Sixteen-year-old George Carole has been the house pianist at Otterman’s Vaudeville Theatre for six months, but when he hears that The Silenus Troupe is playing in a nearby town, he quickly packs his bags and heads for the train station with only one thing on his mind: finding the man he suspects of being his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. George finally tracks his father down, but discovers something far stranger than the troupe’s performances. The very texture of the night is different somehow, and time and space as George knows it has been altered, meaning only one thing: The men in grey are here. Let the show begin…
The Troupe is the third speculative fiction novel by the award-winning author Robert Jackson Bennett. Darren J Guest interviewed him recently on his blog. He has kindly allowed us to reproduce a shortened version:
What came to you first; the story, the setting or George?
RJB: The story, long, long ago. It was one of those “confluence of ideas” things: I read in high school about Pythagoras and the “Music of the Spheres” – for he hypothesized that, if the celestial bodies are moving through space, then there must be friction, so they must make a hum in proportion to their size and orbit, which builds to one immense, endless chord. I was pretty involved in music at the time, so I immediately wondered if the chord was major or minor – for minor chords feel unresolved. So it would be a bit unhappy if the Music of the Spheres were minor.
That sort of floated in my head for years, the idea of a chord or a song humming in the background of everything. I began to wonder if perhaps the song was maintaining the world, as if someone was singing the song and thus making the world at the same time, and if we could hear the song then we could decode it, and begin to understand... well, everything.
How much research went into The Troupe?
RJB: A fair bit. I read a lot of the autobiographies of vaudeville stars, which were plentiful, for many of the later stars went on to become movie stars, and everyone wants to know about movie stars. The best two sources were Harpo Speaks and Much Ado About Me by Fred Allen. It was such an expansive and ever-changing industry that it was both hard to get a bead on and utterly absorbing.
You’ve written three novels now set in the early 1900s – is this a feature you’d like your readers to come to expect from a Robert Jackson Bennett book, or is this commonality a pre-planned masterstroke, because it would seem that by setting your work in these specific eras you’ve given yourself the freedom to play around with many different genres?
RJB: I really don’t know. My next book is contemporary, but also – how shall I put this – troubled or concerned with history. I did once conceptualize my first few novels as falling into a grouping of “The Bad Old Days,” in that they’re focused around a similar era and a usually corrupt, threatening world. I don’t really know if I’ve kept to that theme much.
Maybe I just like hats, and smoking. I do think that my next few books will be completely different than these three – both in structure, tone, and content.
Talking of tone, The Troupe is positively breezy compared to Mr Shivers – was that a conscious decision you made before starting, or did it emerge that way organically?
RJB: It was pretty conscious. I'd written two stories about tough guys with guns, who are happy to perpetrate violence in uncaring worlds, and I'd kind of thought, "Enough. Enough of that. Let's do something else." I wanted to write something with more humor, and more energy - because Shivers and The Company Man were both pretty laconic. And I just didn't want to do that again.
So I wrote about an arrogant sixteen year old learning about himself and the world in show business.
Doesn’t sound like you struggle for ideas. How important is it that you maintain originality, especially in an industry that seems to promote a ‘clone culture’ within fiction?
RJB: Well, it's weird. I value originality over nearly everything - I always want to try something new, rather than something old and dependable.
At the same time, I don't see my stuff as very new, because I can see what it draws from, so I think, 'Well this is just my version of that." To me, I'm just riffing on things I like.
I like weird shit, is what I'm saying to you. And people mistake that for originality. Maybe.
In Mr Shivers you use some powerful symbology in your examination of the ethos of death himself, and describe the novel as literary-ish. In The Troupe there’s a certain Latin phrase that hints at a similar metaphysical exploration that could warrant another ‘ish’ – where do you stand in the old ‘Literary Vs Genre’ debate?
RJB: I don’t pay attention to the conflict – I presume it isn’t there, because it isn’t, not really. It’s a bunch of preconceived notions that we’re starting to shed the more porous our mediums get – TV bleeds into internet bleeds into writing, etc. I was once told, for example, that genre readers are some of the most aesthetically conservative readers out there – this is a statement I intend to disprove if it kills me. Or the genre readers.
What’s an average week in the writing life of Robert Jackson Bennett?
RJB: Jesus, it’s changed so much recently I don’t know how to define “average.” I write in the gaps in my days, in the borders and limits of waking hours, sometimes during lunch. I write like starving men eat meals, because I don’t know when I’ll get the chance again.
What are you working on at the moment, and can I squeeze a title out of you?
RJB: Sure! It’s got the working title of American Elsewhere. It’s sort of like Twin Peaks meets H.P. Lovecraft. It’s about an ex-cop named Mona Bright who finds out she’s inherited a house in New Mexico, and discovers her mother led a life she never knew existed.
To read the full interview, as well as Darren’s review of The Troupe, please visit www.darrenjguest.com