Growing Up in the Company of Books - The Life of Mark Richard
Anyone who has read The Ice At The Bottom of the World knows what they are getting into when they pick up House of Prayer No. 2 – the latest book by Mark Richard, which happens to be a challenging and engaging memoir written in the second person. That's right, a memoir in the second person. But what else would you expect from the man who has given us such gems as:
Long-legged stretches of bone-white light come kicking through the treetops of the tallest shortleaf pines, ripping limbs and splitting crowns.
From out of the hangar comes a coo and flutter of pigeon reposition but nothing ever feathered flies.
The man can craft a sentence. And anyone who is hailed by both Chuck Palahniuk and Amy Hempel as one of the greatest short story writers ever deserves, at the very least, a read. In my case, a featherless flight. I flew to Los Angeles, where he now resides with his wife and three boys, to talk about the memoir, his past, and why he writes what he writes. I was surprised by what I found. Pleasantly so.
Kasey Carpenter: So what possessed you to write a memoir?
Mark Richard: Well, I originally started to write out of an experience I had in fifth grade when a boy brought a piece of wood to show and tell. A plank of wood that had a piece of leather tacked to it. We didn’t know what it was, we all touched it and couldn’t guess what it was.
KC: Like a pelt?
MR: Yeah, with carpet tacks. Just a piece of leather. Then the boy told us it was a piece of Nat Turner’s skin. It was a family heirloom. Nat Turner, when I was growing up, it was almost like he was still alive. He was the black slave who led the uprising in 1831 against his overseers, and well, all white people in general. He killed 55-60 white people within two days. And in retribution they killed several hundred black people, most of whom were innocent. And then when they caught Nat, they hung him, chopped his head off, and piked it in the crossroads in the black part of town. They skinned him and boiled him into fat. And from his skin they made trinkets and heirlooms, book covers, purses - and people in the area had these items - a piece of Nat. I had always been fascinated with his story, and there were still four houses in my neighborhood where the massacre had occurred. They were derelict, but you could go in them and one of them had a huge black area, a dark stain on the floor.
KC: Yikes. Did you read Styron’s book?
MR: Oh sure, Styron had been down once before for some research. He rode around with the sheriff drinking beer one afternoon.
MR: [Laughs] Right. Brooks was the sheriff at the time. One of the houses had been moved via a historical society. But even as a fifth grader, I couldn’t get my head around the fact that people were taking someone and slicing them up and making trinkets out of him. To this day the Nat Turner Insurrection sort of informs our town in racial matters, because a lot of the blacks would like to put up a statue of Nat Turner in the town square where the confederate memorial is, and the whites are like, are you crazy? He’s a mass murderer. People still talk about it. In fact, I read recently that they are going to do a Nat Turner Trail, where you can go and follow the route he took to chop up people, mainly women and children. I mean, in one place he went into a schoolhouse and chopped up a bunch of schoolchildren and put their heads in one pile, their arms in another. But all these stories, growing up in an area like this where you know the history, it’s exciting and terrifying, energizing, startling- everything. It feels like it is still going on, and in some ways it still is.
KC: So that’s what you originally wanted to do?
MR: Right, I wanted to write about re-assembling Nat Turner. But what I found out, even though I could find his Bible, his sword, the rope they used to hang him with- his skull is in Chicago – I couldn’t find enough of Nat to make it worthwhile. I also found out that the people who had these things weren’t too forthcoming about that fact.
MR: So I was talking to Nan Talese, my editor about it, and she said, then you must write about growing up in this place, and that is how the book got started.
KC: And why did you pick a second person perspective for this?
MR: [Sighs] I don’t know.
KC: [Laughs] A memoir in and of itself wasn’t challenging enough?
MR: [Laughs] It’s interesting, I wrote the very first part of the book as an assignment for an old editor who was compiling a bunch of essays: “Why I Write." And a lot of people from the South, it’s hard for us to write essays. So they give you anecdotal essays, and for me, I don’t know why I wanted to be a writer, but I can tell you what happened between the time I was born and the time I wrote my first significant piece, significant only in my own terms. It was a short story and it is hanging on the wall over there.
KC: This is the one mentioned in the memoir?
MR: Yep. So that’s how I began the story, but it became second person because I think sometimes when you’re a kid... I don’t remember my childhood as it happened to me. It’s like a dream. It happened to someone, it probably happened to you, but you’re not sure. And then the other thing was that, also typically southern, when you are trying to tell someone a story that is going to have consequence, or that is difficult to describe, it’s easier to enlist second person to draw them in. It’s an intimacy thing, and a distance regulator.
KC: That’s the thing I always find that, and it depends on the reader... it's either intimate, they take it in and accept it as their own, or it’s like some omnipotent voice somewhere telling me what you're supposed to be doing.
MR: Yeah. You have to draw the person in, you have to be seductive with it – use the second person as if you are talking with someone on a barstool. If you do the “you” – there are too many degrees of “you.”
KC: It becomes adversarial.
MR: Yeah, you enter into a competition with the reader. But with second person, in a weird way, it becomes participatory on some level. Now they’re in there with you. That’s how we tell stories. I mean, back in Texas, when people ask you, "Kasey, how did you go about wrecking your truck," you’ll say, “Well, you know how you come into there and you take that turn, you remember that?” You, you, you – you make the listener complicit, they see your point of view. Now you know why my truck is upside down.
KC: I don’t think I’ve ever read a second person memoir.
MR: I don’t know of one.
KC: I mean, Bright Lights, Big City isn’t a memoir per se.
MR: No, but I do remember really liking that book.
KC: Oh yeah, and I really like second person point of view. One of my favorites that I wrote was in second person. To me, it seems more intimate.
MR: And also sometimes it just comes down to having a choice. I hate “I” – “I” is so claiming, I, I, I, me, me, me – Amy Hempel calls memoirs “ME-mores”, and I think she’s right. I don’t think the “I” is that interesting, and truthfully, I don’t trust the “I” – and then third person? You’re gonna write a memoir in third person? That’s way too much distance.
KC: Bob Dole doesn’t care for that.
KC: So let’s talk about your childhood, the whole physical ailment thing, though physical ailment is kind of a reduction. Your constant hospitalization, your surgeries, and your inability to walk without someone noticing something isn’t quite right- I think that is one of the three key things in the book that define you as a writer, and as a human being.
MR: Yeah, I think about the physicality of it. People ask me about it all the time. I talked to some USC students about this yesterday, and I said, the place that I’ve come to on this is that I wouldn’t wish my life on anybody, and I wouldn’t trade mine for anyone else’s. I think that’s just how you have to look at it. It was a blessing. But as one girlfriend astutely put it, it also kept me from being a bigger asshole than I already am. Probably kept me from going into law school. Challenged me, you know? You can’t cry about it, it is what it is. It defines you. The key is what YOU decide to do about it. What you choose to do with it. I’m aware- maybe because I’m a writer, maybe because I’ve read a lot- that there have been so many forks in the road in my life, and I took some bad ones. But I could’ve been a raging alcoholic and blamed everything on my physicality and drank away the pain. Like those old guys we saw at the bar at 2pm with nothing to do but argue about nothing. You could be that guy, you know? And you become those guys in little small steps. I don’t really dwell on my physicality that much, I mean, my friends along the way said, if you didn’t have that you wouldn’t be you. They say the way you walk around, that’s you…
KC: It’s one of those things nobody wants to say, but that’s the truth of the matter.
MR: Yeah, it is what it is. I don’t... in a lot of good ways, being bed ridden for all those years, I read books. I’ve grown up in the company of books. It didn’t occur to me early on that I should be a writer -that came later. But I read the entire Franklin city library in a body cast. For all those years. It’s not a bad thing. A lot of writers have convalescing childhoods in their past.
KC: Some forced acquaintance with books that gets them down that path. Because typically a child doesn’t say, “Hey, I want to read nine books today.”
KC: So I said there were three things in this book that shaped you in a great way. To me, the second one was your father.
MR: Yeah, and I write about it a lot. All the clichés are true about fathers and fatherhood.
KC: Especially concerning their relationships with their sons.
MR: [Laughs] Yes. I have three sons right now… [pauses] The more interactions I have with them, the more and more I cut my father slack. He had a hard, strange upbringing, he was just doing the best he could, he didn’t know how to cope, and he was so antisocial.
KC: I wrote a note here that says he was a “dreamer." He was always searching for something. He was a standup comic, acted in plays, had all these business deals, these women, he had you, a son, but you were the son with the bad legs. It seemed like no matter what situation he put himself in, it didn’t seem right. Maybe he wasn't so much a dreamer. Maybe a malcontent.
MR: I think that’s more accurate. I just think he was misplaced. You know, his parents didn’t really have a place for him in their house; he was an only child of two people who had him late in life. His father was gone a lot, and when he was home he was out hunting and didn’t want to be home, and his mother was just domineering and thought she deserved better since she came from a family in Mississippi who had money and lost it in the civil war, which in their minds was insult to injury. He just never had a place in the world, and when I look back, he was always trying to find a community, whether it was in forestry, or acting, or whatever – I think he never realized that he was most happy just being alone. He never seemed to be happy with the group he was with at any given time. He would occasionally have glimpses of happiness, but he’d always be looking past that to something else. I feel bad for him. I think he was a tortured guy. Like once I went to see his second wife, in a whole different city, the house that they lived in was almost identical to my mother’s house, the yard was landscaped just like the other house, the same trees and shrubs were planted…
KC: So as much as he hated your mother’s house, he duplicated it.
MR: He duplicated it.
MR: So he didn’t know. He was lost.
KC: That’s kind of what I got. Just running around trying to figure out where to fit in.
KC: So at thirteen you were a radio DJ…
MR: You know what’s funny? You are the only person who’s ever interviewed me here, in my office. I’ve got, let me see if I can find it… hold on. Here it is.
MR: Yeah, there was some sort of form where if you sent Atlantic Records your top ten rotation... my friend just fabricated one, I think, and put Roundabout by YES in there and sent it off. And it just came, so... Yeah that was cool. You know how you have recurring dreams? I have this recurring bad dream that I’m back at the little radio station, and you have two turntables and a microphone, all the dials on one side, the gauges, two tape decks, records, all this stuff, and you’re doing everything, there’s no engineer, and your often the only person there, and the last record is spinning down and it’s time to do the news, and you haven’t ripped the news off of the teletype that’s down the hall.
KC: …and there’s just no time.
MR: [Smiles] And there’s just no time. And you go in there and you start looking through the teletype and it’s all just farm reports and all this other crap, and there’s no news, and you can hear the record going click-click, click-click…
KC: And that gets you out of bed in the morning in cold sweat?
MR: Yes. And I’m like, Jesus Christ, that was forty years ago. I have that dream all the time.
KC: Something else, not the third element to my previous theory, but I thought the fact that the DA and the town Preacher lived on the same street, your street, was pretty profound.
MR: [Smiles] Yup. They lived directly across the street from each other.
KC: A pretty clear church and state vibe I imagine.
KC: And you were friends with both of their sons, and had this pretty unique balance.
MR: Well the attorney’s sons were a little bit older. I got to know his sons later in life, though one of his sons, I used to wear his hand-me-downs. Back in the south, clothes had no social stigma, they were just handed down. They moved around the neighborhood. His younger son became a judge. The Baptist minister across the street had four sons, and I was smack in the middle of those guys, so I grew up more in their house than even my own. They were the Baptist preachers kids, so they were generally the worst behaved.
KC: The preacher’s kids are always the worst, that’s a fact.
MR: And they always had people coming through. I mean they were always – it was a small town in the south, so people visiting from out of town was a big deal back then, and the preacher would have visiting theologians or people coming in for counsel about their “challenged children” or alcoholism. The preacher’s house was full of interesting people. He was from northern Virginia, so he knew a lot of government people – it was fun to be at that house. Besides the fact that there was always something going on in the background with his sons and I. [Grins]
KC: It seems that despite all the negativity and challenge that you faced, you had an awful lot of encouragement, not necessarily or specifically in writing, but just towards you as a kid, as a human being.
MR: I think that’s right, I think the preacher for one…
KC: I love the part where he comes and pulls you out of jail.
MR: More than once, mind you. There are some incidents that aren’t in the book [Grins]. He literally got on his knees once and begged a guy not to prosecute us. Of course we paid for that dearly later.
KC: Of course.
MR: The manager at the radio station where I worked was encouraging. There was an old bachelor and his unmarried sisters who lived next door to us, and they were very encouraging. It’s funny in a small town like that, the axiom is true that anyone in town can punish you. Anyone could spank you. But you were also parented and mentored by other people. It wasn’t that touchy feely “it takes a village to raise a child” bull, it was more specific. The whole “it takes a village” thing seems like you’re shrugging your responsibilities off, whereas in our town, parenting was… sharpened [Grins].
KC: Do you think every writer says they don’t have what it takes?
MR: Oh yeah. I’ve never ever met a writer who said…
KC: “I’m the man.”
MR: I don’t think they’d believe it if they said it. Every writer has doubt.
KC: And that’s important isn’t it? Otherwise you can’t innovate or push yourself? Or is it balance, because if you allow it to crush you, you’ll never write?
MR: I don’t think about it. Doubt is something that I try to encourage my students to get over, because what tests you is not your talent. If you understand that what tests you as a writer is not your talent, then you’re home free. Because then the question is, what does test you, what is testing you? – and it’s your will. And I hate to keep saying this, but I just had this talk yesterday. When I went to New York there was about a dozen to 15 of us, New York used to be a small town, where people from the south would show up and find each other, trade jobs in restaurants and bars, and take care of each other. You know, “can you pull my shift?” And there were writing workshops. So there were maybe 12-15 of us when we got to New York, and at the end of ten years there were only two of us left – and we weren’t the best writers. But people fell off for various reasons. They got married, they went to work on Wall Street, whatever.
KC: You are the fifth writer I’ve interviewed who’s said this.
MR: Well it's true- will trumps talent. If you understand that then you’re going to be fine.
KC: There’s some guy out there flipping burgers who has the greatest story ever told…
MR: A genius, but he won’t do it. It’s easy to become a writer, it’s hard to stay a writer and to remain a writer – that’s the challenge. So this whole thing about doubt, my doubts aren’t about my talent, my doubts are about my strength of will. If I ever have any doubts, it’s more like, I don’t have the strength, I think I’m tired. That’s a whole different thing. All of my students can do it. They all have talent. You don’t need much talent. You really don’t.
KC: Folks, you heard it here.
MR: Read the books, type it up, and just keep going and going.
KC: That’s the truth of the matter. The third vein in this book was your faith. You had a calling where you wanted to join the seminary to be a minister?
MR: Episcopal priest.
KC: And they talked you out of it?
MR: Well, one guy did. An Anglican bishop visiting from the UK. I had thought I would be entering the seminary in the Fall, and he said ‘so I hear you want to enter the seminary’. And I said yes, and we were in these folding chairs in the chapel, and I had been reading one of the lessons, the Easter Pageant I think, and he said, ‘Why do you want to enter the seminary?’ and I said, I think I got the call. He countered with, ‘you‘re also the writer in residence here, right?’ Yes, sir, I am. ‘Well why don’t you just do that?’ I told him I didn’t understand what he was getting at. Then he said ‘You know what’s going to happen here at seminary right?’ Yes, I said, three years of literature and philosophy and theology, music and all this great stuff. He said, ‘Yes, and then they’re going to farm you out to some little podunk parish in Alabama where you’ll reach a hundred fifty people in your whole life. Why don’t you just keep writing if you have the call?’ I thought, well maybe… and again, nothing happened, nothing epic. It just kind of made sense.
KC: Is that why you kind of just left it at that? Like you knew you’d have a greater chance at influence this way?
MR: I felt like he was speaking the truth. And it was odd to hear someone in his position say “don’t do this." And to be honest, well... I didn't write about this in the book, but there were people there who felt like they had the call, and I’m not sure I was one of those people. I’m not sure I had the call to that extent, and I felt like some of them didn’t have the call either. Subsequently I’ve been told by a lot of Episcopalian Priests that if you can be happy doing anything else besides this, do it. So, I don’t know…
KC: It’s not an easy life, not that writing is…
MR: Well no, but I don’t know what the call is sometimes, I guess.
KC: You got to spend an afternoon with Truman Capote?
MR: Yeah, an evening of drinking. I was on the contact committee to pick him up at the Roanoke airport, and he wanted to stop at this Polynesian restaurant so we all had a bunch of tiki drinks. I had scorpions. Capote had a crush on my roommate, and he was really trying to make that happen even though my roommate wasn’t having anything to do with it. So that was interesting. He was regaling us with true crimes stories.
KC: And Jackie O?
MR: Really sweet lady and was really nice to me. She was the one who introduced me to some top orthopedic surgeons in New York that led to me getting my hips replaced. She intercepted the bills. I never saw the bills.
KC: Your background was fiction proper, how did you make the jump to screenwriting?
MR: People think it’s a big leap. When I was mobile in between casts, I was either at the library or the movie theater. Screenwriting is… I was always interested in film, but I was so far from it that fiction writing seemed like an easier task. But when I got to Hollywood I found out some people I knew from Ol’ Miss knew Robert Altman, and that was when I adapted a short story for him. And out of that experience of writing the screenplay I was able to generate a writing sample which in turn landed me an agent, and from the agent I got a TV job, and have been doing that for 12 years since.
KC: Current projects?
MR: A pilot loosely based on the memoir – mainly about faith, fathers, and race. A guy coming back to his town thinking things have advanced but finding they've either changed in ugly ways or hardened into polarizing ones. I’m sketching out a western horror movie. A young adult novel. I just finished work on a project for AMC called “Hell on Wheels.” We’re hoping it’ll get picked up. It’s about a confederate soldier who is hunting the union soldiers who raped and murdered his wife, set against the backdrop of the building of the transcontinental railway. Robber barons, freed slaves, frontiersmen, cowboys and Indians - the whole cast of characters. It’s a big canvass, it’s fun.
KC: Finally, what’s your one big piece of advice for the writer?
MR: Just sit in the chair. That’s the hardest thing. Finding the time. I don’t write every day because I just physically can't, between my jobs in TV and at the university. Plus a family. What I do... I do three things: One- I try to give a lot, as in put myself out there. Boy scouts, volunteer work, etc… it is nourishing and it is what you are supposed to do. I think that often my spiritual walk has been informed by doubt as much as faith, and only when you are in the service of others do you glimpse God working within people. And then two- there are the times when you must take... I tell my wife I need three days, I need to go out into the desert and I need to write, alone. And three- be at peace with these two things. It is your work, your calling. It is your duty to yourself, and if you don’t honor that - it will all go away.
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