Ten Questions With Mark Zahn (Okay, Eleven)

Today I am pleased to bring you the first of a series of author and blogger interviews. My first victim guest is Mark Zahn, whose work is a bit difficult to define. He is a quirky, imaginative writer who dabbles in several genres, and his books are always guaranteed to be memorable.

Just as a side note, his book Earned Rum begins with what is arguably one of the best openings of any book, ever: “Somerset was falling from grace. He knew this was true because he was in a crashing airplane, and his grace was falling at 550 m.p.h.”

How can anyone resist an opening like that?

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AJ:  Welcome to A Goode One, Mark.  Let’s get started. I first became familiar with your name because of your work in fanfiction.  Do you feel fanfic gave you a good starting point, or is it something you prefer not to talk about?

MZ: I don’t mind talking about it all. Every writer has to start somewhere, and I started with fan fiction. Personally, I don’t think it matters what you’re writing, as long as you’re writing; you never know when an idea will pay off for you. Believe it or not, I’m still using ideas from that time (late 90’s) all these years later. I met a fellow fan of a juvenile book series in a Yahoo Group around this same time named Seth Smolinske, and he graciously allowed me to post my very first (and very shaky) stories on his website. This collaboration really took on a life of its own, and I ended up editing and writing for an e-zine revival of “The Mysterious Traveler” magazine. It’s that e-zine that really got my juices flowing, and I haven’t stopped writing since.

AJ:  Who are some of your other influences?

MZ: Oh boy. Well, how much time do we have? Like any writer (or even reader), my influences are myriad – and probably not limited to just authors. If we’re talking about authors, then my influences – to name just a very few in the interest of time and in no particular order – would be: Mark Twain, Howard Pyle, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pearl S. Buck, Jay Cronley, Joseph Heller, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Charles Spain Verral, Robert Arthur, Ian Fleming, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, Dashiell Hammett… and probably dozens more that I’m forgetting.

AJ: What made you go into self-publishing rather than traditional?

MZ: Quick answer… time! I actually tried the traditional route for publishing my books for almost a year and a half – and even had a couple of exclusive reads by two different New York publishing agencies, both for Earned Rum and for Young Poe (‘exclusive read’ meaning you give them a verbal agreement not to publish with any other firm while they are considering your book). After six months had passed, quite literally on the day the first agency passed on Earned Rum, I got an e-mail from the second agency saying they wanted to read Young Poe. In the end, both agencies said they didn’t know how to sell me, and that my ideas were not mainstream enough. Which I cannot argue with at all, if you’ve read Earned Rum, you’ll see what I mean! When you publish a novel for grown-ups, a book of Halloween poetry [King Pumpkin], a non-fiction work on Poe [Modern Poe], a young adult novel, and are working on a picture book for kids, you can kind of see where the publishing firms are coming from.

At that point in time – and even to some degree today, I think – the agencies wanted the next big series. They want a title with marketability that is going to continue on for six more books. I’m not that kind of writer, and have little desire to return to characters once a book is done.

Anyway, this whole process ate up an entire year, just for both of them to decline. It was disheartening, but part of the territory; you have to have really thick skin when it comes to this business – and I haven’t given up completely on submitting future works to publishers, if I feel I have the right idea to offer. In the meantime, it’s extraordinarily rewarding to see my books in print and as digital books as a self-publisher, and it serves as a great motivator to keep on writing. I guess it all boils down to: I’m not getting any younger!

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AJ: How does your family feel about your writing?

MJ: I think they feel a touch of pride mingled with ambivalence. They are very supportive, of course, and encouraging – but my books are probably not mainstream enough for them, ha ha. I think I’m sensing a pattern here… My kids think I’m famous, though, which is always fun.

AJ:  Well, you are famous to those of us who followed your fanfic work over the years.  I’ll admit to fangirling just a little bit here!

 Is there a project you want to write but haven’t started yet for some reason?

MZ: About a dozen of them! I have more ideas than I have time! My biggest hang-up as a writer is working on side-projects when I should be focusing all of my energy on finishing the book at hand. The children’s book I just mentioned is pretty much done, which means I’m going right into a juvenile fiction novel that I wrote a long time ago (which is part one of a planned series, he said, contradicting himself) that I plan on chipping away at until summer, at which point I plan on switching gears and starting on a brand new book that I’m really excited about. How excited? Well, I’ve actually made copious notes and written an outline, something I almost never do when writing, as I prefer to just ‘wing it’ when it comes to plot.

AJ: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

MZ: I don’t know if I ever had a defining moment in my life when that thought occurred to me. I have written for pleasure for so long that it just kind of seems second nature to be doing so. However, I can say there was no stopping Earned Rum once the idea came to me. I’m reminded of J.K. Rowling (who is a genius and I would never dream to compare myself with her in any way shape or form – I only use her as an example) who famously related how Harry Potter’s tale came to her as one complete story one day while riding the train. Something similar happened with Earned Rum for me. One day I was working on Young Poe – which actually was written well before Earned Rum – and suddenly “BOOM!” out of the blue the entire story of Earned Rum rocked me like a hurricane. The plot, the characters’ names, everything – it was all there for me to transcribe, if only I could type fast enough before I forgot it all. That was one instance where I started jotting down names and chapters and little outlines of what happens, because I was afraid I might forget something. It was kind of like catching lightning in a bottle – and I’m really hoping it wasn’t a one-time thing! The juvenile fiction book I mentioned earlier that I plan on starting this summer is rather similar. One of those ideas that kind of just wrote itself.

rum

AJ: If you could have lunch with any “big time” author, who would you choose?

MZ: Hmmm… a living or dead ‘big time’ author? If it was a dead author, I’d be delighted to dig up the old bones of any of the writers I mentioned above as influences; particularly Poe. I think it would be a gas to have lunch with Poe and pick his brain about writing. I would also do lunch with Lee, a snack with Stevenson, brunch with Buck, and breakfast with Bradbury. If you’re talking about a living author – that one is a bit trickier. There aren’t that many current writers that have had a profound impact on me. Tea with Ms. Rowling would be delightful, I think. I’d have a pint with Keith Richards, too – have a chat about his book Life and shoot a few games of pool. Or maybe a pint with Rowling and tea with Richards? Hell, they could both shoot pool with me over pints – we could play a three person game of Cut-Throat. As the youngest, I break.

Naturally, I would be delighted to have lunch with [Harper] Lee and discuss the new book – but seeing as she’s a famous recluse, I didn’t think to ask in the first place. Pints and billiards with Keith Richards is probably right out with Ms. Lee, but I would be happy to have a cup of tea if she’s up for entertaining a guest at her home. I would bring the cookies and maybe some hand-picked flowers.

AJ: I’m having a hard time with a visual image of Keith Richards sitting down to tea.  

What was the last book you read?  Would you recommend it?
MZ: I’ve read a ton of books recently – and I would heartily recommend them all. Again, in no particular order: Oliver Twist and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates  and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle, Around The World In 80 Days by Jules Verne, Travels With Charley In Search of America by John Steinbeck, and The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I’ve also read Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King and thought it was dreadful. Sorry, Steve (although I really liked Joyland if it’s any consolation).

AJ: You’ve got some eclectic taste in reading material.  That explains an awful lot about the variety of books you’ve written.

You once gave me some great advice about dealing with writer’s block, and I have to say that I have never looked at bananas the same way since. Can you share that advice here?

MZ: I’m not a big believer in the phenomenon of ‘writer’s block.’ It’s all about challenging yourself as a writer. You either have the discipline to write your way out of a perceived ‘block,’ or you cop out and say, “I have writer’s block.” If I’ve ever felt ‘blocked’ from creative ideas, I simply give myself something to do – a challenge as it were. Once, I set a stop-watch for fifteen minutes and gave myself that exact amount of time to come up with a short story – start to finish. That exercise resulted in “15 Minutes of Hell” from my book Serve Cold. Another time I happened to pick up some bananas from the grocery store for my wife. I challenged myself to write that into a short story, using the word ‘banana’ as many times as possible. The character of Bananaman was already written as some kind of psychotic fruit merchant in Earned Rum, but that exercise defined him and made him THE Banamaman – probably the most memorable character from the entire book. It’s not great advice, but there it is.

AJ: Can you tell us a little something about him and Serve Cold?

MZ: Well, now you know the origin of Bananaman. As for Serve Cold, those were, for the most part, a collection of short stories that I had written years ago that had some vague, rather uninspiring James Bond-like ‘secret agent’ as its main character. I always felt the stories were good, but only needed the right character – or at least the right NAME for the main character – to make them really special. After I finished Earned Rum, I was still on a creative high and had lots of energy in reserve. Looking to keep the momentum rolling, I came across these old short stories and thought, “hmmmm, these might be fun to revisit – if only I had the right… holy crap! Bananaman!” He stepped into the role perfectly, and was a fabulous way to end the journey of Earned Rum. Just as an FYI – I’m working on a bonus short story of Bananaman to be included in the paperback version of Serve Cold, which I hope to have out some time this summer.

servecold

AJ: What can you tell me about your newest book Young Poe?

MZ: It’s strange to hear it referred to as my ‘newest’ book, as it’s the book I’ve been working on the longest – I started it in 2008. Its title pretty much sums up what the book is about, but it’s definitely a ‘non-mainstream’ style of book (gasp!) I’m reminded of the book The Man Who Was Poe by the prolific young adult author Avi, as far as tone is concerned. That is definitely a non mainstream book about Poe that was published years ago – and mine has a plot that you won’t find on most Young Adult bookshelves, ie: no sparkly vampires, no dystopian battle-to-the-death games, no wizards. It’s very much grounded in reality – which, I admit, can be a tough sell to kids these days. It’s also a complex read. Young Poe is meant to challenge the reader, but its elevated Lexile level serves a purpose; I didn’t choose big words just to confound the reader – it’s a part of who Poe was, and how characters in that day and age spoke. The classic young adult book Johnny Tremaine by Esther Forbes illustrates this point perfectly. I don’t expect Young Poe to have the kind of profound impact on a generation of readers that Ms. Forbes’ book did, but I do hope readers enjoy it!

poe

AJ:  Mark, thank you so much for taking the time to answer all of my questions. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.

MZ: Thanks for talking with me, Amy! This was a lot of fun! Hope to talk to you again soon!

***

If you are an author or blogger who would like to be interviewed for “Ten Questions With –” please contact me at AuthorAJGoode@gmail.com.

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