“Voices Out of the Ether,” Spycraft, and the Secret History of “Godspell”: An Interview With Richard Melo


Richard Melo’s novel Happy Talk begins deceptively, with a group of American nurses-in-training living in relative isolation in Haiti. It is through them that the reader first encounters the novel’s globetrotting central character, the distinctively named Culprit Clutch, and it’s through Clutch that the novel’s larger canvas emerges, involving Cold War-era government plots, car crashes, supernatural curses, and more. Did I mention that the novel is told largely through dialogue? Or that Melo’s free-associative approach incorporates everything from documentary filmmaking to radical politics to musicals? Happy Talk is the sort of novel that inspires many questions over the course of reading it, which is how I came to reach out to Melo to learn more about its creation.

When writing Happy Talk, which came first for you: the setting? Culprit Clutch?

That’s a terrific question. From early on, I wanted to write something in the style of an American novel from the 50s or 60s and knew that I wanted to carry the story through dialogue. I was unsure about setting the novel in Haiti but then learned more about voodoo and its central principle that spirits speak through the bodies of unwitting mortals. This is in no way a knock on Haitian voodoo, but I started to see the comic possibilities, such as mistaken identities and erratic, ghostly behavior, that voodoo presented. Writing novel dialogue is a bit like pulling voices out of the ether, and Happy Talk is a novel filled with people who don’t know who they’re supposed to be or what they are about to say, and Haitian voodoo seemed like a fitting backdrop for that kind of novel. The idea behind Culprit Clutch came later. I always thought of him as more of a bit player and straight man than a protagonist. He’s the movie screen, and the novel is projected over him.

The revelation of the tourism plan that’s brought most of the novel’s characters to Haiti doesn’t come until roughly a fifth of the way into the book. Was this deliberate — setting up a distinctive kind of pacing for the novel?

I know there is a technical term for this style of plot — probably “episodic” — and I might sound like I’m off my rocker, but I think of Happy Talk as having a parade-style storyline. Each chapter presents itself like a parade float rolling down the street in a procession. You can still see the tail end of the float that passed already and catch a glimpse of the next one coming, but the focus is mostly on what’s right in front of you at a given moment. In another spin on the “float” concept, I like moments in novels that seem to hover without any kind of plot. Plots are so often centered on a problem that needs to be solved and characters who want something they can’t (yet) have. But every now and then, a novelist manages to create a moment not driven by any kind of problem or desire but rather just hovers and still wholly engages and delights. I’m not sure a novelist can sustain that effect over a long work, but I wanted to pepper Happy Talk with as many hovering moments as I could.

Happy Talk is structured with monologues interspersing the larger narrative. Is this meant to evoke the documentary films that numerous characters are in the process of making?

That’s certainly where the book landed. I started off with the intention of using dialogue as a means of telling the story and creating satire. The monologues, on the other hand, were meant as emotional touchpoints (in the style of The Waves, by Virginia Woolf) in which the characters reveal what they would never say to others. I was initially thinking of Happy Talk as a sentimental satire, and while vestiges of that remain in the novel, Happy Talk became more about the times in which the novel takes place and the 50s-era multi-media type projects (documentary films, educational film strips, paintings, plays, poems) that the characters are creating.

Large sections of the novel are told in dialogue. When did it become apparent to you that this was the right way to tell this particular story?

As a reader, I enjoy the hell out of good novel dialogue. When done well, dialogue is a powerful — though probably underutilized — storytelling mechanism. Because dialogue doesn’t work for telling every possible story, it’s important to choose your material well.  As I mentioned earlier, I made a decision early on to make Haitian voodoo — as well as playwriting and method acting — central to the story because these are elements where dialogue and reality meet, and those elements seemed to match the approach. After a while, I reached the point where just about all the new scenes and story ideas that pop into my head take a dialogue form. I’ve been writing novels for more than 25 years, and have never had more fun than the last few since I started writing dialogue-driven storylines.

As Happy Talk draws to its conclusion, vignettes arise featuring elements as disparate as auto racing, Pink Floyd, and the creation of the musical Godspell. How did you come to work all of these in to the larger work?

I always try to think things through (and am often guilty of overthinking), but when it comes to the elements of my own writing I like best, they’re the ideas I can’t remember where they came from or why they seem to fit. The first two-thirds of Happy Talk takes place in the Haiti of 1955. What immediately follows is a chapter about a car race across Mexico five years earlier. I still can’t pin down the logic of putting together the story like that but believe strongly that I should follow my instincts and do things that don’t make sense as long as they seem to work. It’s not the safest way to write novels, but it’s gratifying when you get it right (and I never really know if I get it right).

There’s a character named PFC Roper-Melo in Happy Talk, and the year of your birth also looms large in its events. Is there more of an autobiographical element to this novel than one might guess?

I set Happy Talk in places where I’ve never traveled and most of it takes place before I was born, and this was indeed to separate myself from the story. After such saturation of personal novels, how can American readers have not reached a point of reality fatigue? That said, you don’t have to look far below the surface in Happy Talk to find deeply personal elements — tragic and comic elements from my own experience. For nostalgic reasons that make little sense to me, I have long been obsessed with 1968, and my writing always circles back to that year. As for PFC Roper-Melo, he’s likely Happy Talk’s most mysterious and unpredictable character. I claim no relation.

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