Mark Spitzer is the author of 30 books ranging from translations of French criminals and misanthropes to international investigations into “monster fish” to novels of comedy and violence. He has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows in defense of fugly fish and mutant amphibians and is currently a professor of creative writing somewhere in the American South. His most recent book is Inflammatosis (Six Gallery Press, Pittsburgh), but the one he cares the most about is Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). If his website ever goes back online, more information can be found at www.sptzr.net.
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 translation of the poetry of French Surrealist Georges Bataille, and it changed my life by translating me into a legitimate authority on something both academic and anti-academic at the same time. I was a graduate student when it came out, so that book was big currency. It gave me a boost in landing a professor job, but more than that it led to other translations and the business know-how to get more books out and write what I want to write.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Fiction found me in a basement in Colorado pounding out a story about a giant catfish which turned into a monkeywrenching novel based on the environmental philosophies of Edward Abbey. Poetry, on the other hand, found me in a basement in Seattle pounding out an epic poem in which the great visionary voice of Allen Ginsberg came to me just as Blake informed “Howl.” Meaning I was delusional—but hey, that’s where the real shit comes from. As for creative nonfiction, I found that genre sitting on a riverbank waiting for the Big One to bite.
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?
It takes a nanosecond to start a project, and the rest comes in great blasts that consume me every morning of every day until the love is gone. Since the big concern is fish these days, a lot of research and travel and interviews are involved along with getting bit by bugs. The drafts take years and surgery by editors and failure and epiphany and it all evolves in direct proportion to what we have to lose.
4 - Where does 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?
I go after a target fish, write a chapter on that fish, then combine those chapters into books. They usually work together chronologically. The novels also fall into place. I write a chapter every morning, think about the next chapter in the afternoon, and approach it all like an athlete who works out obsessively until it’s time to race. But instead of competing against anyone else, I revise instead.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are fine, but I’m in it for the addictive daily work. When I’m in the Zone, I’m alive and I have purpose and I’m doing what I’m meant to do. Readings are the result of being in the bathysphere.
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 have no theory behind my practice, just the process which unfolds organically. The questions I’m working with are about how to preserve fish and how to preserve ourselves. The current question I’m working with is how to fight mis- and disinformation along with climate change and engineered ignorance so the whole fracking enchilada doesn’t go straight to hell. The polar ice caps are melting at an accelerating rate that works out to about 1% every year (right now), our oceans are on the edge of a pH of 7.8, and we’re 59 particles per million over a sustainable carbon dioxide level. I can’t think of anything more important than keeping this rotating ball of earth and water healthy and safe. Without that, we have no place to poison ourselves, rape our environment, and commit human rights abuses.
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?
We are all random organisms squirming in a petri dish. We find our roles or create our roles and sometimes it’s bullshit and sometimes not, but there’s no plan or right direction, just what we do. Some mutations think writers have a responsibility to teach and lead, but at a cellular level, I don’t think writers have any more responsibility to live up to than anyone else. There is no moral directive, but good work is good for us.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For the work I do writing environmental fish books, savvy editors are necessary. It’s a team effort getting one of these books right. The facts need to be checked, the arguments need to be as effective as possible, and the presentation needs to be professional or else it’s a waste of time and energy. Working with editors is the apotheosis of the workshop. I’m lucky to have that privilege, especially when those in the fishery biz find something useful to apply. And yes, it’s difficult. If it isn’t, you ain’t thinking hard enough.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Shut up and say something worth a shit.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t get stalled anymore. I throw myself into it, find direction on the run, and compile like a maniac. But slowing down is also advisable, lest one goes off on a tangent. When that happens to me, I usually figure it out pretty quickly and get back on track. I’m constantly finding work by other writers to incorporate or seeing something in my life that makes sense to inject into my work. When your art becomes your life, you’re always thinking about how to plug the details in, both consciously and unconsciously. It’s both a bonus and a curse. Just ask my wife.
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?
My books come from experience. From getting out there and mucking after fish and imagining ways to connect the dots. And research. And discovery. And doing what I love. And fucking up.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a monster-fish book and a creative writing pedagogy book in production right now and my summer is full of deadlines and editors and edits that make my brain bleed, but I’m also trying to have some fun and paint the porch. The lawn needs mowing, etc. Most of all, though, I’m working on not giving into despair when subpar imaginations keep calling the shots. We gotta keep reminding ourselves that this is the way it’s always been.