This week I’m chatting with the remarkable Mark William Lindberg, a queer author, artist, performer, and educator, whose new novella, Queer on a Bench just came out. Let’s just dive write in, shall we?
As a writer, I am always interested in other writers' writing process and what inspires them, so can you talk a little about what inspires your stories and what your writing process is like?
I'm really interested in form, so a lot of the time—certainly with my two books so far—I'll start with a what-if question. 81 Nightmares came from asking myself, "What if all you had was one character's dreams? What if that was the whole story? What could you learn about that person? What would you think you knew about them? Is it possible to tell a complete story that lives only in a character's dream life?"
My new book, Queer on a Bench, began with the question, "What if the whole story has to happen between the time a character sits down on a bench and when they get back up from it?" These are obviously hugely open-ended beginnings, so I start daydreaming—a lot of my process is hardcore daydreaming—about what the details and specifics of the story might be, and things start to fall into place. I love Stephen King's metaphor of unearthing a fossil. Stories are things you discover, and you do your best to dig them out of the ground as completely as you can. My what-if questions are ways for me to stumble across—and probably trip over and fall on top of - I'm pretty clumsy—a story. And daydreaming is the way I start digging in the dirt for the details. As soon as the daydreaming begins, I'll start a Notes document on my phone and start filling that up with everything that strikes me as I move around the world. That might go on for a few days if it's a short story or years for a longer piece. At some point—usually when a previous piece has been finished—it's just time to sit down and start writing the thing!
How would you describe your work?
I write queer fiction. It's important to me to write from a place of queerness, and I'd say my work is queer in every definition of the word. Queer/LGBTQ protagonists and storylines, but also queer/weird/unconventional styles and forms and worlds. I also tend to write from inside people. Both 81 Nightmares and Queer on a Bench are completely subjective inside-the-brain-of pieces. I've spent most of my life making theater, especially as a performer, so character is really important to me. I like putting the reader right inside the character's brain. The world is made up of the interplay between and among all of our individual subjective experiences, so I'm interested in looking closely at what some of those private internal experiences are like.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned self-publishing?
That I have a lot to learn.
How did you get started writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
To be honest, I don't remember. I've always been writing one thing or another. I remember getting an award in elementary school for an essay I wrote about my little sister. And even earlier, I remember a teacher giving out blank little hardcover notebooks and telling us to write books, that we could make up whatever we wanted, draw the pictures, the cover, everything. I think mine was about frogs... I've always loved making things up. Maybe it was that first blank book that really got me going.
I actually haven't always wanted to be a writer, though. As I said, theater's been my focus for most of my life, and I've worn all of the available hats at one time or another: actor, director, choreographer, and playwright. For a while most of my writing energy went into writing plays, but it was never entirely satisfying to me. I found much more satisfaction devising my own work, creating a new theater piece from scratch in collaboration with an ensemble of actors. I'm still doing that kind of work a couple times a year, but writing fiction has at this point entirely consumed me. Last year in 2014, I started a blog to write out my complicated and evolving thoughts about making a life in theater. I got bored with it almost instantly, and decided I needed characters and fictions instead. So I began a year-long fiction project that became theatereveryday, an experimental Tumblr novel about the interconnected lives of a group of theater artists. This project opened a floodgate in me. I've published two books in six months, and I've started a lot of additional new-idea Note files as well. I'm even working to turn some unrealized theater-project ideas into novels! The book is blank, and I am using ALL of my crayons!
What is your writing dream or goal?
As I always said with theater, I'd just love to be able to make a living at it. I've gone from one fickle artistic career to another, but this is my simple dream: I'd like to make people think and imagine, and be able to afford my life while doing it.
What's your favorite thing about writing/being published/least favorite thing?
My favorite thing about writing is the daydreaming discoveries that get made while I'm thinking about a new project. Though nothing truly exists until you sit down and start hammering words out onto the paper/screen, I think a lot of my work gets done in the daydreaming phase, and I love being on the subway or walking the dog and suddenly making a new connection or unearthing a new fossil-bone, "Oh! Those two characters are ex-spouses! That's why they've been arguing this whole time!"
My favorite thing about being published, honestly, is how proud my mom is about it. 81 Nightmares is a horror book with a genderqueer protagonist. It's disturbing and weird and bloody. And my mom got her whole book club of nice New England ladies in their 50s-70s to buy it. I'm still waiting for the feedback...
Your mom sounds awesome--so supportive. What's she like?
Both my parents have always been very supportive of both my theater life and my author life. I feel very lucky. My mom is an avid reader. She belongs to a book club that has been going strong for I think 12 years, it's amazing! My work is not her usual cup of tea, but I think she really enjoyed getting weird dreams from reading 81 Nightmares―and I heard about them all!).
Sex—on page or off?
I think that depends entirely on the project, but I don't shy away from putting sex on the page. I try to be both tactful and sex-positive. Sex is a part of life, and I think we do our stories a disservice if we go out of our way to avoid putting it on the page. Though again, it depends on what the story is and who your intended audience is. Queer on a Bench has loads of adult language in it and some declarative sex —not graphic or, frankly, even very descriptive— because that's what I needed to tell the truth of that story. It's not gonna be for all audiences, and I'm fully aware of that. But what the story needs, the story gets.
I think as writers--particularly as new writers, we all struggle to get our names out there, and to help readers understand who we are and what we're about. So, what is the most important thing readers should know about you?
This is a great question, and one I'm definitely wrestling with as I wrestle generally with self-promotion. Right now I'd say the following: I'm going to break rules. I'm going to try new things. I'm going to approach my work with an open mind and an open heart, and I'd love a reader who can do the same!
Tell us about your new book.
Queer on a Bench begins as the character, Em, sits down on a bench in a park. Em makes a deal with themself not to get up until something happens. So we sit with Em, inside their head, listening to a mind thinking, questioning, observing, dreaming, remembering, fantasizing. The book is probably as subjective as a book can get; every word is something the character is thinking. And Em is a relentless questioner, questioning their own thoughts and opinions, wrestling with big hang-ups about gender, sexuality, race, and privilege. I think this year in our world has been a hugely important one in opening up discussions about some gigantic social topics, and Em is someone in this world with us, recognizing that they have problematic opinions and wanting to do better. Em's inner monologue is interrupted now and then with what I've been calling "short story daydreams" that take us away from the park and into alternate life fantasies, memories of growing up and coming out, into the future, even. How much can happen to a person just sitting on a bench? Come find out!
You used unconventional pronouns in your last answer. I noticed this in 81 Nightmares. I found it… disorienting. I originally thought Shayla was a multiple being. I guess because I have associated those pronouns with the plural for so long. So tell me, why do you use those particular pronouns?
So in 81 Nightmares, both Shalah and the protagonist Jay are genderqueer and use "they" as a preferred non-binary pronoun. Pronouns are something Em ruminates on in Queer on a Bench, as well. I'm interested in queering gender in my writing and promoting gender-neutral pronouns and gender-nonconforming characters as part of the literary world. I think that disorientation a reader may experience if they're not used to reading in neutral or non-binary pronouns is actually a helpful and necessary part of the conversation. There are a lot of gender identities in the spectrum, and I'd like to do my small part to help open any unfamiliar readers up to that.
Incidentally, I know there's a lot of grumbling out there about the grammatical correctness of a singular "they," but I think people's right to identify themselves safely and comfortably is more important than rigidly adhering to grammar rules (that may be changing anyway). (If you'd like to read more on this, there's a great post from Everyday Feminism about non-binary people ―and the Guardian's short article about Sweden's recent addition of agender-neutral pronoun to the Swedish dictionary.
Em sits down on a bench in a park and makes a deal with themself not to get up until something happens. What follows is a formally experimental stream of consciousness novella that digs deeply into the way we think about the world and view both the people around us and ourselves. Em’s relentless self-examination brings up beautiful insights and frustrating questions about privilege, gender, and religion, and gets constantly interrupted by short story daydreams that veer off into sexual fantasy, memoir, and playwriting. Mark William Lindberg, author of 81 NIGHTMARES, gives us another eye-opening look into a human mind at work.
Mark William Lindberg is a queer author, artist, performer, and educator living with a man and a dog in Queens, NY.
Connect with Mark
You can find Mark's books, 81 Nightmares and Queer On A Bench in print and eBook formats at most online retailers.
In celebration of Pride Month, the eBook version of Queer on a Bench is on sale for only $0.99 for the month of June! (Also available in paperback.)