Interview with Mark Chiusano
Mark Chiusano is a Features Board alumnus who, during his time on The Advocate, published six feature articles in the magazine, as well as six short stories. Following Chiusano’s graduation from Harvard in 2012, his creative thesis, the short story collection Marine Park,was published by Penguin and received an honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Mark is currently an editorial writer for Newsday and amNew York (you can read his column at www.amny.com/amexpress)and is at work on his second book.
You were able to professionally publish your creative thesis, the short story collection Marine Park. What is it like to have succeeded so quickly?
So many of these things are luck. It was kind of…I was in the right place at the right time, having a book that was finished, and usually agents don’t want to waste their time on you unless you have a finished book to show them. The nice thing was, I was doing stories, but they were fairly linked stories, and it kind of formed a somewhat comprehensive whole, so I had a full project to show people. But you know, it was amazing. It’s one of those things that kind of happens in little leaps before bounds, I guess. By the time the book comes out you kind of forget how awesome it is. But the whole thing was so much fun, and so lucky.
What kind of relationship does it put you in with other writers your age, who are still trying to get published for the first time?
I think that most people understand that there’s no rush to getting published. Actually, a handful of mentors of mine, and friends, advised me not even to try to get this first book published…saying that it’s best to wait and make sure you get going with your best foot forward. But I kind of felt that this was what I had at the moment that was worth putting out. I think that it’s…very near a competitive game, but it’s better to avoid that sense of competition. Hopefully, one person is publishing your book, and another person is publishing another person’s book.
You’re not currently pursuing an MFA. How do you feel about MFA programs?
I thought I was going to try for an MFA. I was going to take a year after college [to apply]. I took the GRE, which was a horrible waste of time. And sadly, I think my GRE scores are about to evaporate. But I think, when I was graduating from college, I sort of wanted a break from the workshop environment, which I love, and which really helped me a lot. But at some point you have to go out on your own and make terrible, terrible mistakes, and not really have anyone to point them out so quickly. The other thing to say is that most of your readers in an ideal world aren’t college students or MFA [students] or in an academic environment. They’re usually in a working place environment. So it’s useful to have a sense of what actual occupations are like…what an office job is like. So I was kind of interested in going into the “real world,” or work world, and learning what that was like. The thing about the MFA is it gives you time to write, but through the Advocate I had already had that for two, three years.
How do you balance having a real job with having time to write?
It’s a constant struggle, and I’m figuring it out as I go along. But what I did from the beginning was do my writing first thing in the morning, for as long as I could—half an hour, an hour—then essentially forget about it for the rest of the day. Which is useful when you have a full time job. For a while I would write at nighttime when I got home from work, but that was just really depressing. You know, I would be tired, I would want to go out and meet friends. And if you do it at the end of the day, it’s easy just to decide not to do it, whereas if you do it in the morning it’s kind of out of the way.
Have your literary tastes evolved since leaving college?
I think in college I was reading pretty much exclusively fiction. And after I left college I started working at a publishing house for a nonfiction editor, so I started reading a lot more nonfiction. That’s kind of what I’ve been floating toward these days. So I probably read about 50 percent fiction, 50 fifty percent nonfiction. I feel like we read so little nonfiction in English [at Harvard], which makes sense. But now I’m sort of catching up from college.
Is that more because you enjoy reading it, or because you think it has a positive influence on your writing style?
It is definitely very crucial for research. I read a ton of nonfiction for the fictional characters I’m writing. But I also think there’s also something to be learned from the prose style of nonfiction writers—very simple, very to the point, just getting across the information. And it’s good to have that in your arsenal.
What’s the trend that poses the greatest threat to literary fiction today? What do you hate about contemporary fiction?
I think there is a trend in contemporary literary fiction to be preaching to the choir...and the fiction that I like the most is the fiction that feels most urgent, and speaks to the broadest population. I worry that if writers screw themselves even more into academia and the MFA path and are writing for those people… The last line of MFA vs NYC says something like, “eventually we’ll make writers of us all.” So, if you have everyone with an MFA that’s fine, and you can write totally toward MFA students, but right now I work as a journalist and I think that that informs my writing a lot. I enjoy being out of the world, thinking of real problems, if not all problems.
Who are some contemporary writers that you enjoy reading, and why?
I just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and I really like her. [Americanah] is in one sense a phenomenal inward-looking story. It’s a beautiful love story, but it’s also a fantastic picture of race relations in America, and also of immigration patterns in both England and America. So there’s so much in it; it’s such an outward-looking book, in addition to having characters who are incredibly real.
After you started working as a professional writer, what is the first thing you realized about the real world, that Harvard insulates us from?
I think that at Harvard I was a lot more interested in aesthetic concerns…character, how beautiful a sentence was, etc. I read the Jennifer Egan book, A Visit from the Goon Squad...I always really liked that book, but I think that what I liked about it changed after I graduated. In college…there’s one story that’s in the second person, and is very technically impressive, and I love that story. Then the last section of the book goes into the future and talks about this strange world controlled by corporations…. In college I sort of thought, well, whatever, unrealistic, that doesn’t have anything to do with me. But after graduating and being in the real world, and seeing what “real people” worry about, it became much more powerful. What you focus on does change, when you have to make money. I think that both sides of that real world divide are very valuable.
What is the best thing that you’ve read all year?
A really fantastic thing that I read recently is the Jimmy Breslin autobiography, I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me, which I have been sort of reeling from ever since. He’s a columnist, a New York columnist, one of the very first newspaper columnists, as we think of them now, and it’s a memoir about being sick and recovering. And he has a great line about the way he wrote this very famous column right after JFK was killed. He had to cover it, and the way he decided to cover it was to talk to the gravedigger. It’s a great story about journalism from the inside, and looking at a different perspective, which I think is useful in journalism class, but very useful for fiction as well.
One of the reviews quoted on your website says, “Chiusano’s voice isn’t fresh. It is knowing.” What do you think of this description? How would you characterize yourself as a writer?
What I feel like that person was trying to get at was that [Marine Park] is not a flashy collection, but ingrained in place and neighborhoods, and I do agree that that’s very important…that focus on the people I’m writing about, the places I’m writing about, that I’m trying to get at knowledge of them as opposed to a superficial, flashy picture.
Do you think you will continue to write about similar things? Or will you ever take on a project that’s wildly different?
In terms of the book I’m working on now…it’s mostly set in New York but is definitely much larger than the neighborhood of Marine Park. It sort of jumps back and forth in time…and even includes something outside of New York entirely. So who knows, if I’m lucky enough to finish a third book, maybe I’ll be outside of America. It’s important to keep changing and keep writing, but I am finding that I do always return in some way to Marine Park or to that part of the world.
Do you find the challenges of writing a novel different from those of writing a short story?
It is definitely a struggle. I think the hardest thing is continuing day after day…continuing to write the same story day after day. One thing I like about short stories is that you can follow your interest. Obviously there is a certain amount of time that you’re working on a short story, but maybe that’s two weeks, and then if you have a really good idea for a new story, you can just run down that rabbit hole for a while. With a novel…I’ve been trying to channel what I’m interested in into writing the novel, but you do still have to open that page of the novel, where you are at the novel.
What do you think distinguishes the emerging generation of writers from previous generations?
One thing, maybe, is a hopefully more inclusive group of writers… We’re hearing from more voices, or we should. I wonder…if there will be a move away from the small, precise short story collection—the idea of writing that first and then moving on to a novel. I wonder if people will be working on big entertaining novels from the beginning, depending on how tastes change. I wonder, are novels going to become something that’s for very few, almost like poetry in some ways…or will novels be this very important thing that people search out, because it’s the only form of media that lets you kind of drop into it without the interruptions of Twitter, or whatever. Maybe that’s the direction.
How has being a young, published writer impacted your social life?
I’m not so much in the sort of published writers scene, partially because I haven’t been invited into it yet. I worked in a NY publishing house for a while, so most of my friends were editors. Really most of my close friends are journalists…which is great because I think journalists are probably the smartest people in the world. You can so much from listening to journalists.
Is there anything that happened at the Advocate while you were there that you would like us to remember happened?
I love the Advocate, first of all. There were two readings in particular that I loved for different reasons. The first one was a Denis Johnson reading. He was the hero when we were there. He came and read…and someone asked him about his process, how he wrote. And he said that he made a pledge to write every day. He started out writing three minutes a day, that’d be his minimum. Some days only three minutes, sometimes more. But he could always find three minutes. And after I heard that I tried the three minute a day rule, and it totally works. It’s incredible. It’s a really good way to get yourself started. And I’ve written at least three minutes a day ever since then. The other one was a Jim Shepard reading…. I was the one who organized it, and he sent me a funny email on the before, asking if we were advertising for it, will there be any people there, and I said no worries, there would definitely be people there. But then I started to worry. So I started telling all my friends, go to the reading. And I got to the reading, and was letting him in, and was still kind of worried, and…you couldn’t move, there was standing room only… And he read his story “Boys Town” from the New Yorker, which is a pretty long story. He read the whole story, it was like 45 minutes long, and everyone was so into it. It was such a great example of how if you’re a great writer and a great performer you can hold a room captive by doing nothing else but reading your words.
Do you have any advice for current Advocate members who want to pursue similar things?
First of all, you’re in a really good place for it. I learned a ton from other Advocate members. I would learn a lot from them when we were in fiction classes together, but also on the side, reading each other’s work. Personally I borrowed techniques and tactics from other writers, and I’m sure they did same with me….But I think that really it’s just finding a way to keep writing. I mean it’s easy to not do it. So I really do think that writing everyday is a good tactic. Just keep going, and don’t worry so much about how much you’re doing, or if it’s good or bad. It does add up after a while…you look back, and you have a couple months’ work that really gets you somewhere.
In honor of the issue theme, what is the most dangerous thing you’ve done recently?
I as a rule am pretty danger averse. This is a good example of how risk averse I am: For a long time I wanted to jump into the tracks at the subway. It’s a fascination I have; almost every day I think about it. And a couple of nights ago I was waiting for a train, and you know, the garbage train comes by, there are workers on track. So there were probably no trains coming. And I thought to myself, this is the time! I can jump on the tracks, and pretend like I did this successfully, and you know, take care of that. And I was kind of bending down, giving it a shot, about to do it, then a worker looks at me and is like “what are you doing,” and I was like “sorry, I’m so sorry,” and I just walked away.