Dead Darlings is delighted to introduce one of our own, 2014 Novel Incubator graduate Mark Guerin. His dazzling debut, You Can See More From Up Here (Golden Antelope Press), releases today. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark about his novel, accurately described by Kirkus as “a poignantly told story of ruminative remembrance”.
Walker’s father is a former Air Force surgeon who is forced into retirement. Bitter, he takes a job as company doctor of an automotive plant in the sleepy factory town of Belford, Illinois, where he makes his son Walker take a summer job in 1974. It is quite an education: Walker contends with bigoted co-workers, grueling work conditions, constant tension between unionized workers and the white collar administration, and what Walker perceives as his father’s disappointment in his life choices.
One day while working the line, Walker witnesses a bloody confrontation between a Latino co-worker and the father of his ex-girlfriend. When the disastrous ramifications become clear, he comes forward to speak the truth, only to become embroiled in a series of events that solidify a lifelong estrangement with his father.
The back copy says it best: “Lies snowball into betrayals, leading to a life-long rift between father and son that can only be mended by the past coming back to life and revealing its long-held secrets.” When Walker returns in 2004 to say goodbye to his dying father, he compulsively finds himself investigating and writing down their story.
Let’s start our conversation with cars. Your novel features car cruising, car washing, a car dealership, a car factory, and a certain purple 1960 Cadillac DeVille. Talk to me.
The more I worked on this, the more it struck me just how much our cars are a perfect reflection of who we are and what we value as a nation. To many people in America, if you can’t afford a car, or a new car, or a nice car, who are you? Some of my characters can’t afford a car, or much of one, anyway, and that fact defines them. Like the father in my book, my dad inherited a purple, 1960 Cadillac DeVille: a huge, gaudy car with lots of chrome and fins. It was a car he’d never buy for himself, being the conservative, serious man he was, and he seldom drove it. In fact, I think it embarrassed him. He gave it to my brother and I to drive to school, and it frequently caused a stir, and not always a good stir. Maybe I wrote so much about cars because of how that experience pigeonholed me, made me realize how something external to who I was, like my car or my clothes or my house, could define me, whether I liked it or not. It’s a system of social status-making that we take for granted and, clearly, some people do like the seeming legitimacy their cars—their things—give them. In one scene in my book, one character soaps another’s car as a practical joke, and the man’s pride in his car, as an immigrant having ‘made it’ in America, blinds him to the disastrous consequences his anger over the joke might—and does—cause him.
One of the main themes of my book is that privilege is an illusion, and I think my focus on cars reflects that. People should not be judged by what they do or don’t have. My book’s title is meant ironically to suggest that idea. The fact is, you can’t always ‘see more from up here.’ You certainly can’t see any more from the driver’s seat of a new car than you can from an old one—or from outside the car, for that matter.
This novel tackles immigration and nativism in a way that is shockingly relevant, despite mostly being set in 1974. You worked in an auto plant for two summers, and your descriptions of work on the line are riveting. Are the Latinx-American relations and casual bigotry evidenced in your novel a product of your experiences?
The specific events involving immigrants in my novel are entirely fictional, although the tensions at the auto plant are based on the very real culture shock I went through getting used to working in one. I do recall resentment in my hometown over how many immigrants seemed to be moving into the community, setting up businesses and making their presence felt in our schools and neighborhoods—and sometimes the tension escalated into altercations. And I do remember a few dinner table discussions where my father listed all the ways he felt undocumented workers were taking advantage of the system. Mostly, it was his attitude, rather than what was happening in town, that spurred me to develop that plotline and those characters.
You dedicate the book to your father, and wrote a beautiful piece in Writer’s Digest about the process of writing a novel based on him. This is the way you candidly describe your father: “abusive, domineering, difficult, and fascinating.” Was the writing experience terrifying? Cathartic? What advice would you give to other writers mining difficult autobiographical material?
It was hard not to see my real father right there in the room with me as my protagonist, Walker, challenged his father in ways I never could. It made the writing both terrifying and cathartic. Walker is stuck in an infinite loop of anger with his father that takes him a lifetime to break out of, and he does it by writing about him. In writing this novel, I did the same thing, coming to terms with my own anger in ways I could never talking to my dad.
As far as advice I might give to other writers? I think my own past experiences provided me far more potent and valuable material to write about than anything else I’ve ever written because those experiences were so emotionally palpable and available to my writing senses. Some people find doing that too hard, but I think it’s that challenge that has the potential to make your writing so much more powerful. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s also real and authentic—and if you address those experiences head on, especially your own failures in dealing with them, readers will recognize truth and humanity in your writing.
One of the things I most loved about the novel was how Walker is portrayed as naïve, dogged, and righteous: a pretty typical adolescent. The reminiscent narrator allows us to reflect back in time, but you resist the urge to romanticize Walker’s feelings and behavior. It makes for compelling reading, as we put the final pieces together about Walker’s past along with him as a middle aged adult. Can you talk about the challenges of structuring the story this way?
The first couple drafts of my book took place entirely in 1974, but early readers saw my protagonist only as a spoiled kid who thought he was better than his co-workers at the auto plant. Thinking back on my own experience, I kept trying to tell people, he doesn’t think he’s better. He just doesn’t know any better. He was a college kid who’d never been exposed to that kind of work environment before. But, of course, the writing didn’t reflect that, and at that point, the character and the book just weren’t working. I had to figure out how to make him more sympathetic and relatable. Over the years, I have gained a certain perspective that allowed me to recognize my own youthful errors in judgement, and I realized that perhaps my protagonist needed that sense of perspective, too. So I introduced a timeline thirty years later that would show him as a more mature, middle-aged adult who recognizes and regrets his naive behavior as a young college student trying to find his place in the world. The book became easier to write once that new structure started taking shape, alternating past and present chapters and showing him in the moment and then later reflecting back on those moments. With the benefit of hindsight, he became more observant and rounded, seeing the flawed adult he became as a result of rash decisions he made as a teen. The book on the whole felt deeper, more multi-dimensional and emotionally resonant and complete.
Norm Deitweiler is a poignant character. He blames his woes on everyone—and especially his Latino co-worker Manny Camarasa–except himself. The humanity of the book was revealed in how you treat Norm, even if Manny was portrayed as the better man. Can you talk about this?
I think everyone, no matter how selfish, irrational or misguided they are, believes they have reasons for their behavior, even if they end up doing bad, despicable things. Maybe not good reasons, but reasons, just the same. Often, books and movies don’t explore their antagonists’ reasoning, and those characters can come off as one-dimensional and just plain evil. It’s almost as if because they are bad people, they don’t deserve to be understood or fully developed. In Norm’s case, like many people, he believes the system is rigged against him, that he’s being cheated, so like them, he’s going to bend the rules in fighting back against the system. I think this impulse is something everyone can understand and relate to.
Dr. Maguire, Walker’s father, is harsh and abusive. When confronted by Walker about it years later, he seems baffled and surprised that Walker perceived him this way. Talk to me about the passage of time, and forgiveness.
Obviously, the abuse Walker endures is trivial compared to the horrendous stories of abuse we hear about, and yet, we know it doesn’t take much of any kind of abuse to do lifelong damage to victims. At one point later in life Walker says something to the effect that his anger and his self-exile are the only ways he can punish his father, the only power he has over him, and that’s why he’s never given them up and come home. To forgive, you have to give that all up, become in a sense powerless in the face of your abuser, which is very hard to do. It makes people who can forgive all the more admirable.
Walker’s mother is meek, his brother absent, his sister a smug Daddy’s girl. It exacerbates Walker’s feelings of alienation and creates an opening for the character of Connie Camarasa: tough and resilient, she is very protective of her family. Was this an interesting relationship to write?
Connie is such a contrast to the other women in the book. She is mature beyond her years because she is fighting for the survival of her large family, even becoming the sole provider. She is torn between her feelings for Walker and her loyalty to her family, and she has many difficult decisions to make because of it. In writing those scenes where she faces her feelings and answers for those decisions, I felt more like a theater director, looking for gestures and non-verbal behaviors to describe her because it was so hard to put her confused feelings into dialogue. So, yes, that was an interesting and challenging relationship to write about.
I’m curious to hear if you utilize charts or timelines for your gorgeous pacing. In other words, are you an outliner, or a pantser?
I’m a pantser. When I start out, I only have the vaguest idea of where I’m going but as long as I see the road ahead of me, I’ll keep on going. My best and most surprising ideas come to me in the act of writing, never in thinking at a distance about writing. For me, an outline is like a roadmap. I only use it as a last resort when I’m completely lost and have no idea how to get somewhere. Once I have a draft and the whole world of my novel is in front of me, that’s when I can break things down and move them around, tweak the secrets, the twists and the meting out of information. But a draft is not an outline. A draft is alive. It’s got heart and soul and wants to be made better. For me, it’s much easier to work with a living draft than with a soul-less outline.
The novel is written in first person from Walker’s point of view. Can you tell us about this choice? As a writer, I’m curious if you wrote from anyone else’s point of view, even if it was only exploratory.
Among other things, this book is a mystery Walker is trying to solve, and almost all the central characters except my protagonist know, or think they know, the solution to the mystery, so I couldn’t write in any other POV without giving away the mystery. I never explored using other POVs because I wanted to be as in the dark as Walker was. My current work-in-progress employs five different POV, so it’s something I’m quite comfortable doing, just not with this book. As for why first person? Much of the book is Walker writing about his own past, a memoir of sorts, so he’s necessarily writing in first person. It seemed only natural to write the 2004 story from his POV, too.
On that note, how many drafts did you write? Would you share your writing and revision process?
To me, writing is a constant and continual act of revision. I’ll write a scene or chapter, then go back over it again and again. I think of it more like painting or sculpting, getting more and more detailed each time I return to the page. When I’m finally happy with a chapter, writing what’s happening now, I’ll move onto onto what’s next chronologically, at least during initial drafts. I try not to jump around. In this way, I can stay in tune with each character’s emotional arc as it evolves over the course of the book. I belong to a writing group that is invaluable in providing feedback on individual chapters and sections as I’m making my way through a draft.
That being said, I believe I wrote four or five complete drafts over the course of four years. And when I say draft, I mean something complete enough to submit to beta readers and editors for feedback on the book as a whole. After each draft, I’d take that feedback and make sweeps through the book, addressing particular concerns one at a time. Make Walker more sympathetic. These characters are unnecessary. Get rid of that subplot. It’s only when I decide a book is ready for agents and publishers that I get serious about line edits, fact- and continuity-checking and deep stylistic inspection. At that point, I’ll read the book aloud and have the computer read it to me, and then I’ll print it out and then output it as an ebook. Hearing it and reading it in different formats allows me to recognize problems—gnarled and overlong sentences, repetitions, clichés, word tics—that I inevitably miss just staring at the computer screen.
Can you speak to your experience publishing with a small press? How did you find them, and what about the process has surprised you?
I submitted this book to at least 200 agents, and while I had a number of requests to read the manuscript, no one was willing to take it on. I like to think many dismissed it out of hand because of its length, some 130,000 words, much longer than the 85,000 words agents and publishers say a debut novel should be. Of course, many novels by established authors are longer than mine, so it’s kind of an arbitrary rule. Having no agent left me with few options. I didn’t want to self-publish with all the challenges that brings of validating the quality of the book. It’s very hard for a self-published book to get legitimate, mainstream media reviews or to get stocked by bookstores unless an author agrees to sell the book on consignment.
One way I addressed that problem was to have the unpublished manuscript reviewed by Kirkus Reviews, which gave it a very good review, and then I used that review in my queries. Even with that, I had a hard time tempting agents to take me on.
At one conference, I met with an editor who, in addition to the length problem, said the book didn’t fit the current literary fiction market of mostly female readers looking for books by and about women or books by younger or less traditional writers. And it’s true. The readers who have enjoyed my book most are closer to my age and background. She opened my eyes to the number of independent and small presses that consider direct submissions without the mediation of an agent. So I started querying in that direction and within a couple months was offered a contract by Golden Antelope Press, a small press in Missouri run by a retired English professor, Betsy Delmonico and her husband, Neal. As it turns out, Betsy is older than me, and she had no problem with the book’s length. I actually added 5,000 words in response to her edit suggestions, and she was fine with that. So what it came down to was finding a publisher who could relate to my story, believe in the book—seeing its ‘completeness’—despite its length, and recognize the potential audience for it.
Being a small press, Golden Antelope can’t promote the way a bigger publisher can, so I’m doing a lot of that myself, and it is hard work. Perhaps that’s what surprised me most. But like most traditional publishers, Golden Antelope has a well-known distributor—Ingram, in this case—and my book is available from all the major online retailers and can be found on the websites of many independent bookstores, which makes it easier for those stores, with a little nudging from me, to order and stock the book on their shelves. Sure, I’d like the kind of marketing support big publishers provide, and no, I’m not ‘seeking my fortune’ with this book, but I believe the arrangement is far superior to the alternatives—or to not having the book be published—or read—at all.
I happen to know you are a prolific writer. What are you working on next?
Early in 2016, I was doing a lot of reading and research on the Berlin Wall in the 60s. I was thinking of setting a book in that time and place, but as we all know, ‘things happened’ late in 2016, and I began to wonder what would happen if a Berlin Wall-type situation were to occur in the United States. Specifically, what would happen if a wall were erected in New York City after the secession of the New England states from the USA? In my novel, based on actual stories of Berlin in the 60s, a wall goes up that separates two lovers, imprisoning one in the much-diminished United States and forcing the other to come up with a radical escape plan that involves tunneling under 57th Street in midtown Manhattan. It’s a very different book from this one, but I think it’s timely, too. My new book is tentatively called Escape From America.
Mark Guerin is a 2014 graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program in Boston. He also has an MFA from Brandeis University and is a winner of an Illinois Arts Council Grant, the Mimi Steinberg Award for Playwriting and Sigma Tau Delta’s Eleanor B. North Poetry Award. A contributor to the novelist’s blog, Dead Darlings, he is also a playwright, copywriter and journalist. He currently resides in Harpswell, Maine, with his wife, Carol, and two Brittany Spaniels. YOU CAN SEE MORE FROM UP HERE is his first published novel. Learn more at Mark-Guerin.com.