Books In Conversation
JAMES CHARLESWORTH with Kathleen Rooney
The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill
Some people are more like planets in the outsized pull they exert over the others whom they draw like satellites into their orbits. Such is the titular entrepreneurial egomaniac of James Charlesworth’s riveting and rangy debut novel, The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill, a captivating story of money and freedom, family and forgiveness, grand intentions and grave mistakes. Rife with the chaos attendant upon corruption and greed and alight with the ersatz sparkle of American myth-making, this book offers a hefty and concrete document of the often incalculable costs of material success. Charlesworth places the sinister and unforgettable Hill—whom he describes as a “prolific and careless figure of white patriarchal capitalist society”—at the center of a sticky web comprised of his four estranged children, and lets their maneuvers play out across numerous major events from the Great Depression to the terror-struck years of the early 21st century. The result is an epic whose echoes resonate well beyond its 354 pages. Wild and haunted, it’s a realistic book, but it’s also an invitation to consider that maybe, when one lives under the patriarchy, one is caught in a horror story in which the scariest monster of all goes by the alias “Dad.”
The Boston-based Charlesworth and I spoke by email last November about tyrannical writing advice, song lyrics from the ’80s and ’90s, and how “the easiest way to eliminate a compulsive behavior is to replace it with another.” The following exchange was condensed and edited.
Kathleen Rooney (Rail): Of what does a typical day in the life of James Charlesworth consist?
James Charlesworth: If you’d asked me this question a few years ago, I would’ve had a much more disciplined-sounding answer. I used to be super regimented in my writing life, writing for three hours every morning and reading for three hours every night. Now it’s much more sporadic and accomplished in frantic spurts with long periods of frustrating unproductiveness. But I still generally write in the mornings and read at night, and in between I spend long hours at a full-time day job and trying to find time for the active and outdoorsy things that keep me sane on the weekends. I’m curious to see what happens once Patricide is out for a few months and things settle down a bit. Will I return to my once-disciplined ways? Part of me feels like that person is gone for good.
Rail: The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill is your debut novel, but not the first novel you’ve written, right? Can you talk about previous projects and any dormant manuscripts you have stashed in a drawer somewhere, as well as how you came to make this book the one that’s coming out first?
Charlesworth: Depending on your definition of “finished,” Patricide is either the third or the seventh novel I’ve finished. Of those seven, the first and fourth were completed to the point where I shopped them around, and I briefly had an agent for one of them, but neither went anywhere. Now I look at them mostly as practice books. That makes it sound like I had some grand design in mind from the outset—like those other novels were my conscious process of gearing up to write the big one—but that’s certainly not the case. At the time I was working on each of them, I thought it was going to be the one that would launch me into international stardom.
If someone were to read Patricide and then read one of those first four (which will never ever happen because I would smash to pieces the dusty old laptops on which they’re contained first), I think they’d be surprised at how different they are. Those first four especially were just the imitative struggle of learning the craft by copying others. The fifth and sixth were when I started to find the style that would eventually be used in Patricide. For all that’s good and all that might be not so good about Patricide, I think it does have a pretty unique style. When I first was talking with my agent, he said “What other books would you compare this to? I’ve been thinking about it and can’t really come up with anything.” I kind of saw that as a compliment.
Of course, I’m still imitating. I think all writers are, even if they don’t want to admit it. But eventually the stew of influences becomes so complicated that it’s impossible to separate the different ingredients.
Rail: Full disclosure, you and I met at graduate school at Emerson College in Boston and are friends to this day. I blurbed your (excellent) book and everything! Can you say why you decided to pursue an MFA, and if you think doing so helped you achieve anything that you could not have done otherwise, both artistically and personally?
Charlesworth: I was a huge reader as a kid, but then during my teenage years I went through a problematic stage. Lots of drinking and partying. Late in college, I quit all of that and reconnected with my writerly tendencies, so when a creative writing teacher of mine told me about the possibility of an MFA, I was like, “Sure, that sounds cool.” I didn’t really come into it with any sophistication or learnedness. But I was dedicated. I have a bit of an obsessive personality, and the easiest way to eliminate a compulsive behavior is to replace it with another. For some people it’s running or weightlifting or yoga. For me it was writing. That same teacher who’d told me about MFA programs had also told me that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to write for three hours every day. That’s the sort of tyrannical advice that has fallen out of favor these days in the writing community, but I took it to heart, and it paid off for me.
In my experience, you get out of an MFA what you put into it. If you’re ready to embrace the unique and strange experience of being surrounded exclusively by other people who care about writing as much as you do, it can be worth it both artistically and personally. But if you’re not at a stage in your life where you’re able to make writing your top priority, you might be better off just working and paying the bills and writing on your own or with a writers’ group and taking a class here and there at a place like Grub Street or whatever. Everybody’s path is different, and an MFA is certainly not a necessity.
Rail: Another of your blurbers, Martin Seay, called the title character of your novel “a malevolent Forrest Gump of American capitalism” and praised it as “a compressed epic that doubles as a fierce indictment of traditional masculinity.” I would agree on all counts. The book is immensely entertaining, but also full of pointed ideas about and critiques of a lot of America’s myths and dreams. What do you most hope that a reader will get out of the book, and how did you balance the book’s high entertainment value with those more complex and, at times, pretty unpleasant themes?
Charlesworth: I love the “malevolent Forrest Gump” line! Martin’s and your blurbs really get to the heart of what I was trying to accomplish with this book. Silly as it sounds, there are similarities between Patricide and Forrest Gump in the way that they both unfold against the backdrop of noteworthy moments of the 20th century. That was definitely a conscious decision at the beginning—though I’m not sure I knew exactly why I was doing it. But I think the themes you’re talking about are sort of implied through the inclusion of these almost mythological historical moments like the Great Depression and the Kennedy assassination. There was a lot more of that that ended up getting cut. At one point, there was a section about the Valdez oil spill, but it didn’t quite fit, so the book sort of relies on the reader’s knowledge of that event to understand the father’s implication in it.
I knew early on that I wanted the father to be this prolific and careless figure of white, patriarchal, capitalist society, and I also wanted each of his children to become emblematic of some aspect of the disillusionment or insecurity or paranoia that is its byproduct. I wanted it to be the story of a family, but I also wanted the stage to be expansive and incorporate settings that would feel linked to American ideas about ambition and striving, hence New York City and Las Vegas and Alaska and Los Angeles. I knew based on earlier failures that such a stretched-out canvas could benefit from a simple narrative framework to keep it honest, and the idea came early on to have the father at the center of the country and the four estranged siblings converging from the four corners. I think all that geographic choreography—because it’s also in some ways a road novel—gives the book its narrative and imaginative momentum. From there it was just a matter of figuring out the individual stories of the characters and how they got to these spaces in their lives and how it would all end up.
Rail: You are a semi-regular participant in the annual single elimination tournament of songs and essays run by Megan Campbell and Ander Monson known as March X-Ness, which coincides annually with the NCAA’s March Madness. Your essay about Vito Bratta of White Lion was one of my favorite pieces from last year. It made me wonder both how important music is to you as a person and as a writer, and why, as well as how much nonfiction writing you do generally, and what you feel you can do in that genre that maybe you can’t in fiction?
Charlesworth: Music has always been a huge part of my life. Memorized song lyrics from the '80s and '90s take up way too much of my mental space. I’d never call myself a musician, but I’ve played guitar for going on twenty-five years and have dabbled with other instruments. As an artist, I’m endlessly fascinated by structure. Books, movies, songs—I’m always analyzing them to figure out how they’re put together and how the different parts work—and I think this stems from my relationship with music. When you’re learning to play a song, the fact that you have to memorize the ordering of its parts forces you to engage with the structure in a way that you don’t necessarily have to if you’re writing or reading a story. There’s also a reliance on tension and release to create drama in music that I think has made its way into my fiction, especially in Patricide, in which there are several long descents into characters’ backstories that are meant to be sort of discursive and then burst through the back door of the main narrative in much the same way that a song might stray into a middle eight or a bridge before returning to the familiar territory of a chorus.
As for nonfiction, it’s a love-hate relationship for me. I have a theory about nonfiction that, because certain aspects of the invention of plot are taken out of the author’s hands, the imaginative process can focus itself on other things, such as really digging deep into motivations in a way that fiction should be able to do, but sometimes just doesn’t have the space—or else there are too many other distractions. In other words, when you’re writing fiction, you’re partially occupied with making up the story and making it believable, whereas in non-fiction, the story and its believability are already givens, so there’s a different kind of freedom, but also restraint, in figuring out how to organize the material and structure it. By no means am I saying I think this makes non-fiction easier; I’m just saying there are different boundaries, and often those boundaries inspire structural innovation.
For me, boundaries are a good thing. I generally have more to say about a topic than any audience could reasonably be expected to have the patience for, so I spend a lot of time figuring out how to fit as much as I can into as digestible a package as possible. That Vito Bratta essay, for instance, was a bear to get hold of. There was so much nerding out about Vito’s guitar chops that I had to cut in order to find the shape of the thing.
Rail: Now that this book is done and entering the world, what are you working on next?
Charlesworth: Oh man, I’m just trying to keep my head above water with the promotional side of all this. But yeah, I’m working on a new novel. My first drafts are always messy, but I cranked this one out a little while ago and it’s been sitting there marinating. Like Patricide, it jumps around in time a lot and has a few different narrative lines that I’m still trying to nail down. I’m hoping to make this one a bit more fine-grained. It’s also riskier than Patricide, so there’s an even bigger chance I’ll totally fall on my face, which is probably another reason why I’m delaying. I’m a little bit scared of it to be honest with you—or maybe intimidated is a better word—but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.