As we're getting ready to release Tom LeClair's forthcoming Passing Away on October 1st, we took the time to sit down with Tom to talk about the new book, unreliable narrators, deception, and protagonist Keever's life after Passing. Stay tuned for more news on Passing Away including a sample chapter and a pre-order coming in the weeks ahead.
A Conversation with Tom LeClair
Q: This fourth book in your “Passing” sequence seems different, somehow “softer,” more heart-felt and reader-friendly.
TLC: As Prufrock says, “I grow old, I grow old.” I trust Passing Away still has an existential edge. Characters in the novella and the two long stories are near death, after all. But I guess I’d agree. These three new fictions are about families, how events in their past still disturb the present, maybe even intensely because there’s not much of it left. And this is a good time to assure readers that Passing Away, like the others, is a stand-alone work. You do not have to read the preceding three novels, not yet.
Q: You’ve said Passing Away completes your sequence. Did you set out to write a tetralogy?
TLC: I’m a late starter and slow learner in fiction-writing. At around 50, I set out to write a novel about two things I loved—basketball and Greece. It took years to get Passing Off revised and published, so a sequence was the last thing on my mind, even knowing Updike had published four novels about his hoopster Rabbit. But I will admit that even from the beginning I was thinking about Don DeLillo’s End Zone and Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association—and wanted to write the basketball equivalent of those novels.
Q: So how did the sequence grow?
TLC: My novels begin with occupations, the work the protagonist or narrator does. So each time I had an occupation in mind, I asked myself if Michael Keever of Passing Off could do the job. A former basketball star in Europe, he lacked the qualifications to be a Human Rights investigator in Well-Founded Fear, but since Keever was widely traveled he did fit as the proprietor of “Terminal Tours” in Passing On. Although he couldn’t really be a fast-talking salesman in The Liquidators, Keever seemed a natural to teach writing in my satire of a drive-through college in Passing Through. But the sequence didn’t so much “grow” as leapfrog, because there was always a non-Passing novel between the Keever books.
Q: The work between Passing Through and Passing Away is a historical novel, Lincoln’s Billy. Why this turn to the past in that book and to two of the stories in Passing Away?
TLC: “Passing Away,” the long narrative that begins the book, is another Keever “memoir.” There he says that he wants to move away from writing about himself. Since he’s my alter-id, I could say the same. But in fact, all three historical narrators—William “Billy” Herndon, Calvin Coolidge, and Frederic Tudor—are like me in this interview: old men looking back on and defending and perhaps rationalizing their works and lives. I didn’t want to commit to writing full-scale novels about the two men, so like Tudor skimming the ice off Walden Pond I had Keever, the putative author of these two stories, skim off the most interesting qualities of the two New Englanders’ lives for my long narratives.
Q: Why do you think you kept returning to Keever as a possible job candidate?
TLC: Many reasons, the worst of which is laziness. Creating characters is hard work. Why not use my main man Michael? Keever is the dumb part of me that still exists beneath the academic training, the part that would risk things this former professor wouldn’t. Keever’s nickname is “Key.” I believe he unlocks something in me. I imagine him to discover what I may not consciously realize I feel or believe. For example, the novella that gives Passing Away its title got its start with me “interviewing” Keever when I thought I might be dying from pancreatic cancer. Much of what he tells me in that “interview,” which was published in Agni, is incorporated in the novella, mostly in the voice, now, of Michael’s brother Patrick who is dying of pancreatic cancer.
Q: Keever thinks of himself as a “dumb athlete.” He seems an odd choice to narrate four works of fiction.
TLC: Who better to write realistic fiction than an ordinary guy with an unusual sensitivity to physical experience? During an environmental disaster, he realizes we’re all athletes, all bodies needing life’s basics. His obsession with basketball also has him look at life through the lens of a game, which gives his narrative perspective some originality. Tricky on the court and deceptive in his life, Keever is also a deceiver in his writing. Because he fictionalizes the narratives he presents as “memoirs,” he’s a stand-in for a novelist. The title of Passing Off has at least a double meaning: it’s a basketball term and a counterfeit term. Because Keever is a liar, his books are fictions within my novels, which takes “No game, no gain” up a level.
Q: Keever appears to be more reliable in “Passing Away,” not as much of a liar.
TLC: Yes, Keever seems pretty reliable…
Q: “Seems?” You don’t know?
TLC: [Laugh out loud] The layers of deception and self-deception in these four books are so thick and convoluted that even the author doesn’t know for sure who and what are reliable. In truth, if you can believe me, I’ve designed the books that way. In this regard, I’ll confess I’m not so “reader-friendly.” Keever was known as the “Greek Key” in Athens. You’ve seen the design called the “Greek Key” (or meander) around doorways or on pediments or even on frames for paintings. It’s my Mobius strip, zig and zag—“on and on and on” as the motto of Terminal Tours says. Round and round my ideal readers go, never leaving the tetralogy, forever trying to figure out the “Greek Key.” Remember, all the books are not just narrated by Keever. The fake title pages—the frame—claim the books have been written by him, which raises the issue of motivation for why a story is told, maybe for Keever to make money or to get a job or to get out of a job or, in the case of “Passing Away,” to memorialize a brother, not an easy task to do reliably given the events of that narration.
Q: So is there anymore life left for Keever after Passing Away?
TLC: I admit I’m interested in the possibilities of the phrase “Passing Over,” but I think now that Keever has moved from fictionalizer of his own life to the fictionalizer of others’ lives (and deaths) Passing Away is a good place to end. It’s like as a writer he has caught up to me. We’re not as separate as we once were. Although Keever is much younger than I am and probably still has other lives to lead, I feel there’s a certain roundedness to the four books, a finality implied by the title of Passing Away. Both the epigraph and the book’s final word is “Enough,” a tip of my hat to Rabbit at Rest that ends with that word. DeLillo once told me that every time he started a novel, he thought of it as a race against death. I kind of like retirement from that race and the serenity of “final words.”