Interview with the author

Fiction that matters—An Interview with Mark Jacobs

Interviewed by Kurt Baumeister

Mark Jacobs (MJ) and Kurt Baumeister (KGB)

KGB— You’ve published quite a bit of short fiction, some of it in hallowed literary venues like The Atlantic, Shenandoah, and The Kenyon Review. And you’ve won several prizes for this work. But you’ve also published a few straight spy thrillers. Talk about the impulse to work in different subgenres of fiction—I’ve always hesitated to refer to literary or serious fiction as a genre, but many do so let’s go with it—do you get different satisfactions out of writing serious fiction as opposed to what we think of as “popular” work?

MJ— It’s good to connect with you, Kurt. I appreciate the question. A few years ago, I was disappointed to get a turn-down on a story from the editor of one of the prestigious literary magazines. He seemed to like the story I’d sent him but said that it was not really “literary fiction.” When I mentioned the rejection to my friend and long-term mentor, Robert Ready, Bob pointed out that the whole notion of literary fiction was itself a genre construct. And I think he’s right about that. I would love to see the bad blood between high-brow and low-brow go away. There once existed a grand middle ground of taste and interest that has attenuated, to a certain extent, in recent decades. Think about the hefty articles that Time and Newsweek used to publish. Think about the episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s when Rob Petrie and his neighbor Jerry make casual reference to Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain, which is a serious read by anybody’s definition. Here’s hoping the distinction between popular and literary one day becomes if not irrelevant then at least not dispositive.

KGB— So, when you sit down to write a story, you don’t have goals in mind for a particular audience or reader? You’re simply writing whatever comes to you and worrying about placement later?

MJ— A few times I have written a story with an eye to a specific magazine, but my track record is not good. Almost never has the magazine taken the story I so carefully crafted with them in mind. More generally, I don’t think about an audience when I write. It seems to me that a story establishes its own demands, it asserts the primacy of an internal logic that one discovers, teases out in the writing. My job is to try to get it right, or at least wrong in a compelling way. Publication is gratifying, but the bone-deep pleasure is in the work itself.

KGB— Tell me about winning The Iowa Review Fiction Award. That came early in your writing career, right? That must have been very exciting.

MJ— I was extraordinarily busy at the time. I had just returned to the U.S. after being stationed abroad as a foreign service officer for 13 consecutive years. I was commuting to the State Department, writing A Handful of Kings by hand on the train, and trying to keep up with three kids. I distinctly remember reading the citation about “How Birds Communicate” from The Iowa Review. Reading it, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at someone’s having truly “gotten” the story. The feeling was similar to an experience I had when my first book was published. I was back in the States on home leave. Talking Leaves Book Store in Buffalo, New York, sponsored a reading from A Cast of Spaniards. I recall walking up to the door of the book store at night and seeing a couple of reviews of the book posted on the glass. My first reviews, ever. I stood there in the chilly Buffalo dark reading them with a sense of pleasure that does not pale with age.

KGB— Those are great memories indeed. How old were you in that story? How long had you been writing seriously at that point?

MJ— When I was nine or ten, I told my father I wanted to be a writer. He was stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove in the kitchen, and he told me a writer needed three things to make it. If I could only remember what they were, I think I’d be farther along. In high school, we had something called “Career Days.” The exercise was pretty basic, consisting mostly of going to file cabinets in the back of the room and reading about different jobs. I picked two: writer and diplomat. I have always written but did not begin publishing until I was 30 or so. I didn’t publish A Cast of Spaniards until I was 40. The longer I go, the more time I spend writing.

KGB— Somehow you managed to have two successful careers, one in the foreign service, the other in writing. Do you regret not focusing more on the writing? Do you have advice for young writers trying to juggle a career outside the literary world with writing and family commitments?

MJ— Looking back, I have a strong sense of working very hard at both the writing and my embassy jobs in every country to which my wife and I were assigned. Neither got short shrift. People whose opinion I respect have said that one needs only to write, that a career is a distraction that will prevent a writer from achieving the most that he or she can. Other people, whose opinion I also respect, have said that working in the world enriches the writing, and that one only needs to learn to balance the competing demands of job and writing. Who’s right? Every writer will cut her own path through the woods.

As for advice: unplug. Few if any of us can write on a typewriter as Wendell Berry advocates; few want to go that route. I for one do not. I write mostly by hand, but I don’t want to give up the stupendous advantages of using a word processor for the second and subsequent drafts. But unplug often. Make it a habit. It’s not so much that you have more time in an analogue environment, but the time you do have is more capacious, more cooperative, more luxurious. Forget about writer’s block; it’s a literary conceit, and you can’t afford it. Don’t give your time to thinking and talking about writing; give it to the writing. On the good days, everything else going on in your life will accommodate your writerly need. On the bad days, you’ll look forward to another good day.

KGB— As far as your more literary work is concerned, you’ve published in large, prestigious venues, as I noted above, but you’ve also had work in many smaller journals, one of them, now, The Oddville Press. What’s different about the pieces that wind up in smaller venues? Are they edgier?

MJ— When I think about the magazines that have taken my stuff, I tend to think of how an editor, or sometimes several editors, deal with the story and the process. I value most the attention an editor gives to a story. I’ve had the good fortune to come across editors who know how to improve a story, and their involvement runs from judicious comments about shape and pace down to the placement (or the removal, or the addition) of a comma. Conversely, I am majorly frustrated when a magazine accepts a story of mine, and the next thing I know the story appears in print or online without my having ever seen page proofs. Of course, it’s gratifying to publish in a “name brand” journal, and those typically are the ones I mention in my cover letter. But really, what counts for me is the editor. The good news is that they can be found working in every sort of magazine regardless of circulation or reputation.

KGB— This piece you have in Oddville, “A Brief History of Bullfighting,” tell me about it? Is it based on personal experience?

MJ— The story is not based on personal experience. In “A Brief History” I do, however, shamelessly exploit a few things I know, a few things I have experienced. A two-volume history of bullfighting figures in the story, and in fact I was presented the books as a farewell gift when I was leaving Madrid, where I spent a couple of years as cultural attaché in the U.S. embassy. The narrator lives in Buffalo, a city down the road from Niagara Falls, where I grew up. At the story’s close, Parker Van Buren says, “The best thing about Madrid was all the unfamous spots.” I agree with him wholeheartedly. My enduring memories of the city have to do with coming across unsung locations where it was easy to stop, hang out for a while, and experience a moment of urban bliss just as Parker does. At any rate, I wanted the story to be funny. I hope it is. One reader wrote that it is “whimsical yet satisfying.” If that’s so, it achieves the balance I sought to strike.

KGB— It’s hard not to think of Hemingway when the subject of bullfighting comes up. Was he influential at all for you or is this simply topical coincidence?

MJ— As you say, you can’t not think about Hemingway when talk turns to bullfighting. In “A Brief History” I had no particular Hemingway story in mind. At the same time, his fiction is a touchstone, especially the stories. I’ve read him for as long as I can remember. His massive influence on American writing can be hard to make out, since we have interiorized so much about writing that he was the first to figure out.

KGB— I feel the same way about Hemingway in terms of his impact on literature. Literary minimalism has become so pervasive, and been refracted through so many writing generations now, that people are hardly even aware of what Hemingway’s responsible for, how broad his influence really is. They’re going back to Carver or Bukowski (or any number of others) thinking that’s where minimalism started, thinking of those writers as “literary history.” Of course, I think for many people today, Hemingway’s personality flaws and male chauvinism are too much to take; that’s part of it, too. Which stories of Hemingway’s are your favorite(s)? Why? Are there particular novels of his you favor?

MJ— The flaws and the chauvinism can’t be talked away. They’re real. Toward the end, drinking hard, Hemingway seemed to be playing a parody of himself as great American writer. But even in the downhill blur, he managed to write A Moveable Feast, which is a wonderfully evocative representation of the magic years in Paris. It’s an elegy, written with just the right combination of frankness and restraint, and the sentences show a reader why he came to be so highly regarded in the first place. Hemingway knew how to come out on top, of course. In the scenes with Fitzgerald, the latter comes off as needy and unpleasantly sensitive compared to the narrator, who has the considerable advantage of speaking last.

There are plenty of stories that don’t make the anthologies, and it’s rewarding to pick some of them and read without preconceptions. I am surprised, when I do that, by the variety of subject matter, the range of characters, the quality of the sentences. That said, my two favorite stories are among those that are frequently anthologized, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and “A Way You’ll Never Be." And the novel The Sun Also Rises has a monumental quality. It’s a book that does not lose its freshness. Read it again and you’ll come away with a sense that Hemingway has achieved something new.

KGB— Working back to your thrillers, you published two of them in the early 2000’s, but there haven’t been any more. Are there plans for more or have you decided to focus entirely on literary fiction at this point. If so, might there be a literary novel in the future?

MJ— I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, and then went back years later to work in the U.S. embassy in Asunción. My ties with the country and the people I know there are an anchor point not just for my writing but for my life. In the mid-1970’s, at a time when the dictator Alfredo Stroessner had consolidated his power and held the country in thrall, an idealistic, not to say naïve, opposition movement developed. Very quickly it was crushed by the regime. In my embassy years, I came to know a handful of the people who had been part of the group, which went by the rather prosaic name of the Political-Military Organization (the initials in Spanish are OPM). Some of them had been tortured; others were exiled; some endured both. To the best of my knowledge, no one has told the story of the OPM in fiction. Right now, I’m trying to do just that. In one regard, it’s an uphill slog. The movement itself was ineffective and short-lived. And Paraguay is one of the least known countries on the continent. A Paraguayan friend of mine says that when he came to the U.S. as an exchange student, he was standing in line to register for classes. When it was his turn, the woman signing him up asked him where he was from. He told her. She looked up at him and said, “I know you’re from far away, but what’s the name of your country?” Whether I can interest an editor in the story of the OPM, and the intriguing way it continues to reverberate in the Paraguay of today, is an open question. But I’m giving it my best shot.

KGB— That sounds like a very interesting project. When you talk about your foreign service experience, particularly when it branches into the less mundane—discussing a dissenting political organization crushed by a government, for example—I can’t help but think of Don DeLillo and the way his fiction bumps up against similarly heavy international topics (terrorism mostly) in books like The Names, Mao II, and Players. In his work, DeLillo evinces a general paranoia about the world and America’s role in it. Given your experience, how do you feel about America’s place in the world. Are we necessary? A force for good? How does that view inform your fiction?

MJ— Good fiction comes out of the deep stress of engaging with the world. That’s one of the reasons we demand tension in a story or a novel. But there are ways and ways in which to engage. A writer in South Sudan working in a conflict-resolution project steps outside of her tent at night. The stars of the southern sky have a cold look that is new to her, a first. At that same moment, a reclusive writer in a Memphis suburb opens his study window and hears a train whistle. He takes it in, takes it in. He closes his window. Both these writers engage, however different their engagement looks to us from the outside. Which is to say that paranoia, like much else, has its place in the curious phenomenon of producing fiction that matters. The trick is learning to use the material that serves you as writer, and you it. Easier said than done. Dostoevsky facing a firing squad not knowing they weren’t going to shoot, Kafka wandering the labyrinth of his Prague obsessions, an excitement-craving Conrad running guns for would-be revolutionaries, Hardy studying architecture while watching industrialization change not just the face but the whole body of rural England. They engaged. It hurt. They wrote.

As for America’s place in the world, in 1998 Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, spoke of the United States as the “Indispensable nation.” Albright was repeating an understanding of America that goes back to the Pilgrims’ “City Upon a Hill.” The idea of American exceptionalism has taken some major hits lately but has yet to give up the ghost. I was friends with the great Paraguayan painter Carlos Colombino. When Albright made her comment, Colombino heard something quite different. Not the proud embrace of a duty to lead; rather, he heard unbearable hubris, a tinny sanctimony, an unwelcome interference in the affairs of less powerful nations. He heard the equivalent of “the white man’s burden” for the late twentieth century. In response, he produced a merciless series of xylopintura works lampooning and lambasting Albright’s pretension, which he found insufferable. He painted them at the peak of his creative powers. They will be around a while. Paraguayan museum-goers will immediately understand what Colombino was talking about, in his painterly way.

So, there it is. Few Americans are skilled at communicating the values undergirding that city on a hill. We lecture. We address ourselves to a domestic audience not realizing, or perhaps not caring, that others are listening. We insist on our uniqueness and fail to make a connection with people like Colombino. At the same time, the ways and times we fall short of those values undercut our power of persuasion. The Marines in Nicaragua? The CIA in Guatemala and Iran? American complicity in the death of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo? The list of imperfections is long. Some call it imperialism.

When – if? – we recover from our current foreign policy debacle, compelling voices will assert the continuing relevance of those values: respect for the rule of law, a free press, the virtues of moderation in political discourse, the sanctity of free and fair elections. The subject of American exceptionalism will come up again. I hope that when that happens, we do a better job of talking with people around the world. Let’s nurture the bonds of solidarity, a community of interests, a framework of shared experience. Before we talk, let’s listen. Insisting on our uniqueness is counterproductive. We need a new vocabulary of engagement. In an ideal world, we may find some of those words in fiction that matters.


Mark Jacobs has published more than 130 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, and The Kenyon Review. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including The Hudson Review. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press. Stories of Jacobs’ have won The Iowa Review Fiction Prize and the Kafka Award. His website can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.