Saturday night at Interabang Books in Dallas looked like a home coming for author Will Clarke as he read and signed copies of his third novel, The Neon Palm of Madame Melançon to a standing room only crowd. There were a lot of hugs, a lot of well-wishing, more than a little wine flowing.
Madame Melançon (and Clarke, her creator) had just received a glowing tribute from Dallas Morning News writer Robert Wilonsky. Clarke himself looked no older than he had when his first book, Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles, appeared more than a decade ago. He was all smiles at Interabang, the city’s newest (and chicest) independent book store. Even the low-hanging thunderclouds outside couldn’t dim the luster of the occasion.
Clarke’s books are the written equivalent of a dizzying roller coaster. Which way is up, which way is down? How fast are we going? Will we survive? Who knows? All we can do is hang on for the ride.
His talk was the verbal equivalent of that roller coaster, as he treated the audience to reading, to slide projections, to a discussion of a book that includes the darkly comic philosophy of Kurt Vonnegut. (A character in The Neon Palm channels Vonnegut, and is even a former clarinet player like Vonnegut.) Then there’s a British Petroleum-like oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and of course, the city of New Orleans. And a character who’s just looking for his mom, the Madame Melançon of the title, “a crime boss of sorts,” who’s gone missing.
Inspired by Vonnegut’s late-life essays about the future, Clarke launched into that topic.
“How this book got started was as a TV show,” he told his audience. “I used to go out to LA and sell all these really bad treatments. In 2010, there was the BP spill. When you watch what happened in the Gulf, you see the future.”
Not that he sees it as impenetrably dark. “I’m an eternal optimist,” he said.
But why oil spills? audience members asked. Why New Orleans? To answer the first, he noted that his interest in oil stems from his father’s work as a petroleum geologist, his interest in New Orleans because he’s from Louisiana and after all, why not New Orleans, with its legacy of corruption and death, beauty, music and magic.
As to why put all this in a story instead of, say, journalism?
“Our operating system is actually stories,” he said. “Think about the narratives you’re telling and the narratives you’re exposing yourself to. (They) can create a road to follow.”
I first heard Clarke speak at the Dallas Writer’s Garret, when it was housed in an upstairs room at the old Paperbacks Plus store in East Dallas. He was the hot young Dallas writer who first two self-published novels, Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles and The Worthy, had been picked up by a major publishing company. Clarke read from his second novel, The Worthy. That must have been about 2007, after the novels had just been published on his own Middle Finger Press. Clarke appeared to be making notes to himself as he read. And although we would-be writers in the room hoped the press might be available to publish our books as well, it turned out at the time to be dedicated solely to Clarke’s work, and would no longer be needed, as his books had just been picked up by publisher Simon & Schuster. (Clarke has since revived Middle Finger to publish The Neon Palm.)
The local press loved him, Rolling Stone gave him favorable reviews, there were Hollywood movie options. There seemed no way to go except up. Then came 2008, with its meltdown of all things that needed financial backing.
I heard nothing more about Clarke until about three years ago, when I met a woman at a book review discussion in Klyde Warren Park. Her last name didn’t register with me until the Dallas Morning News editor we had gathered to hear mentioned that she was Will Clarke’s wife.
The Will Clarke? Yes, she said. They were back in Dallas, and Will was writing. And he has.
Want more Will Clarke? He’ll be appearing at another independent bookstore, The Wild Detectives, 314 W. Eighth Avenue, Dallas, at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, August 17, as well.
And for something different tonight, check out the 48 Hour Film project, starting at 7 p.m. tonight (August 15), at the Angelika Film Center, 5321 E. Mockingbird Lane. It’s a series of short (really short – 4-6 minutes!) films from 10 indie film companies, all written and filmed over a single weekend (which explains the 48 hours part). Disclaimer: Frank St. Claire, a friend from the Dallas chapter of Mystery Writers of America, has a hound in this hunt, and gave me the info when we met again at Clarke’s reading.