How did you become a writer?
I have been actively writing since childhood. Literally ever since I had enough intellectual ability to string words together and enough manual dexterity to hold a writing instrument, I’ve been writing stories. As a child I owned a tremendous numbers of small plastic animals. I’d clip out order forms from the backs of magazines and comic books and send away for them. I’d do so with such regularity that I had a practical Noah’s ark of monkeys and rabbits, rhinos and zebras, lions and alligators. A few favorites were permitted to live in an apartment, a Manhattan penthouse as I imagined it, for which I had drawn the floorplan on plain white paper and lined the top drawer of my dresser. This was a space not for clothes but for imagination. With these select animal apartment dwellers I populated stories employing the very worst sort of anthropomorphism, beyond anthropomorphism really, for they lived lives that looked entirely human, as if they were figures in a Disney animation. I share this childhood eccentricity because I can’t separate such stories from the desire to tell them or from the way they helped me inhabit worlds that felt entirely real, and thus, I can’t really separate them from the core impulses that form why I write.
In college I was a Wildlife Biology major for most of my first years. I remember one distinct meeting with a professor. I’d written a paper on predator/prey population dynamics between wolves and moose on Isle Royale in Lake Michigan, a rather unique closed ecosystem that offers rich biological research data. The paper was bleeding red ink as it was passed across the desk, and the professor said, “You know, we don’t really have wolves howling and such in the papers we write in this department, perhaps you’d be smart to go talk to someone over in English.” After I recovered from some rather childish reactions to being chastised, I took his backhanded advice. Once I enrolled in my first fiction writing class—a truly star-crossed bit of luck by falling into a course taught by Don Murray, who was serving as a one semester visiting professor while on leave from the University of New Hampshire—and the natural home I’d known since childhood reopened to me. That semester I produced over 350,000 words. I’ve never stopped since.
Name your writing influences.
I’ve been blessed at critical moments in my life with great teachers. As I mentioned, I had the good fortune of first studying with Donald Murray, a gifted writer and consummate teacher and someone critical to any of us who have taught writing courses for his expertise in that arena. In college I also had the amazing experience of having two great writers mentor me and eventually oversee my master’s thesis: John Edgar Wideman and Robert Roripaugh. But great teachers went way back for me, to 2nd grade and Mrs. Bowan, who encouraged a child’s writing, and to junior high, where Mrs. Garcia was one of those wonderful maverick teachers who held competitions to have students write screenplays and then participate in the process of actually filming a movie selected from those screenplays by their peers, and this is back in the day when such technologies were nothing like they are today.
Such teachers first introduced me to the writers that took over as the mentors that stay with me today—too many to mention most. But I can never talk about writers who have influenced my work without citing two geniuses, the one every writer knows—Flannery O’Connor—and the other, a writer too few know—Andre Dubus (the father, though his son, who may now be better known, is pretty brilliant too). I’m not Catholic, but apparently these daring, bold American Catholic writerly voices speak to me.
When and where do you write?
I’m very old school when it comes to writing process and place and time. I follow the sound and tested advice of other old school writers who remind us that writing comes best when our minds are not cluttered with the detritus of a day. So I write first thing in the morning with morning sun streaming in through a window with a goof view of the natural world. I work from an antique library table that dates back nearly a hundred years and most often write first drafts by longhand. The morning hours are dedicated to producing new material, and then after a break to do something physical, the afternoon hours focus on revision, editing, and marketing.
What are you working on now?
I have recently finished the first draft of a new novel to be titled A Different Breath and have completed the first couple of rounds of revisions. At this stage it’s a novel that is still a bit difficult to label with shorthand, what, in Jackson Hole, we used to call the “chairlift pitch” as opposed to the elevator pitch, but the essentials are these: set in 1926, primarily in the Midwest and inter-mountain West, the story follows a traveling musician of potentially legendary talent, his lover/manager, and the odd addition to his mini-entourage, a priest, through backroom clubs and speakeasies. Obsessive in his love for the woman, this musician will do nearly anything to demonstrate his devotion and maintain her presence as his muse. The story is actually a purposeful reinvention of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, which focuses much of its interest, like the Rilke poem “Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hermes” on the awakening consciousness of the Eurydice character. The book opens, like the poem and the myth with the characters ascending from a kind of underworld, though in my treatment, that exists in an elaborate metaphor.
I like to sit on a book for a while in order to gain some psychological distance on it so that I can better see the wholesale sorts of revisions typically required (and which this one will definitely need). My self-expectation is that while I consider the needs of one piece, I always start on another. So while that book rests a bit and circulates for input from a few trusted readers, I am a hundred pages into a new book, a literary crime novel set where I live on Flathead Lake. I am as interested in using the book as a vehicle to inspect the income divide between rich and poor as I am in investigating the sudden disappearance of a seventeen year old.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I do believe that writer’s block is a very real and significant thing, and yes, I have suffered its ravages. But of course a logical vision of writer’s block is to realize that there is complex, if predictable psychology behind it, for there are real fears behind writing we should all acknowledge, among them: what is more intimate than the act of writing, more self-revealing and self-scrutinizing? Can you find so demanding of work (and if you are writing book –length material, work that can take years to complete) that offers such total uncertainty of reward? Even if we love to write, who wouldn’t rather go drink a beer, take in a movie, enjoy a dinner, join in a game, or read someone else’s book than write (especially when you are likely the only person telling you that you must)? Oh, writer’s block is real enough. What to do about it? Work. It sounds ridiculous, but I am a great believer in ritual and routine when it comes to writing. I have all my little writing eccentricities I live by, right down to the pens I use, but I, like O’Connor said I must, show up to work every day and face the writing tasks before me and insist that I produce something, even if that something gets thrown away later. Writing is a lot about perseverance and overcoming, like most things worth doing.
What’s your advice to new writers?
My first piece of advice is to remember to love the act of writing. You’d be surprised how many new writers are more in love with the idea of being a writer than with writing. It’s easy to love having written, harder to love the long and often difficult (but frequently joyous) act of doing it. Wanting to be a writer is not enough. You learn by doing. Even, for a long time, by doing it poorly. Those failures may be the most important lessons. You stick them out. You learn. You try to get better. You return to the writing desk every day without fail and slowly you will get better. So if you are willing to embrace the long haul, you’d better love the act of committing writing.
Write what you want to write and not what you think someone else desires. You’ll never produce work worth reading if you are not stubbornly passionate about the work you are doing. I’m not suggesting stubbornness that equates to ignorance or blindness or an inability to accept when the work is shit, but I do mean to suggest that you can’t fulfill other’s desires. You must write what they don’t know they yet desire.
Demand truth. With yourself. With others. And most importantly, within your texts. It doesn’t matter how far afield from “reality” you may stray in your desired work, even in science fiction where you have created and populated a universe entirely from your imagination, not only will the laws of physics still apply, but characters, whatever form they take, must think and behave in a manner that is true to the whole of themselves and that is recognizable as feeling authentic, of being truthful, to your readers. If you set your sights on creating truthful, honest texts, you can then, by having been demanding of yourself and of your text, be demanding of your readers as well. They will reciprocate in kind.
Mark Hummel is a novelist, essayist, editor, and writing teacher. His work has regularly appeared in a variety of literary journals including The Bloomsbury Review, Dogwood, Fugue, Talking River Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, and Zone 3. He is the author of the novel In the Chameleon’s Shadow and the story collection Lost and Found and is the editor of the nonfiction magazine bioStories. He lives in Montana’s Flathead Valley. To learn more about his work, visit: www.markhummelbooks.com.