Back in Tripwire#54 in 2010, we interviewed author Glen David Gold (Carter Beats The Devil, Sunnyside) about his love of comics, writing novels and much more. So here it is…
Corresponding prior to arriving in San Francisco, I had arranged to meet up with Glen David Gold while we were in town. It took a few days to arrange but I managed to pin down a time and place to meet. Gold is a big original comic art aficionado, so it seemed appropriate that it was one of these dealers in comic show Wonder Con that I met him.
He was dressed smart casual, and we made our way out of the hall and into the city. We ended up at the Moscone Center at a cafe serving tea and sandwiches. The day was crystal clear with a beautiful blue sky and the setting was very relaxed indeed. Possibly the perfect place to conduct an interview.
So we ordered food and drinks and then got down to business. Gold is an author who has garnered acclaim for his two novels Carter Beats The Devil and Sunnyside. Carter Beats The Devil was a bestseller when it came out back in 2002 and Sunnyside has been equally well-received sice its release in 2009.
Even though he seems to write about subjects with a literary bent, comics have and continue to have a huge influence on his life. In Carter Beats The Devil, he mentions Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. In-between bites of sandwich and sips of tea, Gold admits that he has always been a voracious comics reader.
“I think I had the same thing that happens to a lot of people in my particular generation. I discovered comics when I was seven, eight or nine years old. I’d read these comics on the bus and what I was turned onto then was Herb Trimpe Hulk comics. What that did was in order to understand Hulk I found that I needed to get the Avengers/ Fantastic four crossover, Avengers 127 and Fantastic Four 150. But I didn’t know who Ultron 7 was so I had to go back to Avengers 56 and 57 and 58. And so luckily I was at an age,back in 1973 or 1972 so I could go to the comic store and I could get the entire run. So I got that from Cherokee Comics. So that’s where I started out. And then I lost interest at 12 or 13 years old, the way it happens. I fell into first of all science fiction and after that Robertson Davies and John Irving.”
But he did come back to them after quite a gap as he recalled.
“I was brought back to it probably the first time I had an office job where I could afford to buy comics again. I was dirt poor for years and then luckily my office job was around 1987 so that was when Watchmen and Dark Knight had come out.
It was like ‘here’s Frank Miller doing this’ and ‘here’s Dave Gibbons doing that’. So it was: ‘Oh wow, comics are really cool again.’ And then around 1992 I started buying original artwork so that’s my thing.”
The waitress reappeared to check that everything was alright and once she had left, we continued our chat.
He hasn’t always been a writer and he filled me in on what he had done before coming to this.
“I started out, worked daycare at a French English school. I was an after school supervisor for children for a while. I summarised depositions for lawyers. I took tickets at rock concerts. I did a lot of temp work, a lot of really boring office work. I was a really annoying temp with four bad novels in my bottom drawer. I was just really bitter,” he admitted, laughing slightly uncomfortably.
It was actually his last job that lead in a roundabout way to concentrating on writing as a full-time profession.
“I tried every conceivable form of writing I could. Whatever anybody wanted me to do I would do it. I had had a job at suicide prevention for a year where I worked on the phones. You basically let them know what resources they have and you’re the voice on the other side,” he tells me.
He reveals that he has always been curious by nature and he found the work on the line pretty interesting and it told him a lot.
“Curiosity brought me into doing suicide prevention. I also was thinking about being a therapist if the writing thing didn’t work out. I’ve always been interested in what makes people work and this was a front line way of getting involved in people’s lives. So I did that for a while and generally volunteers last for about a year unless they’re trying to get a degree or something. I think what’s tough is you start to realise so much of the human condition is not about being fine. People are mostly unhappy,” Gold revealed.
He went on to explain how this led to him dipping his toes in the world of writing.
“Unless you have a real calling for it, you last a year or eighteen months. So that’s what happened with me. After that, I asked the local free newspaper, the East Bay Express if they wanted an article about it, and they did. I had to figure out what their format was and try to write an East Bay Express article. It was like a 10,000 word article. They used to really have a place for first person post-Tom Wolfe, post-Hunter Thompson journalism. Me journalism, I guess. So I did it and that ended up being my first publication.”
He went on to do a few more long pieces for them and then it led to his first book, Carter Beats The Devil, which was a fictionalised account of the life of magician Charles Carter at the beginning of the 20th century. It was obviously that innate curiosity that led him to explore magic in fiction.
“I’ve always been interested in any sort of fiction or non-fiction that makes you feel educated after reading it,” he revealed. “You feel like you know more after and you have more of an idea of how the world works. One of the guys that I really dug in my twenties was Don DeLillo. He’d write a book about a rock star and you would know about the life of a rock star. End Zone was about an American football team. Mathematicians. And you’d get this idea of these secret worlds that people belong to. So magic fits in.”
The initial impetus for Carter Beats The Devil was fairly straightforward, he recalls.
“It was pretty simple. I had this magic poster on my wall and I was curious about who he was. So I started doing research into it and I realised that I had never read a novel in which there was a magician who was a protagonist where the novel did not turn into metafiction. What I found about most magic fiction is they don’t really deal a lot with the quotidian life. They often go into metaphor or the supernatural or they’re demons involved or real magic. So I just thought ‘Why not find out what’s it like to be a magician and see if there’s any drama there.’”
The book does prominently several real historical figures, including US President Harding, but they are there for a specific reason, he explains.
“We ‘re talking about something I did many many years ago, but I was interested in the fact that if you pick up a novel, it always takes you a few pages of arguing with it where whatever the author’s telling you on the page, you have to also know that it’s a work of fiction. You have to start very slowly by suspending your disbelief. But if you pick up a work of non-fiction that doesn’t happen. So you just buy it from the beginning. So I thought ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to write a novel with real figures in it.’”
The book led to a little more journalism for him, including something on a world-famous figure from that world.
“I spent five months interviewing David Blaine. He was standing on a pillar for three days. That was in New York in Bryant Park right behind the library. And then I did one piece for the London Independent about a magicians convention, which is a convention of working magicians in Las Vegas. So that was fun.”
We take a short break from the interview to admire the weather and the surroundings. The sunshine has made the city look fantastic and the restaurant we ave parked ourselves up in looks even more glorious in the gleaming sun.
San Francisco has had a long history of embracing people from the rest of the world and Gold seems to fit in well here.
“We have a pretty good relationship with immigrants here. If you go back historically, we’ve had horrific problems with immigration in the sense that we’ve not been welcoming at all. But if you’re strange, San Francisco’s the place to come. There’s a place for you,” the writer believes.
Gold is married to Alice Sebold, the author of the phenomenally-successful The Lovely Bones, Lucky and The Almost Moon. But it doesn’t get competitive, he assures me.
“We met as writers in grad school so work was always very important to us, so we were commenting on each other’s work before we were in a relationship. It works very well. I really like being married to a writer. We have a lot in common. Our writing styles are pretty different but we have very similar senses of humour and I think we balance each other as you’re supposed to do. Be a good fighting unit as they say, being able to take on all battles. It’d be hilarious if we ever tried to compete with each other. I’ve done really really well and Alice has had one of those Halley’s Comet-type careers. How can you possibly be jealous of some weird celestial, once-in-a-lifetime experience? All you can do is stand back in awe at it.”
It seems that Gold is a writer who doesn’t like to make life easy for himself. Sunnyside, his foillowup of sorts to Carter Beats The Devil, is a multi-layered book that explores some of the same themes as its predecessor but has Charlie Chaplin as one of its main protagonists. He did admit to me that the prospect of writing a book featuring one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century gave him pause for thought, after a sip of tea.
“If you’re going to take on the biggest genius of the twentieth century working in its dominant artform when he’s at the peak of his powers, you’d have to be an idiot not to be a little bit daunted by that. But I didn’t think Chaplin was going to be the protagonist in the novel when I started. I thought it was going to be somebody like his valet or someone else. I thought that you couldn’t really write about the genius, you have to write about being near the genius.
But two things happened: one of them is that I was reading a biography and realised that everybody who has ever written a biography of Chaplin has been hobbled by not having grown up in Hollywood whereas I did, and I’ve seen what fame does to people. And also I have enough neuroses of my own that I could figure out a little bit of the artistic process. It turns out that if you already have the end product, if you have The Kid or you have Sunnyside, you can reverse engineer something. It’s not going to be accurate but he’s not the real Chaplin, he’s my Chaplin. So as long as it was starting to feel consistent or consistently inconsistent, then it started to feel like maybe I could do something. And then in the very first scene where Edna Purviance finds him up on the roof, the closer that she walked toward him, the closer I got to him. By the time she was there, I felt like I had a shot at doing his voice. So once I had that chutzpah down I could keep going,” he said.
By this point in our interview, he seemed to be a little more comfortable talking about himself and his work.
There were other hurdles for him to get over because, compared with Carter, he knew that Sunnyside was going to be driven by its players rather than what happened in its pages.
“The challenge for me at a certain point was that I realised that it was not going to be plot-driven. There’d be plot and stuff that happened in it but the characters would move it forward.”
Sunnyside came about through a real need from Gold as a writer to address something that had been preying on his mind.
“I wrote it because I was really really bothered by an existential void inside all of us. The essential lack of meaning of everything. Chaplin seemed to have been bugged by that too in real life so a lot of his work circles around that idea. It’s never overt until Limelight but it is there. So when I realised that’s what I was going for, it couldn’t be plot driven because you were trying to randomly assert order on chaos. However art is a way of figuring out what your own priorities are. I knew this was going to be not a romp, not a romance but it was going to be a much darker book so once I took that on, I thought ‘Okay the hard part for me is to know whether people will turn the pages because they want to not to find out whether the President’s going to come back from the dead but to actually find out what happens to Chaplin?’”
The gap between his first full-length effort and this novel (7 years) is fairly telling. He spent quite a long time wrestling with what would become Sunnyside, he was honest enough to tell me.
For the first three years I was working on the book it was a totally different book.
It was the same events but it was the wrong tone. I didn’t have the tone down right. So it took me a while to get that right and meanwhile lots of life interceded. I worked on some other projects that went somewhere. I wrote some short stories. I did some journalism for the New York Times.”
But he’s been forced to think about Carter Beats The Devil again as progress is being made on a possible film version of what he described as ‘a yarn for thinking people.’ He did seem a little bit cagey when we discussed this but since so many properties get optioned and it doesn’t lead anywhere, this is probably a sensible attitude to take.
“The option’s been repurchased. Warner Brothers has it. It doesn’t have a screenwriter or anything attached to it yet. Not that I know of. If there’s any of that stuff, I’ll find out pretty soon I guess. This is all brand new, as it just happened last week. It would be great if they made a kick ass movie and if they don’t, that’s fine too. You hope that what you do is going to bring another bit of commerce or joy into the world. You start with the fact: ‘Other people are employed because of my book. Cool, that’s really nice.’ And then you move up to ‘I hope they make some cross between Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Showoff or whatever.’”
The writer got to work with comic artist Eduardo Risso on a short comic piece for DC’s The Spirit series in 2008, a long-held ambition that he had realised. In fact, he seemed to find it hard to contain his enthusiasm as he told me about the experience of doing it.
“It was amazing. It’s incredibly cool to write something like that and turn it over to Eduardo Risso and Risso makes it better. It was funny: I was looking at it because I gave him some suggestions about the panels and he came back and it was completely different. I know his is better, it’s going to be but why? Visually you get information released in a different order than you do on a piece of paper. So what I thought was important to mention in what order, thanks to the combination of intuition and having been working in this venue for a long time, he knew how to reorganise the page and it actually made more sense. He didn’t even need my dialogue by the time it was done. It was a very good experience.”
He also recounts how he got to work with Gene Colan, an artist who he had admired since he was a kid.
“Colan was one of the top guys. It was Colan and Kirby. Gene did a commission piece for me back in 1996 because I collected comic artwork and that was weird enough. I was talking to Gene back in 1996, asking: ‘will you draw this?’ and him saying ‘yes’. By the time this happened, it was 7 or 8 years later and I’d talked to him a lot about other things so it wasn’t as weird as it could be. The weird thing was that he and I had talked socially a thousand times.”
He found the veteran artist to be a real pleasure to deal with, he admitted to me.
“He’s great. He’s a pussycat. You have to do the maths for me but he’s 84 or 85.
What’s even more amazing is he’s completely blind in one eye and 90% blind in the other and yet he still works.”
But even though he is happy to discuss what he enjoyed reading and exploring as a child, he occasionally feels that perhaps what you exposed yourself to you when you were younger aren’t that important as you go through life.
“It’s weird because I sometimes resist the argument about childhood influences being remotely important because it might be important to us, but for the rest of the world does it really matter that you liked Ricaroni a lot when you were a kid? It’s funny. I couldn’t actually watch it but just yesterday I got a disc from the internet of the Young Ones and I was a young man when I was watching the Young Ones. And I couldn’t watch it because what if I hated it? I could see that you could go from the Young Ones to Spaced and I just watched that. That is freaking awesome. But what if Young Ones was only cool because at that time, I was a certain age and it spoke to me at that particular age. For instance I’m always happy when I go back to Monty Python.”
David Gold had been mentioned in the same breathe as someone like Michael Chabon: a literary writer with a bit of cachet who happened to be a huge comics fan. But he doesn’t see that there’s any connection between him and Chabon per se or that it’s a particular trend.
“With the comics thing I think that we just happen to be growing up in a time where there was creator-driven comics. But in another sense it was very commercial with people like Steve Gerber and Steve Englehart working. I just think there happened to be a lot of good stuff out there and what was happening at the time on the page was that people like Gerber were working out their personal neuroses that we as children also had.”
He laughs slightly uneasily at what he’s just said and continues, pointing out that these books connected with him as a child.
“In my case that was certainly true. I think that we’re in a good place because now there’s all these alternative and indie comic stuff that’s genuinely art. It can be studied as it’s got subtext and that’s all happening at the same time.”
He sees the current environment to create comics as extremely healthy.
“I think what’s happened is that there’s enough people who are now creating stuff in their twenties and thirties who grew up hearing about Watchmen, Dark Knight and Dan Clowes. In my mind there’s a gap between Crumb and Clowes where there is a movement which is underground still but now it’s come out into the daylight. So if you’re a 12 year old kid right now, you’ve got now an oeuvre to get into for inspiration.”
Comics and graphic novels have become a lot more accepted but he still thinks that it shouldn’t be too easy for younger creators.
“They should still get a little mocked. You have to be discouraged a little bit. You have to feel like you’re rebelling a little bit. If it became like writing greeting cards, it would be sad.”
We wrap up our chat with an enquiry about his next novel, which he has started but it’s too early for him to talk about. He is also dabbling in playwriting and he’s even doing a libretto for an opera with Gavin Bryars. With everything going on in his writing life, it’s not surprising that it took him seven years to get his second novel out. He is a writer who seems endlessly fascinated with what’s around him and what goes on inside people’s minds and their lives. As a result he’s a very interesting subject.
After the conversation concludes, I take a few shots of him inside and near the restaurant. He admits that he doesn’t like having his photo taken and there is no sniff of the idea that he is a ‘celebrity writer’, something that’s very refreshing for an interview. One thing that is certain is that Glen David Gold enjoys writing whether it’s comics, prose, journalism or even opera and so we shall continue to see work from him in years to come.
It’s telling that, as we part company, he dives off back into the comic convention to try and find some more original art to pick up. His love of comics is ingrained and genuine. Glen David Gold is a true original…