In February, I had the chance to sit down with novelist, poet, songwriter, screenwriter Thom Bishop (also known by his pen name Junior Burke). His novel Something Gorgeous (2005) has been re-released on Kindle this spring. The book is Bishop’s take on The Great Gatsby, filling in the background of Fitzgerald’s novel with the “true” story of the romance of Gatsby and Daisy. Bishop’s style in this work is more Hemingway or Dashiell Hammett than Fitzgerald, but he has a knack for dialog and plot and keeps his story moving. One of the more intriguing things about the book is how faithful it is to the original while turning it inside out. Even the most outlandish scenes in the book have some basis in Fitzgerald’s story. In the interview, we talked mostly about his musical efforts (he also just released a CD “A Little of Physics and a Lot of Luck”) for a piece that I am writing on his music.
JH: Let’s switch gears here. What drew you to the Great Gatsby as the inspiration for your novel Something Gorgeous?
TB: I just always loved it and it was coming to the end of the century and they were always making these lists of the top 100 American Novels of the 20th Century and the Great Gatsby was always either number one or number two. But I felt something about that book that nobody else had ever pointed out to my knowledge, which is that the book is a flawed work in that it’s told in the first person, from the first person of Nick Carraway who lives next door to Gatsby, so he’s somewhat of a passive narrator and then he meets this person named Jordan Baker who is the conduit of all the information about Gatsby. She mentions it that first night at dinner. She’s the one that Gatsby pulls in to the library and talks to.
But the trouble with that is that the Jordan Baker character is presented by Nick as being somebody who’s untrustworthy. She cheats at golf. She doesn’t put the top up on a convertible that she borrows and it rains and the thing gets damaged and she doesn’t cop to that. She’s a dishonest person. So the trouble with it is that when she’s pulled in to the library with Gatsby and then she comes out and says I just heard the most amazing thing. I met this guy five years ago and he’s in love with Daisy and he built this house to get her attention. She’s carrying all that information but we never heard that conversation because it’s told, the story is presented in the first person and that happens off-stage and she’s somebody that we’re told is not reliable.
So I started thinking about well what if when he pulls her into the library he says, well is he falling for it, what’s going on. And so from that I just started… that was the beginning of investigating that book. Which again, I think is a beautiful book and a work of genius, but also flawed. There’s a lot of unanswered stuff in that book. There’s a lot of very strange stuff in that book. There’s a scene at the end of chapter two where it seems Nick Carraway had a same sex experience with this photographer at this party. I mean there’s a lot of weird stuff that goes on in that book that’s never explained.
JH: How long did it take to write?
TB: I started on Feb 20th 1998 and I finished it in ’05, or I guess at the end of ’04. So it took about six years. Five years, six years. Too long. I’ve got to start turning these over faster.
JH: There was an interview, I think on your Junior Burke Website where you mentioned you were already about 1000 pages into another book. Is that ever going to see the light of day?
TB: I finished the draft of it on Saturday and I hope so. Yeah it will. Something Gorgeous just went up on Kindle and Nook and all that stuff, so if I can’t find somebody to publish this new work, it’ll go up in that way.
JH: Is it more contemporary?
TB: No, it’s another alternate history. I saw a photograph in the 90’s actually that stayed with me a long time. A photograph of the young actor James Dean, acting on the stage at the General Electric theater on CBS television, holding a gun on Ronald Reagan who was the host of that program. So it was from 1954. And in my book, James Dean is a young troubled actor and he becomes convinced that Reagan is somehow this threat, dangerous threat and he ends up shooting him on live television. And it’s the beginning of a twelve year saga involving an ensemble of people through various parts of America and overseas. And at one point it was 1000 pages, because I was writing from 1954 up until 1980. But at some point I just realized how out of control that was and I stopped it in 1966 and now it’s 90,000 words which I think is about right. And I just finished it on Saturday.
JH: So it sounds like you’re going back to your 50’s and 60’s roots.
TB: I guess that’s my time period. I don’t know how you see it for yourself. I’m basically a 20th century person. I’m living now, but most of the things that I, the sensibilities that I appreciate and gravitate toward are still there.