Mark Haskell Smith

How did you become a writer?

I blame it all on Joe Orton. I had just graduated from film school with a degree in cinematography when I saw Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane in repertory at the Mark Taper Theater in Los Angeles. Suddenly, after years of studying film, all I wanted to do was write satire. It was an actual epiphany. I moved to New York to study playwriting and one of my early plays became popular as a writing sample with Hollywood executives. I moved back to Los Angeles and started writing screenplays. Despite being well-paying, screenwriting is a fairly soulless and frustrating pursuit so I began to write novels to have some kind of control over what I wanted to say. Novel writing led me to nonfiction writing. I just follow the story, the story tells you what it wants to be.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

It's strange to say it, but the earliest creative influencers for me were filmmakers. Especially the German new wave. R.W. Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Pedro Almodóvar, Diane Kurys, Fellini, and all got me thinking about how emotion creates narrative. It was from watching The American Friend that I discovered the books of Patricia Highsmith which kind of kicked the whole thing off. 

I have always been an avid reader. Early influences were writers like Richard Brautigan, Tom Robbins, Kathy Acker; basically anyone my High School teachers disapproved of. 

Recently I've been inspired by books from Jane Gardam, Deborah Levy, Tom Drury, Liska Jacobs, Saad Z. Hossain, Lisa Moore, Paul Beatty, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Idra Novey, Michel Houllebecq, and Viet Than Nguyen.

Since I also write nonfiction, I should mention Sarah Bakewell, Bill Buford, William Finnegan, Gabriela Weiner, Katherine Boo, and Geoff Dyer as being inspirations.

When and where do you write? 

I usually work in the mornings. After that I try and get out of the house for lunch with a friend or some exercise. I'm a big fan of pilates. But I often come back and put in another couple hours in the afternoon. I work at home. I have a small office with a supportive chair, but I usually end up in the living room. I like to have easy access to nap-able surfaces. 

What are you working on now? 

A nonfiction book looking at the history of pleasure. I'm basically asking the same question Epicurus asked in 300 B.C. which is "why don't we organize our society so that everyone can experience pleasure?" I'm starting in classical Athens with a comic poet who, according to Aristophanes, "invented cunnilingus," and working my way to present day looking at how organized religion and capitalism have turned pleasure into a something we no longer value and what we might learn from the ancient Greeks about reclaiming pleasure for ourselves. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really. Sometimes I don't have the solution to whatever narrative problem I'm facing, and that means I need to take a walk. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Do your own thing. Write the book that you want to read. Follow your instincts. My agent likes to say, "Let your freak flag fly." And that's really it, I think. Just write the best book you can, the way you want to tell it.  

What’s your advice to new writers?

One of the things I try to impress upon my students is to be a good literary citizen. Read widely (not just the nine books everyone in New York is reading), but really widely. Take a chance on a book in translation. Read books by small independent publishers. Shop at independent bookstores. Go to author events.  You'll want this ecosystem to be healthy when your book gets published. 

Mark Haskell Smith is the author of six novels with one-word titles, including SaltyRaw, and Blown; and the nonfiction books Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing Optional World and Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Lit Hub, and Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.