An Interview with Author Mark Polanzak on his Genre-Bending Memoir-Novel POP!
POP!, the terrific new memoir….
POP!, the terrific new novel….
POP!, the terrific new book by Mark Polanzak, is a work of literature that's difficult to define—at least, it’s difficult to decide where it belongs on the bookstore shelf.
One part memoir, one part novel, one part fictionalized memoir, all parts fascinating writing, POP! is a meditation on the death of Polanzak’s father nearly twenty years ago, when the author was a teenager. It’s a record of how, over the years, Polanzak’s grief has come through in his art, and how he has used art to come through his grief.
A lifelong devotee of experimental styles, Polanzak struggled for years to find just the right form for the work. The final hybrid of genres ultimately was the only satisfactory way to fully capture his relationship with his father. POP! is, in turn, light and dark, clever and harrowing, absurd and confessional; on one page full of jokes, on the next riffing on this or that innovative style; then, on the next, plunging back into firsthand, nightmarish grief.
Polanzak took some time to tell us how the book came about, and how it ultimately found a publisher.
First, let me say the length of POP! is just to my taste—I can’t resist a book in the low 200s. Your style is lucid and clean too, which made it all the more ideal for rapid consumption. I read it in a sitting and a half. Did you intentionally keep it short?
I love short books. I also love the short chapter. Vonnegut once said he liked his books short because he wanted the people who were busy running the world to have time to read them in an afternoon. Some people deserve the extra pages, like Donna Tartt. But most of the time, shorter is better.
Let’s talk about the book’s experimental form. There are three genres at work here: (1) fiction you wrote about your father’s death, which you then analyze in the book; (2) fictionalized memoir; and (3) straight memoir. I felt like I was watching a self-directed documentary about a filmmaker’s attempts to make a movie, his fits and starts, his incomplete works, and so on.
That totally appeals to my brain; I would go see that movie. It’s like, hey, I am struggling with this—here’s my attempt at it. You can see all the false starts, the hesitations. It’s about all the short stories that failed, that didn’t have the right energy. And all of those attempts at art are actually me dealing with the past.
But why not just pick one art form, fiction or memoir? Is there a problem with the forms themselves?
I’m not going to blame the forms. It was much more an issue with me. I had developed this idea of what fiction should be: fabulist, absurdist, magical realist. That’s the stuff that’s aesthetically interesting to me. I don’t think I’ve written a short story without an experimental structure. But in my own work over the years, the death of my father kept popping up—loss, something missing. The stories were all little cries for help. Everyone saw the humor and the magical elements, but if I told them it was about the death of my father, that’s the first they would have heard of it. So I said to this feeling of loss: OK, you want attention, I’m going to give it to you so I can put you away for good. In the end, I decided on this hybrid form. In some parts I just needed to rip away the artifice.
Did it work? Were you able to put your father’s death behind you?
After I finished the book, my next two stories had nothing to do with my personal family struggle. I was back to using my imagination. However, what I’m working on now is bending back toward this. There’s a cycle I’m starting to see in my writing: on the one hand, the surreal and magical; on the other, exploring my own life directly.
Who are the biggest influences on your style?
Some of my strongest influences are those who never seem to bring their own life into their work: Steven Millhauser, George Saunders, Italo Calvino, Stacey Richter, Donald Barthelme. You only see their imagination and experiments. Then there’s Vonnegut. He has an interesting mix of the surreal and the personal, especially in Slaughterhouse Five. We’re seeing aliens and time travel, and also World War II.
As for memoir, I’ve read so little of it. It just doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve never picked up anything because of what’s in the book; I only pick it up because of how it’s told. Nonfiction—and memoirs specifically—are largely about the 'what happens' instead of how it's written. I loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, but those two memoirs are so much more about how they're written. There are great stories out there that just aren’t written well.
I’ve always been attracted to odd styles, riffing styles, crisscrossed genres. Another influence is the movie Adaptation, which does a similar fiction-into-nonfiction-and-reversed thing. That movie's mixing of fiction and nonfiction opened up a world of possibility in writing to me. It seemed very real, and it was very funny.
When I first heard about your book as a blend of memoir and fiction, I thought—oh no, James Frey? But POP! is not like that at all. I clearly know where the author stands, and where the fiction is. Have others mentioned Frey to you?
Yeah, everyone still remembers James Frey. I heard James Frey thrown back at me from editors a few times. But see, he wrote a novel and called it a memoir. Me, I’m not pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. It’s like I’m sitting at a bar with you saying, here’s what happened. There’s a lot of material here. Some I’m putting in; some I’m leaving out. Here’s some art I made about it. Here’s a photo. A memory. And here’s some retellings of what I went through. But you always know when I’m being real with you, and when I’m telling a story. It always cycles back to the real voice.
Tell me how you felt about putting so many real people into your work. At least one family member calls you out on basically trying to exploit your father’s death for artistic success.
In my understanding, if you’re going to exploit something, you should get paid a lot for it. My brother did read a story of mine, and said it was a bit too close to reality. He said I was capitalizing on it. But when I was writing, it was mostly to get it out of me. I never thought it would be published.
Any guidelines on repurposing real life stories for fiction?
You can’t think about how it’s going to affect other people when you write. After it was done, that’s when I showed it to the people in the book. I showed it to my mom and brother. They were very sad. But it actually caused us to talk about his death in a way we hadn’t before. I’d never expressed these things to them. That was a positive. A few other people didn’t like a scene here or there, and I took it out. They told me, I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I just don’t want it in there.
What about the road to publication? It couldn’t have been straightforward with a book like this.
I’d published some stories in a magazine and found an agent through that. My agent ended up submitting it for a year and a half. She took it to all the biggest places in New York. A few liked it. A few said, could you make it either a memoir or a novel? Just change a few of the names. But I kept thinking, maybe naively, someone will want it just how it is. In a few places it went to the very last stage, but they just didn’t know how to market it.
When everyone passed on it, I did think, maybe I should have made the changes. It raised doubts. I started to wonder, maybe the book just isn’t good enough. If it actually was good enough, they would have found a way to market it. Maybe it just wasn’t a book someone was willing to lose their job over.
But in the end, I thought, I’m young enough, I’ll write something new. So I put it in the drawer. Then a few years later at the AWP conference, a friend of mine suggested Stillhouse Press. Stillhouse’s staff all came out of the George Mason MFA program. They were all writers, all in the game themselves. So I sent it to them.
One day, Stillhouse editor Marcos Martinez calls me up and says, if it’s still available, we’d like to publish this. He raved about it. The other people there loved it. They saw a writer writing about writing. The reason the big houses rejected it was the reason he was drawn to it—what grabbed him was the hybrid form.
You’ve got an MFA and have taught writing for a number of years. There are some great passages in POP! about the writing process. Can anyone be a great writer?
Can everyone be like David Foster Wallace? I’m not sure. I do think everyone can write a great story. There’s a big myth about certain musicians and writers that they are born with a gift. But it comes down to work ethic. In the MFA program especially, it’s a crucible: it’s like, read this, write this, get feedback, write it again, read this, re-rewrite, get more feedback. In the end, you can’t not learn from it. If you have the desire, you will, without question, one day write something that is good.
What about genius? Is it God-given talent or sheer force of will?
Sheer force of will. Even if you had God-given talent, sure, you could whip off a masterpiece. But without the sheer force of will to go with the God-given talent, you’re not going to keep putting yourself out there. Harper Lee is maybe an example of this. She got the big prize, then stepped away. That’s one in a billion.
So in general, the message seems to be writers should keep at it?
The fact is, there’s a reader out there today for everything. There might even be a publisher out there for everything. There are so many journals and publications, you have to keep at it—go out there and find your reader. You can’t just whip off one story, then say you don’t have talent because it gets rejected a few places. Keep at it. Also, most prize winners have day jobs.
Mark Cecil is a writer based outside of Boston. You can reach him at mark dot cecil at gmail dot com.See other articles by Mark Cecil