Glen David Gold interview - Post haste
- Doug Johnstone
- 25 June 2009
He might not work fast, but what Glen David Gold lacks in swiftness he makes up for in his ability to tell beautiful, intricate stories. Doug Johnstone is the hare to his tortoise
Glen David Gold is not a writer who likes to be hurried. The American author’s debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, was a big commercial and critical success upon its publication in 2001. A fictionalised account of real-life American magician Charles Carter in the 1920s, the novel was brilliantly plotted, superbly researched, dazzlingly executed and compulsively entertaining.
With his reputation riding high, there was surely pressure to rush out a second novel. Instead, Gold retrenched for eight years to work on his next opus. But it’s definitely been worth the wait.
Sunnyside is an astonishing piece of work, a novel that surprises and charms at every turn. Like its predecessor, Sunnyside is historical fiction, set between 1916 and 1919, and loosely built around the life of Charlie Chaplin. There are three main narrative threads – Chaplin’s period of creative and personal crisis, America’s disastrous military campaign against the Bolsheviks in northwestern Russia and the story of an aspiring movie actor who winds up in the thick of World War One in France.
These threads and many more minor ones are woven together into a whole, which is at times breathtaking. Sunnyside blends complex literary ideas with a remarkable knack for storytelling, managing to be, by turns, hilarious, poignant, gripping, silly, action-packed and profound. It is extraordinarily ambitious, but ambition doesn’t seem to frighten Gold one bit.
‘Carter had an incredibly ambitious plot, like trying to put together a Swiss watch,’ he says cheerily. ‘Whereas this book was more like putting together an 88-piece orchestra and hoping it made sense.’
The 45-year-old writer, who lives in San Francisco with his wife Alice Sebold, author of the million-selling phenomenon The Lovely Bones, says the inspiration for Sunnyside led on from researching his debut novel. In that book, Charles Carter was a contemporary of Houdini, and it was while researching Houdini that Gold fell for Chaplin.
‘I saw a picture of Houdini and Chaplin hugging,’ he says. ‘It struck me Houdini was the first “most famous man in the world” in the modern sense. He wasn’t a king or a pope, he was famous because he wanted to be famous. Chaplin was his successor, but there was something different about Chaplin’s fame, and I wanted to understand that.’
The book starts with a stunning set piece, detailing the real-life phenomenon in 1916 of hundreds of sightings of Chaplin all across America on the same day. This bizarre mass hysteria was dubbed ‘Chaplin-itis’ at the time, and was an indication both of Chaplin’s extraordinary fame and the air of extreme anxiety in a country getting ready for war.
From that opening, the narrative ripples out in many directions, but always engaging and thought provoking, as Gold examines everything from the invention of modern celebrity to the power of cinema, the dreadful realities of war to the search for hope in the most desperate of human circumstances. It switches from intimate, moving passages to grand, sweeping commentaries on America’s struggle to define itself in the modern era.
‘There was an interesting confluence at that time,’ says Gold. ‘There were huge decisions being made about America’s relationship with the rest of the world. And since the war was happening at the same time as the ascendance of America as a cultural power, it struck me as a very fruitful time to write about.’
Both Sunnyside and Gold’s debut straddle the gap between literary and commercial fiction. His work gives the lie to the idea that page-turners have to be dumb, or that books with big ideas and things to say are boring. ‘When I was working on Carter, someone asked me if it was literary or commercial, and I had no idea what the difference was,’ he says. ‘That’s not something I think about too much. Hopefully the reader will get a lot out of this book, in the sense there’s a lot of thought gone into it. It brings up a lot of literary ideas, but at the same time there are also dancing girls, flame-throwers and dogs jumping from biplanes.’
Gold wrote an amusing blog during the writing of Sunnyside, which gave the impression that marshalling his ideas was like herding cats. At one point the page count for the manuscript reached 1,280, although he eventually wheedled it down to a measly 980, which, thanks to some nifty book design, has somehow been squeezed into a 560-page tome.
I point out that for a book that’s partly about the power of cinema, his novel’s sprawling structure means it would be a real bastard to adapt into a film. He laughs hard.
‘I handed it over to my agent in Hollywood and said, “Here, I’ve written a completely unfilmable book about Hollywood and war.” But he’s still convinced there’s a movie in it. There are plenty of strikes against it.
‘First, Hollywood doesn’t like making movies about Hollywood. Second, Russia in winter? No way. And third, one of the heroes of the book, his most heroic moment is to bring two dogs to be suckled by a young prostitute. Show me a list of Hollywood stars who would sign up for that scene.’
Gold has his fair share of Hollywood experience. The film rights for Carter Beats the Devil were optioned by Tom Cruise for a couple of years, a deal which fell apart. Then the rights were taken up by the team behind Mad Men, again, with no end result. Plus, before Gold ever even wrote fiction, he spent years as a struggling screenwriter.
‘There’s a big salt mine down there in Hollywood, where they threaten you with the idea you might actually make money, then never give you any. I tried for seven or eight years to get screenplays made and I think I got paid a total of $3,000.
‘I much prefer fiction, because with a book it takes four or five people to say “yes” between the moment it leaves your desk and when it hits the bookstores, whereas movies can take forever and can get derailed for reasons that have nothing to do with whether the story is any good or not.’
The movie world’s loss is our gain. With Sunnyside, Gold has written a grand, expansive story about the need for us to impose narrative sense on the chaos of life, a deeply moving examination of the power of storytelling.
Plus, don’t forget the dancing girls, flamethrowers and dogs jumping from biplanes.
Sunnyside is out Thu 25 Jun, published by Sceptre.