I Spy: Richard Russo Chats with Brock Clarke

Richard Russo photoClarke_Brock_author_rgb_LR - (c) Selby FramePulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo talks spies, perspective, setting, and striking a balance with Brock Clarke, author of the upcoming novel The Happiest People in the World. “The parallel universe Clarke creates … is both our world and not, and like his baffled, yearning characters, we navigate it with surprise and wonder,” Russo says of Clarke’s new novel. The delightful back-and-forth between Clarke and Russo here is also full of surprise and wonder. Enjoy…


RICHARD RUSSO: This is your first spy novel. Unless you don’t consider it a spy novel. Because I’m not sure I entirely consider it a spy novel. But if it’s not a spy novel, then what is it? And why did you write something that might be described as “kind of a spy novel”?

BROCK CLARKE: Actually, that’s a pretty apt way to describe every novel I’ve ever written: it’s a kind of detective novel, it’s a kind of war novel, it’s a kind of coming-of-age novel, and now, it’s a kind of spy novel. That’s by design on my part, I’m pretty sure, because as much as I love certain elements of those genres, I am deeply unsatisfied with other elements of those genres. Spy novels, for instance: I love the intricacies of the plots, love the way the characters’ identities and relationships and secrets unfurl over the course of the novel, love the way spy novels can be both politically aware and politically relevant and also entertaining. But I do not love the grim, utilitarian quality of a lot of the writing in many spy novels; I do not love that many spy novels are so humorless, so lacking in the qualities — self-deprecation, self-awareness — that I look for in fiction. Which is why I wrote this book, and I guess any book: to both pay homage to other books that have come before it, and also to do something those books haven’t.

Clarke_HappiestPeople_jkt_rgb_LRRUSSO: You cover some grim territory, but I was struck by how funny the book was — even, or especially, when it was covering that grim territory. How difficult was it for you to strike a balance between screwball comedy and political gravity? And given that you seem to delight in creating for the reader an alternate reality, do you ever worry that they won’t get the joke?

CLARKE: Well, yeah, I’m terrified of people not getting the joke. But I’m also terrified of people just thinking the book is only jokes. I remember going to a reading once and hearing someone in the audience afterward refer to the reading as a “mediocre joke fest” and I thought, Wow, I really do not want to write one of those. Which is where the balance you mention comes in. It’s an aesthetic choice and preference on my part — I love books that manage to strike the balance between humor and tragedy — but it’s also a survival technique: If a reader doesn’t get the joke, then the reader can hold his or her horses, because there’s something not so funny right around the corner!

RUSSO: One of the things I found interesting is that there are several characters vying to be the protagonist. The Danish cartoonist, the rogue CIA agent, the high school principal, the bartender, the burnout American high school student, the Danish teenage “terrorist” — each of them take the narrative reins for a time before then handing the reins off to another character. Was this a conscious strategy for you, or did it evolve over the course of writing the book?

CLARKE: My original plan for the book was for it to be written entirely in the point of view of Jens/Henry. But then that quickly became unsatisfying for me, because I knew the world he was coming from and the world he was entering were going to be full of secrets, and if his was the only point of view, then I couldn’t give a full sense of how complicated the worlds were and how one character’s choices dictated another character’s choices. Plus, I really do think this is a worldlier novel than my others. This may sound goofy, given that the book takes place in Denmark and upstate New York, which probably doesn’t fit any reasonable person’s definition of “worldly,” but nonetheless I thought of the book as being larger than some of my previous books, and in order to make it truly so, I wanted to get a larger and more comprehensive sense of characters voices and minds, even if some of those minds were pretty limited.

RUSSO: By my count, this is the fifth out of your six books that is set, at least in large part, in upstate New York. I know you’re from there, but beyond that, why do you keep returning to upstate New York (in fiction, if not in real life)? For that matter, why do I? Why does anyone?

CLARKE: That’s why — because no one else wants to set books there. Spy novels, for instance, are set in Moscow, Istanbul, London, Paris, Saigon . . . but they are never set in places like upstate New York. What an opportunity for a writer: to set a novel in a place where novels are not supposed to be set, where nothing important is supposed to happen. What an opportunity to create something out of (supposedly) nothing! What an opportunity to mess with a reader’s preconceptions! What an opportunity to use a lot of exclamation points! And now I will stop using them. But I can’t promise I’ll stop setting books in upstate New York.

RUSSO: Several chapters in this book take place in Denmark, and some of the most important characters are Danish. Why are you so interested in Denmark? As far as you’re concerned, is Denmark the upstate New York of Scandinavia?

CLARKE: No, Denmark is definitely not the upstate New York of Scandinavia. This was what attracted me to it — as a place to be, and also as a setting for fiction. Upstate New York is famously unhappy, and I’ve loved it despite, or maybe because, of that. But after a while, it tires you out, loving someplace so miserable. And then I went to Denmark and the people there seemed so happy, and being there made me so happy, too. I didn’t know a place could make me feel so happy. And then those cartoonists drew those cartoons and then people started trying to kill those cartoonists and suddenly Denmark seemed as miserable as anywhere else, and it made me so sad, so angry. And so I decided to send my fictionalized versions of involved parties to somewhere truly miserable, as punishment. So I sent them to upstate New York, and also sent upstate New York to Denmark, which, perversely, made me happy again.

Read Brock Clarke’s essay about how he came to write The Happiest People in the World, if you’re looking for a really enjoyable essay to read. The Happiest People in the World publishes on November 4

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One comment

  1. I am feeling lucky, so toss my hat into the ring.

    My favorite publishing house has always been Algonquin. I’ve read so many great writers over the years starting with Lee Smith 30+ years ago. I had to take to my bed when the Algonquin Hotel in NY ditched the Oak Room and renovated. Not that I spent any time there you understand, but excising a part of my imagination required a stiff drink and plenty of rest. It was a relationship with Workman Publishing in name only, I understand, however I did feel a bit violated.

    I adore Brock Clarke. I re-read An Arsonist’s Guide recently. I loved the novel still yet and despised the fact it had to end. I look forward to reading The Happiest People in the World.

    From Caroline Leavitt to Jay Varner, Lee Smith to Brock Clarke and his pontificating Fred Exley, I love Algonquin books. Thank you for the opportunity. Doni Molony, Oak Ridge, TN

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