that we make with others and that others make with us of which we’re unaware. He related a story in which a line from one of his books that he regarded as rather “banal” was significant enough to a couple that they engraved it on their wedding rings. (He was touched, but mystified.)
He has written short stories, novels and novellas. He referred to short fiction as “a 100-yard dash” and a novel as “a marathon,” and decides the length of the work based on saying what he wants. His novels tend to be 250-300 pages, though, taken as a whole, related novels like the Answered Prayers sextet add up. He has worked with different editors and there are at times minor differences in editions, even between British and American editions. Also, whereas some writers (like John Irving) know exactly where a book is going, he doesn’t always know what will happen next. He likened it to opening the door and a big Doberman jumps past him. (Yes, dogs got quite a few mentions.)
In reply to another query, he reported that Covid hadn’t really affected his writing or his schedule as he takes time off after completing a story (and reads), and, as it happened, Mr. Breakfast was sent off just before Covid hit. Goldschlager concluded the afternoon’s or evening’s (depending) event by urging the audience to buy a copy of Mr. Breakfast.