If the first impression of John Schoneboom is of a New Yorker of the laid back variety, it isn’t dispelled by his opening words (or at least the ones following the friendly greeting and the ordering of a cappuccino in Newcastle’s Settle Down Cafe).
“This book,” he says, indicating the copy of Fontoon which lies on the table between us, “has been probably 20 years in the making”.
With a smile, he elaborates: “When I first started writing it, I don’t think I really understood what it actually takes to write a novel.”
Perhaps what he means is that he didn’t know what it would actually take to write this particular novel, for Fontoon is not quite like other novels you may have read.
The opening chapter is a comic tour de force, concerning the gentle musings of a man who is suspended from the ceiling by a rope tied tightly round one ankle.
Here’s a taster...
“His arms hung limply in mute surrender. One leg extended to the side and bent like a branch that did not know where to grow, drifting half-heartedly, searching to no avail for a plausible position in which to await death or redemption.”
The dangling man is Admiral Fontoon and he works in a lighthouse. “His first name is Admiral and that’s a little joke that runs through the book,” explains John.
The joke was on Admiral’s employer, a sinister figure called the Fifth Auditor, “top dog of all lighthouses”, who has no nautical experience but is in charge of hiring and firing and took on Fontoon because he thought he was “an important navy man”.
Why is Fontoon dangling from the ceiling? He has fallen victim, it seems, to a dastardly type of alarm clock designed to rouse those who might slumber through the seventh sounding of the snooze alarm...
“Son of a bitch, thought Fontoon, dangling. He was supposed to have gotten out of bed before all this. That was the whole idea: a clock to inspire fear, ergo motion.”
Immune to its persuasive powers, poor Admiral Fontoon is left in a state of suspended animation, the blood rushing to his head.
Of his dangling anti-hero, John says: “He’s a guy who’s searching for purpose in his life. He’s trying to find some sense of meaning but without being prepared to put himself out much. He’d love to become a famous poet but without actually writing any poems.”
Meanwhile, in the background but invariably too close for comfort, lurks the Fontoon Wrecking Company, a secret organisation dedicated entirely to one man’s personal humiliation.
Is it real or is it all in Fontoon’s – or the reader’s – head? John says it doesn’t much matter. It is for the reader to decide.
“The suggestion is that everyone has an organisation like that and that anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” he says.
“It’s open to people’s interpretation.”
I tell John that Fontoon reminded me a little of James Joyce. There’s delight in the writing even if the meaning is elusive.
He looks a little crestfallen, saying he’s never really been able to get into Joyce or really understand him. “It’s not the most plot-driven novel,” he allows. “It’s an experimental type of fiction which is why I’m so grateful to Dedalus for taking a chance on it.”
Dedalus, which has been publishing literary fiction for 30 years, didn’t need too much persuading, it seems. Co-founder Eric Lane describes Fontoon as “an archetypal Dedalus novel: absurdly funny, erudite, grotesquely surreal and totally unique.”
On second thoughts, it’s more like Flann O’Brien than James Joyce, with a dash of Spike Milligan chucked in for good measure.
John Schoneboom is a New Yorker who married a Geordie. “She lived with me over there for 15 years and we came here for the weather, obviously.” Outside, of course, it’s cold and leaden. “We had a second child on the way. Because we could barely cope with one, we thought, ‘we’re going to need help’. Her parents lived here and I was willing to see how the other half lived.
“America, in any case, is turning into a fascist police state before our very eyes, what with all the surveillance and the distribution of wealth getting more skewed. I’ve been here for four years now.”
John, father to a boy and a girl aged seven and three, still does the same web-based job that he did back in America, though now, he says ruefully, he is paid in dollars but spends in pounds.
The work, I sense, is not the thing that gives him the greatest satisfaction. “I’ve always considered myself, by nature, a writer, although I didn’t pursue it formally,” he tells me.
“I thought I knew how to write so I decided to go to school to learn about something that I didn’t know anything about, like social science and politics.
“But when I came here I decided to enroll on the creative writing programme at Northumbria University, which I made it through. I guess it gave me the discipline to finish the book.”
John takes me back to the genesis of Fontoon, a couple of decades ago.
“I thought I’d like to write a novel and I had an idea for this character and things that would happen to him. But while I was disciplined in certain things in my life, writing wasn’t one of them.” While living in Massachusetts for a year, he found that the state’s cultural council annually gave out prizes for writing. His year didn’t coincide with the fiction year but there was a play-writing prize to go for. He went for it.
“I thought it should be easier to write a play because you cut out everything apart from the dialogue. I had one week to the deadline and I’d never written a play before.
“I didn’t really have time to think of a story so I just went into an abstract stream of consciousness.
“I had this character which I based on this real-life sports writer from the 1950s who had this very melodramatic writing style.
“I started taking the beginning of one sentence from one of his articles and attaching it to the end of another. It didn’t really make sense but it kind of sounded the same.
“In the play I have him being interviewed by this idealistic, eager beaver young journalist called ‘Sparky’ Jenkins. I sent this thing in and forgot about it. Then the phone rang and they said I’d won first prize, $12,500.
“There were some serious people on the judging panel.
“I thought, wow, I should be writing. That was more money than I’d ever seen in my life. I couldn’t spend it all on beer so I started looking around to see how you got a play on stage.”
Praised by one of the judges, Oscar-nominated screenwriter José Rivera, as “hilarious... so damn poetic and beautiful,” the play, called Dreams of Jimmy Bannon, duly enjoyed a successful New York run, billed as “an absurdist comedy”.
John says he fell in with a theatrical community in New York and benefited from the large number of good actors roaming the streets in search of work.
In the North East he got his book finished and was directed to Dedalus by Andrew Crumey, the novelist who also teaches at Northumbria.
“A two-book deal was offered and John swears the second novel, while more plot-driven, will not take him 20 years to complete.
Fontoon, which costs £9.99, will be launched at a free public event at the Blackwell’s bookshop, Percy Street, Newcastle, at 6.30pm today. Andrew Crumey will also read from his novel, Pfitz, another Dedalus title.