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No Future: An interview with Mark SaFranko

By Martin de Bourmont.

Mark SaFranko will one day be remembered as one of the greatest American writers of the early 21st century, though it is unlikely those remembering him will be Americans themselves. Although he remains an obscure novelist in the United States, Mr. SaFranko –who is also a painter, musician, playwright and actor- is celebrated in France and the UK as an heir to Charles Bukowski and John Fante. In his series of confessional novels –sometimes referred to as the ‘Zajacks’- SaFranko traces the life of Max Zajack, a first generation American and frustrated writer condemned to a life of self-destructive love affairs and humiliating work.

While SaFranko is best known for his confessional novels, he is most proud of his crime fiction. Like his confessional novels, SaFranko’s crime fiction depicts the quotidian degradations of contemporary working and middle class American life, without ever losing its scabrous dark humor. His latest crime novel is called The Suicide. It tells the story of Brian Vincenti, a detective from Hoboken, New Jersey who must contend with the implosion of his family life as he investigates a mysterious suicide. SaFranko’s collection of stories, Incident sur la 10e Avenue appears in France from Éditions la Dragonne on January 25, 2016.

 

3:AM: You once said that America doesn’t need artists. What did you mean by this?

MS: I suppose I was referring to people like myself who have a very difficult time getting an audience in America. That is really a matter of the bottom line. If an artist doesn’t make money, America has no need for him or her. Simple as that. The bottom line rules in America, the economic system being what it is. But there is no link between value as an artist and the amount of money he or she generates.

3:AM: Edward Abbey once wrote that he was one of the few American writers who works for a living. A number of articles on you have noted the diversity of the jobs you have held over the years. Do you think this sets you apart from other contemporary American writers? Does it affect your work in an important way?

MS: There’s no doubt whatsoever that it sets me apart from the hordes who’ve come through the MFA programs in recent decades. And it probably sets me apart from those who call academia home. For one thing, having worked as a reporter for daily newspapers has certainly molded my style, and working as everything from a short order cook to a phone book deliveryman has given me a large bank account of experience to draw from. I believe that it has affected my work, at least because my life hasn’t been as insular, as, say, that of a college professor.

3:AM: Are you suggesting that the people who are the primary contributors to America are of a certain social class? Barbara Ehrenreich recently published an essay about how there are so few people writing about poverty in America, and that those who do write about it are not coming from an experience of poverty. Would you agree?

MS: I think to some extent yes. I come from a blue collar, very lower middle class background. What I’ve written about autobiographically is certainly based in that experience. Part of the problem for me is that I’m not so hooked into contemporary literature as I should be. What I’ve written about in the confessional novels is certainly grounded in a true experience. I just come from a certain milieu that was certainly not a privileged one.

3:AM: In The Suicide, Brian Vincenti’s commentary on Hoboken is very much that of someone who comes from that milieu who is seeing their world change.

MS: I happened to be living in Hoboken at a time when it was going from a very rough, street-fighting town into very a chic, upscale Brooklyn west. These high-end hotels and apartments dominate the skyline. In the case of Hoboken that change has been over the past ten to fifteen, maybe twenty years. I was there on the cusp of its change. There were the remnants of Italian and Hispanic immigrant families. There are still pockets of those people, but it’s definitely been overrun by what you might call the “yuppies”. My experience of New Jersey is kind of unusual because I was born and raised in Trenton, which is now a battlefield of drug wars. It’s a very rough town like Camden, Paterson, or Newark. So my experience of New Jersey is very different from what some other people’s perception of the state is. I’ve lived in the blue collar, urban New Jersey. I’ve also lived in western and eastern Pennsylvania and many different parts of New Jersey, and Hoboken, which is more New York than it is New Jersey. I’ve seen many different sides of it. I don’t know that it’s changed very much except for those urban centers of New Jersey. Trenton for sure. My father recently passed away and my brother and I were dealing with his funeral arrangements. My neighborhood, which I was a Polish ghetto back in the 50s and 60s, now looks like a warzone. Everything is boarded up, there are no businesses. There’s a system now of red lights and green lights, to tell visitors when they can come into the city. At night the whole city is a “red light” district, which means you come in with extreme caution because of the crime.

3:AM: Where you a writer when you first moved to Hoboken?

MS: My wife was the engine for moving there, because she was working in the World Trade Center. I was doing freelance work, working a lot as an actor. I was trying to work as an actor because I was getting nowhere with my writing. I figured getting some work as an actor would draw some attention to my writing, which was sort of an insane thought process. It didn’t work very well either.

3:AM: Was it painful for you to see the city change?

MS: When an urban problem is solved, you pay a price. Take Times Square, which is now a sort of corporate playground. The streets are safer and it’s cleaner. There are more nice things to do. You can go there without being solicited by a prostitute or being mugged. Whenever an urban problem is “solved”, you are going to pay a price. You are going to lose certain characters. You are not going to have housing for those who once could afford to live there. I viewed it with a sense of detachment.

3:AM: You say that whenever an urban problem is solved, you pay a price. Do we lose something vital to ourselves when vices and crimes are hidden from view or when places that allow for those elements of our nature to be exorcised are made more outwardly wholesome and “corporate” friendly?

MS: I don’t know whether we lose something vital when vice and crime is hidden from view. What happens is that the darker energies connected with evil and crime are driven out of sight, sublimated, forced into different corners. Perhaps that’s when societal schisms become more visible and a certain segment of the populace grows angrier. In that sense there’s a danger when it happens. On the other hand, the shadow side of humanity, the side responsible for evil and transgression, is always lurking somewhere.

3:AM: Brian Vincenti seems to experience pain as he looks upon the gentrifying Hoboken. Is it possible to characterize this pain as something more painful than simple nostalgia? Do you experience the same emotions when you look at the New York or Hoboken of today?

MS: I think Vincenti experiences confusion and frustration because he knows that conditions engendered by the changing city will make his job more difficult. He’s more out of his element dealing with the yuppies and the incoming wealth, the wealthy transients, if I can call them by that name. It’s tougher to do a job when you don’t know what you’re dealing with. The gentrification of Hoboken drove me out because it became more expensive, but I don’t harbor a grudge. Besides, there wasn’t much I could do about it.

3:AM: As a location, does New Jersey lend itself to crime fiction in ways that other parts of America do not?

MS: I think that every state has something that would make it a unique setting. But Jersey is certainly a diverse state and in fact the topography itself has several different feels: urban, suburban, rural, the sea. The north is the New York City-oriented half of the state and the south is something altogether different. Philadelphia, if you will. Of course you have the ubiquitous presence of the mob, which is probably not present in every other part of the country. There are extremes of wealth and sophistication and poverty and crime. So the raw material is all there.

3AM: Do you think your European audiences interpret your work in a way that is different from the way your American audiences do?

MS: I was on a very long tour of France, in a town called Saint-Vit. A very small town, at a library, and the librarian asked me if I knew why French people love my work so much. I asked why. She said, “because we get the impression that you don’t like America.” I never had any intention of saying that, my books are just an interpretation of my reality here. I’ve always primarily suspected that the French are also much more accepting of confessional literature. Americans are not great fans of autobiographical, confessional literature. Henry Miller is the first example of a really confessional writer with a world audience, and his audience was primarily French too. One figure that pops to mind immediately. I notice the ubiquity of the John Fante titles. In America, no one knows who he is. Only the people who have read Bukowski and have seen that he mentions him have read Fante. But French readers assume that John Fante is a major figure in America. Even Bukowski. He has sort of entered the mainstream. But I’m not sure that his audience in America goes beyond a certain type of reader. I think, “thank god for the French,” because they keep my head above water, not just financially, but psychologically. If relied simply on what happens in America, I’d be in desperate trouble.

3:AM: I also want to talk with you about the role of the future in your novels. I wonder if this is a theme throughout the Zajack novels, where the protagonist is constantly trying to obliterate himself, in bad relationships, with substances. The theme of these novels appears to be a rejection of the future. At the time in which these novels are taking place, at the end of the twentieth century, there is a great anticipation for what the future might bring, in terms of inventions or discoveries or new forms of social organization, and your character seems incapable of situating himself in any kind of positive vision of the future.

MS: I would really hesitate to ascribe that situation to anyone beyond myself become I came from such a circumscribed environment. I lived in a very narrow row house. My mother didn’t get through the eighth grade. My father barely got through the high school. They were factory workers. The idea of becoming a writer was akin to saying “I’m going to travel to Saturn.” You didn’t meet writers, you didn’t know writers. What you’re talking about is the unconscious expression of someone who didn’t see much beyond those streets and those neighborhoods that were really filled with a lot of hard luck cases, factory workers…there wasn’t much of a vision. I was joking with my brother one time and said “there wasn’t much of a vision were we came from.” “Vision?” he said. “There was no vision!” That sums it up. That results not in an obliteration of the future but in a lack of consciousness that any future existed beyond a certain sort of circumscribed list of possibilities.

3:AM: So what is it that brought you to writing in the first place?

MS: Well there was this book called Sands of the Kalahari by a guy named William Mulvihill. It was probably written in the late fifties. It took place in a desert in Africa in which there was a plane crash and the survivors needed to fight off a horde of baboons in order to stay alive. This book fascinated me.  My environment was so mundane and so prosaic that this exotic locale is probably what did it. In high school I was also a great fan of Dickens, especially Great Expectations. Then I attended a school that was basically a monastery in western Pennsylvania and I began to read more widely. After getting out of there I spent an absolutely miserable year in a bank. All I did was drink and I had a book under my desk. Of course I got fired. At that point I thought I really wanted to try becoming a writer. And the only thing I could think to do, to get a job as a writer, was to work as a journalist. I worked for some newspapers. It really informed by style, by taking away all the literary pretensions. You need to go to the center of things really quickly. I wrote everything from sports to crime and local politics, which are dreadful.

3:AM: Is that what brought you to crime writing?

MS: No. Actually, when I went to the monastery I went with the intention of one day becoming a lawyer. Later I realized I wasn’t interested in the law at all, I was interested in the characters. The criminals, really. That was a very early interest from Crime and Punishment, which I discovered in my teens. I had a native interest in criminals.

3:AM: Did you think you could have become a criminal?

MS: I was surrounded by people in grammar and high school who ended up as criminals and went to the state prison. I certainly was in the environment for it. I sort of always glimpsed that it wouldn’t be a good end [laughs], that it would carry a lot more problems with it than anything else. You could have a lot of meaningful life experience without becoming a criminal. That said, I did get to visit one of the oldest penitentiaries in France, in Besançon. My stuff is in their library. It was the high point of the book tour. The prisoners were the only people who asked really vital questions, like “do you believe in God?”.

3:AM: What was it about your work that attracted the prisoners?

MS: I guess I was writing about a certain period of my life or an environment they could understand. The work had been well read. Either the prisoners were very bored or they had a very small library [laughs], but the books were out…the question about God really stuck out for me. It was the only time I was asked the question on a tour. They also asked me about an afterlife and good and evil.

3:AM: How did you answer those questions?

MS: I answered instinctively. I think those guys could smell insincerity. Although, this is interesting. I had this watch that I wore on this tour. It was a $15 with a blue face that I liked the look of. There was an Albanian drug lord who was in the audience and after I left, he told the translator that he thought I was full of shit about my background because he could tell I was wearing a really expensive watch. And the truth was that I bought it in a pharmacy [laughs], but they watched you very closely.

My answer then, concerning God, was that I certainly do not dismiss the idea that there is a power much greater than us and that it’s also capable of great evil. Yeah, I believe there’s a force that animates the universe. I was raised a very traditional Catholic.

I write with a sense of fatalism. Sometimes I see a moralistic nature in the dénouements of my novels, but it’s certainly not intentional. I never start out with a moralistic or judgmental agenda.

3:AM: What are the origins of this fatalism?

MS: I think the fatalism runs deep within my character. But from a literary standpoint, I think one of the books that has most influenced my fiction is Thérèse Raquin, the Zola novel, which I consider to be one of the greatest crime novels ever written. I’ve read it several times and I’ve seen it on stage several times. But it does something much different from more modern crime novels in that the effects of the crime cause can implosion in the two criminals. In more modern crime literature, the emphasis on character is often lacking. In Zola, the crime has an incredible effect on the criminal. I don’t know that you see that portrayed very often at all and I’m interested on the effect of the crime on the criminal and that’s why The Suicide went in the direction that it did. I really dislike conventional narratives in crime fiction. I know I stretch credulity in that novel, I was doing it for a reason.

I start reading many novels and abandon them. I tried a couple of Elmore Leonard novels. I don’t want to disparage anyone here, but the thinness of the characters, there’s no depth…that’s the only thing that captures my attention.

3:AM: Do you think your problem with contemporary crime fiction is that it’s too sociological in the way it constructs its characters?

MS: I would be theoretically against a sociological treatment of crime. I’m a writer that…this would be poorly received by the keepers of the American canon…

3:AM: Who are the keepers of the American canon?

MS: Academics, the critics who prefer a more political kind of writing. My interest in that is minimal. I’m interested in individuals and don’t really care what is going on in the world around them so much. My influences are Knut Hamsun and Georges Simenon who is a great influence on my crime novels, especially his “hard novels.” Simenon gets inside the skulls and the souls of average people faced with desperate situations. Their characters implode. The pressures build to a point where a being can’t sustain them anymore. There is obliviousness to the condition of the world around those people for the most part. Patricia Highsmith is very much the same. You take these oddball characters, their insides become the engine of the novel. As I often say about Highsmith, you feel like you are trapped inside the mind of an insane person. Simenon is similar. I’m someone who has struggled with those issues myself. I find that really interesting. To go one step further, I also don’t think anything can be solved, politically speaking, in the world. Carl Jung once said that man’s greatest problems are fundamentally insoluble. I don’t think there are any solutions that come from the outside.

3:AM: You believe these problems are insoluble but you are very concerned about the condition of the human soul, someone’s ability to make decisions in dire circumstances. I wonder if this is informed by your experience, coming from a place with very limited horizons. Did your education and the world you grew up in lead you to these conclusions or did you find yourself in rebellion against your time and your station in life?

MS: At the end of the day I felt like I could extricate myself in some way. Art was the vehicle. I struggled to do something that made me feel good. The act of creation was always the most interesting thing I’d ever done with myself. I would actually feel an orgasmic rush at the conception of a melody for a song. The fact that I could write a story was an amazing accomplishment for me. Whether it was good or bad was beyond the point. I remember I was in my early twenties and I decided “I love this, I don’t want to be yoked into a job I detest,” and I’ve had my share of them. The perspective was, it’s paying my rent so I can continue doing this other stuff, wherever it was leading, which wasn’t anywhere for a while.  I’m just on autopilot. I’m too old to do anything else. As long as I’m still able to write, it makes me feel good.

3:AM: What was your first attempt at writing crime fiction?

MS: It was a novel called The Favor, which came out when I was 26 or 27. I was aping Simeon. That novel still circulates. In fact, an Austrian filmmaker optioned it a couple of years ago. People seem to like it. My structures have changed a bit over the years, but I’m still very much focused on the characters. The Suicide focuses on the same themes.

3:AM: What does crime fiction allow you to write about or attempt (from a stylistic perspective) that other forms of writing do not?

MS: For me it’s more that crime fiction allows me to tap another source of my creative urge. I get to inhabit an entire range of characters I don’t inhabit in my confessional or literary work. So I don’t think it’s a stylistic difference, since my style from one genre to the next probably doesn’t vary so much. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve always been obsessed with the duality of human nature, subversion, repression and so forth, and that can be fertile soil for a certain type of crime fiction.

3:AM: When you were first thinking of becoming a writer, what kinds of novels did you expect to write? Did you even expect to write novels?

MS: I did, though I’ve ended up writing for the stage and a good deal of short fiction as well as some poetry. My goals were lofty: Crime And Punishment. The Brothers Karamazov. Devils. The Rosy Crucifixion. Tropic of Capricorn. Of course you could never replicate those books, but that’s what I aspired to. Whether or not I succeeded or came close is left for others to decide.

3:AM: Is there anything inherently political about crime fiction?

MS: A good question, and one that I’ve not given much thought to since I regard myself largely as apolitical. I once saw an article somewhere that maintained that, for various reasons I didn’t understand, crime fiction was left wing and thrillers were right wing. But that doesn’t really answer your question. I suppose that you could argue that certain categories of crime fiction deal with marginalized groups of people and that makes it inherently political.

3:AM: Can everyone become a criminal? Zajack for instance, in the epilogue of God Bless America, seems amazed that he still has a clean record. What divides you, Zajack, or anyone else from criminality?

MS: The criminal exists in everyone to various degrees. It’s human nature. We contain two sides – many sides, really. Certainly one of those sides is capable of murder and mayhem. You’re correct about Zajack being astonished that he’s succeeded in escaping a certain fate that his environment fostered. Many people in his environment didn’t escape. What separates most of us from the criminal is probably the simple fear of punishment, and not some loftier motive, though I’m sure that at least some people are capable of it.

3:AM: Can crime fiction teach us something that other fiction cannot? Does it matter?

MS: The genres cross back and forth so often that it’s sometime difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. I don’t think it matters, really. Though many would maintain that crime fiction is more inherently entertaining, in which case its teaching value is increased.

Ross Macdonald had a strong influence on me. Really dense psychological probing. Actually, many of his novels were rooted in Sophocles and Euripides. Those really sort of fundamental Freudian complexes. Chinatown is the greatest American crime film ever made. Macdonald had a very confusing family life.   It’s rooted in such a dense psychoanalytic field that it holds an endless fascination for me. Chandler is a stylistic master but has a much more superficial treatment of crime. There wasn’t much depth of character.

With Macdonald I like the idea of the sun harboring a very ugly underside of reality, which it does in Chinatown. The fact that great empires are built on the worst corruption in a very personal sense also interests me greatly. This goes into something beyond politics. There’s a price in evil that has to be paid in order to achieve greatness in some area of life. A certain darkness is inevitable.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Martin de Bourmont is a graduate student and freelance writer based in Paris.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 8th, 2016.