Mark Wagstaff started writing at a young age, with his first published piece in a UK journal in 1999. Since then he has written numerous novels, and his work has appeared in Garden, The Meadow, The Piltdown Review, The New Guard, and The Write Launch. He won the 39th Annual 3-Day Novel Contest with off-kilter romantic comedy, Attack of the Lonely Hearts, published by Anvil Press. Mark’s latest novel, On the Level, was published in May 2022.
Mark Wagstaff interviewed by Sandra Fluck
You started writing when you were seven or eight years old and spent your childhood and adolescence reading books that shaped your later years. One such book was Alan Garner’s novel, The Wierdstone of Brisingamen, which showed you how landscape affects story, just as history and geography are integral to place. How did this insight claim a place in your lifelong journey as a writer?
Many books we read in childhood center on young people – people like ‘us’ – who tumble into adventures. Think of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island or Wart in The Sword in the Stone. Or young Harry Potter. Those are male examples, of course. As a child I read ‘boys’ books. The general point is that many children reach an age where they realize that their life is quite dull. They feel ready for adventure beyond the front yard. Those stories have exciting, unfamiliar settings. But it’s the people we follow, it’s their experience in which we’re invested.
With The Weirdstone of Brisingamen I was struck by how forcibly place can determine action. Alderley Edge is a wooded, hilly landscape, set among lowlands. By topography, it is a place apart, noted for caves and ancient sites. Because in ancient times, holding the high ground was a valuable advantage against enemies. The children at the center of the book, Susan and Colin, are pursued by evil forces that are essentially shaped to the land they occupy. What happens in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is what must happen in that place. It is driven by the spirit of the land. It is site specific. Garner presents that distinctive landscape as being active in the story. The land has a kind of sentience, challenging the humans that strive on the surface.
I grew up by the sea, in a hinterland of managed countryside between towns, in southern England. That landscape had been intensively worked and changed over thousands of years, yet multiple pasts endure. As a child, I recall climbing among the walls of the Roman fort at Reculver in Kent and exploring concrete bunkers – we called them pillboxes – in the fields, where anti-aircraft guns were concealed in World War Two. In my childhood, it wasn’t unusual for the crashed remains of fighter planes to be unearthed by farm activity. The fascination of that endurance of past events in the landscape informs my work, I think, in part because I enjoy the notion of the reversal that Garner so brilliantly demonstrated. People think they shape the land. But the land shapes them. Though I’m sure that anyone from an indigenous community reading that would think it was no great insight.
Among my published short stories, “The Usable Day” (2016), “The Emperor” (2013), “The Bell Line” (2008) and “Lives of the Aviators” (which appears in my 2014 collection Burn Lines) all take narrative energy from events that have to occur in a specific place.
In your teens you read Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad and learned that a person can make a terrible mistake, and from this “everything flows with crushing inevitability.” When you visited Conrad’s vast memorial, is “crushing inevitability” something you “talked at him” about? What did you learn from these conversations?
As context, I spent my late teens in Canterbury in southern England. Most evenings, after the pubs closed, I would wander around, to avoid going back to my rented room and smalltalk with the landlord. One night, because I’d been drinking, it seemed a good idea to walk up to the cemetery. It was locked, but that’s no obstacle when you’re young.
Joseph Conrad lived his final years in one of the glum villages around Canterbury. His grave in Canterbury cemetery is, I suppose, four or five times the size of the regular graves it sits among. Once I’d climbed into the cemetery, it became suddenly important to speak with Conrad. Or at least to sit beside him on the rather arid gravel ahead of his stone. To that point I’d read The Secret Agent, Heart of Darkness, An Outcast of the Islands. I found Conrad’s style so forcefully immediate. A world away from other nineteenth century writers, whose work seemed more dense and allusive.
As a young man striving to be a writer, speaking with Conrad seemed an excellent idea and I visited his grave on many nights. I spoke with him about character and plotting. About that point of “crushing inevitability”, in the sense of how a well-crafted plot makes a character’s actions feel both authentic and inescapable. Sadly, Conrad never replied. But what mattered was to speak of writing in the memorial presence of someone who had done what I aspired to do and done it magnificently.
What are the titles of your first novels and short stories? How long had you been writing when you published them? Why did you decide to self-publish?
My first published short story was a piece called “Up West” in 1999, in a UK print journal called Writers’ Forum. They generously published several of my stories over the next few years. When “Up West” was published, I’d been writing for around ten years, with zero success. My first US publication was a story called “Allotments” in 2010, in Inkwell, the former journal of Manhattanville College. That marked the start of a tipping point toward US publication.
I self-published my first novel After Work in 2001. After Work was written under the influence of reading Samuel Beckett. It’s a monologue, in which a woman reflects on the disasters of her life and it takes place in real time. The timespan of the novel is the time it takes to read it, in one sitting. I self-published because I couldn’t persuade anyone else to take it on. Which made the positive review it received in Time Out – a review which castigated the ‘bean counters’ of the industry – all the more sweet. Though I suspect the reviewer may have had an axe to grind in any case. I’d been developing After Work since the early 1990s.
I’ve used self-publishing or hybrid publishing as a means to move things along. To get a story off my desk, to make space for other things. That was true of my second self-published novel Claire, in 2005. Claire is a love story which – because of the age of the female lead – publishers seemed to think was a retread of Lolita. I felt it pointless to engage with that type of laziness, as Claire has a wholly different trajectory, with a female lead who has the power and agency that the male narrator lacks. She even has more money than him. I self-published Claire as I’d been writing and rewriting a while and it was time to move on.
Finding an agent is a path that many writers seek. What was your experience with agents that led you to self-publish? When you decided agents were not your answer to publication, what did you look for in the publishing world? What advice would you give aspiring writers searching for an agent and publisher?
Writers seem to get very agitated and exercised about agents. I’m not sure why. Nearly every agent I’ve met has been approachable, encouraging and wholly transparent about the challenges of the mainstream industry. These are people who only get paid when they’re successful. Whereas in most jobs – say, a plumber or a surgeon – you get paid however mediocre you are. And they don’t have time to read all these books, because reading books properly takes a long time. And understanding the potential to improve a book that may have promise but is somewhat clumsy takes even longer. I’ve always been rejected by agents, and I’ve always found them to be lovely people.
I can only speak personally. For the way I write, for the things I do, I’m not convinced that an agent could add much. Sure, I’d like to get paid. But I have a day job. I don’t need to get paid for writing. I can write whatever I want. There are no expectations on me and that’s extraordinarily liberating. Imagine being tied to a book deal, where you have to produce this certain thing by this specified time. Where people rely on you doing that, so they can eat.
Sure, one can identify issues with the agenting model. The lack of standard setting and regulation wouldn’t be tolerated in a real profession. The relationship between commission paid and actual work done is opaque. The vast pool of potential clients encourages lazy business practice. Yet the bottom line is always that no one asked you to write that book. Really, no one. It’s inherently unreasonable to say: I’ve done this thing which no one asked me to do, and I want someone else to take all the financial risk for it. Try that on your bank manager.
Agents are really only necessary for the big corporate publishers. For everyone else, you can often engage with publishers directly. And that’s a lot of opportunities. There are plenty of websites with listings. Enter contests, that’s often a good way in. Even if you don’t win, a publisher may want to see more. Go to conferences and network shamelessly. Many people who run small journals want to make a big impact, so they’re actively looking for eye-catching material.
For writers today, there are more ways than ever to get your voice heard. Self-publishing can be hard work, but with time and energy and some money to spend, it’s possible to achieve a lot. Investing in some professional PR muscle can pay dividends but do your homework – there are good companies out there, among the dubious types. When you think about all the angles – for example: podcasts, writing groups, communities of interest, organizing events at your local bookstore – it starts to become possible to build a career organically. Remember, it’s about being read. Every book sold is a win.
You have written that your work has been rejected thousands of times, but you continue to send your work to literary journals (print and digital). In “Making It Up,” an essay about your writer’s journey, you wrote: “But it was important to me to maintain a sense of activity, to work to schedule, to have a physical product to use as a calling card, as I tried to chip away at the industry, in the UK and the US.” Did maintaining “a sense of activity” help you realize you could sell your stories and novels?
I think fake it till you make it is sound advice. We are in the business of communication, that’s the thing to remember. Some people are naturally very good at making small successes look like large successes because they have the confidence, the wit and – yes – the bull, to present themselves as the thing they want to be. You start a band. You put on the flyer that you’re the best band in town. You say it enough, people start saying it back to you. First ironically, then in seriousness. As long as you have some core of achievement to back it up, there’s nothing wrong with expanding your legend.
For a writer, the world sees publications. Behind each publication there’s an infrastructure of discipline: to research, write, edit, rewrite, go to workshops and attend conferences, send submissions to journals and contests, while telling people over and over that you’re a writer. Add to that, if you wish, blogging, podcasting, building that community which will echo back at you.
Part of the reason that I self-published – and, in particular, self-published in print – was to have physical product to use as a calling card. So, at conferences, at agent speed dating events, at every opportunity, I could share around copies of my book. It didn’t matter how many I gave away. I’d already paid for them; it was all sunk cost. If you send someone a file, hitting the delete key is quick and painless. If you give someone a physical book, they have to make a decision about what to do with it. You’ve already got a fraction of their headspace.
Working to schedule is vital. Write every day if you can. Seriously, if you can, do so. Even a couple of hundred words a day is progress. Don’t be distracted. If some of your time every day is invested in writing, then you can call yourself a writer. Then you can start to parlay what you do into a career. Yes, you will get rejected, maybe thousands of times. Learn where you can. Meet foolishness with good grace. Keep moving on.
After Work, Claire, The Canal, In Sparta, Attack of the Lonely Hearts, and On the Level are the titles of your published novels. What are the themes of these novels and how are they different from each other? Which novel was the most difficult to write? Which novel was the least resistant?
Outsiders and people struggling against confines of some sort are staple figures of fiction. Looking back across that list of novels, they may have a familial resemblance. Especially where I’ve tried to unearth the extraordinary possibilities in ordinary places.
After Work (2001) is the monologue of an angry young woman – angry because she’s emotionally shattered – on her journey home, as she relentlessly turns over in her mind the abiding tragedy that has derailed and reshaped her life.
Claire (2005) is a love story about a man’s obsession for a woman who is much younger than him. Yet who has experienced more, survived more and is, in many ways, more focused and mature than he can be. Though an adult, he’s like a schoolboy, trailing around behind a teacher who shows him kindness.
The Canal (2008) was my first commercially published novel. A teenage runaway is sheltered by a silent, surly woman. Their neighborhood is zoned for demolition, for gentrification. Through a hot summer of love and violence they watch battle lines being drawn. And steadily, relentlessly change each other, as much as they change themselves.
In Sparta (2009) is a political thriller. For most of my life, London had active terrorist campaigns. In particular, I remember the IRA bombings of the 1970s and 80s. In Sparta is about a man whose colleague at the office is deeply involved in a left-wing terror campaign. She’s a bomb maker, a technical expert. I made her a left-wing terrorist for literary reasons, because, in British terms, that would be somewhat anachronistic today and therefore doesn’t engage specific modern causes. Chaos consumes everything – but the man’s obsession with her is such that he can’t see beyond his own wants.
Attack of the Lonely Hearts (2017) came out of that fine institution the 3-Day Novel Contest. It’s unashamedly a romcom. When I sat down at the start of those three days, I had three things: a title, a central dynamic (adorable, klutzy, middle-aged woman pursues elegant young male dancer) and a narrative hook, in the shape of comedy god John Candy, who the female lead sees as a kind of guiding spirit. I was taken with the idea that someone would base crucial life decisions on moments from John Candy movies.
On the Level (2022) was published on a hybrid model with Cinnamon Press. We’re in the breakneck, mile-a-minute world of Riz Montgomery, Mark Rothko’s number one fan and unsuspecting recruit to a violent world of covert deals. Riz has some flaws, but she’s unflinchingly attached to the authenticity of being herself. She is absolutely who she is, and her wants are unfailingly small (alcohol, love, to be left alone). She embodies quite an old-fashioned ethic, in a world of ambiguous actions.
Blue Sunday Stories, (December 1, 2002), is the title of your collection of fourteen stories. How was the compilation of these stories different from writing a novel? Time? Energy? Thought? End game?
Agents – and everyone else – will tell you that short story collections don’t sell. The market for them is vanishingly small. A common approach to try to make them more saleable is to have a collection of linked stories. Some thematic, geographic, or character-derived connection between a set of stories that might also make them into a kind of disarticulated novel.
I self-published Blue Sunday Stories in 2002. I was fortunate to have another collection, Burn Lines, published commercially in 2014. Perhaps one reason for that long gap is that I don’t really buy into the linked stories model. I tend to treat story collections as a form of greatest hits compilation: ‘here are ten stories that I’ve had published over the last ten years. The stories in those two collections may well have resemblances, perhaps to a surprising degree. But that wasn’t intended in the act of compilation.
When I put together a story collection, it’s a selective process. I want to present what I consider to be the most striking and satisfying group of narratives, drawn from my published stories over whatever time frame. I always have an unpublished story collection in my back pocket (on the off chance that someone might want it). But the content of that notional publication is fluid. Stories go in and are taken out, depending on what else I write and how well I think the stories sit together. Within that overall aim, to delight and satisfy.
A story collection probably takes the same time to write as a novel. But the effort is more diffuse, more fragmentary. And I don’t re-edit stories once they’ve been published. I got that from Ring Lardner: the published version is final. So, the energy and thought may match a novel, but it’s differently paid out. With a novel there’s the added element of keeping track of plot and characters over time, which, if you keep it all in your head like I do, is a task in itself. I understand there is software that can help with that.
As to endgame: it comes back to that ‘greatest hits’ mentality. Many literary outlets – whether in print or online – are sadly ephemeral and the Internet Archive can’t be guaranteed to preserve everything. Pulling published stories into a collection is a way to rescue them – or at least, to provide some semblance of a lifeboat – to prolong their existence, once that ambitious, debut magazine has been crushed by its editor’s life events.
Your story, “Things Left Behind on the Moon” was published in the December 2021 issue of The Write Launch. How did you “find” this story? How was the writing process different from the stories that are published in Blue Sunday Stories?
I’m generally averse to writing overtly autobiographical fiction. I tend to think that better stories arise from doing something more interesting with the material. In the sense that eating a cooked meal might be more satisfying than eating a chopping board-full of raw ingredients.
“Things Left Behind on the Moon” was prompted by recollection of certain childhood events. My mother died in 2021, so past times were somewhat on my mind through that year. She and I were a poor family, surrounded by people who were generally better off than us. Which is way more uncomfortable than being surrounded by other poor people. My mother worked hard all her life and got nowhere. Let that be a lesson.
As a boy on the cusp of adolescence, I recall my mother’s female friends as a dazzling cloud of emotional upheaval and cigarette smoke. I was always surrounded by these anxious, troubled, gorgeous middle-aged women. And when I was a kid, the Apollo moon landings were still a big deal. Still huge events to watch on the black and white TV. The hook was gazing at the moon and pursuing the thought about what happened to all that stuff the astronauts took with them. We never really considered it at the time. But all that equipment, all that trash, was just left there. The way that mankind leaves physical and emotional trash everyplace.
Looking back from that to the pieces in Blue Sunday Stories, I would say that, back then, I was still figuring out how to write stories. I had my examples of stories I liked and, most probably, was trying to replicate them. To stick the words together in ways that wouldn’t come undone.
In Stephanie Cotsirilos’s review of On the Level (May 2022) published on bookscovercover.com, readers discover that Mark Wagstaff isn’t just any author, but “a master of concise imagery and truncated vernacular . . . Amid flashes of substantial beauty, the novel sideswipes with unlikely insights.” What is the origin of Riz, the protagonist, and what makes her different from the protagonists in your previous novels? Does the novel fulfill your teenage insight about the connection between landscape, history, and geography?
Stephanie’s review is generous and insightful. The basic set up to On the Level is simple: what if you stay at a hotel and the person in the room next door is an assassin? Not somebody who is casually violent, but a callous, paid professional.
Riz presented herself as the protagonist from the get-go. I needed someone who was struggling for some sense of independence, who held true to a particular view of justice, and also someone who was constrained. Riz’s age means that she is constrained socially and financially. She loathes the fact that she is dependent on her parents more than she loathes them. Riz is energetic and under threat, because her neurodiversity doesn’t play well with her mother’s social pretensions. She is the ideal accomplice for The Man because, as he recognizes, she is as abstract as he is concrete. She draws the attention in any room she enters.
In quite an old-fashioned way, Riz is the ethical center to the book. The adults around her are either low-lifes or agents playing a complex, global game where someone other than them will suffer the consequences. Only Riz is surprised about this because, in her hectic way, she sees clearly what’s going on.
A number of strands around landscape, history and geography feed into the book. The Russian arms dealers include a Red Army veteran, still resentful over Afghanistan, even while his colleagues look to the kleptocratic rewards of modern Russia. Dersima is a Kurdish leader and feels the rage and pain of her people’s fight for a homeland. Salwa Abaid is haunted by childhood events in Syria. The story is set in London because – going right back to my early reading of The Secret Agent – London is the historic meeting place of agents, rebels, dealers and thugs for hire.
You are invited to speak with aspiring teenage writers. What do you tell them?
When I was studying in New York, I spent a Saturday (along with a mass of other students) earning some extra dollars by grading entries to the Scholastic Writing Awards. We were assessing the high school cohort and, perhaps I’m being eccentric here, but some of those pieces were better than work I was seeing in MFA class. By ‘better’ I mean more ambitious, more noisy, less conditioned by the forms of ‘serious writing’. I left that room with a strong sense of optimism for the future – as well as $25 richer.
So if I had the privilege of speaking with aspiring teenage writers, I would encourage them – with a foolish, old man’s romanticism – to write what’s in their hearts. Certainly, I would suggest to them that they should read – and read widely. That they should seek out African, Asian, Native American writers, as well as the tough-minded individualists of the past who never made it into the Western canon, whatever that is.
I would suggest that they heed the advice of R.S. Thomas in his poem “To a Young Poet”. To understand that this is a long game and you will not win, and that’s not important. Because it’s the act of writing as yourself, of conveying what you want to write, that matters. I would suggest they heed the advice of Norman Nicholson in his poem “Rising Five” that life is precious, and we should live in this moment. That we should write in this moment and not be distracted by what our future selves might expect.
And I would exhort them not to listen to all the dreary old people, who say that fiction is dead or that nobody writes well anymore, or that whatever group has hijacked publishing and it’s all gone to Hell. Machiavelli complained that everything in Italy had gone to garbage in his day. And the Roman writers he quoted said the same thing in their times. Nostalgia is a neat hobby but a poor occupation.
If I still had the attention of the room at this point, I would remind them that to read a book is an active participation in creative endeavor. TV and movies, for all their positive qualities, are essentially passive. We are entertained-at. When we read a book, we join in the work of creation. And to help people to achieve that is the finest thing. Which is why we need more writers.