I was introduced to Mark SaFranko’s work after receiving a galley of Hating Olivia: A Love Story from Harper Perennial in 2010 (read review here). Surrounded by towering stacks of yet-to-be read books, I arbitrarily picked up Olivia and began reading. Two hours later I turned the final page.
It’s not often that a book, written by an unfamiliar author, is able to command my attention and hold it unceasingly; but, Hating Olivia did just that. It was soon revealed that amid the anguished prose and obvious talent, there was an underlying current, a ghosting of literary masters that is sadly lacking in contemporary literature—and something I’ve been seeking for a long time.
With the release of SaFranko’s latest book: No Strings: A Novel (read review here) I was filled with trepidation—would the book be as good? And, if so, could I find the words to do it justice. The answer: definitely. Even better, Mr. SaFranko has agreed to answer some of my questions:
Thanks for doing this Mark. Let’s start off with a few easy questions. Where are you from originally?
Trenton, New Jersey. Currently boasts the highest rate of gangland homicide in the nation, or did until very recently. I’ve lived in eastern and western Pennsylvania, and all over New Jersey. I’ve spent time in Europe and California. Whenever I can, I travel.
What's the worst job you ever had?
There have been many bad ones. But the year I spent in the comptroller’s office of a bank was probably the worst. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that I’m not accountant material. I spent my time reading Henry Miller under the desk when I was supposed to be doing my work. When I was fired, I felt an incredible sense of relief.
I think we definitely saw a glimpse of that in Hating Olivia. What’s the last book you read?
I just finished J.R. Salamanca’s Lilith, largely forgotten now, which was made into a film starring Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg in the early sixties. A dreamlike and poetic novel, quite dense, and maddening slow at times, but one that was difficult to abandon even though I wanted to at times. And I recently reread The Talented Mister Ripley as well. That’s one of my all-time favorites. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately for some reason – returning to old favorites.
Do you get to spend time in NYC?
Oh yes. I live just outside the city limits and lived for many years in Hoboken, which is closer to the heart of Manhattan than Queens or the Bronx or the far-flung regions of Brooklyn. I’ve worked in the city and spent much time with my plays there, auditioning for parts as an actor, and crawling the streets in my younger days. I consider it my city.
What's the strangest thing you've seen here?
I’ve seen many strange things in the city over the years of course. But what springs to mind most recently was the sight of a guy being struck by a car in midtown, being thrown over the hood of the vehicle, then getting up off the asphalt, dusting himself off, and hustling to his next appointment. He never even looked back at the car. I wondered whether he died later from internal bleeding.
That gives a whole new meaning to “walk it off”… When I worked in publishing, I optioned the books for film and TV – have any of your books been optioned?
Back in the nineties I optioned a stage play about the life of Henry Miller to an executive at Miramax films. The piece was extensively workshopped around town for a year, had a very successful producer attached to it for a short time, then dropped.
My novel Hopler’s Statement was optioned by a very successful director of commercials in Hollywood, I wrote a screenplay, but he couldn’t come up with the financing. An Austrian director with a couple of features under his belt optioned my early novel The Favor, I produced a screenplay for him, but he was unable to put together a deal.
Most frustratingly, I wrote a screenplay based on one of my short stories that was optioned by a first-time indie director in New York back in the nineties. Approximately half of the film was actually shot, starring an actress with a now-solid film career, and then abandoned for lack of finishing funds. So there have been a slew of close calls.
What is it about your work that makes it right for the big screen?
I’ve been told many times that it has very “visual” qualities, that readers can see it clearly in their mind’s eye. As I’ve said, directors have taken cracks at it in the past. I’m hopeful that one of these days someone will succeed. If I had the means, I would do it myself, since I worked as an actor in indie films and as a playwright, so I’m not unfamiliar with what goes on in that world. But I like to say that with film it cost a millions bucks to put in a plug, and that’s a big deterrent.
If each book is a writer's baby, do you think you could handle the total loss of control of having your books adapted to someone else's vision?
Yes, absolutely! I think that should happen, actually. A good director has to make the material his. I think of Anthony Minghella’s brilliant adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mister Ripley and how in so many ways it’s an improvement on the novel – and it’s an unquestionably a great novel. A good director/screenwriter can expand and excavate, dig out intentions that the novelist cannot for whatever reason bring to light. And I can think of many more examples. But yes, if you are lucky enough to get a talented artist to adapt your work, loss of control might not necessarily be catastrophic. Then there’s the money. For the right price, I might agree to anything.
When I read Hating Olivia I saw a lot of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in your writing—though you’d not read him. A lot of people peg you as a “noir” writer, but I see only shades of that aspect. What are your noir influences and how do you see this book being different from the others?
Well, I am a student of the great noir writers from Cain to Goodis and I revere them all for different reasons. Given that I used to write for newspapers, I have an affinity for writers without academic literary pretensions, artists who cut straight to the bone. But you’re right about me not being a traditional noir writer. Someone like Patricia Highsmith’s work has influenced me greatly, and she’s a writer of what I would call “psychological fiction.” This is a more dangerous description, perhaps, because it infers an emphasis on character. And depth of character is what truly interests me.
A book like No Strings differs from something like Hating Olivia in that it’s not so transparently autobiographical -- though a writer really never gets away from who she or he is, no matter what the form, so you might just have to look a little harder to see her or him. And I would say that the Zajack novels – Olivia, Lounge Lizard, God Bless America, and Dirty Work – are written below the belt, so to speak. No Strings is written above the shoulders.
I would agree with that. In No Strings, I thought Richard's plan to fake an affair to throw his wife off his trail was pretty genius. Where do you think he made his most fatal error?
Well, he certainly could have minimized his losses by not losing control of himself during the meeting with the detective. I probably shouldn’t give away more than that. And thanks for the compliment, by the way.
Is there a reason you made the protagonist of No Strings a male? Why not female?
That’s a very good question, and I don’t have a good answer for it! I think I felt more comfortable writing from Richard Marzten’s viewpoint – that’s the easiest answer. But I’ve written from the female perspective often in my stories and in a new novel, which might surprise people.
As you know, writing a book is incredibly challenging, and getting it published is even more difficult. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
There have been some great self-published books, obviously. And I’m not against self-publishing. People finance their own films and produce their own records all the time and it’s not looked down upon. But with self-publishing the floodgates are open, clogging the funnel for editors, agents, etc. by letting everyone in. Everybody is a writer, it seems.
The scary thing is that most don't seem to understand how bad their stuff is. And they certainly don't understand the incredibly long and painstaking process that goes into making something even readable, the endless drafts and revisions that make something look easy. I’d say it’s a mixed blessing, but it will be with us forever now on account of the technological possibilities.
Whenever I go on to an author’s website, I see their FAQs and they always include questions asking the author to help them get published. Is this an issue for you as well?
I'm getting scads of manuscripts from people who want me to help them get published. I truly understand their anguish and frustration, but there’s so little I can do for them. What they really need is to work for years and years at their craft, but they don't want to hear that.
True, I think everybody is looking for that easy answer, and unfortunately there isn’t one. So, what can we expect from you next?
I’m working on several novels. A fifth Zajack is already finished and I have plans for a sixth. There are five or six other novels, including one about a female violin prodigy, in various stages of revision. There are several story collections that haven’t been published, though many of the individual stories have appeared in journals and magazines. I go from one piece to the next, revision after revision, until I get sick of working on it.
Wow, quite impressive. Well, Mark, I truly enjoy reading your books and look forward to the next one. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me.
Thanks for letting me run my mouth.