This is by far the hardest set of interview questions I've compiled thus far in my 10 Question series. Hard on me, the interviewer, that is. Until now it was fairly easy coming up with questions. I don't have a list of stock questions (except for #10, which is always the same). So what made this interview different? What made it so hard to come up with nine questions?
The subject matter. And by that I mean Mark Beyer.
My first step in generating questions is to review the interviewee's blog, website, or bio. We typically exchange an email or two from which I glean a general sense of the direction I want to take. Mark Beyer's blog entangled me in a seemingly endless wealth of information about writing. About story. No matter how hard I tried, I could not stop drilling deeper. Every this is the last click became the next to the last click.
Simply put, I was captivated by his obvious love of the written word and by his easy manner of expressing it.
Mark Beyer, Author
#1: You clearly have a love of literature. How did that start for you?Oddly enough, this began with the “Curious George” children’s book series. That little monkey was into everything, and I felt akin to his eagerness to know — but know through story (both real and fictional) not just “information.” This is why textbooks bored me to death at school; I achieved far more “learning” by reading outside of the classroom, both in fiction and non-fiction (particularly biography). Then, as a freshman in high school, we were assigned Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” which struck me as an entirely unsentimental way to write about love, tragedy, and human relationships. I was hooked on that method.#2: You told me you were once an industry insider. Would you elaborate on that?I was hardly high-level, though I knew a lot of people from working in a NYC publishing house, on a Chicago magazine, and at a Florida newspaper. Lots of cross-pollination, actually. However, there is in each of these environments a contrast in people between high-intensity drive and utter lethargy at yet-another-story-to-edit/write. Each taught me something different about people (largess, petiteness, kindliness, incompetence), but also gave me a greater understanding about publishing: you need to have some luck, but you MUST have talent; and, most of the time, to reach the top, you need to have help. Two of these require compromise.#3: At one time you taught writing. My guess is you focused on classic literature. How far off is that assumption?Not far at all; more a nuance of definition: I was able to bring some classic literature (19th & early-20th century) into the writing class, as examples of strong characters & scene & dialogue … but contemporary literature had more “translation” to kids (students!) of the ‘90s and beyond. No doubt, books had done that for me, too, from the late-Seventies. So for these fiction-writing classes I used, to make strong points about developing quality characters from “our” generation, titles such as “White Noise,” “Sabbath’s Theater,” “The Sportswriter,” “The Song of Solomon,” and then brought the students back to the short stories of Ray Carver, Welty, McCarthy, Mansfield, and Woolf. The similarities and contrasts were striking, but terribly instructive. The serious students told me that they had learned something. I know I did.#4: I hated being forced to read classic literature in high school. It turned me off to reading for several years. I later "re-discovered" literature and fell in love with many of those same writings I had found so boring earlier in life. I've recently caught some flak on Twitter for saying I believe literature is too often wasted on the young. How much leeway should students at that age have in choosing the books they read for classroom assignments?Probably a lot more than they’ll ever be given. That being the case, I too have been known to regale against Harry Potter and “World War Z” — and have been criticized soundly for that. For the age group, these books are wonderful “gateway drugs” to literature of a stronger edge, leaning toward investigating the human condition (love, death, generation-gap relationships, sex, marriage & divorce, hate, murder, greed &etc) told through well-developed characters. But getting back to the classic lit question: most of that literature was completely lost on me, so I understand why kids gravitate to the genre works. I did so too, until my middle-twenties, when I left my genre-reading phase and re-touched Woolf, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Bellow and Woolf. Even Tolstoy — a fabulous storyteller! But now I have mostly gone beyond them, and almost exclusively read widely in contemporary lit, where I find an amazing strength of storytelling combined with the ability to deliver unforgettable characters (the kind that make me say, “I want to write someone as REAL.”). Nevertheless, it all started with school, and wandering through the library, pulling out books at random and reading first chapters. Isn’t that the best method to find your way into a story?#5: You recently blogged advice to authors hosting a reading of their new novel. How important is for an author to conduct readings, and how much does it depend on genre?I think public reading of your work is essential; the genre makes no difference. It’s active story you are looking to present to an audience. People therefore get an audio-visual representation — a performance! — of your characters as they act & react in the story. You also have a chance to meet people who like books, and might just buy your book. These small events also train you for the day that you go National and Universal. Regardless whether you’ve ever read before, or fear standing in front of a crowd, these can be overcome. Your reading voice is something you can practice — dynamic, timbre, strength — to make it carry the weight of your scene. I practiced reading my excerpts a dozen times over two weeks leading up to the reading, even though I’ve been reading for 20 years. One other thing: this is YOUR work; you already know the story! Just give it. Practice does make perfect; my reading was a hit with the audience, and I sold lots of books.In that how-to I spoke mostly about the nuts & bolts of putting a reading together, which is easy enough, if you’re able to talk to your local indie bookstore owners (the place you should have your books already shelved), who couldn’t be happier for the opportunity to bring people into their shop. Even if you read just once or twice at a couple different local bookstores, this makes you visible to readers. You can take a look at the video of my reading to see a “live” how-to.#6: What are your thoughts on the changes Amazon has brought to the publishing industry with the introduction of the Kindle?Both its POD platform and the Kindle are good for our entertainment-rich (competitively so) society. For better or worse, any aspiring writer can get that book out to the public; many of those books shouldn’t have seen any more light than from within the drawer where the writer had stuck it after getting 101 rejection slips from the traditional pubbers, but the cream always rises to the top and the market shall dictate what gets read and what doesn’t. Good story finds a reader. But Amazon has done something great for small press publishers as well. My publisher, Siren & Muse, uses Amazon as its main distributor; this gets their books out simultaneously to the USA and European markets without worrying about where & how (or if) the book will find a place on a bookstore shelf. This is also where, I think, the innovation of POD publishing has made its greatest strides. Why have “stock” somewhere as you’re trying to place books in bookshops? Nevertheless, I think all writers need to have printed copies available for readers, and get copies into their local bookshops, regardless of the costs.#7: In the opening scene of The Village Wit (your first novel), you write: The shop has hardwood flooring that creaks to let you know it’s alive. As I read that line it struck me that your writing style, so rich with detail, is your way of telling the reader: this novel is alive. Is that a fair assessment?I think it’s fair to say that. I’m creating a specific world-view from the eyes of Richard Bentley (and, later, his lover Peggy White). This world-view is as different from your own, or the next and the next. Any reader shall find similarities, which is part of our connection as human beings; but the differences are where they, those same readers, find intriguing story and character to enthrall, infuriate, and ultimately draw them to the conclusion. We hardly want to read stories about ourselves. That might be scary, or too painful. This is also where the details are important. My fiction focuses on men & women’s relationships as they are wrapped in self-identity, love’s truth vs. reality, and the human comedy. It’s serious stuff, indeed — but delivered, often enough, in a humorous way. Such is the “comedy” of life we readers want in our entertainment that also tells us something about each other and ourselves.#8: Your second novel, What Beauty, was released in May of this year. What are you working on now?I’ve been making notes, and am nearly ready to start writing my next novel, about a man and his wife of 40+ years. He’s now blind, but that’s a recent event. Their lives have been beset with much turmoil because of infidelity (on both sides), hardship, the trappings of success, and so many years together lived like the miles ticked off on a journey of familiarity and terror. But they have remained together, Max & Greta, and this story tells the why and the how, and, most intriguingly, who these people are and who they are not. The ending shall be a complete surprise to readers. It was to me, when it appeared.#9: It seems everyone wants to write a novel these days. What one piece of advice would you give the young writer on the brink of beginning that first draft?Have your beginning, ending, and middle (the fulcrum of the story) written, even if only as a strong “fleshing out”; these are the milestones that will help you write the story scene by scene.#10: Let's do something different. There has to be a question you were hoping I would or wouldn't ask. Ask yourself that question, then answer it.The Question: Haven’t you wished that an agent had signed you, and then a big publishing house, with all their clout and media-saturation ability?
The Answer: Yes and no. While the NY House has distribution and mainstream media avenues that I don’t have, the fact is I have retained far greater creative control of my work — how it reads and what the cover looks like, and how it is represented in the media. And I have a better contract vis-a-vis media rights and profit-sharing percentage. There is a little-known fact among writers about signing with a house: you are henceforth managed, and unless you sell big numbers, you’ll never get control. Actually, these days, if your first book doesn’t do well, you may never get a chance to sign a second book.