scarecrow interviews

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Mark SaFranko Interview: Hating Olivia...

Someone did a sales job on me on Mark SaFranko’s book Hating Olivia. “Oh you’re into Bukowski, Fante, Celine, those guys? You’ll LOVE Hating Olivia “ -- that type of thing. You know how it is: I thought that they were talking the book up as everyone in the publishing world does. Everyone wants to think that this book or that book is the best thing since the last great thing. The guys who published Hating Olivia seemed to know their stuff though. We got talking about the book after a long email correspondence about writing. So I trusted their taste more than most, and my curiosity was piqued.

What I expected from the book was another good Bukowski facsimile at best, at worst another piss poor attempt at imitating the work of the greats. What I received was a book which stands proudly alongside the giants: a book so packed with blood, poetry, heart and pain that I could barely believe, after I put it down, that the author wasn’t a household name already.

The book starts with a line that later earns a distinct ring of irony “The war was over.” You see the book is the story of a man at war -- with himself, with the woman he loves, with the world in general. Hating Olivia is the story of Max, a struggling writer living on the breadline in a roach infested rooming house, and the destructive love affair he begins with the mysterious, troubled Olivia.

This is a book that doesn’t need the kind of bravado and liberal exaggeration that something like the work of James Frey needed to find publication. It is a book of quiet horrors and beautifully expressed longing. Whether describing the attempted extraction of a still wriggling cockroach from the ear cavity of a screaming fellow lodger, or the endless, burning rage of an abused and abusive lover, SaFranko’s prose is precise, flawless and the work of a man who truly loves and understands great writing. To be a fan of Mark SaFranko is to belong to an exclusive club: to appreciate the work of a man who is a truly great American writer, yet who has not been commodified, exploited and repackaged for the masses. Yet, that is.

I was lucky enough to get to interview Mark about Hating Olivia and his varied body of work. Take a look:

Q. So Mark, tell me a little about the history of Hating Olivia. How did you come to write the book?

A. The events in Hating Olivia happened at a really nasty, ugly, critical time for me. Frankly, I’m lucky I survived them. I think I had a mental breakdown and was hanging by a thread, but nobody put me away. Then the thread got cut and I went into free fall. That’s when I became a writer.

The book itself has quite a long history, actually. I couldn’t even go near the material for ten years after the events. I always felt it was going to be a novel, but I just wasn’t ready to deal with it. Then, when I did, I couldn’t get the voice right. There were a couple of false starts a few years apart. The problem was trying to get too much in…. I ended up having to toss out enormous amounts of material. It wasn’t until I shortened the sentences that it began to work. I was sitting there looking at the Hudson from my apartment in Hoboken when I said to myself, “Ah. That’s it.”

Part of the problem of course is the deficit in attention span, These days, unless you can make something move, you’re pretty much dead as a writer, especially if you’re not Stephen King or somebody like that. So much, both internal and external, has to be sacrificed to pace. I don’t think Henry Miller or lots of other people could get their stuff into print today.

Then there was the time between writing the novel and publication – about nine years. In the U.S. I couldn’t even get anyone to look at it. One New York micropublisher agreed to publish it, then backed out. TF Editors in Spain was going to put it out, but then changed their mind. Pretty typical, I guess.

Q. The writing in Hating Olivia really suggests that you have had plenty of first-hand experience of being a struggling writer, of the dehumanizing effect of the corporate world…which period of your life did you draw from when writing Olivia?

A. An early, very, very confused one. I’m still confused as hell, but back then I was really fucked-up. On every level. I could barely function most of the time, but I had to get out there and work. Whether it was the factory or the office, you had to do it to make the monthly nut. I could say that I think my brains were still scrambled from the hallucinogenics I took once upon a time, but there were a lot more things involved. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to be an artist. Coming from my blue-collar background that was like announcing that I was planning to fly to the planet Mercury. I’d already been writing, music, then I decided to compound my misery by writing books. And that’s when my struggles really began – about thirty years’ worth.

Q. Could you tell me a little more about the other novels? I found 2 by searching the net – Hopler’s Statement and The Favor. Are they in the same autobiographical vein as Hating Olivia or are they separate entities altogether?

A. They're both crime novels, actually, and different from Hating Olivia. They had their merits, I think, but no one actually ever saw them, really. Hopler's Statement was optioned by an independent Hollywood director, I wrote a screenplay for it, and nothing ever happened. The Favor is going on 30 years old. I shudder to think of its youthful flaws, but there are some people who like it.

Q. In his introduction Dan Fante paints you as something of a workhorse. I have this impression of you from reading his intro that you are literally dragging boxfuls of genius, unpublished novels and plays around with you. How close to the truth is this?

A. Well, the workhorse part is true. There are a dozen novels or so, a dozen plays, a couple hundred songs, a hundred stories, poems, a few essays. Oh, and paintings. And I’ve done a fair amount of acting. All this is sandwiched between the survival jobs. And believe me, there have been lots of those.

But a good deal of the material has been published. Around fifty of the stories, some of the poems, a couple of the novels. Lots of the plays have been produced in Off-Off Broadway theaters and in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Q. Talking of your theatre work, you are a pretty successful playwright. Can you tell me a little about how writing for theatre is different from writing straight fiction? Do you get more satisfaction from one than the other?

A. There is no feeling whatsoever for a writer like seeing his work come to life in front of an audience. It’s electric. The problem is having to deal with everyone else involved – mostly the people who decide whether or not to produce your stuff. That can be hell and enough to make you want to walk away from it for good. I’ve always wanted to write novels and stories, though. When you sit in your room alone with your typewriter, you’re king. You can do whatever you want. Nobody can say “do this, change that.” You’re the Lord of All Creation, at least for a few hours.

Q. Tell me about Lounge Lizard. Is this a full-on follow-up to Hating Olivia? Do we find out what comes next for Max?

A. Lounge Lizard is the sequel to Hating Olivia; it picks up right where Olivia left off. Max gets sucked back into corporate America as a matter of survival during the Reagan years. Max drinks. Max prowls the bars and clubs of New York and develops a sexual addiction. Max gets his head shrunk. Max’s teeth begin to fall out.

There’s also a prequel to Olivia that I hope sees print one of these days.

Q. How did you hook up with Murder Slim Press?

A. Through the incredibly generous Dan Fante. I owe him an enormous debt that I can never pay back. And he actually hooked me up with the British publisher that was supposed to publish Hating Olivia originally, too. But they hemmed and hawed and dragged their feet for nearly four years until I had the feeling they weren’t going to do it, though they protested that they were. When the Murder Slim opportunity opened up, I had to jump at it. Murder Slim is run by great, great people. I was very lucky to find them.

Q. Which writers do you feel were an influence on your style, and could you talk me through some of your favorites?

A. There are so many that it’s hard. None of us are originals. You try and find your own voice among that clatter of the ones who came before. But here are some: Dostoyevsky. Zola, especially Therese Raquin. Hamsun, for quirkiness of vision. Henry Miller for everything, especially for painting a full portrait of a whole human being, including all the shit. Georges Simenon (the “tough” novels only). He ripped out all the adverbs and adjectives. Bukowski, for his humor. I’m also a great fan of his later work, by the way, when he penetrated to the very core of contemporary middle-class life. Actually, I’m one of those in the minority who thinks that his later poetry is absolutely masterful – when he talks about stuff like having his car fixed and living with a woman for a long time and paying the bills. Because that’s the stuff of everyday life. It’s relevant, more relevant than drinking. If you can make that stuff come alive, you’re really doing something. Celine – he’s one of my great, great favorites for his absolute madness and hatreds and angers. Cain. Jim Thompson. Ross McDonald. Hermann Hesse. Patricia Highsmith. Michel Houellebecq. Pedro Juan Gutierrez. The Fantes. Bill Naughton – I love those Alfie novels.

Actually, some books that had a great influence on the writing of Hating Olivia were Marriage With Papers by Mohammed Mrabet. And Sylvia, by Leonard Michaels. Betty Blue or 37,2 le matin, by Philippe Djian.

In my short fiction, Paul Bowles. Raymond Carver. Highsmith again. IB Singer. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on and on. I know I’m forgetting lots of them.

Q. Finally, where does your drive to write come from? And what kept you writing and creating during the periods when there was nothing but rejection?

A. Now they are two really good questions. The best questions, really, because they're so goddamned tough to answer. I'm an obsessional type of personality, and I think, simplistically, that it's the answer to the first question. But there's a lot more involved floating around in the murkier regions of the psyche. At the end of the day, it's a mystery.

Regarding the second question, there were many, many times when I begged myself to go in another direction because it was so patently obvious that nothing was happening and that nothing was likely to happen. I tried to get interested in other things -- jobs and the like, but nothing ever took. I tried to stop and do absolutely nothing. The strange thing was that writing and composing and the like was always easy -- and fun. It was the business end, trying to get my stuff out there that was torture. Any sane person would have stopped. Highsmith once said: "Art is an addiction. That's why there are so many bad artists." I think there's a lot of truth in that. I'm crazy -- that's probably the answer. And as someone else said, what else is there to do?

Tony O’Neill © 2006.

Hating Olivia is available direct from Murder Slim Press as well as from Amazon and other online retailers.

In a previous life Tony O’Neill played keyboards for bands and artists as diverse as Kenickie, Marc Almond and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. After moving to Los Angeles his promising career was derailed by heroin addiction, quickie marriages and crack abuse. While kicking methadone he started writing about his experiences on the periphery of the Hollywood Dream and he has been writing ever since. His autobiographical novel DIGGING THE VEIN will be published in Feb 2006 by Contemporary Press, in the US and Canada. Wrecking Ball Press plan to release a UK edition Summer 2006. He lives in New York where he works a variety of odd jobs and writes.

More details can be found at


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