F E A T U R E D A UT H O R : M A R K R . B R A N D
interview with Mark R. Brand
Lutz: The political nature of RIA is pretty in-your-face. Does
the book represent your personal views, or are you simply saying something
about the kinds of people who believe the things that Julian and Calabas
Mark R. Brand: One of the tougher parts of creating any sort of lasting or relevant piece of literature is taking a stand. This can happen in a lot of ways. For authors like Brett Easton Ellis, that stand was taken by literally transcribing the uncensored thoughts of a self-centered '80s man onto paper. Apathy is something that only the least discerning readers tolerate in a narrative, and somewhere beneath all the flowery language and veiled meaning, there really has to be a point made one way or another. Whether it's about sex, war, poverty, race, sanity, insanity, luck, irony... Sooner or later an author chooses sides whether he means to or not.
That having been said, socialism is a particularly touchy subject in this country, as is even just socialistic thinking. I chose Julian to be the narrative focus particularly to avoid trying to directly justify one view of economics or sociopolitics as better than another. I think given the eventual rhetoric that Calabas lets loose with in Osgood's kitchen that you can tell where he is coming from, but our narrator is really not particularly radical even when the bullets start to fly. Neither am I, now that I think about it.
What it boils down to, I think, is what happens to ordinary, rational people when one side of a power balance starts to push too hard. We saw the socialist side push too hard in 1984, and in Red Ivy Afternoon, I wanted to show you what it might look like if the capitalist side started pushing too hard.
RL: What were some of your literary influences for RIA?
MRB: This would be a huge list, but to name just a few: Homage to Catalonia and 1984 by George Orwell, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Revolutions of the 21st Century by Jack Goldstone, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair... The book's size, format, and chapter layout were inspired heavily by Ray Bradbury's brilliant Fahrenheit 451. Most definitively, though, the book was inspired by Jack London's The Iron Heel. This was one of the most profoundly consciousness-altering books that I read during my college years, and it made a lasting impression on me. Red Ivy Afternoon tells a very similar story to The Iron Heel, and if you were to read London's book, I'm sure you would hear the echoes of it in Red Ivy Afternoon. Thematically, I did borrow the idea of an injured worker as a lead-in to talking about the ineffectiveness of counting on capitalism to help you up when you're down. Also, the pyrrhic battle/slaughter in an urban setting and extensive spy networks of both a revolution and counterinsurgency were elements that The Iron Heel had in common, to a lesser extent, with Red Ivy Afternoon.
RL: One of my favorite scenes in RIA was your description of the working class eatery, Dave's Grill. Was that based on some real experiences, or did you make it up out of whole cloth?
MRB: Dave's Grill is in fact a real place, and it exists now only in the stories that my parents used to tell me about a tiny little hole-in the wall breakfast diner with a single cook who used to slide across the floor on a thin film of cooking grease while making breakfast for hundreds of carpenters, bricklayers, roofers, contractors, and construction workers. I do not know the name of the actual diner offhand, but I'm fairly certain in was in either Oswego, NY or Beaumont, TX.
RL: Who are some of the authors that you like, not necessarily as inspiration for your stories, but just because you like their style of writing?
MRB: Again, this might be a list too long for any interview, but I can't get enough of a few specific people. Mario Puzo is hero of mine. He manages to build and layer a story that is riveting and feels like he pulled it out of thin air with nothing but a vague picture of a Sicilian town in his mind. I love unorthodox people like Jack London, who might stop a story right in the middle of the climax or write a narrative that has no beginning or end, but without leaving you feeling like you didn't know the entire story. The newer transgressive guys like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk are fantastic. A current favorite is George R. R. Martin, and his incredible Song of Ice and Fire series, where the good guys get repeatedly stomped on, all sorts of violence is done to innocents, and you feel for the first time in forever that at the end the shining knight may very well end the story in the belly of the dragon. His last book ended with one of the main "good" characters watching the mute zombie of her good friend order her to be hung as the noose tightened around her neck, and a 10 year old protagonist girl repeatedly dodging gang-rape and being adopted by a den of assassins. These books read like a hyper-violent version of "Deadwood" set in the middle ages.
Things I admire most about these authors are the ability to write stories that are difficult in their conception and must have been even more difficult in their execution. Particularly because they contain giant casts of characters, interwoven plotlines often at cross-protagonistic purposes, and they manage to end realistically without feeling like I knew what was going to happen.
Becci Noblit Goodall: How long did it take you to write RIA and can you speak a bit about the value of taking one's time to write quality work?
MRB: Well, when we're talking about Red Ivy Afternoon, you have to realize that the actual first draft took maybe two to three months to write. The revisions took almost four years. That's the difference between being able to think something up, and polishing it to the point that the plot holes and rough edges of your creativity start to disappear. The first draft was about half of the original length and involved a number of prostitutes as supporting characters. Julian had to personally murder a number of spies and the story sort of spiraled into what was a rather abrupt and fatalistic original ending. The final version of the story included a much more rounded and thought-out set of characters, a much smoother transition from concept to concept and set-piece to set-piece, better integration of plot and thematic elements, and foreshadowing and hints that gave the book re-readability. Paul is largely to thank for making it as good as it is, and between him and my wife we revised the novel significantly at least six or seven times, with sometimes major changes in events and pacing. It seems cliche that authors do this, and most people who spend time writing short stories and plunk away on a long-awaited but never-finished novel can't imagine essentially re-writing the majority of it half a dozen times, but it's almost what I'd call an unavoidable truth. Not many novels that haven't been heavily edited are worth a damn. You can tell the ones that aren't just by reading them sometimes. I like Paul Hughes as an editor because he doesn't just look at the money bottom line when he reads your stuff. He wants every story to be good reading, and as most people will tell you that doesn't mean mass-produced, pointless rehashes of the same five stories with different colored eyes on their generic, unobstrusive characters while they say things that never even approach anything that could be construed as offensive or obscene. I was particularly proud of getting the review in "Punk Planet" for Silverthought: Ignition because I respect enormously what they're trying to accomplish. We don't like our art mass-produced with the life censored out of it, so why would we want our music, movies, and literature like that?
Anyway, if you have a set amount of time you think you can reasonably accomplish a good novel in, you can bet your ass it will be at least three times that long and maybe longer before you have it in your publisher's hands. If not, chances are it's a shit novel or you're Stephen King. Or, unfortunately, it might be both.
BNG: I know you struggle to fit writing in between family, work, and the general craziness of life. Can you tell us how you make time for writing and what it means to your sanity?
MRB: Well, the answer is that the work/family vs. writing thing doesn't work particularly well in some instances, but in others it actually helps. In the case that a story requires a lot of time to sit and think and play with language and work through plotlines in my head, it's often an exercise in futility. With a small child at home and a fairly demanding and time-intensive job, there are few/no dependable blocks of free time to accomplish something that requires intense concentration. On the other hand, these same factors do present a certain background level of stress and time-sensitivity that bring out my latent ability to perform well under pressure. I have had excellent luck lately with short stories for just that reason, but my latest longer project is dragging on with almost no real progress for months. So it's a mixed bag, but I think it's unfair to call the family/work influence a wholly negative one. Also, like Oscar Deadwood has managed to do, I hope I can work the dynamics of family and work life into my stories and have more realistic life experiences and characterization ideas to draw from. As far as sanity goes.... eh. If you read the famous study called "Being Sane in Insane Places" sociologists proved long ago that there is no way to clinically determine sanity. The older I get, the more I think that no one is sane, and the concept of sanity is like the concept of the afterlife. It's something we like to believe in despite very little evidence of its existence.
BNG: Do you scribble notes about this or that during the day when an idea hits you, or do you carry it in your head for a while until there is time to sit down at the computer?
MRB: I actually have a couple of ways of doing things like this. I have been known to write down ideas and impressions about various things on little scraps of paper, particularly things I can't afford creatively to forget, but in general I keep a file on my laptop called "ideas" with little snippets of culture/ideas that I find interesting or different. At one point, this file on my laptop did contain the words "Catabasis" and "Nepenthe" and what they meant, and those eventually worked their way into stories, so it's a pretty functional system. On the other hand, I have several sections of Red Ivy Afternoon written in stapled books of sticky notes that were stolen from various desks at my old job. Thank you, convenient tiny piece of paper... I generally do write my ideas down in one form or another fairly soon after coming up with them, because my head is not a safe place to keep things that need to be remembered.
Andy Laughton: You've been a part of Silverthought since the very beginning so do you have any comments about how the site has developed?
MRB: Only to say that I couldn't be happier at the moment how it's going. We (and when I say "we", I mean all of the authors, not just the staff) have built a literary website that is bigger than all of us, and the sum of our creative talents. We've broken into the consciousness of the independent publishing world in many ways and from several different directions at once. We've won more than a few awards, garnered praise by our peers, and worked with people solidly established in the publishing world.
We're not a fringe-ey, half-assed webzine anymore, we are IT when it comes to independent speculative fiction. That sort of momentum could not have been gained, held, and propelled by just one person or even one small group of authors. It took our community to do it, and I think the Silverthought community deserves the credit for how far we have come.
Also, I do remember the days when the site was something that was on a single coded HTML page and I would email Paul huge chunks of crap work for him to sift through and maybe put up. I remember when the only time Silverthought was updated was when he had a new chapter or two of An End, Of Sorts to put up for me and half a dozen other people to read. One thing I can say about those days that's relevant even today, is that our fearless leader has a way of looking ahead, waaaay ahead, and planning for it. I have a feeling somehow that the next evolution of Silverthought is already half-planned and we won't know about it for a while. Paul relies on the staff as a sounding board for ideas regarding the general direction of the site, and I'm happy to be a part of it.
For my part, I feel like if there's a direction we need to move in now, it probably has to do with breaking more into the consciousness of the speculative fiction fanbase. They already know about us, but our visibility could be better. I think conquering the bareknuckle world of independent publishing has been a proving of sorts that Silverthought is the right idea for the right people at the right time. With better visibility, I don't see there being an upper limit to what we could achieve on a popular scale. I might be wishing to hold the double-edged sword when it comes to fandom, like George Lucas and Stephen King have found out to their peril, but I think in terms of evolution that's probably our next frontier.
AL: It's no secret that of anyone here you've known Paul the longest, so was it awkward when the editing (of Red Ivy Afternoon) started, having a friend gut your manuscript?
MRB: Only about as awkward as it is to sit and have a beer with one of your oldest friends and talk about your ideas and dreams and visions of things you'd like to create. In short, not very. He did gut the living hell out of the Red Ivy Afternoon manuscript, and I can confidently say that if he hadn't there's no way it would have been nominated for the IPPY. It's just that simple. The two realities of the situation were that the piece (and some of my short works as well) needed serious editorial work and advice, and that I count on Paul even on a friendship level to not lie to me or let my creativity off easy when it comes to quality. We've known each other far too long for kid-gloves.
On the other hand, I almost wonder how hard it might be to work with an editor that hadn't been a friend for years and years. Paul and I tossed at least half a dozen drafts of Red Ivy Afternoon back and forth for several months, and if he wasn't someone I knew I could have counted on to respond in a timely fashion so I could get the ideas back on the page before my creative energy ran out, I don't know if I might have been more (or even perhaps disastrously less) tentative with my own edits and rewrites. I think that largely the people who have good relationships with their editors and publishers manage to make friendships out of the bond formed when two people have to go through the relatively grueling process of putting a book together. It just happened in this instance that he and I were friends from the start.
AL: And how do you see your role as an associate editor expanding or affecting your writing in the future?
MRB: At the moment it affects my writing very little, because I had to completely rethink my place on the site in general when my son was born. For about a year or so, I was one of the major organizing forces behind the changes that happened and things that got accomplished, but when John came I had to scale that back significantly and try to focus on fewer but more meaningful projects. Our weekly staff meetings have tapered off to just impromptu chat sessions between one or two members, but things like the fiction contests still get accomplished. I would like to have the sheer amount of free time I used to have to write lots of reviews and opinion pieces and respond to every post on the forum, but for the moment I am trying to make the most of the time that I have to both be creative in terms of my own work, and to add what I can to the Silverthought community.
Additionally, I do read the submissions whenever I am able, and I do also review the pitches for various novel-length work. I do not have time to comment on them all, but I do whenever I am particularly impressed or struck by a piece. It is worth nothing that this happens more and more these days, given the overall increase in the quality of the submissions lately.
BNG: What new projects are on the horizon for you?
MRB: I've got a story I'm working on at the moment about a mail-order bride from a country called Transnistria. Transnistria is a part of the Republic of Moldova that has a tenuous sort of half-independence where they are recognized by some other nations, but not all. I read an article not too long ago about how a disproportionate number of mail-order brides come from Transnistria, which is just a tiny little country. Upon further research, the place appears to be a rumored haven for smugglers and other lawless types. I thought it might be a fun setting for a novel, and the concept of mail-order brides has always been one that fascinated me in the same way that flying squirrels and pop-up campers are fascinating.
Also, I'm compiling the first drafts of the long awaited and untitled Death Robot Anthology. I'm trying to see which stories work and which don't and figure out exactly what I'm trying to do with the anthology and how it should feel as a cohesive unit instead of just a random group of short stories. This is a continuing project that I imagine will pick up speed in the winter when I can't be outdoors with my baby son as much. I'm happy to report that I do have some excellent material for it, and it does continue to move forward steadily.
BNG: What one piece of advice do you have for new writers?
MRB: Follow the things you like back to their source, and find out what it was about the first person that did something that inspired so many others. Most of what we enjoy in regular, everyday fiction (even trashy bodice-ripper novels) can be traced back through a chain of influences to someone who was waaaaay ahead of their time. Try to get inside those people's heads, and figure out how they approached writing. An example of this are the books Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell's 1984. 1984 and Player Piano were both heavily inspired by Jack London's The Iron Heel and Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, which Vonnegut said once that he happily stole the plot of through stealing the plot of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Also relevant at about this same time period was Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Between these six books, a whole subgenre emerged concerning the effort to make socialism and socialistic thinking into something you could wrap your head around in the context of a narrative story rather than just a set of political dogma.
Literature is not unlike music when it comes to this. If you like John Mayer, listen to Stevie Ray Vaughn, then listen to Jimi Hendrix, who inspired him, and then Bob Dylan who inspired him, then you'll get to Woodie Guthrie and people even closer to the source of all this creativity. Eventually you'll get back to what it was that started rock and roll, which was the angry soul and rebelliousness of the early American folk musicians.
Whether you like dystopian fiction, horror, sci-fi, drama, romance, comedy... just remember this: follow it back to the source. Creativity is as much about combination of influences as it is about pulling things from thin air. Learn who your heroes had for heroes, and you will learn how to think like a truly creative and capable storyteller instead of feeling like your stories are just a hollow version of the real thing.