“…longtime readers of novelist and songwriter Monte Schulz will find exactly the sort of well-honed historical noir that elevates the younger Schulz’s new offering above the conventional range of crime novels. With shades of Nathanael West, Denis Johnson and a patina borrowed from James M. Cain, Schulz crafts a tale of fate, murder and redemption that builds upon the author’s abiding fascination with days past.” More
You happen to be the son of the most famous cartoonist of the 20th century. Charles Schulz wasn’t a novelist, but how did his creative energy affect you when you growing up? Did he influence your decision to write, or in becoming the kind of writer you became?
Since I can’t draw, I had to do something with my life! But really, when I was in my early twenties, and Dad saw that I was developing an interest in writing (mostly songwriting and poetry, back then), he showed me some of the beautiful passages of Thomas Wolfe (“Go, seeker, throughout the land”) and John Steinbeck (the tortoise crossing the road in The Grapes of Wrath), and lent me his copies of Complete Poems by Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. He told me the writer’s gift is to be able to express for people certain ideas and emotions they cannot express for themselves. I suppose he wanted me to appreciate lovely prose and write the sorts of things — oddball characters, poetic passages, philosophical musings — he would’ve written himself, had he been a novelist. In the year or so before he died, he used to tell me how This Side Of Jordan was raising the level of art in the family. Of course, given his own stupendous achievements, it could never be true, but I’ve always appreciated the sentiment. He also instilled in me, by example, the necessity of working constantly, going to my office, being persistent, day after day, year after year. He told me that only amateurs get writer’s block; professionals can’t afford it. Never in the writing of this novel was I blocked. I presume his comment shamed it out of me!
Your novel is dominated by three characters: Rascal, a smart and surprisingly introspective dwarf; Alvin, a fatalistic farm boy dying of consumption; and Chester, a ruthless gangster. They couldn’t be more different from each other. Can you describe how the genealogy of the characters unfolded as you were conceiving the novel, how their relationship took form and became the spine of the story?
Of course, Alvin is the main character in this novel, his point of view dominating the narrative. I wanted a rural adolescent to lead the narrative, not an innocent, necessarily, but a clear, simple and unsophisticated observer. I grew up in rural California, so the farm boy’s eye was close and familiar to me, a comfortable voice, because I’m sort of a hick myself. Giving him tuberculosis made him not only more vulnerable and introspective on matters of life and death, but also more sympathetic than he might otherwise have been. I thought he would play off well, in this way, against Chester’s ruthlessness and disregard for others. In addition, there is the crossing of urban and rural sensibilities, in this case a somewhat older and sophisticated, clever wickedness drawn against Alvin’s youthful naiveté, yet basic kindness. Placed between those characters is Rascal. I discovered him in the writing, literarily, when Alvin walked into his front yard. I had no idea what was going to happen in that scene until the farm boy went up to the back porch and I realized there was a dwarf living under the house. His and Alvin’s lives are so different factually, yet similar in a kind of isolation, that I found the glue of the story in their unlikely relationship, how they snipe at each other while becoming at once reluctant and willing allies in their perilous journey with Chester. And the dwarf balances the gangster’s urbane and insouciant evil with an educated and emotional goodness. Only Rascal is capable of saving both himself and Alvin, a fact that Chester in his arrogance could never predict.
You think of this as a quintessentially “American” novel. Can you explain what you mean by that?
This Side Of Jordan is one part of a much larger book called, Crossing Eden. The entire structure of the big novel is roughly similar to (coincidentally) John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., with multiple storylines occurring simultaneously in different locations. I conceived it as tapestry of American life in the summer before the Crash of ’29, so I wanted to portray different parts of the American experience, and This Side Of Jordan describes a rural world of the Midwest. Many of my dad’s relatives lived on farms in Wisconsin and I thought it would be interesting to drag one of them, a poor farm boy, across the Mississippi where he would be exposed to people both like and unlike himself, an array of characters from many walks of American life at that time. The novel is full of landscapes and totems of American life, images and notions, foibles and fables, some of the quirky language and idiosyncratic characters of our young nation. Being an American writer and a great fan of American literature, it has always seemed inevitable that I would try to render my own portrait of America, where the beasts and the blessed live side-by-side, inheriting and inhabiting the same ground. Although eighty years have passed since the events of this book, I believe we can still see ourselves in all those strange and wonderful characters Alvin meets on his long road.
Your novel’s prose style is very much steeped in the tradition of Southern American writers, such as Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor , James Agee and Truman Capote. What is it about that approach that you find attractive and appropriate to your needs — the style, the themes, the subject matter? Who do you consider your literary antecedents to be, and what authors among the living do you admire?
I have to admit that language and place have always interested me more than story and character. There is a certain grace in the prose of those writers that appeals to me, both in narrative and dialogue. Lovely poetic phrases and evocations of mood and location. Strange and unexpected juxapositions of ideas and images: Capote’s “arbors of spidersilk” and “mulberry parasols held aloft”; McCullers’ “three ghosts living in the coal house” one of whom “wore a silver ring.”; Agee’s “gentle, gently dark” and “the screaming of locusts.” Flannery O’Connor’s ” wild ragged figure” of Jesus” who moved from “tree to tree” in the back of Hazel Motes’ mind. Being a rural person, I’m drawn to country pictures and words, small town scents and architecture. Although I grew up in rural Northern California and not the Deep South, I do write what I know and try to evoke what I see and remember, and somehow these and other writers I admire have always inspired me try and say things in lyrical and unusual ways. Clearly those writers have had a great influence on me, as has Katherine Anne Porter, Langston Hughes, Harper Lee, James Gould Cozzens, James T. Farrell, John Marquand, Norman Mailer, MacKinley Kantor, Saul Bellow, Ross Lockridge Jr., Horton Foote, Will Durant, Walt Whitman, and James Jones, whose final novel Whistle still astounds me with its power. Among contemporary authors, I’m very fond of Cormac McCarthy, Jill McCorkle, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Lee Burke, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Joan Didion, and the late Larry Brown, just to mention a few. I think John Baskin’s study, New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Village is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I’m an avid reader.
Why is the novel set in 1929, on the cusp of the Great Crash? How important is that particular period in American history to the story?
I chose that spring, summer, and early fall for a couple of reasons. One, it was the time of my father’s and mother’s childhood, and this book is my attempt to recreate it in fiction for them. Although my dad did not live to see this published, he did, indeed, read it before he died and seemed pleased by what he read; Rascal was his favorite character; Dad used to tell me, “He’s such a funny little guy.” The other reason I chose this period was that it represents that point in America history where we began to make the irresistible transition from rural to urban America. During that summer before the Crash, we were still roughly sixty percent rural to forty percent city, and I weighted the entire novel “Crossing Eden” to that percentage. There’s also a certain exuberance to that decade, the Jazz Age, whose culture and manners, both urban and rural, were fun and intriguing to explore and illuminate. Sure, there was an innocence to that time, but it was ruthless and dangerous as well. Prohibition altered the morality of American life, despite mitigating the pernicious influence of liquor in family life and throughout the workplace. We see echoes of this danger today in our zealous pursuit of illogical drug policies and insistence on forcing a hypocritical morality on a largely unreceptive populace.
The story is full of topical references — from slang and phraseology to the names of products and manufacturers, everything from clothing to cars. How accurate is all this and what kind of research did you do into this period of US history?
I gave a full decade of my life to constructing this novel, so I certainly hope all the details are true and accurate! Almost immediately I learned that it was better to use references from the period, rather than our current histories of the time. Everything from the names of household items and automobiles, medical terms and train schedules, are there to be found in encyclopedias, reference works, furniture and clothes catalogues if enough time is spent in used bookstores and antique shops. I collected all sorts of books from the period, dozens and dozens, and used them religiously in the writing of this novel. Indeed, for one chapter in The Big Town, I read, consulted or took notes from fifty-eight books. To write the séance in the correct terminology for This Side Of Jordan, I bought and read fourteen different books on Spiritualism, each published before 1929. That scene took three months to write and was extremely laborious, but well worth it in the end. About three years into the writing of the novel, I suddenly came across the idea of copying out expressions and names for things from the period as I found them in novels, short stories, magazine ads and articles, even the early talking movies, from the time. In the beginning, I wrote scenes whose content was directed by the expressions I’d catalogued. Later on, I was able to retrofit them into the already-written text of the novel. Some writers have argued that using period language to this extent interferes with the natural flow of dialogue, coming between the reader and the character. I would argue that not doing so creates a phony language for a period novel, whereby the characters are speaking not as they would in their own time, nor using anachronistic expressions from today, but ultimately speaking in a way that no one ever did at all.
This Side of Jordan takes place throughout the border states — Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska— where the landscape becomes a fourth character. What is the significance of place in the conception of the novel?
I chose the Middle Border because it was the domain for so many popular writers of the day – Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Hamlin Garland, Ring Lardner, even Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Also, my parents’ families were Midwesterners, and since part of this novel is somewhat biographical, it seemed a natural fit. I liked the idea of writing about farms and fields, plain frame houses, creek beds and small towns, long dusty roads. I needed the proximity of Chicago and the Mississippi River, too, that constant give and take of the present rural and near urban, a clashing of worlds as seen in the dangerous pairing of Alvin and Chester. Once our sickly farm boy is led away from his home, his existence becomes fraught with peril and the place of his birth draws farther and farther away. The landscape is too vast for Alvin to even contemplate wandering about alone, and reinforces his need for companionship with Rascal if he has any hope of survival.
Alvin and Rascal are caught up in a vortex of crime and violence generated by Chester. Ultimately, they have to confront Chester and their own culpability in their rampage across the border states and the devastation they wrought. An age-old question: do you see the book as having a moral center of gravity?
I suppose there are three moral points of view in This Side Of Jordan, exemplified by its three main characters. Whether Chester Burke is amoral, sociopathic, or simply disdainful of anyone who obstructs his goals (whatever those might be), it’s clear that he is a very evil fellow. He’s a crook and a killer, and we never really find out what sort of larger plan he’s pursuing, whether in the bootleg liquor trade or something more personal. We don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. He’s bad and dangerous. Period. Alvin’s morality arises both out of his apathetic adolescence and the debilitating tuberculosis that is slowly killing him. Compassion for his fellow man is tempered by the farm boy’s disregard for people he doesn’t know, and an overwhelming insecurity about how people treat him. Like most nineteen-year-olds, he’s the center of his own universe and he wonders why he’s not held in higher regard. Rather that provoking in Alvin a moral outrage, Chester’s crimes worry and depress him, fill him with a sense of personal doom. He’s less concerned with what Chester has done to others, than how it affects Alvin personally, what fate has in store for him alone. It’s not that he doesn’t care that Chester has hurt people, Alvin simply has no recourse to action except to concede his own guilt and await what punishment he’s sure is coming. The tuberculosis could be said to be drive, and also be symptomatic of, Alvin’s resignation to a fate he never chose. On the other hand, Rascal chooses action over contrition. The lifelong infirmity of his stature had largely withheld him from the world, but even a dwarf has a responsibility to his fellow man, and finding love at last, Rascal recognizes that he cannot live and hide at the same time. Bravery becomes a moral choice and its gravity is the only hope of salvation.
This Side of Jordan is both an interior and an external novel, acutely meditative passages and interior monologues alternating with bursts of staccato dialogue, leisurely, languorous prose punctuated by startling acts of violence. The strategy seems to be that of juxtaposing stark polarities; is this part of a broader philosophical conception you had of how to organize the novel?
I realize many writers plan, plot, and organize before they write, and I admit that I need to have an idea of what’s going to happen in any given scene, but other than that I simply write with an attention to pacing. I generally favor the idea of narrative followed by dialogue followed by narrative, and so on. Not too much narrative, not too much dialogue, but both supporting the other, giving the reader a fair variety in the prose. Generally, for me this also means alternating ideas with action. I think of a novel as working best when it functions as a kind of symphony, having movements of passion and respite. Likewise, I am a strong believer in showing rather than telling the story. This is just my preference as a reader, and therefore I try to write what I like to read. It’s philosophical only in the sense of organizing the presentation of the novel. Novels that use an abundance of narrative to tell a story feel ponderous to me, and those that rely on page after page of dialogue seem somehow superficial. I enjoy reading plays, but novels are different, and offer the possibilities of an entire tapestry of language. Why not take full advantage?
Your prose can move effortlessly from the lyrical to the Biblical to taut, taciturn, rough-hewn dialogue. Can you talk about what importance the rhythm of language plays in your work? Is that a priority?
I am fascinated by the interplay of words: internal alliterations (“wide child’s eyes watched by flarelight sequined aerialists aloft”), curiously beautiful metaphors (“a dizzy well of stars” and “the bitter rain of acorns”), elegantly rendered philosophies (“Were the bulk of the dead too young or too degraded to concern themselves with desires and ambitions of the America for which they had fought and which in turn had slain them; or did the process of extinction award them wisdom?”). It seems axiomatic to assert that beautiful writing is a virtue in the literary arts, but too often cleverness and maximalism loses sight of the poetry in our language, the lovely phrase. I’m more artist than intellectual, and I suppose my prose reveals that. There are ways of creating rhythm both within sentences and paragraphs. Thomas Wolfe wrote in a soaring poetic lyricism that freighted great ideas and images; Faulkner used reiterative Old Testament poetics to build a resonance of urgency; Hemingway chose short declarative sentences as his stylistic trademark that created the effect of a powerful directness in dialogue. For me, both Carson McCullers and Truman Capote (in his early work), seemed to synthesize the best of these writers into a simpler, more manageable style that I found suited my own taste, and seemed to work particularly well for This Side Of Jordan. Capote himself once suggested that there are many stories to be told, but it’s how they’re told that separates one from another. I think that’s largely true.
What’s the reason you chose to “hide” an interior novel beneath the armature of a crime thriller?
Again, I’m tempted to say the language and philosophies of the book interest me much more than the plot, but that wouldn’t be completely accurate. Ideas are important and, I think, a necessary element of fiction, as is lovely language; as I said, they’re what appeals to me most as a writer. Yet I’m also a reader and I like to be entertained, and I see no reason that literary, artistic novels ought to be slow, interior exercises. Story matters. I like to have things happening, melodramatic events whenever suitable. So while it’s wonderful to have Rascal and Alvin chattering away about everything under the sun, I have to say that I enjoyed Chester’s gruesome intrusions nearly as much. It’s always good to shake up the reader now and then. Faulkner did it, so did Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. They, among others, proved that literary fiction can have wicked plot elements, just as Ray Bradbury and James Lee Burke have consistently shown that genre fiction can feature beautiful artistic writing.