The Big Other Interview #253: Mark Brand

Mark Brand is a Chicagoland polymath: editor, writer, videopodcaster, former medical assistant. We met not long before I was a guest on the Breakfast with the Author podcast (ep. 3), with fellow Chicago writer Lawrence Santoro. Other guests: Ben Tanzer and Jason Fisk (ep. 1), Kathleen Rooney and Gina Frangello (ep. 2), and Russell Lutz, Len Nicholas, and Paul Hughes (ep. 4). His new novel(la), Life After Sleep, provided the occasion for his submission to the complex mental challenges you have come to know as The Big Other interview.

Life After Sleep summary:

It is the day after tomorrow, and a device has been invented that immediately induces REM sleep, otherwise known as “Sleep” with a capital S. Society has been transformed. The average person now only needs two hours of rest a night. The work day is officially sixteen hours long. Americans party at clubs until daybreak, then log into virtual worlds and party in a reunified Korea all morning, too. And within this busier, noisier, more global society, we watch the intertwining fates of four people as they struggle with issues regarding Sleep: new parents who for postnatal reasons aren’t allowed to use their special Beds; an Iraq vet and PTSD victim who is haunted by the non-ending nightmares that Sleep produces; a harried, arrogant doctor whose Bed has stopped working, driving him to the brink of madness; and a band promoter with an illegal Bed that lets her Sleep for hours on end, then stay up for four straight days and nights.

Chicago science-fiction veteran and former medical assistant Mark R. Brand presents here a stunning and nuanced look at the world that might just await us around the corner–a place where GPS, Facebook and cellphones mesh perfectly to tell us where even in a nightclub to stand, yet traditional enough for couples to still have fights over groceries, and for office politics to still have enormous repercussions; and since it’s being released by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, it means you pay only what you want for an electronic copy, even if you want to pay nothing, making this mini-novel (available in EPUB, PDF and MOBI/Kindle editions) easily worth taking a chance on. Rich in its prose and deep in its metaphor, you do not have to be a fan of sci-fi, Michael Crichton or Malcolm Gladwell to love “Life After Sleep”…although it certainly wouldn’t hurt either.

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Davis Schneiderman: Describe where the idea for Sleep emerged from, if you can…

Mark Brand: I first started piecing together Life After Sleep in 2007, shortly after the birth of my son.  I was working 50+ hours a week in a medical office and was sleeping only 3-4 hours per night.  As all new fathers do, I eventually came to accept that this is typical life with a new baby at home, but at the time it felt to me like I was the lone astronaut on a rocket to Planet Insanity.  I had also always wanted to write something that pulled in some of my knowledge of medicine and the hospital/clinical environment, but I hadn’t really come across an idea I liked enough to make that happen.

By chance, I stumbled across an article in Discover magazine called “How to sleep 4 hours per night.”  The article made mention vaguely of TMS technology and the potential side effect it has of putting people straight into REM sleep.  My first thought was THAT’s what I want for Father’s Day, and my second thought was this would make an awesome short story.  So I sat down over the course of a few weeks and wrote a short story that eventually became the “Dr. Frost” section of Life After Sleep.  His section initially was a standalone short that I really liked and got some good reactions to from readers, but I just felt like I hadn’t done enough with the premise, and that there was so much more to say there about sleep and work, and it seemed to grow more and more relevant and alive in my head with each passing year.  So I floated the idea to Jason Pettus, my editor at CCLaP Publishing and he liked the idea and told me to run with it.  I went back and added Max and Lila and eventually Jeremy to make it more one large work.

Aside from just pure plot cleverness and a giant pile of subtext and not-quite-pointed statements about what I think people would do with a technology that allows someone to have 6 or 8 more hours in a day, (and not a few medical inside-jokes), I wanted to capture some of that experience of just being absolutely flat-out exhausted for an extended period of time.  Things start to get wonky, you start waking up not knowing what day of the week it is and you realize you’re at work and you have no memory of having breakfast or driving there, that sort of thing.  And in the middle of it, especially if you’ve got a new baby at home and you’re so mentally tied to two different and equally demanding facets of your life, you start to feel really bitter and fatalistic about it sometimes.  I tried to grab onto that emotion and show the characters just full-on in the path of that oncoming wrecking ball.

Whether it’s a new baby (Max), a hidden health problem that threatens their livelihood (Dr. Frost), an unsustainable lifestyle (Lila), or an emotional black hole (Jeremy), each of these characters just wants to crawl out of their skin at one point, and they all feel very, very alone, even though they’re not, and in fact even though they don’t know each other in the story, their friends interact and they’re very much in the same social sphere.  Eventually, as was my experience as a father, the four main POV characters of Life After Sleep do encounter each other and that’s kind of a special moment, too.  The moment when, for me at least, I realized that there were other dads out there that understood, or if I met a guy that was just getting ready to have his own first child, those connections were instant and weirdly strong.  I wanted to capture some of that, too.

Davis: LAS reads as literary science fiction, but also fits strongly within the genre.  Can you discuss how your work may be housed in both worlds?  Maybe there is no difference.

Mark: My friend Ben Tanzer and I have talked at length about this several times and specifically about what constitutes works as “sci-fi” or not, and I think most of it is just labeling.  You see awesome science fiction coming from authors that don’t identify themselves as sci-fi writers (a few of my favorites that people will recognize being Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Jack London’s The Iron Heel and The Star Rover), and despite several of these titles being re-defining moments in the genre of science fiction, their authors are generally not thought of as “genre” authors.  Which is sort of a strange idiosyncrasy specific to sci-fi.  All of the titles I mentioned above are also highly literary in their presentation, which I think makes for some hand-wringing about what to label them as.  There are also plenty of genre-labeled authors that can keep up with Atwood and McCarthy and the rest in terms of plot, theme, story structure, characterization, dialogue, setting… all of the things that add up to the label of “literary _(whatever)__”.  So it’s not really all that clear a distinction to me even at this point in my career where I’ve been doing it a while and where I’m now also doing my best to edit short fiction for an independent sci-fi publisher.

What I’ve concluded, purely unscientifically and based on my own gut instinct, is that when people label something “genre” science fiction, they’re basically saying that it rehashes classic sci-fi tropes.  And that’s somewhat, but not completely, true.  In the case of McCarthy’s The Road, I think it wasn’t labeled a genre piece (despite being an absolute dead-on rehash of fifty years of Cold War and post-Cold War apocalyptic fiction) because it was so damned good, and because he had established himself previously as a mainstream literary author.  So at best it’s a permeable distinction.  I’ve settled on calling myself a sci-fi author because, perhaps like Neal Stephenson or someone of that sort, I write mostly stories of a speculative nature.  Science fiction is such a huge and ill-defined genre that it’s not particularly descriptive of one’s work, but it does rule out some things, and that’s helpful.  By calling myself a sci-fi author I can immediately give people an idea of the things I don’t write.  I don’t, for example, write William Trevor-ish hundred-page short stories about upper-middle-class dinner parties. I don’t write who-dunnit sorts of mysteries or memoirs or stories about that time I went to Costa Rica for three months and found myself.  But neither do I write about spaceships and aliens, though I have in the past and though I DO love those topics, and therein tends to be that uncomfortable label-less-ness that often comes up when people talk to me about my work.

Life After Sleep, most of my work really, is meant to operate on a literary level, but I’ve been such a fan of science fiction basically my entire life that I think it’s always a key goal of mine when I’m writing a book to make it something that a sci-fi fan would pick up purely for the thrill of it.  I just took my son, who is four now, to see his first movie at a movie theater, and I remembered that the first film I ever saw at a theater was The Return of the Jedi.  It’s hard to call ROTJ literary in any sense of the word, but it’s still highly entertaining and evocative of all sorts of Joseph Campbell hero-archetype imagery all these years later.  Imagine ROTJ as a talky psychodrama.  It just wouldn’t work.  It would become Zardoz or Videodrome or one of those other spectacularly unfortunate 70’s-80’s pieces of sci-fi that tried to go long on the concept and short on the thrills.  In that sense, it’s really, really hard to divorce the earmarks of genre sci-fi from the literary angle, and still come up with a readable, exciting piece of work at the end.  It can be done, though, and most recently I’ve seen it done in things like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, or  the film Code 46 with Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.  These are mostly quiet, cerebral works but even in their quieter moments they still manage to blow me away with their vividness and the depth of their concept, and most importantly they’re just sci-fi enough to be entertaining on that level as well.

For Life After Sleep, I wanted it to be deeply character-focused and with as much emotional honesty as I could muster to really get across the feelings that they were going through, but I also wanted it to be the sort of thing that would appeal to people who wanted to read about nifty Sleep machines and business cards with RIFD tags in them and a Facebook-esque social media network that lets you pinpoint your friends in a crowded nightclub and energy drinks that have sexual-enhancement drugs in them.  And of course it always helps straddle both the genre and the literary when you’re not looking all that far ahead in terms of what’s to come in the world.  Most of the whiz-bang technology in Life After Sleep already exists in some prototype or infant form, and will be part of our world eventually in one way or another.  So it’s easy to suspend disbelief and focus on the story and yet still enjoyable to imagine what sorts of things that, say, our own children might get to enjoy someday.

Davis: What’s the current state of sci-fi publishing?  Where does Silverthought fit into this.

Mark: Wow, this is a huge question, but I’ll try to just briefly summarize it.  The nature of sci-fi often determines exactly what’s happening with it at one time or another.  Science fiction is so metaphorical, and to some extent satirical, in nature, and big expansions in science fiction generally follow periods of real-world war and socio-political upheaval.  So as you might imagine, sci-fi is rocking right now, particularly because of the wave of post-Bush-era fiction that’s currently being published.  And with world events seeming in the last year or two to show no sign of slowing down or stabilizing, I feel like this trend is going to continue.  We’re seeing huge amounts of post-apocalyptic fiction, maybe more than ever before, which is fascinating considering that particular subgenre hit its previous peak during the earlier years of the Cold War right around when my parents were born, but also we’re seeing a large number of sci-fi pieces coming out that stress the social dynamics of developing countries, class stratification, and a globalized world.  As I mentioned above, one of the best things I’ve seen on this score lately was an incredible movie called Code 46, which is now a couple of years old and came out with little fanfare, but was the best film I’ve seen all year so far.  In it, the world is virtually physically no different from today, but the idea that people might evolve to the point that they do in the film, speaking four or five languages interchangeably and using medical breakthroughs to enhance their ability to do their day jobs while struggling under very familiar social problems such as a sharp division between the rich and the poor and the looming, oppressive threat of terrorism and the chilling effect it has on the economy of thriving nations, is just fascinating and very much a “right now” way of approaching sci-fi.  When you look at the winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2010, you have China Mieville’s The City & The City, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, both of which directly tackle these sorts of themes.  It’s really exciting stuff.

I’m also very happy with Silverthought’s contribution to this in the past, present and future, though in obviously a much more modest way.  Though this year marks our tenth anniversary of publishing sci-fi, and our quality of work is better now than it’s ever been, we’re still very much a small publisher.  We have, however, been fortunate to attract outstanding talent nearly every step of the way.  We put out a book last year called Human Sister, which was really terrific and I think set a new benchmark of quality for the press.  We also decided after some consideration last year to try and do more regular online fiction updates and publish fewer stories per update, buying and publishing only the very best of the best, and this has resulted in a smaller overall short fiction output for us, but the stories have been just absolutely stellar.  We’ve gotten fiction from hundreds of authors from around the world, and it’s often very difficult to whittle down the candidates to just half a dozen, let alone the two or three each month we end up publishing.  Overall it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a writer, reader, editor, and publisher of science fiction.

Davis: You’re not a native mid-westerner. How has the city affected your work?

Mark: Two big ways:

First, I’ve been so lucky to discover and become a part of the literary scene in Chicago, which I have to think is probably the friendliest, most accepting, most encouraging, and most dynamic on earth.  There’s always something fun and interesting going on, and it’s spearheaded by some of the most hard-working folks in the business, who are doing it so nakedly for the pure love of writing and literature that it borders on awe-inspiring at times.  I regularly see people come up with an idea for a book or a project or a podcast or a reading series or an event and it’s almost like they just conjure it out of thin air sometimes.  Of course that’s not true and there’s a huge amount of background work that goes into these things, but there never seems to be any lack of energy and enthusiasm for it.  All the while being a community the vast majority of which is comprised of cool, easygoing, accessible people.  If you can’t find inspiration and motivation from hanging out in this crowd, you’re just not trying.  There are days when this alone makes dealing with the city worth it.

The second way is that Chicago as a city can make you feel like a pencil in a pencil sharpener.  We’ll touch on that in a minute when we talk about The Damnation of Memory but I grew up in rural northern New York, and while there is no lack of creativity in NNY, there just isn’t the same daily pressure there to galvanize the imagination or to keep you sharp and creatively on your toes.  You don’t meet the same volume of people, dodge the same tornado of the best and worst that people have to offer, or experience the same tempo of life in general that you do in a place like Chicago.  So it’s kind of a double-edged sword.  It’s awesome because it’s easy to get connected to a large, established, and active literary community, and it builds character where the abrasive parts of city life start to grind on you.

Davis: Say a bit about the Breakfast with the Author video podcast…how did it start / what’s next, etc?

Mark: Actually the initial idea for Breakfast With the Author came to me when I was sitting on the back porch of The Whistler after the Orange Alert reading series last summer and hanging out with Jason Behrends, Ben Tanzer, and Jason Fisk.  We were just having some drinks and talking shop about books and suddenly it was 11:00 PM and we realized we’d been there for at least a couple of hours just talking and having a good time.  It occurred to me that one of the most fun parts of the Chicago literature scene is how accessible it is to everyone, regardless of what you write or where you are in your writing career, and I thought wouldn’t it be great if I could capture some of that for some of my far-flung online writer friends who live all over the country and are often in isolated places without the benefit of the scene we have here.  I love being part of those sorts of conversations, and I thought that there might be some interest from the writing community to get to hear what went on at a table of writers talking very relaxedly and informally about their experiences with their own books.  I thought it also might appeal to readers as well because it’s not really all that often that you get to see the people that write those fun little stacks of bound paper on your bookshelf.  Often they’re exactly as you picture them, and just as often they’re completely different.  From that point on, I basically borrowed the format of Jon Favreau’s Dinner for Five show from IFC, and re-created it in my dining room at home.  And made it about breakfast instead of dinner because I used to cook for two different breakfast diners and I can make pretty much anything.  It’s been really fun so far and I’ve been able to get some excellent authors on the show, for which I’m very, very grateful.  Coming up very soon is Episode 4, which consists of most of the founding members of Silverthought Press, and until I taped that show we had never actually all been in the same place together before, so it was good fun.  After that I’ve got two more episodes lined up to shoot and their guests are confirmed, but I usually keep that quiet until the show is actually filmed, in case of occasional last-minute changes that do happen from time to time.

Davis: You have another novel on the way?  Discuss.

Mark: I do.  It’s called The Damnation of Memory, and it will hopefully be released (depending on the publication schedule) by June of this year.  I stood at the pump one day, it was late 2007 or early 2008, and realized that I was paying over $5.00 a gallon for gasoline.  Of course with the way things are today as of this writing, it seems like deja vu, but the first time around it hit me pretty hard.  By then every grocery store and retail outlet and service sector provider in the whole country had started using the fuel crisis as an excuse to jack up the cost of their goods and services (again, as they’re doing right now).  Even just putting food on our table seemed daunting.  As I drove home, I wondered how long these sorts of prices could continue before they started putting people out of their homes.  As I hung up the gas hose, I stared at the sign that had ticked upward a few cents every day for a month or more straight, and mumbled “Fuck you,” shaking my head.  I’m not exactly certain who I was saying fuck you to at that moment, but I sure felt it.  As I drove home, I realized it wasn’t just “fuck you BP” or “fuck you Dominicks” or even “fuck you big oil”, it was more broad.  It was more of a “fuck you” to Chicago, to the Midwest, to North America.  Fuck you for being an insane, unlivable place.  Fuck you for picking this moment in time to tank; the moment I was trying to start my own family and establish a lasting career, the moment I was most vulnerable to change.  Fuck you, world, for doing this to me.

So as I drove home that evening I started looking at the townhouses and condo buildings that line the lake shore of Chicago and imagining them empty, with boarded and broken windows and animals living in their attics.  I pictured the streets empty, and I felt in that moment that it would be somehow savagely satisfying to see this great city reduced to emptiness and disrepair, where it could no longer torment me with its high taxes, its shaky economy, its scam-like politics, and its unlivable grind.  I pictured not just Chicago but all of the places I had lived, all the cities and towns, abandoned.  It wasn’t any huge exercise in imagination.  Even as early as that, there were commercial buildings along some of the main shopping districts in Chicago and Evanston that sat vacant alarmingly long periods of time.  Storefronts with big empty picture windows and a big empty room behind them naked except for a sign that said “for rent.”  Some houses are empty as well, with grass growing in their yards and un-swept driveways.  This was the same winter that the city started to tighten its street repair budget and repetitive freezing and thawing had eaten potholes into the pavement that people began suing the city over.  Just one winter of thrifty cost-cutting on the city streets had reduced it in places to bare rebar and impassable minefields of potholes along the main expressways.  Imagine this for five years, I thought, or thirty years.

I’m sure there were lots of people that felt this way during those couple of years, and as of this writing of course things are still shit nationwide.  Many people have moved back in with their parents, the job market is awful for certain demographics in particular, and many people, people close to me, are seeing their marriages disintegrate. This sharp uptick in divorce in my own personal proximity gave me pause to think about the change that it represents to the men involved.  And then I pictured two men, just walking, on a highway that hadn’t been maintained in decades, picking their way through pavement that wasn’t even really pavement anymore, and walking because there weren’t any cars to be had.  And I started to wonder what had happened to those men, what sort of apocalypse.  And then I thought “what if they’re both just separated from their families? Isn’t that enough of an apocalypse for most guys?”  So that’s where I started with the story, and it seemed kind of fitting, you know?  Not every apocalypse means the end of the world, it just means a huge, life-altering change.  Sometimes the world goes on just fine without you, or in spite of you, and that’s what I wanted to get to with this book.  So our two main characters in Damnation are getting on with their lives after a big apocalyptic-style change of the world, and they both survived, but neither of them are all that happy about it.  I’m a big fan of John Steinbeck and this book was influenced significantly by an adult re-read of Of Mice and Men.  When you’re 15, it’s easy to just pick up on his tone, his use of language, and the sturdy way he constructs a story, but as an adult with children of your own and responsibilities, Steinbeck’s work really takes on this whole terrifying new vibe.  It’s forlorn and bitter and just really, really fucking angry, sort of like how I felt driving away from that pump that day.  It’s that quiet, beautiful, honest rage that I wanted to tap into with Damnation.  Men making choices, and what happens when those choices are forced by things they can’t control, and how they feel about it afterward.

Davis: What are some of the challenges you are working through as a writer?

Mark: In terms of challenges, the biggest and most obvious is just purely finding time.  I’m sure this is true of a huge chunk of the writing community in general and for my part I work and commute six days and usually 50-60 hours per week, and like I mentioned I have a family and small child at home, so it seems eternally to be a struggle to produce the work in the first place.  The more I get accustomed to parenthood, though, and wherever I can sneak it in (usually from 10:00 PM – 2:00 AM when all the sane people have gone to sleep), I try my best to keep up.

If we’re talking about themes and the arc of creativity in general, I’m looking forward to working on two pending projects once The Damnation of Memory is complete.  I don’t want to get too specific here because they’re both very much in the early stages of solidifying exactly what they’ll look like and how they’ll be presented but one of them is a shorter, traditionally narrative piece that’s highly allegorical in nature and synthesizes themes of fatherhood and the genesis of naturalistic masculinity in a vivid, harrowing, thousand-mile-per-hour, postmodern, pseudo-apocalyptic Cub Scout sort of way.  The working title, taken from the Kipling poem Night Song in the Jungle, is Loosed Till Dawn Are We and it revolves around a small group of runaway ex-child soldiers who find themselves suddenly responsible for caring for an infant.  This one is complete, but needs significant editing and revising before it’ll be ready to find a home.

The second project, which sort of has and simultaneously does not have a title yet, is a non-traditional non-narrative piece that sort of represents the first big step I’ve taken into working on a different conceptual level than I’m accustomed to.  Again, without spoiling the fun, we’re talking about a project that plays with all sorts of fun boundaries of the authorship of a piece of literature, its interpretation over time, and the curating/caretaking that occurs long after the piece has been exposed to long-term cultural assimilation.  My aim with this project is to straddle as best I can the line between author and editor, and to be as creative as possible while simultaneously trying to be as analytical, academic, and straight-faced as I can manage.  It’ll be a very new “voice” for me and I think it’s going to be enormously challenging, but the potential for creating a book that will let the reader experience something old in a new way, and at the same time drawing attention to the fact that everything we read is basically distorted or, unexpectedly subjective and half-misinterpreted in some way, was just too tempting not to try.

Davis: So this sort of author/editor collaboration, dealing with long-term cultural assimilation of a text, might provide a hedge against writerly isolation?  This takes us back to Chicago again.

Mark: I guess if there’s anything else to say, it’s just to reiterate how much I enjoy the Chicago writing community and I can’t overstate how welcoming they are and how much I encourage everyone who is able to experience it for themselves to do so.  Writing is such a characteristically isolated and isolating activity that this sort of community is really crucial.  Not only does it provide that key sense of community that really brings together creative people in a non-pressured way, but it’s also a real gateway to discovering some of the very best new fiction out there.  Thanks again so much for taking the time to talk to me, and I very much hope you enjoy Life After Sleep.

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Mark R. Brand is the author of the novel Red Ivy Afternoon and was named a Chicago author Favorite of 2009 by the Chicago Tribune for editing the collection Thank You, Death Robot.  Both books received medals at the Independent Publisher Book Awards in 2006 and 2009 respectively.  His short stories have appeared in various print collections including Upstart Crows II: True Stories, Silverthought: Ignition, Alien Light: A Science Fiction Anthology, and To Wound the Autumnal City: A 9-11 Tribute, as well as numerous online fiction websites.  Brand was born in northern New York and graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2001. He currently lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son, and is anticipating the imminent release of his latest novel The Damnation of Memory in 2011.

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