Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Jon Clinch, Author of "Finn"

At the outset, a famous novelist warned me that if I insisted on writing Finn I ought to be constantly on my guard. "Mr. Clemens," he said, "will be looking over your shoulder." He didn't know the half of it. And frankly, neither did I.

Only when I showed early bits of the manuscript to other writers did I begin to understand. There was plenty of encouragement, of course, and lots of praise, but beneath it all was an undercurrent of, How dare you?

Funny thing is, it had never occurred to me that writing a novel about Huck Finn's father was all that daring. It was just something I needed to do. Blame it on Twain himself, who planted the seed for Finn in my mind so many years ago: the house that Huck and Jim found afloat on the Mississippi, bearing a corpse whose identity would remain a mystery until the end of the book. I'd never forgotten the scene. And when I returned to it as an adult, it seemed to have grown even creepier and more evocative than I'd remembered. The walls, covered all over with words and pictures in charcoal. The men's and women's clothing. The wooden leg. The two black masks made of cloth.

What on earth, I asked myself, did Twain mean by leaving these clues behind? What did he want to suggest to us about the life and death of Huck's brutal, alcoholic, racist father? One conventional reading is that Finn died in a brothel, but I wanted more. I wanted to understand what kind of life a man might lead that would cause him to die precisely here, in this unmoored two-story house, surrounded by this particular collection of dreadful artifacts. My respect and admiration for Twain as a novelist, as a craftsman, as a moralist of the highest order would not permit me to dismiss these details as mere meaningless throwaways. And so I began.

When people learn that I wrote Finn in only five and a half months, I remind them that although it's not much time to be writing a serious novel, it's a long stretch to be nursing a serious illness. Which is pretty much what writing Finn was like: a violent, feverish dream that I could escape only by surrendering myself to it utterly. Finn's story and his world took over my life, and I believe that a good amount of that strange fervid intensity remains upon the page.

Even my agent was terrified to watch my progress. Each time I e-mailed him an update, he'd respond with a cagey, "Take your time!" He'd been representing the book ever since page fifty or so, and I'm pretty sure he thought I was rushing to the end. Hardly. The book was rushing me, if anything, and I strained for six, eight, ten hours a day to keep up with it.

Would I endure that kind of thing again? You bet. All writers prowl day and night looking for an idea that will assail them this way.

So, yes. I believe I'd kill for the opportunity.

Although that may still be Finn talking.

Learn more about Jon Clinch and his debut novel Finn by visiting his website here.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Backstory.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Saturday March 17th 2007, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Kitty L.
This article was intriguing and led me to explore Clinch's website, which is a marvelous work of art. I don't normally go for dark characters, but hey, maybe I'll learn something fabulous about the craft! I have a few dark characters of my own.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.