“Books write us,” an author talk with Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka’s most recent novel, Brewster, is not so much the sum of its chapters as of the things left out of those chapters. Slouka’s main character, the young runner Jon Mosher, remembers his hometown of Brewster, New York in a perpetual winter, and the book reads that way too – it’s cold, and daylight is meager. When Slouka omits a clarifying sentence or drops a character’s name before we’ve met them, it’s more than an act of foreshadowing – it’s an act of foreboding.

Brewster is a story of the impassioned, almost desperate friendships that exist in youth, when the world seems confining and few adults are comrades – some are even oppressors. The story builds a dark momentum throughout, much like Jon’s lung-searing, cathartic races. Ray, a long-haired, long-coated enigma prone to fights, pranks, and solemnness, is Jon’s best friend. Frank, a follower of Jesus and javelins, and Karen, a girl pure of heart, round out their foursome. It’s the 1960s, and the scent of Woodstock is in the air.

Slouka, a tall, white-haired, and generous man, describes novels as “hidden autobiographies” and “carnival mirrors.”  He says “books write us,” and that writers don’t choose to write, but rather writing chooses the writer.

“You can run but you can’t hide,” he said at an author talk at Bethel, Connecticut’s Byrd’s Books on January 16. “I hid until I was 32.”

Slouka, who now lives in Brewster, didn’t sit down and truly write a story until his wife encouraged him to do so as a way to make extra money in the midst of his nomadic college teaching career. Rejection and roadblocks followed – Slouka recalled sending out 50 queries for a story and promptly receiving 50 “nos;” then an editor who was interested in publishing a collection of his stories passed away – but eventually he got a yes, which led to many more yeses.

His first collection of essays, War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality, was published in 1995, and Lost Lake: Stories followed in 1998, which was deemed a Notable Book by The New York Times. Slouka’s 2007 novel, The Visible World, is currently being adapted by BBC Films.

Slouka describes The Visible World as “an archeological love story” that is led by a quieter, more European voice than that of Jon’s in Brewster. Brewster is his “first real American book,” though Europe and World War II are very much a part of the story: Jon’s Jewish parents escaped Nazi Germany by “sheer luck and bribery.” Slouka’s own parents immigrated from Czechlosovakia, and World is narrated by a New Yorker born by Czech parents.

In writing, voice is everything to Slouka.

“It’s not about the story but the telling of the story,” he said. “Once you’ve got the voice you’ve got everything.”

Then, Slouka says, you have to find the essence of that voice by cutting back and compressing. In Brewster, he edited out his own cleverness and lyricismto get at Jon’s voice. That silence, that “eloquence of omission,” as Slouka calls it, makes the surviving text all the more stark, all the more distilled.

“You find what you’re best at and run in the other direction,” he said of outsmarting his natural writing style. “It’ll bury you.”

Slouka is currently at work on a sequel to Brewster: it’s winter again, but in the desert, and Jon is 58. Slouka is also a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine; there you can read a sample of his work spanning close to two decades.

Find more information about Mark Slouka at facebook.com/markslouka.