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Writer vs. Writer: Mark Safranko

In this post we will have an interview with talented Mark Safranko. Mark is an author who has published novels, novellas, story collections, and plays in the US, UK, and France. Some of his notable works include "Hating Olivia," "No Strings," and "God Bless America." His books have been published by various publishers such as Harper Perennial, Murder Slim Press, and Honest Publishing. In addition to his novels, Safranko has also written numerous short stories, which have appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies. His plays, including "The Bitch-Goddess" and "Interrogation #2," have been performed in theaters in New York and New Jersey. Let's go and get to know Mark more.

Hi Mark, Thanks for joining me for this interview. As I was reading through your bio I found that your work has garnered a cult following mainly in Europe. How does it feel to have such recognition and appreciation for your writing abroad?

Thanks for talking with me, Neda. Well, the fact that you had to read my bio to find out where my following is explains something, doesn’t it? It’s a schizophrenic feeling, for sure. In Europe my work is covered in Rolling Stone, and Le Figaro, and Il Fatto Quottidiano, while in the US…it’s a different story. It’s of course gratifying at the same time, and I’m thankful that I’ve been able to see my work make its way into print so frequently in Europe. I’m now in the very peculiar position of having my work appear first in a language other than my own. That’s the case with several of my recent French titles as well as a new German novel. But knowing that the French have such a long and exalted literary tradition makes me feel that I’ve found myself in the right place. They have a long tradition of providing a home for certain kinds of American writers, from Hemingway to Henry Miller and many others. Some people, in fact, say that the French are always ahead of the curve when it comes to discovering American writers.

I agree, specially authors who transgress norms. That's what French are passionate about. So, you talked about your latest novel, Amerigone. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the book and what readers can expect from it?

Amerigone was actually inspired by the culture of violence we live with in the US, which as you know is at epidemic level. But I wanted to take it way beyond gun violence. I wanted to probe its origins and manifestations in the human psyche. I wrote the novel at a fever pace, which I believe it maintains. It’s the story of a captor and a captive and their surreal road trip across America, and I wanted it to have the feel and logic of a dream – or a nightmare. In other words, it’s supposed to be devoid of rationality and logic, which life is, of course. And, often, violence.

That makes sense. You were in France in 2018 and you were named the first Author in International Residence at the University of Lorraine in Nancy, France. How did this experience influence your writing?

Living in France was a great experience, but I don’t think it’s influenced my work in any significant way except to say that it’s given me the opportunity to view my native land from the other side of the pond, and even through European eyes. I’ve spent a good deal of time there since my work began appearing in 2005. I’ve toured France north, south, east and west several times. Most of my work is set in the States, but I’ve noticed that some of my European experiences are making their way in. What’s interesting is that so many of the writers I love are not American, or are Americans who spent lots of time in Europe, so again, there’s some sort of affinity.

I understand. For me, living here is impacting my writing, only in sense of environment. However, the bureaucracy here is inspiring for a dystopian story. Your stories have appeared in many magazines and journals, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and were cited in Best American Mystery Stories. How do you approach writing in the mystery genre, and what draws you to it?

I actually don’t consider myself a mystery writer, but more of a crime writer, or at least a literary writer in which crime often plays a central role. I think that there’s a criminal, maybe even a deviant, in all of us, and to some extent we all can identify with the behavior while we don’t indulge in it. Guilt, fear, jealousy, greed, lust, anger, hatred – we’ve all harbored these feelings and emotions, and they are the soil of crime. When you think of so many great works of literature – Crime And Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserables, Therese Raquin, An American Tragedy, for example – some kind of crime is a central theme. It’s a very human theme and provides a naturally dramatic framework for narratives. I find it’s easy to weave a tale around a crime, or a possible crime.

I know that you are not only a writer but also a painter and musician. How do these different art forms influence each other, and do you find that your experiences in one medium inform your work in another?

While I think of myself as a writer first, I consider the other disciplines as extensions of the same work, even if doesn’t seem so on the surface. They are all part of the same process in the end. They might utilize different abilities, but the source is the same. I’ve been a musician since childhood, so it’s the first artistic discipline I tried. Painting I love because it brings the wheels of the brain to a halt, whereas with the writing process there’s no surcease from the process, which is so cerebral and language-driven.

Let's talk about your novel Hating Olivia has been described as a refreshing exception among books that deal with lust, drugs, sex, and women. What inspired you to write this novel, and how did you approach crafting the story and characters?

That novel was inspired by several crazy years when I was just starting out as a writer. It’s about despair, near madness, a very intense love affair that went horribly sideways, my first attempts to write novels, to send them out to publishers, and so forth. It’s a very autobiographical piece, as are all of the novels in the Max Zajack series. I’d attempted writing Hating Olivia a few times before I got the voice right. I was attempting to shoehorn every minute of these few years – especially what was going on in my own mind -- into the book and found that it didn’t work. When I just let the events speak for themselves, it was much better and wrote itself. At least it became immensely more readable. It was written very much in the vein of several writers I greatly admired: Henry Miller, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Bukowski. But maybe the most direct influence was not a book, but a French film – Betty Blue, based on Philippe Djian’s novel. I understand that he’s not so happy with the adaptation, but it had a great effect on me because of its resonance with a certain period of my own life. But in a sense, the preparation for Hating Olivia, which was eventually published by Harper Perennial, was a very long apprenticeship that I had served as a writer. I’d already been writing for over twenty years by the time I’d gotten it down. The book now has its fans on both sides of the Atlantic and has even been translated a second time into French and appeared in Italy as well as the United Kingdom.

Actually, I saw that you've been compared to writers such as Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. Who are your biggest literary influences, and how have they shaped your writing?

My literary influences are incredibly diverse, really, as I suspect they are for most writers. The two writers you mention, as well as writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer for their direct approach, honesty, brutality, energy, and so forth. I’ve often said that I’ve learned everything I know about writing from the hard novels, or romans durs, of the Belgian novelist Georges Simenon -- economy, the crystallized power of his stories, his ability to do so much in such short novels. There’s a lot to be learned from him. Patricia Highsmith, for the penetration and weirdness of her psychology. Paul Bowles for his essential strangeness. Dostoyevsky for the profundity of his themes as well as the depth of his plumbing of the human soul. The Nobel Prize winners Knut Hamsun and Hermann Hesse are other great favorites, as is Raymond Carver. Pascal Garnier is a recent discovery I love. At various times I try to steal from all of them!

Many of your works deal with themes of disillusionment and the struggle to maintain the dream. What draws you to these themes, and how do you approach exploring them in your writing?

I think they’re universal themes that all of us wrestle with every single day. I’ve had an enormous amount of disillusionment and struggle in my own life, as have so many artists, so it’s well-known and well-traveled territory. I actually believe those preoccupations are best approached with humor – black humor, if you will. Like most of the really difficult things in life, laughter is a panacea. What was it Rabelais said? “For all your ills I give you laughter.”

Now, learning more about you, I was wondering what advice would you give to aspiring writers who are just starting out and looking to make a name for themselves in the literary world?

Probably things they won’t want to hear. Try your best to stay in love with the work and not expect too much in terms of success, at least in the eyes of the world. If you’re not completely and utterly in love with activities like revising and rewriting, proofreading and editing, and doing them over and over again on the same piece, it’s likely not for you. In other words, you have to be in love with the the dirty minutiae of the process of writing. Poring over one word versus another, for example. Changing that word back and forth and then back again. The things that are the very opposite of the romantic image of a writer. Then there are the brutal realities of the business end of it, the marketplace, the agents, the publishing houses, etc. The very real possibility that you might have great talent and produce great work and it still won’t matter when it comes to what sells and is commercially successful. Also the very real possibility that you will never make any real money. If you can handle all of that, then it’s a beautiful life. You have to have steel somewhere inside of you.

Finally, what can readers expect from your upcoming work, and what are your plans for the future?

Well, there’s my recently published collection of poems from Anxiety Press. I worked on those poems over a long stretch of time, decades, and I believe that the collection features some of my best work. A novel, One False Step, becomes available May 31 from Soyos Books. That’s a psychological suspense novel previously available only in French. The filmmaker and novelist Philippe Claudel told me he thinks it would make a good movie. Amerigone appears from in Germany in September. It’s a new novel that will mark my first publication in the German language. There are many other books that might get to see the light of day at some point. I’m working on a couple of new albums of music and I’ve produced many new paintings over the past year. There’s a new novel, new stories, new poems. You just keep moving along and hoping that at least some of it finds an audience. That’s always the most realistic goal.

Thank you Mark for joining us. If you would like to know more about Mark check his website: or his social media handle @Mark SaFranko

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