Long story short, I thought it was an awesome read. It reminded me of American Gods for it’s look behind the curtain of reality and I dare a parent to finish it without a few tear stained pages. I figured I ought to chat with the author about…. stuff.
Oh and at the bottom of this post there’s a giveaway, just saying. Be sure to read the instructions, as I’m changing the method I use to collect entries.
Justin: When I first heard about The Troupe my first reaction was, “another circus novel? Did Orbit lose the auction for The Night Circus and then just go find the next best thing?” As jerky as that sounds, this is how trends can be perceived. Have you heard any of this? What do you think?
Bennett: I have heard some of it already, and I’ll be honest, it is fairly irritating to me. The process for this book started about two or three years ago, long before this trend started happening – or at least I think before it. I only learned about the existence of The Night Circus a month ago or so (an indication of my poor reading habits, certainly), when someone compared The Troupe to it without ever having read my book, which is when I had to go out and discover that a circus trend was indeed taking place, and apparently I was part of it.
I do not think that this trend started with The Night Circus, however – I think it probably started with Water for Elephants, which came out several years ago, and was such a smash hit that I think it’s reverberated throughout many genres and movies.
Regardless, if you read the novel, or just look vaudeville up, you will find that vaudeville is not the circus: it’s not a huge production of thousands of men and women and animals, but just one person or a couple of people with some props and sheet music touring theaters and living out of hotels. Sort of like rock stars touring venues, but crazier, because vaudeville was open to anything. It’s much more individual, much more varied, and much more unpredictable.
My inspiration for The Troupe was probably David Lynch. He always has very cool red curtains in his stuff. I just wanted to do something with curtains and a stage.
Justin: Regardless, it’s probably inescapable for the comparison to be drawn. I guess you can hope that their success will transfer to your novel.
Bennett: I have no idea. I have not really looked into either novel: I haven’t read them, nor have I done much research on their sales or reception. I guess it’s expected of me to do so, but I think the last thing writers want to read is stuff like their own. It gives them the creeps.
It’s quite funny – my editor later professed – after I finished The Troupe, of course – that he’d been a bit hesitant when I first described the book I planned to write. So I can honestly say that Orbit did not jump on the circus bandwagon, but had to be persuaded.
Justin: As you said, The Troupe isn’t even close to a circus novel. In fact, it’s only superficially a vaudeville novel as the story moves away from that pretty quick. Were you tempted to go more milieu and give the reader a real strong feel for vaudeville?
Bennett: I actually had several thousand more words in the first third of the novel about George joining vaudeville, learning the ropes, understanding what vaudeville was, and so on. But it quickly became apparent that this didn’t contribute to the action of the book at all: it was just George hanging out in vaudeville. Nothing was happening.
Essentially, George’s father, Harry Silenus, not only controls his troupe, but he also controls the plot – and when Silenus was offstage, things weren’t happening. Silenus carries all the secrets and meanings of the story with him, almost like how a vaudevillian keeps his props in his suitcase. He’s a guy you want front and center.
Justin: I spent a lot of time in my review talking about the father/son relationship that you develop in the novel. It’s incredibly well done. How much of this was inspired by the birth of your own son and all the responsibilities and pressures that come with that?
Bennett: Well, I’ll say I had the idea for the entirety of the plot before I got married, and finished the book before I knew I was going to be a father. I worked and reworked on it after that point, of course, and it’s probable the reworks were colored more by my anticipation of becoming a father than the initial first draft was, but the overall structure was already in place.
But one thing I’ll say about parenthood is that hearing about it is one thing, and seeing and doing it is another. You don’t know it until you actually know it, until it’s for-reals happening. I intentionally finished The Troupe before it started for-reals happening – I practically had to – so I’m not sure how much actual, bonafide paternalistic experience affected The Troupe. My own experience of fatherhood has been a lot more fun than what happens in the book.
Justin: It also felt like there’s a definite theme in the novel of the ‘world behind the curtain’ so to speak, which felt very Gaiman to me — particularly American Gods. Any intentional hat tips in the novel, or just a reader putting his own interpretation on what he’s reading?
Bennett: My actual inspiration for a lot of the prose and the nature of the characters was Susana Clarke more than Neil Gaiman – but the two are pretty solidly connected. I think the “world behind the curtain” aspect is common not only to urban fantasy, but to a lot of fiction: we all like the feeling that underneath the drab exterior of the world there is something fantastic working away, making sure everything goes as it is supposed to. We want for our lives to have a larger meaning.
It’s interesting that you mention interpretation, because that’s one of the bigger conceits of the book. How much of what you’re experiencing was intended by the artist – or the Creator? The master of manipulating interpretation is, of course, Nabokov, so I did toss in one hat tip to him. I’m curious to see if anyone finds it.
Justin: I haven’t read any of your other work. You seem to be getting some award buzz for Mr. Shivers this year. How are they like The Troupe? Or put another way, is there a style uniquely RJB that fans of your previous work will find in your new stuff?
Bennett: I can never tell. I thought The Troupe was wildly different from my other stuff – it has more pathos, more humor, more hope – but I am told it is still very much a Robert Jackson Bennett novel. I don’t know what that means. Probably has to do with stabbings, or something.
I do think that The Troupe was when things “clicked” for me. The Company Man was a struggle to write – this one just leaped out of my head, fully-formed, like (what a cliché) Athena. But ask me again on the next novel, and I might tell you that that “click” was horseshit, and I don’t know what I’m doing.
Justin: You touch on race a bit in the novel. It was well done, and did a ton for character development, but didn’t seem very connected to the plot. Did you include it just for character purposes or was there a larger purpose? Perhaps addressing the very real issue of race that pervaded vaudeville?
Bennett: I would say it was connected more to theme than to the plot. The book has a lot to do with perception, and how people see themselves and each other and the world. Each member of the troupe has their own struggle with perception, and race just happened to be one characters’ struggle. It fit in very naturally.
I will say that I felt like if I didn’t examine minstrel shows to at least some degree in a book about vaudeville then it would have felt like a sin of omission. It was such a prominent part of vaudeville, I just couldn’t feel comfortable amputating an unpleasant part of history just to make the book more palatable.
Justin: Does your son actually have a beard and epic tattoo’ed eyebrows? (If you don’t follow Bennett on Twitter, you won’t get this joke, so sorry.)
Bennett: Not yet, but we’re feeding him the appropriate vitamins.
Justin: Thanks for taking the time. I loved the novel, and really need to get to Mr. Shivers and The Company Man.
Bennett: Thank you for having me.