an interview with Mark Richard   interview  
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  Bold Type: Why do you write?

Mark Richard: Basically, it's a need to construct a universe in which I am God. I think that, as a child, I was in a lot of environments in which I had no control, especially in hospitals and being immobilized in body casts for months and years at a time. I was at the mercy of everything and everybody around me. It's nice to conjure up a universe in which you can control everything instead of being controlled by it. That's probably the therapy answer.

BT: You mentioned being immobilized in bodycasts as a child. Is your attraction to damaged youth and to the sea a result of your hip problems and the period of your life spent on fishing trawlers?

MR: I know both of those two things intimately and I use them as a resource for writing. I think both of those are places that not a lot of people have access to, for better or for worse, and people like to read about places that are new to them, that they wouldn't necessarily choose to go. I doubt that most people would choose to spend a lot of time in a charity hospital or in a fishing trawler at sea, and yet, there's all sorts of interesting human dynamics that take place in both places.

BT: Who are your influences, literary and otherwise?

MR: Denis Johnson, Tom McGuane, Amy Hempel, Barry Hannah, Francine Prose. Dead, would be the obvious: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, John O'Hara. It changes a lot, but that's a quick study of my influences. Non-literary, would be Prince, George Clinton and the Funkadelics, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart. I listen to a lot of music when I write. Any great art; you cannot be exposed to great art and not be moved.

BT: Do you consider yourself a Southern writer? I'm sure people used that tag when your first book came out, if for no other reason than intellectual laziness.

MR: Incidentally. I don't position or promote myself as a Southern writer, though, by happenstance, I'm from the South. There are about 34 different southern regions, so I think it's too broad a term.

BT: Do you miss living in the South?

MR: Very much so. My dream is to make enough money in Hollywood to go back to Virginia or the coast of North Carolina. You can live very well and Wilmington, NC has a really good art scene.

BT: Your work seems heavily influenced by parables and myth, do you prefer classic works to contemporary fiction?

MR: Yes, I think so. Classic work has the advantage of being sorted out and we can see what has endured and what has not. With contemporary fiction, there's just so much of it that it's hard to sift through it all. I don't think people spend enough time reading the old stuff. There are so many contemporary novels that I read, and I think, so and so did this earlier and better. It's also the hallmark of a lazy writer to know all your classics so you can rob and steal and not have to waste your time trying to reinvent the wheel.

BT: Your writing has such rich, wonderful language, it almost begs to be read aloud. Do you come from a family of storytellers?

MR: I read the stuff aloud as I write it, almost dictating it to myself. My mother read to me as a child and I learned to read at a very early age, like four years old. When I was about five, they would have beer parties, and take my father's college textbooks down off the wall and I would read them aloud and everyone would think it's very charming, then have another beer. So, I read early, and maybe got some approval for reading early. I think there were great lie-tellers in my house, I'm not sure about storytelling. I constructed very complicated lies to circumnavigate my parents, particularly my father. He was very smart and knew the weak point in anything I told him, so I had to have the lie completely well-constructed so there was no aspect in it with which he could find fault.

BT: Do you enjoy reading before audiences?

MR: I do, I'm a big ham and I like to give a good show. I like people to have a good time. I find a lot of readings very tedious, either because the work isn't very good, or the author reads poorly, the timing is off, they read too long, or something. I try to take all that into account and entertain people.

BT: You have an uncanny ability to draw fully-realized characters in just a few sentences. How do you set about creating such powerful characters and original voices?

MR: Well that's nice to say.

BT: Like with Fishboy, I found myself rereading the first paragraph aloud over and over before I started to book and the voice,washed over me and carried me away .

MR: Well, that's the perfect way to start it, because if you don't get into the cadence and the rhythm, it's a harder book. I think, this is probably a strange thing to say and I've not talked about it before, a lot of characters come to me purely through the sound of their voice. In the same way that we can be eavesdropping on someone that we can't see, and in our mind we're constructing who they are and what they look like. A lot of my work begins with sounds, and then the visual world comes second. I don't see the people until I hear them speak, and then I get a sense of what they look like. If you draw characters like that, you're kind of drawing them in broad strokes.

BT: You've written both short story collections and a novel, can you describe the challenges and rewards of each form?

MR: Short stories are harder because there's not a lot of room for slop or bad plotting, whereas with a novel you've got a little bit more leeway. I think I prefer short stories, but I've only written one novel and it was a strange novel and I'm not sure it even fits the form. I think it's more of a fantastical tale with a lot of stories in it.

BT: What are you working on next?

MR: To be brutally, brutally honest, I've adapted two of my short stories into screenplays, and I think I've sold one. "Ice at the Bottom of the World" I did as a screenplay for Robert Altman, at his urging. I really enjoy it, because most of my work is visual, I don't have a lot of dialogue in my work and that's what the screenwriting is. I'm using a different part of my brain that I've never used before. I use the story as a spine and make the characters speak with one another, which is what I discovered they rarely do I the stories. Now, I understand my characters better and understand different aspects of their lives.

BT: I was speaking with Richard Price recently, who is currently adapting his latest novel for the screen, and he hates it. He likened it to cutting up your first born. So, it's interesting to hear that you're enjoying the process.

MR: It doesn't bother me, because I feel I did exactly what I wanted to do with the story. The film is a whole different animal. I don't have any problem adapting it; it's fun.

BT: What do you enjoy doing when you're not busy writing?

MR: Gosh, we've had such a tumultuous year. We moved to Phoenix, I started teaching a lot, we have a young son who's fifteen months, and he demands a lot of our time. I just had my hip replaced, my left hip, so I've been convalescing. I'm reading a lot. There's this guy James Lee Burke, who's sort of a detective writer, but really good. He's a great writer, his characters are strong and he's literary. A real craftsman. I've also read the history of the Peloponnesian War, because I didn't read it in college, and there are these great speeches in there which lead me to believe that nothing ever changes. The blame that they assign each other, the moral terpitude, it's all there in these speeches. I was reading the William Trevor collected stories, which are super.

BT: Two completely disparate figures, Tom Waits and John Grisham, are thanked in the acknowledgments of Charity, what is your connection to them?

MR: John has been very generous with endowing the University of Mississippi with a spot for visiting writers. In fact, he bought a house that is diagonally across the street from the Faulkner house for visiting writers to reside in. One of my teaching stays was at the University of Mississippi through endowment by John and Renee Grisham. People don't have to do these things; Grisham doesn't have to do this, but he cares about it and I thought it was a nice gesture on his part. It's expensive, he bought a house and gives a salary. I think it's good to acknowledge people who have been gracious benefactors.

As far as Tom Waits goes, I had gone out to profile him for Esquire and I had been chasing him all across Europe and I gave up. I lost him somewhere in Germany, and I went back to New York. Then I got a phone call that he was in Los Angeles mixing a record. I did an interview with him at this Italian restaraunt and asked if I could come to the studio with him and he said no, that it would be like watching someone bathe. And the next day, I was getting ready to go back to New York and he called me up and told me to come in, and I ended up spending a month in the studio with him. He was very generous with me and gave me some great advice about a lot of things. And I was staying at a friend's house while I was with Tom in the studio, and it turns out that I ended up marrying this friend, so in a weird way he's partially responsible for that. And I think he's a brilliant artist.

BT: You have an extensive work history, what are some of the more interesting jobs you've held?

MR: The commercial fishing was the most exhilarating, terrifying, important work stint that I did.

BT: Important in what way?

MR: In that, for me as a young person, in lieu of being in a war or something, it was physically and mentally demanding and pushed me to my limits so I could see what I was made out of. I think knowing your limitations is good, and I don't think there are a lot of opportunities for young people to have defining experiences, things that really push you to the edge of your abilities. For me, it was that coupled with the fact that I had been an invalid most of my adolesence. I was eager to overachieve, to push myself, and see what the limits of my new physical self was. I did a lot of different things that served their own purposes. All of them were great places to get material for stories. I didn't know it at the time; I thought I was misspending my youth, that I had wasted my college education and that I was a loser, all of which may be true.

BT: From where do you draw inspiration?

MR: I'm not sure if I'm so much inspired as I am bothered by something I see or hear. It could be just a throwaway line that I hear in passing, two strangers talking, a misheard phrase, or it could be some odd little snippet of a scene passing by a car window. There's a part of my brain that says, "I'd like to make sense of this somehow, what could that have possibly meant?" And so I start creating a story around it to make sense of the thing. For me, the world is very nonsensical and I'm always striving to put some sort of form or order on it so I can survive and not have to be in bed all day. After I've explained it to myself, I can put it to bed.
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