Debut novelist Jon Clinch says writing "Finn,"
the story of Huckleberry Finn's father, took "50 years and 5
was actually a very short writing project but extremely concentrated
- more in the order of a fever or an infection than an actual writing
assignment," says the author of the critically-acclaimed work
that has energized Mark Twain scholars and fans.
The inspiration for the tale of Pap Finn, known to "Huckleberry
Finn" readers as a drunken, abusive lout, began when Clinch was
10 or 12. He discovered the novel "and was enchanted and terrified
by what I found there."
Most prominently, he remembered the scene of a house floating down
the river with the body of Pap Finn, Huck's father, inside. "That
moment hung in my mind for a long time," Clinch says. "To
this day, I think it's a very dark and scary and surreal landscape
. Though we have this cultural image of a couple of guys floating
down the river and having a good time, it's not all that evocative
of a delightful, sunny day."
As an adult, Clinch identified things in the story, such as markings
on the walls that Pap Finn left in charcoal and various articles of
clothing - items he says Twain left on purpose. "I'm respecting
him as an artist and a moralist," Clinch says.
have to expect that he populated the room with those things for some
intent. My goal was to place signposts along the Mississippi and see
where they went until I developed an explanation."
"Finn" is especially dark in its depiction of Pap, but Clinch
says he has created a "Huckleberry Finn for 2007."
"When Mark Twain wrote his book, he was really kind of constrained
in telling the truth of the violence he saw along the Mississippi.
The culture in which he was writing didn't allow him to tell the truth
about people injured in knife fights. I don't have the limitations,"
"We're a culture that's grown kind of inured to violence. We
see it on television and in papers, in the news, in movies, it's everywhere.
I really want to explore the idea that serious literature can open
our eyes to things and make us flinch again, to see things that we
ignore in daily life - and ignore at our peril."
Though he had expected Twain aficionados to be distressed over the
casting of Huck Finn as a biracial child, critics and members of the
Mark Twain community have mostly responded that the revelation makes
Clinch also was afraid that people would find his depiction of Pap
to be "too dark, too wicked, too evil," but that has not
been the case.
in the Mark Twain community, the response has been, 'This is Pap Finn.'"
Clinch says he intentionally chose not to write in dialect, as "Huckleberry
Finn" was written. "One of my chief objectives was to do
an honorable job. I wanted to honor the original work and not think
that I had taken something away from the culture."
Instead, he says, the narrative voice is "big and erudite and
grand, letting characters speak in clipped, abrupt, honed-down sentences
that were different than the narrator. They almost sound like dialect."
After 27 years in advertising, the past 16 of which were spent running
his own agency outside of Philadelphia, Clinch is savoring the success
of "Finn," though he says he never was convinced it would
be a hit. Especially after writing five previous novels.
"Having been through the mill a few times with other projects
that didn't go anywhere, it's not as if your feeling about a given
project can be any indicator of whether or not you'll have any success
with it," he says.
Agent Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management discovered "Finn"
through another writer when Clinch was about 40 pages into the novel.
"I decided that his love of it was certainly sufficient to have
him represent it."
Clinch is hard at work on his next project, which he describes as
"darkish fiction set in the past." He hopes it will strike
a chord with "Finn" readers and new ones alike.
"It took the writing of five novels to teach me how to write
the sixth," he says. "I'm a slow learner but persistent."
is represented by literary agent Jeff Kleinman, co-founder of Folio
Literary Management. With offices in New York and Washington, D.C.,
Folio has sold about 125 books and two of its most successful titles
were “The Widow of the South” by Robert Hicks and “Mockingbird:
A Portrait of Harper Lee” by Charles Shields along with “Finn,”
the story of Huckleberry Finn’s father, by Jon Clinch.
more about Jeff
Kleinman, read this month's interview, or an archived interview
from 2003 in which he talks about the exciting discovery of Ron
McLarty's best-selling book The Memory of Running. To reach
FLM's New York office, click on this link. Folio