One of the first times I met Mr. Klim he told me flat out that what he was trying to do with his first novel was not supposed to be taken as an attempt at the high end literary form. This was a novel, with commercial sensibilities, sprinkled with anecdotes and past foibles from the author’s life, mixed together into an entertaining story. This is a story. It does entertain and it does show the abilities of one Christopher Klim. I’ll say right up front that I admire someone who can come right out and tell you what they were going for, especially when it comes to writing, and then in the next breath hand you the book and back it up.
Jesus Lives in Trenton has developed a cult following in this part of the United States, and even in the closed circles of the retail book world; Mr. Klim has become a favorite for his books and his talents at entertaining crowds of people. A few days ago the ending of this book was ruined for me by another review that I stumbled upon while reading my emails. Our hero is of the tried and true form, a simple man in a not so simple world. Jesus has come to town in the abstract form of a half shredded billboard atop a vacant building in downtown Trenton, New Jersey. Local photographer and center of all things Trenton, Boot Means is our hero for some two hundred and sixty five pages. Working for Page 6 of the local paper, Means stubs his toe on the story of a lifetime. Some of the local color sights Jesus’ likeness in a billboard advertising biscuits and gravy and the fun begins, in a slick and lighthearted fashion. Boot aspires to great heights as a wanna-be writer for the newspaper he works for. So far he’s just a little man in a big pond. But his story about Jesus has legs. Suddenly, as if it’s fallen from the sky, a big Jesus-loving television evangelist takes an interest in the billboard’s image and summons Boot to her throne. We slowly uncover a detailed scheme of corruption right along with Boot, who’s living life one wisecrack at a time. Boot Means is a man on a mission with only one goal to attain. He wants to be a big, bright shining star.
Mr. Klim wants the same thing. With this novel about journalistic fraud, smoke and mirrors of a religious nature and a sequel waiting in the wings, (Everything Burns, due to hit bookstores in April 2004) he might just find his own fame and fortune. Jesus Lives in Trenton has been around for a couple of years. To pay the bills Mr. Klim is a writing instructor, teacher, and full time writer. He’s given me the okay to ask him a few questions in anticipation of the release of his next book, and to fuel the fire around his career; I’ve decided to do just that.
Frank Bascombe (FB): The idea for Jesus Lives in Trenton came from where?
Christopher Klim (CK): In the early 90s, I saw a Life Magazine (now defunct again) article on religious fanaticism. I got to wondering why people needed to see Jesus or The Virgin Mary in a window or on a mountainside. The idea that we are all reaching for something higher--a thirst for grace--came to me. I decided to use comedy and a main character who was set outside of society to observe and tell the story. Comedy, albeit dark in my case, allows access for most people (even nuns and priests wrote to tell me that they liked JLIT), and as far as observers go, no one beats a photojournalist. They're more hardened observers than detectives. They almost never have to speak to people.
FB: Boot Means has a journalistic background and is a photographer. Is this based on you?
CK: I did stringer work when I worked in the space program. I'd find myself in a backwater town from the Florida panhandle to the Texas desert. I wrote and shot stories for small dailies across the south. I often tell emerging writers that newspapers are the best way to break into the writing field.
FB: What experiences did you think were necessary for your characters to go through before you sat down to write this story? Boot Means goes through an awful lot of trouble to “get the story.” How much trouble does one character have to go through?
CK: It depends on the story question. In JLIT, I put big premises forward and rolled it all toward Boot, and a great deal of turmoil ensued. In other novels I've written, the demons are mostly internal and the struggle is nearly invisible to outsiders. In JLIT, I employed a marginalized member of society--a kid out of foster care with no ties to community or friends. I wanted to see who would still care about him when he started going under.
FB: Why Trenton, New Jersey, and why use Religion as a set piece?
CK: I grew up in Trenton. It's a microcosm of eastern cities. At one point, it was the nation's industrial leader, before it collapsed just prior to the Great Depression. As for religion, it's been a set piece since the beginning of time. No offense to the great religions of the world, it's just the men involved that set the stage for satire.
FB: You drag Boot through the hard edges of the newspaper world. With what’s happened at the New York Times in the last few months. How do you think Boot would react?
CK: The editorial staff in JLIT is the idealistic type of journalism that no longer exists and perhaps never did. Obviously, Boot would get a job with the NY Post before the NY Times. That's his training, where the emotional content of the news is the main thrust. Having said that, there's no newspaper in the country that hasn't pushed editorial content and political agendas right onto the front page. It's an insult to our intelligence. News outlets no longer want to present the facts and let us decide. They want to direct.
FB: Another question I have for you surrounds your depiction of the female characters in JLIT. Why have Boot engaged to a woman of privilege?
CK: Stacy is a girl of low self-esteem who, because of her breeding, thinks she can mold Boot into the man of her choice--not unlike a hired hand. She's not arrogant about it but expects results, expects Boot to accept the privilege of being accepted into the inner circle of wealth and power. I play on that theme throughout the book. When things get real, when souls talk at the end of the book, we discover that Stacy admires Boot for building a life out of nothing. She also thinks that she can bring grace to her empty life by loving the orphan Boot Means. Again, another character is seeking something higher than themselves.
FB: You talk quite a bit about The Elements of Style. Do you really think all writers need to memorize that particular reference book?
CK: I knew an editor that did that. I thought it'd be a neat character tick. Writers need to create cogent sentences that if left alone are still legible to some degree. We translate foreign languages; we decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics; we don't need to decipher English sentences. Writing need not be an exercise in interpretation.
FB: People like Chuck Palahniuk, for example, have proven that there are no boundaries to the literary form. Creating characters that don’t exist, then have them do what ever they want, that’s risky. Then to have an unnamed character, or the author come in from time to time and speak directly to you the reader is another risk. Do you think Chuck Palahniuk has memorized The Elements of Style? Or is his narrative more about structured chaos? A style manual is going to teach you about sentence structure, not developing a narrative flow. Right?
CK: I've been mentoring writers for a few years now. Here's the simplicity of the Elements of Style: the first eleven rules outline the basic context of a sentence. It's as simple as when to or not to use a comma. Most writers know exactly how their sentences should be read, but if a reader stutter-steps over the prose, then the writer hasn't inserted enough visual or contextual clues. He hasn't done his job. Also, if you make the actual prose difficult to interpret, you give yourself little leeway in creating dense characters. People are unpredictable; sentences shouldn't be. Chuck, BTW, who I enjoy immensely, writes some of the most simplistic sentences in literature today. Even his paragraphs are short and neat.
FB: Where does JLIT fit into commercial literary world?
CK: That's tough for an author to answer about his own work. The big publishers said JLIT was too literary, and the literary publishers said it was too commercial. I've been told that it's the perfect "midlist" book, which has all but disappeared. JLIT's been called a "thinking man's adventure novel" and a "working man's satire." BTW, Steinbeck was called a working man's satirist too, which is what led one reviewer to make the comparison. Personally, I demure at the comment. I joke about it.
FB: From time to time you and I talk about the big publishing houses taking only calculated risks. What will become of these big time players, if all they ever aspire to is playing it safe?
CK: Well, you've answered your own question. Some people want to sell books like toothpaste and pizzas, press out literature and ensuing demand like fast food. The trouble is that while we are indifferent about Mc Hamburgers and Mc Cars, books mean different things to different people. It's as unique as the soul. You cannot mass market that, only to kids before they grow up and learn better. There's no future for someone who doesn't want to do their best ... and I'm not talking about short-term balance sheets or profits.
FB: You’ve told me that you didn’t want to write something literary. That this was indeed a commercial endeavor, mass appeal as it were. Do you want to write something to appeal to the literati?
CK: I have a master's degree in computer science and physics. I've helped shepherd satellites to Mars. I've written a half dozen novels and will launch a literary magazine in March. I've come out of poverty. I'm not a literary art star. I don't have the pedigree, but as a kid I read C.S.Lewis essays, Faulkner, and Dickens. So I was trained to know better. I try to write the kind of book that I'd like to find on the shelf. It's the only way.
FB: What awaits Boot Means in the sequel to JLIT, Everything Burns? Great title by the way.
CK: Mayhem, darkness, redemption. All of my books are about redemption. Personally, I've been in the black hole and pulled back to tell about it. So I write about that over and over again. In Everything Burns, Boot comes to Texas to find his past. He's a boy. In JLIT, life washes over him. In BURNS, he learns to make the hard choices.
FB: What advice do you have to offer the crowd of unpublished writers flooding the world around us?
CK: Read what you'd like to write. Write what you'd like to read. I still see John Irving and my heart flutters, even though my style has departed years ago. I still sit down and try to construct a story that would seize my attention. If an aspect of a story intrigues, frightens, arouses, or allures me, I follow up. I'm not afraid of my lack of knowledge. I'll be able to do the research to bring the story home. For Everything Burns, I carried the story around in my head for years, reading, researching, interviewing experts. Finally, I needed to let go of it, and I gave the story to Boot Means.
FB: I like to end interviews with two questions. Name your favorite books, top five and your favorite movies, also top five.
CK: You know we all hate to answer these questions, but I'm glad you didn't ask me what my top five albums were. Let me try to do this without thinking and being pretentious: Books: The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner, The World According to Garp by John Irving, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, After the War by Richard Marius, Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. Movies: Blade Runner, The Maltese Falcon (of course), The Deer Hunter, Fargo, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Why not add Top Hat too.
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