My mother was a great reader of romances. Not the classic kind. The sort that make money. In my far-back childhood in the last century, reading a book was still a usual way to pass time. Whether at home on wet afternoons, or in school when the teacher was too despondent to suggest anything else.
Though I must have learned the Western canon of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, my earliest memory of reading was Enid Blyton. Those volumes with her distinctive signature on the cover – an early instance of authorial branding – in particular, The Secret Seven series, set in more recognizably urban streets than the endlessly free-floating Famous Five. It’s worth pondering the challenge of writing a dozen and more books, with seven main characters to keep in play.
The first book I experienced as a seismic event was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. Garner is a writer who matters, a writer whose influence I still feel. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was the first book I encountered where the landscape acts on the story. Where the history and geography of a specific place create intentions, embedded in rock and bound by the certainty that the past can erupt with geological force. It was the first book to unnerve me, to haunt me when I switched off the light.
Around when I was seven or eight, I started to write stories. In those days, teachers had more room to decide how to spend class time, and if a kid wanted to sit in the corner and scribble, at least they were being quiet. I have no recall what I wrote about. But the activity of trying to corral words to an effective order seemed to me remarkable and worthwhile.
In teenage years, at a time of social upheaval, I hung around with kids who read Sartre, Camus, Kerouac – all that manly outsider stuff. As desperately romantic, in its way, as the tales of dark-eyed strangers and winsome girls that my mother preferred. Of course, in those days The Writer was a white man, a swordsman and a hard drinker, most like. A figure that a group of bored and bookish teenage boys might aspire to be.
But there were better examples. For part of my teens, I lived in Canterbury in southern England. Joseph Conrad is buried there, and I would sneak into the cemetery at night, to sit on his vast memorial and talk at him. Conrad seemed admirable, in that he had done the things and been to the places he wrote about. He was making it up in a framework of truth. The Secret Agent remains one of my favorite London novels, an insightful sketch of the compulsions and idiocies of the revolutionary mentality. Lord Jim is one of the most terrifyingly crafted novels I’ve read. A man makes a mistake. A single mistake. And from that, everything flows with crushing inevitability. A remarkable lesson in plot logic.
I should also mention the poets I learned to love at this time. Stevie Smith, Thom Gunn, the great Norman Nicholson. Poets whose spare and limber way with words I envied and aspired to drag into the lumpen world of prose.
Bored with school, but too bored to do anything decisive about it, I spent afternoons hiding out at the public library. That truancy brought me to Mary Shelley, Thomas Hardy, Keith Waterhouse, Sylvia Plath and the goddess, Iris Murdoch. In the fusty, wood-lined reading room of Canterbury city library, Murdoch’s The Sandcastle was a fine astringent for stagnant life in a nowhere town.
Where the macho outsiders promised escape, clear-eyed Murdoch tallied what escape would cost.
Alongside of it all, I grew to love short stories. Diamond-bright narratives stripped of the flabby self-regard of the novel. I read the short-form greats and fell for Ring Lardner, whose voice I appropriate way too often. His are stories to treasure. ‘Some Like Them Cold’ is a brick to the gut, a total heartbreaker. ‘You Know Me Al’ essentially set up Raymond Carver’s entire routine. Salinger has Holden Caulfield claim that Lardner is his second favorite writer. That qualified praise feels so apt, for a man who tends to be referenced more for what came after than for himself.
Much of my twenties I invested in addiction. Despite what people, including Mr. Burroughs, will tell you, narcotics are not really conducive to the discipline of elevating syntax and grammar to fiction. And Burroughs, as a master of deceit, was more fastidious and focused than he let on. It was when my children came along, when addiction gave way to practicality, that I started seriously to fill that space vacated by getting high, with the incomparable pleasure of placing words in relation. Toward the end of the twentieth century, a short story ‘Up West’ became my first publication.
That was followed by two self-published novels and a short story collection, written between a succession of day jobs and helping to care for a growing volume of children. I would guess the number of people who read those self-published books must be in single figures. 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. For a time, I thought it mattered to get an agent, and I probably spent too long pursuing that. I’ve never had an agent and I’m not sure I will. With a handful of exceptions, agents I’ve met have been sweet-natured, dedicated and overwhelmed with work. I’m not sure how they survive having writers (not always the most reasonable people) clamoring at them full-time. It’s never really been necessary to have an agent. Till the late nineteenth century, writers and publishers engaged directly and today, if one is sufficiently energetic, there are more ways than ever to market your work. The energy you invest trying to snag an agent, you could spend selling books.
After those early years, I settled to a discipline of writing short stories. I’ve had the honor of seeing a number of them published, mostly in smaller journals and anthologies edited by people giving their time for free in a corner of their kitchen, for the pleasure of producing a literary magazine. Those people, who start journals because they want to find and share good writing, do vital work. They’re the life blood of an industry which, at some levels, can seem woefully out of touch. I’ve been an emerging writer for decades and that’s fantastically liberating. I have no expectations on me. I can write about anything at all. Who wouldn’t want that?
As for rejections, my stories have been rejected thousands of times. Literally, thousands. I receive several hundred rejections every year, regular as gnat bites. But I’m not going to change and I’m not going to stop. Once you get to that place, nothing else matters.
It wasn’t until relative old age – my forties – that I took my first workshop, with One Story in New York, my other city alongside London. I followed that up with several years attending The Writer’s Hotel in Manhattan, run by talented and dedicated writing team Shanna McNair and Scott Wolven. Inspirational figures who do such good work to support and build confidence as writers navigate the lifelong process of learning to write. And in those workshops, I met some wonderful writers. Most notably Stephanie Cotsirilos, whose insightful and good-humored advice has added so much to my work. Stephanie’s latest novella My Xanthi, an intense, character-rich study on identity and assimilation, is well worth your time.
I spent a year in New York, studying at The New School. Again, a matter of discipline to participate in workshops every week. I was fortunate to share classes with young writers who had so many strong ideas, who were learning – as we all must – how to transmute an idea through delivery. Because ideas, in themselves, go nowhere. Execution is all. On that point, I took a screenwriting class at The New School, and it came home to me quite sharply how much more commercially-minded those screenwriters were than my classmates, the emerging novelists. At the risk of generalization, screenwriters think about audience, about funding, about the logistics of getting things done, while novelists angst away on process and POV. One lesson that writing teaches is that no one has to care at all about what you do. A writer must be an evangelist for their work and a convincing one. If the world is Glengarry Glen Ross, we must Always Be Closing.
Which brings me pretty much to today. I’m still finding writers to admire and books to love. To namecheck a few: The Circumcision by György Dalos, a warm, humorous way to confront horrific events. Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, a great premise beautifully delivered and yet another book to make me cry. Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, sharp and incisive on family tensions and how those tensions accentuate and reflect the world.
As for me, I have this novel out called On the Level and I really think people should read it. It’s short and punchy and slips down smooth as your drug of choice. Through a bracing mix of obsession and failure, I have about ten years’ worth of unpublished material stacked away, so the world isn’t safe from me yet.
And as for the future. About fifty years after I’m dead, an MFA student will be looking for a thesis topic. By chance, they will find one of my short stories in an archive and scent opportunity. After graduating with all the usual fanfare, that student will go on to a management career at a media enterprise. One morning in middle age they will wake, feeling vaguely cheated. I’d bet money on it.
Read Mark Wagstaff’s short story “Things Left Behind on the Moon” in the December 2021 issue of The Write Launch.