Glen David Gold: Fame, Fame, Fame, Fame

Before we get started, Glen David Gold has embraced Futility, and he wants you to know all about it:

“My great-aunt Ingrid was Charlie Chaplin’s neighbor,” Glen David Gold explained to me as we met for iced tea last month before a bookstore appearance for Sunnyside, his first novel since the bestselling Carter Beats the Devil. (Yep, it’s been eight years!) “Family legend has it she wrote his autobiography—well, he did read his drafts to his neighbors and then take their suggestions.”

Sunnyside is, among other things, the story of how Charlie Chaplin weathered the blows to his public image during the First World War, and taking on Chaplin is a natural follow-up to writing about a character inspired by Harry Houdini, as Carter was. “Houdini was the first ‘most famous person in the world’ in the modern sense of the term,” Gold said. “He was famous because of his act, and Chaplin was his successor—but I knew there was a difference in the quality of their fame. I just wasn’t sure what it was at first…. A lot of his biographies are well-written, but they get to a certain point and they just throw their hands up.” He eventually realized why; it was a point in Chaplin’s life at which his fame had simply spiraled beyond his ability to shape it. “I grew up in Los Angeles,” Gold continued, “so I’ve seen fame happen to people. I’ve seen how gravity realigns around them when they enter the room. So what would it be like to be the first person that had happened to?”

Gold’s exploration of the relationship between the audience and the artist—between the spectacle and the spectator—led some early reviewers of Sunnyside to complain that the novel was too complicated, or required readers to connect too many dots themselves. Gold has taken the complaints in stride. “Some people complained Carter was too fun,” he observed. Citing Dos Passos as an example, he described a storytelling strategy that makes room for historical digressions: “You move off to the side and have faith that the forward momentum comes with the reader’s engagement in the world you’ve created.”

Another source of inspiration comes from John D. MacDonald, whose Travis McGee novels helped Gold realize the importance of giving readers a solid footing in early scenes so they’ll trust you when you begin to knock them off center as the story progresses. And when I mentioned that what I’d read of the novel so far reminded me of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo in its playful treatment of history, Gold’s eyes lit up; he studied under Reed in his graduate creative writing program. “Ishmael was very playful,” he recalled. “but I also admire his ability to both critique and empathize simultaneously. He did not speak with contempt, even of the most contemptible characters… Writing was obviously to him one of the resaons to get out of bed.”

It doesn’t take much to see how fully Gold has inherited the attitude. I love Sunnyside, and I can’t wait to get back into the rest of it.

8 July 2009 | interviews |