Since the 1990s Mark Wagstaff has published stories in journals and anthologies in the US and UK. Most recently his work has appeared in The Stray Branch,Tethered by Letters and The New Guard Vol V. Mark won the 39th Annual 3-Day Novel Contest with 'Attack of the Lonely Hearts' published by Anvil Press in 2017. Among other awards, his short story 'Some Secret Space' won the 2013 William Van Wert Fiction Award, while in 2012 Mark’s story 'Burn Lines' won The New Guard Volume II Machigonne Fiction Contest, judged by Rick Bass. His second short story collection, also called 'Burn Lines', was published in 2014 by InkTears. Gina Ochsner described the stories in 'Burn Lines' as ‘lyrically intrepid’ while Rick Bass found them ‘sweetly ominous’. Details of Mark’s work are at www.markwagstaff.com
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was a self-published novel called After Work. I haven’t read it for a long time, but I would guess it has an amount of fairly basic errors, as I’d barely written anything before and was learning as I went along.
Unexpectedly, After Work picked up a review from Time Out London, which back then was a paid-for full-size glossy, very much the nightowl and culture-head bible. (I should explain that the internet hadn’t quite become a thing then – you found out about gigs and events from listings mags and Time Out was the daddy.)
The review was positive. The reviewer – possibly having some axe to grind against publishers – even said something like After Work was the sort of book that should get published, but the bean counters wouldn’t have it. I’ve been writing the sort of book that should get published ever since.
After Work didn’t really change my life, but the review was a welcome shot in the arm, as it got me thinking perhaps I wasn’t completely nuts, if a stranger was prepared to say nice things about my work in public.
As for any difference between then and now, I’m far older, more jaded and bitter obviously, but I cling to the thought that my work has got better. Like carpentry or brain surgery or anything, the more you do the more you recognize what will and won’t work. The more you learn that there are great teachers and editors out there who can help you figure that out. I certainly know a lot more about what won’t work.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Poets are the writers I admire most of all. A poet can say more, and more meaningfully, in ten lines than a novelist can in a trilogy. That kind of precision is beyond me.
As for fiction, well, it chose me. It does that. It won’t take no for an answer. The need to write fiction strikes across all boundaries and you know when you’ve been struck. Though I didn’t start writing with any semblance of aspiration until my thirties, from a kid I always read loads and told myself stories. I was that kid who plays sick to get off school to read more.
I’ve written some non-fiction, notably when I was a politics student (I’ve got a chapter in an academic work somewhere). I enjoyed writing political theory and getting back on that is on the bucket list. Just to ride a hobbyhorse for a moment, when I was studying I was appalled at the lack of writing ability among so many academics. You know, that style of deliberate obfuscation and diversions into attacking other academics for no reason anyone cares about. Textbook publishers – lean on your academics more to learn how to communicate what they know clearly and interestingly. End of rant.
As for memoir, I live a deliberately anti-biographical life. I aim to do nothing to distract from the stories. Or as Elmore Leonard put it: ‘I don't want the reader to be aware of me as the writer’.
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?
I love starting new things, believing each time will be the thing that really takes flight. It’s fairly usual for me to get an idea and write three or four pages in a feverish way, then file it for some unspecified future time. My notebooks consume gigabytes of space.
Starting quickly happens because there’s that initial spark of an idea. Ideas, however, are no more than 1% of anything. The other 99% is the actual work. So I’ll take an initial lunge then wade through cement the rest of the way. Except now and again another idea will drop to give a boost. That was what made 3-Day Novel such a fresh challenge – having to write at speed no matter what.
I never used to plan anything, but truthfully working from notes makes a lot more sense, at least for me. With short stories, the skeleton is generally there from the get-go, so the final draft should be a polished improvement on the first effort. With novels, the final draft is often completely different from earlier efforts. That’s for reasons of style and sense – in a longer work, you need to check the continuity more and sometimes retro-fit as the story develops.
4 - Where does work of prose 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?
Occasionally, all too rarely, a short story idea will arrive fully formed. With a start, an end and a title, and from there I fill the blanks. It’s hugely pleasing to know the ending that I’m working towards and the length of the piece is pretty-much preset. Ideas for novels tend to announce themselves as such, with a need to write about something or other.
Boiling it down, a short story is about one person doing one thing. It’s tight, it’s timebound. A novel is a trip from one situation to another – geographically, or across time, or in terms of a person’s development. I’m caricaturing, really, but it’s kind of like that. Some stories could be either, it’s not mutually exclusive.
Just listen to the characters, think about what they want, what they need to happen. That’s where the sense of scale comes from.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I totally enjoy giving readings and I’m so rarely asked to do it. Everything I write is for performance. Including this. When I’m working with characters I know how they sound, I hear their voices. When I give a reading, I try to project some of that. I want the laughs. I want the tears. I’m that insecure entertainer.
I try to memorize key lines on the page, so I can lower the paper and just be telling the story. I would love to be able to do that properly. There are few worse things at a reading than a writer who hasn’t prepared and mashes up their own words or makes them dull. That’s disrespectful to the audience. I don’t want people sitting there thinking, “Gee, I’ve got cramp so this must be culture.” Whether people like the work or not, I want them to be engaged with it.
So although I’m not going out reading every night, I always write with reading in mind.
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?
Quite likely, I’m the least theoretical writer you’ll meet. A writer’s job is to tell a story clearly, concisely, entertainingly. That’s pretty much it.
I do have a concern about whose voices get heard. You meet educated, politically progressive types whose reading is limited to books by writers from the West or that fit a certain cultural orthodoxy. Oppression isn’t just about the jackboot in the face or the bullwhip on the spine. Oppression also comes from being ignored, from having a voice or a culture that doesn’t fit a given worldview.
Questions I’m trying to answer? Back in my political science days, I wrote a lot about Jeremy Bentham. Bentham said, ‘Create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all the misery you are able to remove’. My work digs around at how to land that in the material world.
Caveat though. When people go off on the important large themes of their work, I tend to pull a frankly lousy move which is to mention those parts of the world where writers end up in jail or get killed for what they’ve written. Or the ones who escape leaving family behind and can never go back. A good current question is how to bring those writers to the foreground and stop people getting killed for free speech.
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?
Frequently, I hear writers on the radio expounding on this or that and I’m there shouting, “Get back in your box and write something good.” I shout at radios, TVs, movie screens, most things. ‘Art for art’s sake’ is a dead end (and doesn’t pay the rent), but I struggle with the notion of some elevated social function only writers can fulfil.
Take it back to Marx: ‘Nothing can have value without being an object of utility.’ The question is what utility does a writer bring to society. Writers (of all kinds) support an ecosystem that employs thousands of people globally, that creates value, drives innovation and, ideally, generates those moments when you read a book or watch a movie and think, “That’s exactly like what happened in my life and now I understand my life a bit better.” Those gold dust moments. Writers also have day jobs and pay taxes.
Is writing a political activity? Not inevitably, but certainly in those places where to write can get you killed.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve had the good fortune to work with some inspiring editors. Scott Wolven and Shanna McNair at The Writer’s Hotel, Casey Tingle, Brian Kaufman and his colleagues at Anvil Press. I’m also lucky to have friends who are reliably honest about my work, with particular thanks to the wonderful Stephanie Cotsirilos.
Working with people outside of yourself is totally essential. Personal experience has taught me that I am not the best judge of what is good in my work. Far from it, and I suspect the same may be true of other writers. Stripping away self-indulgence can be hard, but ultimately it is just self-indulgence and I’d suggest we’re all better off without that.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Elmore Leonard spoke for the ages: ‘When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.’ It’s extraordinary how many writers don’t do that.
As for the best thing I’ve heard said, I was walking by a tourist attraction one time and there was a school field trip ahead of me. All the kids had paper worksheets and a pencil. Then one of the teachers yelled, “Don’t lose the pencil. Don’t break the lead.” That’s solid advice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
From the mists of time I’ve written short stories and novels. I love writing short stories because it’s possible to get a quick fix of completion. I have written a story in a day, though I don’t manage that as often as I’d like to. Novels are more of a commitment, so I tend not to talk about novels I’m writing until there’s a few thousand words banked up, until the thing is gaining some shape and impetus.
While I’m writing a novel, I might write a dozen or more short stories. It clears out my mind and replenishes my stock of product. To me, it’s interconnected work, not two distinct forms. It’s all part of the bigger set of stuff that eventually will mark out what I’ve been doing all this time.
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?
The aspiration to write every day is good. So I aim to write each evening, maybe a couple of hours if I’m lucky. Then solid hours on weekends. I can stay in writing for days at a time, only going out to dump the trash and get food.
I write slowly though and I have zero attention span. I had zero attention span before it was even a thing. So although I throw a lot of hours at writing, progress is fairly glacial.
To be blunt, I get impatient when people say they don’t have time to write. It’s about choices. Look at what you do after the day job. Are you filling your time with dumb stuff? So stop doing dumb stuff and write.
My day begins like everyone else’s. Get up grudgingly. Shower grudgingly. Eat breakfast and go to work.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Without wanting to sound a complete, self-satisfied asshole, when my writing gets stalled I go on writing. I like to walk and I might go out walking. I like going to movies. But fundamentally you have to keep writing, keep moving on, however stiff the cement you’re wading through.
To put it another way, when you’re working your day job and you hit some kind of problem or impasse, you work through it, you nut it out. You don’t generally say to your boss, “Man, I don’t know about this next part, I’m done for the day”. Of course not. Because when you work your day job there’s a premium on problem solving. Why should writing be any different? It’s a job. As Ice Cube observed all those years ago, ‘You can do it, put your back into it’.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Dimethyl sulfide, the smell of the ocean. I spent my early childhood by the sea and I’m always drawn back to the coast every now and then. You haven’t lived until you’ve lived in a seafront town on a stormy coast during winter. But I’m a city boy really. Petrol and fenugreek remind me of London. Sour air con and burning dust, that’s New York City.
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?
Like a lot of people, I guess, I’m still struggling to catch up with not paying enough attention to science at school. I wish I’d chosen science instead of the arts crap that got me nowhere. I’m a computer geek and devour articles about AI and robotics. Increasingly, I’m finding little nodes of sci-fi appearing in my work – not heavy-duty, but to unbalance things, to root out more interesting directions.
I go to the movies a lot and aim for a visual style of writing. I see and hear characters and play out scenes to get the choreography right. What I especially admire about the discipline of screenwriting is that you have dialogue and actions, nothing else – everything must be conveyed through what you see and hear. I have no patience anymore for interior monologue or long digressions in fiction where an author grinds their political axe.
Sometimes, I’ll get a story idea from a song lyric or see a painting and want to use it someway. Those eighteenth century allegorical paintings that have a crowd of shifty types in them – I always want to know who these people are and what’s their deal.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There are the writers I’m proud to know, like Scott Wolven, Shanna McNair, Stephanie Cotsirilos, who’ve had a huge direct impact on my work and my life.
And the writers whose skill and expertise I’ve tried to absorb. The great short story writers over the ages, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Ring Lardner, Ray Carver, Gina Ochsner, Amy Hempel. The giants: Joseph Conrad, Anne Brontë, Thomas Mann, Gabriel García Márquez. Razor-sharp stylists like the great Iris Murdoch. All the poets I turn to, awe-struck, again and again, from John Donne back in the day to the mighty Tim Seibles. So many others sitting in that pile of books I haven’t got to yet.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write something that’s as good as I want it to be.
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 do a day job to pay the rent. Once that’s done, there’s nothing else I want to do but write. You don’t choose to write. It chooses you.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
For me, writing is a physical thing like breathing or eating. I’d be sick without doing those things and I’d be sick without writing.
That’s not to say it’s an exclusive club, of course not. Most anyone can be taught to write and to write well. Telling stories is instinctive to all of us, whether relating some tale to friends in a bar, cracking a joke or writing a novel. Teaching and training channels that instinct.
Like social drinkers, a lot of people can sensibly contain their writing within wider lives. Some of us though are just addicts.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
On a transatlantic flight this summer, I devoured Armistead Maupin's Maybe the Moon. Like sitting back and letting a maestro effortlessly show you how it’s done. Page after page of clear prose moving cleanly forward. No spoilers, but if you don’t laugh and cry check your pulse.
At the London Film Festival this autumn, I caught a great Egyptian thriller The Nile Hilton Incident. Check the trailer on IMDb for a taste. Tarik Saleh understands that what makes noir isn’t just dark streets and a moody soundtrack. It’s a darkness of the spirit. Fares Fares is extraordinary as the corrupt, mendacious cop digging just that bit too far into a big case. If this was a US movie set in LA it would be on the board for a statue or two.
For completeness, my current favorite piece of music is Ambulance Song by Malojian. Sweet lyrics and that hook will stick in your head.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a novel completed which I want to get out there. Also another novel which needs to be completely rewritten – that’s my task for Christmas and New Years. I’m editing my third collection of short stories, ahead of trying to find it a home. Tinkering around with some script ideas for a TV series. And a novella which I’m aiming to finish for a contest deadline.
Other than that, I’m just wasting my time.