"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In March, British author Pat Barker’s latest novel, “Border Crossing” — the story of the relationship between a psychologist and a boy he’d helped convict of a murder that occurred when the child was 10 — hit the bookstores just as children who kill were all over the news on both sides of the Atlantic. America confronted the case of 14-year-old Lionel Tate, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder after causing the death of a 6-year-old girl when he was 12, in what he said was an imitation of World Wrestling Federation moves. Many Americans bridled at the idea of such a Draconian sentence imposed on a child whose moral, intellectual and emotional faculties were not yet fully developed.
In England, meanwhile, debate raged over the imminent release from custody of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, two 19-year-olds who abducted and killed 2-year-old James Bulger in 1993, when they were 11. The more lenient British court system offered Bulger’s killers a second chance — and the public was not pleased. In their eight years in a juvenile detention home, the boys, according to a judge, have shown no “aggression or propensity for violence” and can be released in August. Bulger’s horrified parents are appealing the decision, and public opinion seems to be firmly on their side.
Barker is a novelist who specializes in big, often torturously unsettling social and moral questions. Yet her fiction is, as she puts it, “character-driven,” concerned primarily with the arcs of individual lives as they grapple with larger historical forces. Her acclaimed trilogy of novels set during World War I — “Regeneration” (1991), “The Eye in the Door” (1993) and “The Ghost Road” (1995), which won the Booker Prize — presented a panorama of memorable characters, many of them actual historical figures, such as poet and Army officer Siegfried Sasson and neurologist William Rivers, whose work with Sassoon and other shellshocked soldiers helped him develop influential theories of the psychological effects of trauma.
In “Another World,” Barker continued looking at the impact of the war on the English psyche through the story of a family of a World War I veteran who discover that, decades ago, the house they’ve moved into was the scene of a grisly murder. Now, with “Border Crossing,” she’s rooted a story firmly in the present, but the echoes of a past event — namely, 10-year-old Danny Miller’s murder of 68-year-old Lizzie Parks — will not go away. Now 23, Danny finds his way back into the life of Tom Seymour, the psychologist whose testimony had helped convict him. The two try to piece together what happened on the afternoon Danny smothered the old woman when she surprised him as he was robbing her house. Reviewing Danny’s childhood, spent with a passive mother and an authoritarian father who thought up degrading physical punishments for his son such as hanging him for hours from a hook in a barn, Tom also tries to help Danny find the seeds of his violence in what has passed for a relatively normal childhood.
Salon visited Barker at her home in Durham, a picturesque university town in the north of England.
In “Border Crossing,” Danny Miller is set free at age 21 under an assumed identity. When you wrote the book, were you aware that the killers of James Bulger were on the verge of being released?
I knew the two boys were being considered for release, but I had no way of knowing it was going to hit the headlines at that particular moment. I would say “Border Crossing” has been the best received of all my books in England, and I think that’s because it touched a particular area of unease that the James Bulger case brought up. We became a much more self-questioning country after that major crime was committed by children. When children do something like this it creates a feeling of despair of the future. It really does reverberate.
In America, we’re facing the same sort of unease in the case of Lionel Tate, the boy in Florida who was recently given life without parole.
Yes. And the difference in the law between England and America may be something of a barrier to American readers — though it shouldn’t be because the characters are striking enough to overcome that. There is no such thing as life without parole in England anyway, though there are people like [British serial killers] Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, who everyone knows will never be released. I think the true parallel with America, if there is one, is with the high school shootings [in Columbine], where suddenly you had nice kids from good homes committing major crimes. But we also have the example here in England of Mary Bell, who killed two little boys in 1968 when she was 11 years old. She was eventually released from prison and rehabilitated, within the limits of possibility.
Do you think Bell’s being a woman contributed to society’s willingness to give her another chance, to not see her as an unredeemable threat?
Yes, though she had to see a psychiatrist when she decided she wanted to have children — to determine whether psychologically she could cope with motherhood. Obviously she could have gone ahead and gotten pregnant — how are you going to stop somebody? — but the child might have been taken into care if she had been found unable to raise children.
With the Bulger case, there’s a lot of debate about whether the young men will be able to remain anonymous when they’re released from prison, given that the media seems to be obsessed with them.
Yes, they’ve been supplied with false identities, but the question of whether they’ll be able to keep them is a different matter, because there’s a different system of law in different parts of the British Isles, in Ireland and Scotland. So even within the British Isles, not everybody will be bound to secrecy. And of course you have American newspapers online, you have Australian newspapers online — the Internet is changing this whole area enormously as well. Newspapers in other countries will undoubtedly publish the boys’ new names, and people here will have access to them.
Toward the end of “Border Crossing,” Danny Miller’s new identity is exposed, and he’s whisked away and given another. But it’s not clear as the book ends whether that new identity will be any safer.
Yes, the position for Danny is that he will always be living in fear, and he will always be under the possibility of this extreme pressure of being hounded by the media and exposed again. That’s in addition to all the pressures he has of not being able to tell acquaintances or even friends who he is. So inevitably, in addition to his personality difficulties, he’s likely to have very shallowly rooted relationships and to be quite isolated when that pressure hits him. So actually the prognosis for Danny isn’t really all that good. And it will be very similar with James Bulger’s killers.
One thing few people have talked about in the American case is the role of Lionel Tate’s mother, who was in the next room when the little girl died.
Yes, the mother slept through this event. And of course we don’t even know what the event really was, do we? The account we’ve gotten sounds extremely strange.
Do you think something has changed in how we treat children? How much are adults to blame when children do terrible things?
I think we’ve got two conflicting ideas about children right now. I think there’s a great nervousness about children and what they’re capable of. The question in the air is, “How did we raise a generation of monsters?” I think that’s very new, that degree of anxiety about children, as distinct from adolescents, whom all human societies watch closely, particularly the adolescent male. And they’ve got good reason, since their aggression is not always contained. Certainly there are gangs of children in run-down areas who do present an actual physical threat for adults, or can do, simply because they operate as a pack.
But at the same time, there’s a sort of overprotectiveness among good responsible parents. There’s a feeling that a pedophile lurks around every corner. Children in our society are living almost totally couch-potato lives. That, or their mothers and fathers are ferrying them around from class to class after school so that their whole life becomes a matter of being educated. There’s no time to sit around and dream. There’s certainly no time to go out onto the streets and play with other children, which is how you find out what the limits are the hard way, from the way other children react if you tread on their rights.
I lived a childhood where I was able to wander. I suspect the actual incidence of pedophilia was exactly the same then. But of course, pedophiles were more isolated then — they were loners — and now with the Internet no one has to be alone anymore.
In “Border Crossing,” Danny insists that he was not abused by his father, though as he describes his childhood it looks pretty heinous to us.
Danny doesn’t think he was abused. He would say he was on the extreme edge of normal parental discipline. I’m not saying I agree with him. He’s very careful not to implicate his parents in what he did. I think one of the things you end up respecting in Danny is that he doesn’t just say, “Abuse, abuse, abuse. I was not responsible.” Also, of course, he knows what the impact on Tom would be.
He would lose Tom.
Yes, he knows that he has Tom’s respect because he’s sufficiently honest not to say, “This was not my fault.”
There’s also that flashback that Tom has to a scene in his own very happy childhood, when he could have committed an act of violence but doesn’t, because an adult appears.
Yes, when he could or perhaps could not have brought harm to a smaller boy — we don’t know. He simply doesn’t know how far it would have gone.
With Danny, we can see some of the roots of the violence against an old woman — he hates his mother, but his mother stands in for his father, for whom he feels justified anger. But that’s insofar as you can explain the murder at all. And although Tom says that evil is not a metaphysical reality, Danny would disagree. I think Danny does believe in evil as metaphysical — he refers to a sort of quasi-mystical experience he has while he’s hiding in the wardrobe just before he kills Lizzie Parks, when he’s frightened because he thinks he’s able to see the eyes of a fox fur that’s hanging in the darkness. So I think Danny has a sense of evil as a mystery.
Meaning that it’s something that transported him, against his will?
Well, more like something that … just something that happens that isn’t, finally, easy to explain. Just like very often when two people get together, something happens between them which changes them. They are capable of things that neither would be capable of were they alone.
Children are born with instincts for both altruism and social bonding, and also for self-assertion and liberation. If somebody asked me what I thought about evil, I would probably say exactly what Tom says — that it is not metaphysical. But that’s not quite what the book is saying; the book is at least leaving it open.
In order to practice his profession, in order to be a psychologist, Tom has to see evil that way, doesn’t he?
Yes, certainly for his profession he does, but of course he’s also a rational, liberal humanistic, agnostic person — he has that particular mind-set, though you could say it doesn’t do him an awful lot of good when faced with Danny. Insofar as there’s a contest going on in the book, it’s Danny who wins.
It seemed to me that Danny was a menacing character, but that Tom was unaware of the danger he was in.
Well, Tom of course is a fit, youngish guy, so he’s not nervous of Danny in the physical sense, even though Danny is younger and also very fit. That was important to me, because it would have been easy to have as the central character a woman psychologist who’d be no match for Danny physically. You could engender more intense suspense, more quickly, that way, but only at the expense of playing on the idea of women as vulnerable to physical force or even to sexual threat. And I decided I didn’t want to do that. It’s very often done by writers who would describe themselves in all sincerity as feminists. Because it’s so easy, putting the woman in jeopardy.
But of course psychological terror can be just as powerful.
Yes. I think what Tom is afraid of, but not sufficiently afraid of, is Danny’s psychological takeover. There’s a point very early on when Danny is talking with Tom about the governor of the prison where he lived, and he says, “I should have ripped his fucking liver out.” And Tom says, “I hope you’re careful who you say that to.” And Danny says, “I am.” And right there, the complicity has already started. Tom’s response to this admission of a violent thought is to warn Danny not to let other people know. So it’s very much a book about a really good, decent man sliding into complicity with, if not evil, then something close.
I don’t see it as an optimistic book. It fascinates me, the reactions it’s gotten. Some people have seen it as very optimistic — the first reviewer I had in England said, “Perhaps Danny’s redemption comes too easily.” Well, I don’t know that Danny’s redemption comes at all. And I don’t see Tom’s remembering Lizzie Parks at the end as at all a way of saying, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter because she’s being remembered.” She was alive! And she was still getting something out of life. She had an absolute right to live out her term. So I see it as actually being quite a black book. Danny, toward the end, reverts to a psychotic state in which he almost sets fire to a house where someone is asleep upstairs. And at the end, OK, he’s managed to attend a lecture and to have a drink with his friends without breaking down, but a lot of people can manage that. Extreme pressure, in the nature of things, will return, and there is a question mark over what Danny is capable of when it does.
Danny seems to be what people call a borderline personality — would you call it that?
There’s no diagnosis for Danny in the book, so I don’t think I should supply one now, really. But certainly he has problems with the fluidity of his identity. This is a very wet book. There’s the river, there’s the pond, there’s the causeway at the end, the water is always slopping over onto the land — that happened naturally, I didn’t plan it in a schematic way — and Danny is always sort of seeping out of himself, looking for someone else to enter into.
It’s hard to imagine that aspect of someone’s personality changing.
That won’t change for Danny. It doesn’t change, no. And what’s worrying about it is that it has this facility for something which looks extraordinarily like empathy, but which is actually not empathy. It can be quite an attractive quality, because of the degree of perception and focusing on the other person, and the sense of mingling and sympathy. I read something about techniques of therapy once which said that the most dangerous thing a therapist can say, and it should never be said, is “I know how you feel.” That’s not only not empathy, it’s projecting your own personality and feelings into the other person, and then recognizing them.
How should a therapist express empathy?
The good phrase is some version of tell me how you feel — how did it feel?
What are your plans for your next book? Will you stay with psychologists and their patients?
No. I’ve got three ideas at the moment, but I’m not sure which will win out. I’m getting quite interested in bioethics. I think it’s one of the most fruitful and difficult areas for contemporary society — the way in which scientists are racing ahead. You can’t blame the scientists, because I think they are trying to explain and inviting debate, and inviting informed public policy, because they don’t want to be Frankenstein. And perhaps the rest of us are rather letting them down. Because most of the opinions expressed on matters of bioethics are simply prejudice.
Which areas of bioethics are you most interested in?
Genetics and reproductive science. I think that’s where we’re going to see the most questions asked in the next few years.
Such as whether it’s ethical to choose or eliminate particular traits in your children?
Yes, or in animals. Or in crops, for that matter. I’ve been thinking about the way the rape of a woman is always used as a metaphor for the rape of a country, or the landscape, or the fertility of the land. As a woman I profoundly object to that. It always makes it seem as though the woman herself is not of sufficient importance — she has to be a metaphor before she becomes significant. And yet I can see the importance of looking at our own fertility and the fertility of the natural world not as metaphors for one another, but simply to recognize their actual objective identity. And we are manipulating both of these things more and more. Scientists are doing the best they can to make ethical decisions in a vacuum, without any informed public opinion.
Are you following the debates over cloning?
It’s an interesting area. Because you could clone your dead husband, you see, so your son would be your husband. It goes right back to Oedipus, and the figure of Jocasta, only instead of being this bizarre accident which nevertheless reveals psychological problems within the family, you’ve got actual objective chosen reality.
So you’re sticking with contemporary rather than historical fiction.
Yes. But it’s very difficult, I think, to write good contemporary fiction. It’s a lot more difficult than to write historical fiction. You have to look at society through narrowed eyes — to ask yourself, What is the froth that is on the surface, and what are the actual trends? With historical fiction, this is answered for you. You know what was important because it’s still significant now. And all the banner headlines that seemed so significant at the time have simply vanished.
It’s true that contemporary novelists haven’t often addressed questions of bioethics.
It’s difficult. I suppose the people who are attracted to it are ideas led, whereas I think my fiction is character led. I’m interested in ideas, but I’m interested in what the idea means to a character more than I’m interested in the idea itself, although that does matter to me. I would be interested, for example, in why someone would go into the field of bioethics, and how that concern with bioethics would relate to the ethical judgments he or she made in their private life.
That’s something I especially like about your fiction — the characters’ work is significant. It’s treated as something as important to their identities as, say, their love lives are, if not more so.
I think that goes right back to my early books, like “Union Street.” Although the jobs in that book might seem sort of meaningless — working in the cake factory or prostitution, not jobs that anybody in their right mind would ever care to do — still, they are chosen and they have a deep impact on people’s lives. I’m always very aware of the significance of work, even a repetitive, badly paid or part-time job, what it can do for a woman. Especially when it brings her outside the home, into contact with people. You see women blossoming doing jobs that don’t look all that desirable, because it catapults them into that other world.
What about writing as a job?
Writing does not give you enough contact with the outside world. I think it would join the list of jobs you wouldn’t advise anybody to do. It’s too much inside your own head. Which is why in the end, though I moan about the burden of promoting my books, it is a link to the outside world for me, and I think it’s very necessary to do that from time to time. Somebody asked me recently if I think the novelist is a therapist, and I answered that the difference is that you can’t determine what people will do with your books. Nor should you try. Once it’s published, it’s finished and it’s not yours anymore.
But increasingly I find I’m invited to talk to scientists, mainly psychiatrists or psychologists. “Regeneration” is used for teaching in medical schools. It’s flattering — or alarming, actually [laughs] — when you think I’ve never interviewed a single patient.
Do you accept the invitations?
I don’t accept most of them. I researched shell shock during the First World War, and by the time I finished the “Regeneration” trilogy I knew a lot about that. But that’s an island of knowledge in a sea of ignorance.
Psychiatrists would probably say they don’t know more about human nature than good novelists do.
And they’d probably be right. I do think the whole business of drug therapy and physically based therapy has changed things. But when it comes to feeling your way into the human personality, you are working with someone’s personal qualities. A journalist would be just as likely to be able to do it. Have you ever watched a journalist on television who is terribly skilled, and they are talking to a person who’s suffered some terrible tragedy, and is lonely and desperate? They are handled so deftly that they forget there’s a camera in the room, as if they are talking to a kind doctor, a friend, somebody who understands, and it all comes pouring out. Then the cameras go away, and they’re on their own again. And they may have betrayed, for example, the person they are devoting their life to.
One of my favorite scenes in “Border Crossing” is when Tom comes back from a television interview and is completely overexcited and drained.
“Intellectually flatulent,” as I describe it. Going on TV is like a night of heavy drinking where you’re not quite sure what you did or said.
So print journalism is not as bad?
They still use the methods of therapy. Some print journalists have done that to me, in fact.
Well, if they were writing a profile of you, that process depends on their digging up or discerning something about you that you might not be aware of, or that you wouldn’t want revealed.
That’s right. And in order to do that, you have to read all the previous profiles, and you have to get something more than all the other people have got. And the process is almost identical with creating a fictional character, except that there’s a real person there. I find that when I do reveal something about myself, it’s generally in the context of a discussion of my work anyway. It’s a very simple truth — the way to approach a writer is through what he or she has written. It amuses me in a way that journalists seem to be so totally incapable of grasping what is a very obvious fact.
What was your strangest experience of being profiled?
I was profiled in the New Yorker, by Blake Morrison, who had written a book called “And When Did You Last See Your Father.” The death of his father, and his father’s personality, was the major thing in Blake’s life. And I didn’t have a father at all — no name, no nothing. He was just gobsmacked by that. It was like Mount Everest isn’t there in this landscape. So he talked about me almost exclusively in terms of “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” that little novella about a boy growing up not knowing who his father was. And it was — I won’t say it wasn’t a good profile — but it was at least as much about Blake as it was about me. I thought he was perfectly fair, but he took what was personal to him and produced … a composite thing, really. It’s really what we were talking about, about projecting identities into people rather than seeing and accepting their separate identities.
And at the extreme end of that is your character Danny Miller. Billy Pryor in “Regeneration” brings up a lot of the same questions, about the boundaries of a person’s identity — he too is a master manipulator.
Yes, Pryor has some of the same personality traits as Danny, though Pryor is an awful lot more positive about it. I think Pryor actually has quite a strong sense of his own identity, in spite of all his chameleon qualities and his social manipulativeness.
That’s what Danny’s missing — that core identity.
I think what makes Danny dangerous is that he borrows it.
In Danny’s case that goes along with physical attractiveness and sexual magnetism. People want to be near him.
Yes, I think it very frequently does. There is a phrase, “borderline charm.” And Danny’s also intelligent and well educated. In England some people had a lot of trouble with the fact that he was so well educated.
They want their killers to be uneducated.
Yes, they want them to be very lowbrow. In fact he’s a bright kid, not from a very deprived home, and he’s been given one-to-one tutoring. I mean, my God, they don’t have that at Eton! So why wouldn’t he be well educated?
The other side of the equation is Tom, who has not enough going on in his own life — he’s still grieving for his father, and he’s also got his collapsing marriage and the fact that they haven’t been able to produce a child. There’s one time when he goes to the door and because his wife has taken away most of the furniture, his footsteps echo and he realizes the sound of his house is completely different now. And it disturbs him. So all of that gives Danny the space he needs to get in.
Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.More Maria Russo.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)