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Monday, January 18, 2010

Interview with Mark Wallace — His Fiction in "Big Bridge"

[This is a part of a series of interviews of fiction writers who appeared in the last Big Bridge (2009), many of whom are among my favorite fictionistas, and several are close friends. In the name of full disclosure, I do have two stories among them. My motivation in doing this series is to learn more about some stories and writers I admire, and to promote Big Bridge which, along with Jacket and Madhatter's Review, is one of the few web journals that is exploring the possibilities opened by the internet rather than simply transferring print practices to the web.]

This is the first chapter of a novel. What can you tell us about the novel?

The Quarry and The Lot
concerns the lives of some people growing up in the Maryland suburbs in the 1970s and 80s. It explores the effects on them caused by one character, Joseph Klein, who dies in 1996 at the age of 32. The funeral following Joseph’s death becomes an occasion for a group of people who grew up with him to see each other for the first time in a number of years. The characters’ experiences serve as a way for me to elaborate on the culture of the American suburbs, specifically in Maryland but hopefully with broader implications as well. In the novel I’m exploring suburban life at a significant point in U.S. and in fact world history: the rise of neoliberalism (dated by scholar David Harvey, and many others, as beginning in the late 70s and early 80s, with 1980 as a crucial year), the consolidation of international corporate power, and the significant diminishment of some of the more socially progressive aspects of U.S. culture that had flourished in the 1960s and 70s. So these characters grow up at a moment when U.S. culture profoundly changed, when things that had seemed more possible for earlier generations didn’t seem as possible anymore. Or at least that was how it felt to me at the time, and I wanted to look back on all that and figure out some things about it.

How autobiographical is it?

Not much in terms of the actual heart of the story, that is, of the characters and their personalities and their main experiences. Your question is flattering to me whether you know it or not though, because I certainly want the things that happen in the book to feel like they could have happened.

Like a lot of writers maybe, I borrow a number of details from actual experience. And since the book does concern the time and place where I grew up, obviously some of my own impressions, and a number of actual details of that time and place, are there. For instance, although it hasn’t come up yet in the first chapter, in fact there was a man who lived in my neighborhood, the father of a friend of mine, who escaped from a prison camp in Siberia and walked his way out of the Soviet Union–but the character in the novel who did that is an invented character entirely. Or, as another example, I did teach for awhile in a community college, and the images in my head from that place are the ones I use to create the community college in the novel. So there’s quite a bit of that sort of surface borrowing. But the characters and main events in the book are fictitious, although I hope they carry with them some level of sociological and emotional truth relative to the place where I grew up and the people who were there. As I’m sure you know from your own writing, many things in fiction have some relation to things that the writer has seen and knows, but in fiction one is free to play around with all that, so that the connection to actual events ultimately isn’t strong.

3. "One of the best ways to measure your life is to look at the things you keep silent about.""A world in which it's possible to have a jaguar on your roof is a world I can't fully describe." These are just two of the many striking turns of phrase in this story. They are almost aphoristic. I know that in your recent book Haze (Edge Books), you have a section composed of aphorisms.

I’m glad there are lines in the chapter that stand out as memorable. I don’t think of them consciously as aphorisms. But I do want the characters in this book to seem smart, self-aware people who have things to say about the world, although they have their limitations, obviously. I have mixed feelings sometimes when writers create characters who are much more limited in their awareness than the person who’s writing about them. I’m not saying writers can’t or shouldn’t do that, but part of what I wanted to do was see if I could create characters whose world view wasn’t recognizably more limited than my own. I often notice a subtext in a lot of literature, and literary criticism too, actually, that seems to want to prove that the writer is smarter than whoever’s being written about

4. You are using four narrators in this chapter: Luke's father, Luke, Amelia, Nick. How are you approaching perspective in this chapter? in the whole novel?

Those four characters narrate most of the novel, although there’s one chapter that’s going to look at them all from outside. Mainly the chapters alternate between things the characters are doing in the present and then their own narrated versions of what happened when Joseph, Luke, Amelia and Nick were growing up. A lot of the novel has to do with the constructed nature of perception and memory. I’m not creating any singular or objective narrative point of view from which all the characters can be analyzed. Instead they all get to tell their own story relative to Joseph. Even the chapter that looks at them from outside won’t be intended as unbiased. From the outside, the characters and events are almost entirely insignificant in any larger historical way, and that’s one of the problems being raised in the book

5. I know that you have been interested in the gothic and ghost stories for years. Given the very last scene in this first chapter, I take it that this novel will explore that territory?

Maybe, but probably not in the way you’re implying. The novel is trying to explore the problems of people’s perspectives and their differences–and in it ghosts, like everything else, have to do with perspective.

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