“Writing a novel is like being out on the ocean, and you just can’t see land, and you have to pick a direction.”
Goldenland Past Dark, ChiZine Publications, March 2013.
Beaded ladies, mermaid girls and a dwarf hunchback. Chandler Klang Smith discusses her debut novel, Goldenland Past Dark, which chronicles the lives of a traveling sideshow of misfits, outcasts and wanderers, with writer Alizah Salario.
HR: Your language is so lyrical and eloquent, especially when describing characters that aren’t typically considered beautiful. In fact, you rarely use the word “freaks” to describe your characters. Was that intentional?
CKS: I guess I was trying to write about that experience from the inside out. In the scene where Nepenthe sheds her scales, a lot of people reacted like, “Wouldn’t Webern be thrilled because she’s finally beautiful?” I really wanted to try to convey that these are the bodies they’re used to having. When they fall in love with each other [Nepenthe and Webern] that’s part of what you’re attracted to is someone’s physicality. Instead of objectifying it and really making it the other, I wanted to see and feel those bodies from the inside out. I guess that’s what I was going for. Even for some of them, like for Brunhilde the bearded lady, being different is painful in a lot of ways, but it becomes part of their identity and maybe even a source of pride or inspiration for the art they create in the circus.
“I definitely think that people’s relationships with their bodies are complicated, and I feel like, you know, the word “freaks” is not just derogatory, but it also kind of leaves out the way in which you experience yourself both as different, but also as more familiar than anyone else.”
HR: Was it your intention that readers relate in such a way that whatever we might feel freakish about felt, in a way, was normalized?
CKS: Yeah. That was absolutely something that made me interested in the subject matter in the first place. There’s nothing physically freakish or particularly unusual about me, but I think like a lot of people in adolescence, especially being from a small city in the Midwest, I felt very different from other people, and I felt that my difference was something that people could see as soon as they looked at me, whether it was things like having acne and I had a bunch of problems with my teeth, or even things like the way I dressed or chose to present myself. I always felt very strange, and when I sort of looked for a metaphorical way of expressing that, I guess the circus performers came to mind. It seemed really resonant and relatable to me.
HR: Yes! There’s a sense that if something, whether it’s real or perceived, sets you apart, then there’s this desire to make yourself stand out even more.
CKS: Exactly. I think that that’s something, especially with Webern, that I was interested in. His connection to being different in all of these ways isn’t to feel bad and fit in, but to make sense of that by making art that makes him even stranger, like where he puts on costumes, you know, performs different characters, makes himself the center of attention. I guess that’s what I feel I do with my writing.
HR: Yes, I thought that was so honest. I’m not the first person to say that clowns can be slightly creepy or sad, but there’s really such tenderness in the way you described him.
CKS: I definitely agree that there is something creepy about anyone wearing a mask, or makeup that disguises their features. There’s a reason why people have a phobia about clowns frequently. But I also feel like it’s kind of a shame because clowning is this really rich and fascinating art form that goes back to early recorded history, and there’s a lot of that has gotten kind of dismissed or lost. I’m really interested in a lot of kind of old Vaudevillian art forms and performance techniques, clowns and mimes and ventriloquism.
“These things have gotten so stigmatized that you can sometimes dismiss the part of the human psyche that they allow people to express.”
HR: I was thinking a lot about how we perform all the time online, especially as writers.
CKS: I think that even people who aren’t clowns, if you create a persona, I mean, I think that’s what I was really exploring. I think that it’s interesting. The element that I do think can ultimately be creepy is when you let that persona replace you, that’s obviously terrifying if you lose the real self to your performative self, then that’s frightening. To me there’s something much more complicated to that than that to the knee-jerk reaction to seeing clowns and thinking it’s like It and the Stephen King novel. That’s not what I really find frightening about the clowning in this book. It’s more the role that it ends up taking in his [Webern’s] life.
HR: I was really curious about your research for the book in terms of the circus lifestyle and the physical deformities.
CKS: It was a combination of a lot of different things. I read a lot of books and watched a lot of films, both fiction and nonfiction, that were about the circus. I really love the the Charlie Chaplin film The Circus, and actually Tod Browning’s Freaks is a really interesting artifact, it’s not like the kind of cinematic achievement that I’d unreservedly recommend, but it’s a really, really interesting film and a visual record of these people and how they presented themselves to an audience. He uses real “freaks,” people who are pinheads, a guy who has no legs, two of the main characters are dwarfs, they’re brother and sister in real life but they play a married couple. So yeah, I read a lot of books about the circus and the history of sideshows. I have a really good one here by Joe Nickell called Secrets of the Sideshow that I really liked.
I let my interest and imagination determine the path of the research. I didn’t set out to become an expert in any of these things. I could find things that would spark an idea for the book, then that’s where I’d turn. Also when I was an undergraduate at Bennington College, I studied with Edward Hoagland who traveled with the circus as a young man and worked with the big cats, and he actually wrote a novel called Cat Man. I studied with him and got to hear circus stories. That was an early influence on the book.
HR: If you were to join the circus, what would be your act?
“I think I’d probably be pretty terrible at being in the circus. I’m a very physically clumsy person. That’s one of the things I really respect about clowning: that it’s so much like dance, so much of the clumsiness and haplessness of clowns actually comes from incredible physical control, which I do not have.”
I can’t juggle, I don’t really ride horses. I’ve done it, but I wouldn’t do it at top speed. I think I’d be more likely to be someone who worked behind the scenes. But I love going to the circus. That was another thing, as far as research goes. In New York I went to Circus Contraption. I don’t think that they’re around anymore because a couple of their members actually died in a shooting, but I saw them perform in New York, I saw Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, I went to the Ringling Bros. when they were in New York City. I definitely tried to immerse myself in it as much as I could.
HR: Did you set out knowing this was going to be a book, or was there an “a-ha moment” when you knew this was a novel?
CKS: There was, actually. I went to college and then immediately went to my MFA program at Columbia. When I was an undergraduate, for my senior thesis I wrote this collection of stories that were all about about Webern Bell, the main character, and they were mostly about his childhood. I’ve actually posted four of them on my website, almost like deleted scenes, or a prequel to what happens in the novel. Then I started at Columbia the next year and I was taking a writing workshop and working on another short story about this character, and I realized when I got feedback from the class that I wanted to bring everything I’ve been thinking about this character into one world.
HR: I’m curious, what was your inspiration for the title? I find titles to be really tricky.
CKS: I totally agree with you. I think this book has had probably, I don’t know, ten different titles from first realizing it was going to be a novel to finishing it. I really loved the image of the abandoned amusement park and I thought that was important. Ultimately, I was thinking about how to convey that it’s a decrepit land, and then I also was thinking about the idea that both Webern and Dr. Show in the book have dark pasts. There’s almost this punny quality that Goldenland Past Dark is also characters’ dark pasts. That was kind of why I phrased it that way.
“My best recommendation for other writers is try to look through your text for words or phrases that excite you. I feel like for me those are the best titles, when I come to understand why a book has the title that it does in the course of reading it.”
HR: Totally, when it’s like a mystery, and then you have that moment when you figure it out and it explodes the text.
CKS: It’s tricky, because then you run the risk of the title not jumping out at you from the shelf, or whatever the Internet version of the shelf is. I really love the book Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping is, like, my least favorite activity. So seeing that title when the book was recommended to me, I assumed it would be like a terrible Lifetime movie. But not only do I love the book, I love the title too because it has all of this resonance with the story.
HR: There’s a lot about not living up to people’s expectations in the book. Can you talk about that?
It’s really interesting that you say that because that’s actually very much the subject of the book I’m writing now — the idea of not living up to parental expectations. Yeah, definitely. There’s a book I haven’t read that came out recently called Far From the Tree [Andrew Solomon] about people who are very different from their parents.
“I was interested in the idea that the majority of these characters are somehow very very different than their parents and the world that they came from, and that’s sort of why there’s the misfit family of the circus. Those are the people who gravitate toward each other. They might not be alike, but they all share the experience of being very other and very weird.”
HR: So as far as your career as a writer, is that something you’ve felt?
CKS: It was very mainstream culture, the world I grew up in. Luckily, I did feel really supported and encouraged by my folks, but I didn’t always fit in at school or in other social situations with my peers.
HR: There’s definitely that sense of outsiderness that other people might not see who come from those backgrounds.
CKS: I was able to get a completely useless undergrad degree and an MFA. I was able to immerse myself in this world, but I had to go find it.
The definitions of success in certain places can be kind of stultifying. A lot of people come to mind who are incredibly successful writers who make a living some other way, and maybe even aren’t so widely read, but the people who connect with their work really connect with it. I don’t know. It’s frustrating. We don’t live in culture that supports or understands artists very well, and that can be pretty frustrating.
HR: Totally. So how did you get past those bumps in the novel writing process? Were you ever like, really? It’s taking this long? What was the process?
CKS: I think it did help in my case that I was in an MFA program when I was doing most of the writing of the first draft. I had externally enforced deadlines of when I turned things in, and I had to turn the whole thing in in order to graduate. I think that was useful to me. I think I also had an advantage because it was a character that I’d written about already. I felt very comfortable with the protagonist. I didn’t have to figure out who this person is. I sort of knew who he was, and what situations to put him in. When I decided initially that I was going to write a novel, I wrote, I wouldn’t call it an outline, but I wrote and I more or less stuck to that. It definitely changed as I wrote forward, but the general shape of it stayed intact
“That’s a part of my process that’s continuing to expand, the planning part of it. It’s a lot easier for me to write if I know what I’m trying to accomplish dramatically. If I know that I’m trying to get from point A to point B, then drawing that line is a lot easier.”
That’s the piece of advice I’d give people, though I know everyone is different. Some people like to write forward sentence by sentence. But if I’m uncertain about where I’m going, the end of every sentence feels like a precipice. I feel like I’m constantly looking into the void of the white screen beyond the text, and I don’t like that.
The clown routines that I have as kind of dream sequences, those were really a chance to just play with language and gave me a chance to attempt to be more virtuosic, and then the other parts, those were more predicated by the story.
HR: Yes, There’s always that balance.
CKS: I feel like in the writing I’m doing now, the lyrical and the practical aspects of storytelling are more integrated. I kind of like the chunkiness of it. I kind of enjoy that those moments feel sort of refreshing when you’re suddenly in his imagination.
HR: So what are you working on now? A new novel?
CKS: Yes, it’s about a parallel universe version of New York City that’s been in peril for a very long time, and is constantly being burned by these two dragons that hover overhead.
“The first line of the new novel is, ‘This is the story of what it’s like to be young in a very old world.’ It’s about what remains of a culture that’s maybe outlived its usefulness.”
Yeah. I think it’s a little bit more ambitious than my first book, but it does have some characters that form those misfit bonds and are trying to survive in a world that doesn’t easily accommodate who they are. It’s just a world that’s a little more outwardly perilous.
Chandler Klang Smith grew up in Springfield, Illinois. She graduated from Bennington College in 2005 with a concentration in literature and philosophy. In 2007, she graduated from the MFA program at Columbia University. Since coming to New York City, she has ghostwritten two young adult novels for Alloy Entertainment Group, read submissions for the Paris Review, worked at a boutique literary agency and currently is the events coordinator at KGB Bar.
Alizah Salario is a writer and educator living in Brooklyn. Her reportage and criticism have appeared in The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions and elsewhere. Her fiction was recently featured in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She wants to know your story. Follow her on Twitter at @Alirosa
Photo courtesy of Chandler Klang Smith