September 2013

Sean P. Carroll


An Interview with Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka's fiction might best be described as subtly potent. Since his debut collection of stories, Lost Lake (1998), which chronicles a summer community of Czech immigrants in upstate New York, he has crafted narratives of emotional depth and complexity without resorting to the clangorous tics of lesser writers more concerned with form than substance. His first novel, God's Fool (2002), charts the peripatetic life of the conjoined twins Chang and Eng but focuses more on their pursuit of a quiet happiness as farmers in the North Carolina countryside rather than reveling in their sensationalistic turn with Barnum's sideshow. Slouka's second novel, The Visible World (2007), attempts to explicate the personal history of a family haunted by the ghosts of World War II as the unnamed narrator voyages to Prague to unearth the secrets of his mother's early life and unable to resolve these mysteries he boldly reimagines a linchpin event of the war with her as a key participant.

Slouka's latest novel, Brewster, is set in that namesake town amidst the backdrop of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead of trafficking in the cultural signposts of that era Slouka masterfully delineates the friendship between narrator Jon Mosher and Ray Cappicciano, the proverbial unruly outcast. Both boys are scarred by family tragedy and violence, and they find in one another the only acceptance each has ever had. Hemmed in by the strictures of community and family, Jon turns to running track as an outlet, while Ray embarks on a fraught relationship with Karen Dorsey, his only means of salvation. The dynamic between these disparate three and Ray's love for his baby brother Gene form the emotional crux of this book which leads to an ending that will leave the reader both hopeful and bereft.

Slouka is also the winner of the PEN/Diamonstein-Speilvogel Award for his collection Essays from the Nick of Time (2010) and is the author of War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality (1995).

This interview was conducted in person on the author's front porch in June and was followed up with an email exchange in July.

This book is a homecoming in both the real and fictional sense. You grew up around Brewster and recently moved back there. What spurred you to set this novel in your hometown? Did you have any trepidation about setting the book there or venturing into the often overwrought world of adolescence and the miasma of strong emotions that particular age entails?

I have this sense that books pick their authors, that what leads writers to particular stories or particular places is unknowable (until the book is written and we make something up to explain our motivation). Basically, I had to tell the story of these two boys, and I spent a long time figuring out how to do it, how to get out of its way.

Did I worry about the risks of writing about adolescence? Only to the extent that I wanted to get it right, to not condescend. The not condescending part was easy enough because I believe that life -- love, despair, dreams, desperation -- is lived at full throttle when we're young. Age teaches compromise at least as often as wisdom.

At the outset of the book Jon states that whenever he tries to remember Brewster or talk about his friends that all he can see is winter and ice. As the novel progresses, this season and its attendant hardships not only shroud the landscape in an opaque manner but also permeate the characters' burdened lives with an added element of unavoidable harshness. Do you think that the predominantly winter setting makes the environment of the book and your characters' relationship to it more tangible and realistic? In addition, does it help set the emotional tone of the book?

Winter is at least ten times as long as summer when you're eighteen, and I wanted to capture that feeling without calling attention to it. I mean, there are summer moments in Brewster -- moments I tried to fill with that sense of freedom, gone almost before we've noticed it -- but to be true to the story I was telling, it had to be set in winter. The picture I carried around in my head was of Ray leaning against a lamppost hugging himself in that crappy coat, his fingers numb with cold.

Jon finds an unexpected outlet for his confusion and pain when he is encouraged to try out for the track team by his history teacher (and track coach) Ed Falvo. Despite the physical suffering entailed, Jon slowly finds his place within the team and starts to have his first successes. Why is he drawn to this pursuit and is there a ritualistic aspect to it?

Obviously, Jon comes from a fairly fucked-up family, burdened by his brother's death, his mother's slide into depression, his own guilt... Running track offers him a kind of pain he can understand. The truth is, I get that -- maybe I ran for the same reason. Track is simple: run at x speed for y distance, and you will suffer; all you have to do is change the variables to match your fitness. Is there a ritualistic aspect to it? Maybe, at least for people like Jon. He says at some point that kids today cut themselves; he ran track. His way was better, but it was the same thing.

There is not a single incident that triggers the friendship between Ray and Jon. Instead, it seems that Ray is drawn to Jon for reasons he can't articulate, even to himself, and Jon seems to be more a part of the world when he is in Ray's company. What do you think Ray is seeking from Jon?

Clearly, the two answer some sort of need in each other. Ray is drawn to Jon because, coming from where he's coming from -- a world of unpredictable and profound brutality -- the world of books, of ideas, seems like a warm room and a blazing fire when you're lost in a blizzard. Jon, on the other hand, is desperate for approval, for friendship, for the kind of love that is rooted in respect -- precisely the things that his parents, dragging their own burdens, can't provide. What's interesting to me is that for a time, Jon and Ray each find the approval they can't find at home in each other's family. Which feels right to me: How often -- maybe because we didn't really know each other -- did I find a certain respect in the eyes of my friends' parents that I didn't necessarily feel at home?

Who do you think is the dominant personality between the two of them, and how does that determination subsequently influence your narrative?

Difficult question. I'd want to say Jon, because Ray looks up to him, defers to him (even though Ray's the tougher of the two by all the usual measures). But then I think of Jon's burdens -- his loneliness, his rage, his guilt -- and I compare them to Ray's relative clarity of mind, his courage, his loyalty, and I think no, it has to be Ray. Leave it at this: On some deep level, they recognize each other's pain, and that's more than enough for any friendship.

When Karen first appears it is Jon who "saw her first, fell in love with her first" and despite his initial thrill at their connection he realizes that there is an unrelenting eventuality to her attraction and love for Ray. What is it about Karen that makes her a unifying force between Jon and Ray? Do you think Jon is either consciously or subconsciously more concerned about Ray's happiness than his own? If so, why?

The thing about Karen is that she instinctively respects other people's autonomy; she makes it okay for them to be who they are. It's a form of acceptance that neither Jon nor Ray has had a whole lot of in his life. (Or, as Jon puts it, she can see how fucked up you are, and care about you anyway.) I like to think that if things had worked out differently, she and Jon would have been friends for life (and who knows, they may yet), but for her, Ray was the one, period. It happens. Jon, who loves them both, sees that, and is man enough to acknowledge it, in part because (you're dead-right here) Ray's friendship is the most important thing in his life.

In your previous work you have focused on the experience and perspective of first generation Americans and those burdened by genetic chance and the mantle of history. While you did grow up in and around New York why did you wait until now to tackle the native perspective? Did you have to exorcise your own history on the page before fully inhabiting and recreating Jon's, and your, America?

As a writer (or a human being, for that matter), you have to feel your way through this life; most of what we do is unconscious, and self-knowledge, if it comes at all, is retrospective. Did I first have to exorcise the past, my European and Czech heritage, to write Brewster? Christ, maybe I did, though I didn't know it at the time. And "exorcise" is not quite right. "Make peace with," maybe; "come to terms with." My last novel, The Visible World, was all about my parents' world and time, the stories they told, the lives they'd lived -- utterly European. And then something happened. I was born and raised in America; I couldn't do the same thing anymore. But it wasn't that easy -- it took years to shed the old skin. Jon, who is me in more ways than I care to admit, led me back to myself, made it all right.

Looking back, though, Brewster was clearly a rite of passage for me; the fact that my father -- the master storyteller in my life -- died the day after I finished it, confirms it.

You have mentioned that you find water to have very magical properties. Your collection of stories, Lost Lake, illustrates this belief in abundance, and the area makes an Edenic cameo in Brewster and contains the only unmitigated experience of bliss that Jon has. What does the real Lost Lake mean to you? How important is it to your creative process and personal happiness?

What does Lost Lake mean to me? Pretty much everything. It's the rivet in my life, the only constant (I'm talking place, not people) I've known. I grew up there, our kids (mostly) grew up there. For five months out of the year I write in an eight-by-eight shack with no electricity that my father wrote his dissertation in fifty years ago, maybe a five minute walk through the woods from our cabin. Lost Lake is fragile now -- surrounded. I don't care. I feel like the bullfrogs in the cove are talking to me, the Red Tails hunting in the understory, showing off for me. The rain on the roof of our cabin knows my name. I can't talk about it without sounding like a fool. The thought of it being "developed" into some subdivision scares me shitless; I've dreamed about that happening, more than once -- they're loneliest dreams I've known.   

In 2010 Graywolf published Essays from the Nick of Time, many of which were culled from the pages of Harper's, where you are a contributing editor. This volume was divided into two sections, "Reflections" and "Refutations." Are these classifications shorthand for your philosophy of the personal essay?

I don't know that I have a philosophy of the personal essay, but I guess "reflections" and "refutations" might do as categories. I write essays because I've come across something that intrigues or troubles me, and the essay is my way of getting at it, or because there's something I want to celebrate (leisure time, let's say) that's been neglected, or because something's pissed me off (how can you be alive in the world and not be political?) and writing about it saves me from getting into fights or hitting the Scotch.

What sort of role and effect does this type of essay have in our society and literary culture?

I'd say zero, basically. Literature has devolved into entertainment; if it doesn't distract us, we're not interested. My problem is that I admire essays that aren't necessarily all hipness and voice, the ones that wrestle with complexity, that are meant for adult consumption. Which may explain why my own tend to disappear like pebbles in a pond.

There's glory in thumbing your nose at the market; the trick is figuring out how to stay alive while you're doing it. So far I'm managing it.

The darker side of the family dynamic is explored throughout this book. While you have the emotional and physical abuse suffered by Jon and Ray there are also set pieces of casual violence and misguided tough love both on the page and off. In counterpoint to this theme you have Ray's fierce protectiveness of his baby brother Gene; something that Ray was never afforded. Why is Ray so willing to sacrifice himself for Gene? Is his selfless behavior a stark contrast to how the town treats him?

Absolutely. I had a friend when I was growing up (a tough kid from Bed-Stuy, back when it was still Italian-Irish) who had a baby brother named Gene. Gene was the sweetest kid I ever knew until my own kids came along twenty years later. Anyway, my friend would've lain down on the tracks for little Gene, and not having any brothers or sisters myself, I remember being very impressed by this. It was like every hit he took (and he took more than his share) made him that much more determined to protect his brother. I don't know that I did it consciously, but I must have drawn on the two of them while writing Ray and Gene. People react to abuse in a million ways, but basically it comes down to this: you can either pass it on or you can end it. My friend ended it. In our own lives, my wife and I ended it. Ray (and Jon in his way) ends it as well. 

How difficult was it for you to let go of Jon's voice? Do you feel like there is more of his story left to tell?

It's always difficult to let go of a voice you've lived with for years; I've dreamed about my characters after the books are done.

Is there more to Jon's story? There is. Though sequels can be such cop-outs for writers, it's becoming obvious to me that Jon's not done with me yet -- not by a long shot. Here's what I know: he's fifty-eight, married to a woman named Alice, hiding in a high-desert town in Arizona I've come to know well, and on the run from her ex. I can't say more than that without letting air out of the story. 

Brewster is your fourth work of fiction including your debut, Lost Lake, which was published in 1998, so this question might be premature but have you started working on anything new? Any chance you will return to the short story form?

Though I may be following Jon for a while, there's no way I could ever stop writing stories. Still, they tend to come when they choose; there's a certain itch -- an idea, a bit of a dream -- and you build on that. I'll admit, I don't write many -- I wish I could. I've had a few in the past few years -- "Crossing" in The Paris Review, "The Hare's Mask" in Harper's -- that I'm pleased with, that took a lot out of me in ways I only partly understand. But the well's filling up again. I'll be back. It's what I do.