A week or so ago, I interviewed Marston Hefner about his new short-story collection, High School Romance, to be published by CLASH Books on August 30. Marston, thirty-two years old, grew up in Los Angeles and enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games. The interview was conducted by e-mail.
MH: Hi, Garielle. It’s an honor to be interviewed by you.
GL: It’s great to talk with you. I’m curious about how you developed your voice as a writer. The first I learned of you was in an interview you conducted with Gordon Lish in Young Magazine, your online literary journal. In the interview, you mentioned your love for him and for Gertrude Stein. When did you first start reading them? How did you find your way to their work?
MH: A writer friend and I often talked about our craft together. After I was enthusiastically talking about my love of repetition, he asked if I had read Lish’s “The Death of Me.” It was a come-to-Jesus moment. If readers here have not read that story, I highly recommend it. I’ve never read a story that so perfectly encapsulated my ambitions as a writer. It was, put simply, “I wanted to be the best,” and God agreed. But it was not just the divine message or mission of the narrator but also the way Lish wrote. It was the use of repetition along with the fun time he was so clearly having. I wanted all of that in my writing. I also wanted to be the best. I came upon Stein through my obsession with Lish. I still view her as “the source.” When I read her work now, it feels like I’m reading writing from the future.
GL: I had that very story of Gordon’s in mind as I read your book, especially stories like “You and Me and Like, Where Do We Go, After All This Time?” In many of your stories, it’s as if entire novellas have been chopped down to the dimensions of a leaflet. Is that the way you work–starting large and then cutting almost everything? Or do you work accretingly from sentence to sentence?
MH: When I wrote these stories, I had a word count of around 1,200 that I wanted to reach. I’d leave a story alone for a day or a week, and then I’d come back to it and delete what I didn’t like and then rewrite from the parts I did. I would repeat this process over and over again until the story reached a place I felt was right. The stories have been reread and rewritten many times over.
GL: Yes, as I read your stories, I always sensed that a great deal of distilling and concentrating must have been going on over considerable spans of time. It’s as if there is a lot of space between the sentences–not physical space but mental and emotional space, as if the narrator’s world is always subtly but pronouncedly reconstituting itself from one sentence to the next. There’s so much density and turbulence in the stories, and this puts me in mind of Lish’s teachings about the sentence–such as that a sentence needs to carry something forward from the previous sentence, something not just thematic but linguistic (“consecution” is what he calls the process) and that the new sentence also needs to challenge the previous sentence, or even overturn it (he calls this move the “swerve”). As one of your narrators puts it, “Arriving is a kind of seeing.” Your narrators seem to be constantly shifting or revising their sense of a destination.
MH: I see that a lot in your own work, the notion of “arriving” as “a kind of seeing.” In the story of mine you just quoted from, “Salarymen4,” I tried to make it clear that if the reader did not enjoy the piece, it might be because he or she cannot “see” the technical maneuvers being made.
GL: As a writer of fiction, you are not big on detail, on specificity, and your stories (thank goodness!) upend the old dictum of “show, don’t tell.” How did you end up that way?
MH: I think I mimicked the stories I loved. Stories written by Stein and Lish didn’t give a crap about “showing” everything. There is a rawness to “telling,” and there is an authenticity to it that a reader responds to.
GL: Your stories are definitely not journalistic in any way. So much fiction these days comes across as a report, or a transcription, but each of your stories reaches a reader like the outcry from a soul.
MH: That means so much coming from you.
GL: You grew up in a family headed by one of the titans of twentieth-century print media. It seems that in some cases the sons and daughters of celebrities can feel a lot of pressure to compete with or even surpass their parents, and in other cases the sons and daughters can end up lacking any direction, motivation, and ambition whatsoever and just coast through life and eventually fall by the wayside. It's obvious that you are highly motivated. How did having such an extraordinarily famous and successful father shape your growth as a writer? Did you get a lot of encouragement? How has your background shaped your view of people, of the publishing world, of life, of the world at large?
MH: Often when I got poor grades as a child, and I often did, I would be told that if I wanted to be the CEO of Playboy I had to do better in school. The parent who said this would then go on to say, “Do you want [here this parent would insert the name of one of my friends] to run Playboy?” There was an immense amount of stress about getting good grades. When I got to be about fifteen years old, I noticed the children who were “smart” appeared fifteen pounds lighter than myself, because I was dragging a bunch of emotional stuff around whenever I moved through the halls. I wanted to help myself, I wanted to go to therapy, and I wanted to be diagnosed with ADHD. My father was pretty absent, and my mother had her own mishigas when it came to academic achievement so they didn’t really support me.
As far as writing is concerned, my family is fairly conservative. I can’t say who is supportive and who isn’t, because I’m not throwing any of them under the bus, but I have been told that my writing is seen more as a hobby than as a career because I make little money from it. It does sound strange to say, but the arts aren’t well understood by many in my family. However, my father left me an inheritance, and he always supported me financially while he was living. That alone, as many writers know, is a dream come true. Simply having the freedom to write all day long is wonderful.
GL: Were you a reader as a kid? What were your early readerly fascinations? Was writing something that interested you when you were little?
MH: I fell in love with Holes by Louis Sachar in the fourth grade. This came as a surprise to me since reading was usually unpleasant. When I moved into fifth grade, my classroom had a nice little bookshelf of age-appropriate literature. Some of the books I read were The Hardy Boys series, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Wayside School Is Falling Down, The Chronicles of Narnia, and other books that dealt with child sexuality in a rather explicit and refreshing way. I still remember the girl in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing placing an ice cube in her mouth, taking it out, and placing it in her boyfriend’s hand. These books were activating my imagination and making sense of my sexuality in a way the adult world neglected.
GL: I had to look up most of those titles! When did reading stop being “unpleasant” for you? Or, to put it another way, did it begin to dawn on you at some point that maybe you were reading in ways that differed from the way your classmates went about reading? Reading, the interaction with words on a page, can be practically physical for some people–as if the words are rising up off the page into a third dimension. I’m also wondering about what sorts of things you might have been reading between your childhood and your discovery of Lish and Stein.
MH: That’s a great question. I think school really messed up my view of reading, but then there were books that literally seemed to shine in the world. There was an extra layer of something over them before I read them. I think I have always enjoyed reading but not necessarily what was on the school curriculum. There were so many authors before I read Lish and Stein. The big ones were from the New Sincerity Movement, writers like DFW, Franzen, Foer, and that fellow who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Before them, I was really into the Beat Generation when I was a sophomore in college, because I gravitated toward the notion of writers living exciting lives in order to create momentum in their prose. And then after DFW and such, I got very into Tao Lin and Megan Boyle. When I read them it felt like the wall between reader and writer had vanished.
GL: Eight years ago you published a book under a pseudonym. I gather you were in your early twenties when you wrote it. How radically different is High School Romance from that book? When did you start achieving the style of the new story collection?
MH: Oh, yes! I wrote a zombie short-story collection. I purposely wrote it under a pseudonym because I knew I was not ready to have something published under my real name. As for the style I’ve reached now–well, to be honest, I feel like my style changes quite often. The work in High School Romance was achieved after many years of playing in the laboratory. I think my work started reaching a finer quality while writing the first draft of High School Romance. That was in 2014.
GL: You’re a professional backgammon player. I don’t know the first thing about the game, but my impression is that it’s pretty cerebral and all about moves, maneuvers (and in your story “Salarymen4,” the narrator mentions that there’s such a thing as a “forced move” in the game), so I am wondering whether there’s some kind of connection between your virtuosity at the backgammon board and the moves you make in your fiction. There’s an unnerving sureness with which you proceed from one sentence to the next–as if there’s no other way forward than the one you’ve arrived at. The phrasing is always emotional, yet it feels as if pieces are being guided to destined places.
MH: I do sense a certainty in my sentences that I think reflects a certainty I operate in the world with. That is of course unless someone knows more than I do on a subject. I think I enjoyed writing more than I enjoyed backgammon, though making money from a game was always a swell time. It’s hard for me to say–my approaches were pretty different. When I wrote, I was not thinking about making the “correct” sentence, but in backgammon I was constantly concerned with the “correct” move, though in both I was very competitive. I’m mostly just really grateful that you feel that way about my writing.
GL: I see what you mean about “correct” moves. One of my pleasures as a reader of fiction is finding myself in a paragraph where I have no idea of what sort of psychic terrain I’ll find myself in only one or two sentences down the road and yet I can sense that the writer is driving me toward somewhere that can’t be reached by consulting any of the usual, geographically “correct” maps. I had that experience pretty often while reading your book. And your fiction deals very boldly with your narrators’ complicatedly unusual inner lives, as well as with their relationships, both familial and romantic. Some of the family dynamics in the stories are peculiar to an extreme. While writing, did you ever pause and ask yourself, “Maybe I should not be saying this?” Over the years, I’ve been struck by how easily some readers, mostly unsophisticated ones, assume that any fiction with a first-person narrator is straightforwardly autobiographical.
MH: To be honest there were many stories I wrote that were too personal to publish. But I try not to think too much about how “they” will view the book. “They” don’t seem very intelligent or capable of understanding nuance.
GL: You mention the fun you feel while writing. There’s a strain of fiercely dark humor in much of your work. I often found myself laughing out loud. A lot of literary fiction these days seems (at least to me, anyway) pretty humorless or else just whimsical.
MH: When I write, I always try to enjoy myself. It took me about a decade of writing to figure that out. But it doesn’t mean the prose will be very consistent. I wrote this book, a teeny leaflet of a book, over the course of seven years. Even though I wrote from a happy place for most of it, many of the stories didn’t make the cut. But the ones that work, the ones that are “special,” do exactly that. They convey my happiness to the reader not just in the story itself but in the “body” of the story, the way it is written.
GL: The late Giancarlo DiTrapano was an early champion of your stories, and two of them were published in New York Tyrant, the literary journal he founded. Gian was a major proponent of the view that a writer must say the unsayable. What did you learn from him?
MH: One piece of advice he gave me was “Do not publish yourself in your own magazine.” The rest of our relationship was rather complicated. I wish him well, and I hope he’s having some fun up there.