Good grief, it must sometimes give a guy a stomach ache to be the son of a legend like Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. However, Monte Schulz, the cartoonist’s son, is working to establish himself as a creator in his own right. Monte Schulz’s first novel Down By The River was published in 1991, and after fifteen years of research, writing and re-writing, the author is working with Fantagraphics (publisher of The Complete Peanuts) to bring out a project every bit as ambitious as his father’s nearly 50-year run on the most popular comic strip of all time.
This Side of Jordan is the first of three prose (yes, these books have no pictures) books that chronicle a family’s saga in the year leading up to the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression. Struggling with the expectations of adulthood and his own fears of a relapse of his consumption, Alvin Pendergast catches a ride with a worldly stranger named Chester. The pair is soon joined by an unlikely third companion, a dwarf who calls himself Rascal, and begins a crime wave across the Midwest.
Given Monte Schulz’s connections to the comic industry and the role of Fantagraphics as his publisher, we felt it appropriate to ask him a few questions about his work and the influence of his father’s life and comics on This Side of Jordan.
“Well, I was inspired, I guess, by his career,” Schulz said of the influence of his father’s creative output. “Dad exposed me to books and movies, comics ... I was thinking about this the other day; I think he pushed me into books and away from his work. One, of course, I can’t draw. Two, he actually felt that book writing was a higher art form than cartooning, and he thought that he couldn’t really do that. And he thought that maybe I could. My style of writing, sort of lyrical, comes from books he wanted me to read: Truman Capote, Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck. He had me read passages from books, which I thought was interesting. He wouldn’t recommend an entire book; he’d just tell me to read a particular passage from a book, like the tortoise crossing the road in The Grapes of Wrath. Also, incidentally, I never have writer’s block, and that’s because of him. He told me once, ‘Only amateurs have writers block,’ and in thirty years of writing I’ve never been blocked.”
Sharp-eyed readers and Peanuts fans can watch for a few inside references, including an appearance by Linus’s teacher Miss Othmar, and characters modeled on Charles Schulz’s dog that “eats tacks and nails” and cousin (the character Frenchy).
Alvin Pendergast, the protagonist of This Side of Jordan, is a surprisingly passive narrator. Dissatisfied by his life on the farm and worried about relapsing with tuberculosis, he flees with Chester, but he seems to question the wisdom of that decision early on. Unfortunately, Alvin lacks the ambition and intelligence to do anything about his circumstances, which in some ways parallels the many people of any generation who are listless and unsure about the direction of their lives.
“First of all, I gave him tuberculosis after the first draft of the book. He doesn’t really do anything, and I needed to explain his apathy toward things or his inability to do things,” Schulz explained. “So I gave him a disease, and I had to give him a disease that wasn’t going to kill him right away, was somewhat unusual and was of the period. Rather than give him cancer or leukemia or something like that, I gave him tuberculosis, which was actually a larger killer than cancer was at the time. Tuberculosis wouldn’t debilitate him physically from doing things.
“I have had people who read this over the years ask why doesn’t Alvin try to escape, but again, if you have a fever of 101 or 102, what do you feel like doing? You feel like going to bed; do you think you’re going to form some plan to do something. Most people, once they’re feverish or sick, end up going home. Alvin leaves the farm because he doesn’t want to go back to the sanitarium, and it’s somewhat fortuitous – or unlucky depending how you look at it – that he finds Chester.
“In the one scene, Alvin talks about how he can’t get away. One of Chester’s guys, one of his spotters, would catch him in an alley and shoot him in the head. Chester has contacts in every town they go through. There’s no way he could get away. And plus America at that time was much bigger – it was harder to go places. This was before the Interstate Highway System. Eisenhower’s trucks did a test where they drove across the country and it took them three weeks. Imagine three weeks to get across the United States! After World War II, Eisenhower had seen the U.S. troops driving on the Autobahn and realized that we needed something like that. That’s why we have the Interstate Highway System, really, to move troops from one coast to the other. At that time, it’s rural roads and dirt roads, and there’s just no way Alvin can get away,” Schulz added.
“I think that when writers make a character do something a character would not do, I always find it unbelievable. I think that in this book, realistically, if you look at the whole thing, Alvin does everything that he would reasonably be expected to do.”
While Alvin remains passive, his companion Chester is always active, frequently off setting up a crime while Alvin and Rascal sit on their hands. The criminal doesn’t exhibit any redeeming traits, although he seems perhaps willing to look out for Alvin, who is unable to look after anything. The contrast between the two highlights Alvin’s inability to act throughout the book.
Monte Schulz: “The book is set up so it looks like there are three characters, but there’s really two plus one. There’s really Alvin and Rascal, and Chester kind of drifts in and out. I don’t think we’re supposed to know that much about him. He gives us little hints in conversation about where he comes from, his father’s from Chicago and he grew up there. I think he uses Alvin; I don’t think we have any idea how he feels about Alvin at all. Does he have any affection for him? I don’t know. I don’t know how he feels about anybody.”
One scene has Chester take a farmer and his little boy into a farmhouse, and only Chester comes out. Whether Chester kills them is left open, but the impression is that regardless, Chester has done something frightening to the innocent pair.
“Gary Groth, who bought the book, said that he killed them,” Schulz said in explaining Chester’s amorality. “In an earlier draft of the book, I did have them killed, but then I decided not to. I think what he does is that he locks them in the cellar. I don’t think he really cares; it doesn’t matter to him. If somebody catches up to him, he figures, ‘I’ll just shoot them dead.’ He’s a very confident person; he’s sociopathic, but I don’t think he’s a psychopath. Everything he does is very planned out.
“The whole Chester part of the book is not the main thrust of the book,” Schulz cautioned. While he is responsible for driving most of the action, the character elements and most of the pages are devoted to the relationship between Alvin and Rascal.
“The theme of the book is life and death. I just realized the theme of the book while editing it for Fantagraphics. Even the title, This Side of Jordan, means this side of death,” Schulz said. “We see the river at the séance, a little boy by the river, and a girl walking through, saying, ‘I watched the wind passing through the catalpa tree by the river.’ Alvin is on that dividing line between life and death, he’s on This Side of Jordan. He crosses the river to go west where everything happens, but by the end of the book, he’s going to go back home again. So he’s in this nightmarish landscape that he wasn’t aware of before. And there’re many references to death, and again, I really wasn’t aware of them all when I wrote the book. I’m not really an intellectual writer in terms of plotting the whole thing out; I just kind of wrote it. I had to figure out what was going to happen in each scene to make it work. The language of my writing is what interests me most, and the places I can explore.”
The third main character in the novel, Rascal, was actually the favorite character of Charles Schulz, who read an earlier draft of This Side of Jordan before passing away in 2000. An educated, flamboyant dwarf, Rascal also longs to escape his small town existence, though his romantic notions of life clash against Chester’s amorality more so than Alvin’s indifference.
Talking of his father’s preference, Schulz said, “What Dad used to say about him was, ‘I really like Rascal,’ and when I asked him why, he’d say, ‘Well, he’s such a funny little guy.’ I finished the book before Dad died – that is, I finished This Side of Jordan; I didn’t finish the whole Crossing Eden.
“That was kind of strange, kind of a writerly thing,” he offered of Rascal’s introduction to the story. “Truthfully, Alvin and Chester had arrived in that small town, and Alvin had been sent off to walk the neighborhood. I had him stop at a house and wander toward the house. I literally had no idea what was going to happen; he was just wandering through the yard, and I decided that there was a dwarf living under the house,” Schulz explained, laughing. “I didn’t have any plan for it at all. I’ve never had that happen in writing before. I just liked the idea.
“What I realized is that he’s the true foil for Alvin, not Chester. Both Alvin and Rascal have led sheltered lives, although Rascal is very educated in his own way, tells extravagant stories. He’s influenced probably in a lot of way by some of the characters in Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding, in the way he talks, the stories he tells. I thought it was interesting that Alvin is kind of surly; Alvin knows he’s a hick, he’s a dumbbell, even though he calls everyone else a dumbbell. There’s nothing he can do about it. And you have to feel sorry for him because he’s sick all the time. Rascal’s take on it is now he’s having this adventure. Their relationship just evolved.”
Rascal’s a very important character. While Chester is mysterious and often off on his own errands, Alvin sulks and wonders about the tragedy of his life, Rascal’s eloquence and storytelling often provide life to the narrative. Although Rascal wasn’t originally part of his intent for the novel, Schulz says he wasn’t surprised by the important role the dwarf took on.
Schulz: “I think it’s because I liked him so much. It allowed me to write these philosophical discussions within the book. The truth is that if there is any voice in the book that is native to me, it’s Rascal’s voice. I identify with him as a character. I identify with Alvin too, because I grew up in the countryside. I told Gary when he bought the book, ‘Wait until you see. I am a hick; I’m not as smart as you guys.’
“But Rascal allows me to write philosophically in a way that Alvin never would. Alvin has a very base, simple philosophy. Alvin accepts his own guilt right up through the whole book. He has guilt and remorse and despair. We don’t really know how Rascal feels about things initially. Later on, I think we glean that he’s processing it, mulling it over, trying to figure out how to get them out of this situation. He’s fully aware of the moral quandary into which they’ve stumbled. It takes him most of the summer to figure out a solution. It’s not until he says, ‘Will you help me save us both?’ that I think he realizes he has to come up with a plan. But he’s a very interesting character because, again, I can write philosophically, which I really wanted to go.”
Schulz was three years into writing the novel when he finally found the proper technique to writing period language.
“I hadn’t been doing that before, and I figured out how to do it when I was reading a Scott Fitzgerald short story, and I saw a line of period slang that interested me,” he explained. “I copied it down, and the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. I started going through books from that period, copying down expressions and names for things. It didn’t go into the Alvin book until late, but then I retrofitted a lot of the things that Chester was saying.
“I have a Montgomery Ward catalog from 1922, so when Alvin is up in a woman’s bedroom, all the items are from that catalog. I realized that when you research a period and you want to write accurately, you have to read material from the period. So I didn’t read contemporary histories; I read from the period. I have books on cars, names of clothes, catalogs. Some are reprints. That séance is an example; I bought fourteen books on spiritualism and séances, all from the period. It seems kind of amazing now that I got so many. I read them all, and I took notes from them. The séance took me three months to write, working essentially seven days a week – for a nineteen page sequence – to get all the language right.
“If you’re wondering how accurate all the research is, I hope it’s 100% accurate. During my proofing of this book for Fantagraphics, I fact-checked every single item in the whole book: every tree, every bush, every flower, every car, every little thing that I wrote. I checked on every reference to Alvin’s tuberculosis that was in the first chapter, even the spelling of ‘Syrup of Iodid.’ I had spelled it Iodide, but when I looked back at the medical encyclopedia that I have – the thing is so big that you have to lay it on the floor to look at it – I saw that it was spelled without an E at the end of it. If anything sounds off, like my spelling of parakeet, that’s how I found it. That whole Krakatoa thing – I have a Smithsonian reprint of the records of the whole thing, hour to hour for the two or three weeks that it was exploding. I just followed the chronology.
“You should feel that you’re surrounded in the period: the look, the smell, the sounds, the way people talk, everything,” he said. “You should feel like you’re back in time. It took a very long time. I would say, probably ten years, working every day. I gave a whole decade of my life to that book. I didn’t travel anywhere; my mom lives in Hawaii and I never went to visit her. She thought I didn’t like Hawaii or something, but I never went anywhere until I finished that book. And then Dad died.”
The writing of the book has evolved in many ways, big and small, since Schulz began the novel. “I added a scene near the end where Chester went outside the circus. My agent at the time, Sterling Lord, asked me to write that,” he admits. “He said we needed one more scene with Chester; I hadn’t written in that book in years. I took all of my notes and then wrote the scene. I used to read the book all the time, and I actually like it. Of the three books, it’s my favorite. I just like the rural element of it. I think it’s funny; I laugh at the same places whenever I read it – the exchanges between Alvin and Rascal.
“I guess the scene that I like the best was when they’re sitting in the dining room at the boarding house, hearing that story of the circus,” Schulz said of reading his book again for publication. “It’s actually a strange scene, because sort of the unspoken question is, who are those people and what are they doing there? They’re not connected to Laswell’s circus but they’re all former circus people. It’s kind of an odd scene in a way, but I like the language of it. I was reading Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms to get a feel for that lyrical language. It was really difficult to do.”
Talking about the over-arching epic that this novel is one third of, Schulz told, “This Side of Jordan is one of three books of Crossing Eden. I didn’t really talk about every element of the 1920s in Jordan; I split them up into the different parts of the book. So one part of the book takes place in the city, one part in a small town and this part was deliberately set in the towns of the Midwest. That’s why its lead is a farm boy. In one of the other books, there’s a business man, and I just sort of divided it up that way.”
Crossing Eden, the over-arching story to which This Side of Jordan belongs, is not a true trilogy.
“When you change chapters, you change storylines, so you go 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3,” he explained. “My professor at UC Santa Barbara, when I started the book years and years ago, said that the chapters will have to be long enough to have self-contained story segments so the reader won’t have to remember what’s going on. In Crossing Eden, sometimes you go away from the Alvin story for 150 or 200 pages at a time. Alvin Pendergast’s Aunt Marie married a businessman from Texas, Harry Hennessey. As the book opens, Harry’s having to sell their house because of a downturn in business. So he sends Marie and their two children down to his mother’s house in Bellemont, Texas. That’s where her book takes place, which will be published in 2010. It’s called Fields of Eden. Harry goes to the big city, in a book I call The Big Town, and tries to find his way. While he’s there, he meets a teenage flapper-wannabe, a street urchin named Pearl. So his story takes place there. This Side of Jordan and Fields of Eden are almost the same length. I think Fields of Eden is five, maybe six pages longer. The Big Town is maybe 150 pages longer, about 400 to 450 pages.
“The deal is that I need to finish The Big Town. I rewrote it a couple years ago, and it still doesn’t feel right to me,” he admitted. “I describe it as a train wreck. I have a couple years to finish it, so that affected how we’re scheduling these. This Side of Jordan is the one that Gary read and bought; he told me that he would’ve published the whole thing at once, but I decided that I didn’t want people to have to read a 900-page book. Plus, I needed to fix The Big Town. I thought This Side of Jordan would be the most fun to read; Fields of Eden is a complete different book. It’s more sedate, slower moving, more interior, more dialogue. Compared to literary novels, it’s not really that sedate, but compared to Alvin’s tale, it’s slower. It’s different.
“The period writing in Fields of Eden is better, I think,” Schulz expanded. “It’s more extravagant. It’s more rural and leisurely. The use of language is a little different. Oddly enough, most people like that book better than the Alvin one. I don’t, but my agent and many people who have read them like that one best. I asked them why, and they say because it has adult characters. They didn’t identify – which is too bad – with the nineteen-year-old farm boy and a dwarf. That explains why Rascal and Alvin are ignored by people, I suppose. Nobody really cares!”
Schulz’s relationship with publisher Fantagraphics has both more to do with his family’s association with the publisher than fans might expect, and much less. This Side of Jordan is the second prose novel from the esteemed comics publisher, following Alexander Theroux’s 2007 novel Laura Warholic, or the Sexual Intellectual. Despite the publisher handling Charles Schulz’s The Complete Peanuts, Monte Schulz had no contact with Fantagraphics until the aftermath of David Michaelis’s controversial biography "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography". After the son addressed several of his concerns with Michaelis’s account in print, Gary Groth invited him to be part of a "Comics Journal" discussion of the book’s merits and flaws. That initial contact set the stage for the publisher and author to begin discussion of his own writing.
“I just love working with them,” Schulz enthused. “I just read another editor, who was talking about how he sort of insists that the writer work with him, take his suggestions. Gary isn’t like that at all. He’s a writer’s editor. He buys the person’s writing, so I liked him a lot. At the BEA (Book Expo America), I met Eric Reynolds and Jason Miles, and we sat around talking about the great American novel for an evening. I was very impressed, almost amazed, at how much all those guys have read, how thoughtful they are. Adam Grano, the book designer for This Side of Jordan, he’s a really smart guy. Here’s the thing: I had full access to every element of my book. So I had influence on my cover. Gary told me that he wanted the book to be as beautiful on the outside as on the inside, and that he wanted me to be 100% happy with the whole thing. Whatever suggestions I made, they incorporated. Gary first said, ‘Let us do what we want to do, and you see how much you like it. Then we’ll accede to your desires and wishes.’ It’s been a fabulous experience. I like them all personally; they seem like really interesting people and it’s been fun. Plus, I call up Fantagraphics and I can get Gary if he’s there. Most publishing houses that you call, you feel like there’s buffers; it’s hard to get hold of agents, hard to get hold of editors. They’re never available and they never call you back.
Working with Fantagraphics is “a very good situation for me and what I want out of writing,” he complimented.
Despite the family cartooning blood, don’t expect to see Schulz’s name on your favorite comics anytime soon, however. “That’s an interesting question, because first of all, I can’t draw at all. Gary told me that he’d recently managed a roundtable of some cartoonists who insisted that you don’t really need to be able to draw, but in my household, Dad, although he knows cartoonists and we like some who don’t really draw all that well, was a consummate cartoonist in his artistic ability, and I don’t think he would’ve encouraged me to enter the field if I couldn’t draw. Moreover, the way that I write – and it’s good that you’ve read the book, because ask yourself how that book would ever translate to a graphic novel, and what of it would remain; those lyrical passages, none of that would be in there. As far as doing another kind of book, I don’t know that it would really interest me. I guess, as far as graphic novels, the thing that interested me the most were Hergé’s Tintin books. So I guess if somebody were to say, let’s collaborate on this and we’ll come up with an adventure story, that might be kind of interesting for me to do, but it would have to be something completely different from what I do with my fiction, the kind of thing I would never write as a novel. I’d have to see how the person drew and all that, but otherwise, no, there’s no part of writing comics that applies to what I do – just as what I write doesn’t have any reference in what I used to read when I was younger. I’m influenced by that sort of thing, and you’ll see some of it in The Big Town. I like adventure fiction, I like having things happen. I’m not the literary writer where nothing really happens. Even in Fields of Eden, a big tornado hits town at the end. I like having things happen.
“I did a little comic strip when I was eight or nine. It was horrible, and Dad agreed,” he laughed. “I did one and my brother did one, and he said, ‘I don’t think you guys should go into cartooning.’ Although my favorite comic book hero is Superman and I wrote about him in my Master’s thesis. It’s the quintessential American story, about a foreigner growing up in a small town and being imbued with American values, then going to the big city to find his way. So I always really liked that.”
This Side of Jordan arrives in stores in early October from Fantagraphics Books