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An Interview with Mark Salzman

“I WOULD HAVE BEEN THE WORST KIND OF PRISON GUARD, I THINK, BECAUSE I WOULD APPEAR NICE AND I WOULD WANT TO BE NICE AT THE BEGINNING AND THEN I’D GET BURNED AND I WOULD BE SO HURT THAT THEY DIDN’T APPRECIATE MY NICENESS THAT I’D PROBABLY END UP BEING VERY CRUEL.”
Non-verbal punctuation in this interview:
Laughter
Morbid Laughter
Continuing Laughter
Chuckles
Low Laughter
Mutual Laughter
Mock Sobbing
by Joe Loya
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Mark Salzman

“I WOULD HAVE BEEN THE WORST KIND OF PRISON GUARD, I THINK, BECAUSE I WOULD APPEAR NICE AND I WOULD WANT TO BE NICE AT THE BEGINNING AND THEN I’D GET BURNED AND I WOULD BE SO HURT THAT THEY DIDN’T APPRECIATE MY NICENESS THAT I’D PROBABLY END UP BEING VERY CRUEL.”
Non-verbal punctuation in this interview:
Laughter
Morbid Laughter
Continuing Laughter
Chuckles
Low Laughter
Mutual Laughter
Mock Sobbing
by Joe Loya
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Mark Salzman

Joe Loya
9 Snaps

Mark Salzman is my idea of the perfect prison cellmate. Mostly because he is like one of those mythical underworld jinn creatures that can take on different forms. I know a little about prison cellmates and assuming different shapes because before I started writing, I served seven years in federal custody for robbing many banks. Facts supporting my assumption that Salzman would be a good cellmate:

 

  1. The best cellmates pay astute attention to housekeeping details. Seeing as Mark was invited by Yo Yo Ma to perform as guest cellist for a program broadcast nationally from Lincoln Center, I’d say he’s enough of an aesthete.
  2. He courteously laughs at my most asinine comments. That talent would defuse many conflicts that do arise among the hordes of knuckleheads who roam the prison corridors.
  3. In 1985, he was the only non-Chinese invited to participate in the National Martial Arts Competition in Tianjin. No prisoner would dare bum rush our cigarettes or otherwise connive to defile our cell.

 

And the stories he could tell. To date he has published six books: the Pulitzer Prize finalist Iron and Silk (1987), The Laughing Sutra (1991), Lost in Place (1995), The Soloist (1994), Lying Awake (2000), and his most recent book, True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall, released last month.

Just so you know: I was released from prison in 1996 and three months later I became an associate editor with the Pacific News Service, periodically writing op-ed essays for the Los Angeles Times. Through my work, I met Salzman and his wife, the filmmaker Jessica Yu, who co-produced the film Breathing Lesson: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, which won an Academy Award in 1997 for Best Documentary Short. On one occasion that I encountered the couple, I’d recently written an op-ed for the LA Times and Salzman praised my opinion. I, of course, being sufficiently flattered, insinuated myself into Salzman and Yu’s life. My friendship with Salzman to date consists mainly of interrogations we conduct with each other. He’s shown up with a page of questions for me on forgiveness that made for a three-hour conversation. I’ve done the same with him on the topics of grief and humility.

Recently, when I found myself in L.A., Salzman and I went to the L.A. County Museum of Art together to check out the Legacy of Genghis Khan exhibit. On our drive to the museum we spoke of Lucian Freud, fake empathy, why he hates writing workshops, Kimba the White Lion, Gogol, Doonesbury’s Honey with the little Mao hat, in other words, all The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existing Things that constitute late-night prison-cell conversation.

—Joe Loya

THE GAME WAS CALLED “CAN YOU HIT MARK?”

THE BELIEVER: I saw Lucian Freud’s work for the first time while sitting in my prison cell. I picked up a New Yorker and I was moved by the clumsy bulkiness of the characters in the paintings I saw. I said to myself, “When I grow up—if I ever grow up—I want to better appreciate his stuff.”

MARK SALZMAN: [Laughs]

BLVR: You laugh, but the verdict was still out on whether I’d ever grow up—most boys struggle with how the world is going to perceive us as men, and how women are going to perceive us as men when we grow up. What did coming into manhood mean to you?

MS: My father was very gentle and cautious. He’d always been dedicated to painting, enjoyed drawing with us and talking about art. He took me to museums. I was very attached to my dad. I wanted to be like him. At the same time I had a general image about manhood from movies and books, at least how I interpreted it, that a man had to be confident of himself, of his strength, of his ability to problem solve, his ability to exert his will upon the world, and over others. That he is essentially unflappable, that he’s at ease in all situations, and he exudes a kind of power. And the specific message I got is that a boy becomes a man by coming through some almost ritualistic period of violence.

BLVR: That he is tested by violence, or that he has to conduct violence?

MS: He has to be violent and survive it. Has to hold it together. The violence is usually war, some upheaval that he has to pass through, and when he comes out the other side he will be layered like a blade. One hard layer, and a soft layer, and the result of the combination of the two will make him a man, a nice complex richly layered persona. He will be complete.

A boy is a soft layer of sensitivity and fear, so violence seems the only way to then add in the hard layer. In my little mind I think I equated violence with success in a way that fame or achievement could be an acceptable substitute—like being a football star or classical musician celebrity. But for most men it was usually going to war that was the passage one had to go through.

I was not only the smallest and weakest boy in my class since kindergarten, I was also not as coordinated as the other boys in my class. I simply couldn’t compete in athletics, which in elementary school is about the only way that you can assert yourself to impress other boys. So school was hell, but junior high was the low point.

BLVR: What was the hell?

MS: Oh, just getting the crap kicked out of me all the time, having kids fill squirt guns with urine then spraying it on me. Basically, I was the kid who everyone knew that you could bully around. In elementary school at recess I got stuffed into a doorway and the rest of the kids would line up and they’d be given three balls and they’d just throw them at me as hard as they could while I tried to dodge it. And if the kid missed all three then they lost their turn and it was the next kids throw. The game was called, “Can you hit Mark?”

BLVR: Shit. [Laughs morbidly] Homeboy, I’m sorry that I’m laughing, but that is so fucked up, that is so wrong, ah man, [still laughing] I feel so horrible for you, and I know that you can’t tell with me over here laughing like a fuckin’ mental patient, but seriously, I feel bad.

MS: No, I think it is the funniest thing.

BLVR: Still, that was fucked up.

MS: [Chuckling] And I didn’t resist. Because by going along with it then at least I had a role. Someone once asked me why I didn’t complain to a teacher? Well, because a part of me was gratified that at least I was being played with. You know, finally I fit in, in some way.

BLVR: Like you were participating. [Laughs]

MS: Yeah, I was participating. I was playing sports, for god’s sake. It was better than not playing sports.

BLVR: You felt like an athlete? [Laughing louder]

MS: Yeah, ’cause I got really good at dodging. [Laughter] To this day there are very few people who can hit me with a ball.

[Long pause as mutual laughter subsides]

MS: I played a game with myself in elementary school where I pretended to have an imaginary friend who was a white lion. I think because of that cartoon Kimba the White Lion. I daydreamed that I had this image of strength that was revealed only to me. The other kids thought that I was this little weakling, but actually I had this friend that was this lion. Silly, I know.

So it makes sense that I got completely blown away when I saw my first Kung Fu movie on television. Up to that point it had all been fantasy that I—with my puny size and sensitivities and love of art—could maybe become fearless, or in some way powerful.

I do remember that I didn’t want to be a tough guy. I wanted to have power and confidence, but I wanted it to be in this vessel that was very kind and gentle. I wanted to be like my dad, but I didn’t want to have my dad’s fear of being mugged. And so that’s why I think the enlightened Kung Fu master thing appealed so strongly to me, because these guys were the ultimate aesthetes. They could stare for hours at a cup and think of it as beautiful.

“IF I’M GOING TO DIE ANYWAY IN THAT ALLEY, WHY SPEND MY WHOLE LIFE TRAINING TO LOOK GOOD WHILE I’M GETTING BLOWN AWAY?”

BLVR: From dodgeball master to Kung Fu master. Did you belong to a dojo?

MS: I was fourteen when I found out there was a Kung Fu school in a town about forty-five minutes away. I asked my parents if I could take lessons and they said yeah, so two or three times a week they’d drive me there.

The head of that school was a cursing, spitting, womanizing, biting, incredibly vicious little son of a bitch, who’d learned martial arts so that he could brutalize other people. But I worshiped the man. All of his meanness, and the sort of threat of possible explosive violence that hung around him, seemed so seductive me. And it convinced me that he was actually a very powerful man. I was just too young to appreciate that he was a complete loser, so I apprenticed with him for two years.

Finally I asked him one night: “What is the philosophy of martial arts? What is it that we learn from this?” He said, “Let’s say that you are walking down a dead-end alley and a bunch of thugs with shotguns come up behind you and they say they’re gonna fuckin’ kill you. What are you gonna do?” I said, “I don’t know,” and he said, “I’ll tell you what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna die well.”

I thought, “Hey, wait a minute. If I’m going to die anyway in that alley, why spend my whole life training to look good while I’m getting blown away? Why don’t I instead spend my life enjoying things or learning stuff that really counts while I’m alive?”

Training with a guy like that in order to be an expert fighter wasn’t really solving my sense of not being a man. By then, being a man wasn’t the focus. I was old enough then at seventeen to have this notion that I wanted to be a complete person who’s not fraught with anxieties about things. And I sensed that I was mediocre, unexceptional, uninteresting. I thought, what do I have to offer the world? Why would I be of interest to anyone? I don’t do anything particularly well.

BLVR: How did China woo you? Did you hear about some master there and think, “I got all the skills I can in the States, now I want to take it to the next level?”

MS: Well, at that point, once I quit the Kung Fu lessons, then I really focused on the cello, an instrument I actually had a natural talent for. But after working very hard for a couple years I went and heard Yo-Yo Ma play up at Tanglewood and that shattered my illusion.

When I got to Yale I really felt kind of lost. I had no idea what I’d major in or what I’d do. Someone pointed out that I should study Chinese since I’d already started learning the language when I was in high school.

I loved majoring in classical Chinese literature. My goal was to eventually read the Zen Buddhist and Daoist classics in their original language, hoping that maybe the reason I had not been transformed by that stuff was that I was reading it in translation. Maybe there was something missing.

Near graduation time I was approached by an organization looking for Americans to teach English to doctors at a medical college in Hunan province. They strongly encouraged me to join up for two years. I never really wanted to go to China because my impression of modern China was based on the Doonesbury comic, you know, Honey with the little Mao hat. China just seemed like one big political study meeting.

But I was really flattered that I’d been recruited in that way, so I gave it a try. When I got there, some of the doctors found out that I had this long interest and background in martial arts and they encouraged me to study with local teachers. I had an exciting revival of my interests in martial arts, and it was much more satisfying that time around because the people who I studied with were artists.

BLVR: What convinced you to write your memoir Iron and Silk?

MS: When I came back from China I assumed that I’d be a martial arts teacher. I had a little studio that I shared with a dance troupe in a dingy room in a dingy part of New Haven. I ran up against the really depressing reality that it is really difficult to find people that are interested in martial arts as an art form. Most folks who are interested in it, initially anyway, have hopes that it will turn them into brave powerful fighters, or that it will make them have control of supernatural, as yet undefined, powers. When I confessed that I didn’t posses either of those things their response was generally, “Then why would I take lessons from you?”

Friends were always asking me to share my China stories. They encouraged me to write one of those down, and that was the first time in my life that I actually wrote something for myself. To me, I never thought of writing a book as something that I could do, because writing was always something you were assigned to do in a school. I thought that to be a writer you had to be a really voracious reader. And since I am not a strong reader I thought I wasn’t qualified.

BLVR: What’s the last favorite novel you read?

MS: Taras Bulba by Gogol. I thought I would read it as preparation for my Mongol novel but I ended up enjoying it for its own sake. I read an article that said this new edition was better than any novel we can think of that describes what life must have been like among people for whom there is nothing else to live for but violence. These Cossacks had been ravaged by the Mongols, so they are ravaging everyone else in the book. Interesting. I usually think of a novel as a story where I have to sympathize with a character and follow that character. Well, I didn’t like any of them. They were all so alien and repugnant, yet still tragic. Everything implodes and self-destructs, but I couldn’t put it down.

“IT DIDN’T MATTER THAT I WAS THIS BOOKISH WHITE GUY WITHOUT STREET CREDENTIALS.”

BLVR: Do you dread any particular response to True Notebooks?

MS: I expect to be asked a variation of the following questions: “I read your book and I just feel like you are giving us this very sort of positive portrait of people who have done terrible things, and I just wonder how you think their victims’ families would feel reading this? Do you think they would appreciate that other people are reading how the boy who shot their son is joking around?”

Or, “Well, aren’t you adding to the suffering of victims everywhere by presenting victimizers in a flattering light?” I don’t think it’s a flattering light, but the fact that it’s not a form of punishment makes them see my giving these kids my time and attention as a reward.

BLVR: I’m not trying to start a circle-jerk here, but for me the crowning achievement of this book, more than anything, was how you don’t shy away from the fact that these are some kids who did bad things. They are a little obnoxious and certainly never politically correct, not sensitive to the higher themes—in fact, they gravitate toward many of the lower themes—nonetheless, it’s about people surviving their particular village life, and that’s what I liked about the book. You captured the hard village life of boys in jumpsuits, wearing jellies on their feet, farting and tossing around chink and nigga jokes and all that kind of stuff that is really fucked up, all while periodically knocking out a quick essay on the banalities of their life, the tedium of confinement, and even a poem or two that move beyond activist-speak. In the more obnoxious scenes I was reminded of a family gathering where my uncles and aunts are drunk and all bets are off, everyone is at risk, everybody is open for crude and lewd dissection. True Notebooks is a slice of how some of us behave with the lot we’ve been given, and there is room to admire some of those kids too, you can kind of admire their survival skills not because you romanticize the kids, but because their condition is just a fact of life. So I understand that some people might fear that you’re portraying the kids in a way that would invite sympathy.

MS: I anticipate them saying, “We have a right to be angry at these kids! It doesn’t help us to know what terrible childhoods they had; we have to put that aside and hold them responsible for what they’ve done. We have a right to defend ourselves. You are eroding the need for justice by making everyone feel guilty for our vengeance that gives us the grit to lock up these kids.” My answer to them will need to convey your idea that even in your ideal world there would still be incarceration facilities. They would be humane, they wouldn’t be the way these are now, but there’s still a recognition that some people don’t play well with others and even in an ideal world we’d recognize that it is a necessity that some people be held apart from the community. I think it is possible to both recognize the need to limit the freedom of people who can’t control themselves without having that action being justified by anger, hatred, and dehumanization.

I think it is possible to gradually comprehend why kids like that do what they do, and to see the ways in which it is not simply because they are evil. It’s not because at some point they made some conscious decision like, “I think I’m going to be evil. For NO reason other than I just do.”

We can instead see that they are the way they are because of the convergence of so many forces that they had no part in creating. It is possible then to feel sympathy and to feel a genuine desire to see them heal or come around to reform, without weakening our determination to protect ourselves.

BLVR: Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy.” True Notebooks is a fuckin’ hilarious book even though it’s about juvenile hall. Did the marketing department struggle with how to sell the book?

MS: The initial fear of the marketing people before they read the book was, “Oh-oh, a book about juvenile delinquents and gang members in prison. It’s depressing. People are fed up with juvenile crime. It’s an unappealing subject. These are unappealing people. There isn’t a happy ending. This is gonna be a very hard sell.”

But when the marketing folks read it I think they were surprised that there is so much humor in it. I think their feeling is that there isn’t any particular angle that you can use to market this book. Word of mouth will have to say that it’s an easy read, and that you are not going to be shouted at, or made to feel guilty for not being a volunteer in juvenile hall.

BLVR: Some of the colors on the book jacket look like colors of circus balloons on the front of a child’s birthday party invitation.

MS: Well I think it does evoke childhood, and that’s a perfectly legitimate and valid thing to do with this book because the book is about children and I think it’s part of the mistake we make, in terms of the way we view these kids and also the way that we deal with them, in a legal sense, is that we have decided at some point that they are not children, that they are actually adults, adult predators. But my own experience with them led me to feel otherwise, that not only are they still children but actually emotionally they are quite young for their age, rather than advanced.

The first time that I looked at those colors my instant reaction was to not like them. What I wanted was for the letters to be one color like red or something like that.

BLVR: What is the symbolic significance of red?

MS: I’ve never been good with symbolism. I was one of those kids who in English class they’d ask, “What does the boat symbolize?” and I’d say, “I don’t know, it’s a boat.” I still can’t do that. I can’t even do that in my own book.

BLVR: You’re no good at symbolism? What’s that about? All that studying Chinese literature never…

MS: [Mock sobbing] Oh I’m a failure. I think I’ll turn in my Metaphor Man costume. [Both laugh]

BLVR: The kids are obviously different from you, their life’s trajectory from the beginning so fuckin’ unlike yours .That’s the easy call. But were there hidden likenesses between you and the juvenile hall kids?

MS: I was surprised how it didn’t matter that I was this bookish white guy without street credentials. I was an adult male who showed interest and they were perfectly willing to prove themselves to me in a literary way, the way I had felt desperate as a boy to prove myself to adult males. The man that I settled on was a cretin, but there had been an irresistible urge to try to prove myself to that man. So when I saw the kids were doing the same thing with me, it made me recognize how it is an irresistible urge for them to try to prove themselves to older males, thugs or otherwise. It was a simple realization that undermined my preconceived idea that these kids were fundamentally different than you or me, fundamentally flawed or awful.

I also felt an attractive pull towards wanting to be a supportive character in their lives because my closest friend when I was an adolescent was very much like them. His father died when he was very young, so he grew up kind of wild, always getting suspended for getting into fights, burning things, or shooting guns in the school parking lot. We’d become very close friends through martial arts classes, but in every other way we were opposite. There was something very seductive about having as my best friend this kid that everyone thought was the toughest, meanest kid in the county. I felt like a little bit of his reputation rubbed off on me without me having to do anything bad.

But there was one time when he felt comfortable enough with me to reveal that he felt terrible about himself, that he actually wished he’d done better in school, that he felt obliged to act out a lot of times because that’s what people expected from him. I saw that these juvenile hall kids can also appear confident and invulnerable, and yet they could very quickly if they trusted you reveal that they feel like a piece of shit.

BLVR: What happened to your friend?

MS: Our martial arts teacher eventually got him involved in selling drugs. One night he was high on a drug run and fell asleep at the wheel and died. He was nineteen.

“I GOT SO ANGRY I JUST WANTED TO LIGHT THEM ALL ON FIRE.”

BLVR: Did you ever doubt yourself in that classroom?

MS: Well, certainly there were long stretches when I felt very discouraged, angry, when I couldn’t stand the thought of going back. Especially when I couldn’t control the bigger classes and I felt like nothing constructive was going on, that my class had just turned into recreation. That was the hardest thing for me, I think. I’m a person who’ll never get over my instincts to want to be in control of things ,and that was a severely uncontrollable situation where things were barely ever under control. I had a picture of an idealized coach in my head that was both father figure and friend. I think I was mostly angry with myself for not being that kind of tough-love character, so I transferred that anger onto the kids. I’d think, those fuckers, they’re just goofing around and they’re all so annoying with their fart jokes and sex talk. I got angry with the kids for not seeing what a great opportunity they had.

Once, when all the kids picked on one kid, and they all wrote belittling essays about him, I got so angry because it reminded me of the times when I got picked on by the kids at school, ganged up on, made fun of, humiliated publicly—oh god, I got so angry I just wanted to light them all on fire.

BLVR: They resurrected some ghosts for you.

MS: Yeah.

BLVR: Was that the time that you felt the most like a prison guard?

MS: Yes! Absolutely. I think it’s a blessing that I didn’t have any power or authority over the kids, like the ability to say you are locked down or something, because I don’t think I could have resisted. Sometimes I wanted to hurt them back so bad. Oh god, I would have been the worst kind of prison guard, I think, because I would appear nice and I would want to be nice at the beginning and then I’d get burned and I would be so hurt that they didn’t appreciate my niceness that I’d probably end up being very cruel.

BLVR: That’s good that you recognize that that’s the way cruelty happens. It happens in people who get frustrated for handing out niceness and getting their hand slapped in return. You can turn a nice person cruel by playing to their pettiness.

MS: That really was the part of Ted Conover’s book Newjack that I appreciated most of all because it gave me, for the first time, insight into exactly that phenomenon: The guard who thinks he’s going to be different, he’s going to be humane, he’s going to give the prisoners dignity. In some cases it works, you know, some prisoners really appreciate it and you can tell that was a positive thing, but Conover expresses the anger he felt when some prisoners didn’t appreciate it.

BLVR: Before I started to change in prison I got to a place where it was my duty as a serious prisoner to accept that there are certain things that have to be, and one of the things that just has to be is sometimes you have to show your credentials as a convict who believes that life is absurd, who just doesn’t give a fuck, who would follow his own caprice at any cost, who would live by his own code, against the dictates of society—a real criminal. You have to do that sometimes by burning the very thing that is reaching out to help you, to demonstrate that there is nothing on the planet here that can bind you, reach you, compel you to give up your whims, and sometimes that means you need to use the nice guy as the example. You have to burn him, not because you have malice for him, or for any other reason than it has to happen, because subverting good in your life would make you seem to other prisoners as unreachable, unseduceable by trappings like comfort, and it will be thought of you, “Damn, he was having it good, but having it good didn’t mollify him,” and that would imply that the things that bind people, like good gestures and good form, basic carrots, cannot keep you from acting against anybody, including a best friend or family member or your congressman or even the warden. Acting against someone who is nice to you will make you seem a bit scary precisely because you are now unpredictable, and this is a good thing to be in prison so that other prisoners leave you alone or at least think long and hard about fucking with you. I knew a guy who punched the very guard who was helping him by bringing in drugs. I asked him, “Man, that guy was doing good by bringing drugs in for you, so why did you have to go and slug him?” and he said, “I had to show him that I don’t give a fuck. He was starting to think that what he did mattered to me.”

OLD CHINESE SAYING: YANYUAN KU’ GUANZHONG BU KU.

(IF THE ACTOR ON THE SCREEN CRIES, THE AUDIENCE WON’T CRY.)

BLVR: I dig question-and-answer sessions after one of my readings or talks. I don’t care if it’s college kids or jailed inmates in orange jumpsuits asking questions. I like waiting to be surprised. You spoke to a bunch of principals from L.A. yesterday. Did anything they do or say surprise you?

MS: I was asked to have the principals do some of the writing exercises that I have my kids at Juvenile Hall do. I hate workshops, so the idea of telling a bunch of principals to take out notebooks and pencils and write the way the kids do seemed awkward. I was dreading the time when we would have to read aloud.

I asked them to describe a turning point where they felt a shift in their lives’ direction—a topic that worked very well with the kids.

We broke up into tables of eight. After a fifteen-minute writing period, everyone read his or her essays aloud. The first principal wrote about the death of her mother and got very emotional as she read it. The second principal described when his doctor informed him that he had AIDS. The third principal also described the loss of her mother. I mean every single one was a moment of profound fear or grief. Everyone at our table was in tears as they were reading or writing these things. Well, I’m not that comfortable around people crying, so my stomach was in knots while I tried to look compassionate and understanding.

BLVR: [Bursts into loud laugh] You tried to feign empathy?

MS: You know, I tried to look like I had everything under control, as if this was perfectly to be expected. But I was afraid that afterwards they were going to say, “You know, that was kind of a downer, why did you make us do that?” But instead, each one of them in some way or another said, “I’ve never been able to talk about this, there’s very few people I would dare mention this to, but this circumstance somehow made it feel safe doing it. I don’t know why, but I feel so good having done it!” And then I realized, my god, that’s exactly what happens with the kids, it’s just the kids can’t articulate it as clearly.

BLVR: What about crying tweaks you? The regular not knowing what to say? Or because you are not a crier?

MS: Ah, gosh.

BLVR: I don’t mean to portray you as some cold-hearted bastard.

MS: [Voice turns mock-dismissive as he mimicks an Archie Bunker asshole character] “Cause I fuckin’ hate people, that’s why. I don’t want to hear no shit. I don’t want to hear their problems.”

BLVR: [Playing along] Those fuckin’ bastards always trying to impose their tears on us. Like we ain’t got problems of our own.

MS: Yeah, yeah, I got problems! [Both laugh loudly]

MS: Oh, part of it may be that a kid never cried for those four years that I did this at L.A. Central. That’s part of the deep attraction I have to those kids. They can write about incredibly emotional stuff but they’re very matter-of-fact and composed when they read it aloud. I cried frequently, when the kids didn’t cry while they read. There is an old Chinese saying: yanyuan ku’ guanzhong bu ku. (If the actor on the screen cries, the audience won’t cry.) If the actor shows restraint then you can release, whereas if the actor is like boo-hoohoo it somehow distances you slightly. I get deeper satisfaction hearing these stories when they are presented to me in this sort of slightly detached way because then I get to have my release. Otherwise I have to be contained. Fuck ’em! I want to be moved. It’s a selfish thing.

BLVR: I know that everything is in flux when you begin writing a novel, but give me what you can about the trajectory of the book you’re working on now.

MS: The story takes place when Genghis Khan has died and his sons are just now getting too old to rule, so there is a lot of infighting among the grandchildren as to who is going to rule what.

This creates an opportunity to have a lot of intrigue in the story, which is about a young European assistant who travels with a Franciscan friar dispatched to Mongolia from Europe to try and convince the ruling Khan at the time to cease the attacks on the Christian territory. Several of these religious missions really occurred. Unfortunately, a chieftain executes the friar and the boy is then raised by a nomad troupe that finds him useful to them as a scribe because he is literate and the Mongols at that time had no written language.

Mongolian his age and through all sorts of ups and downs they rise together in the hierarchy. He’s torn because on the one hand he hates these people because they are savage, but then they spared his life and they took care of him. We follow him, once he has position of power, to see if he’ll self-destruct and try to take revenge, or if he’ll let bygones be bygones and settle down as a Mongol.

BLVR: It’s an exploration of complex identity.

MS: Yeah, because at the same time there is a religious tension in him. He’d been Catholic, but then he’d spent so long among pagans and also Buddhists because the troupe that he is with moves into China as part of the occupation. And because he is literate he is tutored in Chinese by a Buddhist monk so that he can help with that side of the whole project. So he must figure out what religion he is.

BLVR: Tell me about this Legacy of Genghis Khan exhibit we’re going to go see. Why are you so excited about it?

MS: When it was in New York, people were calling me saying, “Mark, you’ve got to see it because your next novel is set in thirteenth-century Mongolia.” I’ve heard that most of the stuff is from the Islamicized side of the Mongolian empire, whereas my story will take place in the Sinocized, more Chinese-influenced side. I’m hoping that the items will just get me in the mood. You know, I’ll see some swords and metal hats and want to write about killing.

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An Interview with Angelo Badalamenti

Frances Badalamenti
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