Vocation of Unhappiness: The Deciblog Interview with Mark SaFranko

Let’s clear away any confusion at the outset: Mark SaFranko is not someone’s father who has decided to moonlight in a metal band or one of the few remaining music talent scouts. SaFranko is an American author based in New Jersey who, for more than three decades, has lived a writer’s life and all it entails: bad jobs, stifled dreams and hard, unrecognized work. His Max Zajack novels, particularly Hating Olivia and Lounge Lizard, are semi-autobiographical looks at SaFranko’s life and his struggles to become a writer. But he is arguably just as gifted as a writer of noir and crime stories; his recent novels No Strings and The Suicide are textbook cases of post-millennial noir fiction.
Why, then, is SaFranko appearing on the Deciblog? For starters, we’ve never hesitated to give you recommendations for things other than the new grindcore album and we think you need to buy his books. More importantly as you start your year, SaFranko is a living example of many of the things underground musicians do every day: reconcile themselves to huge struggles chasing the thing they love and sometimes hate. He’s never given up. You shouldn’t either. Here’s a chat on art and life with an American original who hated school has much as we did.

How did your love affair with writing begin?

In high school I had an inkling I might want to write. But I came from a very blue-collar background, an atmosphere where no one ever read a book. Becoming a writer was almost like saying: “get on a spaceship and travel to Mars.” Dostoyevsky was a real turning point for me. It grew from there and went to other writers.

There were stray novels I read in high school that influenced me. I was flunking out of high school and the only book that interested me was Great Expectations. It saved me from losing my sanity. When I was about 21 decided that writers work for newspapers so I got a series of newspaper jobs. And that’s had a tremendous effect on my style. As opposed to the MFA guys I was reporting stories on a daily basis. There’s a big difference between that and the MFA programs. You are dealing with everyday reality. It informs your style; you have to arrive at a point quickly. There’s no window dressing.

Did you ever get positive feedback from, say, a teacher or was this a dream you cultivated on your own?

I never got any encouragement on anything academically, really. So I hatched this alone. The writer who made me start thinking something might be possible was Henry Miller in about 1972. I stumbled on a book called On Writing in a bookstore in Trenton, New Jersey. I was working in a bank and it was horrible. I started to read through it and thought it might be possible because Miller got no encouragement from his environment and he pulled it off. So, that set off this journey of many decades. I often wonder if I should have taken it but it’s too late to turn back (laughs).

I felt the same way when I was 21 and I read Jim Thompson’s Roughneck. He talks about horrible jobs, disappointment, about getting fired, about his father’s death…

And he was also a newspaper guy.

Right, and that led me think that to write you don’t need to come from a privileged background and hardships can actually help.

For sure. There’s a schism between guys that go to Ivy League schools and get MFAs and myself. Your canon writers are like Philip Roth who get all the grants. And then you have the Jim Thompsons and they never get any grants and need to figure their way through this maze.

What appealed to me about your work is that reality. I’m thinking about your book Lounge Lizard: the narrator needs to swallow his pride and work in an office. He hates it but he has to do it.

Long ago I did my share of manual labor. But then you try to make things easier on your body. I started getting the feeling that a cubicle in one of these multinationals is every bit as draining and soul sucking as manual labor. It kills you. I found it almost unbearable but because of financial exigency what can do you. These things are sweatshops, especially the jobs I found. I tried to stay out of the sweatshop as much as I could short of being fired.

You need to try to cultivate some sort of life on the outside. This period of my life was counterbalanced by lot of drinking and carousing. So, those kept me afloat even if I wasn’t doing any productive work as a writer. It did provide a lot of material.

Most of the musicians covered in Decibel don’t get any sort of mainstream acceptance but are still driven to make art. With all of the opportunities available now through technology to get your work out is now a better time to be an artist or is it dispiriting to see dreck become a best seller?

I think it’s both. I always felt that if you have to self-publish a book or an album that was the way to go if no one else wanted to publish it. The problem now is the floodgates are open and anyone who had a fantasy of doing something can do it. So there are no gatekeepers to prevent you from bringing something out. But with music and literature – the industry is so volatile you just don’t know what’s going on. You can self-publish your own books and record your own albums. The problem for people who self publish is how to make money. I haven’t figured out how to do it, but people have.

I discovered you because a major press published Hating Olivia. I looked on Kindle recently and it’s being sold for $1.99. It’s worth more.

I did no promotion of the book whatsoever and sales immediately tanked. There was no way in the U.S. for people to know about me. Harper said they’d put out two or three of my books but it didn’t happen because they pointed to dismal sales. I have a following in France and the UK. They aren’t huge, but I can actually make some money.

I’m beginning to realize that you need to have a substantial seller to get on the map and if you don’t have it you can’t reach people. You are probably one of the few people in the U.S. who has read Lounge Lizard because it’s published overseas and only intrepid readers have sought it out.

Who are the readers you hear from in the United States? How do they find out about you?

A lot of people stumble on Hating Olivia and seem to like it. I hear from far more overseas readers. There are a lot of writers, people working blue-collar jobs – and they all stumble on the book.

It’s interesting when you mention Philip Roth…my experience with him and, say, The New Yorker’s story of the month is that I start reading it and it feels like no life I’ve ever known.

I agree, although I still send things there (The New Yorker) and they never get published. The check wouldn’t be bad if you could grab one. But that’s a long shot. The gatekeepers there are really loathe to let people like me cross the threshold. It’s a tough go unless the gatekeepers in the mainstream take a shine to you immediately, at least with sales. It remains a struggle for me.

It seems if you looked at demographics and the lives people lead your work could have an appeal because it speaks of the things that people deal with day to day.

Well, if you look at my reviews from Kirkus something about what I’m doing really bothered them. There’s something they don’t like. There been a number of scathing reviews (in America) that sort of kept me from any type of acceptance when it came out. On the other side of the pond it’s very different. Major publications review me, favorably. The French seem to grasp what I’m trying to do.

It sort of boggles my mind that foreigners are needed to appreciate authentic American voices.

It’s very frustrating. I have no clue about the answer. Maybe there is this fascination with all things American.

Thompson was huge in France, and his books remained in print there when he was forgotten in America. Dan Fante was discovered first in France.

There’s a fascination there with American failure. I was on a tour of France a few years ago. And a librarian in France came up to me and said: “do you know why we like your work? Because we perceive that you don’t like America.” And I said that was interesting. I certainly don’t sit down to do that intentionally. There are problems everywhere in the world; I’m not doing broadside attacks on America.

I didn’t feel like your books were criticisms of America as much as celebrations of how you can find beauty in mediocrity.

I think you’ve read that exactly right. You’ll be amazed by all of the things people can find in your work.

What’s the creative process like for you as a writer?

There’s nothing but sitting down and churning what’s on your mind. You study books that you like and you work. In the early years, you imitate them. Nothing is original; everything has been done, and probably better. The real key to everything is just relentless work. When you take a story you’ve written you do a first and second draft. With the second draft, you see possibilities. On the third and fourth time you cut and change. And then you do the fifth, sixth and seventh and hopefully the book gets better. There’s no mystery; you just work to make it better. You are done with it when you are sick of it.

It’s just a lot of hard work. And in my case it’s a lot of years of work. Writing a first draft of a novel is like trying to cross the ocean in a raft. Halfway through you start to think it sucks. By then, you must get to England. The real work is in the revision process.

I think a lot of metal musicians could identify with you.

Unless you are extraordinarily lucky, and most of us aren’t, you need to reconcile yourself to sacrifice. In my 40s and even 50s I was working on being a writer but I wasn’t getting anywhere. I watched people my age with wads of money taking vacations. And I was broke trying to go ahead with this insane dream. I made sacrifices most people wouldn’t. I was always determined to continue and when I tried to dissuade myself I could never find something that interested me. The creative life mesmerized and absorbed me.

How old were you when your first book came out?

A slim novella called The Favor came out very early, when I was 26 or 27. I published stories in magazines, which kept me going. Hopler’s Statement was self-published and that wasn’t until my mid-40s. And I was in my mid-50s for Hating Olivia even though I wrote it in my mid-40s. Some of this work convinced me I had something. A small British publisher called Murder Slim finally picked up Olivia. What I learned through all of this: if you think your work has something, then stick with it.

You’re like the guy who gets a black belt after 30 years because he never stops going to the gym.

(laughs) I’m not sure what that says about me except that I stick around at the party for a long time. Since Olivia there have been a lot of possibilities. Those Max Zajak novels are a small part of what I do; I also write crime novels and I love that material. But those novels seem to have stamped me in a way.

What keeps you plugging away when you are alone in your room in silence all the time?

As a product of the 60s one thing that sticks with me is that anything is possible. It’s something that burns within. Sometimes people ask me what makes an artist and I say torment and torture. (Georges) Simenon said writing is a vocation of unhappiness. Maybe there’s something that is unfulfilled in people who write.