Interview of Peter Markus,
by Michael Kimball
Bob, or Man on Boat
What Our Mother Always Told Us
Words as Sounds, or Kimball Interviews Markus
Michael Kimball: I've been reading your work for many years now and I had started to assume that you would keep writing about the brothers and the mud, the fish and the river, the lighthouse, and the moon for the rest of your life -- and that you would keep writing about them in much the same style. (Note: I mean this in all the best ways; I couldn't have thought of a better thing for you to do). So I was kind of fascinated when you told me that you had written a completely different kind of book and that you did it in a fairly short time span. Tell us a little about how this book is different from your earlier work and how the writing of it was different, too.
Peter Markus: The brothers were born some ten odd years ago when my wife and I found out that there was the seed of a boy growing inside her belly. We already had a daughter, a little girl of two or so, and I was having trouble at the time figuring out how to make room for this son. The way I figured out that I could wrap my brain and heart around it was to bring my daughter into the mix as much as we could, so at night in bed my daughter and I would talk to my wife's belly and what was there inside it. The word "brother" for the first time in my life entered violently into my life in this way. It was brother this and brother that. It was in this way that the word brother came to own me, and it exerted a great force over my life. Out of this word brother and the way that it owned me both with its musicality and the mystery behind it I started making sentences with the word brother in it and little by little these sentences driven by the word brother became stories that I then, for many years following, became the obsession of my making. I couldn't stop that word brother and the locomotive way that it wanted to be made into its own sibling world. The stories that make up The Singing Fish and Good, Brother and The Moon is a Lighthouse, those books that you refer to, are really only a small part of a project that yes, I felt that it would continue to own me for the rest of my writing life. And I was good with that. I am good with that, in fact, still. But I did, at one point, begin to wonder, with some fear, that maybe it wasn't such a good thing to be so obsessive about the brothers and the words and the landscape and the circumstances they dragged around with them into my world.
So a few years ago I deliberately shut them off and tried my hand at writing a book, which of course began with a single sentence, "In a boat, on a river, lived a man," that would be brother-less. I was looking, I suppose, looking back now, for a different sound, a different voice to hear in my head. And it was this sound, this voice, of this first sentence, that opened up for me a new world. I knew, the instant I heard it, that I was inside a new acoustical and even syntactic place. I had no idea where it would take me, of course, but I felt confident that it, the work, this inaugurating sentence, would take me where it needed to go. And so I went. I was taken. And again I couldn't stop. It's true that I wrote this new book, or at least the bulk of its first draft, in something like six or eight weeks. I was swallowed entirely, as I was by the brothers, by a new word that became its own world. That world, that word, of course is Bob. Bob and boat and river and fish, which of course there are words there in common with the world of the brothers (fish, river, etc.). The brothers, though, let it be known, did not need a boat for them to fish with. But it was the rhythms of Bob that, much like those other words such as mud and brother and moon and fish, drove me deeper along into a new sort of river. It wasn't easy to tune the brothers out, and they do make a sort of cameo appearance in this new book, which was a way for me to pay my respects to them and to say too that they were still very much alive.
And they are still very much alive for me. In fact, just this morning I had the good fortune of signing a new contract with Dzanc Books to publish a new batch of brothers stories that I'm calling We Make Mud. I might also say that the composition process of writing Bob was quite a bit different than the brothers stories in that I always began the brothers stories by hand, with pencil and paper, and then I'd take them to a typewriter, where they lived until I felt that each word had been placed, as if by hand, letter by letter, syllable by syllable, onto the paper. Which of course wasn't the way it usually worked out. I would continue to work on each sentence, word by word, quite slowly, as I took the typewritten page to the computer, where the sentences then were tinkered with and fine-tuned some more. I'm anal about language, Michael, as I know you are too, which is why I'm drawn to your own work. But with this Bob book I wrote it almost all on the computer, and though I labored over each word in each sentence, the feel of each of those sentences feels different to me, and they came much quicker, and maybe it was as if I saw the sentences first before I heard them, which with the brothers all of those sentences were heard centuries before they were made visible when I brought them up out of the alphabet.
Kimball: Bob, or Man on Boat has many of the same objects as your earlier fiction. There are still fish. There is still mud, a lighthouse, a river, the moon. And I did make a note on page 27 where the brothers make their first appearance. But the words that get worked over in the fiction are different in Bob. Instead of mud and brothers, those uh sounds, it is fish and river, with the short i sounds, and the bee sounds in Bob and boat. So the acoustics are very different throughout the novel and the syntax is as well. Instead of the long, filled-out sentences of the fictional brothers, Bob is mostly made up of clipped sentences and phrases, most often just one to a line. I'm not sure what the question is here, but I'd like you to talk about the affects you were going for with the new acoustics, the new syntax.
Markus: I'm pleased to know that the writing I write is read by readers like you. Readers like you -- and I don't know how many of them are that are out there -- pay close attention to every word, every letter, every syllable, every sound. I often tell students this: that if I gave every last one of them a six-stringed acoustic guitar and told them to go off and write me a song, that the singer whose song I would most closely listen to and most be moved by would likely be that person who tuned their guitar in a new way, or else found a new way to strum it, or else even ripped five of the six strings away from its neck to make of it a single-stringed instrument. Or something to that effect. In other words, to make out of the page an entirely new artifact. Open chords on that guitar sound pretty to the ear, but pretty isn't always the thing that I'm looking for in a song. So in this new work of mine, with Bob, and boat, and the acoustics of this new clipped world that, as you so attentively point out, is governed more by the short "i" sounds of that vowel as opposed to the more organic sounds that are made by words like mud and brother, I guess what I was hoping to get at was a newly tuned instrument that would be, in my hands and for my hands, a brand new experience for me which I'm telling you, when I was writing this new book, when I was summoned into this new world, I knew wholeheartedly that I had wandered off or was being taken into a place or a space that I was being a newborn in. To be a newborn into any world is that state that I think you want to be when you are in the any business of making art, be it paint, music, literature, etc.
I know that for myself, when I was a kid and had first formed an artish sort of punk band with some good friends of mine in my hometown, none of us had any business calling ourselves musicians. We didn't call ourselves musicians. But we made a music out of not knowing how to play our instruments that was interesting to my ears in a way that once we actually learned how to play our instruments our songs became less and less interesting, at least to my ears they did. And the whole process of playing those instruments lost its initial magic of picking up something into my hands that my hands had no idea what language it spoke and out of having no idea how to make it speak they --my hands, my fingers -- made sounds or variations of sound that maybe didn't make sense, to the trained musician, but they arrived at a sound that was completely (in my view) without precedent. That's what I'm hoping to do still and now as a writer whose only instrument is that alphabet we call the American language. I wanted also, with this new book, to open up the page a bit more, to let a sentence itself, or a word itself, own up to its own place on the page, which is why I moved away from the long and sometimes muddled paragraphs that the brothers lived in to an appearance on the page where many paragraphs are a single sentence, sometimes even a single word.
Kimball: The new syntax and the short paragraphs open up Bob, or Man on Boat in a way that makes the reading of it quite fast. The repetition also speeds up the narrative in an interesting way and I'm wondering if these things allowed you to write Bob, or Man on Boat as a novel rather than a short story or series of short stories.
Markus: I knew that Bob, or Man on Boat was going to be a novel the moment I heard that opening sentence -- "In a boat, on a river, lived a man." -- speak to me from somewhere inside my head. And when it was followed by the word, "Bob," I knew I had the book hooked. I was certainly hooked. It was the pace of those opening lines that made me feel certain that this new voice was the voice of a longer work, and the way the next batch of sentences continued to spool forth, sentence by sentence, I knew too that the narrative line was going to be pretty straight-forward or at least more linear or driven by a series of questions: why is this man living on a river? Why on a boat? Who, ultimately, is this Bob? Then, Who is reporting all of this. What is this Bob doing on the river? Why is he here and not somewhere else? I knew or at least had a sense too right from the get-go that this novel was going to be a search of some sort. Those who fish know that every time you head out onto the river it is a search to find a school of fish. What complicates this search for Bob is that his search is limited to a single fish. I was drawn, as soon as I discovered this, by his obsessive nature. As a writer it is always good to locate these sorts of obsessions, be they obsessions with a particular lexicon or in this case an obsession with a particular fish. I love the futility of such a question, and Bob's, or my own, willingness to failure. Any fisherman who knows where to find the fish will tell you that they go out onto the river to fish for that fish they haven't yet fished up. It is this way too, for me, when I pick up a book, or when I pick up the pen to write with: to find a fish that I haven't yet pulled up out of that mysteriousness darkness that is the body of water that you gaze down into and picture that fish somewhere unseen at the bottom of that river, or lake, or sea.
The book that is Bob's, or Bob's story, really opened up for me when I discovered that what was being reported to us about Bob was being told to us by a first-person narrator. That narrator's story, as it was connected and as it announced itself up to me through his telling us or me about Bob, also allowed me to explore some other relationships that I was interested in exploring on the page (between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, etc.). The recurrences that occur from sentence to sentence do I hope create a weave of a song, an interplay between what comes before and what follows, that again is one that I hope quickens the pace of the telling. As I mentioned earlier, I think, this book was a quick write, some six weeks or so to bullet through the first draft. I was most used to sentences that like to curl or unwind down the page, sentences that tend to accumulate their power from the bends and whirlpools and the swirling currents of their own deep river. But that simply wasn't in the cards for this book; it wasn't the governing presence that made itself know to me right from the get-go. "In a boat, on a river, lived a man." That line was its own world for me. It owned its own place over me. How could I place another word after that period? I couldn't. I loved that sentence so much I almost didn't want to compromise or adulterate it by placing a second sentence anywhere near it. But I did, when I wrote the next line, Bob, and looking back on it now I'm happy that I did.
Kimball: Bob's obsessiveness is fascinating for the reader too, all the more so that it is rendered with obsessive sentences, both the writing of them and the language in them, the numbers of times, say, that the word fish is used in the novel. And I loved it when I realized that Bob was after not just a particular kind of fish, of which he could have caught many, but that he was after one particular singular fish. So I think I have to ask you about Melville here. Or maybe I won't ask a question. I'm just going to say this -- that boat, that whale, that obsession. I'd like to hear anything that you want to say about that.
Markus: Moby Dick was the first book that, well, ever really swallowed me whole. I remember a good many of the circumstances of reading that book. I read it the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was working a summer job at a boat ramp here in my hometown helping boaters, most of whom were not fishermen, get in and out of the water. It was a river, this water. And so I gave myself over to Melville that whole summer and I still failed to finish that novel. Even back then I was an incredibly slow reader, and if I tried to reread that book now I would likely not make it all the way through it. Maybe that's why my fish book is such a quick read. Maybe what I wanted to do was to undo Melville and the fatness that is that book. I remember almost losing my job, that summer, because of Melville. One day I was paid a visit by my supervisor, a woman I had never seen before but it became clear to me that she knew who I was and what it was I was doing sitting down by the river with a book in my hand. I was killing time was what I was doing. She knew it and so did I. So she sat down next to me and asked me what was I reading. I remember that I told her I was reading a book about a fish. I now know what I'm not sure if I knew it then or not, the fact that a whale happens to be a mammal and not a fish. Shame on me, I suppose, for not knowing this. That book, as I hope might be said about mine, is more than just a book about a fish. But it is a book about a man and a fish, as is mine, and as I liked to tell people, when the few who knew about Bob asked what it was about, I sometimes liked to say that it is my retelling of the Melville book that is or is not about a fish and one man's obsession to get as close to and as close to knowing that fish as he can possibly get. Hats off to Melville for getting to it first.
Kimball: I'd like to throw out another possible influence, Gertrude Stein. There is her famous line -- "A rose is a rose is a rose." -- which in Bob, or Man on Boat becomes this: "A fish is a fish. Is a fish." And this is just one example of this particular kind of repetition, among other types of repetition, that takes place in the novel. Supposedly, Stein was referring to the how language changes over time, how usage and reference changes. The reference to Stein is clear enough, but please say a little more about what you are after in this particular instance and what you are after, in general, with repetition.
Markus: What I have most taken away from Stein in my reading or misreading of her is how to be playful with the language. For me the repetition here with "A fish is a fish. Is a fish." suggests that a fish, every time it is said here, is pointing to an entirely different fish. Keep in mind that this is the narrator who is saying this, a man who is on his own quest, I suppose it could be said, to become closer in tune with Bob his father, and what I suppose I may or may not be suggesting with this repetition is that this man is finding out what it is that Bob his father already knows, or maybe he doesn't completely know it: that a fish, each time it is pulled up and out of the river, each time that that word 'fish' is formed as an utterance here in this book, is futilely its own fish and is never completely the one fish that Bob the father of the narrator is out on the river looking for. For me, the use of repetition with language almost doesn't really exist for me. How can this be so? Well, for me, every time I say or write a word, be it fish or mud, whether or not it's recurring or not, it is, or so it is my hope, as if I am saying it for the first time. The context is what changes is what I am getting at here. Even if I wrote the same sentence back to back, the second time of saying it would be slightly different. I suppose this goes back to how in my other books I oftentimes revisit scenes and situations and titles and when I do it is never really the same. At least it's not for me. Nothing is ever really the same. I suppose I should mention the famous line at this point about how you can't step into the same river twice.
Kimball: Let's stick with the phrase, "is a fish" and how that changes in different contexts. At different points, the narrator says, "I am a fish" and "My son is a fish." There are probably instances, and I'm curious about them in relation to the famous line in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, when Vardaman says, "My mother is a fish."
Markus: The chapters that are Vardaman's to narrate in As I Lay Dying are among my favorite moments in all of Faulkner mainly because of how Vardaman says what he says. I can read and re-read those Vardaman chapters and it is always to me as if I am reading them for the first time. The same might be said, for me, of the opening of The Sound and the Fury, too. Again, I am most pulled in by the voice of who is doing the saying in both of these instances. That is always, for me, the writing that sticks with me the thickest: those writers whose writing is mostly concerned about not so much what is said but how what is said gets said. The metaphoric pilfering of the "is a fish," specifically the line as it relates to the word mother, is a sentence and an image that the brothers, in their stories, liked to pirate from first. In fact in the forthcoming book of brother stories, We Make Mud, that Dzanc will be publishing in 2011, the title "Our Mother is a Fish," is used not once, not twice, but three times, as is the image and the metaphor that comes with this titling line. In Bob, or Man on Boat, the recurrence of "is a fish," as it relates to both and the narrator and Bob and the narrator's young son, I suppose the effect that I am aiming at here is for all three of these characters to be seen as a single one, or for them all, at some point, to be that thing that both Bob and the narrator are on the hunting/fishing for: what both of the adult Bobs hope to find and ultimately be. A fish, too, in this made up world that I am writing about, as it is too in my own world of actuality, is to me a thing of beauty, and so I suppose I am getting at or am reaching out towards the core of something there when I lift this line from Faulkner's Vardaman and attempt to re-use it in its new context (i.e., as I appropriate it away from Faulkner and the mouth of Vardaman whose utterance, as I have said, is as pure and poetic as the language of speech can make it).
Kimball: Your observation of the speech of Faulkner's Vardaman could very well be an observation of your own fiction as well. The words became, at their purest, sounds. Bob is a sound. Boat is a sound. River is a sound. Fish is a sound. And the repetition of these sounds, the recurrence of them, these notes, becomes a kind of song. Bob, or Man on Boat is a kind of song. I don't really have a question here. But I wanted to make that statement.
Markus: You saying this is its own form of song to my ears. So thank you for your words. They mean a lot to me to hear them said. I aim for nothing short of song when I sit down to write. Each sentence, that small unit of speech, I like to view it as a song. I'm a failed musician in some other life I once used to live, and so I've turned to words to make my music with. Words themselves are beautiful to me. Each one is a fish. I hate to sound sentimental about it all but I do love all the possibilities that are in our language. I don't ever want to stop this sort of language-making, and to hear you say that I am making music with the sounds that these words make when I set them alive and free and in motion on the page, this makes me enormously happy.