Interview by Matthew Walsh.
Mark Jordan Manner’s debut novel, Most Perfect Things About People, was published this year by Tailwinds Press. After a few publications in literary journals for his short fiction, it only seemed inevitable that a novel would be on the way. Told through various narrators, the story is a sprawling account of family secrets and memories, told over years by characters who are separated by geography and connect again through their own recollections of childhood memories. I was so happy to be interviewing Mark, whose stories were some of the weirdest, loveliest pieces of fiction I had read in a while.
There is a lot happening in the novel which all ties into this unpredictable ending. Were there any scenes or sequences you had to leave out of this novel that you might use for something else?
Nope. Everything I wrote to be included in the book is in the book. That was important to me when trying to figure out how to go about publishing the thing. A couple agents and publishers in Canada showed interest, but under editorial conditions (as expected)—i.e. omit chapters, replace chapters with others, focus more on this or that. But I decided to be stubborn this time around. Tailwinds Press—an American publisher based out of New York—offered a rare brand of artistic freedom, which, for my first book, felt more valuable to me than anything else.
What I was most fascinated by when I was reading is how all the characters seemed so different from each other. Their voices were so distinct. Did you base any of the characters on anyone you knew personally?
There were several times I’d aimed to do so, but always encountered the same contradictory problem: people I know personally are both too boring to write about, and way too complicated and multi-layered to ever do justice to. I definitely borrowed quirks, surface details, put characters in situations inspired by real ones, though.
In order to make their voices distinct, there was a lot of playing pretend: what would I feel, say, think, do, if I were person a) or b) or c) or d). A majority of the editing process centred around tweaking the thought patterns and diction of each narrator, as I came to understand their understanding of the world better.
Page 59 has a Daniel Johnston reference, and there’s a line that reminds me of the lyrics to his songs “you look like you’ve been kissing a sledgehammer.” The novel itself has these glittery moments of humor, but it also has this dark mysterious side to it, so I was curious about your influences in writing this book. Are you a fan of his work?
My girlfriend and I have an original piece of Daniel Johnston’s artwork on our wall. It’s a marker drawing of a turtle-looking character who’s just reached the top of a mountain. The turtle is saying, “Looks like we finally made it,” but he/she is met by a large, naked, muscular human form, charging toward the turtle, telling it, “Now you are found by disaster.” For the longest time it made us laugh. But there’s also something kind of menacing about the drawing. I like Daniel Johnston’s art and music because they show a battle between two extremes. Like he’ll write the most endearing, pure-sounding little pop melody you’ve ever heard, but he’s singing about death and Satan. I tend to gravitate toward and make “art” that shifts kind of erratically between light and dark. I think that’s how my brain works, and how I hope some of the prose in the book works as well.
Other influences while writing Most Perfect Things included the TV show Six Feet Under, the band Say Anything, Coen Brothers movies, To Die For by Joyce Maynard, and The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey.
Peter Pan also shows up a few times. In one scene a Peter Pan video tape is broken. What does the character of Peter Pan have to do with Most Perfect Things About People?
A lot of the book’s events orbit around the disappearance of a ten-year-old boy named Soccer Beally. Peter Pan was Soccer’s favourite movie.
There are many parallels between Pan and Most Perfect Things—themes of childhood innocence, the loss of it, violence, aging, or not, absent parents, grubby little kids. None of these links were planned. They never are. Any references, like the Daniel Johnston shirt, or Soccer’s love for Peter Pan, exist because I thought the characters would just be into those things. Not much thought goes into it other than that. Then you either get lucky, or unlucky, when thematic correlations start to present themselves; depending on how poetic, or heavy-handed, any one particular reader may find them.
I am interested in why you decided to tell the story through so many voices. Was this always going to be your strategy, or did the idea come to you while writing the story?
The idea existed from the beginning. I knew I wanted to write a big messy novel about a family, but I was also new to writing, so I didn’t have any relevant publications, or ties to the literary community. Formatting the chapters as their own stand-alone things meant that I could submit short fiction pieces to magazines as I wrote the book. Build a sort of resume.
The book confronts Anti-Semitism and focuses on the experiences of a Jewish family. They seem like an unconventional family in a lot of ways, but religion seems to bring them together. Was this something you wanted to explore in the novel?
I don’t think I really gave it much thought. I’m Jewish, so I made some of the characters Jewish. I do believe the Judaism stuff is important to the book, but when I was writing it, I don’t believe I approached the material with any more thought or concern than anything else. Probably because in real life I’m so ultra-aware of its weight—my grandfather’s holocaust experience sure as hell impacts me more than Disney’s Peter Pan—so to approach anecdotal paragraphs about WWII same as I would any other topic, be it losing a pet, working a shitty job, falling in love, I think helped prevent the book from overstating any one specific human experience.
On page 328, the narrator of the chapter states “because that’s what happens when the memory’s not your own. You see it wrong.” I thought that was a very poignant moment. Is that the line that sort of anchors the novel, and sort of pulls it together?
There are a few descriptions of people as dots (p.330) and another “he knew the spec was a girl” (p.122) and I kept thinking of the geographical distance between the characters. In terms of memory, was this a motif you were playing with, the idea that the characters don’t really see each other?
For sure. The family breaks apart in chapter 1 and then the book sort of keeps them apart. We watch each member live their separate life, only to reunite, as a whole, through flashbacks, unreliable memories. It sort of goes back to the Peter Pan connection, but I wanted to explore this idea of separation, how people we grow apart from then remain untouched in our minds—never age, their personality does not change (keep in mind, a lot of the book takes place pre-social media, before we could watch everyone we’ve ever known grow old and corny). The dots and specs represent people, or a future, that the characters are either moving towards, or allowing to shrink into nothing.
I know you started writing short stories in undergrad—I remember specifically the story with the mom and the bunnies—and being intrigued by your ability to make all your characters so different from one another. Do you think your next project will be a collection of short stories?
I’m actually just finishing up the final story for a collection called Injured Party. It’s my first foray into writing third person, and playing with genre. It’s been a lot more fun to work on than the novel. I hope to focus on a children’s book after that.
Matthew Walsh is a poet and short story writer whose work appears in Joyland, The Malahat Review, Arc, Bad Nudes and others. twitter: @croonjuice