St. Lawrence Viebranz Visitor Professor of Creative Writing Mark Slouka was featured on North Country Public Radio as part of the station’s Readers and Writers Program this Tuesday. The conversation was peppered with anecdotes, readings, and perspectives on Slouka’s work as well as advice to aspiring writers. The program was hosted by NCPR station manager Ellen Rocco and featured St. Lawrence English professors Paul Graham and Jill Talbot.
Slouka began by describing the way in which his origins contribute to his professional work. He grew up in Queens, New York as the son of Czech immigrants, and discussed how his writing has been influenced by his early life. He described his childhood as “schizophrenic” and that reconciliation of Old and New World tensions is a recurring theme in his work. Slouka discussed the voices that speak through his stories and said, “It’s learning how to negotiate with the past, how to understand the stories that we tell about the past, how we come to accommodate it, come to terms with it, lie about it if necessary, I think.”
Slouka also offered valuable suggestions to aspiring writers. “If they’re serious about writing at all, then that thing that they’re writing has to come out of some need. It has to be written,” said Slouka. “If you’re wondering if you’re going to be a writer or not, then you’re probably not. Because it’s going to pick you; it’s going to choose you.” He also expressed the belief that “silence is one of the most important components of story-telling,” and that “literature comes out of pain.” Talbot later brought up a concern of one of her students about being self-indulgent when writing, and Slouka responded that irony without pain was a self-indulgent technique.
The different ways that stories are told was brought up, and Slouka noted that he saw the line between fiction and nonfiction as being blurred. Given the choices concerning organization, inclusion of details and perspective that an author has to make, a story cannot be entirely objective. However, Graham noted that Slouka’s essays do differ significantly from his fiction. Self-interrogation makes an essay, according to Slouka, who said, “I think an essay should be an irritation, it should be a provocation, in a different way than a novel.” Slouka said that he has been interested in examining the human condition in his work and expressed the idea that literature should capture human nature without gimmicks.
Slouka also fielded a variety of questions. A student of Talbot’s asked if Slouka thought that it was the writer’s responsibility to tell the truth in nonfiction writing, which lead to a discussion on different kinds of truth-telling. A writer’s best attempt to say what happened literally may result in a piece that does not convey the deeper truth. However, Slouka noted that invention or imagination can insert aspects that didn’t actually happen but more accurately convey the truth of the experience. He said that he didn’t admire self-serving writing and instead seeks to write with “precision and soul.”
Another young listener asked Slouka what his first memory of writing was, and he described a story that he wrote at age four or five. The story was about a loyal black panther who befriended a little boy and protected him, and the pair escaped together into the woods.
Slouka also addressed the fact that he has not written a long-form memoir and instead has written novels, short stories, and shorter essays that concern cultural critique, politics, and also autobiographical elements. Many of these contain autobiographical elements. “Who am I to write a memoir?” said the self-deprecating Slouka.
One listener asked Slouka why his novel, The Visible World, remained a novel instead of a memoir given the fact that it might have sold better as the latter. Slouka said that his publishers had suggested a change in genre for his collection of short stories, Lost Lake: Stories, but not for The Visible World. He explained that he is satisfied with his published writing when he feels that its integrity has been maintained, and that his works find the forms that they are supposed to be published in.
Talbot also asked whether or not living in the North Country has influenced the way that Slouka writes. He described Canton as a wonderful place to work in spite of this year’s lack of a traditional North Country winter, and said that there was still “a silence and a beauty” to the season. He contrasted the relative isolation of this area to the “fishbowl” of Manhattan and its publishing industry. “It works as a place to write,” concluded Slouka about Canton.
Slouka is the author of five books that include novels, short stories, and nonfiction. His works have been translated into 18 languages. Slouka also read from his works on Thursday, April 26 as part of the SLU Writer’s Series.