Amazon Significant Seven, April 2007
: On the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, you won't want to confuse Matthew Sharpe's new novel by that name with the many commemorative histories that are coming out alongside it. In this gleefully anachronistic and deeply scatological tale, history repeats itself in a post-apocalyptic future that's as violent as the past. Sharpe connects many of the familiar historical dots (Pocahontas saves Captain John Smith and falls for John Rolfe, for example), but his settlers don't arrive from across the Atlantic in search of new land for tobacco: they flee a Manhattan where the Chrysler Building has just collapsed and the water is poison, driving an armored bus down the ruins of I-95 in search of the supplies of gas and clean food that they hope the territory of Virginia might provide. Amid the gore and smut, you'll find a surprisingly touching love story, starring a restless, de-Disneyed, and thoroughly charming Pocahontas, and thrillingly inventive language on every page that skims from Elizabethan archaism to IM slang and back, often in the same sentence. --Tom Nissley
Questions for Matthew Sharpe
Jamestown is Matthew Sharpe's fourth book (his previous novel, The Sleeping Father broke out into wide readership, thanks in part to a surprise Today show book club selection). We asked him a few questions about his latest work.
Amazon.com: What attracted you to the Jamestown story (aside, of course, from cashing in on the 400th anniversary)?
Sharpe: For a dozen years I worked as a writer in residence in New York City public schools for a nonprofit called Teachers & Writers Collaborative. In the late '90s a group of middle-school teachers in Queens asked me to help them develop some creative writing exercises for a unit they were about to teach on the Jamestown settlement of 1607 in Virginia. I read John Smith's several accounts of his sojourn there, made up some writing exercises, road-tested them, and liked the material so much I decided to do a big, novel-length writing exercise about it. I was drawn to the extremity of the story, the big personalities--Smith, Pocahontas, Powhatan--and, well, the awfulness of it. The story of Jamestown functions as one of the founding myths of our nation, and I wanted to highlight how America began in violence, bloodshed, and a level of incompetence that would be ridiculous had it not been so deadly; in other words, Jamestown was a lot like the administration of George W. Bush.
As for cashing in, I leave that to lottery winners and poker champions.
Amazon.com: You reveal how the former United States has come to this post-apocalyptic state of affairs in bits and pieces. Did you work that future history out for yourself beforehand, or did you just fill it in on the go, as needed?
Sharpe: I'm inclined to use the term post-annihilation rather than post-apocalyptic, since "apocalypse" implies revelation, i.e., the receiving of some crucial, maybe even divine knowledge. I don't see the people in my novel being the beneficiaries of that kind of knowledge, though some of them are struggling mightily to attain it. And I had a really good model for the post-annihilation future I depict, namely, the pre-annihilation present, presided over by the world's superpower-of-the-moment, us. As for working out my imaginary future beforehand or making it up as I went along: the latter, always the latter. The novel is an improvisation--a structured one, I hope, but the excitement (and terror) of writing fiction for me derives from the way I am always simultaneously playing the game and making up the game.
Amazon.com: How did you choose which elements from the original Jamestown story to include, and which to discard?
Sharpe: Mostly by intuition. I knew I wanted a cross-cultural love story and a cross-cultural horror story to co-exist: this would be the central tension of the novel, each would offset the other, or so I hoped. The primarily economic purpose of the original settlers also seemed important to include. The rest I used or invented as guided by presentiment. And, for better or worse, the things I say in interviews about the novel are mostly retroactive insights--hypotheses more than explanations. The person who wrote the book knows more about it than the person answering these questions does.
Amazon.com: Ben Marcus has written, "My feeling is that the impossible must be made viable, and only through language, that language is not subject to the laws of physics and therefore must not be restricted to conservative notions of 'sense' and 'nonsense,' but must pursue what appears impossible in order to discover the basic things." What's your take on that?
Sharpe: I like what Ben Marcus does with language in his own fiction and in his essays about other peoples'. I'd say one of the ways I tried to use language to depict the impossible in Jamestown was to represent the past, the present, and the future happening simultaneously. This happens at the level of content--people in a future America living one of America's originary historical events as if it had never happened before--and, I hope, it also happens at the level of style--people talking in English that is Shakespearean one moment, Keatsean the next, Otis Reddingesque the next, or all in the same sentence, or word.
Amazon.com: Jamestown is dedicated to Lore Segal, who is known in my house as the author of the fabulous kids' book, Tell Me a Mitzi, but who has had a long and varied career beyond that. What led you to honor her so?
Sharpe: Lore Segal is an excellent human being and was perhaps the most important writing teacher I had. I took a course with her at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan several years after graduating from college. It was all so dicey, "being a writer," it required an audacity I was attempting to muster. Lore's encouragement, her generosity, her good humor, her ability to help me figure out which parts of what I was doing were worth pursuing--these qualities of this wonderful woman helped me muster that audacity. She has a new book out called Shakespeare's Kitchen. Dear readers, if you have not already, please read the short story in there called "The Reverse Bug," and then, when you climb up off the floor, read the rest of the book.
--This text refers to the
A wonderfully warped piece of American deadpan, Sharpe's retelling of the Jamestown settlement has the settlers arriving in the Virginia swamp on a bus from Manhattan. There are numerous hints that civilization has taken some devastating hit, leaving Manhattan without oil or untainted food and engaged in a long war with Brooklyn. Hence, the venture into the wilds of the Southern states. The settlers are led by John Ratliff, whose mother's boyfriend is the CEO of Manhattan Company. The Indians, who speak English (a fact they try to dissemble), owe their "reddish" hue to their use of sunblock SPF 90. They're led by Powhatan and advised by Sidney Feingold—and they lack guns. The story follows the traditional romantic arc, as Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas, falls in love with one of the settlers, the lank, sallow, greasy-haired communications officer, Johnny Rolfe, and saves the life of another, Jack Smith. The narrative alternates first-person accounts, allowing Sharpe (The Sleeping Father
) to weave his preternatural sense of parody into an increasingly dire story of killings and kidnappings. The chapters narrated by Pocahontas are virtuoso exercises in language, as MySpace lingo metamorphoses into Jacobin rhetoric, blackface dialect and back again. This is a tour-de-force of black humor. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
--This text refers to the