Earlier in the week we reviewed William Giraldi’s cold-blooded meditation on savagery and belief, Hold The Dark, and its mesmerising images burned its way into our brain and stayed there.
Giraldi is a hell of a writer — he knows every which way around a sentence — so we’re delighted to say that he’s agreed to give us the lowdown on Hold The Dark. You’re going to like this. Giraldi talks the cold landscape of violence inside of us, cigarette smoke and the ‘touch of audacity’ that fires a writer’s imagination. Make no mistake, it’s fascinating stuff — enjoy.
How would you describe Hold the Dark to a potential reader?
A story about a parent’s incorruptible love for his child, about spiritual breakdown, about the ancient bonds of tribe or clan, about the majesty of nature and myth, and the absolute purity of evil.
Hold the Dark is a crime novel, but it’s very much a literary novel with a strong theme and myth system – what made you decide to write in the genre?
I can’t speak definitively for other writers, but I suspect that most novelists don’t decide their material: their material decides them. It was that way for me with Hold the Dark, and with my first novel, Busy Monsters, too: I began with only the vaguest notion of its shape and form, its pitch and tenor. I was surprised to see Hold the Dark turning into a crime novel, although, to be honest with you, I still don’t necessarily see it that way, because for me it began as an investigation into an older man’s spiritual crisis.
The book is about evil, yes, evil as we commonly conceive it, but I began by thinking of St. Augustine’s definition of evil, which is a complete separation from God, a turning away from God, that cold and that dark of self-damnation. In the novel, the embodiment of the Augustinian notion of evil is the cold and the dark of the Alaskan tundra.
The book is very much about two very different men – Vernon Slone and Russell Core. What do these two men represent to you?
Russell Core is the reader, and he’s also the guide for the reader in this alien place: like the reader, he’s dropped into this enigmatic and ancient land at the end of the world, does not have his bearings, knows that nothing works here as it works back in civilization. At the same time, Core is the reader’s chaperone as he tries to make sense of these uncommon people, these rituals and rites of blood, the animality of the human being in situations of extremity.
And Vernon Slone is that animality incarnate: he is what happens when all the strictures of society are removed. I should say, too, that although Slone is by every definition a sociopath, he is loyal to Medora Slone and Cheeon and the memory of his son, he is devoted to them, lives by an ancient code of devotion, absolutely inviolable, and this is something too little seen these days. I mean to say that Slone, for all the horror housed within him, has a dignity of a kind.
The violence in Hold the Dark is very shocking and often sudden. Do you think that stories are one way we make sense of our lost primal, savage instincts?
Yes, I do, and I’d add that stories should be the only way we make sense of our lost savage instincts. I abhor violence in the world, am sickened by it. As I write this, it’s just twenty four hours after the terrorist attack in Paris, the bastards who slaughtered the magazine staff at Charlie Hebdo, and I’ve been on edge, nauseated and disgusted since the news broke. This one feels very personal to me: writers and artists being slaughtered for their humor, for their ideas.
But in a novel . . . no actual person is ever harmed in a novel, or in any work of the imagination, and so the question of evil or violence becomes an aesthetic question and not a moral question: Does the style, does the pitch and torque of the prose correspond to the climate of the narrative, to the roiling inner lives of the characters? Does the tenor of the prose offer pleasure and intimations of wisdom? Martin Amis says that style is morality, that style judges, and I think he’s right about that. Style tells you all you need to know, even when you’re reading about violence and evil.
The violence of Hold the Dark is an organic outcrop of the novel’s agon with evil. There’s no gloating over the bloodshed in this book, no pride taken in the lives lost. The women and men in Hold the Dark are violent because nature is violent—living hand in hand with the wilderness, they harbor within themselves an identical wilderness, a savagery just as startling and just as necessary as the savagery on display in the Alaskan wild. I’m speaking of the outlaw spirit in man, an outlaw spirit that pervades nature and cannot be altered. Actually, there’s more cigarette smoke than bloodshed in this book. I’m half surprised the anti-smoking league hasn’t picketed my publisher. Someone’s smoking on every page of this novel. I found myself coughing one afternoon at about page 100 and that’s when I realized how much cigarette smoke I was funneling into this narrative, perhaps because cigarette smoke is the perfect omen for impending death.
The unforgiving Alaskan landscape is very much a character in itself. As a guy from Jersey, how did you get under the skin of that remote region?
Astute question. You’re right, it wasn’t easy. I don’t mean this to sound facile, but I used my imagination. I marshaled a lifetime of reading. As a devotee of the sublime Oscar Wilde, I believe that the artist’s only loyalty is to his own imagination, to what his imagination can grasp and assert. Be very cautious of those who tell you that the novelist is not permitted to write about certain subjects because he wasn’t there, because what they are really telling you is that you are not permitted to think about certain subjects, and that’s one of the indispensable traits of the despot. So, books were how I had the audacity to imagine my own Alaska, which of course doesn’t correspond in every way to the actual Alaska. (Goethe said that, that a writer requires “a touch of audacity” to create something bold.)
Jack London, of course, was big for me: his stories of the unforgiving Yukon and of the human/animal clash. The Call of the Wild and Whitefang, especially, have been in my mind since I was a child. Sentence for sentence he’s not the best prose stylist, but he really understands that mythic territory, and he knows how to tell a story. “To Build a Fire” is a tiny gem. The other important book for me was John McPhee’s famous narrative of Alaska, Coming Into the Country. I remember reading that before I ever thought of Hold the Dark and thinking that it had the epic sweep of a great novel.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I wish I could! I don’t have a typical writing day because I have two lovely little monsters who hurricane through my house every hour, my sons Ethan and Aiden, ages 5 and 3. They dictate when I write. The truth is that I don’t like writing all that much, it’s very hard for me, and so I’m always looking for a reason not to do it. So I’ll stop in the middle of a sentence if they storm into my room and I’ll spend an hour grappling with them on the bed. I certainly don’t write every day. But a good day might look like 4 or 5 hours, maybe a solid page to show for it, two pages if I’m lucky.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
To make every sentence alive with uncommon energy and precision. Walker Percy says this, that even throw-away sentences must achieve a high level of poetic truth and beauty. Very hard, that.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, above all others. Why? Simple. Their sentences. It always comes down to the sentences. Memorable, vibrant, deep-seeing sentences.
Give me some advice about writing…
Read Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. There’s no other way. Writing can’t be taught. But if you’ve been given the cursed gift of talent, then you can improve by reading the masters very closely.
Do you plan to return to the crime genre?
Perhaps I will, yes. I have another story in mind, only very opaque to me now, but I can already smell the gasoline and blood.