Interview with Marcus Speh
VOICES recently talked with writer Marcus Speh. We used to think of him as he once described himself ‘the flawnt who fell to earth’, but these days we are getting to know him as Marcus: writer, father, lecturer. Bike rider and devoted husband. Collector of characters, observer of life. Commentator on fictional pointillism and contemplator of geographical dilemmas. A man who’s not afraid to flash and who’s written a novel in a month.
Meet Marcus Speh, a prolific writer with enormous energy. Read on to find out more about who he reads, why he writes, and what he’s doing with the voices in his head.
|VOICES: Tell us, Marcus, when did you begin writing fiction, and what led you into it?
Marcus Speh: I learnt to read early at about 3 and I wrote at 5 years of age, and I have written stories since then – alas, with large non-writing gaps in between. What led me to fiction, I believe, were my father’s stories: he was a doctor, who wrote himself and who told me a Sci-Fi story with a little boy at the centre. This story evolved over several years and has stayed with me. The other reason to write fiction were the authors I read early on, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Mann and Gustave Flaubert have particularly stayed with me as constant companions of these very early to teenage years. (Incidentally, I just discovered a volume of flash fiction by Maugham: On A Chinese Screen is a book of 58 very short story sketches collected during his 1920 travels through China and Hong Kong.) I was also very influenced by Bertrand Russell’s writing and when I was a little older (old enough in fact to appreciate Russell’s mathematical pursuits). I carried his autobiography around with me everywhere and he continues to be a deep influence. Needless to say, all of these authors were favourites of my parents and all of their books were available in our house in several languages and editions. Quite quaint, really, when you think about it, which I haven’t for a while, so thanks for making me.
V: Your writing is as diverse as flash fiction and your current novel-length affair. What are your reasons for going from one extreme to the other, and does the inspiration for each kind of writing come from entirely different sources or similar places?
MS: These two “extremes” as you call them, are more different with regard to publication (and other attached sub-processes such as reading, networking, agent-finding, selling and whatnot) but when it comes to the writing itself I find that I like to work from small, flash-like building blocks rather than towards a preset structure – like a plot line, say, or a file of characters … or any of the other gazillion receipts on how to approach a novel. In fact, I am currently engaged in a “finding the novel” treasure hunt and the way I do this is that I write a lot of very short scenes. This is the “flash card shuffle” method that John Gardner calls the “fictional pointillism” approach, which I like because it is so texture-oriented. Like Gardner and Gass, I am very fond of lingual texture: you know, when you can almost feel and taste and smell the language itself.
V: Do you find that your approach to writing a longer work is different than your approach to shorter works, from conceptualization to the mechanics of tracing a plot or developing characters? Do you eat a different breakfast, wear different clothes or drink different brew, listen to different music?
MS: Yes, quite different, actually: I stopped smoking and I moved from drinking a lot of coffee to drinking Mate, which was already recommended by Dorothea Brande in her 1934 classic “Becoming a Writer”. Though in my case, I knew of Mate since a very tumultuous affair with an Argentinian woman many moons ago – this was also when I discovered the wonderful writer Julio Cortázar, who employed a similar technique visible e.g. in his novel ‘Rayuela’ (Engl. ‘Hopscotch’). Alas, my eating habits have not changed: I eat far too much chocolate. Interestingly, I don’t tend to listen to music at all when I write now because the work itself is a lot harder: each writing session is longer and instead of 100-200 words I write about 1000-2000 words in one session now, knowing of course that most of it is crap and will have to be chucked; I agonise a lot more over the whole process and it takes me longer to let go and hand the reigns to the muse which is where they really belong. However, I am at an early stage: I’m still trying to find my characters and my plot and this is only my third novelistic adventure.
When I wrote flash in order to end up with flash (while now, for now, I write in a flash-like mode to end up with a novel), I did not do any of the things you inquire about in your question. Most of my very short fiction began with 50-100 words of a scene that I witnessed or was told about and that arrived already pretty fully formed as if dreamt. There usually was a single sentence that stuck with me which meant the scene would become fiction instead of just memory. An example is the 130-word cameo ‘The Schmock’: I remember that I came from the doctor feeling somewhat existential because I had been told that a small tumor on my skin was perfectly benign. I felt beautiful but dangerous. I rode my bicycle past a house entrance with six young men dressed in black suits. And as I passed them, I thought of the sentence “the schmock greeted his fate with perfect equanimity” and the entire story followed suit immediately – pretty much in its final form except the exact wording, rhythm etc. which took some polishing.
The arrival of very short fiction always seemed magical to me. But all writing that works (for the reader, for the writer) is trance-like and magical. The difference between writing very short and very long fiction means, for me, more continuous commitment and obstinate obsessiveness. I feel a lot more committed and obsessed now: in my head I never put the pen down. Not only do I not disown the short bursts of imagination that I write down, I hold on to them to perhaps place them later on in a larger texture. It is riveting and ridiculous at once to think that I need to maintain this state of excitement for a year maybe but that’s the deal with a novel. I guess. And I know that as a flash writer, I didn’t work this way. Then, I wrote according to Yuri Olescha’s credo “No Day Without A Line” and I had to look for small pockets to write during my day. Writing a novel on the other hand is more like moving into a new house without precise information about: the number of rooms; the other inhabitants; number and location of windows, exits and fireplaces. And because you live there now you simply don’t ever get/go away.
V: Is there someone in your life who has most influenced your writing – that is, one person in particular without whom you would not be writing?
MS: Besides my dad whom I already mentioned and who wrote himself I suppose this person is my wife Carlye who is an artist, who comes from a writing family and says that she hates writing herself. But she’s also an ex-editor, the first person to see most of what I’ve written, the muse who expertly helps me hold the course and the person who has read more than anyone else I’ve ever met – for most of our now 16-year relationship she read several books a week. We pretty much admire the same writers (except Thomas Mann whom she does not find accessible, but then I am not sure I do still) and talking about writing, writers, art and artists has been pretty much our top theme for many years. To have someone like that in one’s household is an incredible gift and I don’t know if I’d be writing without her. We also have a 9-year old daughter who cheers me on and who loves to make up titles for my stories or make stories up herself: “So that you can then write it up, daddy”, she goes.
She also is a great cook – we have a saying in Germany: eating and drinking keeps body and soul together. I cannot write well if I don’t eat well.
V: How does geography affect your writing? That is, does your physical environment influence your writing and does that extend from immediate surroundings to a regional or global scale?
MS: You know, that is an excellent question – I regularly torment myself with the question where my characters live as I am tormented by the question whether writing German wouldn’t be smarter altogether. I suppose if I had not got around much the issue wouldn’t arise – or perhaps I’d be more inclined to make up fantasy places. But I have lived in many places, I traveled an unusual amount because of my occupations and, because most of our close family lives in the U.S. but we live in Germany, I still get around.
The other geographical conundrum I am aware of that also affects my writing is the gap between living in the countryside and living in the city. Since last year, we have a city apartment and a house on the land. We commute all the time between the two and I find myself in a very different state of mind in either location. For example, seeing spring unfold slowly after a long winter as you can only see it in the country was amazing. It made me realise how shielded city people are and it made me wonder how the city-country gap influences life everywhere – because we all came out of the ocean and made our way across the land to the great cities. This gap touches upon so many existential issues such as the influence of civilisation, the seasons of a man’s life and how life keeps changing more rapidly for more people than ever before in human history. You see, you put your finger on one of my philosophical trigger points here…
Coming back to the first point, I am a German who writes English in Germany. I have largely cut myself off from German writing, German TV, German newspapers…it is a little like the life of an expatriate in his own country. Which is funny because my very first story ever that I wrote as a child was called “The inner emigration of Leopold Wundersam” and it was about a boy who did just that: disappear to another world while living in this world. It’s an odd tension, for me. It feeds me and it worries me continuously. But whenever I try to write in German, I don’t get anywhere, really. It’s a shame (or not, as the case may be).
I presume the greatest reason for my shunning German is that my muse and my first reader, my wife, is a native English speaker and the best reader anybody could want.
V: What sorts of things do you find yourself writing about most often – people, place, music, history, the craft of writing, etc?
MS: I can answer this uncharacteristically briefly: people and, perhaps, philosophy, though rather indirectly. Occasionally I find myself writing about writing but while I think that it is a natural attractor for people like me who set out for a major life change via writing, I don’t feel it has too much staying power. I might have to take that back. Writing about writing not so much as a craft but as a endeavor with risks – and riches – like no other (each art has its own risks and its own riches) is not only pleasurable but, I think, important for everyone, not just writers. “There is much fright,” William H. Gass says in his preface to a story collection, and he is right. Nothing more honourable than writing about that “fright” and how it can, and must, be managed. Also, I like meta fiction a lot and meta fiction is an easy tool to open the oyster of fiction writing. That often there’s no pearl in that oyster adds to the thrill of the treasure hunt, I think.
V: Tell us, if you will, what a typical day in the life of Marcus Speh looks like, and where your writing fits into the rest of your life.
MS: I became a lecturer three years ago – so during term I live the life of a lecturer with a family, with research interests and grants, with students and colleagues and all that academic hullaballoo. (Check out the campus novels of David Lodge for an adequate description of that environment.) Essentially I get up very early and write half an hour to an hour, then I do my academic thing and in the evening I write some more, sometimes for several hours. But my attention is easily distracted because there are so many people around wanting things, writing emails etc.
When I am not in term, I still have students to supervise and papers to grade but as I get more experienced, I hope to make better use of the term breaks. Next term I will officially live in paradise, however, because I have my first sabbatical coming up.
If writing is the most creative, the most wonderful, nurturing part of my day is living with my family, my artist wife and our daughter. Often I feel so blessed with love that I don’t know where to put my prayers. My fiction definitely breathes this love, too – I don’t feel undeserving of it (I’ve behaved decently most of my life) but I still believe that having been given great gifts might have a meaning which can be expressed by making art, by writing, painting…or simply by living well and creatively. As Andy Warhol said, good business is the best art.
Until I gave up on Finnegan Flawnt, I also put in time to maintain his exuberant personality and keep up with his networking but fortunately that’s over and he rests now at the bottom of a cool green lake.
But whatever happens in my day, I make ample use of the greatest privilege of any writer: that you can do it all the time and at any time in your head. I had to practice this for a long time before I felt that writing in my head actually had become a tool but now it works very well. In fact, I would say more than other thing it is mastering that which convinced me that I actually was a writer.
V: You are a writer who considers viewpoint and perspective very carefully. When you write, do you often have competing voices in your head, or do they line up and sing in harmony?
MS: They tend to line up for the shorter pieces, for the longer pieces they tend to compete which is part of both the fun and the fear (of not making it through to the end of this paragraph or that passage). This is probably why I find writing longer fiction so much more thrilling and stimulating than writing flash. I am sure this is different for other writers.
It is only after having written a couple hundred flash pieces that I can confirm what others have said – I think I first consciously heard it from Stephen King – that all the characters and their lives populate one universe. The more I write the more I become aware of their hidden relationships and I am excited at the idea of excavating this universe almost like a lost world. The paradox is that it is actually our universe! I am not someone who makes a lot of stuff up: I am a fairly autobiographical writer, a viewer. I observe the real world and I record with my own words. And still, on the page it looks like this other world. Which confirms what I have felt for a long time, that all these other worlds do actually exist in parallel like in Everett’s many worlds theory except that we can travel from one to the next via writing (and, of course, reading). I would almost like to elevate this thought to become a criterion of good writing: “enables safe and enjoyable travel across many worlds.” (Notice I said ‘enjoyable’ not necessarily ‘pleasant’. This leaves room for plenty of bizarro and gory fiction).
V: Because this is Voices, a space where Characters have their say, could you please tell us about one particular character in your new novel? A hint, perhaps, at the kind of character who has made an impression on you, and whom we’ll meet some day.
MS: One character that’s followed me around (or perhaps I have followed her) is Lavender Olivier, a writer of young adult fiction who gets the material from her stories from dreams in which her mother and father tell her these stories. Though she has learnt to accept this process and work with it, she is concerned that it’s not real enough, not solid. As she tries to break free from her routine, she finds herself in a very unlikely encounter with one of her own characters.
Another possible character – an actor looking for a novel, Goldoni might say – is Finnegan Flawnt, an almost bald-headed, smallish man in his early fifties with a worrisome expression on his face and loud shoes, a man of many merits which he has so far not been able to capitalize upon. He is disappointed with himself because he feels he has not lived up to his full potential. He needs to get out more, which will bring him in contact with others and catalyze his change. He may be a barefoot prophet for a while.
As I’m reading what I wrote, I realise these are both characters full of unlived potential with an anxious disposition, people who need to come out of their shell and if there’s the beginning of a story it involves the question if they will get there or if they will fail, who will they meet along their journey and how close will they come to their still unfelt goals. There will be love and pain because there always is in any believable story and even though I like absurdist settings, I want my readers to believe my every word and the idiosyncratic punctuation too, if possible. There are dozens of such types pushing out into the light of life on the page – I’m really looking forward to freeing some of them (and chaining others).
V: You have mentioned before (and we’re paraphrasing here) that the joy of writing is in the unknown, the unfolding of something new. So now we want to know: how is the novel progressing, and does this newborn effort bring you the joie de vivre that you were losing in your recent shorter works?
MS: You know, it does as I think I’ve already described. I don’t know if I will return to the short form as such but I am terribly excited, to the point of implosion, to begin this new journey. Last time I did this I completed the NaNoWriMo marathon and I felt quite wrung out by the end, empty and … a little greasy. It still was a great experience to get more than 50,000 words out of my system and it was worth it (also because of the comradeship surrounding this process). And the time before that I lived in New Zealand, was trying to overcome my corporate hangover, lived in an apartment surrounded only by glass walls and a view of the Auckland bay and wrote and wrote and wrote without beginning, middle or end. This time, I still don’t have a plan but I am certainly a man on a mission, I’ll take my merry time and as we speak I’m taking some steps to make real-life contacts with writers in Berlin…scary and fun at once!
V: And finally, since this is the place to get to know you a little more, how about a round of Flash-Fragen:
Whisky oder Bier?
Bach oder Beethoven?
Goethe oder Grass?
Spätzle oder Kartoffeln?
Biermann oder Hagen?
Biedermeier oder Dada?
Brecht oder Brüder Grimm?
Berg oder Bach?
Fußball oder Schilaufen?
Strand oder Schnee?
Fahrrad oder Fuß?
Stadt oder Land (oder Fluß)?
Farb oder schwarz-weiss?
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VOICES would like to thank Marcus Speh for bringing his unique voice to our pages. We look forward to hearing where his imagination and his characters take us next.
|Photos of Mr. Speh by bettina keller|