The Pressure Cooker as Transcendence

image

Talking with Mark Haskell Smith

Mark Haskell Smith is my friend. I might as well put that on the table from the outset, since it’s the reason we first thought to do this interview. We teach together, and we also like to hang out and talk about books and writing, usually over a couple of beers. So with Mark’s fifth novel, Raw: A Love Story (Grove Black Cat, December 2013)—he is also the author of a nonfiction book, Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup — we decided to sit down in my living room with a six-pack and a digital recorder and see which way the conversation went.

— David L. Ulin

I. RESEARCH

THE BELIEVER: Raw is a satire of literary culture. One of the central characters is a blogger named Harriet Post who is—how shall we put it? Let’s call her an elitist with a heart of gold.

Mark Haskell Smith: When I wrote the first draft, Harriet was much more horrible, a pretentious snob. But as the book grew, I liked her more. She became the protagonist of the story and then I started to care for her, so I softened her a little bit. She’s still a crusty critic, though.

BLVR: She’s got an edge, certainly, although she softens as the book progresses. She becomes more three-dimensional.

MHS: Well, she starts having sex, which is another thing I wanted. In our culture, we have smart people and then we have the hot people. And the hot people have all the sex, and the smart people don’t. I wanted to show that smart people can have sex, too; they just have to meet the right people. And also that maybe the hot people could learn how to read.

BLVR: Did you start with the idea of writing about Harriet? Raw has its fun with literary elitism, but it also takes on reality TV, blogging, ghostwriting, love…

MHS: I wanted a kind of classic Harlequin romance set-up: opposites attract, like the brainy librarian and the hunky gardener. I was just having fun with it. Then as the book evolved, I started getting interested in reality TV. I’m fascinated because… say you’re a bartended in Omaha, Nebraska. And you get on this TV show, and all of a sudden you’re famous, but you’re famous for your worst behavior. Your worst behavior is encouraged. That’s what you’re known for, so what do you do when you’re not on the show anymore?

BLVR: There’s no line between private and public, which is a problem. That’s what happens with the character of Sepp, the reality star who is Harriet’s foil.

MHS: Yeah, you’re always playing that part. You’re encouraged to. I talked to people who work in reality TV, and got behind the scenes stuff about how they’re sleep-depriving these people and then lying to them, saying, “So and so said this about you.” To provoke a scene. You know: “Okay, roll cameras. They’re going to fight.”

BLVR: So you did some research for the book. Do you often do that for your novels?

MHS: I generally do research. For this one, I watched a lot of reality TV. I watched whole seasons of Jersey Shore. I like to do research because you want your books, whether they’re about Hawaii or about the cannabis world or Thailand, you want somebody who’s been there to read it and say, “Oh yeah, you got that right.” Because once they say, “That’s bullshit,” they’re out of the book. And it’s not that hard to do a little research. You find details that enrich your story.

BLVR: In Raw, as in a lot of your novels, you put people into situations that get out of control.

MHS: Right. It’s that pressure cooker as transcendence sort of thing. I like that. I like books with smart people in trouble.

BLVR: In some ways, Raw is consistent with that, but it’s also a departure. Here, your characters come from a variety of different worlds.

MHS: It’s true in the past my characters have lived in these hermetically sealed worlds. Their world becomes the world of the book. In Raw, I make references to shows people have seen or things people might have read. And so that brings it more into mainstream culture, which made sense for this story.

BLVR: Without going into specifics, you have a significant plot turn in the middle of the book. The novel looks like it’s going one way, and then it takes an extreme narrative shift and goes in a completely different direction. Was that the idea from the beginning, or did it evolve?

MHS: From the beginning. I knew something would happen. How it happened changed, but I knew there was going to be this element that causes people to go on a road trip, and that there would be guilt and fear and other problems, which would cause them to act. It would bring characters together in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have gotten together otherwise.

BLVR: They become different people, in a sense, because their concerns change entirely.

MHS: At the same time, in the back of their minds, they’re trying to spin it back to normal reality. I always try to play with the idea of identity. If you identify as Hawaiian or you identify as a New Yorker, and something happens and you can’t identify with that anymore, part of you wants to go back because it’s safe. Right? I’m safe as a reality celebrity. I’m safe as a book critic in San Francisco. But now I’m in Phoenix doing something I never thought I’d do. That kind of internal conflict is fun because for me, with a lot of characters, it’s about transcendence. It’s about finding something. That’s why I use sex a lot because sex can be a transformational experience. They go through it and find themselves either more whole or fractured in some way. But they are changed, and that’s what you want in a story, in a narrative. You want people to change and grow.

II. A GUY WITH ABS

BLVR: Interestingly, both Sepp and Harriet are involved in the parceling up of reality. They’re incapable of living in private. He’s looking for the cameras, and she’s posting about everything that’s going on.

MHS: Right, there’s the reality of what’s really happening to them in the moment, and then there’s the reality in Sepp’s head: “Where are the cameras? When do I get to go to the confessional and tell my side of events?” He’s still thinking the world is a reality show and he’s not integrated. It’s a sort of reality show PTSD. In the meantime, Harriet is tweeting and posting and creating this sort of virtual reality that has nothing to do with the real moment either.

DLU: It’s curated. Although in a completely different way than what they’re living through.

MHS: We take all these different realities for granted as real, right? We look at Twitter or watch a TV show, and we think, “Oh, that’s real. That really happened.” But it’s not. It’s all fake.

BLVR: You play with that also when it comes to Sepp’s memoir, which turns out to be good. That’s what gets everything rolling, Harriet’s suspicion that it must have been ghostwritten, which, of course, it was.

MHS: That was part of the big what-if. Because when Snooki writes these books, maybe you look at a Snooki book and wonder, “What if Michael Chabon had written this book just for the fuck of it?” And you open Snooki’s book and it’s amazing, one of the best-written books you’ve ever read.

BLVR: It also plays into the literary satire because Curtis, the ghostwriter, is a talented writer, just like hundreds of skilled writers who are getting nowhere. He takes the gig because he needs it, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to write badly.

MHS: Right, he’s going to write it as best he can.

BLVR: Your books tend to have more than one main character, and overlapping plotlines.

MHS: Like a big Venn diagram. It all just turns brown. For me, it’s just natural. I love that Rashomon kind of setup, where something happens and seven different people see it seven different ways. Some are unreliable, some are spot on, and everyone has their own agenda. That way you’re really actually getting into people and psychology and character. If you have one main character and everyone else is just like the UPS man, who comes to the door and leaves, that’s not as interesting as having the UPS man’s backstory and his point of view.

BLVR: It also opens up the novels to serendipity. I’m thinking of the Mormons in Baked. They seem to come out of nowhere, but eventually they become central to the narrative. As a reader, it keeps you on your toes.

MHS: Well, in Baked, I set myself this fake challenge. I wanted a guy to get shot and then I wanted all the witnesses, all the people who see it — the paramedics, the Mormon bicyclists who are riding by, some neighbors, other stuff — the rest of the book, they’re the main characters. It’s sort of a reverse Agatha Christie. All the suspects are there at the beginning, and then they disperse.

BLVR: Do you often set those sorts of challenges for yourself as a writer?

MHS: Yeah, absolutely. With Raw, I wanted to write a three-hander, to write a book with three characters and see what happens.

BLVR: How much do you map it out? We’re talking about creating challenges or provocations for yourself. You’ve talked about knowing some of things you want to do. So how much do you know going in?

MHS: Not much at all. Like, say, with Salty, I was in Thailand and I saw this guy all dressed in black with stringy, long hair. He obviously had a crushing hangover. And he just was standing in the water, staring off into space. I thought, “Who is that guy?” And for some reason, that image just stuck with me. Pretty soon, I realized, “That guy’s a character. That guy’s a rock star on vacation.” With Raw, I saw a photo of Michael Phelps after he’d won all those gold medals. He was on MTV, and he had pulled up his shirt to reveal his abs, and a roomful of people were applauding. They were applauding, rabidly applauding, the fucking muscles on his stomach. And I thought, “What kind of world do we live in? Why are we applauding this guy’s abs?” I mean, no offense to Michael Phelps. We like him. But he’s not smart. He hasn’t invented anything or saved people’s lives. He’s a guy with abs, and we celebrate these abs.

III. SURPRISES

BLVR: In the last few years, you’ve begun writing nonfiction: first Heart of Dankness, about cannabis culture, and now a book about nudism that you’re working on. What are the differences between these projects and your fiction? The similarities?

MHS: I think nonfiction keeps me sharp as a writer because it’s not easy. Sometimes when you’re in the flow of a novel and stuff is just happening, it seems easy. I haven’t had that experience with nonfiction. When someone says something, you have to think, Okay, let’s look at it. It works a whole other side of your brain.

BLVR: Is it harder to write narrative scenes in nonfiction because you’re bounded by the reality of what happened?

MHS: Sometimes it’s harder to make them as interesting. You have to be awake and you have to be present. When I travel or I’m going to interview someone, I’m like a fucking homicide detective looking at their stuff. I’m trying to take mental pictures, like what were they wearing, what’s going on there, what did that furniture look like? And then you’re also talking to them. How do they say things? What are their eyes doing? Are they shifting around? You’re trying to capture the whole scene so you can recreate it on the page. For me, I guess the real difference is that in fiction, you’re exercising your imagination fully. And with nonfiction, you’re exercising your powers of observation. For me, fiction is more intuitive. You’re just following the story and you hope it doesn’t suck.

BLVR: But I’ve had this experience in nonfiction also, that sense of the story surprising you. You think, “I didn’t know it was going there.” But then, in the midst of writing, you have that intuitive sense: “Well, here’s the next logical place it needs to go.”

MHS: And the best part is that if it surprises you, it’ll surprise the reader. That’s what keeps things fresh. In nonfiction, I try to enter a situation as openly as possible so I can be surprised. I want to be surprised.

BLVR: Your nonfiction has taken you into some dangerous territory. I’m thinking of the moment in Heart of Dankness when you get dropped off the road in the Sierra and have to trek, with an armed escort, to the encampment where the cannabis is being grown.

MHS: Yeah, in the Sierras, it was genuinely scary. I didn’t think we’d get killed, but you never know, right? So you’re just think, “All right. Fuck it. Let’s do it.” That’s also the attitude I’ve had with the book on nudism: “Everyone else is naked. I’m just going to get naked.” I’m a fairly accepting person. And it’s not like people are doing anything that weird. They’re hanging out and expressing their sexuality. Anyway, they’re going to make me do something I don’t want to do. So if I’m uncomfortable, it’s really my own hang-ups. Although to go somewhere where people have guns and there are rattlesnakes…

BLVR: Yeah, that’s more than just your hang-ups.

MHS: I trusted the people I was with. I don’t know why. They hadn’t done anything to earn my trust, but I had a good vibe about them. I mean, I try to do this in my novels, but it is the great thing about nonfiction. If you respect other people’s humanity, you can get some interesting stories and some really interesting insights into the world.

David L. Ulin is the book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

Photo credit: Martin Rusch