Article published on January 20, 2016.
Pictures of Len Vlahos rarely show him smiling – hangdog would be the word that most readily springs to mind BUT that does not mean he hasn’t got a sense of humour, as evidenced by the byline for his website “Because the world really needs one more author website… Really.”
However, he is serious about his writing – and so he should be covering some major issues that give us all pause for thought.
- The novel tackles a lot of big issues, not least cancer and assisted suicide, is it daunting as an author to try and manage these issues?
When I set out to write the book, it started as an exploration of physician assisted suicide. The cancer was really an entry point for that exploration. However, the more I wrote, the less central euthanasia became. I didn’t set out to write an issue book, and that’s what it was becoming. Euthanasia is still a strong part of the narrative, but it is, I think, secondary to the ideas of questioning authority, familial love, and the power of old media vs. new. Truth is, this book took me in a whole lot of unexpected places.
- You offer a really refreshing take on dealing with cancer in the novel, including by shifting the focus so that it’s not entirely on Jared and doesn’t focus exclusively on his demise, what made you decide to take this approach?
I wanted the book to have a sense of humour. In fact, as the story developed, I started to think of it as more of a dark comedy than a drama. If I focused entirely on Jared, I think it would have been too heavy. By providing multiple points of view, I was able to avoid falling into that trap.
- Similarly anthropomorphising the tumour is a unique approach, how and why did you decide to do so?
It was two different things. I had just read The Book Thief when I started work on Fishbowl, and was captivated with the idea of giving life to something inanimate, but something unusual. That was in the back of my head. Then, as I started to write Jared, I found it a challenge because he was disintegrating before our eyes. Glio, the tumour, gave us a way in.
Fun side note. There was a book out in 2015 called Delicious Foods. It’s an adult novel about modern day slavery in the American south by a writer named James Hannaham. In the book, crack cocaine is anthropomorphized. The book is brilliant, and the character, “Scotty,” is handled perfectly. I had already written Fishbowl when I read Delicious Foods, but here’s the kicker, James Hannaham and I went to high school together.
There must have been something in the water in our home town (Yonkers, NY).
- I found the whole anthropomorphism incredibly original but did you ever worry about how to pitch the voice? And did this voice come ‘naturally’ or did it work through different iterations?
It’s a bit disturbing to admit, but the voice of Glio did come naturally. I gave myself a writing challenge: “See if you can make a brain tumour a sympathetic character.” While this is very much Jackie’s story. Glio’s story arc is very compelling to me. He goes from having no knowledge of the terror he inflicts to fully comprehending the enormity of his theft.
As for Glio’s voice specifically, I wanted it to be a mixture of a child learning its way in the world, and a cold blooded killer operating on base instinct. I have no idea if I succeeded, but I had fun trying. 🙂
- The novel tackles the issue of memory really beautifully but there’s also a real poignancy to it as Jared’s memories are ‘lost’, and I wondered if you had one memory that you would save above all else, what would it be?
Oooh… good question! It might be a cliché to say so, but the moment of the birth of my first son in June of 2008. I have a longish blog post about it, here.
This was the inspiration for the first of Jared’s memories that the Glio eats. I think about memory a lot. My paternal grandfather died of complications from Alzheimer’s when I was a little boy, and my mom has dementia now. Watching her brain scramble memories and lose context is heart wrenching. The thought that it might one day happen to me, that I could lose that memory of my son being born, is terrifying.
Writing is a way to help preserve those memories.
- You manage to balance any grief in the novel by continually moving the narrative forward and never dwelling on a scene too long, was it important to you that you didn’t make the novel too morose?
Pacing is something I think about a lot when I’m writing. I’m always asking myself while I’m drafting (and my beta readers when the first draft is done), where does the story slow down? At what point is someone not going to want to turn the page?
With Fishbowl the ensemble cast allows me to jump from perspective to perspective and to develop, even on just a surface level, other story lines. It also allows me to move quickly.
- We don’t see many moments just between Jared and his family, was this part of the intent to show how the personal becomes lost in the public?
Honestly, no. I wanted Jackie to be isolated, and I wanted to show Jared in decline. Adding moments of family grieving or rationalization would have subverted those two goals; honestly. I worry that it would have made it a bit too much like an after school television special.
And again, I was focused on pacing throughout and didn’t want to slow the story down.
- The idea of someone selling their life on eBay; turning death into a reality TV show is worryingly rather believable, do you think your narrative is safely confined to fiction?
Another great question, and this is one that scares the heck out of me. Part of what drew me to the story was how plausible the idea actually is. I live in fear of some nefarious TV exec using my book as a sort of blueprint.
Between the Internet and reality TV, we have become a society of voyeurs. With distance and anonymity, I fear that our darker angels lead us down dark and dangerous paths. (Just look at the character of Sherman. Heck, just look at Twitter.)
- There’s a wonderful cast of characters in the novel, and again it shifts the focus away from Jared and I wondered if part of the intent was to show how Jared loses control over his life?
It was more to distract the reader from Jared’s decline. And truthfully, as soon as I started writing those characters, I found that I really enjoyed the process. Of the eBay bidders, I wrote Sister Benedict’s intro first, and it was just a lot of fun. I had to get inside her head, which for someone who isn’t religious and wasn’t raised Catholic, was no small feat.
But sometimes things come to you and you don’t know why. My motto? Run with it
- Were these characters part of the original idea or did they develop as you went along?
The characters were a part of the story, but a couple did change significantly. In the original manuscript, Sherman is in his 50s, and Cardinal Trippe is as soulless as Sister Benedict. My editor thought that we needed the Cardinal to be a positive counter balance for Sister Benedict. It was a really good call. It’s easy to go over the top when writing, and important to know how to stand down.
Developing these characters was a good lesson in writing the truth, and it was a good lesson in shifting voice, even when writing in the third person.
- I understand you are also a bookseller, and I wondered how that side of life influences your writing? And how writing influences your work as a bookseller?
Everything influences my life as a writer. I draw inspiration from the obvious places (my family, work) and the not so obvious places (news stories, random thoughts, overheard conversations). So yes, my life as a bookseller finds its way into my work. In Fishbowl, there’s even a scene in one of my favourite indie bookstores, Powell’s in Portland Oregon.
My writing career definitely influences my life as a bookseller. It’s so helpful to understand the mind set of an author and how readers connect with authors when I’m selling books. It gives me a broad perspective and an appreciation for what both the author and reader did to bring them to the point off connection.
- The novel is full of so many important messages that readers can take from the novel, but I wondered if there was one particular message that you took from writing the novel?
Truthfully, I write to tell stories that I would want to read. So, with other readers, I hope they’re taking from it what they want. After each book I’ve written, I’ve had readers see things that I didn’t see while writing or editing. The themes, I guess, are in the eye of the beholder.
But since that’s a bit of a cop out answer, I’ll say that I hope readers leave the story with a renewed ethos to question authority, or at least to fight for what they know is right.
Thanks so much for the interview!
Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos
Bloomsbury 978-1408870631 pbk Jan 2017
Life in a Fishbowl is an nb Recommended Read in the nb91 Winter issue of nb magazine – order your free (p&p applies) copy from the nudge shop, while stocks last! (UK only)
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An excellent book looking into a much maligned aspect of modern life.