canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

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 (Anansi), arrived 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 ideology).

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 time. 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 Ya!, 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 Tavern. 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 Blaise, 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 serious attempt.

p.s. I forgot to mention Flannery O'Connor as a favorite, and 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.







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