Historical novel set in the Spanish speaking world. Plus QA with Maria Dueñas
Novel set in multiple locations, plus we chat to author Michael Grothaus
7th June 2016
Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus, novel set in multiple locations.
Chicago to Mexico to Portugal to France…
A venal, yet at time darkly humorous novel that plumbs the visceral recesses of human life. Jerry Dresden is a child of the early 80s, who has been severely bullied at school. At the age of 10 his little sister is diagnosed with leukaemia and passes away just as he is emerging into his adolescent years. He loses not only his sister but also his father, a PR in the Hollywood film industry. His mother is an expert on the life of Joan of Arc, and a seminal moment comes in his life – early in the book – when he clubs his Mother with her dildo.
The profound loss suffered in his early teenage years is plugged by an ever increasing interest in pornography and sex. Astutely observed, this activity is indeed “a cover for your misery“. His early experiments escalate until it all “begins to snowball” out of control. This is sexual addiction writ large, compounded by psychosis. Jerry is an increasingly isolated young man, stuck at the emotional age of early adolescence, when the traumas in his life took place. Soon he finds that he is accompanied by Epiphany who is a charismatic flesh and blood character yet at times an ingnis fatuus (IF) who guides, harasses and cajoles him …. Even she is not free of his sexual predation.
A van Gogh painting is missing and the finger of culpability is soon pointed at Jerry.
This is a strong and at times shocking read, that challenges, and leads the reader into a world that could be starkly drawn by the medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch, where anything is possible, where people are trafficked, abused and misused. Not a lot has changed in the intervening centuries it would seem. And yet, there is black humour which relieves the bleak and complex meanderings of a deeply troubled man navigating his way through life. It is a struggle to really like him, as the self referring chaos that accompanies his life is hard to stomach – take his response to the news that an orphanage has burned down, to which he replies that that is like Disneyland compared to his life; or that he dabbles with under age prostitutes.
In search of a video tape, which hopefully will exonerate him from a murder charge, Jerry sets off in the company of his female IF, Epiphany, from the West Coast of America towards Mexico. Jerry makes for an absurd sight in his My Little Pony T-Shirt, but this is a novel of the absurd. From there it is on to Porto in Portugal, where he meets Bela and then further on to the South of France.
The history of Joan of Arc is integral to the narrative – a woman who was revered and reviled, people either loved or hated her. The women in “Epiphany Jones” are used and abused but can also be sage and insightful in the eyes of this one man, who weaves in and out of reality. Women were horrifically burned at the stake in the 15th century of Joan of Arc, and contemporary chronicler and artist of the time Hieronymus Bosch imaginatively recorded the horrors of life and from his own (psychotic?) imagination. Today women are just skewered in other ways. This is not a novel for those who are uncomfortable with scenes of violence and a sexual nature.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
Over to Michael who has kindly agreed to answer our questions:
TF: I understand that you have researched celebrity porn and sex trafficking. Your findings must have been shocking judging by some of the issues raised in the book. Can you tell us a little more about your investigations?
MG: When I was 22 I graduated from film school in the United States, and I went to work for the Art Institute of Chicago, which is the city’s major art museum (think of it as the Tate Modern of Chicago). At the Art Institute I wrote and directed children’s films. During that time I also took a one-year sabbatical and went to France to work an internship for a major US movie studio at the Cannes Film Festival.
As you know, the Cannes Film Festival is the most prestigious film festival in the world and every year all of Hollywood’s hottest starts flock there to be seen and attend the premiers and after parties. While working for this major film studio there, I was able to attend some of those after parties and while most were, as you would suspect, lavish and fantastical and surreal in a way – you saw stars of the film screen walking around right next to you – there were a few parties I attended where some things didn’t quite fit … or didn’t seem right…
So after I returned from Cannes the idea for Epiphany Jones grew organically from my experiences there. At the time I had no idea sex trafficking/slavery existed, but then I started researching it and put two and two together.
My initial investigations into sex trafficking were primarily through research papers. There are some excellent papers written by the World Health Organization and other anti-trafficking institutions. Over the years I then did some personal interviews with survivors and had a close run-in with people in the trade in an Eastern European country.
As for my research into fake celebrity porn, I think I originally saw my first fake image in college when a friend sent me one as a joke that he found on the internet of Angelina Jolie (because I had a big crush on her when I was younger). But what really interested me about the image was that it looked so real. You couldn’t tell it was Photoshopped. In a way, it was art … or at least it required a lot of artistic talent.
So years later, after I got the first rumbling of the ideas for Epiphany Jones, I thought it would be great to explore this seedy sex trafficking among the Hollywood elite through the eyes of someone who himself had an addiction to this completely false representation of Hollywood stars. That’s when I decided to learn more about the people that create these fake images and I met two, in particular, that moved me in very different ways and made me realize that this world of fake celebrity porn could become an obsession.
BTW if you want to read more about my experiences in Cannes you can read this VICE article I wrote here. And if you want to read more about the two men I just mentioned you can read this Litro Magazine article I wrote.
TF: The storyline involves a missing work of art by Van Gogh. Why did you choose this particular artist?
MG: I chose Van Gogh because I’ve always been a fan of his work and also was able physically to hold one of his self-portraits in my hands when I worked at the museum in Chicago, which had quite an effect on me. It was such a surreal moment: holding this tiny self-portrait that was painted by one of the greatest artists in history. The Van Gogh painting in Epiphany Jones is a fictionalized version of the real painting I held, which is heavily based on the real painting’s look and style.
I also chose Van Gogh because, from what we know about him, he shared several physical and mental traits with Epiphany – both have a mutilated ear and both heard voices.
TF: Location is fundamental to TripFiction. Why drew you to the specific locations in the book?
MG: There’s a little trip secret I’ve hidden in Epiphany Jones. The route Jerry and Epiphany take – Chicago to Mexico to Portugal to France – is the exact opposite many trafficking victims take when they are smuggled into the US. So in the book, Epiphany in a way is reverse-smuggling Jerry.
For some of the locations, I put them in the book because I love those places, and for other locations I put them in the book because they were necessary for the story. For example, I lived in Chicago for over ten years and know the city very well. It was a perfect place for me to start the story. Mexico was necessary because a lot of human trafficking goes on through parts of Mexico.
Portugal, on the other hand, was a relatively late addition to the story. Originally I had planned for Jerry to go to Italy from Mexico, but then I traveled to Portugal for the first time in 2009 and fell in love with the country, so I wanted to put it in the book. Since then I’ve also lived in the country for a while and fell in love with its culture and people. That’s why Porto features so heavily in the book. It also, of course, fits with the story.
And then there is Cannes, which was dictated by the story since that is where the Cannes Film Festival takes place. I’ve been to Cannes several times, all during the festival, and during those three weeks every year it’s such a microcosm of Hollywood and celebrity worship, opportunists, and self-important people all rolled into one – like a blight of excess on this perfect seaside town. The city itself is beautiful, but during the festival it’s just non-stop Hollywood parties and this gluttony of celebrity culture.
TF: What has been your route to publication? Considering the subject matter I wonder if it was even more of a challenge than it might otherwise have been to find a publisher?
MG: I won’t say it was easy, but publishing a book never is. Many publishers are reluctant to go with books from debut authors that don’t fit into an established mould. They want something easily definable and something as low risk as possible. I was told plenty of times that because of the subject matter of Epiphany Jones it could be a hard sell to publishers. Orenda Books isn’t afraid to take chances on new voices and stories that break out of these standard moulds and I couldn’t be happier to be publishing with them.
TF: You have a great writing style, it feels easy to read and fluid. How did you first come to writing? And what tips would give to other aspiring authors?
MG: Thank you. My first degree was actually in filmmaking. I used to want to be a screenwriter. But after working in the industry I became disenchanted. I soon found that in the film industry a story never remains ‘true’. By that I mean, it never remains the writer’s own story. Most filmmaking is done by committee and no matter how good the original script, it will always be changed – and many times not for plot reasons, but for budgetary reasons.
For example, if you want to make it rain in a movie or have a large scale invasion from a foreign army, that’s a whole series of meetings with the finance guys. How much is this going to cost? If the costs are too high, that element gets cut from the script.
Writing a book, on the other hand, the story gets to remain true. The novelist doesn’t have to worry about budgetary constraints or getting the approval of producers or investors to have a specific scene in a book. He or she can create whatever they want for the story using only words. Once I realized novels are true and pure from a storytelling perspective in a way movies could never be, I started writing books.
As for tips to aspiring authors: don’t worry about being rejected. Keep writing and keep submitting. Also, don’t talk about what you are writing to other people before you have a first draft done. You’ll remain more true to your story that way and stop others from trying to impact what they think your story should be.
Finally, write for yourself, not others. I know this might be sacrilege, but I don’t write with readers or an audience in mind. I write because other people aren’t writing the stories I want to read – so it’s up to me. I write for me first, and if other people end up liking it, I’m thrilled and honoured, but still I always write only for me.
TF: What is next for you?
MG: I’m working on my next novel, but I have a rule where I never talk about the plot to anyone until I have a finished first draft. However, the themes the novel deals with include infidelity and national identity.
TF: Which books have you enjoyed so far this year?
MG: I’ve particularly enjoyed Strange Weather In Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami and Demian by Herman Hesse.