Mark Brazaitis is the author of seven books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book,Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition.
Mark’s story “A Blue Box” appears in Issue Six.
TCR: Do you approach writing short-short fiction and writing short fiction differently, and if so, how?
Mark Brazaitis: Often I will have an idea that will seem appropriate for a short-short. Usually it’s a one-scene story: something happens in a particular place and then it’s over. Sometimes, though, the story demands to be longer, as in “Bathwater,” a story in my first collection, The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala. What started as a four-page story about a young boy whose chief job in a mysterious house is to pour bathwater for a woman he never sees became a novella that explored the deep divisions (racial, economic, political) in that troubled and beautiful country.
TCR: Why did you become a writer?
MB: My father was a journalist, and for a long time, I thought I would follow him into the profession. I wrote for my college newspaper, and I had summer internships with the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Detroit Free Press. After college—briefly—I was a stringer at the Washington Post. But while I liked the immediate gratification writing for a daily newspaper provided (write a story one day, see it in print the next), I didn’t particularly like the artistic limits it placed on me. I couldn’t make things up! (Or I couldn’t make things up and keep my job.) So I turned to writing fiction and poetry.
TCR: Would you say your worldview is more optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between?
MB: When I’m doing nothing to make a difference in the world on a particular day—when I’m sitting at home or in my office and ruminating about climate change or injustices in our justice system or the incivility and ignorance in our political discourse—then I’m super pessimistic. Too much of this is very, very bad for me, as I am susceptible to depression. One time, depression almost won. See my interview with Diane Rehm: Mark Brazaitis: “The Incurables” – The Diane Rehm Show
Luckily, I saw the other side of it. I wrote a book of short stories, The Incurables, based, in part, on my experiences (and the experiences of people I met) during this dark but enlightening period of my life. To ward off my depression, I needed to return to doing what I’d done when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala: engage as much as possible with the world in an effort (perhaps hopeless, perhaps not) to make it better. So I’ve held several forums at West Virginia University, where I teach, on climate change. I continue my work with the Appalachian Prison Book Project, which sends books free of charge to women and men imprisoned in West Virginia and five other states. I coach several elementary school girls’ basketball teams. I write op-ed pieces all the time. All of this may not induce in me outright optimism. But it weakens my pessimism.
TCR: What was the last book you abandoned, and why?
MB: My younger daughter was assigned to read Great Expectations in her eighth-grade English class. I told her I would read it with her. I read a few chapters, saw she was plowing ahead of me, and (guiltily) returned to books I found more enticing. I don’t know to whom I owe the deeper apology—my daughter or Charles Dickens.
TCR: Who has had the biggest influence on you as a writer? What authors do you re-read?
MB: My father is my biggest influence. As a journalist, he wrote clean, efficient sentences. He also had a wonderful sense of humor, which enlivened his newspaper columns. Fiction writers and poets to whom I’m indebted? It’s a long list: Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Theodore Dreiser, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Lorrie Moore, Kim Addonizio, Mary Gaitskill, Jean Thompson, Edward P. Jones, Gabriel Garcia Marquez….A novel I’ve re-read recently: Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. The pacing seems leisurely and therefore may frustrate some readers, but there is stunning psychological insight on every page. A novel I’ve re-read a dozen times: Ivan Turgenev’s First Love. It’s simply amazing.