What was the inspiration for Gob's Grief? Was it the period, the plot, a character?
My brother died in an automobile accident in 1993, and shortly after that I started a novel about an actor who plays a physician on a soap-opera. It bears no resemblance to Gob's Grief but shares with it a title and a concern with characters, living and dead, who try variously to understand, deny, accept, or defeat their mortality. The novel underwent many transmogrifications of plot, character, and setting, some of them truly strange and even a little gruesome, before a friend introduced me to Mrs. Woodhull, and Mrs. Woodhull introduced me to a New York in the years after the Civil War. I credit Mrs. Woodhull with saving what was otherwise doomed to be a failed effort and probably a lifelong source of misery for the author. I think I can safely call her and her time the inspiration for the book, while the events in my life that required me to write this novel are perhaps best called something else that connotes less airy joy and more unhappy obsession. I suppose I could call it the desperation, rather than the inspiration, for the novel. In any case, I wanted to write a story where somebody gets his brother back.
The novel features fascinating portraits of historical characters. Could you discuss the accuracy of these characters and the research you did for the book?
Writing this book required a whole lot of research, especially because I was an indifferent student of history when it was offered to me in high school and college. I was fortunate to be able to live in Washington, D.C. for a summer just before I started medical school, and spent many days and weeks in the reading room at the Library of Congress learning about the people I wanted to write about. Living in Virginia meant that there were a number of Civil War battlefields within a day's driving distance. I visited the New York and Washington, D. C. Historical Societies, and the Woodhull-Martin Archives in Carbondale, Illinois. I listened to recordings of Union infantry drill calls and recordings of recreation cannons and rifles being fired and hitting their targets. I read New York papers for the days that are covered in the novel, and had some heavy bouts of microfilm-seasickness. I read a book on the history of underwear that turned out to be not so terribly useful after all.
It seems a little strange to me that I could have done years of research and yet still produced a book full of such wild inaccuracies. The most obvious and glaring of these are the liberties taken in replacing real characters with imaginary ones--for instance, Gob and Tomo Woodhull for Victoria Woodhull's real children, Byron and Zulu Maud. Maci Trufant replaced no actual person, but the character of her father is based on a Universalist minister-turned-spiritualist prophet named John Murray Spears. Spears really did build a machine that he claimed filled up with a spiritual essence evacuated from the womb of his devoted compatriot, a lady never named in any source I could find. Will Fie is another fabrication not based on any real person. Yet I think I sinned worst in the characters that are most closely based on their real life counterparts--Walt Whitman, Mrs. Woodhull, and her sister. These people generally locate themselves in time and space in the novel the way they did in real life, but their actions and even their attitudes are not always meant to represent their actual lives. I'm sure this is most true of Whitman, and I know that of all the historical personages abducted into this novel he is the one who will turn longest and most vigorously in his grave.
The Urféist is an intriguing, mysterious figure. Where did this character come from?
The Urféist is a figure out of Irish mythology about whom I read in passing while researching a story completely unrelated to this novel. I took the name of the creature that adopts and teaches Gob after he leaves Homer from this mythological entity. The word Urféist means original or ancient worm, beast, or monster. The character of the Urféist is based on a creature that visited me regularly in recurring nightmares when I was a kid. He always came in the company of Count Chocula, the charming cereal vampire, and together they would engage in various fiendish and cruel behaviors.
The novel's America is at once being destroyed and built and the description seems both real and imagined. Could you comment on the America of Gob's Grief ?
For a long time I struggled to find an environment hospitable to the sort of people I was trying to write about, a place and time where people obsessed with death and largely ruined by grief would be perfectly at home. If I had paid any attention at all in my tenth grade history class it might have occurred to me a great deal earlier that America in the years after the Civil War was just such a place. In the novel two of the characters talk of belonging to a sort of club whose members have all had brothers die, and it seems to me that this club could have had no greater American membership than at this time. There are some patently weird and ridiculous concepts in the novel, but I feel comfortable maintaining that the idea that three people, all brother-widows or brother-widowers, could have found each other and plotted together against death is not one of them. Still, as warped as I perceived that society to be by death and grief, it was warped further and worse by my ignorant imagination. In general, the America of Gob's Grief is about as close to the real America of 1863-1873 as Mr. Potato Head is to a real potato.
I noticed that you're currently a medical student. There's a prominent lineage of physician/writers. What do you think is the connection between medicine and literature?
There are days when I think that the two entities or disciplines are entirely immiscible and antagonistic, and others where they seem not just to complement each other but to be, in a strange way, twin enterprises. I generally have more of the former days than the latter, but I hope that will change as I grow up, both as a writer and as a future physician. You make nobody better by sitting up all through the night and making yourself into a wild-eyed caffeine fiend for the sake of five new pages of manuscript--only five sentences of which actually turn out to be worth anything--and then subsequently sleeping through anatomy, leaving the dirty cadaver work to your innocent classmates. Poetry, while it probably does not actually do nothing in general, does nothing (to my knowledge) for a spastic colon. Yet it seems to me that good doctors and good writers are both likely to be keen social observers, and that when you are doing good work in medicine or in fiction you are making obvious previously unseen connections. A friend who is superior to me both as a writer and a person has proposed that compassion is composed of elements of curiosity, imagination, and devotion; if this is true than I think it could be argued that the arts of medicine and literature rest on a foundation at least partially shared. As for the lineage of physician/writers, some of them are my heroes and some of them make me sad. I hope, in any case, not to follow what seems to be the sensible trend of leaving one practice for the other. When people ask me which I would rather give up, writing or medicine, it's like being asked which eye I'd prefer to have poked out with a spoon: neither, and please use a fork.
What's next for you with respect to your writing career?
I've been plagued by an idea for a story for the past couple of years. It's something for which I nearly abandoned Gob's Grief, when the going got particularly miserable with that novel. But this new thing is (to my mind) quite blasphemous and not just a little bit stupid, and whenever I work on it I always seem to narrowly miss having bad accidents with buses or big dogs or the ocean, so I will probably proceed cautiously and very slowly with it, if at all. Meanwhile, I've been working on some little stories. Presently I'm trying to finish something about submarines.
--interview by Michael Johnson
|Photo credit: Derek Mathis|