NEW YORK — Imagine your favorite childhood stuffed animal: that soft, cuddly friend who kept you company every night and soothed your fears when you had a nightmare, who bore witness to your tears and was an ally against parental disapproval. Now imagine said toy being accused of kidnapping, treason and terrorism, and being shipped off to a high-security prison. Sound implausible?
Not if you are Clifford Chase, whose fiction debut, “Winkie,” out this month from Grove Press, lays out just such a premise. The allegorical story follows a teddy bear of indeterminate gender named Winkie who is tracked down in a forest by FBI agents who mistake him for a terrorist and murderer. Interweaving trial scenes with glimpses of Winkie’s past as the childhood companion of a young boy named Cliff (yes, a fictionalized version of the author) and even photographs of the bear, the book was inspired by Chase’s toy of the same name, who first belonged to his mother in 1924.
“Winkie” began as a short story, about 10 years ago, but soon grew into a full-fledged novel after 9/11, when Chase found himself devastated and depressed by what he perceived as the government’s encroachment on civil liberties.
“Before then, the themes had been really literary and metafictional. It’s still a postmodernist book, and those themes are still there, about childhood, both my mother’s and mine,” says Chase, who has worked at Newsweek for the past 20 years in the publicity department. “The week 9/11 happened, there was that big speech on television that Bush gave, and I was watching it, crying, because he was such an idiot … I guess the whole situation seemed absurd to me, and then Winkie seemed somehow a repository for that, for my own alienation.”
The combination of this childhood figure and a grave political situation seemed a logical mechanism for exploring these feelings.
“The government is telling us fairy tales; they’re telling us tales to scare us, as a kind of ‘ooh, scary terrorist’ aspect to it,” he explains. “I don’t mean to diminish the fact of terrorism … it’s the way that the media and public is manipulated through fear, and that those are very primal emotions that go back to childhood, ultimately, and Winkie is a kind of nexus of all of that.”
This story first appeared in the July 11, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Despite the book’s politically serious inspiration, Chase certainly had some lighthearted moments during the creative process. For one of the novel’s photographs (all of which he took), the Williamsburg native took Winkie to a Brooklyn hospital to have him X-rayed.
Certainly such quirky touches provoked skepticism from some potential editors.
“One of the problems is, it was hard to describe, particularly until I finished it,” explains Chase of his shopping-around efforts. “I had this one conversation with an editor and he thought I was pulling his leg. He really thought I was kidding when I told him. He just said, ‘Oh, come on, what’s your novel really about?'”
But fortunately for Chase, he had many supporters — friends and professionals alike. And now Winkie, who was previously with his parents in California, has a new literary and physical home, though the author does fear for his childhood friend’s safety.
“My mother gave Winkie back to me to take back to Brooklyn. He’s in a filing cabinet,” says Chase. “But I have this fear of, like, what if there’s a fire?”