There is a reason people are paid to write headlines and book titles: when they work they sell. I bring this up because I was sold by just such a device. The book was The Ordinary White Boy by Brock Clarke. I was shopping at a bargain book outlet for some interesting reading material when the title and cover caught my eye. Since I consider my self an “Ordinary White Boy” I was interested to see how the author dealt with the topic. The book proved thouroughly enjoyable. I then realized that the author taught in nearby Cincinnati. Building on my recent success, I decided to attempt an interview. Luckily, Mr. Clarke proved amenable and was gracious enough to answer my questions.
Brock Clarke , a native of upstate New York, received his Ph.D. in English at the University of Rochester. He is currently an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in New England Review, Mississippi Review, American Fiction, The Journal, Brooklyn Review, South Carolina Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, Twentieth Century Literature, and Southwestern American Literature. He has received awards from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the New York State Writers’ Institute. His most recent published work is What We Won’t Do a collection of short stories. The Q&A was conducted via email and is below. Enjoy.
Questions and Answers:
A coming of age novel set in a claustrophobic small town
isn’t exactly literary groundbreaking, what led you to write a book like The Ordinary White Boy?
It isn’t groundbreaking? Man, why didn’t anyone tell me? Why doesn’t anyone ever tell me anything?
Acutally, I did think a good deal about this, about the potentially tired turf I (and Lamar) might be trodding. But in the end this was why I wanted to write this novel: because I thought I had things to say about this man, in this place, at this time that hadn’t been said before, at least in the way I had to say them. In other words, the book sets out to confound a lot of what goes on young men in a small, dying town fiction. That’s my hope, at least.
The main character Lamar, however, is a unique. How did you go about creating this character? Is he a composite of different people, autobiographical, patterned after one specific person?
In Lee K. Abbott’s story “A Creature out of Palestine,” his narrator describes himself as a “white boy extraordinaire.” I wanted to write about someone who was an ordinary white boy–I wanted to write about this kind of guy because someone who would call himself an ordinary white boy probably isn’t as ordinary as he would like to be, and this inner conflict would be productive, novelistically, in that it would cause him and his some interesting pain, it would force him to be self-conscious in a way that might not do him any good, but might do his novel a good bit of good.
As for whether he’s a composite of people I know, or whether he’s me, let me just say: Yes. Plus, No.
Much of academia seems obsessed with race, class, and sex but this work, while touching on all those subjects, isn?t really in that multicultural/PC vein. Did you set out to tackle these issues in a unique way?
Yes. Actually, it was when I discovered the whole idea of this racial remediation instructor that the novel took off, for me. Because it seemed to me that race–the facts of race, the mythology surrounding race, everything–has changed somewhat in our country, but much of our literature had not. Racism is an enormous evil in our country–our biggest evil–but literature still abides by a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird approach to it. As long as racism is identified and punished, this literature suggests, than it isn’t really a problem anymore. Lamar was a manifestation of my dissatisfaction with this kind of fiction: it’s not that Lamar doesn’t think racism is evil, etc.; it’s that he’s not sure what to do about it, and he’s not sure what he might do would end up accomplishing anything. This is a much scarier and realistic and compicated prospect, to me, than Gregory Peck in a courtroom standing up for What is Right.
Cincinnati has had its share of race problems of late; did they impact your writing? Is there a difference between urban race issues and rural/small town ones?
I wrote The Ordinary White Boy before I moved to Cincinnati, although you’re right, of course, in that race being one of my abiding concerns as a writer and Cincinnati certainly has had its share of race problem and so the whole matter seems as urgent here as it has anywhere else I’ve lived. But there is a lag for me–I didn’t write about upstate New York until after I’d moved from it; I didn’t set stories in South Carolina until after I’d lived there for three years. I’ve lived in Cincinnati for two plus years and have just now finished my first story about Cincinnati. It’s called “The Price of the Haircut” and is, no big surprise, about the riots, or at least influenced by the city’s very odd, sometimes very disturbing reaction to the riots.
As for whether race is different in the country as opposed to the city: certainly, but I’m not in a position, really, to say absolutely what these differences are. As the novel shows, I hope, I distrust the racial remediator (and her twin brother, the racial theorist) in most of us and am loathe to give in to the temptation to act like I know what I’m talking about.
In the book, Lamar discovers that innocence is meaningless. What does he mean by that?
This is one of the things I liked best about Lamar. He is innocent in a way: he’s done nothing terribly wrong, except broken a few hearts, which all of us do anyway. And he certainly isn’t like his uncle, who burns down the black family’s house and is sent to prison for it. And yet, he’s haunted by what his uncle’s done, haunted by the town’s reaction to it; whether he had anything directly to do with the crime is besides the point. The crime is his, it involves him, implicates him by blood, by association and proximity and he’s better off admitting it. Of course, admitting it and doing something about it are two different things. Gregory Peck would had done something about it, and he’s a better man than my Lamar, but I didn’t want to write about a better man.
A great many characters in literature escape their ordinariness by leaving a small town for the big city. Does Lamar embrace his ordinariness? If so, why? Is ordinary the same as mediocre?
No, I don’t think ordinariness and mediocrity are inevitably the same thing, nor do I think Lamar embraces his ordinariness. I do think he realizes, though, that
ordinariness is the quickest, easiest way to happiness for him. Lamar hasn’t so much embraced ordinariness as settled for it. The thing about settling, though, is that it rarely works out for very long, and if I were to project beyond the end of the novel, I’m not at all confident that it’ll work out for Lamar, either.
What are the challenges of being a full time professor and trying to write a novel? Are there advantages?
There are big advantages: you talk about literature, about writing, with people who care passionately about the matter; you work with young writers struggling with same problems with which you, a not so young writer, also continually
struggle. This doesn’t make the struggle less difficult, but it can make you feel a little less lonely.
The disadvantages are those that would exist were you a lumberjack, oncologist, etc.: you don’t always have as much time as you’d like. But I’m a prolific time waster anyway.
Your most recent work was a collection of short stories. What is different about writing a novel? What do you find easier/harder about the two forms?
I’m more comfortable with the short story as a form than with the novel. Because for me, fiction is a matter of introducing a problem and an answer to it, and then calling into question that answer. My short stories tend to be–in premise, in voice, in plot–a little more surreal than my longer fiction, and this is so to combat what otherwise might be didacticism on my part. And the thing is, in the short story you can get in and out without overstaying your welcome–that is, before your strengths become your weaknesses. That’s not always so in the novel, and for me, novel writing can be a real struggle. But then again, it’s supposed to be difficult, is it not?
You teach writing for a living. What is your gauge of the writing skills of incoming high school students these days? How do you get students interested in writing?
My students are better writers than I was coming out of high school. That said, I was a horrible writer, although at the time I believed very strongly that I was not.
And as for getting my students interested in writing, I don’t. I’m not out to convert people to fiction writing (there are plenty of things for people to do in this world, and I’m of the belief that fiction writing is no better than most of them). What I am out there to do is to help show people who are interested in the matter how fiction does what it can do–entertain, edify, frighten, warn–so that the students can take their own informed crack at writing their
own stories, their own novels.
Most students will not be able to make a living writing, especially creative or fiction writing. What do you try and impart to those students who will go on to ostensibly non-writing careers?
I, as is too often the case, use myself as an example: I write and I teach because I was never any good at anything else. I never thought about making a living at writing, because I always had teachers who didn’t make a living at their writing, they made it teaching, and editing, and freelancing. One (at least this one) didn’t start writing thinking I would make a living at it: I started writing
because I thought I had something unique to say, and I thought I could say it in a way that was my own. There is a fundamental arrogance here, some of it (probably much of it) misguided, but that’s another thing I tell my students that
they’ll probably need.
Are you planning future novels? What is your next project?
I just finished a short story collection called Carrying the Torch, which is set mostly in Georgia and South Carolina, and I’m trying to finish a difficult to finish novel called An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England about an
arsonist who accidentally burns down the Emily Dickinson House, goes to prison for it, and then upon his release finds out there is a market for this kind of arson.