Interview with Mark Wisniewski
by Jack Smith
Mark Wisniewski, serving on the Editorial Board of GHLL, is a short story writer, novelist, and a poet. He has published over 100 short stories in the most prestigious literary magazines of the country. He is a Pushcart Prize winner, and one of his stories has appeared in Best American Short Stories. His book-length works include one story collection, All Weekend with the Lights On, and three novels: Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman; Show Up, Look Good; and, in January 2015, Watch Me Go, published by Penguin Random House-Putnam. Besides writing, Wisniewski also works as a book-doctor.
How much would you say formal training in writing has helped you? How much did you learn from the university and how much on your own?
MFA workshops taught me how to tighten, how to imply to make fiction more literary, how to avoid certain characters and expressions and lines of human thought in order that my work be published by university magazines and small presses. These workshops were very good at teaching these things; in other words, they were very good at telling me what not to do. They weren’t so good at teaching, say, how to tell a story. That, I think, I learned from hanging around people who drank a lot.
You recently published your third novel, Watch Me Go, at Penguin Putnam, your first commercial novel. Can you speak to the process of getting a novel published at a commercial press?
There are more people involved than you might first think. There are far more emails than when you work with a small press. There’s this palpable pressure to excel that, for me, is darned exciting. I sleep far less than I used to.
Watch Me Go is pretty grim in places, and yet your first two novels—Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman and Show Up, Look Good—were much more on the light side, especially Confessions. Which direction do you see your future novels taking?
The novel I’m working on now is a literary thriller. Sex, death, who should you trust—whatever it takes to keep a lot of readers turning pages. This is not easy. I can see why the Stephen Kings of the world get ornery when they’re snubbed by the writers of poetic fiction.
Regarding what I’ll write or do after finishing this one I’m now drafting, I have no idea. I keep telling my wife that after this one I’ll take a long vacation. She tends to respond by saying nothing. Which is her way of saying, “That’s what you said when you were finishing Watch Me Go.”
You’ve published a lot of short fiction in high-end literary magazines, plus a collection of short stories. Which form comes most naturally for you—the short story or the novel? Or are you drawn about equally to both?
The first thing I wrote after undergrad—where there were no writing workshops—was a novel. It wasn’t well-crafted, but it was about 300 pages long and had a plot, and it was turned down by an agent, and I was devastated. It was only after I enrolled in a workshop that I began writing short stories, probably because that teacher preferred to workshop short stories—which might have been the case, now that I look back on it, because that teacher preferred writing short stories to writing novels. And at first I wasn’t very good at short stories. But I’m not a quitter. And, well, with enough practice, just about anyone can improve at just about anything.
How long does it take you to complete a short story, and what kind of process do you go through?
I can draft a short story in a few days. It’s the revision that takes forever. And for me, it’s the revision that makes a story publishable. Usually something on the macro-level needs to be changed (for example, a different narrative voice, a different point of view, a new ending), and then there’s the endless tweaking to improve matters on the sentence level. Now and then a story comes out in fine shape as a first draft, but not lately. Lately I grind them out.
How about a novel?
It depends on the novel. Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman took not even two years to draft and revise. Watch Me Go took forever, albeit with several breaks during which I set it aside to work on the novels of other writers.
For you, what makes a great story? If you had to sum it up in a sentence or two, what would you say?
Inevitable surprise. And at least one very likable character. If you can get these into a narrative, you’re well on your way.
Does this vary with a novel?
A novel is, after all, a very long story. At least that’s my opinion on the matter; obviously, several writers and publishers disagree.
What do you think convinced your publisher to go with Watch Me Go? What strengths did it have that swung the deal?
I don’t know. That was a rather confusing process. Sometimes I think that maybe what happened was a few gatekeepers in publishing finally decided that the Deeshes in the world actually mattered. And it troubles me to say this, but to some extent it seemed that the violence and tragic twists I added as I revised helped the book sell. Or maybe it was that the violence forced me to add more conflict?
You’re a book doctor as well as writer. What’s it like trying to manage being both? What’s a typical day like for you?
For a couple years now it’s been dealing with more emails than I can handle. I’m not a phone person, so it’s like Gmail city around here. And lately I’ve been writing emails that say that, until October at least, I can’t look at anyone else’s fiction because I need to work on my next novel. Still, people keep emailing to ask. I think a few have gotten upset. I think some liked me as the guy who busted ass on their fiction—and they’re not sure what to make of this guy now that he works on his own.
Any tips for fiction writers you’d like to share?
Tell your best story. Yes, show-don’t-tell when you craft a particular sentence, but overall, above all, when you wake up thinking about how you will do what you’re about to do on a given day, remember you are here to tell your best story.
Jack Smith is the founding editor of GHLL. He has published fiction in such literary journals as The Southern Review, The Texas Review, North American Review, X-Connect, Happy, In Posse Review, Southern Ocean Review, and B&A: New Fiction. His reviews have appeared in Missouri Review, Texas Review, Georgia Review, Pleiades, X-Connect, RE:AL, and Environment magazine. He also has written a number of articles for Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and The Writer and co-authored the nonfiction work Killing Me Softly (Monthly Review Press, 2002). Recent novels include Hog to Hog and Icon.