Stephen Markley: Middle-American Angst

photo: Michael Amico

Stephen Markley is a screenwriter and journalist, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is the author of Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book and Tales of Iceland. His debut novel is Ohio, coming from Simon & Schuster in August. He lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @StephenMarkely.

Hillbilly Elegy and Janesville are two recent nonfiction works exploring problems like deindustrialization and addiction in small-town America, issues the characters face in Ohio's fictional setting of New Canaan, Ohio. What made you want to address these issues through fiction? And how is literary fiction relevant to our understanding of difficult contemporary economic and social problems like these?

Part of the problem is that we're now on to the fifth or sixth paradigm-shifting crisis of my lifetime, and it can be difficult to find the time to reflect on and process what happened in, say, the year 2003, when the Iraq war began, let alone the 15 years that followed. Our communications tend to favor the most gratifying, instantaneous, unreflective forms--basically a mad race to deliver the most outraged tweet or think piece before moving on to whatever's next. Reading and writing fiction gives us access to that empathetic space where we can slow down, draw a breath and actually try to process everything that's happened to us. Maybe I'm a sucker, but I still believe the novel, as a form, has a creative power that makes a VR headset look like a cheap conjurer's trick.

Ohio skillfully captures the essence of small-town life without condescension or caricature. What personal experience or research did you draw on for that portrait?

It's funny because much of the broad spectrum of what we call "the media" has taken to discussing non-coastal city, non-urban life in an almost zoological way. Well, I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and that was just normal to me. Though the book is not an exact replica of my hometown, I certainly borrowed freely and shamelessly from that place, particularly my high school, and it wasn't difficult to access what it felt like to come from a town like New Canaan, to move away and return, to gossip about what's been going on, to drink till the bars kick you out when you’re back home.

The heart of your novel consists of four novella-like sections, each focusing on a character returning to unfinished business in New Canaan on a single fateful summer night in 2013. How did you settle on that structure and what made it feel right for this novel?

Mostly, I just had these four voices in my head, and I knew their stories would intersect in surprising and upsetting ways. I've also always loved films and novels that depart from traditional, programmatic structures, that play with time and force the reader or viewer to pay careful attention to each and every word, scene, object and gesture. It produces this somewhat spooky, unsettling effect where you constantly feel like you've time traveled, and it means you can't really see and understand everything on the first go-around. Maybe it's totally narcissistic and Room 237-esque to hope that the fourth and fifth layers of your story will ever have a life on some Reddit thread, but I've always dug narratives that invite that.

One of the most compelling sections of the novel describes the intense and, at the time, dangerous emotional and romantic involvement of two female characters during high school. How difficult was it to write that segment?

I think you have to approach any character with humility. You have to see their humanity first and foremost and understand that it is only an accident of the cosmos that whatever hardship, obstacle or horror they face is not your own. I also have some friends who've endured what I would describe as pretty harrowing experiences, and for whatever reason they have seen me as a person they can trust and confide in. Those conversations and stories sort of get liquefied in the writing process, so none of them come out as they happened, but the emotional truth, hopefully, gets distilled. It's been an enormous relief to have certain people read the book and tell me that, at least for them, I got it right. I just so firmly believe that good, brave art often comes from taking a radical leap outside of one's own safety, experiences and comfort.

Ohio depicts the tension between young men who went to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and those who remained behind. What, if any, long-term consequences do you see in that divide?

As I see it, the glorification of the military has been a disaster for the small sliver of society that actually engages in combat. Servicemen and -women are used as props by politicians, the Pentagon, the NFL, Hollywood, just about anybody who wants to sell you a truck or an insurance product. And coming home, they are preyed upon by mortgage and payday lenders, for-profit colleges and every other species of usurious consumer credit; the staggering rates of suicide and homelessness go largely ignored; and, most perniciously, the so-called invisible wounds, the mental health issues, get swept under the rug because our culture doesn't want to grapple with what this experience actually entails. On the civilian side, we are so deeply disconnected from what the military is actually up to that its activities barely register in the news anymore. The divide between civilian and military worlds will only grow worse as a minuscule percentage of mostly working-class people are asked to shoulder the enormous burdens that the current bipartisan foreign policy consensus demands.

What's next for you?

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I'm in this place right now, with a book that, no matter what happens with sales or reviews and all that other glitter, is something I'm deeply proud of, that has this team of incredible people behind it and who believe in it. I don't want to take any of that for granted. --Harvey Freedenberg

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