J. Daniel Janzen is an editor at Flak Magazine. His new book, The Clown’s Graveyard is the first release by indy publisher FACSmedia, the print extension of the online lit magazine Facsimilation.
RRM: Did you foresee yourself as a writer of some variety in college? How does a History major decide to write a novel featuring a clown that does not occur during a specific theater of battle during the Korean War?
JDJ: If I’d given any thought to my future while in college, my life might have turned out very differently. Writing was always what I was best at, and I liked to consider myself the literary type, but I never really did anything about it. I only took one literature class (and got a C+), horribly offended the creative writing teacher who otherwise might have done me a lot of good, and didn’t do a lick of my own writing. Through the years, as I drifted from teaching to temping to trade show management (no, really), fiction was always out there as something I could do if I really felt like it—you know, you’re free to consider yourself a genius as long as you don’t spoil it by actually making the effort. Finally, my life seemed increasingly like a waste of time, and by the process of elimination, I discovered that I’m only really happy when I’m writing, and impossible to live with when I’m not. As for Korea, I’m confused—my novel takes place entirely over the course of Operation Thunderbolt near Inchon in early 1951. Are you sure you have the right interview?
RRM: Can we get a brief plot synopsis of The Clown’s Graveyard? What made you think of that and how long had you worked on it prior to publication?
JDJ: You’re familiar with the Elephant’s Graveyard, right? (Cocktail party interlocutor smiles noncommittally, eyes darting to the side for an escape route). Okay, in the Victorian era, there was a legend among ivory hunters that there’s a place in deepest, darkest Africa where old elephants are instinctively drawn when their time is at hand. If you could ever find it—bingo, tusk city, yours for the taking. This is a similar deal, but with clowns.
That’s one answer. Another is that it’s a buddy story. It’s also about faith, doubt, and deception. It’s an all-American tall tale played out on the greatest of all canvases. And naturally, it’s a biting social satire. Are you beginning to understand how so many agents decided to pass?
As for the amazing secret origin of The Clown’s Graveyard: I wrote a comic sketch about it in college (okay, I lied about not writing anything) in the course of my failed attempt to gain membership in the Harvard Lampoon, about which I’m still terribly bitter. As time passed, The Clown’s Graveyard was always the working title of whatever imaginary novel I wasn’t working on, even when the story had nothing to do with the original concept. The funny thing is, when I finally got serious about writing a novel, I called it Look No Further, even though it was literally about the Clown’s Graveyard itself. Fortunately, my workshop straightened me out. I spent about seven years on it all told.
RRM: What kind of research, if any, was involved? What experience do you have with dying clowns?
JDJ: I assure you, no clowns were harmed in the writing of this book. As far as the IRS is concerned, everything I’ve done for the past eight years was directly related to this business venture, from camping in Joshua Tree and Death Valley to seeing Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. In another sense, living in San Francisco during the dot-com bubble and writing copy for the most absurd startups imaginable was probably the best research of all. Actually, although I read extensively about con men, sideshows, P.T. Barnum, cults, self-improvement, and other such things, I never did much research into clowns per se. They kind of go without saying.
RRM: So how old is your son? Any wisdom concerning the tough balance of being a productive writer and father?
JDJ: Bobby just turned sixteen months, which is a wonderful age, as they all are. Fatherhood is the best fucking thing that ever happened to me, along with meeting my wife. I recommend it highly, though with a different wife and son. These ones are taken.
Before Bobby was born, I was convinced that I had to get all the writing I’d ever do finished before he came, because then it’d all be over forever. As it happened, I’d been spinning my wheels for a while by then, and since his birth I’ve been more productive than ever. It raises the stakes; you have to be able to look your son in the eye and tell him you made an honest effort, even if he didn’t ask or wouldn’t care. You want to be the kind of father a kid can look up to, not some guy who pretends to be a writer so he doesn’t have to get a real job. My own father, a theologian, is incredibly prolific, driven solely by love and commitment for what he does rather than superficial ambition or ego. The respect I feel for him would be the greatest gift I could give Bobby. He’s sure as hell not getting a car.
RRM: So how’d you get into doing commercial writing? How great is it or isn’t it to work in a home office?
JDJ: By the time I bailed out of the trade show business, I was so burned out on office life that the thought of taking another job made me want to kill myself. I’d written a few marketing pieces here and there and it seemed simple enough, so I hung out a shingle and waited for the jobs to come pouring in. It didn’t hurt that this was the summer of the Netscape IPO; soon, any chimp with a stolen laptop could name his price, usually only slightly higher than my own.
Working at home rocks. It’s not for everyone; I know people who’ve tried it and gone nuts in a matter of days. That’s because they’re morally weak and shallow. Back to the hive, you drones!
RRM: What was your motivation to relocate to NYC? What was your experience marketing a literary fiction novel to New York publishers?
JDJ: Moving here was entirely a whim. All our friends in SF were buying houses and settling down for the long haul, and we realized if we were ever going to have another adventure, it was now or never. My wife had been here a few times on business and really liked it; for me, of course, it was the mythology that sealed the deal. You’ve either lived in New York at some time in your life, or you haven’t. We’d never intended to stay forever—just a few years or so. Of course, now that we’ve bought a place and babied up, and tasted all that New York has to offer, I don’t know how or when we’ll ever make it back to our friends in California … this is where my congenital lack of foresight comes into play again.
My experience marketing my novel here was wonderful, every bit as rewarding as fatherhood! No, wait—the opposite. Among the dozens of agents and editors I dealt with, some were assholes, others merely misguided, a few supportive, the rest dismissive; fuck ‘em one and all.
RRM: So where did you grow up and how do feel this affects or disaffects you?
JDJ: My parents moved to Indianapolis when I was a year old (from Saskatoon) and still live in the house where I grew up. Coming of age in Naptown gave me a great curiosity about the world outside, as well as the suspicion that everyone else knows things I haven’t picked up on. Have you read Dan Wakefield’s definitive novel Going All the Way? He answers your question better than I ever could, and there’s even a Korean War angle. (See also the Indy chapters of The Clown’s Graveyard, which ensure that I’ll never be able to drink at the Red Key Tavern again).
RRM: You follow baseball? If so, what’s your team and who’s your pick?
JDJ: I’m more a fan of baseball writing (Ring Lardner, Roger Angell, Bill James) than of the game itself, though my interest always rises toward the end of the season. My teams are the Mariners (for my in-laws), the Reds (for my best friend), the Giants (for those fair-weather fans back home), and the Red Sox (for Yankee-hating purposes). My pick: the Yankees, damn their handsome blue eyes.
RRM: What got you started doing your “The Copywriter’s Casebook” column for Facsimilation?
JDJ: I guess the drugs I’d administered to Shawn to convince him to serialize The Clown’s Graveyard were too potent, because the next thing I knew he’d asked me to write a column as well. They always say “Write about what you know,” so it was either copywriting or laundry-folding. I still wonder if I made the right choice.
RRM: Any new writers you see landing big publishing deals with possible movie options in THE FUTURE?
JDJ: It’s funny, the agent I signed with for a while had dangled the prospect of a big movie deal to lure me in. But I came to realize, it’s not about the Hollywood opening, the blockbuster advance, the Fresh Air interview, the full-page review in the New York Times Book Review, the sold-out readings, the breathless signings, the parties at the Soho Club, the McSweeney’s guest editorship, the MFA program sinecure, the Yaddo residency … ah, who am I kidding. It’s about all those things. I don’t know who the next person to win the lottery will be, but whoever it is, they’re going straight to my wall of envy, where I’ll send hateful thoughts their way while mutilating myself with an inkless fountain pen.
RRM: Why do you think clowns consistently rate as “more scary than funny” or even “creepy” on public polls concerning such things?
JDJ: There’s something so primal about clowns—they operate on a preconscious level. On one hand, they’re supposed to be the embodiment of the most basic human experiences: happiness, surprise, sadness, misfortune, firefighting. At the same time, they’re fundamentally estranged from normal humanity, subsumed within highly stylized personas (auguste, tramp, whiteface, harlequin) and appearing only within the context of their own bizarre reality. It’s this tension between the familiar and the absurd that gives them their power—as with surrealist painters like De Chirico, who just got $7.1 million for The Great Metaphysician, that lucky bastard. Of course, not everyone can handle being confronted with the contradictions inherent in the human condition. For those who can, there’s always The Clown’s Graveyard.