Monday, May 27, 2013
Interview with author & playwright Mark Rigney
Mark Rigney is the author of numerous plays, including Ten Red Kings and Acts of God (both available from Playscripts, Inc.), as well as Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition; during its March, 2013, off-Broadway run, Theatre Mania called Bears “the best play of the year.” His short fiction appears in Witness, Black Gate, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, The Long Story, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Black Static, among many others. “The Skates,” a comic (and ghostly) novella, will be released shortly from Samhain Publishing; in non-fiction, Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet University Press) remains happily in print one decade on. Two collections of his stories are available through Amazon: Flights of Fantasy and Reality Checks. His website is www.markrigney.net.
Tell us about your play "End of the Rainy Season," which recently won The Seven playwriting competition. What was your inspiration/motivation behind this piece?
My cousin Madeleine F. is finishing up her doctorate, studying land use and corporate land ownership in third world countries. I loved her stories of traveling through Mozambique, and somehow extrapolated that to the opening scenario of "End of the Rainy Season," where a very bedraggled western woman, traveling alone, begs for a room at a hovel of a hotel. I re-set the piece in Togo, largely because of my father-in-law, who worked in Togo with the Peace Corps in the early sixties. Thanks to him, I have a lovely hardback Ewe phrasebook, so I felt comfortable plucking at least hints of the local language. Of course, with the internet, I could have dealt with Mozambique almost as easily, but I do prefer the feel (and scent) of a scruffy old hardback when it comes to research. Why the piece went where it went after that launch point is anyone’s guess. Frankly, I had no faith in this play at all, and sent it to The Seven contest only as a lark. It now stands as further proof (as if I needed any) that I have no ability whatsoever to judge my own work.
Tackling different forms of writing allows my moods, on any given day, the full run of any given blank page. To wit, if I’m working on an idea that feels most like a prose piece but the prose, for whatever reason, isn’t flowing, I can do a u-turn and leap into a play. If the two-act family drama isn’t chugging along, I can tackle something short, "End of the Rainy Season," perhaps. (It probably needs re-writing. Plays always need re-writing.) If I’ve got an opinion that nobody wants to hear, that’s a signal it’s time for some non-fiction. And so on. Different written forms are the key to forever disarming the demon of writer’s block. For what it’s worth, I offend everyone, from my agent to my readers, by constantly crossing (or tangling) the line between commercial and literary fiction. The sword-and-sorcery stories I’ve published with Black Gate are light years from the experimental tropes of my Birkensnake offering, or the highbrow work now available (online and in print) at Witness. Artificial barriers, generally imposed by well-meaning critics, simply cry out to be breached. I do my best to oblige. All of which is to say that really, I’m a creature of caprice. Like Toucan Sam: follow your nose! Who knows (pun) what will turn up?
How did you get started writing?
I wrote an age-appropriate and completely juvenile play with several friends in second grade. The structure was good, I think: two rival street gangs taunt each other into entering the local haunted house. In they go, one by one, and get eaten by the resident monster, until the last kid barges in (said kid was played by Robert Gaucho, who was enormous), and then the monster gets pounded to mincemeat. One line survives in memory from the now-missing script: “Look at those turkeys, those eels!” I know, I know––but please don’t judge too harshly. This was the seventies, y’know? We were trying to be cool. Groovy, even. Anyway, I didn’t write anything else play-wise until seventh grade, at least, and not again until senior year of college. But one thing I learned along the educational way, and that was that I could generate material (essays and book reports and so on) faster than anyone else I knew. That doesn’t mean it was necessarily good, and my grasp of grammar was generally lousy, and I had no ability to spot a tpyo, but: at least I was a quick draw. Since math and science continually frustrated me (although I love involving both in my writing), it made sense, of a sort, to pursue writing full-time. It didn’t make financial sense, as I know now, but I suppose one cannot have everything.
I’ve been known to write on napkins, coupons, and on my palms. No kidding: when an idea hits, I may only need a keyword or two to hold it for future use, but ideas often arrive at awkward or otherwise inopportune moments, so I get those words written on whatever’s handy. Most of the time, however, I type on a wireless keyboard rigged up to a mid-level Mac. Can’t afford the top-of-the-line stuff, you know. Not until I sell a screenplay to Dreamworks. I don’t use spiral notebooks except when attending play readings or rehearsals. Then I take oodles of scrawled notes, and transcribe what changes I need from these to the computer later on, as time and geography permit. As for writing at the same time every day, that’s a trap. Write when you can, or when you must, or both. My workday is typically the six-hour span during which my children are in school. The rest of the time, I’m Susie Homemaker. You want to talk laundry, or how to bake the perfect lasagna? In the words of the mighty Leonard Cohen, I’m your man.
How do you get ideas for what you write?
People frequently ask this, and it’s the only question I’d love to dodge, because I’m not entirely clear about this. I don’t want to fall back on, “It’s magic,” or, “The universe enters my mind and I become one with the cosmos, an astral being; I come back to my body blessed with a workable idea.” I don’t want to fall back on any of that because…well, because it’s not true. The problem is, it’s not untrue, either. What I can say with some surety is I write to entertain myself (Benjamin Disraeli: “When I want to read a book, I write one”), and the longer the piece, the more likely it is to be founded on some subject that bothers me, a problem to which I have no answer. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who needs spurs kicking my flanks in order to get from “Once upon a time” to “The End,” and the best way I know of completing a project (besides trusting myself) is to have, as my subject, a Gordian knot.
Begin in the right place. It can be helpful to rely on “the Passover Question,” that being, “Why is today different from all other days?” If you can answer that, the second stumper worth considering is how late in any give scene or event can you begin. Of course, some stories do begin with description, and deservedly so, but the shorter the work, the more likely it is you need to open with action. Do so with alacrity. Don’t bother with “setting the scene” so much as entering the scene. Jump in at a moment where the stakes are already high, and your characters in flux. That way, the rest of the writing is a sort of downhill race; an avalanche, built-in, nips at your heroes’ heels. Most beginning writers try to do everything all at once: describe each person, provide an annotated list of their clothes and what’s in the room and who knew Aunt Dottie back in 1968. You can’t do it all at once. Provide what will hook a reader, and then “backfill” as you go, penciling in whatever else is needed.
What are some of your favorite books and/or plays?
Among the best contemporary plays are Itamar Moses’s Bach at Leipzig, Sara Ruhl’s Eurydice, August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw. Read those four and you’ll have a pretty fair idea of what the stage can offer. Then read Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
For short stories, I come back again and again to Shirley Jackon’s “The Lottery,” and Alice Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution,” also Z.Z. Packer’s “Brownies.” But of course there are literally millions of short stories to wade through, and once in a while, you turn up a gem no one’s ever heard of, one you more or less by default get to keep for yourself.
My favorite novel bar none is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which, in its proper form, would also contain its addendum, The Book of Merlyn. Recent favorites include John Crowley’s hugely emotional magnum opus Little, Big, and I am about to start Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country. I find it helpful to alternate contemporary work with the classics––or possibly this is simply my own alarming sense of elitism making unhappy demands on my time.
What links can readers visit to learn more about you and your work?
Please come visit my website, which contains links to many of my stories and plays. That way you can judge for yourself if I’m a total fraud. (A fear or fraudulence is, by the by, very healthy; it keeps you sharp. As Neil Young put it, “You’re only as good as your last note.”) http://www.markrigney.net/Rigney/Home.html
Also, I collect very old beer cans––got any? In fact, pretty much any beer-related item made before about 1970 is of interest to me. Check out my “Cans” page: http://www.markrigney.net/Rigney/Cans.html
And if you’d like to delve farther (also further) into the literary vs. genre fiction debate, may I suggest beginning here: