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Bear Most Wanted: An Interview with Author Clifford Chase

by Michael Liss

by Michael Liss


Clifford Chase’s Winkie, one of the most buzzed about books this summer, spins a fairy tale about a teddy bear willing himself to life only to be wrongly arrested as a terrorist mastermind. In fully realizing the character of Winkie, Chase examines today's political- and media-driven paranoia through the prism of the ultimate symbol of innocence.

Michael Liss: Winkie started as a short story. When did you realize you were going to make it a novel?

About six months after I started it. The first thing I wrote was him running away. Then I wrote another chapter about him in the forest. I had a very strong emotional reaction to that, so I felt like I was on to something.

When did the terrorism theme come in?

CC: Back in '97, weirdly enough. At the time, I was interested in the Unabomber as a media figure, so when Winkie ran away to the forest, it seemed natural and funny to encounter him, almost like a troll or fairy tale figure. People like [the Unabomber] turn into these cartoonish villains, which interested me. Then I decided Winkie would be accused of his crimes unjustly. So that was in the novel 9 years ago. Then it came forward more after 9/11. I thought I'd have to take the terrorism out [of the book] and make it completely different or it wouldn't work at all. But all these reports started coming back of immigrants who'd been thrown in jail and abused, and John Ashcroft was making all these really wild charges about suspects. I started thinking what's happening is absurd and maybe I can apply that to Winkie, since he already was in the middle of it just by accident.

ML: What's interesting is that the terrorism never got updated. It was the post-9/11 paranoia and media circus attached to the almost more innocent terrorism of the Unabomber.

CC: [Laughing.] It's true. I just was very attached to that. I didn't want it to be too tied to any one time frame. The thing about the Unabomber is that he does bring terrorism home. He reminds us that it's not just this totally alien thing [done] by foreigners.

ML: A lot of the reviews and articles refer to Winkie as a parable or fairy tale. Do you think of it in those terms?

CC: It is partly a fairy tale. That's how it began. Winkie wills himself to life and runs away to the forest, then there's these adventures. Winkie has multiple meanings for me. A lot have to do with childhood, obviously. Some have to do with a certain kind of lost innocence after 9/11. There's a lot of different things that attach to him. It took me a long time to figure out what they were. Empathy, shame, childhood, fear, the current political state of affairs. I think it's interesting that most of the reviews have really focused more on the childhood stuff than the terrorism aspect, which really does make a lot more sense to me.

ML: It certainly gets a lot more time in the book.

CC: That's where the book begins and ends for me ultimately. I was in such a state of outrage about the way the war on terror was being conducted that I had to put it in the book. Those feelings seemed to dovetail with the emotions I was exploring in the book anyway.

ML: In the writing process, when you're creating a universe in which a teddy bear comes alive and in which a trial unfolds like this one, do you need to create any rules or laws or logic for this world or is it more of a flow process?

CC: I didn't create laws. I figured they existed somewhere inside me. A flow process is probably the best way to describe it. I work very intuitively. But it was actually very tricky to figure out the rules of this universe, what Winkie can and can't do and why. I found that a very stimulating and fascinating part of the process, writing something and realizing, no, Winkie can't do that and I don't know why. For instance, early on I wrote this long thing where Winkie's having sex.

ML: With what or whom?

CC: My last girlfriend before I came out. Oh God, I shouldn't be saying this. But it was an experiment. I did a lot of experimenting that in the end was just too weird. I couldn't always articulate why to myself.

ML: Winkie doesn't neatly fit into any one world or identity. His gender changes. He's not quite human, not quite animal, not quite toy.

CC: He's very much about transgression. I felt like I was breaking a certain number of literary rules, certainly rules of the marketplace, by taking this children's book character and making him the main character in an adult literary novel. And he embodies for me certain feelings of rebellion. He does have a kind of anti-hero vibe to him, as well as a hero vibe.

ML: Winkie's prosecutors call witnesses from the trials of Socrates, Galileo, Oscar Wilde, the witches of Salem and others. What were you trying to tie together in your choices?

CC: People who were persecuted in some way. I had downloaded these transcripts of old trials and I started putting Winkie's name in. And with the Salem witch trial, that's a very obvious choice for the history of persecution in America. There was something really hilarious to me when they started accusing Winkie of those crimes and speaking in that Puritan-era language.

ML: What did you expect the reaction to the manuscript to be when you sent it out? 

CC: We didn't have very high hopes. [Laughs.] My agent was very honest that it would be really hard to sell, but we actually didn't get a lot of rejections. Lauren Wein at Grove really loved it. She wanted me to restructure it and wasn't able to make an offer, so I spent a year and a half restructuring the book, based on my intuition that she would fight for it and probably had a pretty good idea about how it should look in the end.

ML: What were those changes?

CC: She had me change the chapter order. I began writing the book with Winkie running away. She thought it should begin with him in jail and the more modern story, and then flash back. It took me quite a while to get my head around doing that, because it had come into being so differently in my mind. I think it is a better way to bring the reader to the book. The stuff that happens in the forest is the weirdest stuff in the story. If you don't already know Winkie as a character, it's harder for readers to swallow [those scenes] and get engaged.

How much rewriting did that involve, versus reshuffling?

CC: It didn't entail tons of rewriting. I thought of it like rebuilding all the highway approaches and exits and then smoothing out the roadway. There was a lot of earth moving to get the reader from one chapter to another. It was very tricky for me to understand what the reader knows or needs to know at any point now that it's in a different order. But I didn't lose any material.

ML: How was the writing process different for the novel than your memoir?

CC: With a memoir, the material is all there. The tricky part is what you use and how you treat it. Honestly, I worked a lot harder on Winkie.  But it was also a lot more fun. My memoir was a very somber topic, and Winkie had some of that, but also a lot of very light, frothy stuff. Doing the trial scenes and even a lot of the jail scenes was really going back to a cartoon.

I approach memoir in a pretty fiction-like way. The kind [of memoir] I write is all scenes, pretty close to a novel. So in that sense, the process isn't so dissimilar. The chapters about my mother's childhood are based on stories that she told. The stuff about my childhood, that's all autobiographical. The trick was to put it into Winkie's point of view and stick with it. I kept slipping back into my own.

ML: Why did you keep the characters named after yourself and your family?

CC: Everything that happens is so bizarre that I felt it had to be rooted in my reality. And then there was something very thrilling about beginning the book with me testifying in my own novel on behalf of my teddy bear. The phrase I had in my head was that my childhood was on trial in some way. I don't really know what that means, because when you break that metaphor apart it doesn't make any sense.

ML: Right—what was your childhood accused of exactly?

CC: [Laughing.] Exactly. But it kept me going.

ML: What are you working on now? 

CC: A book-length memoir called The Tooth Fairy. Both of my parents died in the past year, so it will be about that and their final years, moving to a nursing home. It doesn't sound like it, but what I've written so far is actually pretty funny. It's written in an even more spare style than my first memoir. It's all one sentence paragraphs separated by line breaks, like little nuggets.

ML: Do you believe there are other Winkies out there running around?

CC: I hope so. I hope there are, and that it's a movement. A movement of toys gaining movement and autonomy.

Winkie is available now from Grove Press. For more on Winkie's adventures, visit


Clifford Chase is the author of The Hurry-Up Song, a memoir of his brother's death, and editor of Queer 13: Lesbian and Gay Writers Recall Seventh Grade. His fiction has appeared in various magazines and literary journals. Winkie is his first novel, and was inspired by the actual Winkie, who was passed down by the author's mother and is now more than eighty years old and quite mangy.

Michael Liss works a day job, does business development and film programming for the Vail Film Festival and sometimes pretends he's writing a novel. He leaves the country as often as possible and the rest of the time is in New York.





Michael Liss' photo

Michael Liss works a day job, does business development and film programming for the Vail Film Festival and sometimes pretends he's writing a novel. He leaves the country as often as possible and the rest of the time is in New York.

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