The Big Idea: Chandler Klang Smith

In this edition of the Big Idea, author Chandler Klang Smith confronts reality, the imaginary, perception, and, of course, Bob Dylan, whilst discussing her novel Goldenland Past Dark. Good morning! Hope you’ve had your coffee.


When one sees reality through the mind’s eye, what is created?  And what is erased, distorted, lost?

The last song on the Bob Dylan album Highway 61 Revisited is “Desolation Row.” Like most of the other tracks, it’s populated with surreal and carnivalesque figures: a tightrope walker, a fortuneteller, the hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, mermaids.  After what seems like a final verse (in which the players board the doomed Titanic), the music goes into a lengthy harmonica solo – presumably, the end of the song, the end of the album.  But it isn’t.  Like the false bottom of a drawer, it’s just there to conceal the most important content. When Dylan’s lyrics return, the imagery is entirely different from what’s preceded it:

“Yes, I received your letter yesterday / About the time the doorknob broke / When you asked me how I was doing / Was that some kind of joke? / All these people that you mention / Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame / I had to rearrange their faces / And give them all another name…”

Like a dream, the song has taken characters and situations from the speaker’s life and translated them into symbols, disguised them in metaphor. Sometimes reality only becomes bearable when glimpsed in the funhouse mirror of the imagination.

If I had one guiding idea when I wrote Goldenland Past Dark, it was this. My novel is about a young circus performer, Webern Bell, damaged physically and psychologically by a childhood that left him motherless, hunchbacked, and stunted. In the present day, he deals with everything emotional in his life (memories, love, grief, anger, rejection), through bizarre clown routines that come to him in dreams. When even that becomes too painful, he finds comfort with an imaginary friend, Wags, who also serves as his double, scapegoat, and replacement.

As someone who prefers the alternate worlds of fiction to any reality I’ve experienced, I can certainly relate to the impulse to make sense of life through fantasy. Yet I see something sinister in it too, and this was the tension I wanted to explore. The urge to retreat, to escape, can be a creative one, but taken to an extreme, it can be a form of delusion, self-erasure – psychic suicide. It also can let the dreamer off too easy. In the kingdom of one’s own mind, other people aren’t real, so there’s no need to consider anyone else’s point of view.

Which brings us back to the Bob Dylan song. For me, that final verse is so powerful not just because he reveals the logic underlying the creation of the song that precedes it, but because, for the first time, he acknowledges the presence of the listener he’s addressing.  And more than that, he’s communicating with this person – not just transmitting a message into the void, but continuing a conversation, responding to the letter he received.  As much as he wants to be left alone (“Don’t send me no more letters, no…”), the hope of being understood by another has motivated and inspired him all along.

The point of making art isn’t just to create a space where you can go to sort out the nonsense of life; it’s to open up this space to others, too. By the end of Goldenland Past Dark, my protagonist makes himself vulnerable in this way, and consequently, grows up as a person and as a performer.


Goldenland Past Dark: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.

5 Comments on “The Big Idea: Chandler Klang Smith”

  1. Sounds interesting- I’ve missed having a voice like Tom Reamy. Also may I say, that’s a very cool cover!

  2. Thank you for The Big Idea series. Since my town lost its B&N the only bookstore selling new books is a small independent seller who, by necessity of space, focuses on width of coverage rather than depth in any genre. The Big Idea has taken place of browsing bookshelves for me and I often purchase books on the basis of the article. I also look up the books that you receive and show in stacks, which is how I found Jacqueline Carey’s newest.

  3. The cover is absolutely wonderful. It made me spend the last nine hours reworking mine into something evocative and clean (while not as good as this, obviously). Goldenland Past Dark sounds exactly the sort of book I most enjoy and, besides, Dylan makes everything better. I will hunt it down.

  4. I am more of a lurker, but this is one time when I just had to comment. The book sounds fascinating. +++ for mentioning my favourite Dylan song as well. Lovely cover, as noted above by the others. But what really attracted my eyes was your website design. Absolutely gorgeous.

    By the way, Amazon is claiming that the book is being published on 2 April. Is that correct?

  5. Thanks for the compliments on the cover everyone!

    Siddhartha: thanks to you as well, and I’ll pass your appreciation on to our webmaster. Amazon has that April date; however, it is already out in most places. Underneath Amazon’s April 2nd date, it now says it is in stock for Monday, so you’re good to order it if you like. If you prefer, you can order it directly from ChiZine Publications here: Note: if you order direct, you get the ebook edition for free with the paperback version, so it’s an extra good deal.

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