Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mark Brazaitis on Influences, Conscious and Not

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Mark Brazaitis, author of The Incurables (University of Notre Dame Press), discusses the influences he—and others—have seen in his work.

I have never been good at detecting the influences on my writing. It’s not that I don’t accept that I have been influenced by other writers; it’s that I can’t recognize where and how I’ve been influenced.

Sometimes I feel like my older daughter did when she was three years old and went Trick-or-Treating as an apple. Upon opening their doors, people cooed, “What a cute tomato!”

“I am not a tomato!” she insisted.

I would like to think my writing is always dressed up to look like Mark Brazaitis (earthy if elegant, accessible if subtle). But sometimes I notice when I’ve put on another author’s gloves or scarf or basketball shoes. Or I think I do.

After reading my short story “Gemelas,” about Guatemalan twin girls and the parallel lives they live even after one of them dies, the poet Gillian Conoley said to me, “I detect a Kafka influence.” This stunned me. (I am not a tomato!) If anything, I was sure that in “Gemelas” I was guilty of swiping Gabriel García Márquez’s guayabera and Panama hat.

But without knowing my reading history, Gillian had discerned one of my favorite writers, someone I read obsessively when I was younger and still read (and teach) today. If I had been asked to list the authors who influenced “Gemelas,” however, Franz Kafka wouldn’t have appeared in my top 100. In retrospect, however, he should have been in my top five. (The story is dark, labyrinthine, fatalistic—Pandora would have nailed the influence instantly.) As for García Márquez, as much as I love him, the most “Gemelas” has in common with his great work is a Latin American setting.

A decade ago at the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, I read the opening of my novella “Bathwater.” A member of the audience approached me afterwards to say, “I heard an Edgar Allan Poe riff, a ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ vibe, in your story.” Like Poe’s narrator, I thought, you’re out of your mind. But when I reread “The Tell-Tale Heart” the next day, I nodded at its rhythmic similarities to passages in my novella. Prior to this, it had been years since I’d read Poe’s story, but his mad narrator evidently had been camping in my brain, waiting his chance to whisper into my words.

Reviewers of my books have been remarkably accurate in pinpointing my literary lineage. I was sure one reviewer missed the mark, however, when he detected a Raymond Chandler sway over my prose. Then I remembered the hard-boiled summer between my junior and senior years in college when I said hello to Farewell, My Lovely and every other Chandler novel I could find.

I could guess the literary influences behind the ten stories in The Incurables. Kafka might be on the scene of “The Bridge,” observing its mysterious, unnerving suicide epidemic. Jane Austen might have touched “This Man, This Woman, This Child, This Town” with her sense of courtship’s comic awkwardness, although by its end, she surely has given way to Richard Wright or Toni Morrison or William Faulkner. There’s a little of John Updike’s frankness about sex in the title story, but its ending jumps off the page and onto the screen. It’s Vertigo’s finale rewritten! Maybe!

I can state this with certainty: The biggest influence on my fiction is my life. In the case of The Incurables, I wish it were otherwise. The protagonists in my collection contend with mental illness—its humiliations, its paralyzing power, its rare moments of levity—as I have. In this, I—we—are not alone. In any given year, 14.8 million adults, or 6.7 percent of the U.S. population 18 and over, suffer from major depressive disorder. Other millions endure a range of mental illnesses, from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. Ninety percent of people who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness.

If I didn’t know mental illness up close and personal, I never would have written The Incurables; I certainly wouldn’t have felt free to write the stories the way I did, in equal portions of black humor and sympathy. If William Styron and Kay Redfield Jamison, the authors of extraordinary memoirs about their experiences with, respectively, clinical depression and bipolar disorder, provided me in their work the courage to write honestly and unsentimentally about mental illness, Nikolai Gogol and Samuel Beckett and Lorrie Moore gave me permission to use comedy to explore dark subjects.

Did the above authors actually influence the stories in The Incurables?

Your guess is as good as—no, it’s better than—mine.