Arts Interview: Author and Editor Mark Jay Mirsky on Writing, Reading, and Literary Friendships
By David Daniel
“For a writer the important thing is to write. The second important thing is the resonance of a reaction, a response. Without an audience, you’re basically locked in your cavern.”
Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston and attended Harvard, class of 1961, and graduate school at Stanford. In addition to writing, he has been a stage actor, editor, and has been on the faculty at the City College of New York since 1967.
In a blurb for Mirsky’s first novel Thou Worm Jacob (1967), John Ciardi called him “a miracle worker [with]… the tears of comedy, the laughter of tragedy, and the speaking voice of life.” For Mirsky, still in his late 20s, it was lush praise. His second book, Proceedings of the Rabble (’70), a “psycho-political thriller,” and Blue Hill Avenue (’72), set in the once-vibrant but fading Jewish community in Roxbury and Mattapan, drew eager attention, too. Over the years since, the reach of his curiosity and scholarship has been broad; in addition to novels and short stories he has written studies of Shakespeare and Dante and Kabbalah, and a memoir.
In 1972, along with Donald Barthelme, Jane DeLynn, and Max Frisch, Mirsky founded Fiction magazine which, in its early years in a tabloid format, published experimental work by John Barth, Italo Calvino, Alice Hoffman, Samuel Beckett, and others. Later, in the form of a more traditional literary magazine, it featured Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mei Chin, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Jamaica Kincaid, and Manuel Puig. Mirsky continues to edit Fiction and teach.
He summers in Hull, in a house that remains little changed from when his father bought it in 1950: a rustic home that offers small, surprise glimpses of Hingham Bay. On a recent Sunday afternoon, he welcomed a visitor. Wearing a work-stained T-shirt, his hair rumpled, he is lean, still muscular at 84 from maintaining the expansive backyard of fruit trees and plantings. Over-lush with the rain and heat of July, it resembles a fallen Eden. He and his wife, Norwegian-born artist Inger Johanne Grytting, have mowed a patch of shady ground for sitting, but he opts instead to entertain on the small front porch. Inger brings out ice water and a bowl of cherries and retreats.
Arts Fuse: You launched your professional writing career very young to enthusiastic reviews. What was that experience like?
Mirsky: It was great. Major publishers were interested in my work. Following Thou Worm Jacob, I had written Blue Hill Avenue, but my editor, concerned about my becoming identified mainly as a “Jewish” writer, published my third-written book, Proceedings of the Rabble, instead. Blue Hill Avenue came next. And then other books through the ’70s. In 1977 I published My Search for the Messiah: Studies and Wanderings in Israel and America … a memoir, what is called in Yiddish, a “putchkee,” that is, a diary, a series of portraits of scholars whose work changed my life and my thoughts. Its genesis was a diary I kept in Israel and then lost in the post office in Athens on the way home. I was so upset by the loss that when I returned to New York City I sat down and tried to recall what I had written … and was surprised at how much I could recall of it word for word.
AF: Puddingstone, which came out in 2014, decades after it was written, rounds out what is called the Blue Hill Avenue Trilogy. The title, referencing a distinctive fused-rock formation of the area from a time when the entire region was covered by sea, seems an apt metaphor for what you’re up to in the novel. To paraphrase a review, it’s a mashup of the cultural animosities that tore at Boston through the ’60s and ’70s — “Jews, Irish, African Americans, Yankee bankers, and the last of its native Ponkapoag Indians join in a general assault on the civic peace.” You self-published that one on Amazon.
Mirsky: For a writer the important thing is to write. The second important thing is the resonance of a reaction, a response. Without an audience, you’re basically locked in your cavern. You can sit like a monk in a cave in the Judean desert, but I’m too public a person for that. I’ve too much of the actor in me. I want a response. So I started a book which would’ve been the third in the trilogy, and that was Puddingstone, which was to try to go forward into the insanity of politics, which I’d written about in Proceedings of the Rabble. Proceedings — the title echoes Jonathan Swift — got a tremendous review in the Sunday New York Times saying how good it was but also calling the prose “clonky”—and it was clonky, because it was rushed. It was based on my experience in California … and also my experience with Mass Boys State in high school. I saw the kind of fascism that is now in American politics. That was really evident to me as the son of a Massachusetts legislator. I saw those kinds of people in the legislature. But I really saw them when I was in the American Legion Boys State, which had a profound effect on me when I went out to California in ’61-’62. I read in the newspapers how some of the residents of Bakersfield were training with machine guns to shoot down the irradiated population of Los Angeles so they wouldn’t radiate Bakersfield in the event that China bombed us.
I did witness in Golden Gate Park a gang of bikers stomp a young man. It was like witnessing Attila’s Huns bent on a blood sacrifice and terrifying. I fled the scene, before whatever its end was, but it has haunted me. That American insanity was also mirrored in Proceedings of the Rabble, because one of the groups who were putatively manning the exits from L.A. with machine guns turned out to have as its messianic leaders a sex offender who had been released from a mental institution. This somehow jibed with stories of judges releasing sex offenders from mental institutions if they agreed to be castrated. It was an American horror story, and I was trying to experiment with a fiction that would speak to my joy in James Joyce’s pyrotechnic prose, but the book was published prematurely before I had the skill to properly edit it.
The air was full of insanity. Just as it is again now, with 40 percent of the population and much of the GOP committed to destroying the Constitution. The reality now is beyond what I was aware of then, with the danger of messianic politics. As deeply religious as I am, the worst thing that can happen is taking the most dangerous ideas of messianism into the political sphere. And that terrified me. So I felt I had to write Proceedings and try to write an American book with a non-Jewish hero, with an Irish hero, because the Irish are very close — in Boston you were raised by Irish teachers and Jewish parents. Anyway, all of this spilled into my novel.
AF: In some of your work you bring a deep, darkly comic view of life in a Jewish neighborhood in decline.
Mirsky: That’s there in the early books. Puddingstone, too. It was a huge, overwritten thing. Rob Cowley, son of Malcolm Cowley, tried to get them to take it at Random House but he couldn’t get support on the editorial board. He told me, “Don’t let them change it too much. Keep it the way it is.” At one point I had the courage to show it to [Donald] Barthelme, and he cut 40 pages.
AF: In small judicious cuts?
Mirsky: No! One big chunk! I was outraged. I always tell this to my students. I once sneaked a peek at a page of Barthelme’s. It was in his typewriter. Almost every line on the page was crossed out. Only one line survived. That was the kind of ruthless editing he did on his own. So when he said 40 pages I went home cursing but cut 10 pages. The next week I cut another 10, and by the end I’d cut all 40. And I think Puddingstone is one of my best books — it’s funny brutal. In it I convert Cardinal Cushing to Judaism and send him on his way to South America to have kids with a native tribe. I elect a black zookeeper as mayor of Boston. I began it in the ’70s when Boston was in flames … and I went on revising. My son got tired of my whining and he helped me self-publish it.
It asks [imitates a ranting voice] “Who am I holding this schul open for?” I realize that’s my father. Why is he running in this corrupt dying district? Who am I? Mourning my childhood in this crazy Jewish ghetto, which was magical in some ways. That’s where I think I struck gold in Thou Worm Jacob. That voice came out of nowhere. If you let yourself go to madness and see what happens…
I had a terrible experience in London; Ted Hughes’s sister arranged a reading for me and [humorist and poet] Marvin Cohen at a fancy venue. I was used to performing, and there are sections of Puddingstone and of Jacob which invite performance. I went up on stage and a lot of very distinguished people in the art world were there. Albert Cook [critic] was there and for some reason he took a deep dislike of me. I performed, but this was just the wrong audience for this broad Jewish laughter from Thou Worm Jacob… and this wasn’t the right section. I was so eager to read and I was warned 20 minutes was all this audience would take. I read longer and he [Cook] said in a loud voice, “This Mark Mirsky’s a bore. Let’s leave.” Michael Hamburger, this very famous translator of Rilke, said, “No I want him to stay.” All this in a tiny room — and Marvin Cohen was at the edge of the stage, doing his own show during my reading. It was a nightmare. Anyway, after that I stopped trying to perform stories and just tried to let the stories perform themselves. So it was the stories that took over, not me as an actor.
AF: Okay, as an actor — but what happens to you as a writer in front of the blank page?
Mirsky: That’s another experience entirely. So, my best-plotted novel ever is Blue Hill Avenue, and that started weirdly enough when [theater director] Steve Randall was doing interviews with actors, trying them out. He said, I need somebody just to be there in the improvisational audience.… will you sit at this typewriter and pretend to write? So, sure. I went up to the audition. They had an old typewriter and I sit there and I start to type. I’m free from all anxiety, just having fun, and I write a single line: “Rabbi Lux of Dorchester lived in the shadow of his telephone.” Suddenly I started to write a page, and when the improv was over, I ran home and in six weeks I had Blue Hill Avenue. Zoom! Following that line where it took me.
AF: You’ve said your freshman year in college was somewhat confused.
Mirsky: I was very conflicted about being a Jewish kid at Harvard.… like most Jewish kids then I wanted to be American, wanted to assimilate. I bought a vested suit so I would look like a Yankee banker. We all admired the Yankee world, it was the reigning hierarchy. Later, when I would really meet them, they were really interesting people, I loved them for being who they were. But the glow — like something of history. If you were a romantic you would absorb that, feel that fascination. Identifying as a Jew at Harvard was strange, but my father was very proud both of his having gone to Harvard and of his identity as a Jew. And his father’s and grandfather’s rabbinic knowledge. He passed on some of that to me.
Who I was going to be? Sophomore year I was acting in Boston at the Wilbur and I came down with mono and they had to cart me off in an ambulance. When I went to the infirmary at Harvard they asked: What are you? In a delirium I said, “Jewish.” I didn’t say agnostic as I had when I went into Harvard and refused to choose a religion. So suddenly the rabbi, a new rabbi, who had gone through the Holocaust, Ben-Zion Gold, shows up at my bed. We started arguing about Alfred North Whitehead, whom we’d each read. Whitehead had sort of saved me in a way, the aims of education … not this nonsense of rote memory. Gold pursued me … kept after me, invited me to tea, kept wanting to involve me with the Jewish student life at Harvard, which I was resistant to, but I found him fascinating. I went to see him at the Hillel and suddenly a line leapt into my head. “So it was Epstein, the butcher’s boy, who had painted the swastika on the wall of the Beth El Hebrew school. Oy.” I don’t know who said it, I don’t know where that line was going to take me. In retrospect I understood why that might come to me.
AF: In an interview from the ’70s, talking of Dante, you said “The greatest question that you can ask in literature is ‘Can I in this book enter the other world?’ Because you, the reader, in reading the book enter the writer’s world. And if the writer is asking, ‘Can I enter the other world?’ you enter that world too.” Do you still feel that way?
Mirsky: I started as an actor, and one of the most incredible experiences an actor has is when a voice speaks through him, and the spirit moves one’s bones, and one takes leaps and mesmerizes the audience in a persona that is not one’s own but that is given to them.
The joy of writing is discovering that all of these people live in you. Yes, they all come from you, but they turn into other people. You become them. It’s also why you read literature. To enter strange worlds. You become unhinged by something you can’t explain but that you desire. Because it promises something.
AF: You have — and have had — many literary friendships. John Hawkes, Robert Creeley, Susan Sontag, Mailer, Grace Paley, others. Certainly Donald Barthelme. Can you share some of that?
Mirsky: I’ve written a whole lot about Donald.… someday I’m going to do a book. He was the best-read writer I’ve ever met. He read an extraordinary amount, and he was deeply generous with his time. I don’t know why he let me in so close — we were a decade apart in age. First time I laid eyes on him I saw a kind of smiling mysterious face. I somehow bumped into him on the street and he invited me for a drink. I went over to his place again and again to have a drink and talk. He used to be very hard on me in the beginning. He’d tell me, “That’s nonsense. That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.” I was crushed again and again, but he was my teacher, so I’m used to that kind of put down.
He had a strange authority…. I don’t understand his work, and I want to, because I know it’s my fault, I’m not getting it. Some of his early stories — like “A Shower of Gold” — I teach again and again and never come to the end of it. It has so many moments of mockery and laughter. “Florence Green Is 81” — another brilliant early story. “The School” — which George Saunders misunderstands completely. Just recently when I was at the table with Joyce Carol Oates, talking about how Saunders had missed it, she corrected me and showed me something I had missed; I went “Oh, right — you’re a better reader than me.” So Donald really is a mystical writer. I knew him through several very powerful life changes, and I loved him, and my unaffected love and admiration for him — though I had to pull back — moved him. He was wicked and funny, even in his last stages, he kept his sense of humor. My respect for him grows and grows each time I teach him.
Susan Sontag … we had a friendship at the beginning, before she got sick. I reviewed her film Duet for Cannibals for Partisan Review. Later, rather than a friend who dropped over the house to talk, I formed a different impression. Towards the end I had a dreadful back and forth with her at a party; then I saw her and Cynthia Ozick arguing and I felt better. She put me down very hard. I loved her early stuff on “Camp,” [1966 essay “Notes on Camp”] — it made things explicit that weren’t explicit before. She was a transformative critic but she got extremely lazy. I prayed for her, felt close to her.
AF: And Mailer?
Mirsky: I loved Norman. To me he was like an older second cousin. He was really cruel to me at first but he paid attention to me, and that’s all you want from another writer — real attention. I was there the summer he and Adele were abusing each other and I saw the beginning of what would be that terrible moment when he stabbed her and almost killed her. He was up at Provincetown the second season I was there. I was 21 and was playing big roles at the Playhouse. Adele got a role as an extra, and Norman used to hold forth at Old Colony on Commercial Street. He used to sit at a front table and, when I wasn’t in rehearsal, I would sneak out to go listen to the conversation. It was fascinating. One day I’m coming out of the alley by the Playhouse and Mailer is walking down Commercial Street. Without asking his permission I simply join him and start talking, desperate for him to answer me, and I talked nonstop for the 20-minute walk to where he’s going. He turns and declares, “I haven’t heard a word you’ve said.”
AF: Ouch. This getting kicked in the shins by writers — by Barthelme, Irving Howe, Bernard Malamud, Sontag, Mailer — is that a theme?
Mirsky: [shrugs] I’m a student of life. And it usually works out fine. Over time, Norman and I began a friendship that lasted to near the very end of his life.
AF: Somewhere in one of your books, you wrote “the more beautiful the garden, the uglier the serpent lurking…” Is that still true?
Mirsky: [smiles noncommittally] Sounds like something I’d say.
The water and cherries are gone, and Mark Mirsky has some work to get to: he owes letters to Joyce Carol Oates and Cynthia Ozick.
David Daniel’s newest book is Beach Town, a novella and short stories set on the South Shore. He’ll be appearing at Barnes & Noble in Hingham on Sat. August 19th from 2-4 p.m.