What message are you trying to convey with the front cover of your new novel, Ambitions?
It’s creepily existential, right? The people in the background, who are shoving those huge boulders up a hill: they refer to the myth of Sisyphus, whom the Gods have condemned to do just that, over and over—only to have the stone roll back down, every time.
Meanwhile, in the foreground, you see the man who narrates most of this story, glancing back at them out of the corner of his eye—maybe with disapproval, maybe with amused toleration, maybe with some little scheme brewing in his head—and who knows? Maybe he’s working on a boulder of his own, at the same time. Note also how your eye is drawn to the man's ear. That's appropriate because that's how this story comes to be told: That character has his ear turned to everything that's going on around him, and many of the characters have his ear, so to speak.
How did you arrive at the title, Ambitions?
One of the points of the story is that each of us has one thing or another that we want above all else, and each of us for a different reason, and we’re all striving for it in one way or another. Those are the boulders we keep shoving up the hill, and who’s to know whether that boulder will ever get to the top and stay there? In this novel, you’ll meet two women who want above all to sing opera professionally. There’s a young man who wants to be a brilliant novelist, and another whose ambition is simply to realize the “American Dream”: a nice home, a nice business, and a nice family. And then there’s another character whose ambitions aren’t well formed, who spends the whole book trying to figure out who she is and what she wants.
What sort of reader will Ambitions appeal to?
Ambitions is a philosophical and a psychological novel. It looks at the individual’s role in society at large and within a family or an extended family. It talks about the importance of the arts, religion, ethics, and personal morality. It’s a soap opera, but a sophisticated soap opera. The book has an ensemble cast, with lots of subplots, all of them intricately interwoven. It has a lot to do with family dynamics, because the story is mainly about the complicated relationships that two parents and their three children have with each other, as well as the people outside of their family who become part of their drama.
It turns out that this very respectable-looking family is actually a train-wreck in the making, and you won’t be able to turn away from it. You might say that this is an intellectual’s version of Keeping Up With The Kardashians or Real Housewives Of New Jersey. You’ll see a lot of people behaving badly.
What was your inspiration for Ambitions?
I once read this light-hearted, generally humorous work about a family that was held up to the reader as “just plain folks,” a sort of “everyfamily.” Unpretentious, likable, even admirable people. But as I got further and further into that story, the more I disliked most of the characters. The family had a really messed-up set of values; most of their friends were just as bad; they actually ended up doing considerable harm while telling themselves that they were so decent, generous, and morally upright. So I asked myself, “What if I told a similar story, but told it from the point of view of a minor character who observes this family, comments on them, sometimes mocks them, and sometimes tries to control the damage that they do?”
What are some books we might be reminded of when we read Ambitions?
In some ways you might compare this story to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, since so much of the conflict among the family members is a result of their being so different in their desires, outlooks, and behaviors. The narrative voice might remind you of Karamazov, too, or of The Great Gatsby. It’s a “neighbor” novel: one where the narrator interacts with the main characters. Ambitions is narrated by a character who usually refers to himself in the third person—but sometimes he’ll step back from the narrative and address the reader directly, asking, “What do you suppose was really going on here?” or saying, “Now, that incident is especially interesting to me, for this reason.”
You might also be reminded of Stephen King’s Carrie, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, because much of the narrative is epistolary: It’s revealed in the form of emails from one character to another. The youngest child of the family—Christine Wainwright—tells a big chunk of the story in this way. She’s a high school kid, and she writes her emails in a sort of teenybopper lingo. I had lots of fun writing that, but I had to be careful to keep it appropriate to a girl her age, and so her narrative becomes gradually more adult, and better thought-out, as she matures.
This book contains a few shout-outs to Vance Bourjaily’s novel, Now Playing At Canterbury: Both books take place in the town of State City, Iowa, which looks a lot like Iowa City, and some of the action revolves around the State University School of Music.
Who are some other writers who influence your fiction in general, and in what ways do they influence you?
William Makepeace Thackeray always influences me. I love the way he illustrates the good qualities of his “bad guys” and the bad qualities of his “good guys.” Flannery O’Connor’s way of weaving her Catholicism into her stories has influenced me too, even though I’m an atheist. One character in Ambitions is a devout Catholic, and her religion informs her attitudes and behavior. Another of my favorite authors is George MacDonald Fraser, who had no great literary pretentions: He just wrote really good bodice-rippers. Another author who has influenced me, in an opposite sense, is Ernest Hemingway. He knew how to tell a story but I find his characters shallow and contrived. His outcomes, ditto. He’s my model of the author I don’t want to be.
What surprised you about the process of writing Ambitions?
I had so much fun writing in those different voices: that was the happiest surprise. The main narrator is an older man, an odd character in the sense that he’s rather formal and flowery in expressing himself, but he’s sometimes pretty blunt, and he cusses a lot. Then there’s Christine, who’s this slightly goofy, slightly petulant girl, but more insightful than you’d expect. Christine’s vocal coach, Tanya Cucoshay, also relates a little of the story. She’s an operatic soprano and a bit of a drama queen, and that comes through in her narrative. Then there’s Christine’s much-older brother, David, who writes a novel-within-a-novel. It’s not easy to deliberately write bad fiction!
Do you hope your readers will take a certain message, or more than one, from this book?
The narrator keeps saying, “Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux,” which means, “You have to imagine that Sisyphus is happy.” He stole that line from Albert Camus, who suggested that in order to get through life, you sometimes just have to embrace its absurdity and its futility. That’s one message, but I’m sure each reader will find others.
Are you working on another book?
Two more, immediately. I’m translating a French “true crime” book, and it will hit the shelves in 2015. Then I’ll complete my next novel, which is called Hard-Wired. It will also be set in State City, Iowa, but decades earlier than Ambitions: the 1960s. This will be a political/sociological novel in which I take that older man who narrates Ambitions, and show him as a teenaged boy who becomes radicalized, so to speak, in a way that you might not expect. I’ve got concepts for at least two more novels after that, and ideas for others occur to me all the time.
Ambitions is Joseph Dobrian’s second novel. He’s also the author of the satirical Willie Wilden and a best-selling collection of essays, Seldom Right But Never In Doubt. For more information, go to: http://www.josephdobrian.com/