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In 'Exley,' A Story By A Not-So-Wise Child
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In 'Exley,' A Story By A Not-So-Wise Child

In 'Exley,' A Story By A Not-So-Wise Child

In 'Exley,' A Story By A Not-So-Wise Child
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130470001/130469962" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In Brock Clarke's latest novel, Exley, he pays homage to one of his favorite writers, Frederick Exley. It's a novel of mystery, hidden identities and secret affairs, told from the voice of a young boy and his therapist. Brock Clarke joins guest host Rebecca Roberts to talk about his new book.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Brock Clarke's new novel, "Exley," is a fictional work about a kid named Miller, who may or may not be telling the truth about a real book by a real person named Exley, who may or may not have been telling the truth about his own biography. Also involved are Miller's psychiatrist, who may or may not be telling the truth himself, Miller's dad, who may or may not be dying from wounds he sustained fighting in Iraq, and Miller's mom, who may or may not believe Miller, or Miller's dad, or the psychiatrist.

I am, however, fairly certain that the book "Exley" was written by Brock Clarke, and that Brock Clarke joins us now from Maine Public Broadcasting in Portland. Welcome to the program.

Professor BROCK CLARKE (Author, "Exley"): Thanks, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Frederick Exley's fictional memoir, "A Fan's Notes," it's an actual real book, is almost a character in your book "Exley." Was it a big influence on you?

Prof. CLARKE: It was an incredibly big influence on me. I read it when I was probably 23, 24 years old and at this very low Exley-like moment in my life, where I had no job and I was over-educated and had no prospects. So I did what a number of, you know, messed up young men do: I decided to read a book. And it was this book about this slightly older version of me, and I was totally won over by it, as of course I would be.

And I thought about it over and over again over the years and became obsessed with it. And so I wanted to write a book about who was obsessed with this particular book that wasn't me.

ROBERTS: For those who haven't read "A Fan's Notes," can you describe it for us?

Prof. CLARKE: "Fan's Notes" is about this guy, Frederick Exley - he calls it a fictional memoir, I think of it as a novel - who's living in Watertown, New York, and he's a high school English teacher. But really, he's obsessed with Frank Gifford. This is pre-Kathy Lee, where he was a football star for the New York Giants. And Exley was obsessed with him and this obsession came in and out of his life, and his life was spent mostly in bars and in insane asylums.

It should be this really tawdry life but the book itself is beautiful in its obsessions and its down-and-outness. And the book has no plot...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CLARKE: ...really to speak of. It's just Exley going from one mishap to another, to another, to another.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: So your book, "Exley," is narrated in turns by two characters, nine-year old Miller and his mental health professional, Dr. Blank, as he sort of pompously called himself. Neither of them are particularly reliable, as narrators. So is there an actual truth to - well, I started to ask you how do you keep track of who's actually telling the truth, and what the actual truth is. But I suppose that doesn't really matter in a work of fiction. I mean, is there a truth to be found?

Prof. CLARKE: It matters only in so far as I need to keep track of where the book is heading. In mind I know the facts of the novel. But the facts only are useful in so far as they're made entertaining. And for me, part of the entertainment of the novel is trying to figure out who is lying about what and why.

For me, it's not like a game. It's these lies, getting underneath them, getting that the reasons behind are partly in service of a larger truth. So there is a truth in novel but truth is scary for all these characters.

ROBERTS: One of the narrators, Miller, turns 10 during the course of the book. Why make him a kid? He doesn't speak like a kid.

Prof. CLARKE: No. Well, I mean, you know, everyone says, you know, what's - I think there's that old show, "Kids Say the Darndest Things," but they really don't. I mean kids actually - I've got a kid and he's brilliant, of course. But I don't know that I want him to narrate a novel. But I wanted a kid who is precocious, who thought he knew more than he actually did, in part because I don't like a certain kind of child narrator who is only sweet and innocent.

I wanted a child narrator who knew too much but, at the same time, knew not enough and was precocious and perhaps not realistic, but at least plausible.

ROBERTS: Does it sort of build in a certain unreliability in the narrator for it to be a child?

Prof. CLARKE: Yes. But for me, most major characters and narrators are unreliable. Most people are unreliable. So in that way, Miller is no different than the doctor in the book who's unreliable in a different way. But still - I mean, this is why characters are interesting to me, is that they have their own agenda. And that agenda makes them to some degree unreliable.

ROBERTS: Assuming that most of our audience hasn't the read, because it's just out, we should explain that Miller who - his father is the one who's obsessed with "A Fan's Notes," although Miller grows increasingly obsessed with it, as the novel goes on. And he is convinced that a comatose man in the VA hospital in Watertown is his father, and that the only way he can save his father is by bringing the writer, Exley, to him.

Prof. CLARKE: It seems like a reasonable plan, yeah.

ROBERTS: Despite the fact that Exley is, in fact, dead...

Prof. CLARKE: Correct, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CLARKE: Yeah. Yeah. This is...

ROBERTS: ...which makes it a slightly less reasonable plan.

Prof. CLARKE: Perhaps. But, you know, reason - in real life, reasonable people are important. In novels, they're not so important to me. In fact, they seem to get in the way of a novel's progress. So for me, this is when I realized I really was into this novel when I hatched this totally whacky, unreasonable plan. It's like, oh, now I have a novel now. Now we can get going.

ROBERTS: Your characters and - I guess sort of by extension, you, seem kind of ambivalent about the power of books and reading and writing. Yet you keep writing. You keep teaching writing on a college level.

Prof. CLARKE: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: Are books actually important or do you just sort of have no other skills?

Prof. CLARKE: To take your second part of your question: Yeah, I have no other skills.

ROBERTS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CLARKE: Absolutely. This is the only one I have and sometimes I don't even have that. But as for the ambivalence, it's not so much ambivalence, is I think fiction is unbelievably important - one of the most important things in my life and I think in the lives of a lot of your listeners.

One of the things I wanted to get across in both these last two books, though, is that sometimes the power of literature is beyond us. This sounds ridiculous and like a Journey song. But what I mean by it is that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CLARKE: Maybe it's not like Journey song at all. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CLARKE: ...one of the things I mean by it is that, so we want literature to change our lives. And we want it to change our lives for the better. But sometimes reading literature affects us in ways which we had not planned. And sometimes it makes us more obsessed as readers and as human beings, and that does not make us better human beings.

We can't control what literature does to us, I guess is my point. And this is part of why we read it, is that it's unpredictable.

ROBERTS: It may affect us different ways at different times in our lives. I mean, you described being affected by "A Fan's Notes," as a younger person. Do you think it would have had the same impact if you picked it up now?

Prof. CLARKE: There are books that I read around the same time as I read "A Fan's Notes," and I'm afraid to go back to them because I fear that they won't mean the same thing, that I won't think so highly of them.

But that's not been true of "A Fan's Notes." Every time I read it and I've taught it, I see something new. It still affects me. It's still really powerful. I think it's still relevant. And one of my hopes in publishing this novel and in publishing "Exley," is that people go back to "A Fan's Notes" or go to it for the first time. And it's a terrific book.

ROBERTS: Brock Clarke's new novel is called "Exley." He joined us from Maine Public Broadcasting in Portland. Thanks so much.

Prof. CLARKE: Thank you.

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