Bruce Hartman - A Perfect Mixture of Philosophy, Chaos and Comedy
Former bookstore owner and lawyer, Bruce Hartman, is an author who can find humor in any serious issue. His work is often described as funny, cynical or dark - and his book, A Butterfly in Philadelphia, fits that description perfectly. In this interview, Hartman reveals the deeper philosophy behind the book, talks about chaos theory and explains how Mozart and Bill Evans influenced his writing.
Tell us a bit about A Butterfly in Philadelphia - what is it all about?
A BUTTERFLY IN PHILADELPHIA (which is available on Amazon this week for 99 cents) is a satirical comic novel about two young people—Spencer Casey, a 20-year-old high school dropout who works in a failing puzzle factory in Philadelphia, and Lindsay Pangborn, the overprivileged teenage daughter of the factory’s owner—as they navigate through the chaos they inflict on the world.
Spencer is tired of being a victim; he wants to be a cause, not an effect. So like the butterfly in China that flaps its wings and causes a hurricane on the other side of the world, he jumbles up the puzzles and triggers chaos on all sides. He and his friend Charlie lose their jobs, and the situation goes from bad to worse—unless somebody can fit the right pieces together for a happy ending.
Give us three good-to-know facts about you.
I am married with three grown children. I worked at various jobs and owned a used book store in Vermont before going to law school in my thirties. This led to a couple of decades practicing law in and around Philadelphia. I now devote myself full time to writing and playing the piano, my family, and outdoor activities.
Why did you pick a puzzle factory as the place where your hero gets his epiphany?
The puzzle factory resembles a factory I worked in many years ago, back when there were still factories to work in. We made 8-track stereo cartridges (I’m showing my age), not puzzles. There really was a Stupid Butchie (not his real name) who stole the components, assembled them and sold them to stores. I worked the midnight shift, winding recorded albums onto cartridges, or quality-checking Roy Orbison tapes (an impossible task), and there was many a night when I dreamed of doing something crazy and chaotic, like scrambling up the pieces of that infernal world. Sometimes you want to flap your wings like that butterfly in China and send some waves of chaos out into the world.
I like the idea of a jigsaw puzzle, particularly when it’s based on a work of art. It starts as an artist’s effort to impose order on the world by creating a picture of something. Then the picture is chopped into a thousand pieces, and we try to recreate the artist’s version of order by putting the pieces together. But what if the artist (like Armand Brigantine in the book) intended to create a picture of chaos? And what if the young man in the puzzle factory scrambles the pieces with those of other puzzles, to create some chaos of his own? You could go crazy trying to put the puzzle back together. That’s what happens to Erik Anselmus in the book.
The “puzzle” idea is a philosophical notion of how we can try to understand an infinite universe with our finite minds in a finite amount of time. Frankly, we can’t.
Spencer Casey’s world is a puzzle he knows he’ll never be able to solve. When he scrambles it up, he does what we all do as we grow up. The world is presented to us as a fait accompli, like a jigsaw puzzle that our elders have put together. They say it’s a complete picture of reality, but we can see the cracks. We spend the first half of our lives scrambling up the pieces, and the second half trying to fit them back together in hopes of finding a happy ending.
In your writing, you often have a humoristic take on deeper, more serious issues. Why?
I can’t think about serious things without finding some humor in them. This used to get me in trouble in school. Class clown, wipe that smirk off your face, etc. etc. Sometimes my brand of humor is called dark or cynical humor, but to me it is just the way the world looks. In my opinion it’s never cynical to tell the truth.
I love Shakespeare’s comedies (Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It) because the characters are able to succeed in impossible situations. Other favorites are Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Seinfeld and the Coen Brothers.
There are surprisingly few comic novels being published today. When we put Butterfly on sale for the first time last October, it rose to No. 3 in the “Literary Satire” category on Amazon’s bestseller list, ahead of Catch-22 for a few days. Not because it’s so great, but because there is so little competition.
Bruce Hartman and James Joyce
Why aren’t there more comic novels?
I’ve thought a lot about that. Humor is very subjective, and it’s social and generational. We’re so used to watching comedy on TV and in movies that to many people the written word doesn’t seem funny enough. In a movie, you can have funny writing, with funny visuals, performed by gifted comedians. How can a novelist compete with Jim Carrey or Rowan Atkinson or Larry David? I remember the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and George hired actors to play themselves and Kramer and Elaine in the TV show they wanted to produce. The actors looked like Jerry and George and Kramer and Elaine, but they just weren’t funny, no matter what they said. The point of that episode was to highlight that in comedy it isn’t all in the writing. And we’re so used to good comedy in visual media that for many people the standard of humor has shifted away from the written word. I’m not one of those people. I still love the written word and a funny book as much as a funny movie. If only I could find a few!
What’s funny in a book isn’t the same thing as would be funny in a movie. A book can be funny because of the writing, not because there are lot of jokes. A Butterfly in Philadelphia doesn’t have a lot of jokes. It has some funny characters and situations, but most of the humor is in the writing, which reflects the characters’ quirky points of view. I realized this when I wrote a screenplay based on the novel. The best thing about the book is the voice of Spencer Casey, which I had to preserve with a lot of narrative voiceovers. I also had to cut the story down by about 75% to make it the length of a screenplay.
After Butterfly, I wrote a book called Big Data Is Watching You!, which applies the themes of Orwell’s 1984 to the modern world of computer domination. I call it a “comic dystopia,” which some people think doesn’t make any sense. To me it makes as much sense as the modern world, which is what it’s about. The main character, Smith, is unwittingly controlled by computer servers and social networks as he goes about his inane life. Sound familiar? I tried to make that book fun, and some people have really enjoyed it. But others said they wished I hadn’t tried to “inject humor” into the story! If only humor could be injected, I’d go in for a shot every week.
A Butterfly in Philadelphia plays around with the theme of cause and effect. What appealed to you about this theme?
The theme of cause and effect is closely related to the issue of order and chaos, which is also featured in the book.
I’ve studied philosophy in some depth. The key question of philosophy is what, if anything, can we infer from the apparent order of the cosmos? Did someone put it here? Does it have any meaning? Are there ways we ought (or ought not) to behave because of it? Is there really any order at all, or is it all chaos or illusion?
If you think about these questions too much, you may become a philosopher, or go mad (probably both). That’s more or less what happens to Erik Anselmus in the book. I’ve concluded that it’s better to write novels about people going mad from trying to understand the universe than to actually go mad yourself.
My interest in philosophical conundrums and paradoxes led me to write a novel called The Philosophical Detective, which casts the iconic Argentine poet and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges as a detective in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1960s. Overall I think it’s my best book, certainly my most original.
In what way is A Butterfly in Philadelphia a coming of age story?
I try to avoid calling this book a coming of age novel, because those are usually sort of sappy and predictable. I also don’t describe it as YA fiction because, although curse words and sex scenes are avoided, some of the subject matter may not be appropriate for teenagers (even though it’s about them). But the two main characters are a young man and a teenage girl who come from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Each inflicts his or her own kind of chaos on the world, disrupting the lives of the adults around them, and by the time the story ends, each of them has learned a few lessons and taught a few more. So in that sense you could call it a coming of age story.
Do you think the world needs chaos every now and then?
There’s plenty of chaos in the world, so I’d hate to advocate going out of the way to add more. But the truth is that people have a limited tolerance for order. Wherever it occurs, someone tries to break it down.
Art is a process of creation but also of destruction and chaos. In this book I imagined an artist, Armand Brigantine, who went mad trying to paint pictures of chaos. Of course this can’t be done. We can’t imagine or visualize chaos with our finite minds, because anything we imagine or create can be repeated or patterned, and we perceive it as order. Nevertheless, mathematicians have shown that a butterfly in China can add a lot of chaos to the world just by flapping its wings. That’s where the title to this book comes from.
You have been a pianist, music teacher, attorney, and bookseller - has your experience in these fields had any influence on your writing?
Most of my writing stems from personal experience. My first book, Perfectly Healthy Man Drops Dead, is a mystery about a former lawyer who plays the piano in a bar. Practicing law gives you an opportunity to observe all kinds of people and the way they think and express themselves. A lot of law is about storytelling, and some of the stories are pretty funny.
In my younger days I worked in a factory that was a lot like the puzzle factory in Butterfly, where I knew Naked Dave, Spencer Casey and Stupid Butchie.
For a few years I owned a book store in Vermont. That book store, which had few customers, provided an excellent opportunity to read a lot of books.
Apart from books and my family, music has been my main preoccupation in life. I used to play classical music on the piano. Currently I play jazz. Mozart and Bill Evans have been my writing teachers. My goal is for every paragraph to be as fluent, balanced and compelling as a passage from Mozart or Bill Evans. It’s a goal worth having, though of course I will never come close to reaching it.
My second book, a mystery called The Rules of Dreaming, is all about music. The story takes place in a mental hospital, and it begins as a seriously disturbed patient with no prior musical training sits down at the piano in the patient lounge and plays a fiendishly difficult piece of classical music. From there the book moves on to Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann and an exploration of the links between music, madness, love and murder.
What do you hope your readers take away from this book? Do you have any underlying message?
It’s a message of hope and enjoyment. I want to write comedies like Shakespeare’s, which aren’t necessarily funny but make us believe for a couple of hours that people (at least some of them) will find love and happiness in spite of chaos and adversity, and things will turn out all right in the end. That isn’t usually true in real life, which makes comedies all the more enjoyable.
You are known for creating hilarious and eccentric characters. Are any of them based on real people?
Most of my characters are amalgams of real people I have encountered at one time or another. Others I just made up.
Did you have the chaos all planned out before you started writing, or did a lot of it just "happen" as the story evolved?
Chaos just happens. If you could plan it out, it wouldn’t be chaos. And although Butterfly is about chaos, I like to think that the book itself isn’t chaotic. If you read carefully, you’ll find that everything fits together perfectly!
What inspires you to write?
Some sort of unexplainable compulsion. One man’s rage for chaos and order.
What are you working on now?
I recently completed a serious novel about a man on death row. No joking around in this one. The book is a legal thriller about morality—where it comes from, and how it fits into our legal system. I was able to use my legal training and experience to conceive and research the story. I’m optimistic that it will find an appreciative audience.
Right now I’m working on another comic novel. Naturally I think it’s a hoot, but I don’t know if anyone will agree. That’s one of the problems with trying to write a comedy. If you write a good thriller or mystery, you can pretty well predict how most readers will react. With a comedy, it’s completely unpredictable.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
My website and blog is at http://www.brucehartmanbooks.com I don’t add to this as often as I should. Please join as a follower.
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Bruce-Hartman/e/B00BOUCNB4 (please Like and join as a follower)
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/BruceHartmanAuthorPage/ (please Like and join as a friend)
Goodreads author page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1672631.Bruce_Hartman (please join as a friend)