As we close in on the ten-year anniversary of the publication of Brooks Hansen's amazing novel The Chess Garden--a book that should be more widely known in genre circles--I thought it might be appropriate to post an interview I did with Hansen back in 1996. If you haven't read this book, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. It's really about the redemptive power of fantasy and storytelling, among a lot of other things. It's still one of the best novels I've ever read.
Brooks Hansen’s The Chess Garden (1995) is among the most memorable novels I have read in recent years. The novel tells the story of Dr. Uyterhoeven’s--his romance of his wife in the Netherlands and his years of quietly championing a homeopathic approach to medicine--interwoven with letters he writes in the twilight of his life after traveling back to South Africa during an epidemic. These letters concern his supposed adventures to the Antipodes, a fantastical land populated by living game pieces such as rooks, pawns, dominoes, etc. On one level, the letters are delightful tales for his wife to read to the children who gather in the doctor’s chess garden, but on another level they are powerful allegories about the doctor’s life, and his life’s work. Miraculously, The Chess Garden manages that most difficult of tasks: it melds mimetic and fabulist fiction while appealing simultaneously to the intellect and to the emotions. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, The Chess Garden has received almost unanimous praise from critics. Mr. Hansen has co-written one previous, also highly recommended, novel called Boone.
What person or event has had the biggest impact on your writing so far?
Lessons stick out in my mind. I had a teacher at boarding school, a man named Harvard Knowles, with whom I had a fairly good rapport. He took me aside after class one time. We were discussing a story I'd submitted, and he told me that I certainly had a good facility with words and good ideas, but that my work was too cerebral; somehow the way he said it impressed me with the cranial essence of the word--that my writing, my stories existed almost entirely between the ears of my characters. He said I should try harder to move the characters around the room. It is probably the most significant advice I ever received, and it could well be said that my efforts from that moment forward have been directed at just that: learning to move the characters around the room. I believe that that is the real business and the real challenge of writing.
What writers have most influenced you?
I am not much of a reader and never have been. When I was younger, I enjoyed my share of Steinbeck and Salinger. I admire Borges. Joyce I consider to be a divinely gifted writer on the order of Shakespeare, and I suspect that Roald Dahl and Hans Christian Andersen may have had a greater influence upon me than I generally admit. And yet I just don't think it would be accurate to say that I had strong literary influences. I have spent far more time watching sports and listening to music than reading. My heroes and influences are Tom Waits, Mark Messier, Serge Prokofieff, Jean Sibelius, Bartok, and Shostakovich. The fact is, the writers I most admire, such as Salinger or Joyce, have tended to push me in the opposite direction, away from their style and milieu, out of respect and a recognition that they have more or less covered their territory.
When and how did you meet your Boone co-author Nick Davis, and how did the book come about?
I've known and been best friends with Nick literally my whole life. We never schooled together until college, though, at Harvard. Together, on an airplane down to Florida for our now defunct annual trip to the Mets Spring Training Camp, we hatched the idea of writing an oral biography about a fictional character. The idea stuck. The following summer (between sophomore and junior years) we conceived of Boone's life and the characters who would talk about him, and arrived at school the next fall with about forty information pamphlets--one for each character. We cast student actors in the roles. They studied their pamphlets and then, as soon as they were comfortable with their character, we would interview them. Our hope was that we could use the transcripts of these interviews to create the book. That didn't quite pan out--the quality of the performances was too varied--but by the time we'd conceded that, we'd been sitting with the idea and with the characters long enough that we felt ready to take on the job ourselves, basically writing the book fresh, while keeping in mind the characters and voices that some of the better actors had provided. Obviously, maintaining the distinctiveness of all the voices was an important part of the process. We did this basically by reading the book back and forth to each other, day in day out. It was always an oral process, if you will, over the course of which we learned, by drilling ourselves, to write for each character. Nick was better attuned to some; I, others--but we never split up the parts. Basically, we sat side by side, combing through the manuscript again and again and again. We did this for about three straight years without killing each other, which I think is probably the great achievement of Boone.
Not only does Dr. Uyterhoeven have a bit part in Boone, but at one point, Boone writes a story, “The Lovely Prawn,” that could have come right out of The Chess Garden. Did The Chess Garden exist in some form prior to Boone or did Boone inspire you to write The Chess Garden?
Boone inspired it. Nick and I were about 9/l0ths of the way done. We had Boone writing a children's book, but we'd given the reader no indication of what this book was about. Finally that struck us as unacceptable and we set ourselves to figuring out what that book might be. I passed by a chess shop of twenty-third street one afternoon, and in the course of the two and a half blocks between that shop and my apartment, I conceived the premise that appears in Boone. We collaborated on the story somewhat, but I think that I at least, discovered something about myself, or my creativity, in the course of doing so--something that writing Boone made clear in general--that I like narrative, I like story, I liked moving the characters around the room. Boone had frustrated this impulse somewhat, because it was so oral. No one could speak with authority. No one could tell the story. In "The Lovely Pawn" I was able to, and I saw in the premise behind it the opportunity for cultivating my narrative instincts even further.
How did the finished version of The Chess Garden differ from your conception of it when you started?
Not much at all. I tend to get my ideas all at once. Writing them down is more of a secretarial chore--getting them right, not screwing them up. I have the proposal I submitted to my then editor at Summit Books, who first acquired the novel. It still stands as a good description of the finished book, even the letters, most of which were conceived up front. I understand that mine is an approach which is anathema to most writers, who claim that a large part of the process is about letting story and the characters change and grow. My feeling has always been that that may be fun for the writer; it is not fun for the reader. If you want to make people laugh, you've got to tell the joke right. Likewise, if you want to move them, affect them, you've got to tell the story right, and that means knowing it and working it and testing it and fiddling with it. Ask any comedian. I enjoy sticking to the plan, trusting in my original inspiration.
What is your link to homeopathic medicine, and how did you become interested in the idea of the conflict between traditional/nontraditional science?
The source for most of the ideas in The Chess Garden is Swedenborg. That is, the primary purpose of the book was to convey the vision of Gustav Uyterhoeven. At the time that I was realizing that vision/understanding in my own head, I came upon Swedenborg's writings, and understood that Uyterhoeven's faith should be Swedenborgian. It is through Swedenborg's writings, or more particularly the work of others who were influenced by Swedenborg, that I made the homeopathic connection. (I would refer you to a large volume entitled Emanual Swedenborg, a continuing vision, edited by Robin Larsen, in which there is a whole section, four essays long on the connection between Swedenborgian ideas and homeopathy). As for the more general conflict between traditional and nontraditional science, I identified Uyterhoeven as a vitalist fairly early on--one who eventually came to embrace Swedenborg's vision would have to be--and was able to trace the development of his ideas accordingly, from vitalism, to empiricism, to homeopathy, to Swedenborgianism; posing him most steps of the way against his good friend Rudolf Virchow--a determinist, rationalist, allopathic and so forth. There is a book called Divided Legacy, the origins of modern western medicine, by Harris L. Coulter which was of great use to me along these lines.
Did you write the novel from beginning to end, or did you write the story of Dr. Uyterhoeven’s life separate from the stories of Antipodes and then combine the narratives. Which strand was harder to write?
Again, because I like to see my books in their entirety from the start, I don't really write from beginning to end. My technique is more like that of a painter, who begins from a sketch, and continues layering on and layering on until the original vision has been realized. A family friend and artist used to say, "If you want to draw a tree, you don't start with the top leaf." Unassailably true. Likewise, I don't start a book from the first word, or the first chapter. I sketch the whole thing out and go from there, skipping from place to place according to my current interest, to whichever part I have the energy for. I should say that I did spend a good chunk of time working on the letters only (maybe a year), followed by another good chunk where I worked on the biography, then went about putting the two together, but again, I did not experience those chunks as periods of discovery, but rather as a wrestling down of ideas and images and stories that I already knew, but which still needed rendering. As for which was harder to write. Hm. I really can't say. I think when you get down to it, narrative is narrative. The greatest imperative and the challenge is always to keep moving forward, whether you're writing about candletrees or dice chasms or the foibles of rationalist thought. Each part presented its own particular challenge. In the biographical chapters, the greatest challenge was one of distillation--how to render, with authority and authenticity, some fairly complex ideas and legacies, how to do them justice without pulling the narrative to a screeching halt. In the case of the letters, they all posed very different problems, but I suppose the denominating feature was making sure that the reader could see what was happening as clearly as possible. For the biographical portions, then, how to understand; for the letters, how to see.
At one point in The Chess Garden, you give the reader a brief glimpse of Dr. Uyterhoeven in South Africa as he’s preparing a letter to send home. Why did you decide to include this scene of the doctor’s “reality” in the midst of the “fantasy” of the letters about the Antipodes?
It is true, I have, in the Antipodes, created a fantastic landscape which may call to mind the landscapes created by Tolkein, Lewis, or Baum. Unlike those authors, however, I have also...gone to great pains to subsume that landscape in a firm historical setting. Strictly speaking, The Chess Garden is not fantasy/science fiction. Nothing truly magical or mysterious takes place. It is a story about a man who wrote a set of letters which describe a fantastic place, and it is my feeling that whatever power the book possesses, it derives from that fact--the fact that the letters, the landscape, are a gesture, the last gesture of a man who, over the course of the novel, we have come to know and understand. My fear with straight fantasy/science fiction, and perhaps the reason why I've never taken to it myself, is that even as much as I may respect the imagination it requires, the craft, the intelligence, and the vision, I am bothered by a certain limitation, a limitation upon my sympathy: that I can care only so much about a character who lives in a landscape where radically different conditions prevail--for that reason. If the conditions are so radically different, so might be the stakes, so might be the solution. Alternate landscapes offer much in the way of political statement, or religious statement, but they cannot, for me at least, inspire any great compassion or feeling. And that is why it was so important to me, in The Chess Garden, to make clear to the readers that everything they are reading is ultimately grounded in reality, that the fantasy is only an aspect of the protagonist's personality. Hence the scene of Uyterhoeven in South Africa. I wanted the readers to know the truth, so they could understand the nature of his gesture. The question for me as I was writing, was not, therefore, should I include the scene in South Africa? The question was, should I not include more? Should we not return there and see him one more time?
As we’ve discussed, Boone and The Chess Garden intersect. Should readers expect intersections between The Chess Garden and future novels, and could you discuss what you are currently working on?
I've just finished writing and illustrating a Young Adult novel entitled Caesar's Antlers, due out next fall from FS&G. It's about a family of sparrows who take nest in the antlers of a reindeer to search the Norwegian forest for their missing father, an idea I hatched on behalf of Uyterhoeven and his son. In many a late draft, this premise was mentioned as one on which Dr. Uyterhoeven and Larkin worked together. I believe that I have cut any such mention. I'm hoping my next adult book comes out in the fall of 1998. It's called Perlman's Ordeal, and details the seven-day spiritual and professional trial of August Perlman, an atheistic, secular humanistic, music-loving, somewhat anti-Semitic, Viennese Jew who runs the clinic for suggestive (hypno)therapy in 1906 London. His life and beliefs are turned upside down by the confluence of two women upon his previously contented existence--one is an adolescent hysteric who comes to the clinic in a catatonic state and awakes with a personality not her own; the other is the older sister of one of Perlman's favorite composers, the late (but not entirely absent) Alexander Barrett. As far as I can tell, there's nothing in either Boone or The Chess Garden which anticipates it--explicitly, at least.