SUNDAY NOVEMBER 19, 2017
 
Blog TALKING TO
MARK SAFRANKO
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American writer Mark SaFranko, who unlike some of the authors we’ve featured in TORO, is not that well-known and should not be confused with anyone writing for the mainstream, may finally gain admittance to the Show, as it were. The author of the gritty and critically acclaimed novels Lounge Lizard and Hating Olivia, which were published by Murder Slim Press out of the U.K. and distributed across Europe, despaired about ever finding an American publisher – something too improbable to believe if you’ve ever had the pleasure to read SaFranko’s work – but that may change soon. Hating Olivia, as honest and readable and corrosive as anything out there, will soon be published by Harper Perennial books in the U.S. – and whether or not this changes his approach to writing and to life remains to be seen, though one suspects that this tireless craftsman will continue writing and writing well no matter what happens around him.

Meanwhile copies of Hating Olivia and Lounge Lizard continue selling well in 17 different countries worldwide and SaFranko’s reputation as a writer grows daily. One always had the feeling it was just a question of time before an artist this honest and this polished would find a larger audience. SaFranko, who has worked dozens of unrelated dead-end jobs while pursuing his art (everything from a truck driver and short-order cook to a dinner theatre actor and telephone sales solicitor), brings to his writing a certain blue-collar humility, grit and integrity that’s missing from many so-called literary novels and novelists. SaFranko’s characters, beaten down, poor, addicted and pushed to the margins of society, bristle with psychological unease, often caught up in a struggle to find temporary peace, or dignity – perhaps indicative of SaFranko’s own agitated and wronged sense of things. As he has said, “I´ve never felt at peace. Ever. But I like the chaos raging in my mind. It proves you´re alive.”

SaFranko, who has become a master of the confessional genre, has drawn comparisons to Knut Hamsun, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Henry Miller, Jim Thompson and Charles Bukowski. But to say his particular brand of shock and awe could be confused with the work of any of these writers is a little off the mark. SaFranko, very much a man of his time, has an original voice, and is possessed of a heartfelt fury and passion entirely his own. TORO spoke with the engaging SaFranko earlier in the summer and among other things discussed writing and the writing life.

Q: Where are you these days, in New Jersey?
A: Right now I’m in New Jersey, yeah.

Q: A lot of the writers you admire – and who have influenced your work – if they were writing today in the States I think you´d agree they’d likely have a hard time getting published, let alone achieving any fame. Why do you think this is?
A: You know I’ve thought about that every which possible way and I can’t quite figure it out except that – the only thing I can say is that, at least in the United States, there’s never been an audience for what you would call confessional writing. And if it’s there it’s a very small one. And the publishers are not interested in it.

Q: And yet the memoir has become a much coveted and hyped form. And as you know, a lot of these memoirs are suspect, I mean in terms of reproducing exact conversation and events, describing things in ridiculous detail, and so on. You encounter just as much fictionalizing there as you do in fiction. So I find a bit of hypocrisy there in terms of publishers peddling these so-called true stories and having an aversion to confessional fiction.
A: And that’s why I remain completely baffled by what the publishers see as something that is going to make money – the bottom line is always, especially for the agents, they’re just looking to make money, so they can pay their rent. You know most of the agents are in Manhattan and their rent is staggering. They couldn’t care less what you’re giving them as long as it’s going to pay their rent.

Q: This is my argument when it comes to work like yours, work that’s considered too graphic, too violent, too honest, regardless of the quality of the craft –
A: And incidentally I see my stuff as tame. I mean what is pushing the envelope these days? What is that?

Q: My point is this. If a writer like Stephen King, who’s sold a trillion books, if a writer like that can find an audience, if you can promote and make universal a writer with at best middling talent – what I’m trying to say is that your writing has all the hooks – horror, sex, violence – that King’s has but it’s actually well-crafted. I’m convinced that if your books were promoted or published by a big house we’d be hearing a lot more about your work, but also I think you’d sell a lot of books.
A: I would tend to agree but there’s resistances from certain people and certain – I’ll tell you, I’m baffled to this day by it. I’ve been at it a long time. Banging around at it a long time and I’m just befuddled today as to why something gets published and picks up a following as I was 30 years ago. I’m clueless. Maybe I’m more clueless now because I just can’t figure it out at all.

Q: Tony O’Neil, a writer with whom you’re often mentioned in same breath has recently signed on with a big publishing house. Any progress there for you?
A: I got a call from my agent before I went to Paris that there was interest in signing the books to a big U.S. house but I never heard another thing about it. I am not at all optimistic. Nothing is signed and as far as I am concerned I am right where I was 20 years ago insofar as that goes. [Ed. note: at time of publication, Harper Perennial is planning to publish Hating Olivia in the summer or fall of 2010.]

Q: But I have to think that with enough push from people who read your work, from the many fans who talk and write about it in such glowing terms, will force the issue.
A: Over the years I’ve tried every angle, every way to get a U.S. publisher without success. It’s picked up obviously a lot overseas. And I’ve come to a Zen-like sort of acceptance and resignation that it’s better to have an audience in the U.K. and France and Belgium and the Netherlands and wherever I might than to have no audience. And maybe I’ve got a better audience there, one that’s certainly more receptive for some reason to what I do.

Q: It elevates the work, to think that you’re doing it regardless of its reception in your own country, and whatever impediments you’ve come across in getting your work out there – I mean given its quality.
A: I have to say this, that you hit a certain point where you’ve already blown all your chances for careers that were of a different nature, straight careers, and you wake up one day and you realize that it’s too late now, there’s no turning back. So no matter what happens you just keep going.

Q: Reading reviews and blogs about your work – these people are very passionate about it.
A: Seem to be, yeah. People who fall into the cult writer category tend to have stronger audiences that last a lot longer. Nowadays the turnover on the shelves in the bookstore is crazy. The hot young Ivy Leaguers have a title that appears for one week and three weeks later it’s gone. In some ways too, that may be part of the danger when you do get picked up by the bigger houses because suddenly you’re in their hold. And you’re dancing a little bit more to their tune. I mean [laughs] nobody tells me what to do. Of course you can make the case that no one cares what I do.

Q: Still, that’s something in itself, that you’re working independently of publishers and agents and publicists who definitely wind up shaping the literary landscape with their personal whims, needs and agendas.
A: The other thing too, incidentally, there’s a another whole vein of my work that’s found a journal and magazine outlet in the U.S., which are my short stories, which I continue to write and which continue appearing.

Q: You’ve also written a lot of plays.
A: And that’s become a very constricted market suddenly [laughs]. They’re all tough.

Q: Yes, they are.
A: Writing is tough. That brings me back to something I wanted to say before, that despite the struggles I’ve had I still think I’m very lucky that I’ve found any kind of an audience, because I’ve always contended that there are a lot of really talented people around artistic disciplines that just never find an audience. So I’m very lucky that I’ve found some kind of audience, whatever it is, however many people it is, I’m very fortunate. Again, I stand by this, that there are a lot of really talented people who not only never find an audience, but that are crushed by the process, by the ordeal.

Q: A big part of it then is surviving.
A: People used to say to me, "How do you get up every day and work?" And I’d say, "Jesus, that’s the easy part." If you’re not getting up every day and working (whenever you get the time to work) with enthusiasm then go do something else. There’s no point. Why would you want to torture yourself? The hard part is when you open those directories and start looking for agents and you say, "Oh my God, they’ve rejected me 16 times." You know, and then you look at the Knopfs and so on, no unsolicited manuscripts. Not that I was ever getting in there anyway. The point is, you look at these publishers – no unsolicited manuscripts – and you realize you’re up against this ... I mean how do you get through if you haven’t gone through an MFA, which I haven’t, and if you haven’t gone to an Ivy League school, which I haven’t ... Where do you start? The writing is the easy part. That’s the simple part.

Q: In Canada the government pretty much funds the publishing industry, bringing with it all the repercussions of having bureaucrats create a cultural elite. I sense that a differently constituted (but in the end just as restrictive and closed) elite exists in the U.S. – not one funded by the government but an elite nevertheless.
A: You’re right there does exist an elite – sometimes the standards are vague, hard to pinpoint, but I think if you look hard enough you’ll find the thing that’s brought them to the forefront of whatever. So yes, it’s true, it exists. And it’s impossible to break through.

Q: Getting back to the MFA writing – it’s very distinct. I don’t know if it has become its own peculiar genre, but MFA writing does tend to have an astringent, sweetish flavour, but in the end it’s cloying and as unfulfilling as meringue.
A: No question. And you pick up those books and you’re lucky a lot of times if you get to a second sentence. That’s what I find. There’s something arch, something contrived right from the outset in many of them. That’s the pervasive feel. I picked up a copy of this highly touted book the other day and I couldn’t get past sentence number one. Something about a guy whose biggest problem of the day was putting on a hat with some kind of insect in it [laughs]. And I thought this is the perfect MFA book, and it turns out that he’s the chairman of a major writers conference down here in the States. He’s been through and got his MFA from somewhere and he got the big juicy contract.

Q: Let me talk about your sentences for a moment, the thing that distinguishes you as a writer. They are smooth and polished as jewels, perfectly pitched. And they make for truly easy reading. But despite its beauty, your prose never seems to show off. Your use of tropes and figurative language is restrained.
A: I’ve ripped everything out of there that’s false or ornamental. One of the things that always reverberates in my head – you know the great Belgian novelist Georges Simenon – he’s dead now. But I was big fan of his non-Maigret novels. And he told the story often about how when he was young he went to Colette, the French author, and he took his early stuff to her and said, "What do you think of it?" And she said, "Take out all of the literature and you’ll be fine." And I said, "Bingo." Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds, that process.

Q: Your depiction of sex – far from being pornographic, I find it a rather organic part of what’s going on in the story. It’s certainly graphic, but then one can argue that all of your writing is graphic. Certainly the sex approaches violent intensities, but at times it’s also very funny. The situations are often absurd, but also the blow-by-blows at times acquire a true comic resonance.
A: My feeling is that a lot of writing about sex is not very good. And what it lacks – and this may not be entirely accurate from where I sit right here – what it lacks a lot of times is going a step further in the physical description of it and your own reactions to certain things. And that, I think, seemed to strike the attention of readers In Hating Olivia and Lounge Lizard. And let’s face it, as men, all kinds of things go through your mind – and that is not on the page. I don’t really see that on the page, I don’t think. And who knows what women are really thinking?

Q: I remember reading this study of pornography – they conducted physical tests on men and women to determine if watching hardcore porn aroused them. And they found that men and women were equally aroused by the hardcore porn though the women were less likely to admit it.
A: The women in pornography seem to be much more adventuresome than the guys. I mean, they’re crazed [laughs]. There’s something else I wanted to say. Actually the sex in both books – it was purposely injected into it. As I tried to show in Hating Olivia – it can sometimes dominate an entire relationship to the point of madness, and I was trying to make the reader feel it. In Lounge Lizard it was really the other side of the coin where you can become completely numbed by it, like a drug. You can have conquest after conquest and just become completely – the act becomes meaningless. And you become like a drug addict and that’s what I was trying to show in Lounge Lizard.

Q: Everyone mentions Bukowski when it comes to influences on your work, but I think you’re a very different writer, despite similarities of approach and subject matter. But what about Jim Thompson? How much he influenced you?
A: A lot. My favourite book of his Hell of a Woman, and of course The Killer Inside Me. But there was a guy whose books were out of print by the time he died, though he had quite a following. But at his best he was good, and sometimes not so good, when he was, as they say, writing for money.

Q: What are you writing these days?
A: Well, I did something I haven’t done in a while. I got a 160 pages into a novel and abandoned it. I think it was because I had to switch off the book to do something else when I was still on the first draft, which is always a fatal thing. Psychic thrust was lost there. But I just finished the fourth and fifth Zajack books, and whether they ever see the light of the day who knows. And I’m always working on stories and poems, other novels, and so on.

Q: You’re also an accomplished painter. Can you comment on your work and influences?
A: Regarding the artwork, I´ve always admired the people – from Noël Coward to Bob Dylan to Da Vinci and many others – who´ve spilled over from one discipline to another because I always had the same urge. As a painter I would hesitate to call myself even a primitive because insofar as the traditional skills go I´m artistically challenged. But the act of painting does transport one to another place, and that´s what´s important. The flow of words in the brain gets turned off and the painter achieves a Zen-like state. It´s like fishing in that regard. I always think of that Picasso quote whenever I´m painting – and this is a paraphrase: "The objective is to get back to doing what children did when they knew nothing." Influences include everyone from Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to Matisse and Cézanne and everyone in between, including outsider artists and people who can´t really paint but made something of it anyway, like Henry Miller. A heavy emphasis on colour, even if it makes no sense. Colour is the thing.

Q: What do you make of the state of the union these days? Are we beginning to see the true end of the American empire?
A: My reflexive reaction is to say yes, America is in decline, but not being a person who is absorbed in politics ... I mean, it’s very difficult to say anything meaningful, given the complexities of what’s going on, politically, economically, socially, theologically – I think they’re very difficult to grasp. But I think that your use of the expression an end of an empire – I have a hunch that is true. I think a lot of people given recent events think that we’ve turned a corner for the better. But I’ve been around long enough to be skeptical, and cynical – but that’s my nature.

Q: What about Obama? Do you think he will make a discernible difference?
A: I find it kind of sad in some ways that people are so overwhelmingly – you see this look of hope in the eyes of people that are staring at Obama and looking to him for leadership and for answers. Have we got nothing inside of ourselves? We seem to be looking for any kind of externals.

Q: But after 10 years of Bush and Cheney – and things like the wars and subprime mortgages and creationism – do you blame them? I mean, there were people running the greatest nation on Earth who believed that dinosaurs and humans coexisted.
A: Well, that is true. And when it’s a movement it’s dangerous. But that said, when I see the pronouncements of scientists for instance about which species of hominid was here first, I begin to think that none of them have any clue really [laughs]. Céline once said – and I’m paraphrasing here – that when you look into the mystery of it, all you see is more mystery.

Salvatore Difalco is, among many things, senior writer for TORO and the author of Black Rabbit & Other Stories.

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