Lynn Sloan: The Three Lives of Jonathan Force (Fomite Press, February 2016) is a big novel, one that tells thestory of one man’s life from beginning to end, a project that took you decades to complete. Over the years, you’ve published portions as single short stories and a volume of linked stories. You considered publishing Jonathan’s story in three separate novels, finally settling on one novel that includes three books. Can you recall the very first moment you decided to embark on this vast project that has taken so many turns?
Richard Hawley: I’m not sure I can identify an actual trigger moment that started me on this project. But about twenty years into my work teaching and coaching and counseling in a boys’ school, contending with all that unfurling, I knew I wanted to capture the essence of it. My first impulse was to celebrate all that energy and
impulsiveness and uncool striving, but at the same time something like grief was at work: grief that circumstances, including the requirements of schooling, were chafing the boy-ness out of the boys. This realization, part wonder, part guilt, carried me back to my own boyhood and schooling — and, literally everything came back. So I guess the genesis of this book is the moment I realized I no longer wanted to shape or improve the boys, but instead to be an alert, appreciative witness to what was most alive in them.
Lynn Sloan: When did the idea to be an “alert, appreciative witness” to boys’ “unfurling” — great word — expand to include the entire arc of a man’s life?
Richard Hawley: I have been immersed in boyhood — both in the boyhood exuberantly close at hand in my work and in the reconsideration of my own — throughout the course of my adult life. I followed what might be called the maturation of many of the boys I knew into what seemed to me impostures: credible approximations of what the civic order might expect of a business executive or an attorney, of a club-able suburbanite, of a family man. These poses were assumed with what seemed like terrific psychic effort. There was an unease about these outwardly successful men, nothing that felt to me like happiness. Observing this was of course an invitation to examine my own adaptations and compromises, which was revelatory. It helped that beginning in middle life I was reading a lot of Jungian writing. One writer, Robert Johnson, is especially good on the deep nature of masculinity and femininity. One of his books, Transformations, proposes that there are three stages of a fully realized man’s life. In the first the boy — every boy — is a kind of spirited fool, like the eponymous Parsifal of legend or Don Quixote. Such boys can inspire and energize others but they are not quite in the real world. Boys who grow past this condition, young men who become practically shrewd and “real,” tend to make their way intellectually and materially, but in forsaking their boyhood illusions, they lose heart. They become jaded and world-weary, like Hamlet. But Hamlets can transcend this condition, Johnson maintains, if they have the courage to put aside their certainties and follow insistent urges, even dark ones, to a fuller realization of who they are and their place in the world, like Goethe’s Faust. I am an old man now, and this trajectory makes sense to me. I wanted to tell such a story in The Three Lives of Jonathan Force. And while I believe all of us live something like discrete, successive lives, there is in my case, and in Jonathan’s, the unifying force of boyhood, burning like a steady fuse for as long as we live.