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Interview with Mark Lewandowski, author of Halibut Rodeo

Halibut Rodeo
Today, I welcome fellow All Things That Matter Press author, Mark Lewandowski, to my humble little blog. A bit about Mark, then I'll ask the questions and get the answers.

Mark Lewandowski is an Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University. His stories and essays have appeared in many literary journals, including The North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Florida Review. His essays have been listed as "Notable" in The Best American Travel Writing, and twice in The Best American Essays. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been listed as "Notable" in The Best American Nonrequired Reading. "Positioning," a short film taken from his screenplay and directed by Hans Montelius, premiered at the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. It has since screened at eight other festivals.
In 1991, Mark joined the Peace Corps and taught English at a teacher's college in Biala Podlaska, Poland. He also taught creative writing and American Studies as a Fulbright Scholar at Siauliai University in Lithuania. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University.




Where did you grow up and was reading and writing a part of your life? Who were your earliest influences and why?
I was born in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, but as my father climbed the corporate ladder we moved, first to Albany, then to Pittsburgh, back to Buffalo, and finally, when I was 14, to Overland Park, Kansas.  All I knew of Kansas came from The Wizard of Oz.  I was genuinely surprised to find paved roads there.  I really didn’t start reading compulsively until college, though before then I was obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert.  My very first publication was a poem called “Isildor’s Bane,” a retelling of Aragorn’s ancestor finding, and then becoming corrupted by the One Ring.  It appeared in a cheap fanzine called The Rivendell Review.  I think I was 16.  I still remember the thrill of the editor calling me to offer some editing suggestions.  For some reason, though, I didn’t become a poet, never even tried to publish another one.  I suppose I just prefer to tell stories.  The writer that probably influenced me most as a young writer was Harlan Ellison.  He has such a singular voice, both as a short story writer and an essayist.  He won scads of Hugo and Nebula awards, but since he wasn’t really a novelist he was bit off the radar.  He was the one who really got me interested in the short form.


Why do you write?
I once complained to poet Rick Mulkey about how much work writing could be, that you spend days, months, years writing something that no one else will ever likely want to read.  Just sitting down to do it can be incredibly painful and heartbreaking.  At the same time, I have no real choice.  If I don’t write I just feel off kilter; I get cranky and can’t sleep.  I have these voices in my head, you see, and the only way to get rid of them is to put them on paper.  My mind races, I endlessly speculate about my own life, as well as the lives of imaginary people.  All that gunk in my brain has to go somewhere.  Rick suggested, only half-kiddingly, that if it’s too much work I should get drunk and forget about it.  I guess I write because it’s cheaper and healthier than drinking. It’s no surprise to me that alcoholism and writing often go hand-in-hand.

Your new book IS HALIBUT RODEO which is a collection of short stories about the Alaskan fishing industry. Why the Alaskan fishing industry?

I spent a summer working at a fish processing plant in Homer, Alaska.  I was between undergraduate and graduate school, and found myself disassembling fish alongside the kinds of people I never would have met in suburbia: Eskimos, Old Believers, migrant workers, Japanese immigrants, etc. along with a hodgepodge of others who just never fit into mainstream America.  The whole experience was totally alien to me.  And Homer, too, with its glaciated mountains seemingly rising right out of the sea, its moose, bears, bald eagles, was as different from the plains of Kansas that I could possibly imagine.  I never had interest in writing about where I had come from.  Suburban American was, perhaps, too familiar to me to engage my creative interests.  So before I went to Homer most of my stories were science fiction tales.  Alaska changed all that.  I found I could write about my own experiences, that I could be influenced not just by the books I read, but by real life.

HALIBUT RODEO has been said to be a "collection of stories about lonely people trying to find each other and hold on." Explain.

I never really noticed that until I started editing the book for publication.  It’s true, though; every protagonist in the book is lonely, and looks to alleviate that loneliness.  It’s kind of eerie.  Most of the stories were conceived when I was still in my 20s.  I’m now 45 and I’m still unmarried.  Some part of me knew something about how I would live my life long before I was consciously aware of it.  


Explain your title HALIBUT RODEO as it relates to the collection.
One of the jobs I endured before salmon season started was Glacier Crew.  The details of this job are illustrated in “Breaking the Halibut,” the second story in the collection.  We basically built “halibut glaciers” by alternating layers of halibut and ice in order to temporarily preserve the fish.  Once the slime-line was caught up and ready to clean the fish, we tore down the glacier.  John, one of the guys I worked with, pulled out a fish and ended up sliding down the glacier with it.  When he got to the bottom he jumped and “yeehawed” in a silly pseudo western twang.  I took that kernel and imagined a more elaborate “rodeo” for the short story.  Alaska has been referred to as America’s “last frontier.”  When many people hear “frontier,” they think of the “wild west,” with rodeo riders and such.  The modern day rodeo is one of the last remnants of a very much romanticized time in our history.  My Alaskan-style rodeo seems to me a vivid image that encapsulates the whole book, and kind of symbolizes the frontier spirit that lives on in Homer. 
What is about the short story you like compared to writing a novel?
I greatly admire Edgar Allen Poe, not just his stories and poems, but also his theories of composition. He is certainly the father of Practical Criticism, the idea that all the elements of the narrative (character, plot, setting, etc) work in tandem to create a “unity of effect.”  This he believed is best achieved in a short work.  Reading a short story is a totally different experience than reading a novel.  It’s often easier for me to see the artistry at work in a story.  At the same time, though, I like to see how individual stories work alongside others by the same author, especially when the stories are conceived as part of a book, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or more recently, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler.  Once I had written the initial draft of the second story in Halibut Rodeo, I knew I was writing a book, not just individual stories that might be collected in a book.  There is a difference.  Before The Moody Blues released “Days of Future Passed” in 1965, rock albums were nothing more than collections of singles.  The Moody Blues changed that.  Like the songs on their “Days” album, the stories in Halibut Rodeo bleed into one another.  Each story resonates in different ways because of the stories around it.


What do you hope to achieve with HALIBUT RODEO?
To reach a wider audience would be nice.  Short stories are a hard sell.  Short story collections?  Even harder.  Seven of the nine stories in this collection were published in literary journals, but who knows how many people actually read them.  At one time writers like Poe and London and Hawthorne reached big audiences by publishing in journals.  Those days are gone.  Even The Atlantic has given up on the short story, and with funding drying up at universities, literary print journals are falling to the wayside.  This is a shame, since the short story is the most American of the literary genres.  Many would say that Washington Irving essentially invented the form.  Big publishing houses won’t touch collections unless you have a pop novel to go with it.  Thankfully, small businesses like All Things That Matter Press are helping to keep the form alive.


What was the last book you read?
I just finished In Search of Conrad by Gavin Young.  It’s a travelogue about Young’s attempt to find the real life origins of some of Joseph Conrad’s major characters, most notably Lord Jim, the antihero of my favorite novel from my favorite Dead White Male writer.  There’s no writer I respect more than Conrad.  He wrote some of the most beautiful prose in English, despite the fact it was his fourth language and he learned it on ships and not until he was already in his 20s. 

What's next?
I have the habit of working on multiple projects at one time.  I’ve been told that’s a bad thing for writers, but there you go.  Right now I’m trying to sell a screenplay called How to Seduce Your Neighbor that I co-wrote with Hans Montelius, a Swedish filmmaker and a long time friend.  He directed a short of mine called “Positioning,” which premiered at the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.  I’m also finishing a second collection of stories called Red, Under the Trees.  This collection is inspired by my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Poland.  I also write creative nonfiction, and will someday finish a collection called Home and Abroad.

Do you have any hobbies? What are they? How do they enhance your writing?
I travel.  Most of my stories and essays are informed by traveling and living elsewhere.  That’s one of the benefits of being an English Professor.  I’ve taught as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Poland, as a Fulbright Scholar in Lithuania, and did some summer teaching gigs in France and England.  Having some time off in the summer also allows me to travel for pleasure.  Many of the experiences end up in essays.  A strong sense of place has always been important to my writing.  It’s something that I often struggle to impart upon my writing students.  Young writers often disregard the importance of place, despite the fact that so many writers are inexorably tied to particular settings.  Joyce has his Dublin, Faulkner has Yoknapatawpha County, Anderson has Winesburg…Even Stephanie Meyer has the small, dreary town of Forks, Washington.  I think leaving familiar confines gives you a far better sense of where you live.   You’ll cast a more critical eye on surroundings, allowing you to more easily see the particular details so important to good writing.



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