Norman Lock’s latest book in the “American Novels Series” is The Port-Wine Stain, the story of a young surgical assistant in Philadelphia who falls under the powerful influences of two luminaries of the grotesque imagination: Thomas Dent Mütter, surgeon and collector of medical curiosities, and Edgar Allan Poe. Other books published so far by Bellevue Literary Press in the Series are The Boy in His Winter and American Meteor. For details, visit blpress.org/authors/norman-lock/
What do you do best?
What I do well is to make sentences that are often gorgeous and, now and then, reach beyond the sensual toward a truth about their subject matter. Now that I am well past a youthful ambition to fashion a world of the imagination whose documents would be the equal of the real, I aspire to truth-telling as much as to sentence-making. And while I have discovered that the former is maddeningly difficult, I begin to see more clearly a number of truths about myself. (The whole truth will never be found.) The world’s truths are still to be learned, but I can say immodestly that I have at least learned to sketch them.
What makes you the best?
What makes me interesting as a writer – I will not say “best” – is a dedication to literary excellence, undertaken fifty years ago, which, had I misheard my vocation, would now give me cause for profound regret for a life wasted. When I was a young man, I looked forward to the day when the struggle with materials (words, sentences, ideas, characters, place, atmosphere, memory) would have finally been put behind me and the mediating self that stands between experience and its recording on paper would dissolve. What would remain is a work – a fiction – of such clarity and unselfconsciousness that few readers could resist its revelations. Now I know better: The struggle does not end but is itself worthy of recording. Revelations are never complete. Each book I write is both an approach to the world and a partial immersion in myself.
What are your aspirations?
To make a contribution, of whatever size, to the national literature has been my ambition since I began to write during my seventeenth summer. My recent books (the ongoing “American Novels Series” published by Bellevue Literary Press) aspire to an understanding of the American present by a fictional recreation of its past, as witnessed by narrators whose ability to understand their time is as compromised as our own. The truth, as I have come to know it from research and reflection, does emerge sometimes by prophesy, at other times by irony, more often than not by the drama, or the farce, that my readers watch unfolding. I wish to change the world but will settle for one mind whose “fontanelles” are closed against experience.
To have seen a play of my own performed in Los Angeles and, the morning after, to have walked to the drugstore and, having bought the papers, read of its success. For me, the pleasure of that morning is surpassed only by the nervous anticipation felt on my wedding day and, later, by the birth cry of, first, my daughter and then my son.
Most Challenging Moment?
Upon reflection, I find myself unwilling to answer this, the most difficult of your questions. To say what in my life has been most challenging – truly – is to reveal what is most painful in remembrance. Guilty consciences, embarrassments, crises, and dilemmas are common to us all, and ought to, I believe, remain private – until, for writers, they are resolved in their fictions; that is to say, the painful or shameful actuality is given to someone else – a character – to bear. Writers do not rid themselves of the bitter crux by assigning it to surrogates, but they can feel a partial relief in disclosure. Of course, I could have answered the question glibly, referring to some moment whose challenges were not moral ones – say, the decision on a particular novel’s point of view and structure – but there seems little point in so doing.
One must write as if a book really could change the world.
Favorite People/Role Models?
My favorite person is my wife of forty-four years, who continues to cheer me and to confirm my identity not only as a husband and father, but as a man and a writer. I have a friend whom I’ve known since 1961, who reminds me of who I was. For role models, I had my father, who showed me, by his example, what a man is, and Philip Roth, who showed me that a writer can also be a gentleman. I am also indebted to Gordon Lish, the great American literary modernist, and my publisher, Erika Goldman, who has encouraged my ambitions and nurtured my own peculiar writerly inclinations.
My great pleasure, in all weathers, is to walk among the pines just beyond the shoreline of Raritan Bay, which is what New York Lower Bay becomes halfway across, in New Jersey territorial waters. When the beach is empty of people, I can feel intimations of aboriginal life, although I have only to raise my eyes toward the horizon to see, in the distance, the hills of Staten Island, the bays of Brooklyn, and – with the aid of binoculars, the Coney Island Wonder Wheel.
Objects have a fetishistic quality that compels attention, even worship. To state it in a less mystical way, meaning comes to inhere in objects by the slow accrual of time or the sudden investiture that pain or pleasure can confer. I have many such objects in my possession – most made meaningful by my youthful memory of their place and purpose in my grandfather’s house. One that I am especially fond of is my great-grandfather’s walnut pipe rack and humidor, which once sat next to the pocket-doors leading to the parlor. As a boy, I liked to sniff the rank pipe bowls, which had not seen tobacco since the old man died in the 40s. I have it now on the bureau next to my desk, filled with other fetishes – movie and theatre ticket stubs, a pink, plastic collapsible drinking cup given by a bank that long ago gave up its identity, a calendar page ripped out on Sunday, August 25, 1885, proclaiming that, on this day, my son learned to ride a two-wheeled bike. The tobacco pipes are still there, as is the ghost of my great-grandfather Charles Hub, present in the ancient briar wood.
Words, words, words – of certain American writers of the nineteenth century and of my own as they are now assembling into a novelistic panorama of the American past (and, by implication, of its present). I don’t believe in artistic progress toward a supreme style or statement in print or paint, but in the constant adaptation to new conditions. And if the new should seem very like the past, then by all means read the past masters. (The art of the past will sometimes – perversely and paradoxically – become the art of the new.) In my opinion, there are five American authors whose work defined the century and continues to define us as a nation: Hawthorne, especially in The Scarlet Letter, Whitman in Leaves of Grass, Thoreau in Walden, Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Melville ,especially in Moby-Dick. And for her unfailing ability to astonish me and enlarge my understanding (and, on occasion baffle, me), Emily Dickinson and her poems.