“Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re a writer, not the messiah. You stand on the shoulders of thousands gone by, right back to those campfire story tellers who didn’t just say how they speared the mammoth but talked about the edge to the wind, the taste of the grass, the particular sound of the spear breaking the mammoth’s hide, that brief jubilation in a terrifying life driven by survival. Don’t aim to be famous in some distant future you can’t even envisage. Just do good work and get along with the people who try to help you.” (MW)
Mark Wagstaff, of London, was the winner of our last William Van Wert Award in Fiction. He graciously sat down with us to talk about life as a writer, his process, latest projects, and perspective on writing – the craft, the business and the joy of it. Mark is the author of several books, and is busily at work on a few new projects. He was interviewed by our Founding Director, Debra Leigh Scott.
DLS: First, congratulations again for being named the winner of the William Van Wert fiction competition at Hidden River. Can you talk a bit about the winning story….”Some Secret Space”….it’s inspiration, and how it finally came together for you?
MW: The origin is less than heroic – it comes squarely from the geekiness of my life. I spend a lot of time alone trying to write, but actually spend an amount of that time staring at the page, at the wall, and out the window. I’ve lived in the same apartment a while – I know the view, the neighborhood, its routines front and back.
This was around the time of the last bank crash. There was a lot on the news about the States where many houses that – to us Brits – would seem pretty large and plush got foreclosed. So two strands started to move together. What about a guy shut-in, who for whatever reason doesn’t leave home, doesn’t take the news, doesn’t know about these larger events except through what he sees from the window. London has a lot of small, scrubby patches of ground – the guerilla gardening movement is part of the scene. So then I’m thinking, someone moves in on a foreclosed house and starts gardening, starts growing food. It all began working from there.
How it came together is thanks to the editors at Cobalt Press in Baltimore, MD who took the story on. If you check a map of foreclosures in Baltimore it’s pretty horrible – that had resonance and Cobalt’s notes helped me bring out the strengths of the story.
DLS: How about the overall collection of short stories?….it’s title, and the scope of the collection? I know it’s hard, as a writer, to talk about “themes” and motifs – but perhaps you could talk about the subjects and explorations of human life that fascinate you the most?
MW: My latest short story collection is called Burn Lines. For a geek, burn lines are an annoying pattern of lines across a display screen, sometimes caused by a dud graphics card. If you like to tan, burn lines are those unfortunate stripes left behind by clothes that are never the same shape as the clothes you’re wearing now. I got the thought that it could also be more permanent damage – tracks worn into a person by a the predations of life. It’s worth noting that Burn Lines was one of several possible titles for the collection. InkTears (the publisher of the collection) did a poll of readers on its mailing list, asking which title they’d prefer. So it’s the people’s choice – and a good one.
In an interview I did with The Sonder Review last year, we discussed that a lot of the stories in the collection are about the past. Some are directly about archaeology – an activity that seeks literally to unearth the past, to bring it into the present. There are also stories about people haunted by the past, or reappearing from the past. Some of the stories in Burn Lines were written around the same time as my novel The Canal, which is focused on how the past intrudes and will not give way until it is placated.
I’m fascinated by the choices people make – many of which I find hard to understand – and the processes which lead to those choices. I’m always fascinated by the things that people find beautiful or useful or interesting, and how we choose to invest the life we have. I’m pretty sure no one joins the police, or fronts a TV show, or becomes an accountant or a gravedigger by chance. There are choices and processes working through, there are past events pushing all that which I want to understand.
DLS: Can you speak about the characters in your stories? What kinds of characters drawn you the most? What do you learn from them?
MW: I was asked at a reading why so many stories in Burn Lines feature criminals or soldiers or detectives. It’s a good question. There are plenty of fine stories about office life or farming, but office workers and farmers tend to be tied to working in the same locality each day. Different things happen, but those things are often location-specific. The attraction of writing about, say, crooks or cops is mobility – these are characters that you can move around, they can go anywhere and meet anyone. It opens a range of situational possibilities. That’s why I guess there are so many movies about drifters or travelling salesmen – you can bust out of location-specifics. A story tied to one particular place brings other challenges. Some of the stories in Burn lines, the archeological stories, are very location-specific – they’re very much about how a particular place works on people.
You need to guide the characters but you can’t control them completely. If you’re doing your job well enough, they can become themselves and start knocking the furniture in ways that might surprise you. I like the idea of a writer learning from their characters. It’s too reductive to look at it only in terms of a writer working out their own – often very uninteresting – traumas or problems. Sometimes in a character I’ve written, I’ll see a better person that I want to be, with a way to be more patient, more accepting. The very best ones will spin away from you – that’s when you’re doing your job.
DLS: What are your current projects? What sorts of things are you currently working on?
MW: I’m in the very early stages of talking with a well-regarded US small press about doing a YA novel. That’s a real departure for me. I never think of my work as having any particular age demographic – although I guess some of my stories have references or allusions which may have more resonance if you remember things a while ago. We have an idea for the book, a broad outline and some text – but there’s a lot to work through.
I also have a novel nearly completed. I say nearly: I’ve been tinkering with it for about five years. At present I’m trying to wrestle it down to 90k words – it had got very bloated with not enough happening at the start and too much later on. I’m very keen to start showing it round, I think it’s okay (but then I would). And short stories of course. The next collection is filling up nicely.
Through the years I’ve made occasional attempts at screenwriting. It’s a fearsome discipline and I haven’t even nearly got the knack of it. But it’s a great challenge and I keep trying. Not expecting to see my name on any movie credits anytime soon though…
DLS: Can you speak about life as an artist, as a writer, in England?
MW: This may sound odd or grossly parochial, but I consider far more that I come from London rather than England. In so many ways, London is a different country. I was born on the southern England coast and whenever I visit it’s always like hitting a different timezone. I’m old enough now to have lived more years in London than outside of it – it’s not one of those places where you can be seventh generation or whatever and still not be treated as local. If you belong in London you know it, regardless of where you were born.
I’m not that good at thinking of myself as an artist. I tell stories, that’s about it. Writing is also one of several jobs I do – it’s the one that takes most effort and love for least material reward. I have a day job I enjoy hugely and I think many writers feel the same. There’s this persistent cliché about wanting to break free of paid work and embrace a life of authenticity and starvation. Well good luck with that. David Foster Wallace nailed that myth (in my opinion) in The Pale King – I’m thinking of that section (§22?) where the college accountancy tutor explains the stature and mastery of the accountant. Whether meant or not, it’s a great antidote to romantic nonsense.
There’s a old complaint about the English not having a culture of public intellectuals – not like France, say, where you might be revered for being a thinker on the public stage. I don’t think writers in England would expect to be revered much, nor treated with kid gloves. From those I’ve met we’re a robust bunch, ducking and diving, as we say, to make a living. The basic fact is the same anywhere: if you do it for the money, or for the adulation, you’re likely to be disappointed.
DLS: What advice might you offer to writers thinking of moving to the UK? What sort of community is there for writers?…..what sort of support? …what is the nature of publishing in the UK these days?
MW: The UK is of course the home of rain, and on a dark and soggy day I’d wonder why anyone would risk clinging to the undercarriage of an aircraft to get here.
I would say that the most noticeable difference is that there isn’t an MFA culture in the UK. By which I mean that my impression gleaned from some US writers of my acquaintance is that it’s possible to go to college for an MFA, start teaching as a grad student, maybe help out on the college literary journal, and move relatively seamlessly into being a ‘college writer’ someone whose field of reference is the Eng Lit department, whose reputation is built through academic-driven outlets.
There’s a bit of that in the UK, but I’d hazard a guess that most Brit writers have come up through journalism or advertising, or (increasingly) have put stuff out on blogs or started-up online zines. There’s a huge ecosystem of bedroom-based online journals which in some ways takes the place of the MFA program journals that many US colleges host. And of course there’s also people like me out writing in the cold.
There are of course very many locally-based, self-organized creative writing groups – often spilling out from adult education classes, one of the great gifts the old-school labor movement left us Brits.
You’ll see from my website that I’m more published through US-based outlets than in the UK. That’s because of the contests and sheer diversity of journals many of which – with college funding I think, as well as low-cost student staff – don’t have to fret so much about attracting advertisers. That ecosystem of journals and contests is not as developed in the UK. It’s also notable – at least in my experience – that relatively few UK publishers take un-agented writers. More jaundiced types than me would probably say that the business here is driven by ‘event’ books: celebrity memoirs, hyped-up sequels, showpiece prizes, collections by big-name journalists, or TV/movie tie-ins. All of which is understandable. Alongside publishing, I think only running a restaurant or an airline comes closest in potential to burn serious money.
I also don’t get the impression that the pay’s that good. At the editorial assistant end of the industry you could be looking at salaries of $25,000. Which means in London you’ll be sharing a flat with six other people. Folks higher up tend to have portfolio careers, or marry someone working in a better paid sector. People who work in publishing tend to love publishing, and love books by and large. But when margins are thin as a communion wafer and publishing houses are the poor relations in multi-media corporate groups, then naturally you’re going to green light stuff that makes money.
Incidentally, I’m not being on-trend anti-capitalist here. My view of money is pretty much summed up by that great Jim Young quote in Boiler Room (profanity enthusiasts will know the one I mean).
DLS: Any other advice you would like to give writers, in general? What have you learned as a writer – about your craft, your experience with the writing world – that you might be able to share?
MW: I’m so not the person to ask about this, because I feel I’m still pretty near the beginning of my life as a writer. I think ‘To a young poet’ by RS Thomas sums up that sense that you never really reach the adulthood of a writer, however old you get physically. A lot of writers – a lot of young writers – are very good. But there’s always more to say, stronger and better ways to say it. There’s always a great book that you’ll write next year and next year. The novel I’m writing now is okay. But the next one, or the one after, that might be the good one. (Note that publishers tend not to like this kind of talk in interviews, in case readers question whether something is worth buying…)
I have – if you’ll pardon the vulgarity – written so much crap in my life. But I never knew that until long after. It’s only time that gives the critical distancing, when you can look at your own work and see, well, I did this wrong and that wrong. That’s a positive experience, because that’s learning your craft. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. If you’re a carpenter, the first table you build might be pretty shoddy. At the time it’s an achievement just to finish, but ten years on you feel a bit embarrassed at your rawness and – maybe – a little proud of how far away from that you’ve moved. But you wouldn’t be crafting flawless tongue and groove joints now if you hadn’t persisted at the start. There’s no difference with writing fiction.
Listen to people who want to help you. When an editor says your draft needs work it’s not because they hate it, they wouldn’t bother talking to you if they hated it. They like it, and they like how it could be better. Be courteous to those people, aim to deliver what they suggest. Don’t defend the ‘purity of your creative vision’ like an idiot – you’re too close to the work to see it, never mind have vision. That old rogue William Burroughs crafted his work far more diligently and deliberately than he ever let on. Kerouac did six drafts or something of ‘On the Road’ and it’s still terrible. Hone your work till it’s sharp as broken glass and then listen gratefully when someone much calmer and saner points out how much polishing is still to do. Honestly, work with people.
I used to hate getting rejections and sent out voodoo curses (metaphorically I should add, on the advice of my lawyers…) on those who deemed my work ‘not a good fit’ whatever the hell that means. What it means is just no, not here, not today. I keep sending stuff out and might get two hundred rejections in a year. It bothers me less now. If a story really is good enough then sometime you’ll send it to the right place and the editor or publisher or contest judge at the other end will stop reading, then start again more slowly, then go back to the beginning – then you’ve hooked them. Ask a hundred random people in the street to go on a date with you and see what happens. Yet we expect editors just to snap up our work because we flicked them an email. And on the point of beginnings – have a killer opening or else no one will read the rest. Check out a master like Raymond Carver or Aimee Bender or Ring Lardner. Lardner could knock you cold with his opening paragraphs.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re a writer, not the messiah. You stand on the shoulders of thousands gone by, right back to those campfire story tellers who didn’t just say how they speared the mammoth but talked about the edge to the wind, the taste of the grass, the particular sound of the spear breaking the mammoth’s hide, that brief jubilation in a terrifying life driven by survival. Don’t aim to be famous in some distant future you can’t even envisage. Just do good work and get along with the people who try to help you.
Don’t write stories about being a writer. Seriously, don’t.
Final word is something everybody says, which is don’t give up. Do you really want to tell people you used to be a writer? That you tried but it was a bit hard? If you’re an astronaut or a footballer there’s a wholly reasonable expectation that you’ll move on some day – there’s no issue to setting aside your helmet. But writing isn’t like that. True, some people run dry and have to withdraw. Some have a moment of greatness, then fade – even though they might continue to do good work. The point is not being famous, or being prolific – though it does help to have a stock of material. The point is that writing isn’t just a job. It’s part of what you are. To give up means cutting off part of yourself – and it takes a good reason to do that.
I won’t list all the writers we now think are great who got canned in their day. No one really understands how these things work. Just keep on and bring out what’s inside you. Stories are the essence. The rest is advertising.
Hidden River Arts is an interdisciplinary arts organization, dedicated to supporting and celebrating artists of all genres – especially the “unserved artist” among us. We love and laud the outsider artists, those laboring on the edges, making art as an act of defiance. The William Van Wert Award in fiction is offered yearly, and our next cycle of submissions deadlines June 30, 2015.