TDR Interview: Mark Anthony Jarman
Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of the wickedly entertaining novel
Salvage King, Ya!: A Herky Jerky Picaresque and the short story
collections Dancing Nightly in the Taverns and New Orleans is Sinking.
His latest story collection, entitled 19 Knives
in spring 2000 to glowing reviews.
Jarman is currently teaching creative writing at
the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. He is a past graduate
of the University of Iowa Writing Seminar.
Michael Bryson interviewed
Jarman by email over a number of weeks in the winter 1999/2000.
TDR: Your novel Salvage King, Ya! (about a minor
league hockey player near the end of his playing days who has his hands
full balancing a girlfriend, a fiancÚ and an ex-wife) radiates the complexities
of 1990s Canada. It also seems to argue with the standard tropes of
"Canadian literature" (lush lyricism, small town realism, victim/survival
JARMAN: Does Salvage King argue with standard
tropes? I hope
it does. I wanted to use them and stand them on their head at same time.
I didn't want to write a standard A to B linear plotted book. I don't
mind them, many writers are good at them, but I wanted to fool around
more. In general, critics sometimes review what they think should be
there, not what is actually there; editors and agents can be very conservative
about what is allowed, especially compared to art, music, video, etc.
I had a lot of trouble with editors and publishers and agents over that
book. I thought I wouldn't be able to sell it for a while, yet the reviews
were great, except the first one by Andrew Pyper in Quill & Quire. I
wanted to punch him in the nose, but now I'm okay. Now people want to
punch me. Like Joni Mitchell, I've been on both sides now. Ha.
TDR: Could you comment on the relationship between 1990s
Canada and the nation's literary tradition? Is Canada changing faster
than the country's literature can adapt?
JARMAN: Yes it is changing fast, but probably always been so;
perhaps a matter of degree (I know I sound vague). I think of Hugh Garner's
forward in Alice Munro's first collection. The forward is gone now but
was in the early editions, and was very awkward. She was new and he
wasn't sure what to say. Now it looks funny and wrongheaded and now
she is the name, the icon. I like Garner but he was in a different world,
and the same is happening now, happens over and over.
TDR: What is your assessment of the state of Canadian
writing today? Does the new, younger generation of Canadian writers
share a sensibility?
JARMAN: I doubt it, I think of writers as individuals more than
a mob or brat pack. I like good vs bad, not young vs old or Amercian
vs Canadian, or street cred vs lack of street cred. By the way, I'm
not young, so I don't want to define the young. A subgroup I could mention
is Smoking Lung chapbooks: Brad Cran seems to be running the show and
he publishes himself and Shane Book, Billeh Nickerson, Karen Solie,
Adam Chiles, and a bunch of other good younger writers doing interesting
things. Arsenal did their anthology. They sold a ton of books at the
Vancouver festival and did a cross country trip, reading wherever they
could, bands playing, teeth gnashing driving ice on the Rogers Pass,
etc. I think they're worth watching.
TDR: How would you summarize the Canadian literary scene?
Public perception of Canadian literature is obviously dominated by a
few big names and a few big awards, but there is a whole range of literary
activity (from 'zines to poetry slams) which is rarely handed any media
spotlight. Where should people go to find out "what is really happening"?
JARMAN: I agree with what you said about lit. activities that
are not covered by the media. CBC goes to the same few names every
They plug the same safe books over and over. It reminds me of music.
The Globe never reviews interesting small label bands. Shania or Celine
all fucking day, never see Godspeed You Black Emperor. Part of it is
built in, is systematic. Mailer called it feeding the goat. The media
is a goat that has to be fed something. Many in the media are rushed,
and it's impossible to know every scene. There is also a kind of lazy
journalism. It's simpler to pigeonhole, label, or to go with what everyone
else covers or what is deemed as trendy or chic or happening. So it's
easy for a writer to get lost, ignored, turned around, forgotten and
wandering the boondocks. Hence my identification, in Salvage King
with a minor league player bouncing from team to team, town to town.
In my hockey story "Righteous Speedboat" the player won't be drafted because
he clocked his coach.
TDR: What sort of challenges do you set for yourself
as a writer? What are you trying to "do" in your writing? (Please answer
providing examples from your work.)
JARMAN: Challenges I set as a writer: I don't always know what
I'm going to do, it's instinctive and changes with each piece or project.
I don't have big plans and not a big picture person. Perhaps I think
in the small picture, the next word, next sentence, idea, random images,
scraps of dialogue, song lyrics. a voice, a headline, etc. In "Cowboys
Inc" (from my first book Dancing Nightly In The Tavern), I wanted to
do a travel/road piece and I wanted a triangle and I wanted a sex scene
on an ironing board. I had a lot of notes and matchbooks and napkins,
etc. and threw them together. In "Mir" I wanted to do a story set on the
Russian space station and while I was working on it I was puzzled as
to why -- seemed stupid at time but editors liked it.
Anvil is doing
an anthology of public transit stories so I put together a few little
bus anecdotes I had in journals and worked it over. My story "Metered
Dream Palace" started as a jazz poem which was not good, but I worked
it over and it got longer and longer. My point is that I often work
blind in a manner. I do a lot of revising. The title of my novel Salvage
King Ya! I saw scratched on a wall in a bar in Cutbank, Montana. I saw
it on two different trips and liked it so I wrote a junkyard into the
book to use it. It was a message of sorts but my book might have sold
more if I had ignored it.
DANFORTH REVIEW: You have been a writer, a teacher and an anthologist.
Do these different hats complement each other? How?
JARMAN: The different. hats do complement each other. I've
learned an amazing amount from having to teach, especially being forced
to repeatedly examine Shakespeare, Joyce, Ondaatje, Melville, Marvell,
Munro, Keroauc, Pinter, Cheever, Roethke, Eliot, Atwood, even though
I may not like them all. I love dropping bits from Hamlet or Prufrock
in my work, but the bad thing is I don't know if I can stop. I've actually
picked up some great stuff from blueboxes by the photocopying machine,
say Viking runes or Chaucer lines, and consider that part of my ongoing
education. I would actually like to stop teaching, the essays kill me,
but I'd probably miss the contact and the trapped audience. I never
planned to be a teacher. I thought I'd drive a truck and write on the
side. At grad school (Iowa) I was offered a T.A. which meant some money,
in-state tuition, and some teaching experience, so I took it. My hands
and knees shook when I started; it was fun but scary.
After Iowa I lived in Seattle illegally and cut lawns, chopped wood,
etc. and worked on my first collection, Dancing Nightly In The
Then I was spring skiing in Banff and applied at Mount Royal College
in Calgary, because a good friend was teaching music there, and I got
part time work for three years, then ended up at Univ. of Victoria,
and am now teaching fiction temp. at UNB in Fredericton. As I said,
no five year plan, it was very random. It was a way to eat, but I grew
into it, enjoying it more than I could have predicted. My friends at
Iowa laughed when they heard I was going to teach. I didn't strike them
as the type. I don't like bureaucracies but I like some of the colleagues
and many students. Not all. The danger is that you are turned into a
bureaucrat just by being inside a bureaucracy for so long; it's bound
to affect you, consciously or unconsciously. It makes you more careful,
more politic, like working in a bank, and that's not good for an artist,
if I can use that term. I don't usually use the term.
Perhaps the best thing about teaching is that you're not chained to
one locale all day. You move around. No punchclock. The day is broken
up and you have bits of time. I've learned to write with those tiny
bits of time. Some people think they need a garret in Paris and time.
That's bullshit. They're avoiding it, making excuses. I can write anywhere.
Dif. hats can help or hinder. I believe that teaching has helped me
in my writing (one hat), but I'd also like to cut back teaching and
write more (the important hat?). I think I've written a fair bit considering
I have to teach a lot to pay bills, feed my kids, etc. I'm a sessional,
and sessionals are not rewarded the same way full time or tenured faculty
are. There is a measure of exploitation, but it's better than being
exploited by 7-Eleven. I went in with my eyes open. But that doesn't
make you happy about being exploited.
The other hat: athologist. I'm not well known as one but I do want to
edit an anthology of road stories soon, and hope to do it with Anvil
Press or Smoking Lung/Aresenal. I tried to put together an anthology of the best of
The Malahat Review years back, but the publisher I was
working with quit and things fell apart. It would have been good. The
first anthology I edited, Ounce of Cure, was a collection of Canadian
alcohol-related stories. Like teaching, this was also random. I saw
a book like it in Seattle and thought someone should do this in Canada.
Then I thought, maybe I should do it. Ounce of Cure has some great stuff
in it but got zero promotion, the usual writer's complaint. I only have
one copy left, and wouldn't mind finding a couple more to keep. (Same
with my book of poetry, Killing The Swan.) I'm not sure being an editor
affects my writing. Basically it's another title on your CV or in the
marketplace. Putting together an anthology does make you look around,
keeping an eye on what others are writing, which is good, because it's
impossible to keep up with everything.
Another hat is nonfiction. I've been doing more and more and recently
won both Event and Prism's nonfiction contests with some Irish material
I'm working on. I went there about 20 years ago and returned recently
and the changes are amazing, not all good. My mother is from Dublin.
I love going there and in some ways the writing bankrolls or justifies
the travel. I like to travel but can't always take off when I want.
TDR: Could you say a few words about your influences.
JARMAN: I take influences from anywhere, anything. I like a
lot of writers, eg Nathaneal West, John Dos Passos, Celine, Hubert Selby,
Pinter, Joan Didion, Renata Adler, Amy Hempl, Lorrie Moore, Bukowski,
Joseph Mitchell, Robert Stone, Denis Johnson, Carver, Tom McGuane, James
Purdy, Lowry, Mary Gaitskill, but I'm also influenced by movies, newspapers,
pop culture, slang, music, etc. The band Joy Division is probably more
of an influence on my writing than Faulkner, though I like him. Ditto
with musicians like Howling Wolf, Tom Waits, Nick Drake, Townes Van
Zandt, Portishead, etc. I always play music and I like reading poetry
while writing fiction. I collect anthologies like the Pushcart Prize,
Best Essays, Best Stories, monologues and plays (I had a lot of trouble
with dialogue when I started out). These are worth picking up. I've
had some good teachers: Matt Cohen, PK Page, Phyllis Webb, Clark
Bharati Mukherjee, Barry Hannah (wild southern writer), Larry Levis
(good usa poet, we used to shoot pool in Iowa, whose heart just stopped,
likely from too much speed and alcohol), Barbara Moon, and Captain Kangaroo.
I really like Isaac Babel, amazing Russian writer, wrote about riding
with the Cossacks as a Jewish journalist, and was killed by Stalin.
I also like Dennis Potter who did The Singing Detective for British
TV; wild, surreal scenes that gives you hope for TV. I hate beer ads
and most shows (I like The Simpsons but that's not news.). Playwrights:
I like Eric Bogosian's monologues, Mamet, David Hare, Caryl Churchill,
George Walker, David Rabe. I mentioned Pinter already: I think he's
a huge influence on Ray Carver but no one seems to have ever pointed
it out. Both slightly skewed, which I like.
TDR: What's next for Mark Anthony Jarman?
JARMAN: My new collection of stories will be out in April 2000,
called 19 Knives, with Anansi. Also want to make my Irish travel pieces
into a book. Sitting in on screenwriting and playwrighting courses here
at UNB so I'm going to try writing a 10 minute play based on a Ray Carver
story, and may try to turn my story "Cowboys Inc." (from my first collection
Dancing Nightly In The Tavern) into a short screenplay. Fun more than
p.s. I forgot to mention Flannery O'Connor as a
I also think of John Cheever as an invisible influence, in that people
reading me wouldn't think of Cheever but he's a huge influence. I once
rode a Greyhound from Philly to Seattle, three days on a bus and his
collected stories kept me sane. It was also important for me when I
started writing to find writers who wrote about where I lived (in the
west). Until I read Robert Kroetsch's Studhorse Man or Ken Mitchell's
short stories Everybody Gets Something Here, I thought you had to write
about New York or Paris or a safari somewhere else, and not where I
was from. mj.