Professor of English Brock Clarke has been on sabbatical since the start of the fall semester, going on tour to promote his newest book, “The Happiest People in the World.”

Clarke described “The Happiest People in the World,” released in November 2014, as a “sort of literary spy novel for people who don’t like spy novels. I don’t like spy novels.” The book is chock full of labyrinthine plot lines, characters with multiple identities and dramatic irony.

According to Clarke, the novel’s complexity increased as the book developed. It started, in January 2011, with a first-person narrator, but as Clarke realized the implications of all the secrets harbored by various characters in the book, he created an omniscient narrator to provide the perspectives of multiple characters.

 “I begin with a very specific idea of what the book’s going to be like and then the book sort of confounds that at every turn, until I get over my original impression of the book and give in to what the book is demanding of me,” said Clarke. 

He added that this process of gradual transformation took place when he was writing his other books as well.

Clarke sees the act of completing a novel as less concrete than one might imagine. At one point when he felt that “The Happiest People in the World” was complete, his editor made a suggestion that resulted in Clarke’s adding a completely new first chapter to the book.

“There is essentially nothing in it that, removed from context, makes any sense,” wrote J. Robert Lennon in a glowing review of “The Happiest People in the World,” published in The New York Times.

In response, Clarke said, “Those are the kind of books I like. They don’t have any logic in them except their own logic. They don’t lean on the world for the logic of their book. So I took that as total praise.

“It’s sort of a book for people who like satiric literary fiction but also like their satire to have a little more emotional quality than most satire has,” said Clarke. “For people who like Muriel Sparks novels, but who also like Coen brothers movies, that’s how I think of it.”

Although “The Happiest People in the World” is about a cartoonist who ends up running from terrorists, Clarke said he resists connections to the recent attacks on the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

“It’s difficult to talk about my book in the context of those cartoons, because the cartoonist [in the book] doesn’t draw the cartoons for any kind of political purpose, and the people who burn down his house don’t do it for a political purpose—they’re not Jihadists and he’s not a politicized cartoonist,” he said.

Clarke was on tour with “The Happiest People in the World” from mid-October to mid-December, from Miami to San Francisco, reading mostly at bookstores. A day in the life of a touring author is hectic, between travel time and appearances. Clarke said he used his small pockets of free time for writing, radio interviews and taking walks outside.

Although touring requires a significant amount of what can only be described as schlepping around (“There’s a lot of sitting on airplanes”),  for him, going on tour is a dream come true.

“I don’t know how I could complain about it at all,” said Clarke, who had always aspired to be a novelist, and grew up thinking “I’d love to publish a book some day, I would love to have someone give a shit about it.”

One strange phenomenon Clarke noticed in giving public readings at bookstores is the type of intimacy that the reader often assumes with the author. Some audience members presume a pre-existing rapport with Clarke, wanting to banter and acting as though they knew him really well.
“It’s flattering, but also a little unnerving,” said Clarke.

At a typical reading, there are around thirty audience members. They are fans of Clarke’s work, as well as people who have read the reviews and heard the hype. Clarke said there are occasionally stray knitters, sitting in the bookstore with their balls of yarn, who otherwise don’t care about the book. Regardless of the interest of the audience—or even its size, which can range from two to 80—Clarke is happy to have the forum to speak and sees the whole experience as “a dream.”

Clarke will be returning to Bowdoin in the fall of 2015 and is excited to continue working with his students.