Friday, September 21, 2012

Interview with Mark Gluth the author of "The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis"

        Mark Gluth is the author of a "The Late Work or Margaret Kroftis" a terrifically sad and labyrinthine novella that came out in 2010. I reviewed it a few months ago and it left an indelible mark on me. I was fortunate enough to get to talk with him about TLWOMK, his influences, his interest in black metal, and his next novel at the Kulshan Brewery in Bellingham Washington on a stunning PNW evening.

       He also included a list of links to music that influenced the novel which you can check out. From Mark:

After Sam and I had the conversation that became this interview, I started thinking back about the things that influenced me while I was writing The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis.  Predictably most of them were musical, in large part because I listen to music while I write.   I ended up thinking it would be cool to create an assemblage of  some of the things that  I found compelling while writing the book.  I’m not sure if this will be illuminating in any way, and I’m not sure I intend it to be.  I guess my goal is that you enjoy listening to and/or viewing this stuff.
Cheers, Mark

        On the controversy over whether Alt-lit is “real” or not…

         I’m sure there is a lot of crap written all over the place to be honest, you know people like to attack Tao Lin but I think it comes out of jealously: people say “I could have written that”…well you didn’t write that, and he did and he’s written three or four books and you haven’t. You know that kind of thing, but I mean Blake Butler I think is a great writer. People that attack him and I don’t understand doing that sort of thing. It’s probably  like when indie rock first took off in the late 80’s early 90’s: there are 
a lot of guys recording on four tracks in their bedroom and it wasn’t all great but what was happening was still great overall. It’s like anything where, when the production of something becomes more accessible to a large number of people, yeah, there is going to be more garbage published, more crap that is written but it’s also more stuff that you are going to see that is great that you wouldn’t otherwise see. 

          On his upcoming novel…

I keep telling people that it’s influenced by Black Metal but it’s probably not influenced in any way that Black Metal people would recognize. One of the things I like about black metal, or at least the black metal that I like, is that it is really raw and really broken. So a lot of the songs I like keep “mistakes”: they’ll mess up on a riff and keep playing and won’t rerecord it. Not that I’m doing anything like that in my book but I thought a lot about how to create a sense of brokenness about it. I kind of tell people how Late Work was melancholy or steeped in sadness the new book is steeped in utter forsakenness. Not that I’m suicidal or depressed or anything but one character commits suicide, another character kind of disappears in a suicidal way, there’s a lot of alcoholism, desperation, abusive parents. People told me the first book was sad?  This is going to be a sad book. My working title for it, I’ll say, is “No Other” which I stole from another musician I am a huge fan of from Portland her name is Liz Harris. She records under the name “Grouper” (like the fish) and she does this droney ambient kind of stuff that sounds like a really bad dream, really dissonant but really beautiful at the same time. Her music has been a really big influence on the book; I’ll listen to pieces of her music and kind of take it apart in my head and figure out what she achieves. So I wanted to pay homage to her by stealing one of the titles to her song. I may change that, I change things like that willy-nilly sometimes but that’s all I can say right now without going on for three hours. 

At the beginning of the year I said “I will definitely finish [the novel] this year but I feel three quarters of it is in really good condition, meaning it is ready to be published now, and the final third, the final quarter I should say, well the final quarter has become the final third, occurs in a very different place than the first section of the book. It’s almost like writing a separate book so it has taken me some time. When “Late Work” first came out and I was reading the proofs and stuff I thought “no one is going to like this, this is horrible” the fiction within fiction stuff within “Late Work”, all the different voices. I was starting the new book then and I made a conscious effort and stressed myself so that nobody in the book is a writer, no stories within stories, none of that. Though I also didn’t want to write a “straight narrative” I didn’t want to write a book with a beginning-middle-end so I spent a lot of time thinking about the structure before writing it, whereas with late work I was already writing it the structure came to me. With this one the structure already came to me before. That’s the project I set out for myself anyways. Parts of it have been easier; parts of it have been harder. I guess that’s what happens. If I don’t finish it this year it better be next year.

On The process of writing “Late Work of Margaret Kroftis”...

It took about 5 years to write, originally I had this idea for a novel about a retired journalist who lives on the shore of the ocean or on an island and is investigating the murder of a child. Though the story itself changed quite a bit, I think the mood and feelings I had about that scenario carried over. A lot of images of the Pacific Northwest made it into the book. As far as the process: there were times where I would  have 12- 20 pages of ideas and I would write them all down, then start to edit it then it would start to both change and grow as I edited it. Somewhere along the line I finished what became the first chapter of the book and I wasn’t really even sure what I was doing with it. So I sent it to Dennis Cooper…

On Dennis Cooper...

He’s probably my favorite American writer. I did a fan page for Dennis back when there were fan pages.. So I kind of knew him.  So I’d sent him what became the initial story with in a story from the first chapter and asked him what he thought of it.  Basically he was really encouraging, encouraging to the point I began to see how the small piece could become part of a novel.  . That was enough for me. But then I couldn’t decide what I was going to do with this small piece, and some other small pieces I was also writing., I became obsessed with how I was going to figure out the rest of the book basically, while also writing all these snippets that had nothing to do with each other.. It was like I was dealing with a flow chart, with all these little pieces that I could never get to come together. Then it came to me that if I made a cyclical structure that all the pieces would mesh. I thought I solved all my problems, I thought “Oh this will take three to six months to write” and it took four years. I knew that there were these three things to move the narrative forward, and usually in the book somebody or something is dying and so I’d figure out how to build that into the narrative but modulate it so it worked as a unifying undercurrent. I wanted the pieces to be emotionally coherent. So a lot of what I worked on over time was developing the emotional base into it. That could be anything from nailing specific imagery within a chapter  to completely rearranging every single element of  a chapter until it just felt right.

Literary Influences

Dennis Cooper is a big influence on me. Obviously not so much in what we write about, but the fact that he does what he does and how he does it .  I mean, he has built a career writing exactly what he wants to write. He’s not quite a cult writer, but the NYTimes is not reviewing all his books so he’s not “successful”. The Marbled Swarm, its nuts, it’s really really amazing, and I love the fact that at this point in his career he kinda blew up his voice such as it was   and reinvented it. He’s my favorite American writer. Another  huge influence, and she just died this year, is Agota Kristof, a Hungarian writer that wrote in French. She wrote probably 6 novels only 4 of which have been published in English. The first three were a cycle: the first was called The Notebook the second was The Proof and then The Third Lie and they are my favorite books ever. Her sentences and the way she writes is not something I want to copy but I do  want to emulate what effects she achieves.  Her sentences are simple and declarative , but their declarative nature lays on the surface of this emotional core that’s so buried it’s almost non existent  If you take one novel by itself it makes sense, but when you combine them one [book] contradicts the book before it. Without going on a three hour dissertation it’s tough to say what I like about her. Also there is a French writer Marie Redonnet who I don’t think is writing anymore, but  she was a really big influence on The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis she wrote about 5-6 novel. She wrote a book called Hotel Splendid which is about these three sisters that live in a hotel on the edge of a swamp and the hotel is falling apart. It’s 100 pages long.. The sentences are really flat and declarative and they come at the reader cycling over and over and over. Another huge influence on the book was Jorge Luis Borges… I can read everything he wrote, and I have many many times, and, for pretty much  any story of his, it still feels like the first time every time I read it. So either by default or by random chance he was an influence on the book. I like what he says, or used to say, in interviews “I get these ideas for books but I don’t feel like writing the book so I’ll write a story about it instead” and that’s what I tried to do to a certain extent
I have an easier time talking about music. A lot of TLWOMK was written while I was listening to a lot of Americana, Iron and Wine and stuff like them. Tuung is a really big influence. Just indie rock in general, I’m a huge Spencer Krug fan  he was in a band called Sunset Rubdown and he was in Wolf Parade. I use a quote from him at the beginning of the second chapter as an epigram.
Right now the book I’m writing is kind of different. I’m by no means an expert or a fan of it, but I kind of got into black metal toward the end of  writing TLWOMK. I started getting exposed to Black Metal and thinking “This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen”. Particularly the suicidal black metal. I  can’t understand any of the lyrics so, outside of the music,  it’s all about what the covers look like. There is this guy Xasthur, he just stopped recording, though he recorded a ton of albums in a really primitive way   and his stuff  is really influencing my new book a lot.

On the role of music in his novel

The cover of “Late Work of Margaret Kroftis” happened with little to no input from me: Joel Westendorf, who does all the cover for the Little House on the Bowery Books, had asked me what I wanted on the cover but I had no idea. I had never though in visual terms like that, so I thought about pictures of mist and mountains and stuff like that but it never came out right. I made a list of things that influenced the book and a huge one at the beginning was “Leave Me Alone” by New Order (link) which is off “Power Corruption and Lies” So he suggested redoing the cover and I thought that was a really cool idea Legally it passed muster so….
             My obsession with music started when I was seven and we got cable and MTV came out. This was probably ’80-‘81 and it was a lot of new wave music was out back then and I was exposed to music that 7 year olds normally don’t listen to like DEVO and Flock of Seagulls and I was into it sans context. Getting a little older I got into music magazines like Cream, Hit Parade and then when I was 11 my brother got me a subscription to Rolling Stone so I’ve been a fan of music  and  the obsessive culture that surrounds it for a weirdly long time. I totally think in musical terms: I kept telling people, when I was writing TLWOMK, how certain albums have really good last songs, good slow sad last songs. As we get away from albums this happens less and less. “Leave me Alone” is the last song on “Power, Corruption and Lies”.  Anyway, I told people I  was writing a book where every chapter felt like one of those great last songs . I don’t think of things logically very much, I just feel them, or emotionally interact with them and I respond to music that way as well.. A lot of the book was written with me trying to plot some feeling in the book as I listened to music that elicited that specific feeling. This was 6-7 years ago and I was listening to “The Creek Drank the Cradle” compulsively. There a couple Brian Eno solo albums like “Here Come the Warm Jets” that I also listened to constantly.

On the Cyclical structure of The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis

At this point in my writing career I’m not capable of writing a plot driven novel. Like how they talk about “third acts”? I just couldn’t, or necessarily want to, do that.  As I was trying to piece together the nascent elements of  TLWOMK, arrange them, I was watching Mullholland Drive , the David Lynch movie, (To this day I’m not sure exactly what happens in the  movie), and  suddenly the cyclical structure for TLWOMK came to me. It solved all my problems, such as they were. I didn’t want this to be this shocker like an M. Night Shamalan movie; I just wanted it to be a natural evolution. Like an album where the last song flows into the first song.
So I’d written the first story, essentially that story became the first chapter. Not the beginning of the book but the piece that Margaret Kroftis wrote…about the boy. I started to write a novel based around that.  I wrote the beginning, the part leading up to that. I knew she was a writer and I knew I wanted to incorporate a story within a story. I wanted the book to be emotionally coherent but logically impossible, well the logically impossible was going to happen but the emotionally coherent I wanted to happen. So I knew the structure was going to be a circle. When I got to the parts when Kroftis writes I really just wrote those as part of the chapter. Honestly I didn’t have any grand plans for what they were going to be like until I got to them. I’d had an idea for a long time that Margaret Kroftis was kind of like a female 70’s science fiction writer, though that never made it into the book (and there are huge parts of my novels I edit out of the final draft, but because they were in there for a long, time they have these persistent ramifications in the final manuscript ) This was influenced, or the stuff she wrote I always kind of wanted to be like kind of Arthur C. Clarke. Not like the better stuff he wrote in the 70’s but his pulpy stuff in the 50’s and 60’. Like this novel of his,  The City and the Stars which is about this city that is abandoned in the future and it’s kind of a cheesy like The Time Machine where there are these primitive people that live underground and they discover the city of the future but it’s from the past and all this stuff. It influenced the story towards the end of the book that was part of the novel ‘Thousand’ about a king that  built a city and it stayed empty for centuries. By the time that I got to those fiction pieces I wanted them to carry the same coherent mood that the rest of the book had for lack of a better word.

On the band in “The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis” and whether it was taken from his own experiance...

In high school I was in bands, none of them were very good. In my new book there is a fake band as well. It just felt like a natural piece of the book for whatever reason. When I was writing the first chapter I knew there was going to be this girl who was writing a screenplay based off a story in the first chapter of the book and I knew that I wanted someone to die in that chapter but I didn’t want her to die but I also wanted, for lack of a better term, a love story. Though it’s not a love story, I wanted there to be some sense of romance in it, so I didn’t want her boyfriend to die. So I knew that there was this person who dies by necessity, not that I thought this logically when I wrote it, but for it to work, I had to establish what this guy was doing…and it just made sense that he was in a band in the band?  It wasn’t based off my personal reality but it captured to me that time when you’re not a kid anymore but you’re not an adult and you’re probably in bands. I will say this: two weeks after I graduated from high school a really good friend of mine suddenly died, so to a certain extent that influenced the chapter. I was trying to capture that feeling.

Cinema as an influence…

Yeah, I love Wes Anderson movies, I loved Moonrise Kingdom. Though I don’t think that has anything to do with my writing. Again nothing to do with my writing, I love pretty much every Woody Allen movie. Every 5 years he makes a movie that is considered really good, like last year he made Midnight in Paris, but he’ll make these movies one a year every year which get bad reviews but I tend to like all of them for whatever reason. I’m a pretty big David Lynch fan… I’ve seen [Inland Empire] probably four times and every time I watch it I like it more and more. I’m, not a student of cinema at all: I watch stuff I like. I kind of enjoy it in a passive way but I really liked it a lot. I like Harmony Korine’s movies, I loved Trash Humpers which he recorded on a VHS and edited it on two VHS decks. It’s more of a performance art thing. I think it’s genius.

On The Dark Knight transcending the barrier between “popular” and “high” art…

Yeah it’s like if Stanley Kubrick made “Star Wars” or something. Christopher Nolan is a really good filmmaker. He made The Prestige. His movies are really well made. You watch them and you see the obsessive care of somebody who wants to make it right. But he made a Batman movie. I’m kind of excited (and I’m not a James Bond fan, I’ve probably seen as many James Bond movies as anyone else) but the new James Bond movie is made by Sam Mendez. I don’t think I’ve seen many of his movies, he made American Beauty, he made The Road to Perdition, and he used to be married to Kate Winslet… He’s this fine British director who makes Art and now he’s making a James Bond movie. I love that. Because everyone sees these movies anyway so at least they should be made well. Like Battleship, which I actually saw in theaters and it was total crap and there was no investment. There were obviously just trying to make money whereas when you see the Batman movie Nolan’s obviously aware that he needs to sell action figures at WAL-MART but also I’m going to make a cultural statement and I’m very interested in where those two things intercept.

On the effect of academia on writing…

I tend to believe that even though there are lots of great writers teaching creative writing, and I experienced it studying with Dan Chaon back in the mid-90’s that writing programs, at their best, have a neutral effect on the quality of writing their students produce.  ,  Most creative writing classes are these workshops. So there are 15 people in the class and each week someone  turns in their story and everyone discusses it… Not to sound rude but what if you don’t care about those people’s opinions? You know they could be looking for different things…So everyone gets all this feedback and to be a good student in that scenario you are ultimately going to incorporate that feedback and so it’s almost writing by committee to an extent. I don’t think there is value in that, to be completely honest. You do have the benefit of spending a certain amount of the week writing for college credit., but The way it is set up of most undergrads in creative writing programs, it is it is focused on writing short stories. The thinking seems to be, well this is the minor leagues, and you start writing short stories then move up to novels and that’s the majors….like writing a short story has anything to do with a novel. Thomas Pynchon, he wrote some short stories, probably because he had to, but he’s a novelist and just because you are a novelist does not mean you are a short story writer.

On following the recent growth in underground literature…

Yeah there’s Tao Lin and he kind of has his own publishing house and he’s published a lot of different people. Zachary German who wrote a book called Eat When You Feel Sad (it came out around the same time as The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis) and I really liked that. Several years ago Blake Butler, who is kind of a big name…it’s all around HTMLgiant,  wrote Scorch Atlas which was one of the  first big break-outs of this new alt literature, along with Tao Lin. I’m a fan of his definitely.   He’s definitely a success story. There’s another writer Matt Bell, I think he’s written a couple collections of short stories, and is publishing a novel this year. He wrote this kind of a retelling of the Little Red Riding hood story, called Wolf Parts which is genius. I kind of keep my pulse on that stuff not as much as I would like probably. A lot of times I rely on Denis Cooper’s blog, watching for when he recommends stuff. There’s this young writer his name’s Ken Bauman he also writes for HTMLgiant and he has one or two novels coming out this year, he’s also acted on this show “Secret Life of the American Teen”. He’s like a renaissance man.  I definitely try to keep my finger on the pulse but it’s tough.

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