By Steven Brodsky
Mark SaFranko’s readers already know this: Mark is no literary wuss. There’s no evidence of authorial flinching in his novels. The self-consciousness that swaddles lesser writers is nowhere to be seen. Mark’s writing has been compared to that of Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, as well as to some of the most highly regarded current “confessional” and mystery literature.
Mark, your novel The Suicide has been getting deserved recognition. Did you anticipate that the novel would be so well-received?
Steven, I have no idea how anything will ever be received. One of my French translators once remarked that “Nothing in publishing ever makes sense,” and I think that’s certainly true. Whenever any of my work appears, I’m clueless about how it will go over.
The Suicide is recognized in Heather Duerre Humann’s book Gender Bending Detective Fiction: A Critical Analysis of Selected Works (McFarland, 2017). There, a chapter is devoted to your book: “Detecting Gender in Mark SaFranko’s The Suicide.” Heather Duerre Humann writes that Ellen Smith, a fictional transgender former police officer character “comes across as complex and sympathetic, and her presence therefore both challenges and represents a departure from the two-dimensional depictions of transgender individuals which were commonplace in decades past.” Are there analogs in your life that you drew upon in creating Ellen?
Not really. I remember reading in passing a newspaper article about a policeman who showed up at headquarters for work one day in a dress. He was summarily dismissed. That planted the idea for the character in my mind. I think that it’s part of the novelist’s job to be able to immerse himself in the experience of a character — any character. Once I had at least a vague idea of what the novel would be about, I submerged myself in what I thought that character’s inner life might be and took it from there. I do believe, by the way, that Ellen Smith was actually the very first transgender police detective to make an appearance in a novel.
Did you intend for The Suicide to be as strongly character-driven as it is?
For better or worse, all of my work is very largely character-driven. In my estimation, literature of any value must be deeply rooted in character. It’s what I love about the best French films: you watch the characters develop and unfold without concern for pace as if they were in a novel. I say “for worse” because I’m not certain that character-driven work is the royal road to commercial success.
The book is mainly set in Hoboken, NJ, a year after 9/11. When did you write it? The place and time add to the tension experienced by the protagonist, Detective Brian Vincenti, do you agree?
Absolutely, though the events of 9/11 aren’t absolutely necessary to the story. I happened to be living in Hoboken around that time, so I had a feel for the atmosphere of the city. My windows looked directly out on the World Trade Center – I could throw a rock across the Hudson and hit it. And in fact my wife worked on the 55th floor of Tower One until just a year before 9/11. My son when he was very small played in the shadow of that building for years. I started writing the novel shortly after moving out of Hoboken in 2000 and the events of 9/11 wormed their way into later drafts.
How long did Detective Vincenti live within you prior to writing the book?
That’s a very good question, Steven, and one I haven’t given much thought to. I can’t say I thought about him – consciously — as a character until I laid out the plan for the book. And yet he unfolded quite naturally during the writing, so he must have been lurking just below the level of consciousness.
Does he still inhabit your inner world?
I’ve been planning a sequel for years and haven’t gotten around to it yet. This is a matter of allotting time to it, as I’m always in the process of writing several novels and stories at the same time. So I guess the answer is yes, Vincenti – and Ellen Smith — are both still there.
Detective Vincenti exhibited extreme tenacity in working the case of a woman who died after exiting from an eleventh-floor window. Does tenacity enter into your writing life? If so, how?
At this point I’ve travelled far beyond tenacity. I just wake up every day of the week, Sunday through Saturday, and go to it. I’ve been doing it for so many years now that it’s reflexive and don’t even give the process any thought. But I suppose the rigorous schedule speaks to a tenacity that was established a long time ago. And yes, tenacity still figures into the process in that I stick with a novel or story, draft after draft, until I come to some point of near-satisfaction with it. I’m never altogether satisfied, but yes, it takes a great deal of tenacity to persevere with something if you’re unsure of whether or not it’s working. Often you never know.
What gives you the ability to not flinch in your writing?
Another good question. There’s an old adage that if whatever you’re writing about makes you uncomfortable, you’re onto something good. I try to stick with whatever that might be.
How disciplined is your writing life?
Very, as I explained earlier. But there’s a looseness built into the discipline that comes from having to deal with real life. You have to walk the dog. You have to take the kid to soccer practice. You have to go to the dentist. But you always come back to what you’re doing. You can’t be too rigid or you won’t have a life at all.
How difficult is it for you to get into a state of creative flow?
Not at all. I can’t seem to get to all the ideas swirling around in my mind. But an ease with overall concepts and ideas doesn’t mean that you don’t stumble around over specifics, like the development of a character who suddenly appears out of nowhere. That’s when it’s more stop and go. Sometimes it’s a little tricky getting from point A to B, or B to C. You might have to stop here and there, but eventually you find the flow again.
What keeps your creative edge sharp?
Work, really. There is no substitute for work. When you sit with your story or novel or song or whatever, going back to it again and again to discover more of its possibilities, your edge stays sharp and more and more ideas occur to you.
How do you keep distractions at bay when working?
I don’t. I allow some of them in. Sometimes I write with the TV on in the background. Sometimes I listen to certain types of music. The dog bugs me to play with him. The telephone rings and I answer it. I’ve conditioned myself over the years to not seal myself off completely.
Are you ever adversely affected by immersion into the lives and circumstances of your characters? If so, how do you deal with this?
I try to keep my life and my characters’ lives separate if at all possible, but I suppose there is some seepage, that’s inevitable. But if that’s the case, I’m not conscious of it. My more autobiographical work – the Zajack novels for instance – are more likely to affect me. Then again, all of a writer’s work is autobiographical.
Do you take vacations from writing?
When did you know you were a writer?
Originally I wanted to be a writer of music – something I still do. But it began to seriously dawn on me halfway through college. I was applying to law school when I realized that I had to change directions. The notion had been roiling beneath the surface for some time until it completely took over. By the age of 21, my course was set.
How important was the possibility of publication to you when you started out?
Well, I wondered whether I could actually complete something decent first. I don’t know that I thought much about being published in the early days. “Being a writer” was something that seemed very distant, like a star way out there in the firmaments. I’d written a lot before I actually submitted my creative work for publication. For a long time I knew I wasn’t ready, but I kept writing. When I thought I was ready, I wasn’t. The odd thing was that when I wrote for newspapers, I was published on a daily basis, but my creative work I regarded as something else altogether.
Our friend, the late Dan Fante, was encouraged early in his writing career by supportive words of Hubert Selby Jr. Was there anyone who significantly did the same for you?
It’s still hard to believe that Dan is gone. I miss hearing his voice. To answer your question, there was my wife. She believed in me and was supportive from the beginning. One writer who was supportive was the late mystery writer Mark McGarrity, aka Bartholomew Gill. But on the whole I had to rely on myself. And it wasn’t easy much of the time, especially in the early days when I had no belief whatsoever in myself.
Did you have a writing mentor?
Only on paper in the form of the writers I idolized. Dickens. Dostoyevsky. Celine. Henry Miller. Isaac Singer. Playwrights like Eugene O’Neill. Sophocles. Euripides. Simenon, maybe above all. Later, guys like Carver and Bukowski and Richard Yates. Paul Bowles. Women like Patricia Highsmith. And too many others to recount.
Can you tell us about your current writing project?
I’m always in the process of writing stories and novels, poems and songs and other things. I go from one draft to the next until I think they’re in some form of completion – and often I’m wrong. I’m working on two new Max Zajack novels that are quite close to being ready. A novel about a child prodigy violinist who happens to be a lesbian. A psychological mystery about a wheelchair-bound philanderer and his long-suffering wife. Etc. One of these days I’ll get to that sequel to The Suicide.
What’s most frustrating about your writing life?
It’s always the business end of it. Finding publishers and markets for my work. I like to say that the writing part is easy. You shouldn’t be doing it if you’re not champing at the bit every morning to get to it. But the reality of the shrinking marketplace? That’s an altogether different beast. That’s the really hard part.
What’s most satisfying?
Not having a boss. Being master of my fate for the hours every day that I’m at the keyboard. Being the Creator for at least a little while.
Mark SaFranko’s website address is: www.marksafranko.com.