THE MARRIAGE OF STICKS
Popular novelist Jonathan Carroll on life, love and his latest novel. By David Howe
Jonathan Carroll’s work is not easy to define. His novels fall somewhere between genre fiction and mainstream works and all are full of evocative ideas and lyrical prose. He is quick, however, to shrug off the suggestion that they might be ‘magic realism’.
‘I do know that my books are not nothing,’ he comments cryptically. ‘I write the kind of books I like to read. I say that unvainly – I’d like to pick up one of these books and go: wow, that’s good. I love books where I never know what’s coming or what to expect.
‘I can begin writing a book when I have a title or the first sentence. And I mean that literally. I have no idea where they’re going, no idea what will happen. The next book, for example, a line came to me one day: “Never buy yellow clothes or cheap leather”. It just clicked and I knew I could start writing.’
The Marriage of Sticks (Gollancz h/b), Jonathan’s latest novel, is nominally the tale of a woman who falls in love with a married man. During the course of the story, however, we discover that the woman is not at all what we might expect.
‘I initially wanted to write about a woman who gave birth to herself,’ reveals Jonathan, ‘which was a really compelling idea. She has this child and somehow she knows that it’s herself. She’s going to have to raise herself. What would she do?
‘So I started writing in that direction and suddenly hit a block. I couldn’t get any further. So I put it down and didn’t write anything for a long time as I was over in Hollywood working on some film projects, and then I wrote Kissing The Beehive and when I finished that book, I suddenly realised that my woman from The Marriage of Sticks was a vampire. It’s not that she was giving birth to herself at all, but that was okay as the new idea took me in a direction that seemed to work.
‘This whole vampire idea came to me when I wrote a vampire story for a collection, and in the introduction to my story I wrote that the biggest vampire of all was life. It sucks everything out of us and then spits us out at the end, dead. That started my mind working around the question: what is vampirism? It’s simple things like blood, yes, but you go to the transcendental level and it’s energy: spiritual and physical. This sort of vampirism is all around us all the time. We use, we abuse people. We manipulate others for our own purposes. At the end of a bad love affair, for example, your soul is empty, drained. This was the idea I needed for The Marriage of Sticks.’
The title, while strange, fits the book well, and the event to which it refers was drawn from real life. ‘I was walking with my beloved dog by the Danube one day, and was just very happy. No reason, just happy. And I bent down and picked up a stick – I don’t know why – and put it in my pocket and went home. There, I took a magic marker and wrote “Happy by the Danube” on the stick, together with the date. After that, now and then, I would pick up another stick … there’s a little pile of sticks in my house, all celebrating good and happy moments.
‘When I look at the sticks together, I see my life, it’s all there. I think that one day, when I’m old or unfortunately ill, I’ll burn them. What a wonderful smell that would be.’
There are many themes to Jonathan’s work, but to the fore is an exploration of life itself. How events change people, and how people can change each other. His characters move through a familiar world, but one which can be turned on its head with no warning. ‘But isn’t that true on a lesser level with all our lives?’ asks Jonathan. ‘Don’t we all experience that? And it just so happens that in many cases it’s more mundane, but we all ask: “how did I get here?”
‘That idea intrigues me … how do we get from A to B? In my next book, I have a character who meets themselves aged 17. What would your 17-year-old self think of you now? Would they be impressed or disappointed? Would they be embarrassed? I think of my 17-year-old self as a gangster, a real tough guy and all those things, and I’m sitting here in a suit, writing books, living in Europe … Would he think I was cool or would he think I was a dope? … that’s interesting, and I’m trying to answer the question in the book. A lot of writing is trying to answer your own questions. It’s just that sometimes it takes a couple of hundred pages to find the answer.’
With thanks to Christian Lewis and Karen Mahoney.
David J Howe