‘I Think These 3 Works Should Be Required Reading For All Young Americans…’
Seven questions with historical fiction author Paul Clayton, now offering his stories at Liberty Island.
April 30, 2014 - 9:00 am
Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-second in a series of interviews and story excerpts spotlighting some of the most innovative fiction writers at the recently-launched new media publishing platform Liberty Island. The first nineteen can be read in this collection here, the twentieth here, and the twenty-first here. Find out more about Liberty Island’s new writing contest here, running through the end of April. An index of 8 newly-released stories can be found here. Please check out this interview Sarah Hoyt conducted with CEO Adam Bellow here to learn more: “It also has a unique mission: to serve as the platform and gathering-place for the new right-of-center counterculture.”
Paul Clayton is the author of a three-book historical series on the Spanish Conquest of the Floridas– Calling Crow, Flight of the Crow, and Calling Crow Nation (Putnam/Berkley), and a novel, Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam (St. Martin’s Press), based on his own experiences in that war. Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam was a finalist at the 2001 Frankfurt eBook Awards, along with works by Joyce Carol Oates (Faithless) and David McCullough (John Adams). His other works include: White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, a work of historical fiction; Strange Worlds, a collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories; and In the Shape of a Man, a work of “literary horror.”
1. Who are some of your favorite writers, books, movies, and intellectual influences?
As a writer, I have to put John Gardner right at the beginning — The Art of Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, On Writers and Writing, and On Moral Fiction. I cherish my Gardner paperbacks with their ballpoint pen annotations and underlines – yes, I write in the margins of books, my own, of course. I am glad I read On Moral Fiction midway through my career, such as it is, as a writer. Gardner gets into the ‘ethics’ of being a writer, instead of just craft. He laments the celebration of freakishness, the insistence that morality in art is irrelevant, since artists paint or write only for themselves. Instead, Gardner calls, like Tolstoy, for “a world ruled not by policemen but by moral choice, a world where every man’s chief ambition was to be Christ-like. Only through moral art, Tolstoy argued — or ‘religious art,’ as he preferred to say – can such a world be brought into existence.” Too many of today’s young writers follow the current trends and way too many, in a desperate attempt to find an agent, a “house,” and money, censor themselves and pander to the jaded tastes of the gate-keepers in the NYC book industry.
As a college student, I majored in American Literature and as a reader, many of my favorites fall into that category, among them: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Tobias Wolff, Ethan Canin. I don’t limit my reading to only American writers, of course. Some of my other favorites are Robert Louis Stevenson, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, William Golding, Erich Maria Remarque, John McGaher, Paul Theroux. And I enjoy some rollicking good “genre” authors as well, for example, Ken Follett. My pronounced taste for ‘war fiction’ is probably the result of my having served a tour of duty as a draftee infantryman in Viet Nam, which resulted in my novel, Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam. A couple of my guilty pleasures are the works of Erich von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchins. (I say “guilty,” because while I don’t have the education to agree or disagree with their ancient alien theses, I find them mesmerizing and compelling.) My fascination with same is reflected in some of my recent work. I just realized that there are no female authors listed here so I want to add two that I’ve read and enjoyed very much: Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison.
I can’t watch most modern American movies. I embrace realism, while it seems that most of the country is running away from it as fast as they can. What’s popular – feminist fantasies featuring young, kick-(male heterosexual)-ass characters armed with magical powers or bows; overblown, hyper-fast fantasies featuring male action heroes who leap bravely from frying pan to fire ad nauseam for 90 minutes. Instead I prefer the slow, measured, ‘character’ stories of the old masters, John Huston, Orson Welles, and some newer movies as well, Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, for one. I also enjoy the work of Italian directors, notably Lina Wertmuller.
2. How do you describe yourself ideologically?
I’m more of a “traditionalist” than a staunch conservative. Yes, all “passing” generations long for the glories of their heyday, but when a culture like ours is bow down, like the Titanic about to plunge to the bottom of the cultural abyss, then it’s right and good to appreciate and champion the thoughtful, deeper art works of the past, and to warn against the current generation’s fascination with narcissism. Too many writers are going for the sensational, pushing the constraints of the culture to their breaking point. I’d rather, in the spirit of John Gardner, “conserve” the best aspects of our culture, and so I attempt to keep young readers in mind as I write. My work is mostly realistic-mainstream, combined with genre elements such as historical, horror and sci-fi.
3. Which thinkers/commentators have influenced you?
There are three. I read The True Believer by the stevedore philosopher, Eric Hoffer, at a time when I was very much the putty that he describes – unanchored young people, with minds full of mush, easily molded by the reigning demagogues. Then I read Allan Bloom’s seminal work, The Closing of the American Mind, about young people and higher education. Finally I came to Czeslaw Milosz’s classic, The Captive Mind, and was astounded by the similarities between the tactics and polemics of the communist bosses behind the Iron Curtain of the 1950s and 1960s, and today’s leftist politicians and their sycophantic Media Captains and Queens. I think these three works should be required reading for all young Americans, along with a good history of our country and the Soviet Union.
4. Where are you from/currently reside?
I’m from the East Coast, Philly, and I’ve lived on the West Coast, SF Bay Area, for the last 30 years.
5. What are your writing goals?
Well, not surprisingly, one of my goals as a writer is to write more. I am in the process of editing a collection of my short stories and a novella, The Blue World, a fictionalization of the Sumerian god myths. However, not currently having an agent or editor, I spend a lot of time promoting what I’ve already written. Either I’m awful at it, or the growing ranks of writers have led to a massive gridlock where the norm is a meager five minutes of fame on some obscure web site, and I’ve already had mine. If the publishing world has an equivalent to the old Hollywood Blacklist, then I am surely on it. (Did I tell you I was paranoid?) Anyway, I think there is nothing sadder for a writer than to put out your wonderful, heart-felt and finely-crafted work only to have it go unnoticed. This can lead to depression, which can lead to watching television, smoking crack, spending time on Facebook, or doing all three at once.
6. Where can people find/follow you online?
I’m only on line occasionally. I try not to live there.
7. What’s your craziest hobby/pastime/interest?
Well, I’m 65 now, so I can’t say extreme skate boarding or base jumping off of towering rocky cliffs buffeted by fifty mile an hour gusts in a wingsuit — all of which I would be doing if I were a few years younger. Instead I have to content myself with reading, bicycle riding, and searching for old coins, buttons and bottle caps with my metal detector. It’s a bit like fishing, which I also enjoy, both of which are probably a lot like writing — plumbing the depths in an attempt to bring up some treasure or… horror.
An Excerpt from Paul Clayton’s 2038: San Francisco Sojourn: The Wrath of God
I never thought I’d meet God in person. Actually, I never thought much about him. Nobody did anymore, or mostly nobody. But one day it happened.
I was driving north on 101 after work, about six PM. I had a date later on at nine with a woman I’d met at a dance a month earlier. Michelle considered herself a witch and was into Wicca, had been for years, and she occasionally participated in ancient druidic spells and ceremonies. I wasn’t into that, but it was every bit as valid as the major religions, right? Anyway, I had a little time to kill so I decided I would hike up to the Microwave Towers on San Bruno Mountain.
I glanced at myself in the rear view mirror–looking good! I was wearing my dress helmet, blue with a red racing stripe down the center. People had long been required to wear helmets for biking, diving, driving, horse-riding, skating, skateboarding, gardening, skiing, sailing, curling and slam dancing. But eventually the government decided that just being alive and walking around presented citizens with a plethora of possible head injuries, and so the Cranial Protection Act was passed, mandating the wearing of helmets at all times. When they were debating the legislation in the beginning, I was against it. But ten-term Senator Sheila Smidgeon’s famous speech in favor of the legislation in which she told of literally hundreds of people in hospitals all across the country due to head injuries which the State had to pay for with monies that could otherwise go to other programs like drug therapy–started to change my mind. But it was the slogan for the campaign, A Broken Brain is State Money Down the Drain!, that put me over the top. Anyway, I didn’t really mind wearing the helmet, but when it was hot outside, it did make your head sweat a little.
I pulled into a service station to quick charge the batteries in my Volt. While they were doing that I bought a health-soda to wash down my prescription. I was on Nossad, your standard dose, 20 milligrams, as were most citizens. Mandatory counseling and drug therapy for all citizens had been the smartest thing the government had done in years. Crime had been virtually wiped out overnight and population growth stabilized (from a few other things they put in the pill). After that, society marched along, shuffled actually, in a steady, predictable pace and direction.
I got back on 101. I could see the emerald green of the mountain up ahead and the grey steel towers on top as I went with the flow of commuter traffic. I turned on the radio and absentmindedly listened to the local news channel–Today, the San Francisco City Council decreed that all fast food joints within city limits can have no more than 150 mg of fat in their meal deals, and the meals must include sex toys, condoms, and a glossy guide to safe sex.
Further down the San Francisco peninsula in the city of Palo Alto, police have been ticketing children for riding their bicycles with one hand. PA police superintendent, Sergeant Sandy Sanderson stated that, “We have to nip such reckless behaviors in the bud. Children cannot be allowed to flaunt the law.” The parents of ticketed children must write an essay on the theme, How I Will Raise a Safe Child for the State, and read it aloud before the City Council while wearing a dunce’s cap in order to have the charges rescinded.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, City Council members, citing heightened terror alerts, have hired a dozen former TSA agents to provide enhanced pat downs to all council members upon entering and leaving their offices.
I turned off the radio and took the Betty Crocker Canyon Road exit. The road wound around the mountain’s flanks and I soon came to the trailhead. I parked and started walking. I was halfway up when I spotted a small crowd of people in a little clearing off the side of the trail. There was a large campfire blazing, which was unusual, because they’d long been outlawed in the State for emitting too much carbon. Only LED faux fires were permitted now.
As I drew closer, I saw that most of the people appeared to be undocumented Mexican immigrants, evidenced by the fact that they were helmetless. The Undocumented were exempt from the Cranial Protection Act. They sat in the grass, all focused on some kind of preacher. This was not surprising since the Undocumented were known to be religious, while most citizens had given that up long ago. The man preaching before them was bearded and long-haired, and was also not wearing a helmet. He wore sandals and a robe of what looked like burlap, with a leather strap cinched around his waist. Clutched in his big meaty hand was a staff of some kind. I’d seen pictures of staffs like that in books in the California Book Museum. The legendary Merlin the Magician wielded one. The other staff-wielder was Moses. They had some bibles under glass in the Hall of Hate Literature wing of the museum. In one, Moses blasted a hole in a rock with his staff to find water for his thirsty followers.
As the people listened to the preacher raptly, I was reminded of the stories and pictures of the leaders of the Hippie Movement from the last century, the followers of whom had become the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the Social Stabilization and Medication Act. Maybe this preacher was some lost hippie who had come down from his rocky cave up on the mountain.
The preacher looked strong, not in the modern sense like a young metrosexual male with finely-sculpted washboard abs holding his girlfriend’s purse as she tries on a pair of shoes at the mall. No, this was more like ancient strong. His big, hairy nose and slightly protuberant brow gave him the look of a universal, primitive everyman. I was reminded of old paper drawings I had seen of the aborigines of Australia, the Norsemen, and the Ainu of Japan.
As I drew closer he turned and looked at me like he knew me. I nodded and continued walking.
He pointed a meaty finger at me. “Carl.”
“Lucky guess,” I said, wondering how he knew my name, “And you are…”
“I am the Lord, thy God.”
I nodded. This guy was off his Nossad or, more likely, Calmator. And he needed a time-release implant too because he obviously couldn’t be relied upon to take his meds.
I humored him. “That’s what I thought. Well, nice to see you.” I started away.
“Wait!” he thundered in a voice that you don’t walk away from.
He waved me to approach. I did, feeling the eyes of the people sitting in the grass upon me. “Dost thou know my commandments?” he asked.
“I’ve heard about them,” I said. “They were pretty cool, but I have to… ”
“Sit at my feet with the others and I will teach you.”
As I was trying to decide whether to humor him or run like hell, a voice called out, “You!”
A Park Ranger hurried over to us. His face was flushed as he pulled a ticket book out of the back pocket of his khaki pants. “Where’s your helmet?” he said to the preacher.
I looked at the preacher and pointed to my own head. “You’re supposed to wear them all the time… for your own protection.”
The preacher smiled and shook his head slowly. Then he turned to stare at the park ranger like he was a bug or something.
“Who started this fire?” the ranger demanded. “California Air Resources Board, Statute 753, Section 3, Paragraph 4.1 clearly states that only LED faux fires are permitted in California State parks.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
A California fruit fly, one of the state’s protected endangered species, flew by, made a circling loop around the ranger’s head, then lit on his nose. As it crawled across his cheek he pretended that he didn’t even know it was there when, in reality, he was probably wishing no one was watching so he could swat it like everyone else did.
The ranger’s face twitched slightly as he turned to the preacher. “Did you start this fire?”
The preacher nodded slowly with what looked like wry amusement on his face.
The ranger’s face hardened. He pulled a pair of cuffs from his belt and grabbed the preacher’s wrist. “You’re going downtown.”
The big preacher pushed the ranger backward like he was made of papier-mache. He raised his staff and I got a better look at it. It was made of metal or something, and there appeared to be several buttons on it. A blue bolt of energy arced out from it and into the ranger, setting his hair and clothing on fire. I felt a surge of heat as his entire body erupted into flame. A moment later there was only a pillar of smoking ash which then collapsed in a mound on the trail.