About a month and a half ago, I was interviewed by Luba Lapina for the Sunrise Literature Discussion Club in Moscow. It is their practice to read a suitable story, discuss it, and then (after obtaining permission to do so) asking the author five questions about it.
The story they chose was my "Goblin Lake" and I thought their questions astute enough that I've decided to share my response to them.
Dear Luba Lapina,
What interesting sessions the Sunrise Literature Discussion Club has! I write under the assumption that my readers are intelligent and perceptive people who will have no trouble understanding my stories. So it’s pleasant to see this proved out in real life.
Let me preface my comments by observing, as I’m sure others have before me, that I can only tell you my intentions, not what the story is or means. Once a work of fiction is finished, it no longer belongs to the author but to whomever is currently reading it. My interpretation may or may not be as valid as anybody else’s.
That said, in your first question, you ask why Jack made the choice he did.
I wrote “Goblin Lake” because I wanted to tackle the great central theme of fantasy—the reconciliation of reality and imagination. The worlds of our imagination are (or can be) superior to reality in all ways but one: the fact that they don’t exist. So when I gave Jack the choice between the two, it was only fair to let him see the virtues of fantasy and the drawbacks of reality. Then I let him make up his own mind.
I could not tell you why Jack chose as he did. His thinking was as opaque to me as it was to the reader. But I had a practical reason for dictating his choice, which was that opting for immortality in a world of beauty and comfort wouldn’t have been a very interesting ending to the story. Behind that was an artistic reason, which was that his choosing the world as it is, in all its difficulty and discomfort, brings its readers to a very interesting place where they have to ask, as you did, why? Is this imperfect life truly worth celebrating? Do we let its pains and tragedies blind us to its wonders? Does mere existence justify a life that may not satisfy us? These are difficult questions and I did not want to impose answers upon them. But I very much wanted to make the reader think about them.
It’s also possible to read the ending as Jack choosing the freedom of life over the predetermination of literature. Which leads me to your second question. You asked whether we all live inside a story, whether I believe in destiny or predetermination, and whether we can exist simultaneously in parallel universes, being good in one and bad in the other.
The central issue cuts close to the bone for me. I was raised in the Catholic faith—when I was young, I intended to become a priest—and free will is a central tenet in Catholicism. So I grew up with a horror of predetermination. Reducing life to a sequence of robotic non-decisions seemed the most terrible thing imaginable. What resolved the problem for me was the invention of chaos theory. If all complex actions have unpredictable results, then the concepts of free will and predetermination are rendered meaningless. The distinction simply goes away. I found that very liberating.
I don’t think that we live in a story for the simple reason that life doesn’t have the shapeliness and consistency that good fiction has. And I don’t believe in parallel universes because the concept seems inherently wasteful, whereas the laws of the universe as we understand them are elegant and parsimonious. But in both of these matters, as in so many other things, I could be wrong.
Addressing the third question, I have had the same experience as Tamila of projecting myself into brightly-colored book illustrations as a child. That’s not where the story came from, though it’s closely related. Almost all of us have had the experience of “falling into” a book—losing sight of the fact that we’re reading and experiencing the imaginary world as a real place. I wanted to give an imaginary character the chance to fall out of a book.
In fact, I did not put Jack inside the book. I found him already there. Which is why, to answer your fourth question, the story is set where and when it is. During the Thirty Years War, a ten-year-old boy was kidnapped by Hessian soldiers to be their servant. Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (this is probably a pseudonym) grew up to be first a musketeer and then an aide to his commanding officer. After the war, he held various civilian occupations, eventually becoming a magistrate. This gave him the leisure to devote himself to literature, including Simplicius Simplicissimus which is considered to be the finest German novel of the seventeenth century. It is a picaresque novel, in which a simple young man is kidnapped by soldiers, becomes a soldier himself, and experiences every occupation available to a man of his times: raider, doctor, courtier, lover, and so on and so on. It was witty, sharply satirical, and enormous fun to read.
Simplicissimus was so great a hit that somebody pirated the book, wrote new chapters extending its plot, and sold the book as his own. Von Grimmelshausen then took the pirated book, added yet more chapters of his own, and re-published it—without removing the chapters he hadn’t written. Every writer who knows this story loves him for doing that. It also means—but if this did not bother the author, why should it bother us?—that he may not have written the section, the only example of fantasy in the book, in which his hero goes to live beneath the Mummelsee.
Von Grimmelshausen knew the reality of war from first-hand experience. Yet from those horrors he crafted a delightful work of the imagination. So, again, we are confronted with the relationship of fiction and reality.
Finally, you asked about the Mummelsee’s statement that “One miracle is enough for any life”—why only one, what can be said to be a miracle, and how many miracles per life are enough.
A miracle is something that, by the nature of the universe, you cannot have, no matter how much you desire it. There have been wondrous moments in my life that felt like miracles—the birth of my son, the moment when Marianne and I were declared married, a flash of religious ecstasy when I was a boy. But nothing forbids such moments.
It sounds banal to say it aloud, but simply being alive is a miracle. Even if, as I believe, life is common in the universe, intelligent life has to be extraordinarily rare. During conception, hundreds of millions of sperms compete for a single egg. The odds of you simply being here are statistically indistinguishable from a miracle. I try to remember that when I’m feeling grouchy.
One miracle per lifetime is, I’m afraid, all we get. But it’s enough.
Which finishes my responses to the questions you posed. But I will throw in the answer to a sixth question you could not have known to ask. This is something I’ve never told anybody but my wife before now. I named the protagonist Johann/Jürgen/Jack as a kind of memorial to my younger brother Jack, who was killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver in Florida in the early 1980s. Since he no longer has a place in reality, I gave him one in fantasy, where he need never die and can live whatever life he chooses. That it is not possible to restore Jack to life in the real world is yet another way that reality is inferior to fantasy. Yet I dearly wish I could. Perhaps that is the true answer to your first question.
Thank you for letting me discuss my story with you. I wish you all a long life and many books.
Above: "Goblin Lake" originally appeared in Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. A noble book and one that is well worth your seeking out.