Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York Live Arts presents
His name is pronounced with a stress on the last syllable, Ri- shard, which gives it a bit of the musicality that you’ll also find in his work—a story collection, The Ice at the Bottom of the World, a novel, Fishboy, and a new story collection, Charity, published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
Among Mark Richard’s many awards are the Mary Frances Hobson medal for arts and letters, a PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for First Fiction, a Whiting Writers Award, a Tennessee Williams fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
More importantly, perhaps, is that Mark Richard has worked as a disc jockey, a bartender, a commercial fisherman, a private detective, a campaign manager—all of which he’s willing, in one way or another, to use in his fiction. But autobiography, it is not. Incredibly inventive writing, it is, with characters as varied as children in a hospital charity ward, low-level drug-smuggling murderers, a near-homicidal insomniac and a beach vampire. Whatever the subject matter, his stories are always transcendent, and often take on the quality of myth.
I met Mark Richard about a dozen years ago, when he walked with a slight, mysterious limp. We conducted this interview by telephone, while he was recovering from surgery for a hip replacement.
J.D. Dolan What sort of stuff led you to become a writer?
Mark Richard In high school I was a disc jockey; in fact, at 13 I was the youngest disc jockey in the country.
JDD And that led you to writing?
MR It helped the way I develop narrative, in the way that sound and rhythm can help. Putting together a free-form show with news and weather every quarter hour, and commercials, songs, talk and banter in between, making it pleasant to the ear, meant knowing how to weave and how to modulate. That helped develop my own ear. You can’t sustain the high pitch for very long. You need the low pitch, the dead air, you need to take breaths. You don’t really learn that unless you learn music or do something unusual like put together radio shows where the audience has only one sense working, the aural sense.
JDD It’s like those Japanese watercolors where the space is as important as the brush strokes.
MR Absolutely. You need to know how to write space. One thing I’m learning from dramatic writing is transitions, whether it’s plays or film. I’m really keen on successful transitions. Because too often you feel like you must tell everything, and you don’t have to, you need to know what to pick and choose.
JDD Are you interested in dramatic writing? Plays? Film?
MR I’m interested in the craft of dramatic writing. I’d like to take what I can from it to incorporate into my fiction. There’s very little dialogue in my pieces, and I’d like to work with dialogue, which would naturally lead to more drama.
JDD You see one as helping the other?
MR Yes. It’s always fun for me to learn a different form. I think that’s why I like journalism occasionally, especially radio journalism. I like haiku. It’s important for my work—transitions and editing, and I don’t mean line editing. I’m talking about editing, scenes you’re interplaying and scenes you’re putting in juxtaposition to one another—because I don’t put in any commentary. The subjectivity comes from what I pick and choose to report, and how I present it. It’s an outgrowth of what I learned when I studied music therapy for autistic people. You can evoke emotional responses with certain sounds and rhythms.
JDD When did you study music therapy?
MR When I was doing the research for an interview with Tom Waits, because certain songs of his make me feel better, even though they’re very discordant and not really soothing. In my research I found that you can reorganize peoples’ brain waves with music, and with sounds. This is done with the autistic: distressing sounds are filtered out and sounds that seem to soothe are heightened. They found that some people responded so well to the musical therapy that they were able to speak for the first time in their lives. I learned you can evoke emotions with the sounds of words, regardless of the words themselves or what they mean. You can put that to use by writing words with sounds that are consoling and welcoming, when in fact the words themselves are depicting a horror, so you can bring that horror in closer or you can do the opposite. Sometimes we read things that are perfectly all right, but just don’t seem to sing. There are dead sentences in them. Sometimes the problem is they’re acoustically incorrect. But you have to develop an ear for it. I think it’s good to have an appreciation of music, especially classical music.
JDD Some writers you read give the sense that they’re just fucking around on the page. I don’t get that sense at all from your work, or from people like Barry Hannah. Both of you are terrific stylists. How do you incorporate that musicality in your work without it becoming precious?
MR I think it’s okay for young writers to be word-drunk and to be in love with the sound. I was word-drunk and I loved playing with sounds, but eventually you have to tell the story. Otherwise, it’s just beautiful noise without a tune.
JDD A lot of your characters are emotionally on the edge, but they’re geographically on the edge too, on a bayou or along a canal. There is always some kind of physical thing they’re on the border of. How do you think about place in relation to your stories?
MR I don’t think about it very much. When I was in trouble as a young person I would always go down to the beach. I’d look out at the ocean, then turn around and look out over the land. I thought I didn’t have to watch my back right then, because everything was in front of me. I guess it’s Freudian, but I always felt like I was cutting my losses by going to the edge. Looking out at the ocean, thinking, there’s no trouble out there, just what I put on it. The body of water had my own imprint.
JDD Is that how you came up with Fishboy?
MR “Fishboy” the story or Fishboy the novel?
MR When I was writing The Ice at the Bottom of the World under the tutelage of Gordon Lish, he said that the most difficult thing to write is the love between two men without it being homoerotic. That may have been just what he was thinking that day, I’m sure he could think of a different thing every day that would be hardest to write. But I took that literally and made up a scenario in which a young person on a fishing boat is in love with his captain, but not in the homoerotic sense. That was the stepping off point for that story. I had tried, like a lot of young novelists, to tell a story from multiple points of view which seemed to work in the first few chapters and then it got so problematic that it became a disaster, especially when I started losing the voices of the individuals. The first time the voice is lost, credibility with the reader is lost. It’s rare to have a story told successfully from multiple points of view. Everybody points to As I Lay Dying, but there are more exceptions than the rule. So, I had started to tell Fishboyfrom multiple points of view—but I saw I was going to have credibility problems down the road anyway because I was telling a fantastical tale. I needed to hoard my credibility and keep the voice all in one narrator to that effect.
JDD How about it being—what would you call it?—fantastical. Or magical realism?
MR I’ve never really been comfortable calling it magical realism. Amy Hempel called it a headlong fever dream, and I think that’s close. Every time I started moving into the fantastic realm, I would try to bring it back in and ground it, which gives it that dream-like quality.
JDD It’s very believable. I was thinking of Marquez as I was reading it.
MR I read A Hundred Years of Solitude when I was working on a shrimp boat down in the Gulf and that was a book that made me go, Wow, you can do this? It was very liberating.
JDD Who were some of your other literary influences?
MR I think that everybody has their standard list of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor—who is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read. In college I had a great professor who was like Yossarian in Catch-22, kind of a maverick. He described riding in the bellies of planes he flew during the Vietnam War, looking down over bombsites: “We’d fly over these roads, places that we’d bombed the night before, and I’d look through this lens and see thousands of headlights of the trucks still making it through there.” I remember he didn’t have any books on the shelves in his office, because he knew he was only there temporarily. He gave me Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, Tom McGuane’s Ninety-Two in the Shade and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Those three books in particular opened my eyes, and I realized you were allowed to write like that—throw away a lot of the rules. I point to those three books as a turning point. Every few months I go through a different period. Last year I read everything I could find by John O’Hara. I generally read the older stuff. There’s so much new stuff, I want to let it shake out to see what endures before I try to get on top of it. Barry Hannah and I had this conversation the other day, about how a lot of contemporary fiction is just not very good.
JDD Why do you think that is?
MR There are probably many answers to that question. I am surprised at how ignorant a lot of writers are about the books that have come before them. You need to read up to your own point to see where you are on the literary continuum. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But if you want to write a book about a middle-aged college professor who’s in love with a young teenage girl, I think it’s wise to know that Lolita exists in the world.
JDD How about Barry Hannah?
MR He’s one of the most underrated writers around. His books Ray and Airships and Geronimo Rex are masterpieces. And Bats out of Hell is a great book. High Lonesome has some writing in it that I’ve never seen before. You pick up a lot of contemporary novels and say, “You know what? I’ve read this before.” You can’t say that about a Barry Hannah story. The things he does with time in the first paragraph, the way he packages and handles time and point of view. He’s an incredibly gifted writer who I hope gets the due he deserves one day.
JDD How do you feel about being labeled a Southern writer?
MR Someone told me the other day: When I read your stories it suggests places in the South that I know, but never is a place that I know. And I thought, yeah, because I don’t say this is the only place. The story could be anywhere, and so by transference could be about anybody, including you. I don’t want to be site-specific, but I want to be exotic. Everything within its own context, you know? I still want it to feel familiar, or like a place you dreamed about after watching a travel show. But I don’t want to make it obscure, that’s why I could never write science fiction and talk about places no one has ever been. I’d rather talk about familiar places, familiar people, and things that we all feel associated with. A guy asked me the other day: How do you write about all these fucked up weird people? But you know what? I’m fucked up and I’m weird, so this is not a big leap for me.
JDD It sounds as if a lot of your fiction is autobiographical. What other events from your life have found their way into your work?
MR Well, I ran a political campaign once. I had already been in New York for a couple of years and had completely run out of money. You find yourself in that situation in New York sometimes—and you have to drop back and punt. I went down to Virginia where I knew this woman who had bought a house on the beach with an attic room that she let me have for $100 a month. There was no air conditioning, no kitchen privileges. I had a cot that I’d found on the street on the Upper East Side. So I went down to Virginia Beach with an old dictionary and my cot and tried to do some writing in this attic. I was also trying to hustle some money while I was there and came across this job writing brochure copy for a campaign. When I got to campaign headquarters I realized this candidate was such a loser that everybody was bailing out. I went from writing brochures to speech writing, to actually being the manager of the campaign. It was a fiasco for the candidate, but it was a lot of fun for me. We had some good times. It’s the basis for a novel I’d like to write. My editor said my first attempt at it was incomprehensible as a book. I guess it is a complicated story. The guy had a severe speech impediment and weighed about 300 pounds and sweated profusely. And he’d freeze up in front of cameras.
JDD You were a speech writer for a guy who couldn’t speak?
MR Basically. We were doing this taping once and he just couldn’t get through without screwing it up, so finally I just said fuck it, and let it run with the mistake. After that I did a lot of voice-overs in the studio for him. Occasionally these big wads of money would come in and we would spend them in completely inappropriate ways—hosting big functions in districts where we found out later the people were not even eligible to vote for us. We held barbecues, fishing tournaments. The guy was such a loser that even his own political party had completely distanced themselves from him.
JDD What happened after that?
MR His ratings started to go up.
JDD Up? (laughter)
MR When I finally came to the realization we didn’t have a chance, I started writing anything. I took out ads that held completely nonsensical positions against the status quo, but people thought they were refreshing, and his popularity surged. If we had started earlier with more money, we probably would have had a better chance. We found out too late that there was this anti-status quo sentiment out there. Virginia was being run by one party then, the Democrats. A lot of people weren’t happy with the good ol’ boy system, particularly the disenfranchised—the blacks, the transient military. It was certainly an education. He made it through the election, and I got paid $1,700 for running the whole thing. I stayed in Virginia Beach just long enough to see him completely crushed in the polls and then happily made my way back to New York on Amtrak with $1,200 left in my pocket. I heard a rumor he tried to kill himself after the election.
JDD Sounds like the makings of a great novel.
MR The makings, maybe. But most of those are anecdotes, and I don’t want to be a writer who just tells interesting little anecdotes. They still have to add up. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Don’t you feel cheated when you get to the end of a novel and everything ties up too neatly? I’d rather have an ending that just goes off into space and makes you go, Wow. Those endings are really hard to engineer. It requires so much work to have the story lift and take off into space at the end—either you get it right or the story fails. But it’s an ambitious failure. I’m happier with ambitious failures than with quiet, competent books. My first draft of this political thing was an ambitious failure.
JDD I understand you’re recovering from a surgery. How did you injure your hip?
MR After college, I was working as an aerial photographer, and the plane I was in went into a cornfield, it was a controlled crash landing. That didn’t help my hip at all. But I’ve damaged my hip a lot doing things I shouldn’t do, mostly occupational things. I spent three years on fishing boats carrying eighty-pound baskets of fish and scallops across rolling decks. I overcompensated for being bedridden a lot as an adolescent.
JDD You were bedridden?
MR Yeah. I started having surgeries when I was nine or ten, and I would have to go back periodically and have more surgeries done. Up until I was eighteen, I was still going in and having either a plate put in or a pin taken out. While I recuperated, I read grocery bags of books my mother brought home from the library.
JDD A lot of your stories have children in these really bleak situations.
MR That’s all first hand. I spent several years in and out of children’s hospitals. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so I was often in Shriner’s hospitals or charity hospitals, which were a little grim. Some of the situations were kind of Dickensian.
JDD Your characters are never self-pitying, though.
MR The great thing about being a kid in one of those hospitals is that you may have both your legs splinted and pinned and hooked together and think you have it bad, and all you have to do is look over to the next bed and there is somebody without a face. Coupled with that is the fact that children will still be children, no matter how deformed or encumbered they are by their disabilities. When every child has a disability, then all of their disabilities become invisible and you just have playmates. Some playmates are more mobile than others, and some just lay in bed, they’re literally talking heads. There’s very little self-pity.
I’ve always found myself in strange situations. But I think we’re all in strange situations, it’s just that you don’t recognize them as being strange. It may be related to having been in body casts for so many years as a child, but you develop a survival sense that lets you transport yourself out of your immediate situation, so you don’t lose your mind thinking about being flat on your back and immobile for nine months. Because of that experience, or ability, I can pull myself out of a situation and hover over a scenario and see myself as a player, see the absurdity.
JDD You seem to be able to take grim situations and make them playful.
MR I enjoy being aware of being in the world and having fun, being playful with it. I especially love having door-to-door salesmen come to my door or being approached by con men because I can turn the con back on them. After a while they begin to try to extricate themselves and I’m going: “No, no, no … .”
JDD What happens in those situations?
MR I had a guy come by here the other day wanting to spray-paint the house numbers on the curb. He wanted to put white down first, and then paint the numbers in black. He had this battered old Xerox of some supposed city council resolution requiring this for all the houses. I invited him in so that we could get the City Housing Authority on the phone to see if there was indeed some unconstitutional intrusion making me deface my house, and I became livid. He didn’t even have any white paint on him, so I was suggesting that we go to get some, and I could see his eyes glaze over. This was not something he was going to be able to consummate. It would have taken him an hour or so to deal with this lunatic—me.
JDD (laughter) It sounds like none of it was directed toward him, though. You were directing your anger toward the city agency.
MR That’s right. The key is that we become complicit in this oppression and we become partners against something larger than us, and he doesn’t want that partnership. Suddenly you’re deflecting his con. The con begins to break up because his goals get thwarted. It’s easier for him to extricate himself from you and go next door, where hopefully they’ll give him the ten bucks. I also might request to examine the stencils to make sure that he has every single number. If he doesn’t, then maybe we should go in the garage and get some card- board and make some. I have nothing else to do. I’ve got all afternoon. I’m a writer.
JDD Have any of the stories in either of your collections come to you that way?
MR I had a friend named Steve …
JDD This is Steve Willis?
MR Yeah. One year Steve and I spent a lot of time trying to get rich quick. We sold driftwood to floral shops, we sold seafood, we did so many scams, all of which completely blew up in our faces.
JDD As in the story where the characters think they have $40,000 worth of driftwood?
MR You’re on this little island out in the bay, and you’re exhilarated because you’re picking up all of this wood that you’re thinking is worth five or ten dollars apiece. So you’re loading up the boat, the boat sinks because of your greed, so then you have to spend a day pumping out the boat.
JDD Did your boat really sink?
MR Yeah, the boat sank and we had to go out and refloat it. We spent all this time, money and effort. Then we tried to sell the driftwood in Norfolk, and no one would buy it. We ended up selling the whole load to a man with one leg for $50. He had lost his leg collecting the same type of driftwood on the same island, which was infested with water moccasins (he had stuck his leg right down into a nest). And while we were out there collecting driftwood we had been fighting off snakes swarms of mosquitoes, the whole thing.
You actually do a tremendous amount of work trying to get rich quick. In The Ice at the Bottom of the World there’s a semi-autobiographical story called “Happiness of the Garden Variety,” about when Steve Willis and I were sitting in a trailer on a canal plotting our next get-rich-quick scheme, and the only thing we had to do was to keep our landlord’s horse out of the garden, a seemingly simple task for two guys like us. We weren’t able to do even that.
JDD (laughter) Did the landlord really have all this “ackerine” paint?
MR There was the paint—and we were always covered in it. A lot of my stories have their seeds in people trying to beat the system, or work outside the system. We didn’t want anyone telling us what to do. We were going to be our own masters. In doing that, sometimes we made ourselves even more vulnerable to the sort of things we were trying to overcome.
JDD How do you see your work evolving?
MR Well, I think Charity shows some type of an evolution, especially the last two stories, “Tunga Tunga,” which was part of a novel that my publisher worried was too dark, and “Memorial Day,” which is about death and a small boy. Those stories are very different, but I see myself going in that direction. I think they’re more parable-esque, or have an Old Testament moral vision of cause and effect, never being able to escape from original sin. There aren’t many boy-girl stories in this collection because… Who cares? We’ve all got boy-girl, or girl-girl, or boy-boy stories. I’m not sure they’re getting us any closer to the divine.
JDD How important is it for you to get an opening when you start your stories? I mean, do you write out a whole draft or do you try to get a clean opening?
MR I’ve got to get going from the start. I can’t write a whole draft if the beginning isn’t right, because then the end isn’t going to be right. If you write a whole draft with a bad beginning, you’re on the wrong road, you’ve taken a wrong turn right at the top.
JDD How do you know what a good beginning is? And how do you know when you’ve got it?
MR A lot of times I have no idea, but I’m curious enough to pursue it to see how it gets resolved. It has to have some mystery. With any hope at all there is a little bit of humor implied, or else it’s something absurd or surreal.
JDD Very often something menacing, too, though.
MR Like John Gardner says: When you’re reading short stories you feel like you’re onto something. That’s how I have to feel. You have to be careful to parcel out the information, start in a place that doesn’t seem to be the place and then it turns out to be the only place it could have started. And I think conversely, the end has to be—what’s that old saying?—inevitable and yet a surprise. The clock ticks. I have a feeling after the first few sentences that the clock is ticking like a metronome and I know where the metronome is set, I know the rhythm it’s set at, so that I know in about twenty-three and a half pages this story should probably be over. So sure enough, I’m at the bottom of page 22, heading on 23, and I go, I’m wrapping it up now, only because I knew at the beginning the clock was ticking. We’ve read stories where we flip ahead and go, this story’s way too long. And that’s all a matter of starting wrong, I think.
JDD And a failure to understand what the arc of the story is.
MR Absolutely. Not all endings are neat, tied-up things.
JDD But there is a kind of resolution, even if it’s an unsettling one. Like in your story, “The Birds.”
MR Sometimes you get on this trajectory and instead of the story hitting a climax and then falling action to denouement, the story hits a climax and just keeps going on out the window. The title story, “Charity,” ends on a clock ticking in a hall on the charity ward. That was a God-given ending. I had no idea how that story was going to resolve itself, and then all of a sudden it just tightened itself out. One of these kids escapes, one of them doesn’t, and he’s there forever. I mean, I think that’s what part of the ending is about. But it’s not neatly tied up where everybody gets fixed and goes home to nice parents, because that’s not how life is.
J.D. Dolan is a contributing editor at BOMB and teaches writing at Western Michigan University. His memoir, Phoenix, will be published in 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby