The first time Becky and I attended the Saints and Sinners literary festival in New Orleans we were asked to participate in a panel discussion about writing gay romance fiction. It was the first time we’d done such a thing and we were quite nervous. Afterward, Becky and I were talking about how we felt the session went and Becky told me that she kept focusing on one man in the audience who she felt had a very calming effect on her nerves. She described his face as being kind, his demeanor as being gentle, and said he was often smiling whenever she looked his way. I immediately said, “I think I know who you mean. I was doing the same thing, focusing on him.” Becky pointed to him in a crowd later, and it was indeed the same person. Becky talked to him later and learned that his name was Mark G. Harris. Later, she told me about their conversation and that a Jackson Square fortune teller had predicted that he’d never be published.
“We can’t let that be true, now, can we?” I said. Becky agreed wholeheartedly. When the time came for us to solicit stories for our FOOL FOR LOVE anthology, Becky contacted Mark and demanded a story. We had no idea of his abilities and worried that maybe the fortune teller was right, maybe he’d send us crap on paper. After his story arrived in our office Becky read it first, and then handed it to me to read without voicing an opinion. I read the first paragraph and then said to Becky, “This is brilliant. I’m so glad that fortune teller was full of shit!”
Timothy J. Lambert: When I read “Love Taps”, Chuck and Sullivan cracked me up. You realize that people tend to think that fiction is truth and truth fiction, right? Are you worried that people might think you’re an antagonistic boyfriend?
Mark G. Harris: I kind of like the sound of that. Anyway, I’ll probably die a pauper, but cracking a reader up is the payoff for me. Thank you, Timothy, for saying that. I have showman tendencies when I write, and if I can entertain or amuse, that hopefully makes up for my lack of being able to instruct or inform a reader, because I suck at that. But yeah, I sometimes read something and wonder how many grains of truth are in the fiction I’m reading. “Why does the author specify that brand of beer? is it a favorite?” … that kind of deal. I know better about my own stuff and my own beers, but can’t help thinking that way about others’.
TJL: I do that, too. When I read your story the TV shows mentioned made me wonder if those were programs you watch.
MGH: I’ll share a secret: I DO make a Hitchock-cameo in “Love Taps.” I play the pizza delivery guy.
TJL: I remember reading your story and then turning to Becky and saying, “I wish I’d written this,” which I think is high praise from one writer to another. I doubt many writers would admit such a thing, but there you have it. Are there any writers whose work you wish you’d written?
MGH: And then Becky turned to you and said, “You know, we COULD…hide his body… in that river…” Seriously, that is way high praise. I know, because I feel that way often and sort of cherish that feeling. Sometimes someone will piece a sequence of words together, words I already know, but in such a fresh way that I lose it. Or a plot will twist me and turn me and end up rewarding me with an emotional high. Or a character is so vivid that I feel like spending time with them has made me know them. There are human beings that I’ve spent time with, and I didn’t come away with that sensation. It’s all alchemy. I won’t embarrass you by mentioning if you’re guilty of this alchemy.
TJL: Would you tell a writer that you wish you’d written their work?
MGH: I adore THREE FORTUNES IN ONE COOKIE, by Cochrane Lambert, and wish I’d written such an achievement of beauty, hilarity and re-readability. How’s that for an answer?
TJL: The galleys have been printed. You’re in! You can stop kissing our butts now. How long did it take you to write “Love Taps”? Did you sit down and knock it out, or did it take a long time?
MGH: Lickety-split, is how I wrote “Love Taps.” I wanted to illustrate a mood more than a plot and, for some reason, writing that story and how I was feeling at the time worked like peanut butter and jelly. I ended up with a mood and a plot and two satisfying characters. Some stuff I write takes me forever until I feel good about it. I’m pleased with both avenues. Does it make you feel nervous, Timothy, if you were to write something fast–as if to think, “Whoa. Is this okay?” because you’ve got me thinking, now.
TJL: Thinking about what? Before you answer, I will say that usually it seems that the faster I write the better. When my brain is racing and I can’t type fast enough, that means I’m excited and passionate about what I’m doing. When it feels like I’m forcing it out, it reads that way later. Is that what you were thinking about?
MGH: Yes, exactly! It’s not something that happens for me often, but the swift stories are great when they do happen.
TJL: Back to what you were saying earlier about piecing words together, I love this section:
Every night since then, sometime during the beginning of his show, [Chuck] would play a song just for Sullivan. Last night’s had been “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead. It was one of those laid-back, bluesy songs Chuck considered conducive, and in bed he would often let it strum softly in the background while he changed the title in a whisper in Sullivan’s ear and trucked Sullivan’s brains out.
Are you conscious of the way you arrange words and sentences, or does it come naturally? What about the story? Do you know the plot and resolution beforehand?
MGH: This is a “Scarecrow question.” It’s the one in whose ear I want to whisper, “I think I’ll miss you most of all.” I have to know my plot and resolution before hand. Sometimes I view that as a failing, because I wonder about all the wild and amazing paths I could take where the wonderful whims lead us as writers. I may cheat myself over that lack of spontaneity. When I’m writing I can only do it to my satisfaction if I know the end. The same way I have to know the punchline before I tell the joke. That way, I can emphasize everything I need to that pertains to the climax, emphasize the hell out of it and foreshadow it and throw in red herrings to make the real revelation spring at a reader’s face, that kind of stuff. I’m that horrible father who packs the family in the station wagon and consults the map and synchronizes his watch and doesn’t take the time to look at the big ball of yarn. I’m on a mission when I write. My enemy is the reader’s mood. I’ll change sad to happy or angry to lighthearted with every club I have in my golf bag, if the reader will let me. I’m obsessed with mood altering and am very conscious about trying to achieve it through the written word.
TJL: How do you know when what you’ve written is “right?”
MGH: My litmus test is a hypothetical situation like this: When I begin a story, I picture it as something that really happened to me that day, right? And I imagine calling up a friend and saying, “You will not believe what the hell happened to me today. Got a minute?” If an idea that I want to write about can convince me that it would in reality make an entertaining conversation about the day with a friend, then I feel better about it, confident, free to attempt wit. And I have a big enough ego that if something makes me laugh I assume it will make anyone else laugh, too.
TJL: I think your litmus test is brilliant. In fact, I think it would
be great to hear “Love Taps” told aloud. Are you ready for that?
MGH: As long as I don’t have to follow David Puterbaugh‘s act. He could slay a wake with his panache, and I’d look pretty drab after that.
TJL: Becky and I didn’t give you much structure when we queried you for a story. In fact, I don’t think we gave you any at all. It was probably, “Send us a story, damn it!” What was that like? Freeing? Daunting?
MGH: Part of why I wrote my story so fast was due to that invitation, no matter how open-ended it was. I experienced emotions that were very akin to romance: Possibility; hope; generous talky vibes; excitement; goodwill. They all really aided the writing, I’d wager. Had you asked me to write a psycho killer story, it probably would’ve been the happiest little psycho killer story going. I knew from you and Becky that the story’s intention was to be romantic, but other than that I felt free to stretch my legs, to write what I thought was a very romantic situation, one that could hopefully have relevance and again improve any sour mood. Another part is that Becky Cochrane and Timothy J. Lambert probably don’t know this, but they’re quite good at rousing the troops, even after knowing them five minutes. When the suggestion came my way it had a, “Look, if you’ve got something to say, let’s hear it,” bluntness that appealed to me, since I’m not known for my sweet tooth and am all but immune to sugar-coating. When you and Becky accepted my story, my chest about popped my shirt-buttons. And the correspondence during editing was smart and considerate. Very proud, and I’ve become prouder and prouder as this anthology has been guided through so much turbulence. You guys rock at this.
TJL: You’re in, Mark. Seriously! Have you submitted other stories to other editors/anthologies? Any novels yet?
MGH: I have a short story called, “As Sweet By Any Other Name,” that will be in BEST GAY ROMANCE 2009, edited by Richard Labonte, due out in January 2009. I have a novel I wrote in 1996 that could probably use some spiffing up before being seen. I write gooder than I did then, if I know anything about that.
TJL: You hadn’t been published yet when we asked you for a story. Were you surprised that we did?
MGH: Yes. It’s something I haven’t asked you two about. I’d love to know what prompted such a great thing to happen to me. Knowing me, I doubt it was karma.
TJL: Actually, we only published your story to prove the fortune teller wrong. I hope that’s okay.
MGH: Oh hell, yeah. He’s the best $20 I ever squandered, if that’s the case.
Do you have questions for Mark G. Harris? Post them in the comments, and I’m sure he’ll answer. (If he doesn’t, I’ll smack him around and force him to do so.) Fool For Love: New Gay Fiction, which includes Mark G. Harris’ story “Love Taps”, will be published in February 2009 by Cleis Press. Click here to pre-order from Amazon.com.
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