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Jon Clinch

An exclusive interview
with the author of


By Adrienne M. Lewin

Debut novelist Jon Clinch says writing "Finn," the story of Huckleberry Finn's father, took "50 years and 5 ½ months."

"It 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.

"You 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," he says.

"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 sense.

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.

"Especially 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."

Jon Clinch 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.

For 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 Literary Management.


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