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.
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
said, in your first question, you ask why Jack made the choice he did.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
miracle per lifetime is, I’m afraid, all we get. But it’s enough.
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.
you for letting me discuss my story with you. I wish you all a long life and