Chandler Klang Smith’s new novel, Goldenland Past Dark, just came out in March from ChiZine, and she was kind enough to answer some question about the book, and much more! Please welcome Chandler to the blog!
Chandler, your new novel, Goldenland Past Dark, is about a circus performer who is damaged physically and psychologically, and takes solace in his imagination. Will you tell us a bit more about Webern Bell, the novel, and what inspired you to write it?
Of all the characters I’ve ever written about, Webern Bell is probably closest to my heart. Before embarking on this novel, I actually wrote a series of linked short stories about his childhood, starting even before the fall from the treehouse that leaves him hunchbacked and stunted. So he was someone who grew up, from infancy to adulthood, in my imagination, and that gave me access to a lot of information about him – his likes and dislikes, his fears and hopes – that I was able to draw from when putting him into the various scenarios that make up this book.
I suppose I was attracted to Webern as a character because, like me, he’s someone who makes sense of experiences and emotions in his life by filtering them through his imagination, and usually translating them into art (in his case, his clown routines in the circus). This makes him a talented and dedicated performer, but it also distances him from reality at even the best of times. I wanted to explore the potentially dark consequences of that. When his life takes a turn for the worse, he deals with heartbreak, grief, and professional betrayal by immersing himself so completely in his fantasies, he might never find his way back out.
I read that you wanted to write from a very early age. What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
Hmm – probably the earliest thing I remember writing would be a script for a puppet show. When I was very young, I wanted to be a Muppeteer, so I’d sew sock puppets and perform with them for my very tolerant parents.
Why do you think carnivals, the circus, and tarnished Americana capture our imaginations so fully? Why do they capture your imagination?
Traveling shows suggest another way of life running parallel to the conventional workaday world most of us inhabit – I think that’s why there’s a whole mythos of running away to join the circus. And it makes it an especially appealing realm to escape to through the pages of a book.
Who, or what, have been some of the biggest influences on your writing?
Steven Millhauser was easily the biggest influence on this novel. I’ve read and love almost all of his work, and I thought a lot about stories of his like “The Knife Thrower,” “The Barnum Museum,” “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” “Paradise Park,” “In the Penny Arcade,” and “August Eschenberg” (just to name a handful off the top of my head) when I was trying to depict the carnivalesque settings and performances in the novel. Millhauser has an uncanny ability to render visual images in the mind’s eye, to move the reader through a space or a character through the motions of an act with absolute precision, and that’s what makes his work utterly convincing even when it makes a leap into the fantastical. I’d also give shout-outs to Angela Carter, whose Nights at the Circus and The Magic Toyshop cranked my imagination into overdrive, and Shirley Jackson, whose characters, like Webern, often tend to be passive, dreamy people who are a little too susceptible to the dark forces of their own subconscious minds.
The book I’m writing now is more overtly postmodern in its style, so lately I’ve been reading (and rereading) a lot of Thomas Pynchon, Stephen Wright, Jonathan Lethem, and Donald Barthelme.
What would you like to see readers take away from Goldenland Past Dark?
Really, I’m just curious to hear what people think – even if they don’t like it! Once a book’s out in the world, it doesn’t really belong to the author anymore.
If you could experience one novel again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Hmm – I can think of a few possible answers, but I guess today I’d say Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. It consists of two intertwined narratives, and there’s startling twist at the end, when the reader finds out how they’re connected. It would be fun to experience the shock and aesthetic satisfaction of discovering that all over again.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to struggling writers?
Don’t be so focused on publication. Focus single-mindedly on making the work whatever you want it to be. I realize that, coming from someone who just had a book come out, this sounds obnoxious. But I feel like I wasted a lot of time over the years waiting for external validation, as if it would somehow magically make all my doubts and insecurities disappear. And now I know that it really, really doesn’t. In the end, the only thing that makes this worthwhile is creating something you’re truly, deeply proud of.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
I like off-off-Broadway theater and stand-up comedy a lot, and I enjoy going to art museums – I’m an especially big fan of surrealism and outsider art. I feel lucky to live in New York City, where I have access to a lot of this stuff on a regular basis.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on another novel, this one about a futuristic, parallel universe version of New York City that’s under constant attack from dragons. You can read an excerpt from it here.
Keep up with Chandler: Website | Publisher page
A hostile stranger is hunting Dr. Show’s ramshackle travelling circus across 1960s America. His target: the ringmaster himself. Struggling to elude the menace, Dr. Show scraps his ambitious itinerary, ticket sales plummet, and nothing but disaster looms. The troupe’s unravelling hopes fall on their latest and most promising recruit, Webern Bell, a sixteen-year-old hunchbacked midget devoted obsessively to perfecting the surreal clown performances that come to him in his dreams. But as they travel through a landscape of abandoned amusement parks and rural ghost towns, Webern’s bizarre past starts to pursue him, as well. Along the way, we meet Nepenthe, the seductive Lizard Girl; Brunhilde, a shell-shocked bearded lady; Marzipan, a world-weary chimp; a cabal of drunken, backstabbing clowns; Webern’s uncanny sisters, witchy dogcatchers who speak only in rhymes; and his childhood friend, Wags, who may or may not be imaginary, and whose motives are far more sinister than they seem.