Just two degrees separate author Glen David Gold (Carter Beats the Devil) from Charlie Chaplin, the subject of his follow-up novel Sunnyside: Gold’s great aunt Ingrid lived next door to the iconic silent film star in Switzerland. (Although it’s true that Chaplin was known to read portions of his autobiography to friends and neighbors and seek their feedback, Gold admits that what he calls “story yeast” has exaggerated his relative’s involvement over the years to the point where now his family claims, “Oh, yeah, she wrote Chaplin’s autobiography!”)
Last night at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, the Los Angeles native read for about twenty minutes from an early passage in Sunnyside. Inspired by a true incident in 1916, the chapter describes a mass hysteria in which Chaplin was claimed to have been spotted in eight hundred places all over the globe at the same time.
It turns out this really happened. With a character as famous as Chaplin, “it would be a disservice to really mess with it,” Gold said. “I tried to color within the lines pretty closely.”
The book follows Chaplin—he’s the “spine” of the story—but it’s also about his effect on the world. Consequently, copious amounts of research were necessary not only into Gold’s leading man, but into characters such as General Edmund Ironside, who once strangled a man with one hand—the single scrap of information that the author returned with after an overnight trip to a London archive.
It’s a good thing Gold loves “research for research’s own sake. There’s something about picking up beads of knowledge. Sometimes something really sticks with you.”
Too often, however, Gold would find that while he thought he was researching, he was really just goofing off. “I have no discipline whatsoever,” he said. His wife, novelist Alice Sebold, set up a schedule for him. When the work was really rigorous, he was working as many as twelve hours a day. This was when he forced himself to unplug from the Internet, for reasons explained on his guest blog for Vroman’s Bookstore.
“The whole thing about writing is discovery,” he said. “You have to go for the mystery, the thing that’s the question mark.”
The biggest mistake Gold made was trying to outline the novel in advance—a move that contributed to the eight-year delay between books. “It was hell because it was like taking your embryo, putting lipstick and high heels on it, and putting it on a street corner,” he said, attributing the colorful analogy to his wife.
He did know what the last scene was, but not how it fit in with the rest of the story. And he knew the last question—is there meaning in the universe, or is it just chaos?—but not how it would work. This is a technique he picked up from John Irving, who advised to at a certain point write the end of the book, “a target to throw an arrow at.”
Based on what Gold read last night, that arrow flies straight and true.