Q: What inspired you to write THE THREE LIVES OF JONATHAN FORCE?
RH: This work might have a fifty year genesis. A former boy and for decades a teacher and counselor of boys, I developed a fascination with boys’ deep natures—their urges and impulses and what I believe is a deep spiritual connection to the natural world and to various animal and human Presences. I am also concerned with how those natures are shaped, altered and sometimes lost to the institutions and expectations imposed on them by the larger social order. I wanted to tell that story.
Q: The novel is organized in three parts—into three successive “books.” Why this structure?
RH: By my old man’s reckoning, the male life cycle unfolds in three discernable stages. One of my favorite Jungian writers, Robert Johnson, illustrates these helpfully in various books, including Transformations. Johnson proposes that all boys and young men are, to some extent, inspired fools like Parsifal and Don Quixote. Growing past that essential foolishness makes us acutely self-conscious and apparently intelligent—but increasingly disillusioned and unhappy for that—like Hamlet. If such a man is able to evolve past that despair, he may be able to reintegrate his original spiritual connectedness into full consciousness, shedding the illusion of his former worldly troubles as he goes—like Goethe’s Faust. My Jonathan Force makes this kind of journey.
Q: Your novel taps into major currents of philosophy and psychology and history as part of its story telling. How did these fields shape your vision of what Jonathan Force would become?
RH: When Jonathan—improbably—is admitted to Yale, he regresses to a realization that, as the larger world reckons, he knows absolutely nothing. Worse, he realizes that he cannot “catch up” by finding and storing up lots of information. He sees that what genuine intellectuals have is not so much information, as context for information: how thing relates to thing. So he sets about finding out how to establish context, which of course leads to a consideration of history, psychology and philosophy. In Jonathan’s case the threshold to all three is beholding Raphael’s masterwork, The School of Athens.
Q: As a boy Jonathan is a gifted musician. Later in life he is a world famous public intellectual. Indeed, at various moments in his boyhood and adulthood he seems to have it all. But he doesn’t have it all, does he? Was your point in making him so wildly successful to examine the definition and limits of success in our current culture?
RH: I did not set out to examine cultural standards of success per se, just Jonathan’s experience as, often to his surprise, he achieves it. Worldly success—fame, wealth—are for most of us abstractions. We may wonder about them, fantasize about them, secure in the realization that they are not likely to arrive. Neither of those abstractions motivated Jonathan to undertake the work he did. Nor, when he achieved fame and wealth, did it distract him much from his more urgent quest for meaning.
Q: Jonathan has three families, one in each section of the book. In the end he is closest to a young man, the son of his lover, not a blood relation at all. What are your thoughts on the place of family and mentors in how boys thrive?
RH: The love and close attention of families and mentors are critical to the realization of all children. But in my view, and in Jonathan’s experience, the essential contribution of loving nurture is not shrewd counsel or rigorous instruction but sheer witness to a child’s unfolding in all of its particularity: acknowledging that, welcoming that. Jonathan did not always get this, but he was able to give it.
Q: Your portrayal of Elizabeth, Jonathan’s wife, is perfectly drawn and a little heartbreaking—she is a brittle, tense woman who only recognizes late in life how her anxieties have limited her. Why were she and their marriage important in shaping Jonathan’s character?
RH: Beginning in adolescence and over the course of a long life’s partnership, Jonathan and Elizabeth dance about each other’s differences. Jonathan ultimately allows his inner drives to carry him up and out of his worldly station; Elizabeth feels she must hold fast to hers. She is intellectually acute, but has almost a child’s dread of exploring her inner world, for which she suffers. She tethers Jonathan to practical reality in ways that sometimes constrict him but which also allow him to participate in essential experiences of middle life, such as seeing beloved children through their own unfurling.
Q: Is part of the novel a spoof of the publishing industry?
RH: I will leave that question for the publishing industry to decide. Although it has helped this book’s setting that the publishing industry over the course of Jonathan’s life has become analogous to what the Republican Party has become under the ascendency of Donald Trump.
Q: What are you hoping the readers will take away from this novel?
RH: I hope that readers will recognize the richness and insistence of the urges of our inner lives, including those that are unwelcome and even outrageous to the prevailing social order. This is a fairly long book, a life’s unfolding from first sense impression to last breath. I hope readers will not only take that ride but enjoy it, reminded of the wonder pulsing just below the surface of their own journeys.
Q: What’s next?
RH: I almost hesitate to say. It is non-fiction, a personal narrative about life’s—my life’s--closure. The book is tentatively titled End Game, and I want it to capture the interplay between morbidity and vitality in late life. I would tell you more, but the narrative so far keeps surprising me and teaching me things I did not expect.