Friday Feature: Interview with Mark Long
Each week, the editors of Jenny Magazine sit down with either fellow literary magazine editors or past Jenny contributors for short interviews. This week’s interview is with Mark Long, a past contributor of Jenny Magazine.
Describe your first publication. Where was it, when, and what was the piece about? How old were you at the time and how did it feel?
The first story I published was called “[truh luhv]” and was in the English department’s student literary journal where I was in grad school. That semester I’d been in my first creative writing class and quickly figured out there were three groups of students in it: desperate housewives with a tragic story they just had to let out (typically a divorce or dead pet); slumming lit crit students taking the class as an elective (and to prove to everyone none of this was that hard); and the actual creative writing majors. So we’d read each other’s stories — anonymously — and at least a couple of times during each class one of the desperate housewives would have to say, “I can tell a woman wrote this … because it really, really spoke to me.” That got pretty tiresome and reductive so I wrote a male-female relationship story — “[truh luhv]” — and when done I flipped the gender of the two main characters without changing anything else. When we discussed it in class, sure enough, one of the housewives said the story had to have been written by a woman because it really, really spoke to her. So for about five seconds I felt pretty great, having vindicated my own sense of self-righteousness and superiority.
Then one of the creative writing majors in the class — a woman I had a crush on but didn’t want anything to do with me — said, while giving me the stink eye, “Well, I don’t think a woman wrote this, but maybe a gay man.” That got a big laugh from all the lit crit students, especially as she was their goddess. Ebullience was replaced by a sinking feeling that all my efforts had only proven that I was a big jackass. Nothing much has changed.
What inspired your piece in the Jenny?
Last summer I rode my motorcycle out to the West Texas town where I was born, although I hadn’t been out there in years and years, and figured there should be some sort of essay to be gotten out of it, whatever that might end up being.
What got you into writing?
Everyone in my family was a big reader, so from the beginning books were always important. At night when I was a little kid, my dad would read his old brown back Hardy Boys books to me — using different voices for each of the characters — and I remember feeling so absolutely desperate to learn how to read so I didn’t need an intermediary between me and the book. From there, it was a short jump to thinking that being able to write — creating something out of only your own mind, out of thin air, out of nothing — was like knowing how to do the best magic trick in the world.
What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?
I like the fact that writing forces me to make sense — or at least to try to make sense — of both myself and the world I live in. When I was in college I thought I’d write fiction, but since then I’ve gravitated toward creative nonfiction.
What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?
When it comes to short fiction, I can read Ray Carver, Richard Ford, and Larry Brown (his novella 92 Days is the best ever in detailing the recursive agony of writing and rejection and sacrifice) every day. Jane Smiley, Charles Bukowski, and Daniel Woodrell (especially his country noir series) have novels I never get tired of rereading. Plus, Pete Gent’s North Dallas Forty. That was his only good book, but it’s both a great read and seminal in being the first to deconstruct the myth of professional football players. And there’s always Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood. As for nonfiction, lately I’ve been going back to reread essays by Orwell and Montaigne. Reading them is like having a conversation with a best friend.
What’s your proudest moment as an author?
It was years ago when I had the story “Recipe” picked up by RE:AL. It was on the list of publications read every year by the Best American Short Story editors, so I felt like I’d won a golden lottery ticket. Plus, the story was about baking a quiche, a red Ford Mustang convertible, and the dying apple tree in my grandparents’ back yard, a pretty potent combination.
How has your writing developed over time?
When I was younger, I thought I was super funny, insightful, and delightfully cynical, and so I wrote a lot of stories and essays using a point of view modeled on the narrator’s voice in Ray Carver’s “Cathedral.” But, I was trying too hard to prove how “smart” I was, and all these pieces came across as being incredibly mean spirited. These days I’m shooting for a flatter affect language-wise as I think my point of view still comes across plenty clear.
Are you currently working on anything?
Right now the spring semester is almost over, and I’ll have a jump of at least two months without teaching — maybe even the whole summer — so I want to knock out a lot more creative nonfiction pieces. In particular, I’ve been working sporadically on an essay about being a smartass growing up in Texas, inspired by Richard Ford’s “In the Face,” that I want to finally finish.
What’s your writing process?
During the semesters I’m teaching — which is almost all year round — it’s hard to schedule time to write as, on a daily basis, I’m usually preparing to teach, teaching, or recovering from teaching. So I try to be as deliberate as possible about writing as much as I can during the breaks between semesters and in the summer, especially if I’m not teaching both summer sessions.
When I’m writing a creative nonfiction piece, I’ll have a general subject or a memory or experience I’ll begin with, but never any real idea of where it’s headed. Then I’ll write at least five thousand words, basically everything I have to say until I have nothing left to say. At this point I’m not worrying about structure or language or any kind of formal elements. It’s more like directed freewriting than anything else to just get as much down on the page as I can. By the end I’ll usually have a better idea of what the essay seems to be about. (Or sometimes I still don’t know what it’s about, so I’ll just put the whole thing aside and move on to the next subject I’m interested in writing about.)
I’ll print the whole thing out and make a list/outline of all the sections in it to see how to reorder the content I’m keeping and identify what parts need to be dropped out entirely. By then I know which sections need to be punched up content-wise and which ones need to be shortened, and what final content needs to be produced to go here and there. Finally, I’ll go through sentence by sentence tightening up the wording absolutely as much as I can.
What are you currently reading?
Right now I’m alternating between Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night and Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes by Daniel Everett. The next book I want to read is Barbarian Days by William Finnegan as my goal is to convert enough of my work to being online so I can move to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua and learn how to surf.
Have you ever co-written something with another author? If so, what was that experience like?
I’ve done a lot of editorial work — especially during my stint as a book publisher — but nothing in terms of a shared writing credit as opposed to reworking another author’s text for its publication under their name alone.
Have you ever worked with a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?
Writing and words are the thing. Plus, I’m an only child and writing is a pretty solitary experience, and I like the fact with writing I get to run the show without having to deal with anyone else.
Mark Long’s story “Dark Matter” can be found in Issue 9 of Jenny Magazine.
Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.