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Interview with Mark SaFranko

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Mark SaFranko has led a writer’s life. Dan Fante once said of SaFranko that the man would rather “write than breathe,” and Mark has stayed restless but productive throughout his working years. This means he has held too many shit jobs and too many of his manuscripts have been left to rot unpublished and unread, but this fall, a breakthrough is on the horizon. In November, his cult classic Hating Olivia will be his first novel published by a major press in America although the book was published five years ago in England. Indeed, SaFranko follows a long line of American novelists who found a home in Europe before they managed to crack the conservative culture of American publishing. As you’ll read below, Mark has fought battles as a writer, a husband, a father, and a human being. But even when the future was most bleak for SaFranko, it knew better than to fuck with him when he was on a writing kick. Keep reading to check out his excellent responses to my questions about Hating Olivia, parenting, the future of books, and more.

AK: So for this interview, I broke my one rule for all of my interviews, which is that I have to read at least one book by the writer. Well, I’ve been anticipating the American release, but I haven’t yet read Hating Olivia (in the spring or summer, I tried to buy a copy from the English press I think, and I can’t remember what went wrong or why it was never sent), but I’m guessing this novel is also about loving Olivia and fighting with Olivia, and feeling really emotionally fucked up concerning the aforementioned Olivia. Could you tell me if I’m on the right track?

MS: Absolutely. It’s about trying to become a writer and trying to survive economically while involved in a volatile, all-consuming relationship that drains the reservoir of your psychic energy. It’s about being with someone who’s as screwed up as you are and how we find that person. It’s about the destructive side of the muse. It’s also about being a wannabe artist in a country that has no use for them. In a nutshell, that’s it. Incidentally, I was never wild about the title HATING OLIVIA. Too blunt. Without subtlety or nuance. I wanted to use INTO IT. But whenever I ran my list of titles past people who’d read the book, they invariably voted for Hating Olivia. People seem to like the title. In this case, I let them win.

AK: Right in the title, the book suggests anger; hate is a strong word. Would this accurately describe Hating Olivia? And if so, do you feel the writer necessarily must experience such strong emotion to write well about it? I’m also wondering if more recently, you have felt removed from the emotional intensity of this novel, maybe just to the extent that life can wear us down.

MS: I would say it’s about how something can start in a good place and curdle into its opposite. How dreams end up on the side of the road, as someone once said. Hatred is a strong word, but often love ends up as that, sadly, especially when the lover becomes a prisoner of his attachment.

I don’t know if you have to experience something directly in order to write well about it. My guess—though I experienced the content of Hating Olivia firsthand—is that experiencing something peripherally is enough. After all, we’re creative writers, not biographers or journalists. As a novelist you have license to do whatever you want and who’s to say it’s not legitimate on some level, right?

Yes, I definitely feel removed from the emotional intensity of the novel’s content. I wouldn’t have been able to write about it if I wasn’t. It was all such a long time ago.

AK: My understanding is that you have fought wars as a writer as far as getting into and then staying in print. Discounting the HarperCollins deal for Hating Olivia, could you describe what you feel are some of your greatest successes and failures as a writer so far?

MS: A really good question, Alex, and one nobody has asked me before. Yes, “a war” best describes it. Hating Olivia was written 15 years ago and is just now finding an outlet in the US, so it has been a protracted battle. I would call my greatest successes the publication of three Max Zajack novels (Hating Olivia, Lounge Lizard, and God Bless America) and a story collection in England and the three Zajack books in France my greatest successes since they were the books that got me an audience and attention, at least in Europe, after many, many years. What that says about the Europeans I’ll leave to you. My greatest failure? Well, there’ve been many, but maybe the most egregious was my failure to get a play about the life of Henry Miller produced. It went through years of readings and revisions—the typical nightmare theater process—and sits in a drawer of my desk. I’ve given up hope it will ever see the light of day. There are other failures, too, but I don’t have enough time. Life is mostly a matter of failure, though, isn’t it? Every once in a very great while something works out.

AK: Your writing is often connected to that of Charles Bukowski, so I’d like to know how you feel about that, and also, what you feel are the strengths and weaknesses of Buk’s work?

 

MS: Well, it’s misleading because I count so many other writers as influences: Henry Miller, Georges Simenon, Knut Hamsun, Pat Highsmith, Mohammed Mrabet, to name just a very few. There are really lots more. Bukowski, too, and I’m flattered that anyone would make that connection but I think we come from a somewhat different place. That said, of course I love Bukowski’s work. To me his strengths are his humor and the fact that he’s really a philosopher. I don’t see him so much as a poet as I do a philosopher. And of course he’s completely addictive. For me a weakness is his more “literary” poetry, the pieces that always show up here and there. I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about in those poems—and I’ve read Proust.

AK: In an online interview, you described the “monthly nut” as a huge obstacle to writing. Maybe to life itself. I’m pretty sure that implied a mortgage and most likely a wife and kids. And worse yet, I’m pretty sure this scene is being played out in New Jersey. So basically, what we need to know is how in hell did you ever write anything at all?

MS: Yes, these days that scene is indeed being played out in Jersey. But I have an understanding wife, and she tends to leave me alone as long as I hold up my end of things. Same goes for my son. But to answer your question about how I did any writing, it’s really a matter of minutes, and I’m not being facetious. I recognized a long time ago that most of our time is wasted. If you want to write and you only have a matter of minutes every day, you have to use what you’ve got. The minutes add up and so does the work. You end up doing the best you can. It’s all you can do most of the time.

AK: And also, how do you feel about some of the great writers who just walked off the job when it came to raising families? I’m thinking of Sherwood Anderson and then more recent writers like  Saul Bellow, Richard Yates, and Fred Exley who were sort of in and out, but often out, of their children’s lives. Is it possible to be a good writer and a good father?

MS: That’s another damned good question and one I’ve pondered from time to time. I’ve done it—walked off the job—a couple of times. In the long run the dramatic gesture doesn’t add up to much, really. If you’re not “covered”—meaning you’re not flush with money—you’ll end up back on some kind of job sooner than later if you’re on the right side of the law. Anyway, to create anything at all you need food and a place to sleep and so forth. Otherwise you’ll feel like shit and not be able to do anything.

As far as kids go, why have them if you don’t want to deal with them? Of course lots of so-called artists don’t. Maybe they’re better off. Maybe they don’t suffer from a guilty conscience. I think lots of damage is left in the wake of the absent artist-parent. Again, you try to do the best you can. It’s my experience that kids actually need their parents to be around. Whether or not we’re good at it, who knows? There are probably one or two artist parents around.

AK: Are you concerned that the physical book is going to become the latest casualty of electronic progress? I just heard that e-book sales jumped 118 percent from last year, and I’m wondering when the bookstores disappear en masse. Tell me I’m wrong. Please.

MS: It’s interesting. I think that it’s the corporate monster forcing the e-book down our throats, like they forced the eight-track tape and CDs down our throats. And the reason is simple. They want to make money. Those reading devices cost lots of money. You can’t share the books, so that’s more profit. Books won’t have to be stored anymore, which will save the corporate monster even more. Not a single person I know wants to read off those damned devices, yet they’re being pushed at us relentlessly. People want to hold an old-fashioned book in their hands when they’re lying in bed or sitting on the throne. They want to mark up the pages. They want to smell paper and admire artwork. But in the long run the monster wins. He always wins. Books and bookstores will go. It’s just a matter of time.

AK: What do we need to know before we read Hating Olivia?

MS: Well, like I said, that it’s 15 years old. The material is from an earlier period in my life. That it took 10 years after the writing to get published by a small press in England and then went on to get published in France. I’m really coming to the U.S. by way of Europe. I’m taking the long way around. Also that I’d been writing for a long time by the time the book was published. And that the vast majority of my work hasn’t been seen.

Mark SaFranko’s Hating Olivia arrives on November 16 and is available wherever books are sold.

 

Alex Kudera's Fight For Your Long Day (Atticus Books) was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea and consequently won the 2011 IPPY Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. It is an academic tragicomedy told from the perspective of an adjunct instructor, and reviews and interviews can be found online and in print in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Inside Higher Ed, Academe, and elsewhere. His second novel, Auggie's Revenge (Beating Windward Press), and a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day (Hard Ball Press) were published in 2016. Kudera's other publications include the e-singles Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press), The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity (Gone Dog Press), and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks). When he's not reading or writing, he frets, fails, walks, works, and helps raise a child.

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