The Big Idea: Robert Jackson Bennett

What does YouTube have to do with the vaudeville theaters that used to pepper the United States — and what do either have to do with Art (yes, with a capital “A”)? These are excellent questions, and in the course of writing The Troupe, Shirley Jackson Prize-winner (and current Edgar and Philip K Dick award nominee) Robert Jackson Bennett attempted to answer these questions to his own satisfaction. Will he answer them to yours? Read below and find out.

ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT:

I was once asked exactly what class of zombies I’d chosen to feature in one of my novels. I found it a very difficult question to answer because I had no idea I’d put in any zombies in the story at all. I am still not quite sure what that person meant: I imagine they simply wished to read a zombie story, and were prepared to interpret whichever book they happened to pick up as exactly that.

This oddity recalls to mind another story, this one of a friend’s aunt: the friend was very artistic, often digressing about certain painters at great length, but the aunt always bowed out of the conversation, because she “just didn’t like art.” She never had, she said. It was just one of the things she never “got.”

It was several years later that the aunt discovered she was largely colorblind. How someone can go through life without any awareness of this is beyond me, but it would certainly explain why she’d never cottoned on to Degas.

Art is weird. You are never really sure if what you are interpreting was intentionally put there by the creator, or if you are putting it there yourself.

But I suppose one could say the same thing about the world. We carry invisible filters around our eyes that dictate what we see, and how. Two people witnessing the same incident can come away with completely different conclusions. Is how one interprets a work of art any different from how one interprets the world itself?

This idea sat in my head, and it bubbled, and it percolated. And one day I started thinking of the world like a story. No, not just a story – a performance. Maybe a song, stretching on and on and on. And we, like any reader, like any audience member, try to interpret it, wondering, “Why? Why this? What was the intent behind this? Who wrote this, who sang this, and why?”

That was how The Troupe started. A song in the dark, and a hidden singer, and the whole world wondering about the nature of this song.

So I imagined a troupe of traveling performers, doing their bit and entertaining the low-brow in the most low-brow of fashions. And I knew I wanted their performances to have something fundamental about them, something primordial, as if their style of performance was the progenitor of all forms of entertainment today.

Which, of course, led me straight to vaudeville.

Within vaudeville are the building blocks of all American entertainment. Stretching from the late 19th century right up to the advent of motion pictures, vaudeville was the most accessible, most colorful, most surreal, and the most utterly dominant form of entertainment in America. It was, in its barest essence, a circuit of theaters running along the railways, and all of these theaters were managed by an overarching booking office: the booking office plumbed the depths of the world of entertainment, and tapped a lucky few to travel the circuits; and it chose which of these acts traveled which parts of the circuit, and which theaters they performed at, and where they sat on the bill (for the theater bill was a holy text, a preeminent emblem indicating exactly how important you were, and which sort of act you were, and how much of a crowd you’d get).

There were two main circuits: the Keith-Albee in the East, and the Orpheum in the West. Chicago was the dividing line. If you were booked on either of these circuits, you were undeniably Big Time.

These circuits were so huge, so successful, that the entertainment they showcased set the mold for all American entertainment right up until today. We would not have sketch comedy or standup or musicals without vaudeville – no Saturday Night Live, no Louis CK, no Glee. But we would also not have Youtube, or Bugs Bunny, or a whole hell of a lot of the movies – for the people who first made the movies, and decided what the movies were and what they would do, were people who’d learned and honed their trade in vaudeville.

Vaudeville is in our artistic DNA. Though it appears dead, its standards still resonate, and to some extent it decides what we like and what we don’t like – our past, in many ways, continues to dictate our present.

So it was perfect for my troupe. But that still left the song, and the hidden singer.

Since I’d been thinking about art so much, it made me think a bit about truth. Because when you sit down to read, or watch a movie, or look at a painting, sure, sometimes you just want to be entertained, and have an hour or so filled up in a fairly enjoyable fashion. But other times you want something more. You want for your art to have a little piece of something true in it. You want to see a flash of something in a book or movie or a picture, and think, “Yes, that’s it. That’s how things are. That’s how things really are.”

So I decided that maybe during one of the troupe’s songs, there is a flash of truth… but it is of a truth so great, so powerful, and so tremendous that anyone who saw it came away changed. Yet that change would also be so fundamental that they didn’t even understand that it had happened.

Maybe during their jokes and songs and capering, one of the performers revealed a little splinter of the Eternal. And after seeing such a thing, your life can never be the same.

The Troupe is about a lot of things: on one hand, it’s about vaudeville, and a quest, and heroes and villains and bravado and redemption. But it’s also about figuring out the world, about figuring out yourself, about the elusive nature of truth. It’s about entertainment, and the fine line between the audience and the artist. It’s about growing up, and learning what acceptance and peace really mean.

Perhaps I wished to turn the world into a stage, and hang curtains around it, so we could better view it, and laugh or hurl a rotten tomato or two. With a dab of facepaint and the tinkling of a piano, perhaps we could come to understand the performance that all of us are forced to act in.

The Troupe: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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18 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Robert Jackson Bennett

  1. I’m a big fan of his work. I read a lot of Robert’s short stories before Mr. Shivers came out, back when he used to post them on a little online forum. He’s a talented guy and I look forward to reading this. Something about his writing just strikes a chord with me, like it was written just for me.

  2. Looks great! I am ashamed that I ignored the stories that my grandparents and great-grandparents told me about the Vaudeville performances they had enjoyed. I was fixated on science fiction books, on television, and I undervalued older dramatic media. Even though one great Uncle of mine was (in modern terms) Executive Producer of 2 of the 3 top radio entertainment shows in the USA. As a teenager, I failed as an actor, which is an experience much to be commended. I’m thinking of Double Star– the science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction (February, March, April 1956) and published in hardcover the same year. At the 1957 Worldcon it received the Hugo Award for Best Novel of the previous year. And I’m thinking of John Varley’s The Golden Globe (1998) Prometheus Award winner, 1999; Locus SF Award nominee, 1999.

  3. I’ve been re-reading the wonderful “Three Uses of the Knife” by David Mamet recently, and this book looks to dovetail nicely to what he says about the value of “good” theater.

    Another nice book for the TBR pile. Yay!

  4. Dagblag, just as I promise myself that I won’t spend any more on books until I get The Pile read down a little, something like this comes along that I want to start reading right now.

  5. Heh. “How someone can go through life without any awareness of this is beyond me”. That’s funny.

  6. I don’t want to get off-topic, but Mathematics is the performing art at which I am most accomplished. I’ve published substantially more than 3,000 works of Mathematics in journals, proceedings of international conferences, and important onlline edited venues such as The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, and the arXiv (admittedly, the average one is less than a page long. So? Didn’t Asimov write a lot of dirty limericks?

    Yet a majority of American’s “don’t GET Math.” They are Math-blind, perhaps the same way as the aunt was colorblind. I can’t just say: “How someone can go through life without any awareness of this is beyond me…” — because I had to teach somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 students, in middle school, high school, college, university, corporation, government, and organizations of Senior Citizens. Yet Mathematics famously emits now and then “a flash of truth… but it is of a truth so great, so powerful, and so tremendous that anyone who saw it came away changed.”

    Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950):
    Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
    Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
    And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
    To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
    At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
    In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
    Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
    From dusty bondage into luminous air.
    O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
    When first the shaft into his vision shone
    Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
    Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
    Who, though once only and then but far away,
    Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

    I have a hard time selling my several hundred thousand words of Mathematical Science Fiction, perhaps because I’m not as good a writer as Charles Stross, but also perhaps because many of the editors and readers are color-blind, and there are too many colors in what I write, even if my PC leaves off the infra-red and ultraviolet due to bandwidth limits in the online submission process.

  7. Jonathan Vos Post:

    “I don’t want to get off-topic”

    Which means that you do in fact want to get off topic. And remember that I get annoyed when that happens.

    JvP, you do have a tendency to wander off when you post. Remember to stay on topic, and that the longer your comments, the less inclined people will be to read through the whole thing. Brevity may or may not be the soul of wit, but it is the key to useful comments.

  8. It would be nice if the book was available on Kindle. Living in Thailand it’s hard to run down to the bookstore to pick up a copy and reading on my iPad is my only entertainment.

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