Author William Jablonsky on his second book, The Clockwork Man, and its “anti-Frankenstein monster” protagonist

There is certain promise in a story narrated by something inanimate injected with a modicum of life — the tale of an objective narrator or bystander sometimes swept up in the tide of things, demonstrating an occasional yearning for something more “real”, sometimes contempt for the different other. William Jablonsky’s novel, The Clockwork Man, is about Ernst, a mechanical man created by a popular watchmaker in late 19th Century Germany. Ernst is a part of the household, happy, with no existential crises. But tragedy befalls the family and, a century later, he wakes up in a shop window on a different continent, trying to fill in the blanks in his past. In an email, Iowa-based Jablonsky, whose first collection of stories, The Indestructible Man, was published in 2005, answers questions about his new book. Excerpts:

Early on in the book, there is a conscious effort to separate Ernst from the creation-creator dilemma characteristic of tales like Pinocchio and Frankenstein. What did you have in mind while writing Ernst and his relationship with his inventor, Karl Gruber?

I suppose I was trying to strike a balance between those two creator-creation stories, both of which are extremely familiar to readers. The Pinocchio story, of course, is just a man wishing his creation to life without dwelling on the ramifications of it at all — the novelty and the magic are simply accepted. In Frankenstein, on the other hand, the science Victor Frankenstein uses to reanimate this new creature, cobbled together from spare parts, is always presented as an abomination. I very much wanted Ernst to be the “anti-Frankenstein monster,” if you will, in that I tried to present his creation as a work of genius rather than of hubris, that the idea of creating a new being from scratch is (or can be, at least) a wondrous thing, rather than a horror. Because Karl Gruber is, essentially, an artiste, he did it just to do it, and does not immediately understand the ramifications of what he’s created; Ernst is, at times, a well-treated servant at the beginning, though the relationship does evolve from there into almost a father-son dynamic.

What research did the book involve?

The research was more complicated than I thought it would be. I had to research Frankfurt and Sachsenhausen (Ernst’s home) before the War, which obliterated it; Frankfurter culture; modes of dress (including, strangely, late 19th-century German underclothes); various historical figures and where they would have been around that time; and various present-day locations around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I set the second half of the story. This involved doing a lot of walking around the downtown area and, at one point, even climbing up into a department store display window so I could see exactly what Ernst would be seeing from that vantage point.

The clockwork man starts off in the Germany of 1893 and wakes up to the U.S. of the 20th Century. Is Ernst chief role, that way, of a bridge across time?

In some ways, very much so. Ernst represents a certain fixed set of values and beliefs, imparted by his creator, which for him do not change. Yet, the world around him has changed — he’s in a new country, and the place he came from no longer exists as it once did. People behave differently. Technological advances have, in some ways, made him a relic. But the core of who he is remains, and is something that still has value. Part of what I intended in creating this character was the idea of someone being able to lose all of the external things that define who we are — his home, his family, his prescribed purpose in life, everything but his central character — so that he wound have to redefine himself from scratch.

Was the conflict between science for science’s sake and that as a method and aim of mass production central in your mind while writing The Clockwork Man?

Somewhat, certainly. As primarily a writer of short stories, which will definitely not make you rich in America, I already understood the concept of art for art’s sake. It is not a far cry from that to the idea of science for its own sake, except that art doesn’t enslave or kill people. Ernst is very much a work of art; while the Master did take science into account when creating him, Ernst was meant to be Karl Gruber’s magnum opus. In part it’s an act of ego — “See? I can do this! — and in part a manifestation of the creative spirit. He intends that Ernst be one of a kind, with no thought to profit or mass-production. However, others have a more jaded view of Ernst and wish to exploit him. Much of Ernst’s predicament in the book revolves around this very idea.

Is there another book in the pipeline?

At the moment I’m working on another short story collection. This one isn’t science fiction so much as it is magical realism (my first love), stories about spiritually-transformative experiences gone terribly awry.

(The Clockwork Man, published in India by Silverfish, is priced Rs. 225.)

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