Today I welcome a very talented and accomplished man who is not only a writer, but an editor and teacher as well. His novel In the Chameleon’s Shadow was honored with a gold medallion award by the Book Readers Appreciation Group. His short fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in literary magazines for more than two decades, including The Bloomsbury Review, Dogwood, Fugue, perContra, and The Talking River Review. He has taught writing at the university level for much of his career, where he also directed a nationally recognized writers’ conference, a speaker series, and an academic writing program. Please help me to welcome, Mark Hummel.
IDI – Mark, what works for you? Give us a rundown of your ‘writing process’ from beginning to finished product.
MH – I’m a bit of a fanatic about both writing process and writer’s tools. Perhaps I’m just something of a borderline obsessive or maybe it is because I have taught creative writing for ages and ages and have always tried to help students find reliable routines to help them become productive. Lastly, perhaps it is simply because I am old school, as my process will evidence.
I still write first drafts in long hand, only using yellow legal sized pads and only using a designated pen. The drafts rage all over the place and get really bloody, so I could never hire a typist able follow the inky carnage. The first round of revision occurs while I type the manuscript onto the computer. I tend to work in backwards sprawling cycles, overlapping older text both as I write initially and as I type, so a lot of revision happens while the text is still emerging. Once I have a fully typed manuscript, then wholesale revisions begin. I often write scenes and chapters out-of-order, so a large part of revision for me is typically finding where materials belong, and I get a perverse excitement out of seeing how a text changes and how mystery is managed purposefully by the placement of scenes. As I get closer to seeing the whole of the text in its order, I read the entire book aloud to my very patient and insightful wife; the reading and the conversations that ensue typically send me into another round of revisions before I start to share the text for comment from a few trusted readers. Then more revision and rounds of rounds of editing (again with designated pens).
The real key to my peculiar process is in trusting the organic nature of the creative process. I never know the ending to a work until I get closer and closer to writing it and seldom know much about the specifics of its movement towards the ultimate ending. Most of my work starts with an image frozen in my head or a line stuck in my ear, and the writing is an attempt to discover the story behind that moment. Such a lack of control scares many writers but I find it both exhilarating and the only way to discover an authentic story. I actually like handing control over to the characters and the language, and putting trust in those elements is the core of the organic principle that guides my work.
IDI – What are you working on now? Can we get a peek, an excerpt maybe to tickle our tastebuds?
MH – I have recently finished the first draft of a new novel to be titled A Different Breath and am now actively revising it. At this stage it’s a novel that is still a bit difficult to label with shorthand, what, in Jackson Hole, we used to call the “chairlift pitch” as opposed to the elevator pitch, but the essentials are these: set in 1926, primarily in the Midwest and inter-mountain West, the story follows a traveling musician of potentially legendary talent, his lover/manager, and the odd addition to his mini-entourage, a priest, through backroom clubs and speakeasies. The story is actually a purposeful reinvention of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, which focuses much of its interest, like the Rilke poem “Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hermes” on the awakening consciousness of the Eurydice character.
Here’s a tiny taste from the opening readers familiar with the original myth as retold in the Rilke will recognize:
At sunrise on an early October morning under a sky heavy with rain, the trio walked a gravel road. They walked in silence, the scuff of their feet on the gravel muted as if they travelled in fear of something unseen or burdened with humility for some greater power. They had departed in the thick of a night so dark they might have been navigating the tunnels of a vast mine where they were the silver veins gathering the meager moonlight on their exposed skin. Their minds each turned backwards where blood welled in their dark thoughts, bubbling un-summoned as if they would now walk forever among the roots of recent memory. The memory weighed upon them and made them feel so heavy they might as well have waded through a quagmire of emulsified flesh and congealed blood, the night clawing at their ankles.
Despite the unpleasant darkness of the night, sunrise brought no comfort, for it only exposed them, highlighting their presence in the vast landscape. They now saw that the road on which they walked crossed graceful, unresisting meadows before climbing alongside gray cliffs into forests fashioned of mist. Rain-laden clouds were descending, threatening to return the world to twilight, and this sliver of morning sunlight lit the road like a ribbon etched upon the tall, silent grass that would soon bend under the weight of the rain creeping down the mountain slopes. The three appeared as immune to the surrounding beauty as they seemed impervious to the weather. They trod onward, indifferent to the first raindrops and indifferent to the failing light, that slanted, disappearing light that made the world seem turned upon its axis where sunsets accompanied morning. All the remainder of the living world had sought shelter from the arriving storm, emptying the landscape and abandoning the three figures that moved as if intent on entering their own dying shadows.
IDI – Favorite author, and why?
MH – This is the sort of question a lot of writers tend to want to avoid—for a lot of reasons, including the impossibility of narrowing it down to a single writer. I fall in that camp, for there are so many writers I study with care and hold with such high regard. That said, I do have one perennial favorite I like to talk about in large part because he is so seldom known by anyone other than other writers and editors: André Dubus. (He has a son André Dubus III, who is also an extremely talented writer, but my reverence is for his father.) Dubus defied the marketplace, always writing short stories and novellas, and later, essays, and he always wrote truth, the capital T kind of Truth (as opposed to nonfiction), stories that conveyed how people actually are, with all their dreams and desires, their warts and messy emotions. He always gets the interior of a character spot on, and all of his characters, like actual people, are full of self-contradiction and competing desires. His story collection The Times Are Never So Bad is one of the absolute genius volumes of 20th Century American literature. Other literary writers have always known his work but too few readers do.
IDI – Your novel In the Chameleon’s Shadow features a con-artist as its protagonist, a kind of lothario who, worst of all, doesn’t believe he is deceiving the women he preys upon. The book seems obsessed with the theme of lies. Why this sort of character and this theme?
MH – I am obsessed with this theme because, for me, it is a means to explore the larger terrain of using fiction (essentially an acceptable form of lying, of creation or deception, if you will) to get at truth. I mentioned The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien as my all-time favorite book earlier, and one of the things O’Brien has been exploring in his work throughout his career is this fictional concept. It is a running theme in his collection and in the story “How To Tell a True War Story” he says at one point “All war stories are true” when talking about stories that seem improbable or unimaginable.
I think fiction is a mechanism for taking on the actual world and the actual nature of being human. So my particular obsession within In the Chameleon’s Shadow is our capacity for self-deception. My protagonist, Aaron Lugner, has made his way in the world throughout his 20’s by lying, by living entirely false identities, but my real interest is in the recognition that he is at risk of believing in his own lies. He begins to imagine that the lies he tells have become truth and have taken on their own lives. Therefore I knowingly pair him with a woman for whom he thinks he is willing to change his behavior and who is most notable for her willingness to tell total strangers the truth, even if it causes harm. Yet she is also a character who, while she never lies to Aaron, omits major elements of her life if she is not asked about such elements, which begs the question: “Isn’t omission of truth a kind of lying too?” I’m not just fascinated with such self-deception within people or as a fictional construct but because I think we live in a world where we are surrounded by the purposeful deception of corporations trying to sell us things we don’t really need and political parties willing to spin any fact (or lie) to their own advantage and all too often, we become knowing participants in such deceit.
IDI – They say know the rules and then you may break them. Which ones do you find yourself breaking the most and does it work in your writing?
MH – “They’re not rules, more like guidelines.”—Hector Barbossa, “Pirates of the Caribbean”
I actually love breaking rules. But I have three RULES to apply when it comes to breaking rules: 1) writers must know the rules before they break them, 2) writers must break rules for a conscious effect or purpose, and 3) writers should break rules sparingly or risk ruining the impact of doing so in the first place.
For me, much of this applies to simple grammatical and syntactical elements that defy what really is often the stuff of conventional wisdom more than hard-fast rules, things such as starting a sentence with “And,” or using sentence fragments purposefully, or employing a one sentence paragraph. Like painters using huge objects in the foreground or building up texture on one portion of a painting that otherwise is muted and impressionistic, writers need to learn technique above all else and then be aware of the “rules” they challenge. At the larger extreme of experiment, I was playing with multiple first person narrators years before such work gained acceptance in the popular mainstream because of the genius of writers like Jennifer Egan and Elizabeth Strout (but two generations after Faulkner). But when I say “playing” I am consciously downplaying a central element of the text I was writing that demanded multiple points of vision to tell the entire story.
IDI – What’s the best advice ever given to you, and by whom?
MH – As an undergraduate I had opportunity to study under the Pulitzer winning writer and consummate teacher, Don Murray, a big, burly, Teddy-bear of a man, who said, simply: “Never a day without a line.” He knew many pieces of inspirational advice and had made a study of such advice from other writers his habit, but this was the mantra he lived by. I like how straight-forward and spare such advice is. The old cliché is the true one: “Writers write.”
IDI – How important are your reading habits to your writing habits?
MH – Good reading habits are absolutely essential to creating good writing habits. I encourage young writers to read anything and everything and to find the writers with whom they fall in love. In reading great books we learn the foundations of our craft. Most of us tried writing because we had long ago fallen in love with books. I really do subscribe to the old belief that writers should attempt to write the book(s) they want to read.
IDI – Who is the most supportive of you and your dream to be a writer?
MH – While I am blessed to have an incredibly supportive family and circle of friends, my wife, hands down, has been my greatest supporter and ally. She has never wavered in her belief in my work, nor has she once challenged the wisdom of devoting my life to such infrequently acknowledged work. In general, the public tends to accept artists as valid only when they have significant financial success or notoriety, failing to see the work and sacrifice that must occur to then accompany the typical happenchance of public notice. True supporters of artists defy this, and my wife has not only defied the doubters, she has stood by me through the constant rejection and through the confounding periods of trying to solve the puzzle of a book, she’s sacrificed time and leisure to provide me time and space to write. I, quite literally, could not produce the work I do without her beside me.
IDI – Define a great book.
MH – I think we might need a different great book at different points in our lives. Books can be like weather, and we can be in the mood for a different kind of book dependent on what we are going through in our lives at the moment or because of the realizations we are coming to in our own relationship to the universe. Still, great books always share the balance of making us hunger for the next moment to unfold and making us think in ways we have not thought before. Truly great books change something inside of us.
IDI – Hands down, bar none, all-time favorite book.
MH – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. This book literally changed the way I thought about the construction of a story. We talked about “breaking rules” earlier, and O’Brien does so in all the best ways. If readers know this book, nothing more needs said. If they don’t, they are reading the wrong kind of books.
In the spirit of breaking rules, I’m going to cheat and offer two more that I rank up there as well: the aforementioned The Times Are Never So Bad by André Dubus and the novel that comes close to perfection in language and structure, The Great Gatsby.
IDI – Your collection that is about to be released is titled Lost and Found. What does the title mean to you and can you give us a taste of how it applies to the stories in the book?
MH – The title really is a unifying theme throughout the collection. The stories, like much of fiction, often focus on moments in character’s lives where they are desperately broken or at risk of breaking, moments when the pattern of their lives will be forever changed. With great frequency in the book I also focus on characters who demonstrate the internal courage and stamina to find a way forward, on people who show great dignity in the face of tragedy or change. Not every character finds redemption in these stories, but the vast majority do, so, at risk of sounding trivial or colloquial, characters who have become lost find their way.
A good example of this is the opening story in the collection, a story titled “Sweetwater”. The story features Emily, a woman who finds herself living on the fog-bound Oregon coast and feeling entirely alone. Her live-in boyfriend has abandoned her when she becomes pregnant and she endures a miscarriage while isolated in the cold, stylized home of her employer, where she works as a nanny for two small children. Throughout the story she reflects on the warmth and love of her own childhood in the desert of Sweetwater County, Wyoming, and in particular, on the supportive relationship she had with her now-deceased father. Emily’s interior fortitude and quiet grace demonstrate that the warmth of memory that has cemented her life will also give her the means to survive her losses and move forward by accepting her own strength.
The stories in the collection approach the central theme in a myriad of ways, from comical stories, to one that employs a taste of magical realism, to steadfast, if stylized, realism like “Sweetwater”. Along the way, readers meet an eclectic variety of “lost” characters, including an aging farmer who must confront his past bigotry, a war veteran who thinks he is cat, an Iraqi engineer turned policeman trapped within a culture shifting towards fundamentalism, and a woman who feels she has become isolated by other’s expectations of her beauty.
IDI – Mark, on behalf of myself and my readers, I’d like to thank you for appearing on Ink Drop Interviews today.
If you’d like to learn more about Mark and his works, here are a few of the places you can find him:
Hummel is the editor of the nonfiction magazine bioStories (www.biostories.com). He lives in Northwest Montana. To learn more about him or read some of his work, visit his website at: www.markhummelbooks.com. You can follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/markhummelauthor) and on Twitter @markhummelbooks.
Ink Drop Interviews are conducted by Kathy Reinhart, author of 3 novels – ‘Lily White Lies‘, ‘The Red Strokes‘, and ‘Missouri in a Suitcase‘.