The Rumpus Book Club chats with Mark Leyner about his new book Gone with the Mind, pressuring the novel form, being a purist Dionysian, and artisanal pap smears.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Who has a question for Mark?
Mark Leyner: Great to be here on Super Tuesday!
Brian S: Speaking of, what would the Mark Leyner of the book make of Donald Trump’s success this far?
Betsy: I always wanted to be a daddy’s girl. Nice to chat with a mama’s boy. But maybe that’s fiction.
Mark Leyner: Trump’s success doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m only surprised such a grotesque phenomenon has taken so long to take root.
Mark Leyner: To Betsy—I’d say that mama’s boys typically spawn daddy’s girls.
Betsy: Fuck. That’s almost hot.
Mark Leyner: It is!
Betsy: I have only read one interview with you as the interviewee, and I have only read the book at hand. Do you fictionalize yourself in real life?
Frances: No. Sad. I felt so sad for the Mark in the book.
Betsy: And is Francis the intentional spelling for a sister?
Mark Leyner: That’s a wonderful way to put it—fictionalizing oneself in real life! Of course. I’d say we all do.
Frances: I wondered if it indicated a sort of not too bright mom.
Mark Leyner: Francis is a mistake. Didn’t catch it in time. I knew someone would notice. Didn’t think it would happen this quickly though! Should be Frances, of course.
Brian S: Where did the idea for the book come from? Especially the idea of this being a reading where very little ever gets read.
Betsy: It’s an interesting thing, the blending of fiction and nonfiction. Writers inserting themselves in their fiction, overtly, naming names. And memoirists fictionalizing history. I think it’s wonderful. But i’m not sure why.
Mark Leyner: I think the idea of the poorly attended reading probably has its origin in my sense of the diminishing role of the “writer” in our culture, my own feelings of inadequacy, aging… etc.
Jordan K: Is that where the concept of autobiography as video game came from too?
Mark Leyner: The idea of the infinitely deferred reading stems from a belief that art is generated in unwilled ways much of the time.
Brian S: I’ve been in these kinds of readings before—not to this extreme of course—but where the reader spends so much time “setting up” the piece that by the time they start reading, I’m fighting off falling asleep. So in a way, I relived those painful experiences while reading this book.
Betsy: The asides with the foodcourt workers are priceless. The set-up is the story—pretty great.
Bill: But yet the reading IS the book, even though “Mark” does not get to it in the text. Which fits the idea of art as unwilled.
Mark Leyner: I’m fascinated with video games, though I can’t really play them. It’s definitely an art form that intrigues me to no end, though. And I think of memory as a game, that is as something one engages in with a very profound kind of “playfulness.”
Frances: I loved things like paleoornithology and urinary incontinence.
Brian S: I laughed aloud–startling my daughters who were playing nearby–when I read the part where one of the workers runs his fingers through his armpit and snaps his fingers.
Frances: Those wacky comments really grabbed me.
Jordan K: I laughed out loud a bunch too.
Mark Leyner: Thanks for all the kind words!
Betsy: Do you workout from will, energy, or a combination of the two? With me, I find it’s more will than energy.
Brian S: So how did you build this book? Mark’s reading feels very digressive, very stream of thought, but that doesn’t happen naturally.
Mark Leyner: Someone said this… and it’s sort of important… that since the endless intros are actually the book… the reading does happen… that is, what seems extemporaneous is the actual text.
Betsy: Are you out to change the novel as a form, the memoir, both or neither?
Bill: Mark, you’ve written screenplays. In some ways, this book reads like a screenplay (especially the ending). How did your experience with movies (both as writer and as a viewer) influence this book?
Betsy: Yeah! That’s what I was saying to myself as I read it, but without saying “extemporaneous.”
Mark Leyner: I think I’m interested in “pressuring” the novel as a form. Seeing how much stress I can subject it to. For me, that seems to produce something that feels most pertinent at this time and in this place.
Yes, Bill—I was very aware as I got deeper into the book, that it was essentially a play. And I began to take the dramaturgy of it all very seriously. Not sure if my work on movie scripts had much to do with this. But I’ve always been entranced with theater. And somehow here, I’ve backed into it somehow.
Mark Leyner: But by the end of the book, I was very determined to visualize this as a piece of theater… or somehow a novel masquerading as theater.
Betsy: Did your mom read it?
Frances: Aha! That never occurred to me and fits perfectly. I can see it as a play—a fascinating play.
Mark Leyner: I only let my mom read it once it was essentially too late to change.
Jordan K: (And finally the lights go out) is powerful, comes out of nowhere, but then ties the whole thing together.
Betsy: Please produce it as a play and bring it to the Falcon Theatre in Los Angeles.
Mark Leyner: Thank you, Jordan. I appreciate that very much.
Frances: Plays are hard to read, being designed for viewing. So pressuring the novel this way makes a play readable.
Mark Leyner: There’s a very interesting director who’s is interested in making a film. He’s scouting malls in New Jersey actually. So… I hope that happens. He’s interested in simply filming the entire book, exactly as written!
Brian S: He’s a brave man!
Betsy: Oh man, that will be so cool.
Bill: Wow, I wonder how it will play on the screen! But the dialogue is fantastic for a movie.
Jordan K: Who would play Mark?
Frances: Better as a play but a film of a play works.
Mark Leyner: He’s a terrific guy. Can’t get too specific about it yet. But, yes, it will be VERY cool.
Brian S: Idris Elba! That’s my answer for everything.
Betsy: I LOVE the idea of doing it in a food court, an actual mall. Dang.
Mark Leyner: Idris Elba. Too funny!
Betsy: *Looks up Idris Elba*
Oh, that guy! lol
Mark Leyner: Yes. In an actual food court of an actual mall. I’m a purist about such things!
Frances: Standing on a table was odd.
Betsy: I imagine you’re a purist about a lot of things.
Mark Leyner: I’m a purist and a Dionysian.
Frances: Hard to visualize a person standing safely on a table at a food court.
Mark Leyner: I have great balance.
Frances: Never seen an author stand on anything at a reading—except the floor.
Betsy: Harder to visualize a pure Dionysian.
Brian S: If it was one of those tables bolted to the floor, maybe I’d do it. But if it can shift around? No way. I’d die.
Betsy: He HAS to stand on a table, duh. He’s SHORT! It just works.
Frances: Oh, yeah—bolted.
Betsy: Or maybe that was just my impression…
Mark Leyner: Betsy… it’s a matter of being very … artisanal about pleasure.
Betsy: Can we pause while I go take a cold shower?
Mark Leyner: That sounds more perverse than I intended, but I’ll stick with it!
Frances: How many Dionysians have great balance?
Brian S: ”Artisanal.” That’s a word that can’t die quickly enough to suit me.
Mark Leyner: Don’t you love when waiters start describing rice pudding as “artisanal”?
Brian S: I’m waiting for an OBGyn to start referring to pap smears as artisanal.
Betsy: I’d get one of those.
Brian S: How long did you work on this book?
Mark Leyner: How long? Hmmm… It took me a very long time… a couple of years, I’d say, to finally come up with the book’s architecture… it’s premise and structure. Then maybe a year and a half to assemble it, to write it.
Bill: As a 52-year-old man, I’d say this book was therapeutic for me. But you raised so many issues relevant to men “of a certain age” that I’m probably going to have to go back into therapy! Thankfully you’re very funny when writing about the sad, unavoidable changes that we face as we age.
Frances: Interested me that you thought of GWTW as a movie—epic. I think of it as a book.
Frances: I have seen the movie but the book is what had an impact on me.
Mark Leyner: To Bill: I really think all laughter is a kind of desperate, shared acknowledgement of how difficult, how sad it is to be a mortal human being.
Frances: Ack! That’s how the book made me feel about you
Bill: Yes, Mark, that really came through for me as I read the book.
Frances: Painful to read in many places.
Brian S: I’ve never read or seen GWTW, but growing up in the South, it was presented as near holy writ of the way the south really was before the Civil War, which may explain my distaste for it. So I very much appreciated the way this book skewered that.
Mark Leyner: I don’t think of the book as a movie. Not sure if that was intended for me… that comment. My idea with my work is always to fashion something that’s impossible to transpose into any other media. But… in this case… if someone did it exactly… that is, in a food court, with these four characters… well… it might just be pretty interesting to watch.
Frances: It was good teenage girl reading. I saw the movie only because my father had the video.
Mark Leyner: Oh! you were talking about Gone with the Wind! I get it! I had a girl friend in high school who was obsessed with GWTW and Clark Gable in particular. And she’d wake up in the middle of the night, get dressed and go out into her backyard, and wait for him… for his spirit. Waiting for her incubus! It was sort of like Keats’s poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes.”
Brian S: That cover art, by the way–I loved it. Who came up with that idea?
Mark Leyner: Thanks, Brian. About the cover. I told the design people that I was interested in something with the hybrid aesthetic of Russian constructivism and the Maoist Cultural Revolution. They did such a phenomenal job. I think it’s my favorite cover of any book!
Bill: The Imaginary Intern—a paracosm—an alter ego of sorts, but also kind of psychotic. What does that say about writing and writers?
Brian S: I thought of the Imaginary Intern as muse. That’s an interesting take on it, Bill.
Betsy: Ever the poet, Brian!
Bill: I love the cover. It freaked out my wife. She’s Chinese, from Hong Kong.
Frances: I saw the imaginary intern as a healthy way to handle the crazy thoughts and conflicting ideas.
Mark Leyner: I think of the Imaginary Intern as a kind of internal collaborative voice. An aspect of hearing voices, definitely. The gnawing need for a genuine companion, an imaginary sibling. Feels like something out of a Korean horror film as I think about it now!
Sorry I freaked out Bill’s wife! But I bet she gazes at it secretly.
Bill: I Saw the Devil!
Mark Leyner: I’m a huge fan of I Saw the Devil you know.
Bill: Yes, there’s that longing for a good Maoist regime in every Hong Kong capitalist! One of my favorite Korean horror films.
Mark Leyner: I took my mother to see I Saw The Devil and she walked out. It was just an experiment on my part.
Brian S: Have you been working on anything else lately or did this take up all your attention?
Mark Leyner: This took up all my attention. Now I’m in that very preliminary stage of wondering how exactly to “pressurize” the novel in some way I’ve never considered before. Perhaps including my daughter as a collaborator somehow. I’m also writing a TV pilot about women golfers. If you can believe that!
Betsy: I’ll believe it when I see it.
Mark Leyner: It’s a show about the LPGA. It’s got a very, very intriguing formal structure. I’m calling it “Little Holy Heads.”
Betsy: Would that title mean something to a golfer?
Frances: And a non-golfer who has ever watched sports on TV?
Mark Leyner: It would absolutely NOT mean anything to a golfer. I’m not a golfer. If the show ever gets on the air, you’ll see what “Little Holy Heads” means. If it doesn’t, get in touch with me in about a year, and I’ll tell you.
Betsy: Sigh. Fine.
Bill: The Mark in the book alluded several times about his advice to young writers, which he was never asked to give. So now’s your chance! What advice do you have for us scribblers?
Betsy: OMG I was JUST about to ask that, but maybe not as eloquently.
Mark Leyner: Advice?? Oh god. I’ve always tried to do the opposite of what people have advised me to do and I think that’s worked out pretty well, so…
Betsy: I love that.
Bill: The George Costanza approach to writing? Do the opposite…
Frances: Maybe depends on your goal.
Brian S: Who have you been reading lately?
Mark Leyner: I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. A biography of Napoleon. A book about DARPA, the secret military research agency, a book about octopus consciousness…oh… and John Ashbery’s amazing translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations.
Betsy: Thank you soooo much for being willing to spend an hour with us, Mark Leyner.
Mark Leyner: Thanks, Brian. And thanks to everyone else… Frances, Betsy, and all!