Mark de Silva holds degrees in philosophy from Brown (AB) and Cambridge (PhD). Having served for several years on the editorial staff of the New York Times’s opinion pages, he now freelances for the paper’s Sunday magazine. He is the author of “Distant Visions,” a critical essay on the state of contemporary fiction recently published in 3:AM Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor. Square Wave, released in February by Two Dollar Radio, is his first novel.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Since I’ve written close to no fiction previously, I suppose it showed me what I was capable of. My most significant previous written work is a doctoral dissertation in the philosophy of mind. The novel is a little more accessible, I hope, and more alive.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I came to non-fiction—academic philosophy—first, actually. But the feeling that it didn’t quite map on to my interests and temperament is what drove me to write fiction.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
The longer the project, the longer it takes to get it up and running. I do take notes, but those don’t figure directly in the drafting. I write pretty slowly—sometimes just 400 words in a day—but the words are usually pretty worthwhile.
4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I prefer undertaking big projects, so I think I generally know I’m working on a book. I would have a hard time setting out to write something I thought might only be a short story, at least right now. Having a book behind me, though, I might come to feel differently.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’ve only just started doing fiction readings, so I’ll have to see how it goes. I do want to see what it’s possible to convey in a reading that might not come across otherwise.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think I like to explore and depict how the world, and consciousness itself, manages, through all the obvious heterogeneity, to hang together--how all the elements manage to co-exist somehow, however riotously. That is a classical philosophical goal, and I suppose that’s what I carry over into my fiction. The current questions are probably too many to name, or anyway a mystery to frame. But I don’t really start with questions. I start by entertaining the phenomena, some of it subjective, some of it less so. From that a sense of what matters, what is mysterious, what else one wants to know, emerges.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
As far as the larger culture is concerned, the writer of literary fiction mostly has the role, if he has any luck, of writing novels that might be adapted into Hollywood films that in their turn might bear upon the country’s consciousness. Otherwise he is mostly invisible—just as most scientists, philosophers, and visual artists are. No shame in that.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven’t found it difficult so far, and it has been helpful to me.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Maybe “Never look back”? I’ve always had trouble taking this bit of advice, though.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
The appeal of moving between genres? There isn’t much appeal to it, per se. I think fiction is most satisfying to me on a daily basis. I write non-fiction now only when something very specific presses on me.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
With fiction, I try to write for 3 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week. With non-fiction, there’s no schedule really. Just as much as I can.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It doesn’t really stall when a project is active. Between projects is sometimes a challenge. I try to avoid the usual diversions of modern life for a week or so, and usually I’m able to get things going that way.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home these days is Manhattan, so car exhaust and steaming garbage. As for my childhood home, in California, the simple smell of freshly mown grass tends to do it. Nothing exotic.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music is one of the topics covered in my novel, and I used to play guitar and drums pretty avidly, so certainly that has been important—music from indie rock all the way to experimental art music. Film and TV must have had an influence—I can’t see how not, in a world as saturated in those media as ours—but perhaps a less conscious one than music. Visual art plays a large role in the new novel I’m writing, so it is coming to have a major influence, I think, as I visit galleries in New York holding some of the relevant paintings and prints (for instance, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s).
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Here are five I come back to: Coetzee, Naipaul, Salter, Marias, DeLillo. Lately I’ve been reading Rupert Thomson, Dana Spiotta, and Diane Williams.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a page-turner, maybe? That might be nice.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I think it’s pretty clear the alternative would be academic philosophy. In just the right context, that might have worked for me. But the professionalization of academe over the last half-century or so means that that context probably doesn’t exist anymore.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think I felt it was my ultimate strength—words—along with being, I’m starting to think, my ultimate pleasure.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time. I don’t know if I think the book as a whole is great, but I do know I was stunned by the narrative power of several of the scenes. I also read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Perhaps that’s a book that’s more straightforwardly great. As for film, I used to watch a great deal more of it than I do now. I saw Juice on HBO the other day. It was nice to see Pac again.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a second novel underway. It’s more linear in construction, as I imagine it now, anyway. The book will take up an obsession of both the Arts & Crafts Movement and the Bauhaus: the aesthetics of the everyday, the designed-ness of urban life.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;