Monday, September 12, 2011

CENTURIES OF JUNE: Interview with Author, Keith Donohue

My favorite book as a kid was THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster. It's the tale of a young boy named, Milo, who gets bored and drives his toy car into a magic tollbooth. He is transported to a land called, The Kingdom of Wisdom, where he experiences many exciting adventures.

I've just finished reading the adult version of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH (TPT).
 
CENTURIES OF JUNE is, without question, one of the most innovative books I've read in years, possibly since I was nine huddled beneath my covers with my circus flashlight reading TPT well into the night. 

Here's my 5-star review on goodreads:

The Phantom Tollbooth for grown-ups. Keith Donohue gives us a fascinating tale covering centuries in this "hold on to your hat" novel that keeps us reading to the end to find out how Jack ended up on his bathroom floor in the middle of the night. Eloquent writing and delicious details keep the reader guessing to the very end. You won't be disappointed!  

And here's a book review by Allan Walton, of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

First of all, let me introduce you to the author, Mr. Keith Donohue. (Did I mention he has a Ph.D. in English with a specialization in modern Irish literature?) Secondly, I urge each and every one of you to finish reading this post and immediately go HERE to purchase your own copy. I promise, you will not be disappointed. 

After reading, I had the pleasure of questioning the brilliant author, Keith Donohue, about his very special book. Here's what he said:



Q.      CENTURIES OF JUNE is a wild read, a cross between historical fiction and magical realism.  How would you categorize your novel, and what inspired this original story?

A.      The novel is a kind of mash-up, and I’d be happy enough if people read it as historical fiction or magical realism or a black comedy or a murder mystery or an existential ghost story. Heck, I’m happy when people read at all. 

Likewise, the inspiration for Centuries of June is a mash-up of ideas and images. I knew I wanted to write about American myths and came across the painting The Virgin by Gustav Klimt—which depicts a group of naked women resting in a clot beneath these wild and colorful quilts. I began to think about what their stories might be and how those tales might be interwoven with this speculation on time, memory, and the American story. In the actual writing, all sorts of other notions shoehorn their way into the book—from Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space to the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. The novel becomes a mosaic, like the patterns in the Klimt painting.
 
Q.      Your novel combines fantastical elements of literary classics from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Did you have these or other authors in mind when writing your novel? Who are your literary inspirations?

A.        Since it is, in part, a novel about stories and storytellers, I always had someone looking over my shoulder. The story of the Woman Who Married a Bear is drawn from a Native American folktale. The one about the shipwreck in Bermuda was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was based on the true account of the shipwreck of the settlers bound for Jamestown. And so on. Samuel Beckett makes an appearance in the narrator’s story, and I was also inspired by Flann O’Brien, Haruki Murakami, Mikhail Bulgakov, Italo Calvino, Louise Erdrich, David Mitchell, and so many more. 
 
Q.      Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, you invite readers into a magical realm from the moment we first meet your protagonist reeling from a head injury, and you keep us engrossed until the last page.  Are you fascinated by subjects that include dreams, memory, and reincarnation, as it would seem from reading the book?

A.      Dreams and memory, for sure. And the idea of reincarnation poses a fascinating question—what happens between lives? I’m interested in how time works and notions of eternity. One of the key aspects of the book is the narrator’s stopped watch and how time seems to slow down on this particular June morning. The moment becomes more expansive, allowing in stories from the past five hundred years, in much the same way as the characters jam into the tiny bathroom. 
 
Q.        Your first novel, Stolen Child, was a critical success, a fantasy involving changeling folklore.  How would you compare and contrast that novel with your new one, since they both explore the boundaries between fantasy and reality?

A.     All of my novels have dealt with myth and mythmaking. Centuries of June uses archetypal American stories—from Native American legends to the Wild West to a sort of film noir New York of the late ’50s—to explore how such myths define our sense of who we are. I’m not really interested in whether faeries or angels exist or whether reincarnation is true (how would I know?), but in how folklore and mythology re-enchant the everyday world and help us sense that other side of reality that resides primarily in the mind.
   
Q.       Your main character is visited by eight memorable women who we first see tangled up in a bed.  We soon learn that they have each lived through a different era in American history and have been hurt or exploited in some way. How did you imagine these vibrant characters and stay true to each of their voices so their stories would jump off the page? Do you have a favorite?

A.        I love them all. And if I told you which one was my favorite, the others would never forgive me.  The women in the book sprang to life one by one as they told their stories, and the characters’ identities evolved through the particular voice and style of each one. What became interesting for me is how each woman evolved in between the tales, when the narrator is making up the story of how they all wound up together. After each woman gives up the spotlight, she relaxes a bit and has a little fun.

Q.      What is your fascination with American history, and how did you select the time periods featured in your novel? 

A.      I’m interested in the story of history, the subjective part that historians create from the bits and pieces cobbled together to make something new. Roughly speaking, I tried to space the women out every seventy years or so over the past five centuries. It led to some interesting decisions—for instance, I knew I wanted to write about slavery, and one could go directly to the climax of the issue in the Civil War or treat it in another way. Given the choice, I ended up in New Orleans during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. 

The novel bounds across the country as well—from Alaska to Massachusetts, from Gold Rush San Francisco to steel-building Pittsburgh—allpart of an intricate design, a kind of crazy quilt of time and space that allows for the narrator to move around, despite being trapped in the circumstances of the present moment. He realizes early on that he cannot leave the house, and most of the action of the book takes place in the cramped bathroom. It was a kind of self-imposed challenge to restrict the stage upon which our actors trod.
 
Q.       Your novel conjures up vivid images of these women suddenly appearing bearing weapons, wearing colorful garb, and under unusual circumstances—sipping cocktails, toting a baby, and reading an oral history from a body tattoo. How did you imagine these outrageous scenes? Do you “see” your stories as you write?

A.        In the writing of the scenes, the characters and images are very vivid in my imagination, and I try my best to convey those sensations. Like every child of the age of moving pictures, I tend to see the story unfold. Centuries of June opens with our narrator naked and alone on the bathroom floor, unable to move, in a pool of his own blood, and he is wondering how such a strange thing happened when he hears a cough from the general direction of the bathtub. A man, resembling at first the narrator’s deceased father, shows up. Once that happens, anything goes. As the women enter the story one by one, they are capable of the most extraordinary and outrageous things.  They surprised me every time.

Q.       What would you say are the major themes of your novel? What fun literary devices did you employ to make this story come to life?

A.        It is often said that when we die our life flashes before our eyes. What is that like? What would it be like if you had led more than one life? What happens in the space between one life and the next? What do we remember or forget each time around?

The story is a collage of styles—folklore, a shipwreck account, archives of historical documents, oral histories, the western, silent film, hard-boiled murder mystery, erotic fantasy, dreams, and allusions. It has a little bit of everything from baseball to vaudeville.  
 
Q.     Does your protagonist find resolution and/or redemption in the end? Will readers unravel the central mysteries?

A.       I hope so! It is a pretty simple story in the end, about how time suddenly stops and then starts all over again.
 
Q.       How does your novel’s title inform the story?

A.       I came across the phrase “Centuries of June” at a Joseph Cornell exhibit at the Smithsonian a couple of years ago. He used it as the title for a short silent film about a summer’s day, and the phrase itself is from a poem by Emily Dickinson, which goes like this:
There is a Zone whose even Years
No Solstice interrupt—
Whose Sun constructs perpetual Noon
Whose perfect Seasons wait—
Whose Summer set in Summer, till
The Centuries of June
And Centuries of August cease
And Consciousness—is Noon.


While I’m not entirely sure what Emily meant, I liked the notion of that perpetual Noon, when time has stopped for a moment, and we might escape its grasp. 

Thank you, Keith, for taking the time give us some insights into your brilliant novel. I wish you nothing but the best of luck, and pray to the writing gods that I may someday pen a piece of work as lasting and innovative as this.

6 comments:

Pearl said...

Oh, how very cool!!

This was my absolutely favorite book as a child.

And now I'm in love with the author. Great interview.

Pearl

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

Pearl, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. I hope you get a chance to read the book and let me know what you think.

Steph Damore said...

Very cool. I got all excited when I saw TPT book cover on your site. I think I need to re-read it again and then check out CoJ. Oh, childhood memories :)

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

Steph, Definitely check out COJ - it's an amazing read!

Karlene Petitt said...

This is so cool! In the last month I've heard three comments about this book and my girlfriend just emailed me the title to buy it. Do you think this is a coincidence? I know I'll read it to the grandkids.

But for now... you have been awarded the versatile blogger award! Because you're great!!!

http://critiquesisterscorner.blogspot.com/2011/09/versatile-blogger-award.html

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

Karlene, That's is definitely not a coincidence. And, tx so much for the award! I'll hop on over to check it out. *smooch!*

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