Choosing stories: the American novelist discusses his life and career
THERE ARE WRITERS WHO WOULD LIKELY get tetchy if you were to frame a conversation about their work in comparison to a hit movie. Not Jonathan Carroll, who is happy to discuss his new novel Mr Breakfast, a tale of characters living out alternate lives, by referencing Sliding Doors, a film that explores two futures that spin out from missing or catching a Tube train. “It’s a universal thing all of us at one point or another, after about age 30, think: ‘What if I had done this instead of that?’” Carroll says down the line from his home in Vienna. “Sliding Doors is the perfect example. In that case, it’s forced on [Gwyneth Paltrow’s character], but in our realistic human sense, we make the decisions. I decided to go into the subway car rather than stand on the platform.”
The idea of alternate timelines is of course a staple of SF and slipstream fiction, but few handle it with the aplomb Carroll does in his latest novel. To quote Joe Hill, Mr Breakfast is “a small book of big ideas, a set of Russian nesting dolls with an entire universe glowing at the centre”.
In part, that’s because, while it initially focuses on failing comedian Graham Patterson, a man whose life takes a wholly unexpected turn because of his decision to get a tattoo, the book is ultimately about a cast of characters and how their lives intersect – and also the way we intersect with our own younger selves when we look back.
It’s not much of a stretch to call Carroll, whose first novel The Land Of Laughs was published in 1980, a modern master of magical realism. Except that’s to pigeonhole him and, like David Mitchell or Haruki Murakami, his work defies categorisation – which he resists because there are times when the term “magical realism” can be dismissive.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
Sometimes, Carroll adds, it’s just as bad when people are polite. “People say that [my writing] is sweet and generous, which is kind of like, ‘There’s nobody like him,’” Carroll says. “That’s sort of nice and sort of not – y’know, it sounds like I’m a kangaroo with two heads.” The thing is, though, that Carroll’s fiction does have an underlying warmth, and there really isn’t anyone else quite like him.
As to how this came about, one place to start is with Carroll the rebellious teen. “I loved fist-fighting and stealing,” he says, “living the James Dean life. [I grew up in a] small town so the police force was four guys. They couldn’t really keep up with us.” This behaviour was “repetitive”, or it was until Carroll’s parents – scriptwriter Sidney, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Hustler, and singer/actor June – took matters in hand. “My parents got scared,” he says. “They sent me off to this very strict private school in Connecticut. I was there for three years and hated every minute of it, but it kind of straightened me out.”
He “wasn’t a good student”, except when it came to English. “That was my redeeming quality and so I hung on to it, like a life raft: ‘At least I’m good at this’.” His last English teacher, a man who wrote for The New Yorker, told him one of his pieces was “just brilliant”, an important moment in building the young Carroll’s confidence. “Once that was said, I was a writer from then on.”
After university, he became a teacher, moving to Vienna in the ’70s because he and his wife wanted to travel. He also got job offers from institutions in Beirut and Tehran, both places that soon imploded because of political issues, so it was a fortunate choice. He stayed. He made a vow that he would quit teaching when he made enough from writing, a moment that occurred in the middle of the ’80s. “I think I took an advance on a book once,” he says, “because I didn’t want it to be pressured.” Writing for him was, and remains, “always a pleasure”.
Nevertheless, he hasn’t always been primarily a novelist. For a couple of years, he tried following his father’s trade as a screenwriter in LA. “If anyone who has ever been in Hollywood has ever told you a story about Hollywood, it’s true,” he says. By way of an example, he tells the story of being sent off by his agent to see “a very famous producer” whose office was filled with so many exotic flowers that it was like “a tropical rainforest”.
Ushered into the producer’s inner sanctum, he found him cursing down the phone. Then he stopped midconversation, smiled and strode across the room. “He grabbed me and said, ‘That’s a beautiful shirt, where did you get that shirt?’ Then he said, ‘Who’s this? Oh, yeah, sit down.’ The meeting came to nothing.”
He left Hollywood because he’s “phobic” about earthquakes, something that was confirmed when he was in California for the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He doesn’t regret his time in Tinseltown, though. “I met a lot of really interesting people, and nobody is as sharp and funny as movie people,” he says. But professionally, it wasn’t right for him. “I’m a book writer and not a movie writer.”
Mr Breakfast is published by Melville House on 19 January.
People say my writing is sweet and generous… That’s sort of nice and sort of not