Wednesday, January 24, 2007
John Marks' new novel,Fangland,is not his first;The Wall,which came out in 1998,was a New York Times Notable and his second,War Torn,was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the best of 2003. A good portion of his life has been in journalism,starting at the Plano Star Courier and most recently,ending his stint as one of Morley Safer's producer on 60 Minutes.
All his newsmedia experience comes into play to help shape the horror of Fangland,a new post modern take on the Dracula legend. As Evangeline Harker seeks out the mysterious Ion Torgu as the subject of an interview with her news show,The Hour,in a remote part of Romania,more than hackles are raised. To get more of a grip on the various themes in Fangland,I sent a few questions to John Marks who is much more forthcoming than his literary menance:
1) Why did you decide to use Dracula as a template for this novel?
Dracula is one of those books that imprinted itself so deeply in my
mind that it exists as a kind of template for all my creative thought, and maybe more than that, it has become one of those lenses through which I see life in general. This may be a horrible confession, and I''ve never tried to tease out all of its implications, but I've read the book so many times and seen so many different versions of it on TV and at the movies, and many of them at an impressionable age, that Stoker's book is hard to separate from my overall identity. Yikes! But am I wrong in also thinking that the same holds true for millions of us? It would be hard to find a more influential novel in the Twentieth Century. I've read, for instance, that no character from a novel has been adapted more times to the movies than the Count.
So the long answer is that Dracula was lurking back there in my conscious and subconscious mind all along, waiting for the right opportunity, and the moment arrived when I began to think about the place"60 Minutes," where I worked, and its relation to the horrors of the Twentieth Century. Longbefore I began to write, at work, on the job, I began to see the ways that our work as world-hopping TV producers might take us into places not so different than the Transylvania visited by Jonathan Harker in the original,and I became intrigued by the notion that one of us might bring something back into our well-secluded, well-protected halls that could not easily be expunged, a piece of the terrible violence of the world that one can normally keep at a distance in the editing room. And, in some sense, my feeling about the Dracula story and my workplace extended to my sense of the country at that moment-the way that the US had gone out in the world,adventuring in terrifying and dangerous places on the earth and in its mind,in the process bringing that terror back home.
2) Do you consider Fangland to be a horror novel or a sociopolitical fantasy?
Truly, it's both. For it to work, it has to be. That was always the challenge of the book. Could I take on the form of the horror form, do it justice, and at the same time, with the help of the gut-level,visceral energy you get with horror, reach into the other stuff, the sociopolitical fantasy, as you call it?
To me, the best novel about print journalism still has to be Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. It works beautifully as a satire about the mentality of the writer, and the Westerner, in the field, playing all the angles, a tool of chance and opportunity. But I've never read a really good novel about the life of the mind of the TV producer--the known facts about television journalism already suggest self-satire to such anextent that sending it up feels redundant. I had to find a way to get past the surface ridiculousness, and horror gave me my shot.
3)Is Ion Torgu based on anyone you've encountered in your professional life as a 60 Minutes producer?
At one level, Torgu is based on everyone I ever met as a "60 Minutes"
producer. He represents every danger and possibility that presents
itself inthe act of wooing and winning a subject to go on camera. But he's also a stand-in for places as much as personalities. For instance, I did a story on the Bosnian city of Mostar for 60, and while we were there, the city had a restless, unhappy feel. More than once, local people told us that theviolence that had destroyed the city in 1993 could break out again at any moment. And when you took a glance around the landscape, buildings pock-marked everywhere with bullet holes, sidewalks laced with shrapnel marks, and you saw the cafes full of unemployed young men, drinking espresso and waiting interminably for something, anything to happen, you knew it was true. My associate producer and I were on edge for much of the time we were there, but when we left, unlike Evangeline, we could leave behind our fear.
No way that Mostar could follow us back to home base. In that respect, fear becomes one of the drugs of the profession. You can go into hairy places and situations where bad things have happened and are still happening, get a jolt of that terror, put it in a bottle and take it back to the darkness and safety of the editing bays. You can experience a certain kind of fear, then control it. So that's a huge piece of the reality of Torgu.
4) Xenophobia was a key fear factor in the original Dracula;do you think that this theme is making a strong cultural comeback in the arts?
I do, across the board in the arts, whether you look at the overtly
political stuff in the theater, the plays that refer directly or
indirectly to Guantanamo and its ramifications, or at something as obvious as the TV series "24." And then I see it even more clearly in horror in the movies.
After seeing the remake of George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," a friend of mine pointed out that the opening credit sequence intercuts shots of the world falling apart in a zombie attack with shots of Muslims bowing at prayer and other brief images that suggest an entire alien universe set to invade. My favorite horror film of the last year, one of my favorite films period of 2006, was "The Descent," about a group of women who spelunk into a hole in the hills and come across a tribe of humanoid, albino creatures who are none too friendly. They also happen to look like the starved poor in any region of the earth, and the notion of those creatures living right beneath us, ready to engulf us if we dip at all beneath the surface, has a powerful resonance right now. But maybe one reason for Dracula's long success is the enduring gulf that lies between much of the world and the so-called West.
Our xenophobia is a reflection of a deep structure in our lives-we live off and around and through a world submerged in suffering and want, and lots of us don't have to experience that reality firsthand. But it swims in our dreams nevertheless.
5) Was becoming a novelist always one of your goals?
Yes, since I was in about third grade. I had one of those wonderful teachers, Mrs. Brooks, who saw a gift and encouraged it. From that time on,strange as it may seem, I never wanted to be anything else. My first books,sheets of paper stapled together and covered in crayon pictures and words,had to do with the Civil War, which was my obsession around the time that I started to write.
6) Who are some of your favorite writers?
When I was younger, I read and loved Stephen King and J.R.R.Tolkien,gulped them down. Later on, I had the same reaction to Joseph Conrad,(particularly his amazing novel Nostromo), Vladimir Nabokov, ( especially Lolita, , Pale Fire and Pnin) and Thomas Mann. A Brazilian writer named Clarice Lispector also made a big impact. Finally, I'm a German major,soI've been hugely influenced by a few German language writers, Thomas Bernhard and his incredible novel Extinction, most anything by W.G.Sebald, Joseph Roth, whose novel The Radetzky March has a slight echo in Fangland,and lots and lots of Kafka and Nitezsche, who are fantastic stylists in the German language.
7) Given your choice,would Fangland be better adapted as a feature film or a TV miniseries?
In the new era of serial television, I could easily see it as a TV series,done HBO style with no horrific stone unturned. Lots of characters argue as well for the long form. On the other hand, the book has a dream-like qualitythat might translate very well into a shorter, more concise form, a sort of ferocious dance between Evangeline and Torgu, shorn of the more sprawling plot lines. I could even see it as a ballet. That would be amazing, but it seems unlikely.
Much thanks to John Marks,for giving me his time here and for his insights as well. If you would like to know more about Fangland,please click the title link above to check out the book's official website. This is one novel that gives your mental teeth plenty to sink into.
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