When Jon Clinch ’76 was a boy, he read “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in the heat of one summer, stretched out in a pup tent behind his parents’ house in Oneida, New York. “The strangeness and pathos of the book struck me hard, and stayed with me,” he remembers. “That poor lonesome boy whom nobody loved. His brutal father, to whom he was worth exactly six hundred dollars. I didn’t know anything about bigotry or child abuse or alcoholism then, but they were all there in Pap Finn.”
The seeds of another great novel were planted that summer in the fertile mind of young Clinch, whose first book was published nearly four decades later. In “Finn,” it seemed as if the ghosts of Twain, Faulkner and Steinbeck came together to produce a novel so powerful, so brutal, and so beautifully written it conjured memories of a long-lost era in American literature. “Finn” is the story of what Huck Finn’s father might have been if such a hardened, vile character could exist anywhere but within the pages of a book.
Now, with the publication of his fifth novel, Clinch has reanimated the ghost from Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” “Marley” is a haunting reimagining of the friendship between the loathsome Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge.
“Marley” debuts on October 8, bolstered by a chorus of praise from early reviews by prominent authors. Elizabeth Letts (“Finding Dorothy”) calls it “Delightful, disturbing and deeply profound,” and Charles Frazier (“Cold Mountain”) says, “As he did with “Finn,” Jon Clinch digs down to the bones of a classic and creates must-read modern literature.”
Giving New Life to Old Fiction
Clinch’s fascination with “A Christmas Carol” began with what Dickens didn’t include in the story. “We know precious little about Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge,” he says. “We know their business involves a warehouse and an accounting operation. We know that Scrooge lives in Marley’s house after his partner’s death. We know that Scrooge had a sister and a nephew and a fiancé.
“So I began to wonder about Marley,” Clinch says. “What kind of individual would choose to be the lifelong business partner of a man as cold and cruel as Ebenezer Scrooge? Were they the closest of friends or the most intimate of enemies? I wondered exactly what line of business they were in. I wondered, of course, how he died.”
Clinch explores all this and much more in this stylishly written novel, which “brilliantly captures the wit and irony of Dickens’ prose as he unfurls a tale of greed, cruelty and passion,” according to Kirkus Reviews. “Read through to the last page of this brilliant book, and I promise you that you will have a permanently changed view, not just of Dickens’ world, but of the world we live in today,” adds Letts.
Syracuse Connections Run Deep
The roots of Clinch’s considerable talent have been entwined with Syracuse University since the early 1900s. When he graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1976, Clinch was the sixth member of his family to earn a Syracuse University degree. His maternal grandfather, Howard Knapp, was a 1917 graduate of Syracuse. “He lived on the family farm on Onondaga Hill, where he did chores before walking to Salina Street to catch the trolley to campus,” Clinch says. Knapp’s brothers, Lorenzo and Clifford, were also Syracuse University graduates. Knapp married Muriel Taft and moved to Genoa, New York, where he taught science and served as principal of the high school. Their daughter, Shirley Knapp Harris, graduated with a music degree in the 40s.
After Howard Knapp died, Muriel married Walter Newton, who had earned a degree from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1907. Newton, like Muriel’s first husband, also worked as a high school principal. “He became the only grandfather I ever really knew,” Clinch says. “He used to reminisce about attending chapel on the upper floor of the Hall of Languages, looking out across the fields in every direction.”
Clinch found his own route to Syracuse University through Wendy Harris Clinch, his wife of 43 years. They were English majors at Ithaca College when they grew restless for new challenges. “After two years I’d taken most every course that interested me in the English Department, and Wendy realized she’d be a lot happier studying at the Newhouse School of Public Communications. So we transferred together. I blame a good bit of my motivation on love,” he says.
Finding a Mentor
Syracuse University ended up being a good fit for a student focused on writing, reading, art and music. “My interests didn’t equip me well for following in my dad’s footsteps at the company where he worked for most of his life and which he eventually owned—the Oneida Heater Company,” Clinch observes. He decided that becoming a teacher made more sense, and an English professor named Pat Moody became his role model.
“Pat was the first person I met at Syracuse and the last one I said goodbye to,” Clinch remembers. “She was my advisor and an absolutely splendid teacher—entirely credible, deeply learned, funny as hell and tremendously devoted to her students.”
Moody remembers Clinch as “one of those students who always looked for another way to see things. This quality has stood him in good stead—another way to view Huck’s father, another way to view Scrooge,” she says. “It was the curious or unaccounted-for details that caught his attention.”
Syracuse provided a welcome outlet for another of Clinch’s talents: music. An accomplished guitarist, Clinch has fond memories of playing at the Ground Round in Fayetteville, New York. He even opened for Livingston Taylor at Jabberwocky, Syracuse University’s performance venue. He still plays music gigs regularly at various locations in Vermont.
Teaching the Teachers
After “Finn” was published, Moody tapped Clinch to teach a few sessions for teachers enrolled in Syracuse University Project Advance. “I was happy to see that she was still her old self, enthusiastically devoted to the essential work of teaching,” Clinch recalls. “I did sessions in Syracuse, New York City and Maine, and found the teachers in each city to be a powerful and supportive bunch. They believed in the good work they were doing.”
Moody notes that the teachers so enjoyed Clinch’s presentation and responses to their questions that several have stayed in contact with him. “I know that he inspired at least one of them to finish his own novel,” she says.
A Winding Career Path
After graduating from Syracuse University, Clinch taught high school English for three years in the town of Perkasie, Pennsylvania. “In a single week at the close of my second year, the superintendent tried to fire me for being too tough on my students, and the state gave me the Teacher of the Year award,” he reflects.
Clinch figured that trying to maintain that balance would be futile, so he and Wendy opened up their own ad agency, which flourished for 20 years.
Throughout many of those years, he wrote novels. “One after another, a page a day and sometimes more, over a period of five or six years. It was my do-it-yourself MFA,” he chuckles. “‘Finn’ was my fifth novel, and it was the first one that got any interest from the publishing world.”
That’s quite an understatement. “Finn” was named a best novel of the year by The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. It was an American Library Association Notable Book and won the Philadelphia Athenaeum Literary Award. “Finn” was also shortlisted for the Sargent First Novel Prize.
Three acclaimed novels followed; “Kings of the Earth,” the storyline of which is borrowed from the true-life fratricide case involving the Ward brothers of Oneida, New York, which was also named a Best Novel of the Year by The Washington Post; “The Thief of Auschwitz,” the haunting story of a family struggling to survive in a death camp during the Holocaust; and “Belzoni Dreams of Egypt,” a fictional biography of a real-life 19th century explorer.
Crafting a Novel
Clinch describes his writing habits as “methodical, which I probably owe to the discipline of writing advertising for all of those years.” He devotes six hours each day to writing, which rarely yields more than a thousand words. “I never know what I’m going to say until I’ve said it 16 different times, and I can leave no unpolished sentence behind,” he says. “It’s slow labor, word by word by word.”
His labors have not gone unrewarded. Atria, a division of Simon and Schuster, bought the rights to “Marley” before other publishers could bid on it. “I had a long conversation with Atria’s VP and executive editor, Peter Borland,” Clinch recalls. “He really understood the book and was enormously enthusiastic about it. I told my agent I’d like to make a deal, and Borland got back to us within hours with a great offer.”
“Meticulously crafted and beguilingly told, ‘Marley’ revisits and illuminates one of Charles Dickens’s most cherished works to spellbinding effect,” the publisher says on its official “Marley” page. “‘Marley’ adds fascinating new dimensions to our understanding of Marley, Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and the rest, but it is also a ravishing and psychologically astute work of historical fiction in its own right.”
This story was first published on September 25, 2019 and last updated on .
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