Mark Walters lives in Omaha. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in elimae, Dinosaur Bees, and NAP.
His story "Three Songs" appears in Issue Thirty-Six of The Collagist.
Here, Mark Walters speaks to interviewer David Bachmann about turning songs into stories, saving the reader from boredom, and well-known imaginary cities.
1. Where did this story begin? Were you prompted by the flash of a specific idea, or was it a larger motif that you were attempting to articulate, which you then cultivated inside this work as you wrote?
I wrote a bunch of these story-songs over the course of a few months. Generating ideas for songs and then turning the ideas into stories allowed me to use imagination in my fiction in ways I hadn’t thought about before. Eventually, I wanted to put a bigger chunk of these pieces together, so I came up with these three.
2. The fullness and wide-ranging movement of this work makes me wonder what previous drafts looked like. Can you comment on how you arrived at this draft? (Was there much fluctuation here? Where did this go before settling into what it is now?)
There wasn’t much fluctuation. The stories were written in the order presented. The hardest bit was the end of the final story. The piece sat around for a few weeks, going nowhere, until I tweaked the ending of the first song. That seemed to help me with the ending of the last one, somehow. It opened things up. Matt Bell helped me with some changes after it was accepted at The Collagist.
3. You begin with a ballad about a "particular village in a particular region of the country," an abstraction that I find compelling in the way it invites me to place these images anywhere I want to. The second song moves away from the abstract in its use of a specific city, Kansas City. What, if any, is the significance, not necessarily of Kansas City, but of your decision to move away from the abstract in the first song? Is that something you want the reader to take note of? Was this something the story asked for without any particular rationale?
I think I picked Kansas City because it’s the closest big city to Omaha, where I live. It may have been Baltimore at first. KC seemed a better fit. I wanted the shift from the abstract to the specific to ground the entire piece. Mixing the nameless city with a well-known city made the nameless city seem more real. Less abstract. Even though it’s still imaginary. It’s all imaginary. Does that make sense?
4. The populations of the Misinterpreters and Listeners are beautiful to me in their lunacy. Are these populations supposed to represent something more than what they are in this story? (Do you think a writer has an obligation to makes his/her characters and/or landscapes representative of something outside the work they live in, or does the writer have an obligation to avoid such symbolism? Or is neither an obligation?)
All they represent for me is two opposing responses to a particular imaginary song. Everything else is left up to the reader. If they represent other things for other readers, that's cool. If a reader wants to bring a meaning or interpretation to a piece of fiction I write, I am 100% down with that. I don’t think a writer of fiction has any obligation beyond the primary one: keeping a reader interested. Keeping the reader from being bored.
5. I find your depiction of hysteria in the second song strange and wonderful, a cataclysm without death. Can you talk about how you decided upon and/or developed this brand of hysteria?
The hysteria was dictated by the destruction. I was thinking about how people listen to songs over and over again. I was also thinking about a song that could level a city. There are probably many ways a song could destroy a city. This is just the one I picked.
Do you know that song, "Precision Auto" by Superchunk? Just listen to that song ten times in a row. That's the real answer.
6. The third song's final image suggests peace in the form of sleep as an end to insomnia, brought on by the painstakingly-achieved sound of the musicians. Do you view this as a resolution? (Do you think resolution is important in this or in any of your other works?)
I do see the sleeping as a resolution, though maybe it’s a bit of a cop out, almost too easy. It always had to end there though.
7. What are you reading these days? Do you ever read something and think, "I wish I'd written this" or "I want to write like this," or are you able to avoid this sort of envy?
I've been reading a lot of poetry from Matthew Rohrer and Heather Christle. Also Mary Ruefle's Selected Poems. I just finished Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Just started Jane Eyre--usually, this kind of novel is not my thing, but I’m loving it so far. I get the “I wish I’d written this” thing all the time, but I see it as inspiration, not envy. It’s more like “I want to write something as good as this.”
8. What are you writing these days? Do you have plans to embark on a large work?
I’m still working on song-stories, and I hope to put a bunch of them together into a book.