A Conversation with Jack Todd, author of Come Again No More
1. You mention in your author note that some of these stories were based on those of your family. Which story was your favorite to explore in the novel? Is it interesting to see in a fictionalized format?
My parents were such an oddly matched couple that I most enjoyed exploring the way they met, their courtship and their marriage, including the story of the day my father left my mother alone for hours in a hotel in Denver. My mother told me that story in some detail, but it turns out that it is only the tale of their honeymoon in Denver, not of their wedding day. I recently discovered that my parents were not actually married when I was born, because my father had never obtained a divorce from the woman known as Thelma Pearl in this novel. They were together some twenty-five years before they finally married. We were never told that my parents weren’t married, but my older sisters remember babysitting the youngest while the folks went to the courthouse to get hitched at some point in the 1950s – I was never told at all. I’m not sure I would have handled the situation depicted in Come Again No More any differently had I known, but it does cast a different slant on things.
2. Sometimes it’s hard to lay out family history in a memoir or even a fictional work. Did you find it hard to depict certain aspects of your family’s life in this book? Are there any aspects of the book that you think members of your family would object to?
The single most painful incident in our family is probably the one I wrote about in Sun Going Down, in which Emaline is terrified that her mother is being beaten to death by her stepfather. Emaline herself puts an end to the beating by hitting her stepfather over the head with a burning kerosene lantern. Knowing that your mother endured something like this is hard enough, bringing it to life even harder.
While I didn’t necessarily find it difficult to write about my family, I don’t doubt that some family members would object to much of what is portrayed here. They want to believe that their ancestors never fought, drank, cheated on one another or had sex – even marital sex. They would no doubt be horrified to think that a family member was a bootlegger before she became a minister, but a novelist has to portray life as it is and was, not a version cleaned up for a children’s television network.
3. To paint a portrait of 1930s farm life must have required a lot of research. How long did it take to uncover such details?
I wanted to write the Paint trilogy in part because I had heard so much of it directly from my parents and my aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. My portrait of farm life in the 1930s is taken more from life than from books: when I was born, my parents (the models for Jake and Emaline) were still living a life much like the life they endured during the Great Depression. I grew up milking the cows by hand and running the milk through a hand separator, bringing sick calves into the kitchen on cold winter nights and watching my parents battle through the early part of the 1950s to hang onto their farm, just as they had done in the 1930s. The tractors and trucks were a different model, but that was about the only difference; I was fourteen years old before we could afford a television set.
In addition to my own memories and the oral history I was told growing up, I relied to some extent on family memoirs and I read widely in other memoirs and novels of farm life in the 1930s. The Grapes of Wrath was useful for general background, but I relied more on the excellent work of Lois Hudson, especially The Bones of Plenty, a neglected American classic. The farming scenes depicted in Come Again No More, however, are based more on personal experience and the yarns my parents told around the kitchen table.
4. Do you think that the 1930s, with the Great Depression and Prohibition, was a dark time in American history or one filled with hope? Do you think the literature of that age agrees with you?
The Great Depression was a distant mirror of our own time, so if you feel that we are now living through a dark period of American history, you will probably see the 1930s the same way. Certainly the forces of darkness and repression were present, as they are now: in the Supreme Court, on Wall Street, in the media. But for perhaps the one and only time in American history, the working poor had their hands on, or close to, the levers of power. The depression was far deeper and more difficult than the current recession (a third of the work force was jobless when FDR took office) but there was, I think, more hope. My parents lost their farm during the Great Depression and migrated to Oregon, lost another farm during the 1950s and yet somehow never lost hope. I was raised an optimist, despite all they had endured, to believe both in the possibility of a better world and that the role of government should be to help improve the lives of the common people, not simply to protect and enhance the wealth, power and status of the rich. And although people in the 1930s had more reason to feel angry than at any other point in U.S. history, it does not seem that there was as much anger as there is today. Or, at the very, least, it seems that the anger was focused in the right direction: look at the steady, simmering anger of The Grapes of Wrath, directed at law enforcement and the big fruit and vegetable growers in California who so ruthlessly exploited the migrant workers. The literature of that age, I believe, reflects both the darkness of the time and the steady current of hope which had not yet been extinguished. I have no difficulty detecting the darkness and cynicism in the literature of the early part of this century. Hope is harder to find.
5. You state that The Grapes of Wrath is the true great American novel. What sets it apart from the others that try to take that superlative?
One of the greatest delights in writing this lengthy trilogy is that it has given me a reason to re-read a series of American classics, including Huck Finn, The Sound and the Fury and The Grapes of Wrath, and to discover others such as The Bones of Plenty. I have already pointed to the quality that I believe sets John Steinbeck’s novel apart from the others. William Faulkner was without doubt the greater writer; he wrote more elegant prose, plumbed more deeply into the human condition, had a wider and more varied reach in the characters he created. But it was Steinbeck’s great achievement to write an entirely believable, heartbreaking human tale that was also a powerful political statement, one of the most powerful ever written. Rage is very difficult to harness. It is easy to find a million reasons to be angry with the late, unlamented regime of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, much more difficult to restrain that rage in order to let a story tell itself, to let the anger rise from within rather than imposing it from without. Because Steinbeck deals with the fundamental conflict in American society, the clash between unrestrained capitalism and labor, especially during a time of great contrast, and because he does it in a human way, without dogma or diatribe, The Grapes of Wrath stands apart from the other great novels written by Americans.
6. The boxing sequences are reminiscent of those in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, who also has a boxer character by the name of Jake. Is that parallel deliberate?
It is entirely a coincidence that my character is also named Jake, but Hemingway was one of my earliest influences and the two characters do have much in common. Both Jake McCloskey and Jake Barnes are veterans of the Great War, both have a certain attitude toward women that recognizes a sort of female toughness that was not widely perceived before Hemingway began writing about it, both harbor deep prejudices and both are familiar with the brutality of boxing. They differ sharply in their ability to consummate a relationship with a woman.
7. The peaceful, tranquil farm sequences greatly contrast the rowdy, violent boxing ones. Did you have to be in a different mindset to write each of them? Do you have a personal interest in boxing?
In both cases, I simply tried to depict the scenes I recall. Working on the farm, breaking ice from the stock tank with an axe, relaxing in the evening and listening to Edgar Bergen or Jack Benny on the radio, helping my father train horses at dawn and boxers in the evening, watching my mother in her rare quiet moments with her volume of Chekhov’s stories and a cup of tea, trying to squeeze in a little reading while my father ranted about how the working man could never catch a break.
With my father, the tranquility of farm life could be transformed in an instant when he lost his temper. In a matter of seconds, any man who had offended him would be down and bleeding in the dust. (Today, he would have found himself in jail on a regular basis.) He was a talented light-heavyweight boxer who plied his trade during the 1920s and 1930s, if not quite at the level depicted here. He was a veteran of more than seventy pro fights whose career began exactly as Jake’s does, with a promoter walking out to a beet field to recruit one of the laborers to face his champion. The bout against Lionel Kane depicted at the beginning of the Hard Times section is a pastiche of his memories of the fight game, beginning with the advice he always gave me when he was trying to teach me to box: “Always hit a nigger in the head and a fat man in the stomach.” I could never remember whether it went that way or the other way around, so I have tried to incorporate that uncertainty into the text. (Using the N-word, incidentally, posed another difficulty. My father's regular use of the word led us to the edge of blows more than once – a fight I would have lost. I don’t like to hear the word and I certainly didn’t want to use it – but if I didn’t, the passage would have been wholly inaccurate. It’s impossible to portray the casual racism of that time without using the language the characters would have used.) In the fight chapters, I also used my own experience as a sportswriter. I have covered world title fights featuring boxers such as Mike Tyson and Trevor Berbick and I have interviewed Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali. One of my closest friends is a former world middleweight champion, so boxing is one sport I understand thoroughly. I had the most fun, however, with the peripheral characters that are drawn more or less from life, if in a different era: the sportswriter Ed Floate, the radio broadcaster Wade Wynkoop. I looked up from ringside one very warm night at the fights and saw an obese boxing promoter wearing a floor-length fur coat. He lives on in the character of Moe Spitzer.
8. This is a sweeping family epic that takes place over ten years. Is there a reason you wanted to keep it solely within the 1930s? Did you find this restraint helpful or restrictive?
After writing Sun Going Down, which sprawls from 1849 to 1933, I wanted to keep this novel within a significantly more limited time frame – in part so that I could concentrate entirely on the Great Depression and its effect on the lives of my characters. My initial draft of the novel included Jake’s departure from home and early years spent as a hobo before World War I, and my plan included the beginning of World War II, but through various drafts that was boiled down to the 1930s. I habitually question virtually every decision I make with a novel, but in this case I am absolutely certain that it was right to limit the time frame.
9. There are a lot of characters and quite a family tree involved in this novel. Did you find it confusing to keep track of them all? Did you have a “cheat sheet” to remember who was who?
I grew up with all these characters, or at least I grew up hearing about them, so it was actually quite easy to remember all of them. The only cheat sheet I ever needed was a list of their birth dates. On the other hand, I now have difficulty remembering their real names, especially with Eli and Ezra Paint – in life, they were Squier and Eb Jones, but they have become Eli and Ezra to me. Names are very important to me and I find it impossible to write a scene unless a name rings true – which is why my grandmother Velma retained her given name in the fictional version. Because nothing else would do. Perhaps it's also why one of my favorite characters is the old cowpoke, Teeter Spawn. Because his name, to my ear, is perfect.
10. Is there a particular reason you enjoy writing about the American west? Do you think you’ll eventually write about your new home of Canada?
I know precisely why I enjoy writing about the American west, even though I now live in the Canadian east. It is because I find that everything that happens in the west seems to be etched in high relief. The sun is brighter, the shadows deeper, the mountains taller, the Big Sky more vast and the characters, more often than not, somehow larger than they are in the cities, where rubbing up against so many other people seems to wear the edges off a person. I also love the language, the language I grew up with, the language of the frontier. My father was forty-eight years old when I was born and most of his brothers and sisters were older than him. The oldest was born in 1885 and grew up in Arkansas and Missouri, so I heard that speech directly from the source. Years later, I recognized that voice when I heard a recording of Ezra Pound reading his poetry. My first thought was “my God, that’s my Uncle Emery.” And I remember Squier Jones/Eli Paint visiting our farm in the early 1950s, a big man in a big white hat, driving a big white Cadillac. That’s why I love writing this: for all of them.
And yes, after the next two novels I am now writing, I am planning a novel set in Montreal during the October Crisis in 1970, after the British consul was kidnapped by terrorists.
11. What are you working on now?
I am working simultaneously on two novels. The first is called Paradise Rodeo: it's a direct sequel to Sun Going Down and Come Again No More, set in the 1940s, 1950s and the early 1960s. It picks up where Come Again No More leaves off and follows the fortunes of the Paint and McCloskey families through World War II and the Korean War to the beginnings of the Vietnam conflict, as Eli Paint rebuilds and extends his empire and Jake McCloskey and Emaline struggle to survive in a world that Jake, in particular, finds more and more difficult to understand.
The second novel I am writing is called The American and the situation at its core deliberately summons one of my favorite novels, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. It is set over the past two decades in Quebec, Vermont, Wales, Marseille and Wyoming as two old friends quarrel over a young Eurasian woman and their vastly different view of the world and America’s role within it. While it is quite different in tone and content from the first three novels, it is in truth the fourth and last book in the series I think of as the Paint Quartet and it represents an attempt to place the first three novels in a somewhat different context.