Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, February 2, 2009

PEN/Faulkner Winner Mark Spencer Talks to LCC About Literature and the Writing Process - An LCC Exclusive

Author Mark Spencer lives in Monticello, Arkansas, with his lovely wife and their two children. Besides being an award-winning author, Mark's a Professor of English and Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Arkansas. His books include the novels The Weary Motel (Backwaters Press) and Love and Rerun in Adams County (Random House) and the story collections Wedlock (Watermark Press) and Spying on Lovers (Amelia Press).His work has received much critical acclaim, including the Faulkner Society Faulkner Award for the Short Novel, The Omaha Prize for The Novel, The Bradshaw Book Award, The Cairn/St. Andrews Press Short Fiction Award, and four Special Mentions in Pushcart Prize.

Mark was gracious enough to give Literary Corner Cafe the interview below. I'm sure any aspiring writer can learn much from his words, and any reader will be fascinated with what he has to say.

Maya Angelou once said, “There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I once read an interview in which you said you’d be happier and more prolific if you had thirty minutes each day to write. You’re an award-winning author, but you’re also a professor of English and the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. What made you decide to pursue a career in academia? If writing is what makes you happy, why not write fulltime?

When I started working seriously at my writing in undergraduate school, I thought of myself as a short-story writer and had my doubts that I would ever write a novel. Making a living as a short-story writer was a real possibility back in the 1920s and 1930s, but I knew that in the 1980s I’d starve doing nothing but writing stories, especially literary stories. Fortunately, I discovered that I loved teaching college. I loved it in large part because I learned so much about writing and literature by teaching writing and literature. If you want to learn a lot about a subject, the best thing you can do is teach it. I learned far more after I started teaching than I ever did as a student. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to make a living as a college professor—it’s a very fulfilling occupation and affords a writer a flexible schedule and an environment in which he feels appreciated.

Even novelists usually don’t make much money, so even after I published a novel with Random House, I found I needed to keep teaching, but by that time I had decided that I always wanted to teach—even if the time came when I didn’t have to, simply because I’d become as addicted to teaching as I was to writing. The teaching helped my writing, and the writing helped my teaching. Because of my publications and awards, I was able to get tenure and promotions. I also believe that being a creative writer helped prepare me for administration. My background as a creative writer helps me see a range of perspectives on issues and makes me inclined to think “outside of the box.” Early in my academic career I thought I would loath administration if I ever got forced into it, but as a department chair and as a dean, I’ve discovered that it really helps to have long experience imposing order upon chaos.

I know you believe writing is a discipline anyone can master if he or she only works hard enough. But do you really believe anyone who desires to write can do so? Do you believe that with the desire to write also comes the necessary depth and sensitivity? Do you feel there are any special qualities a successful writer must possess?

I do believe that success as a writer can result from 99 percent hard work and 1 percent talent—but there does have to be that 1 percent. It’s hard to imagine a truly good writer who is not capable of some depth of thinking, some sensitivity, some ability to appreciate the small details and nuances of language.

You’ve written novels, novellas, and short stories. Do you feel more at home with one form than another? Why or why not? Do you ever have the desire to expand your writing into the field of stage plays, teleplays, or screenplays?

I actually think that much of my best work has been my novellas. I strain to make a story long enough to be called a novel, and I feel my short stories often could do more. It’s somewhat unfortunate to excel at novellas—they’re difficult to place (too long for magazines, too short to be books). I’ve never consciously tried to write a novella. I simply end up expanding a short story into one or shrinking a novel down to one after cutting out all the lousy parts.

I’ve written a couple of screenplays. They turned out okay and I almost won a couple of national contests, but I’m not naturally inclined to think in terms of screenplays. I probably would be more inclined to work on screenplays if I saw more of a chance to have them made into movies. If you have any movie connections, let me know.

You’ve said it wasn’t easy for you to become the excellent writer you are today. Many writers feel that a book, as a human document, should be flawed. Given that you’re human like all the rest of us, do you now ever find yourself struggling with any issues of craft or reading a finished work and feeling there was something you just didn’t capture exactly as you wanted?

Like most writers, I’m never really satisfied with my work. Given the opportunity, I would revise a work endlessly.

The setting for your novels and some of your short stories is southeastern Ohio, an area where both you and I grew up. Your characters seem to feel a real sense of home and attachment to that area, yet they also seem to feel smothered and held back as well. Would it be accurate to say that this is autobiographical in any way? Can you comment on that, and is it fair to say that growing up there shaped you as a writer? Like some authors, do you see place as a distinct character in your work?

I don’t think I wrote anything that was any good until I discovered the importance of place. Early on as a writer, I avoided setting stories where I grew up because that setting didn’t seem very “literary.” When I started writing stories set in Adams County, Ohio, I found my voice. In a way, all work is autobiographical. Mine isn’t in terms of experiences usually, but in terms of observations and emotions, yes.

I use the landscape of southeast Ohio—all those hollows—to reflect the way characters feel restricted in what they can make with their lives. You can’t see far in that part of the country—too many hills and trees. I think most people, regardless of where they live, feel the limitations of their lives, especially as they get older, as life becomes a diminishing number of possibilities. When you’re eighteen, you can dream about being a professional baseball player and a millionaire. When you’re thirty-five, you’re probably not dreaming the same dreams.

You have a very distinctive, uniquely American voice. As distinctive and uniquely American as Mark Twain, and, I think, one that will prove to be as important and lasting. I think I could be given 100 different manuscripts, written by 100 different authors, and I could pick yours out almost immediately. Yet that unique voice is always a perfect fit. It’s never intrusive and always adds to, rather than detracts from, the overall charm/atmosphere of your story or book. Are you conscious of this distinctive voice when you’re writing? How did it develop and evolve?

I think my voice grew out of my discovery of place because when I discovered my setting I discovered my characters, and once I discovered my characters, who were very much a product of their setting, I discovered a voice that went with those people, their hopes, their fears, their desires.

I identify with your characters so easily. I find most of them very endearing. Two instances that come instantly to mind are when Scar in “Independence Day” crosses her hands over her breasts and thinks how cool it is that the sheriff just wanted a date with her rather than showing up to arrest her. Another instance is when Jo Rene in The Weary Motel receives a chain letter and her first inclination is to chuck it out, but not wanting to tempt fate, she distributes all the copies she made by putting them on the windshields of parked cars, instead. Your characters are often what some people would describe as quirky. Given this quirkiness, how universal do you feel your writing is? How well do readers seem to relate to your characters and empathize with them? Do you feel the characters you create are quirky, or do you feel you’re just illuminating the quirks all of us possess?

There’s a lot of me and my relatives and friends in my characters. As for my writing being universal, I hope that it is by being particular. One of the paradoxes of fiction is that the universal is derived from the particular. The best way to make a character a universal figure is to make him truly distinct. And I see no conflict between quirkiness and truth. Life in general is full of quirkiness—absurdity. A character can be quite quirky yet be very “real.” TV shows and Hollywood movies are, of course, full of quirky characters, but usually they’re just stupid and boring because they’re flat and incoherent. The quirky characters I like and try to create are complex, have emotional depth. To a certain extent, we’re talking about humor. There are two kinds of humor. One depends solely on exaggeration for its effects. The other—the superior form of humor—combines exaggeration with truth.

A recurring theme in all your work seems to touch on our existential aloneness and the fact that many of us try to run away from our problems and hide rather than staring them down. Is this something that you’ve consciously chosen to explore? How did this theme evolve?

Yes, I think it’s hard for people to connect, and when they do, it’s hard to feel confident that the connection will last. My characters, like most real people, know the devastation of a relationship or some other aspect of life changing in the blink of an eye. We all have our personal bomb shelters we go to at times in an attempt to save ourselves.

Another thread I see running through your work is your characters’ acceptance of their fate. Your characters aren’t passive people by any means. In fact, much of the time, they’re very active. And yet they seem to have accepted a fate that usually isn’t a very good fate. They seem resigned to their destiny. What draws you to people like this? What makes you want to tell their story?

I guess I just see something very poignant in that “giving in,” especially early in life, to limitations. It seemed to me that within five years of graduating from high school most of my classmates had settled into minimum-wage jobs, rapid weight gain, and domestic strife. Wrecks are always compelling.

As a reader, I feel many writers are less skilled at dialogue today than writers of say, twenty – even fifty – years ago. I often encounter dialogue that’s clumsy or imparts exposition in a clumsy manner. Much of the time, it just doesn’t ring true. Yours, however, is always dead center perfect. Scar’s exchanges with her young son in “Independence Day” are one example. Can you tell us how you developed an ear for dialogue that’s so pitch perfect?

Dialogue is the one aspect of writing that came to me naturally, I think. Coherent narrative was harder, and writing good descriptions about killed me. Regardless of how else a reader might feel about Ernest Hemingway, there’s something magical about his dialogue in his early stories and in The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was an early influence for me.

How has your work evolved over the years? What qualities are present in your writing today that weren’t there ten or fifteen years ago? When your novel, Love and Reruns in Adams County was published, “The Dallas Morning News” called it “grimly funny, to be sure, but funny nevertheless.” To me, your characters seem to be less darkly comic in the more recent “Hungry Dogs, Wild Pigs” and “Independence Day” than they were in Love and Reruns in Adams County and The Weary Motel. In your very recent writing, the characters seem to be more gritty and raw. In some of your stories, I can even feel an undercurrent of violence. Would you elaborate a little on the evolution of your work?

I like to think that I have more depth as a person as I get older, and I hope that greater depth informs my writing. As for the violence, I think I’m just more comfortable taking chances with risky material, material that might come across as melodramatic. I’m a braver writer than I used to be.

You’ve won many prestigious awards. The Weary Motel won the 1999 Omaha Prize. You’re a PEN/Faulkner winner. You’ve won the Patrick T. T. Bradshaw Book Award, the 2003 St. Andrews Press Short Fiction Prize. You’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize many times. Did winning these awards change your outlook on your writing, or how you approach your writing?

Winning a few awards has been really nice, but I don’t think it’s changed my writing. Even if I hadn’t ever won an award of any kind, I’m sure I’d still be writing, simply because I love the writing. The work itself is the reason we write and all the reward a writer needs. Publication, prizes, money are just extras.

Ann Patchett once told me that she knew very little about opera when she began writing Bel Canto. That surprised me a little because so much of the book centers on an opera singer. Is there anything about your novels, novellas, and short stories that you think readers would be very surprised to learn?

I don’t think so.

When I was a student in one of your workshops, we talked about some of the stories we both consider great – Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude” and “Miss Brill,” D.H. Lawrence’s “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,” Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” just to name a few. What, for you, distinguishes a great story from one that’s merely good or adequate? What gives a story the “wow” factor? Can it even be pinned down?

I don’t think it can be pinned down. It’s not something the writer has complete control over. You would think, for instance, that a writer would get better and better as he got older and learned more about his craft and about life, but it doesn’t always work that way. I don’t think Hemingway got better with age—or Faulkner or Steinbeck. A writer might be very fine, and his work might be pretty consistently good, but only occasionally will he or she create a piece possessing that “wow” factor, which results from all the various elements—beauty of language, depth of character, pacing of action, evocation of image—meshing in just the right way.

I’ve read your novels and quite a few of your novellas and short stories. I like all of them, but for me the one that really stands out is the short story, “The River.” It really moved me. It still moves me when I think about it. The ending line gives me goose bumps. I keep thinking the day will come when the main character won’t step on the brake. The story stays with me. It moves me and it unsettles me, and because it does, I love it. Do you have a personal favorite among your work, and if so, what makes it special to you?

That’s a tough question. I suppose I feel a special fondness for my novel The Weary Motel. I spent a long time with the characters, getting to know them well. And some of my fondness for Weary Motel probably has to do with winning two national awards for it. Most important, I feel it has some truth to it—the characters and their lives. I like it that it’s both funny and sad. When I first started writing it, it was a very somber novel. About 50 pages into it, I decided I didn’t like the narrative voice and stopped working on it for at least a year. When I went back to it, I wanted to create a voice that would allow for effective tonal shifts, a movement between the very sad and the very funny, and the meshing of pathos and comedy. I definitely feel that certain works of mine are better than others. I’ve written and published some stories I will probably never read again. Reading them would be too painful.

Do you get much feedback on your work from “everyday readers” (those who are not writing or studying writing)? Do you find this feedback helpful? Has a review or a comment ever changed your perspective on your work?

Years ago a story of mine was being taught at the University of Illinois, and a student there wrote to me and asked me what I thought of his interpretation of some symbols in my story. What was interesting was that until that student pointed out the range of symbolic meanings, I was not consciously aware of them, at least not fully. Of course, it’s not necessary for a writer to articulate a full interpretation of his work the way a critic would; the writer just needs to have some certainty that each element in a story works in some way.I don’t think a review has ever made me change my perspective on my work. I’ve gotten some reviews that made me happy, and I’ve gotten some that didn’t make me so happy. Although it wasn’t thoroughly glowing, a review in Boston Globe was in a way my favorite because it compared me to Bruce Springsteen. I just thought that was cool.

Do you have an “ideal reader?” What kind of people do you envision reading your short stories and books? Do you write specifically for a certain type of reader, or do you write simply to please yourself?

I like the idea of appealing to both sophisticated readers and less sophisticated readers. I certainly appreciate readers who discern the subtleties, and of course I’m writing for those readers, but I’m glad when a reader of limited abilities enjoys the lively surface of one of my stories.

What authors have had the most influence on your own writing? Are these the same authors you enjoy reading?

Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor were all early influences. I’m sure they influenced me largely because I did enjoy them so much. More than when I was younger, I enjoy reading all kinds of things that I don’t think really influence my own writing. For instance, I don’t want to write like Bram Stoker but I enjoy reading Dracula.

Writers who really want to write their best, who are really serious about their writing take criticism gracefully and thankfully. However, it’s still so gratifying when we receive a sincere compliment. What do you consider the highest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing?

A lot of people have been kind and generous in regard to my work. A newspaper reporter interviewing me a few years ago said something that has stayed with me. He had read one of my books, and he said, “The thing about your book is that I can still smell it.” He meant it as a compliment, as a reference to the sensuous qualities of the fictional world I created.

If you could leave your readers with one legacy, what would you like that legacy to be? What would you like readers to take away from your work and keep?

I hope that readers are moved, that they laugh a few times, that they get the sense they’re not alone.

What questions are you never asked in an interview, but wish you had been?

I haven’t really thought much about what I wanted to be asked, but I do want to take this opportunity to thank you for your wonderfully insightful and intelligent questions.

Thank you.

I can think of some questions I’ve been asked that I thought were odd or unnecessary. A reporter once asked me how many sisters I had. And when I won the Faulkner Award, a TV reporter said, “Now about the word ‘Faulkner,’ what does that word mean?”

Do you have anything new we can look forward to reading soon? Is there anything special you’d like to share with us?

A story is coming out online in Clapboard House. And I have stories in recent issues of other online journals: Storyglossia, Contrary, Istanbul Literature Review, Ramble Underground, Tattoo Highway, Amarillo Bay. There are some pieces about my haunted house on Associated Content.

And now, for the question I ask all authors: If you were a character in Fahrenheit 451 and had to memorize one book, a book other than one of your own, which book would you choose and why?

It would be terrible to have to limit myself to memorizing only one book. I’d have to tell the leaders of the rebellion that I was flexible and give them a list that would include the following: The Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, The Shipping News, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird, Madame Bovary, Rabbit, Run. I’d be willing to memorize a collection of short stories in lieu of a novel: Dubliners by James Joyce, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" or "Flowering Judas" by Katherine Anne Porter, "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield, "Men Without Women" or "In Our Time" by Ernest Hemingway, "These 13" by William Faulkner, "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov.

I love fiction that gives me memorable characters, that evokes the complexities and ambiguities of life in the telling of a story that I don’t have the sense of having read before and that gives me the sense I’m being told the truth. One of the great pleasures of reading literature is that we feel we’re being told the truth—for a change. Every day, politicians, advertisers, teachers, preachers, parents, cab drivers, lovers and lunatics lie to us. It’s wonderful to read something or watch a play or a movie and get the sense that someone is being honest with us about life. I also love fiction that mingles pathos and comedy. After all, life is both funny and sad. It seems to me that any story attempting to be true to life will possess the elements of both comedy and tragedy.

Literary Corner Cafe thanks Mark Spencer for this insightful and illuminating interview, and we look forward to more of his work.

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