Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Charlie Quimby

Charlie Quimby's new novel is Monument Road.

From a Q & A with the author:

How would you complete this line: "You might well enjoy my book if you like..."?

You might enjoy Monument Road if you've already found books about the New West to your liking—for example, Kent Haruf for the spare writing, Annie Proulx and Brady Udall for the humor and Louise Erdrich for evoking the spirit of a culture. I've also been compared to the non-western John Irving for throwing in some unexpected plot twists.

As I wrote my novel, I held out hope that I could perform a similar balancing act to the one Colum McCann pulled off in Let the Great World Spin. My story has a rancher named Leonard Self heading off to scatter his wife's ashes from a high overlook—and to follow her off to his own end. As he progresses toward his goal, other stories arise, but it's unclear until the end how they all relate to each other. A high-wire act between the World Trade Center towers might not seem to have much to do with Leonard's discoveries about himself and his relationship to his community, but trust me.

If they make your book into a movie, who should direct it?

Many readers have told me the landscape in Monument Road practically functions as a character—but the land never gets any lines in a movie. Its role must be expressed visually and through the responses the landscape evokes from other characters. That calls for a director who can relate to the mountains and high desert as something more than scenery and who can show the relationship between place and the unfolding internal experiences of the human characters. Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven might be in that ball park, though the era and setting for Monument Road are the contemporary west.

I'd be intrigued to have someone like Michelangelo Antonioni, who once said, "A director's job is to see." He's speaking of seeing the politics and psychology and conflict embedded in a scene, not just the physical setting. In Zabriskie Point, he put two characters in a stunning Death Valley locale. The woman says: "This is such a beautiful place. What do you think?" The man says: "I think it's dead." They're both right, and their contradictory responses reflect their inner states. But Antonioni was rather contemptuous of actors, and his films have an artier tone than my novel strives for—plus, as an Italian, he brings a European view that illuminates but also can wildly miss the reality of America.

Because my book is full of complex characters, the ideal director should bring great performances out of the actors, too, and not just impose his own vision. Robert Redford, then, is the guy I'd ultimately choose because he loves and understands the west as a contemporary place and a changing culture. He's directed A River Runs Through It, played Jeremiah Johnson and has reached the age of my main character, Leonard Self. (And no, he shouldn't play the part.)

Redford's a supporter of small, independent films that move people deeply but don't run up the box office numbers—and Monument Road would be that kind of film.

What is your second favorite art form?

I'm tempted to answer this one with the response Sarah Palin gave Katy Couric about newspapers and magazines—"all of them"—because I'm a dilettante. At various times in my life, I've been consumed with acting, writing plays, photography, book arts and graphic design, and writing and performing music.

If pinned down, though, I'd go with the theater. Starting with the written word, it pulls together different arts forms to get people in a room to share an experience—to laugh, cry, feel human and then hang around and talk about it.

Monument Road alludes to theater in a variety of ways. One character is driven to interpret the role of Joan of Arc as never before, a desire that leads her to a bad place. Another character uses his singing and performance in church pageants both as a way of attracting people and hiding his real nature. A third character is chagrined because his role in a high school musical condemns him to a series of performances in the community that he finds corny and insincere. There's a fair amount in the book about the difference between acting with integrity and being fake or imitating others.

Acting requires empathy, finding your way into characters different from you and then embodying them in a way that's convincing and emotionally compelling. A novelist draws from the same well. You don't need empathy if all you're doing is working out a plot or setting up a joke. You can issue instructions to windup creatures who perform their business and don't really have a life beyond the scene. Real acting is being authentic. That's what we demand of characters when we read literary fiction.

A lot of what occurs in theater boils down to people talking. You can write in sword fights and lighting effects, but so much of what happens on stage comes via the spoken word. In Monument Road, I use dialog to reveal social class, to convey emotion, to wrap up readers in the minds and the hurts of my characters. I tried to create a particular way of speaking that's true to the inter-mountain west. Every line in the book has been read and re-read, the way an actor would rehearse, so when readers hear a character's words, they also feel their heartbeat.
Visit Charlie Quimby's website and learn about his new novel, Monument Road.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Charlie Quimby & Roxy.

--Marshal Zeringue