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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
John Marks is a former 60 Minutes producer. He lives with his family in Massachusetts.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Fangland?
John Marks: Once, while at work at 60 Minutes, and having a really bad day, I began to think about how one would write a novel about such a place. The television business is already so surreal and bizarre that straightforward satire seemed beside the point. How can you satirize a thing that satirizes itself unintentionally every day? At the time, I was rereading the novel Dracula for the umpteenth time, and I had a sudden, gripping notion, as I pondered these questions about the novel, that the story in the book, if transposed to the modern world and placed in the setting of American broadcast news, might really work as a means of telling a good tale about a difficult place. More than that, I began to think that the Victorian saga of a real estate agent who goes to Transylvania to make a deal and comes back with a monster might have a lot to say about our own contemporary superficiality, vulnerability, even fragility in the matter of newsgathering. How do we find news? What do we call news? And what do we do when the news bites back? And it does, by the way, all the time. Most of us who report from far flung parts of the world, from war zones or regions where terrible suffering takes place, don’t just leave that stuff behind. It comes along with us, back into the news rooms and editing bays, working its way into memory and dream.
MT Bram Stoker's Dracula inspired your book. When/where did you first read it?
JM: I first encountered the Stoker version of Dracula in a TV show rather than in the book. Back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, there was a unique daytime soap opera called Dark Shadows, featuring a soulful but very toothy vampire named Barnabas Collins, who bit his victims in a world of radically bad acting, lurching sets and shoddy video camera work. To my six and seven year old eyes, that show looked like some form of alternative reality, just as concrete as the living room where I sat in Dallas, Texas, my eyes glued to the screen. I started having nightmares, and my mother forbade me watching the show. Ask any American of my vintage, and you are liable to get some response when you mention Dark Shadows. It was a phenomenon during the Vietnam War, maybe even a loopy Gothic version of it, for small children and stoned teenagers who laughed at the camp and the poor production values. That show mainlined Stoker into a whole generation of American kids.
So when I got to the book itself, I already had a deep-seated fear of, anxiety about and attraction to the vampire. I can still remember how that opening stretch in the castle terrified me. The way that the three weird sisters coalesced out of Carpathian stardust in front of Jonathan Harker’s eyes—that hypnotized me. It’s one of the two books from childhood—along with Lord of the Rings—that I still read for pleasure as an adult. And it still rewards.
MT: Fangland is an epistolary novel, but the epistles in question here are emails. Did you enjoy echoing Stoker's form John? Do you think the epistolary novel could make a comeback?
JM: I once had a college professor who told me that no one had ever written a masterpiece in the epistolary form, and she dismissed the form as drivel. I don’t know about masterpieces, but there are real virtues in terms of storytelling, especially when writing tales of the supernatural. All those early romantic writers knew that a seemingly rational, even documented account of the unearthly and the dreadful would lend a feel of realism to an unreal circumstance. And in Stoker, the use of letters and journal entries help to highlight the sense of scientists, teachers, doctors and solicitors, all men and women of reason, attempting to grapple with an eruption of the inexplicable. In our own time, the new technology of communication, the email, offered a beautiful opportunity to look at the ways that we try to say what can’t yet be said. How do we talk about the Holocaust in an email, for instance, the most fleeting of communications? How do we speak about fear and hatred and disgust and terror in these lightning fast bullets of expression? The vampire in my novel is a creature of the haunted past, and my characters try to talk about him and with him in a technology that defeats them at every turn.
MT: How long did it take you to write Fangland?
JM: This novel, my third, came relatively quickly. It took three years, though the first year, I worked my way through a draft that was all over the place. The subject matter, network news meets vampire myth, was volatile as raw material. I didn’t want it to turn either into a gimmick, on the one hand, or a pure work place satire on the other. I wanted it to be real horror that worked on a number of levels. So it took some time to calibrate.
MT: Fangland is very funny, but on another level it is quite a searing critique of alienated Modern Life. Is it just telly that makes modern life rubbish John? Where did it all go wrong!?
JM: Thanks for saying so. You’ve asked a huge question. I’ll try to answer. I think it all went wrong long before telly. Human beings have a really hard time coming to terms with a singular fact of their existence: they are woefully, tirelessly violent, and every part of their documented history tells them so, just as every fiber of their being does. And yet we don’t want to think of ourselves that way. We don’t, and we can’t. How paralyzing to remember every day that you are a member of a species that perpetrated Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda and so on? How difficult to pick up a newspaper and read a story about a bloke who beat his ex-wife to death and to realize he’s just behaving in the grand tradition? I’m not saying that we ought to accept this state or forget it, but I am saying that it is a damn hard reality for the mind to register. It’s a thought that seems almost capable of engendering violence on its own. So when it comes to television and news and information gathering and dissemination, in general, the question becomes the one in the novel. What stories do we tell about ourselves and our bloody past? How do we remember? And what do those memories do to us? If we could answer those questions, I reckon we could all watch television with a bit more ease and comfort.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
JM: Bit of all of the above. I start in my journal in longhand. That takes the pressure off. I don’t know if it makes sense, but I don’t feel that I am writing anything fixed or permanent in the journal. Everything feels wonderfully provisional. Most of the time, my words are illegible to anyone but me. I started writing Fangland in a journal and had ten to fifteen pages before I committed any of it to the computer. I wrote a lot of the novel that way, and it may have helped that the story occurred in epistolary form. Early on, to be honest, I wasn’t writing to create a fiction. I was writing to get the demons of work off my back.
MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Fangland and how did you overcome them?
JM: First and greatest challenge was Stoker. Why do a new version of a very good book that has been often imitated and never quite surpassed? Why do the vampire myth? Hasn’t that old monster been around the block enough times? Do we really need another bloodsucker? Surely Buffy staked them all. But I felt from the start that I had a new way into the myth that predated Stoker, and that older myth gave me confidence. For one, I knew that my guy would never have fangs, and that he would enact his blood-letting in ritual form. For me, right from the start, he was always a monster tied to the ghosts of our past, and I tried to keep that thought front and center, so he would never conform to stereotype. Also, keeping in mind the tropes of the vampire story, things like crosses and holy water as effective weapons, the place of sex in the story, the powers ascribed to the undead, I constantly subverted them. That was the fun, and it became the point. If I can know the vampire in a new way, then I can know myself in a new way, because I have been so steeped in the story from earliest days that I can’t separate myself imaginatively from it. And I say that as someone no self-respecting Goth kid would ever talk to. I’m not a big Ann Rice fan, though I loved her first, Interview with the Vampire, and I don’t wear much black.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
JM: I am an avid moviegoer and reader. I love music, particularly blues and alt country, and go to see lots of shows. I recently saw a band called the Knitters in Northampton, Massachusetts, a bunch of musicians who have been around for twenty years, and it was like hearing God in the guitars. I have spent the last two years traveling around the United States, working on a non-fiction book about American Christianity. That will come out in January over here.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
JM: Not really. I’m my ideal reader. It’s a cliche by now, but I write books that I want to read. Having said that, with Fangland, it was really important to me that horror fans get caught up in the horror. I didn’t want it to be a stuffy literary exercise in form.
MT: What are you working on now?
JM: I’ve just finished a combination of memoir and reportage on the subject of American evangelical Christianity. I was once a born again and then left that world and the faith behind, so I return to the fold for a time to see what’s happening. It reads at times like a horror novel, at other times like a roof-raising Gospel adventure. It was also the most emotionally, psychologically and spiritually exhausting book I’ve ever written. I know now what people mean when they say books will cost you a pound of flesh. This one did.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
JM: I love Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, probably my all-time favorite, toe to toe with Lolita. Conrad was probably the first adult writer to utterly captivate my teenage writer’s mind. Heart of Darkness was the first of those. I majored in German at university, so I constantly go back to Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, Thomas Mann, even Kafka, Rilke and Nietzsche. Those writers shaped my intellect and my sense of what great books could do. And German is an utterly beautiful and even lyrical language in the right hands. It is also a language that allows plenty of room for the precise exploration of total darkness.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
JM: Be prepared, if you’re in it for the long haul, to be hit hard a lot of times by all manner of circumstance—the brutality of critics and an indifferent market place, the scorn of peers and the skepticism of loved ones, the bare fact of choices not made and lives not pursued. It’s a great calling and a great life, but not without cost, and one should be clear-eyed. Also, be ready to defend your art to yourself in those moments when no one else will, because if you can’t, you’re done.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
JM: Yes, I’d just like to say that I owe this book to a brilliant, frustrated Irishman named Bram Stoker, who probably doesn’t get half the credit he deserves.
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