I received a letter from David Markson just before his death in 2010; in it he complained of a busted wrist, made mention of Willie Mays, and wished me luck with my work. It was the second letter I received from him, and obviously also the last. After his death, as many already know, his entire personal library was donated to the Strand, and the so-called Markson Treasure Hunt began. I spent every cent I had, getting as many of his books as I could. I think mostly I was trying to keep that connection going. Each new book of his I found in the stacks felt like another letter sent to my address, with personal notes, and jokes, and insights. Both times I wrote Markson, he wrote me back within days. He was always as quick as he was kind. My biggest regret is that I didn’t write more, and my blog of scans from his personal library, Reading Markson Reading, was my way to remedy that.
Laura Sims, poet and professor, didn’t make the same mistake I did. She wrote to Markson after reading his masterpiece Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and kept up a correspondence with him until the end. Those letters, the ones he sent to her, are now being published by Powerhouse Books under the title Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson. Though a Collected Letters of some sort is warranted, I assume that’s still a number of years away. For now, we can be content in the “snapshot” — as she calls it — that these letters to a young poet offer. I caught up with my fellow mad Marksonite to discuss the writer, his writing, and their correspondence.
Tyler Malone: I wrote David Markson a letter in 2007, which he kindly responded to, so I’m curious, as someone who went through the same initial process: What was it that got you to first write to Markson?
Laura Sims: Reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress. It was about a year after I had fallen in love with that book that I wrote the letter. I’d gone on to read most of his other books, and I was gearing up to do a long piece on his work. I wrote to him to let him know that I planned to do this piece, but I was really just expressing my deep admiration for his work. I knew he was living in New York, and I found his address pretty easily. I still know it by heart.
Do you remember your reaction upon receiving your first response from him?
I was sort of shocked, especially by how quickly his response came. You know when you send notes to someone famous, even someone just a little bit famous, you don’t really expect them to write back at all, but you certainly don’t expect them to write back in such a timely manner. But he did — within a couple days — and I was absolutely thrilled.
And then the correspondence and the subsequent relationship sort of blossomed from there? How would you describe your relationship with Markson?
It started as a starstruck-younger-writer-writes-to-literary-luminary relationship, but it evolved over time into a true friendship. And I came to see David as a kind of substitute grandfather, the literary grandfather I’d never had.
How did you come up with the idea to publish the letters?
It wasn’t my idea at all. I had written posts as a contributing writer to the Harriet Blog, which is the Poetry Foundation’s blog, last April for National Poetry Month. I hadn’t written about David since he died, so I decided to write a couple of posts about our correspondence and friendship, and included excerpts from his notes and letters. There was a good little reaction to it online, including a mention in a NYT blog. Then in June, Wes Del Val, a publisher at powerHouse who happens to be a big Markson fan, got in touch with me. The poet Kenneth Goldsmith had told him about my posts. Wes asked if I’d be interested in doing a book. So we met and talked about it, and that’s really when it started to become a reality.
How was the decision made to publish only his letters and not both of your letters together?
It happened by default. I only had six of my letters — the ones I had composed on my computer — so there wasn’t much of a choice. And then it became clear as we were putting the book together that my letters weren’t necessary because you could hear the back-and-forth between us just through his letters and the footnotes I added.
The letters show you contributed two nuggets he used in his final novel. One from Dostoevsky and one about Catherine the Great dying on the toilet. What were your thoughts upon his use of things you had given him? I’m sure that must have been an honor and an exciting gift.
Yes! Both an honor and a gift.
You know his process as well as or better than most, so you know how unlikely it would be that your notes would end up making the final cut. Did you ever imagine they’d make it to the final draft of the novel?
No, I really didn’t. I mean I knew they were pretty good tidbits, so obviously I hoped they’d make it, and thought maybe it was possible, but I was really surprised and pleased when they actually made that final cut.
Speaking of being surprised and pleased to make the final cut, I was also surprised and pleased to make the final cut of your book. It was so exciting when I stumbled upon the reference in the footnotes to my Markson treasure hunt and my Reading Markson Reading blog, which posts scans from his personal library. Thinking about his personal library for a second, I’m curious if you could have owned any one of Markson’s books, which would it be?
Well, I guess I would have to say Gaddis’ Recognitions or Lowry’s Under the Volcano. I assume those would be two of the most prized books. Do you have either of those?
I do not. Those two, and Joyce’s Ulysses, I think would be the three true treasures in his collection. I heard a while back that his family did save a few of his collection for themselves, which seems reasonable enough, and I assume if they were to keep any, those would be the keepers?
Otherwise they’re out there somewhere . . . it’s cool to think that some devoted Marksonite has them now.
In the interview that you did with Markson that you include in the back of the book, he says that all his life he’s been “an inveterate checker-off-in-margins.” Obviously, since I own a few hundred of his books, I can verify this claim. It’s fairly obvious how this hobby created “his own personal genre” in the later books, but I think going all the way back to his early detective novels, you can see the obsession with little intellectual odds and ends. After all, most detective novels don’t reference Faulkner. Do you also see that in gestational form back in the early novels? And do you think of this obsession with tidbits as perhaps the most truly Marksonian trait?
Yes, the detective novels — Epitaph for a Tramp, Epitaph for a Dead Beat, and Miss Doll, Go Home — do feature the intellectual tidbits he later became known for. Beginning, really, with Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the “tidbits” became much more than that — they became a full-blown project of his, an intricate web or map of the interconnections between artists and writers, living or dead, that form the stuff of art. It’s astonishing how he transformed those odds & ends into something so substantive and meaningful.
Another thing you mention in that interview really helped solidify something for me that I always felt but couldn’t appropriately comment on. He always seemed to me so great at portraying women, but as a man I never felt like I could say that with any sort of conviction. But reading you say the same reassured me that that truly was one of his great talents. Why do you think he was so good at writing women?
I think, as he says in the interview, that he really did like women — that’s a start. He also says that he “pay[s] attention” to women — and that seems apparent in the books. He has paid attention, so Kate (of Wittgenstein’s Mistress) comes off as a real, three-dimensional human being. I think of her more in those terms than as a woman or a man, and that, to me, is a mark of his success in creating her.
The fact that in these letters he mentions both Beyonce and blogs (though he admittedly doesn’t know who or what either are), still at least sort of grounds him in the present day, when it can be easy as a reader to see him solely as this holdover from a bygone era. When you were speaking to him while he was alive did you think of him as of the present day or from a bygone era?
Both really. His work was, and still is, ahead of its time, and he was aware of current events, outraged by certain politicians, etc., but he was also very firmly of a certain time and place, namely 1950s or 60s Greenwich Village. He lived there for most of his adult life, and was an integral part of the social scene in those early days. He often reminisced about those times, and he did it in his old-school New York accent that was very charming. He was an incredibly charming man.
Speaking of his charm, something people often don’t realize about Markson is how funny he was and how funny his writing is. Could you comment on his humor?
There are moments of humor in all of his books, even in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is thought of as this difficult, experimental novel. But it’s really apparent in the letters. In person or on the phone, he was always outgoing and funny, and laughed a lot. He had a wry sense of humor. There are obviously certain books, like The Ballad of Dingus McGee, which showcase his humor more than others, but it’s there in all of them, even if it’s a little subtle in the later ones.
I love so much the little insights into some of his novels we get from your correspondence, such as the one about him discovering that the apartment he used as the model for Going Down is actually all wrong. He has her walk in the wrong way. What is one of your favorite little insights or nuggets about his own writing that he gave you?
Maybe that he could no longer read fiction, and that this inability to read (reader’s block!) may have affected the form his later novels took. It’s interesting when you consider how vital the connection is between reading and writing — so that even not reading has a particular, and in David’s case, startlingly innovative effect on writing.
What did you make of him no longer being able to read fiction? Why do you think that was?
There’s that quote from the letters where he talks about running into an old girlfriend, and she says something like, “Well, maybe we’ve just read enough novels.” I can see that. I can see becoming exhausted with your genre. As a poet, I tend to read more fiction than poetry. I don’t even know why, but maybe it has something to do with that. Especially at his age, having read so much, I think he just felt he didn’t have room in there for anything else. He talks in the letters about being disappointed with certain contemporary writers — like Anne Carson or Jose Saramago — but then he backpedals and blames his own brain. So I don’t think he understood it himself.
In one of the letters he writes that Going Down is his “old (and in many ways favorite) novel.” I’m curious what your favorite of his novels is?
I think Wittgenstein’s Mistress is still my favorite. Maybe it’s because it was the first one I read. But that one remains the most powerful to me. It’s also an interesting book in relation to the later novels because it launches him in this new direction that he goes on to refine.
Speaking of those final novels, one thing I always wanted to chat with another Markson-obsessed person about was what to call those final novels when grouped together? On Reading Markson Reading, I’ve been calling them The Notecard Quartet, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on whether they should even be grouped together and, if so, what they should be called?
That’s a really nice name for them, I like that. The Notecard Quartet. And yes, I really do think they belong together. It’s undeniable that their shared form and concerns connect them—they’re like one big book he was working out over time. I always think of them as a “tetralogy,” but I like your name for them much better.
The words “Fare Forward” are from a T. S. Eliot line which Markson quoted as a kind of “bon voyage” to you when you moved from New York to Wisconsin. Can you tell me why and how that title was chosen?
Originally I came up with five possible titles:
Don’t Leave Flowers, Telephone: Letters from David Markson
I’ll Tell You the Truth: Letters from David Markson
The Sound of My Own Voice: Letters from David Markson
I Almost Prefer the Silence: Letters from David Markson
Fare Forward, Voyagers: Letters from David Markson
Wes (of powerHouse) made the very good point that we didn’t want to choose a title that, like the first four on the list, emphasized Markson as a hermetically sealed literary figure. If the book were to introduce new readers to his work, as we hoped it would, we would have to choose something more open-ended and optimistic. We both liked the last one for that reason, and then Wes thought it would be better without the “Voyagers.” I think he was right.
I like that the title is positive, forward-looking, and optimistic in a way, because I think that there’s actually an optimism in his writing that is often buried, but is sort of always there, a strange optimism that I can’t quite describe.
It is. It’s what keeps the books from being completely bleak and depressing. They’re really not. I know that some people find them so, but I don’t think of them that way. There is a thread of hope running through them that keeps them buoyant, joyful even.
You say in the intro to this book of letters: “The letters here provide a snapshot, not a panorama, but a snapshot is remarkably appropriate for Markson.” Could you talk a little bit about the idea of the snapshot and why you think it is appropriate for Markson?
A snapshot gives you a “slice of life,” a moment, and David’s work is made up of such moments. So it’s appropriate in that way, in its relation to his work. It’s also appropriate for a writer who has been intensely but not yet widely adored—the intimate view, instead of the panorama, fits his current reputation as a man of letters. I hope that the panorama is coming, though. I hope he’ll have a posthumous “moment” now or sometime soon, and more and more readers will come to know and love his work. Then someone can do The Collected Letters of David Markson, which will be an awesomely entertaining book.
As a great end to your book, Ann Beattie’s Afterword concludes with the line that “whether overtly or covertly, whether unconsciously, or even as a prank, writers write to other writers. Just because they’ve died, those writers don’t disappear.” How does this idea of writers writing to other writers resonate with you?
I think it’s so true. It’s really true in poetry. Most of the people who read poetry are poets. I think when you’re writing, it’s not that you’re sitting down trying to please this certain set of people, or that you’re trying to exclude a general readership, but nevertheless you’re talking to the people who are doing what you do or have done what you do. Works of literature talk to each other; writers speak to each other through the ages. That’s exactly what Markson’s books bring up to the fore. He draws on his predecessors and makes that the stuff of his books. In most books that connection to predecessors and/or contemporaries is buried, is indistinguishable from the content or form.
Lastly, as a poet, I wonder how his sort of mentorship affected your own writing?
In many ways, I think of Markson as a poet. He writes in those succinct lines, he pays close attention to the rhythm of his lines and the way they interact, he does away with or plays with the conventions of fiction (plot, character, etc.), and he seems to understand that important things happen in the blank space between lines, that important connections are made in the reader’s brain. So I was influenced by his fiction just as I was by other poets who’ve been influential to me, most of them categorized as experimental—people like Rae Armantrout, Barbara Guest, Michael Palmer, etc.
I’ve also always been a fiction writer—it’s what I did first, back when I was writing in crayon. I mean I did both, but I ended up getting serious about poetry as a teenager, so my interest in writing fiction took a backseat. It’s been coming back in recent years. And I remember first reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress and thinking, “Oh, novels can be like this!” It was so liberating. So exciting. And now we’re starting to see more mainstream novels—like Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, recently—use some of the techniques that Markson and other experimental writers have used for years, so I don’t think I’m alone in feeling the influence of his work.
He was also a kind of literary Coach Taylor (of “Friday Night Lights”) to me. He was constantly chiding me for teaching and doing readings frequently, things he considered to be distractions from writing. He was unmoved by my claim that I needed to teach to make money, or that I needed to do readings in order to sell books. He once shouted at me (lovingly) on the phone, “DO YOUR OWN FUCKING WORK!” After that I put the quote on my fridge because it’s a really powerful message for an artist: put your work first, even if it means going broke or being invisible. I can’t always heed this advice, but I’ve tried a lot harder to do so in recent years.
Tyler Malone is a writer and teacher. He has contributed articles, reviews, and interviews to various literary magazines including The Millions, Full Stop, Tottenville Review, and Literary Traveler. He was once, and as Laura’s book attests, will continue to be known as “the Reading Markson Reading guy.”