The Rumpus Interview with Mark Leyner

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In his new novel, Gone with the Mind, the satirical and experimental writer Mark Leyner creates the tale of Mark Leyner, a novelist on a downward career trajectory whose latest book launch is being held at a nonfiction reading series curated by his mother in a New Jersey mall food court.

Many of Leyner’s works of fiction have characters named Mark Leyner, but usually the only autobiographical similarity is the name itself. In the new novel, Leyner sticks close to his own family history. The book opens with a forty-page monologue from his mother, detailing Mark Leyner’s birth and idyllic childhood in 1950s and ’60s Jersey City. His loquacious and charming mother tells her own tragedy of the death of her baby daughter, due to incompetent and self-righteous doctors.

The character Mark Leyner picks up the story, assuring the reader that he will be clear on what is autobiography and what is fiction. He also introduces the Imaginary Intern, an entity he conjures up when he sees a face in the busted tiles of his bathroom. Leyner fixates on Stalin, Mussolini, and Mao, and muses how during a recent bout with prostate cancer, where he was “raped by a robot” when his cancerous prostate was taken out by a high-tech surgical machine. Leyner then becomes convinced that his dashing doctor is attracted to his pretty wife. In Gone with the Mind, Leyner writes a witty and explicit love letter to his overly talkative mother and a lost Jersey City. He also deftly plumbs the anxieties behind creative work of all kinds.

Leyner, sixty, was raised in Jersey City and is the author of six previous works of fiction, including The Sugar Frosted Nutsack and Et Tu, Babe. Leyner lives in Hoboken, but spoke by telephone with The Rumpus from South Florida.

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The Rumpus: Gone with the Mind was a blast to read. Was the novel an intentional Oedipal love story?

Mark Leyner: Absolutely. You find out things after the fact. When I watched the James Cagney movie White Heat, I was so incredibly drawn to it. It’s got this great scene with the mother cradling the Cagney character on her lap, giving him shots of whiskey and telling him, “Okay, go out and show them who you are.” It’s an incredible homage to his mother when he’s standing on top of those exploding refinery tanks and he yells, “Made it Ma! Top of the world!”

I didn’t think at the time of me and my mom. It’s the same with the book. I didn’t set out to write this tender Oedipal story, but you find out as you are going that it is kind of like the magnet compiling iron filings. You begin to see how the book is structuring itself. You are on to something unexpected.

Rumpus: What made you want to make yourself into a struggling writer, giving a reading at an empty food court?

Leyner: A number of things. First and foremost, I started with this kind of architecture, being driven to a mall by my mother to do this reading. Why? Because I think as I have gotten older, my feelings about my role in the culture as a writer, and me specifically, has changed, and has become more degraded and marginalized. This may be a more personal and psychological than a sociological insight, but I feel more vulnerable. There is the idea of feeling like a failure, an outcast. That feeling is expressed in the structure of the book. The writer in the novel is such an abject case. At the age of sixty, he has to be driven by his mother to an event that no one attends.

In me, speaking psychologically, there is always an ongoing struggle between my enormously self-regarding, almost delusionally aspirational, Napoleonic personality and a marginalized one.

This is a strictly autobiographical story. My mother and I had a history of lunching with each other, like any mother and son having a meal together in the middle of the day together. In the milieu that I grew up in, it was mostly fathers out at work and mothers home with their children. In a sense, the whole book is a recapitalization of having lunch with your mother and the intimacy that it entailed.

Rumpus: Why did you start the book with your mother’s monologue?

Leyner_GoneWiththeMindLeyner: I’ve always been interested in distortions of scope. I’ve imagined a movie that starts with a scene in a restaurant, where people are at a fancy steakhouse in Manhattan, like Sparks. The plot of the movie requires a pow wow at a restaurant. I always thought it would be wonderful if the first scene in the movie would be the story of the birth of a calf and the life of the calf that shows the childhood of the calf, then the awful kind of treatment the animal is given at the meat processing plant, to the steak being sliced on the plate. This is the prelude to the first scene. When you are a child, you often stare too closely at the wrong thing. I remember the first time I was taken to Yankee Stadium. Someone had spilled something sweet earlier in the day and the ground was covered with ants. I spent the whole game staring at the ants, and that was more fascinating than the game.

I knew there was potential in someone introducing a person at an event, but that introducer has a life, a whole story they have to tell and all the swirling potential narratives that inhabit that person. I thought it would be interesting to radically enlarge the scope and to distort the scope of a person introducing another person, especially if it’s the mother. It became clear to me that it was a kind of giving birth. When my mother concludes the introduction, “I give you Mark Leyner,” that is giving birth, which is what a mother does.

With my mom, she is almost a pathologically garrulous person. I knew that I had to have her tell me about her pregnancy with me and what her life was like to generate some of her material I use at the beginning.

Rumpus: You actually recorded your mother and used the transcript with some modifications?

Leyner: I needed to give her all her due. There are some modifications that involve contextualization. In the beginning, she welcomes people to the mall. When she speaks about her pregnancies and the men around her, the doctors around her, that section is verbatim.

My mother is not morbid by any means, and is a joyful and exuberant person. These things happened in her life. What a poignant, rich portrait of the milieu she was in, the day and age when men, especially male doctors, were so condescending and dismissive. And culturally, in terms of class, ethnicity, and gender, it was a rigid caste system. It is very sad to read some of that. I think it is shocking to the reader to find himself navigating my mother’s emotional topography.

Rumpus: In this novel, you infuse the story with your own autobiography. Why?

Leyner: I thought about doing something in this book that I had never done before. It is such an obvious thing, which more writers do so readily, which is to use their own lives in their work. It is something that I have aggressively eschewed. I was fanatical about making fiction and artifice, about finding material in everything but in my own autobiography, that being a forbidden territory. In some of the books where I use my own name, it is such an artificial construct and so unlike me. In my novel Et Tu, Babe, there is this monstrously egomaniacal character, a version of myself which is such the opposite of me. It is exactly what I am not.

I’ve never availed myself of the tragic or joyful aspects of my own life until this book. This is the first time I’ve done this.

Rumpus: In 1970, the novelist Yukio Mishima staged a failed coup attempt in Japan, then committed suicide by ritual disembowelment, hara kiri. You refer to Mishima’s last words as the greatest nonfiction speech. What fascinated you about Mishima?

Leyner: Mishima’s disembowelment and his beheading was a bit of a mess. The first person who tried to behead him made a mess of it. His life was completely fascinating. He was a diminutive man who became obsessed with a kind of quasi-mystical fascist way of body building. He apparently, and I may be partially guilty of this, concentrated on his upper body and had skinny legs. The photographs of him concentrated on his chiseled upper body. If you are planning on disemboweling yourself, begin tending to your stomach years before.

Rumpus: In an early conversation with his buddy, the Imaginary Intern, the character Mark Leyner says that memoir is about crappy feelings and encounters with death. Does this novel live up to these views of nonfiction?

Leyner: I would hope that the book is a uniquely pleasurable experience to have read. I don’t know if readers will come away thinking that life is a dismal, excremental experience. The book ends in an almost wistful, valedictory way. There is a sweetness to every page of this book. The whole idea that appealed to me was of transparency, making available in the most transparent way the mode of production, how this thing is being made. When I started this book, I was disdainful of traditional the fictions of sitting and fabricating a house on the street, inventing people sort of like SimCity. It seemed distasteful and archaic and I didn’t want to do that. I tried to be clear what was empirically verifiable and autobiographical, and what was more fiction or phantasmagorical.

One thing I wanted was the book to be was sweet. That’s a very good word. I did not want to put dirt on people or to malign people. I didn’t want to write lousy things about my family. I am too tribal and loyal to do that.

My childhood was really an Edenic experience for me. In every way, in terms of the weather I like, the times of day I like, the barometric pressures I like. That is what I see of as that time as a very young boy in Jersey City. It really determined my desires in this world. It is really clear in the book. At the end, it is a very wistful view of Jersey City in the 1960s, a vanished world. It is also the way a five-, six-, or seven-year old experienced the world. It was enormously satisfying to evoke this world.

Rumpus: When the main character is seven, he has a sexual awakening by seeing a photograph of an androgynous Soviet woman shot putter, enhanced by steroids. Did this happen to you, as well?

Leyner: There is a degree of camp in the book. There is a degree of hyperbole. These women were pointed out to me frequently. For some reason, Eastern European masculine women in the Olympics were a frequent topic of discussion in my family. What that indicates, God knows. I did find it really fascinating but also inflammatory in some erotic way in the manipulation of these women. There was a brazenness of the physicality of these women.

Rumpus: You compare your own career decline and physical injuries in a car accident to those of your old hero, the Yankee legend Mickey Mantle. How?

Leyner: My love of Mickey Mantle when I was young had to do with his kind of martyrdom, playing in pain. These things have appealed to me, always, this maimed, injured and encumbered kind of warrior. There is almost nothing in Mickey Mantle’s life that I can’t somehow analogize to my own. He liked to drink. I do, too. He’s had more livers, but I’ll probably hold on to my own. Amazingly, his famous injury, which I believe was caused by stepping into a drainage ditch, was similar to the knee injury I suffered when I got hit by a car in Culver City. I was in Los Angeles, working on a movie. I stepped out of the Munchkin Hotel, where the Munchkins stayed during the filming of The Wizard of Oz and got hit by a car.

If I want, I can succumb to the feeling that the predominance of the writer has very much diminished in my lifetime. When I first started publishing books, writers were on television, on talk shows and late-night shows. I was in the last group of writers to frequent the late-night talk shows. That has really contracted to the point of disappearance.

Rumpus: After you had been “raped by a robot,” having surgery to remove your cancerous prostate, a psychic tells you your doctor may have had the hots for your wife. All this is in the novel. What happened?

Leyner: My wife Mercedes is a preternaturally sweet woman, beyond anyone I’ve ever met. I had this doctor who became a deified presence in my life. Through his minute decision-making during the time of my surgery and his skill with his robot presiding over me, he seemed to have my fate as a robust man in his hands.

Comically enough, I went to see this psychic. The psychic said, “Oh, I think the doctor liked your wife.” It was a comical implication. I thought, “Oh, of course.” This guy has your masculinity in his hands, your erectile function. The great irony would be that he digs your wife.

Rumpus: The psychic also indicated that there is no discretion for dead people. Could you explain?

Leyner: I was sitting in her Hoboken kitchen and she was telling me about my grandparents and sex. This is what they are thinking? My grandparents are observing the intimate sex acts in my life? And they are telling this to the first person who contacts them?

Rumpus: The Mark Leyner in the novel has the Imaginary Intern, a kind of hang-out buddy. The two watch movies together and the Intern quotes Mao’s 1956 speech urging the persecution of “rightists.” What role did the Intern play?

Leyner: Thinking of the solitary, ungregarious insular kid I was, there was always the kind of glimmer of a doppelgänger or a little friend, an imaginary cohort that that kid might have had. I’ve also always had a desire to be involved in an art project that was collaborative. This is so unlike my life, which was neurotically insular. It was a kind of make-believe collective of two. As I started doing this, I was scrupulous in never trying to indicate that this was a real person by calling the entity the “imaginary intern.” The intern still functioned as a character in the book. I couldn’t undermine that emotional connection to that character, even if I tried.

I did see the Intern’s face in the cracks in my bathroom tile. I have a picture of it. We’ve since redone the bathroom.

Rumpus: Mao Zedong becomes a character in the book, and you mention the gross example of him never washing his genitals. Where did Mao come from?

Leyner: I have an enduring, very robust infatuation with dictators. I have an infatuation with Stalin, Mao, and Mussolini. In the Paris Review interview I did (in 2013), I said my next book, this one, was going to be about Mussolini. I wound up only having a Mussolini cameo in the book.

Rumpus: Your mother said she couldn’t play herself in the novel, but you convinced her. How did you see her as a reality-show character?

Leyner: This is something the book deals with, how we make audiences out of each other, even in our most intimate relationships. My mother and I function as an audience for each other. You could probably reduce this down to a guy having lunch with his mother in the food court at the mall, and with a bit of delusional extrapolation, it becomes a reading which no one attends.

My mother has always struck me, and this is before the term was in usage, as having something very performative about her. She’s an epic talker. The plentitude of the language she will unload on a person, maybe a cab driver, has nothing to do with the receptiveness of that person. It’s not a dialogue, it’s not an interchange. It is an enormous performance, a soliloquy.

I thought of my mother as a forerunner to Mob Wives or Kris Kardashian. I said to her once, “You have to watch Mob Wives.” She sat there with her mouth open. “I can’t believe there are people like this,” she said. I am not comparing my mother to Big Ang. She’s much more charming.

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Author photograph © David Plakke.


Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is working on a postwar history of bohemians in Greenwich Village. More from this author →