Interview with author Mark Anthony Jarman

“Mumbai’s very crowded. It’s a very fascinating place and the people are wonderful, but it’s just so crowded, and I’m not into crowds. It’s like if you took the population of Canada and put it between Fredericton and Saint John. So some of the things we think of as maybe a draw-back in New Brunswick, like the slow economy and low population – I’ve really come to value.” – Mark Anthony Jarman




Kilfoil: Mark Jarman; you are a writer and you are one of the artists in residence in the Barracks and you are going to be writing. Is that right?

Jarman: Yeah, that’s right. I’m working on a piece about Mumbai, India – or Bombay, as well. In English they’ll still say Bombay but Mumbai if you’re speaking a local language.

Kilfoil: I’m curious about someone writing in public. What’s that experience been like?

Jarman: Well it’s kind of harder for people coming by – Lisa’s doing the baskets and they can look and say “oh, what’s that?” but it’s harder with a writer for them to just look at my hand, or a piece of paper – it’s not quite as exciting. But I’ve got a bunch of projects, I’ve got some of my books here that they can look at and ask questions. It’s different. With a visual artist there’s much more for them to just see, but you know. People are interested in writing and books and editing.

Kilfoil: Do you write longhand?

Jarman: Yeah, I do both. I’ve got notebooks and scraps of paper – I always carry paper with me and a pen. The piece I’m working on is in my laptop so I print it out and I work on it again by hand and I move pieces around – kind of cut and paste but just with a pens and arrows that say “go to page 11, go to page 9” and I kind of enjoy that part. I really like finding different points bumping into each other. If you move them, it changes it and has a different kind of resonance in a way so I like to just have a paragraph and think, “well here’s a paragraph about no plumbing in Mumbai,” so should I put it here next to the paragraph about the clean beach in New Brunswick, or is it better here, by the cafe…

Kilfoil: So your work: you mentioned briefly – it’s about Mumbai?

Jarman: Yeah.

Kilfoil: Is this a fiction or non-fiction piece?

Jarman: Well I guess it’s non-fiction. I write both. I write short stories, fiction, some travel (I did a travel book about Ireland) so technically it’s non-fiction, but I find that maybe because I come to it as a fiction writer first, I don’t mind moving things around, kind of manipulating it a bit and I’ll start picking up details from other books, newspaper articles, so it’s a bit of a mix. I’m a bit of a sponge so I find whatever details I can and then whatever happened to me, but I don’t feel like I’m an expert on Mumbai or India, but it’s a very striking place, and such a contrast to New Brunswick. I really appreciate New Brunswick so much more now because of the clean rivers and water and beaches and there’s so much space. Mumbai’s very crowded. It’s a very fascinating place and the people are wonderful but it’s just so crowded and I’m not into crowds. It’s like if you took the population of Canada and put it between Fredericton and Saint John. So some of things we think of as maybe a draw-back in New Brunswick like the slow economy, low population – I’ve really come to value. The whole time I was over there I was just thinking “we’re so lucky, we’re so lucky.” There are problems here but it’s just kind of amazing, the contrast. I thought I was going to write about more Mumbai and India but I find myself writing about both – New Brunswick keeps sneaking in a lot more.

Kilfoil:  So you recently took a trip to Mumbai and that was the inspiration?

Jarman: Yeah, I got invited to read at a festival – called the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival – I believe ‘kala ghoda’ means black horse, and so I read with some poets and spoke to classes at universities and colleges, and I was on a panel, but it was fascinating and it just came out of the blue. I just got this invite and was asked if I wanted to go and I thought “this is my chance” – might be the only chance to get to India.

Kilfoil: Did you have any previous knowledge or experience of Mumbai?

Jarman: No, not really. I started madly reading and looking online, but I picked up a couple of books – there’s one called Maximum City that’s just amazing about Mumbai, and another one, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It’s about some of the slums by the airport and it’s also an amazing book. It’s by a journalist who wrote for the New Yorker – Katherine Boo I think is the name. It’s really stuck in my head – I’m really immersed in it – even though I can’t say that it was entirely positive or pleasant – it’s one of those strange things that I can’t stop thinking about, but I wasn’t “always happy” the whole time there but it’s just an amazing experience. And for a writer it’s great. I didn’t want to write about travelling there because I hadn’t thought about the route, but through Frankfurt, Germany, and on the way you go over Turkey and Syria and Iraq… I was reading articles about car bombs and explosions and missiles and RPGs and I was flying over that exact area – I hadn’t thought about it, so I wanna write a bit about that too because it was just strange. There are little maps on the plane that show the cities and I thought “there’s Turkey, there’s Syria, there’s Iraq…” and just hoped the pilots know what they’re doing, that they’re flying high enough.

Kilfoil: Clearly this place made an incredible impression on you.

Jarman: Yeah, I guess it did.

Kilfoil: Is that something that’s happened to you before? Going to a place and it making that big a statement to you?

Jarman: Well probably nothing quite like this. There’s probably nothing in the world like India, but there’s a bit of a pattern. I’ll go somewhere and think, “I could live here.” I guess as a writer you just see everything as material. I went to Trieste in Italy just because James Joyce had been there and I found that fascinating because it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and this beautiful city kind of modelled after Vienna and great café culture, and I knew very little about it. I got more interested in that and Croatia – as I said I did a travel book on Ireland, so I guess I like to travel but I do get interested in a place – I guess not every place, but yeah, there’s a bit of a pattern.

Kilfoil: And what about the people comes into it? You talked about the place itself; is your writing focusing as much on the wall of people and the physical walls around you? Or is it the interactions of people which attract you?

Jarman: That’s a really good question because the walls are definitely there. In Italy I didn’t have the language so I felt like that was kind of a wall and I ended up writing a bit about that – in fact my last book of stories, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa is a story set in Italy – but you’re right, you have to have interaction. I wasn’t there that long, as I said I’m not an expert, but I met people and I had people taking care of me, driving me around, and I’m in email-touch with people with through email which was great because I could ask them questions. I saw that there was a record heatwave – 51 above in India so I emailed a friend and said “are you in that? What’s it like?” and I got some great details back from some locals and it’s great because you couldn’t make that up. As a writer you couldn’t come up with some of what they’ve told me and so you have to have some interaction but there are millions of people so it’s hard to get to know all of them. But I was amazed because I was only there a little while and I bumped into people I knew on the street! There are twenty million people here and I just bumped into Kumar.

Kilfoil: So a weird sense of small town in a big city all at the same time.

Jarman: Yeah I guess so. I mean, part of it was because I was at a festival with certain people in an area of town but I thought it was odd. Such a crowded place and yet I would bump into people I knew. And I found a nice little bar that had IPA, India Pale Ale, so I was drinking India Pale Ale in India so that was kind of fun, and I actually got to know some people there. There’s a local couple who told me to go for a beer on a rooftop of a hotel and it was great. It was an old-fashioned – probably built during the British colonial time leaving the place to go but it was a bit seedy now, ’cause there’s an old Bombay and a new Bombay, but it was great. And I met a French photographer who’d been in Paris during the attacks in his neighbourhood – he was walking to his favourite café and he heard what he thought was firecrackers or something and realized it was shooting, and this photographer took pictures, so it was kind of amazing to bump into him on this rooftop place. I guess that’s part of travel too – you often meet people who are not even locals – they are also travelling – so it’s a mix, that kind of interaction.

Kilfoil: You described yourself earlier as kind of a bit of a sponge, but I can also clearly hear this sort of excitement in seeing and experiencing the world. Is that something that came out of you becoming a writer and learning how to observe the world that way, or is that what caused you to become a writer?

Jarman: That’s another good question. I hadn’t thought about it. I think I write without really dwelling on it too much – I think it’s just something to do. I don’t travel huge amounts, compared to some people who get around all over the world, but when I was young, probably in junior high or high school, I was reading Kerouac’s On The Road and I really liked that idea. I remember reading Hemingway about the Spanish Civil War so that probably planted the idea that you go places and see different worlds. Then I guess I got into writing kind of around the same time, but I was always a book worm. My parents had books and newspapers and magazines around so I dunno, they’re kind of combined. That’s a good question – I haven’t really thought about which came first.

Kilfoil: I kind of wonder too, especially with artists – there are a lot of cases where a critic or an admirer can see something that the artist either didn’t see or subconsciously wasn’t aware of – is this the same thing for you with your writing, where other people will have pointed out things that you didn’t realize were there?

Jarman: Yeah, I mean sometimes in high school I used to argue with my teacher and say the bear in this story is just a bear, it’s not a symbol. And now I actually plant things in my stories and hope people will look for it and find it. But there are other times when people see things that I hadn’t thought about at all and might not even be what’s supposed to be there, but I kind of enjoy that part of any art, whether it’s music or lyrics or paintings. I wrote a lot about drowning and I hadn’t noticed it until someone pointed it out and I realized that my Irish grandfather had drowned and my mother was very much afraid of water so I think that sort of unconsciously got in my head – I hadn’t thought about it. To me, it was just a plot element. A plane crashed into a lake and then the plane’s under the lake for days and the guy’s looking for it. I had a story called Surfer Joe Among the Fishes ’cause I was in California – a surfer drowned when I was there and he got his ankle caught underwater on some kind of net or trap or something and he was not in really deep water but he couldn’t get back up and so I was obsessed with it. I would go to a swimming pool and try and stay under water for as long as I could to see what it was like and pretend I was a surfer. Neil Young’s got a song called ‘Surfer Joe’ and so I stole the name Surfer Joe for that. A lot of my book titles have ‘knives’ in them and I’ll have to find out what that’s for but I’ve got Nineteen Knives, Knife in the Head, and the latest one, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa.

Kilfoil: So you write both fiction and non-fiction. How do you see those? Are they different to you or shades of the same thing?

Jarman: Originally they were quite separate but there’s been a real movement over the last few decades of so-called ‘creative non-fiction’ where I think people who traditionally wrote journalism that was kind of conservative and kept the writer out – changed and evolved to having the writer much more ‘in’ like Hunter Thompson with his Gonzo Journalism, where he becomes the big part of the story when traditionally the writer or reporter stayed out of the story. So I think there’s been a cultural change and I’ve been a part of that, but I also feel I never signed a contract when I’m writing non-fiction; I wouldn’t make something up or plant a detail from somewhere else. In my Irish book, something happened to me in an Irish pub in Calgary and I just thought “I have to put this in” and said it was in an Irish pub – I didn’t say it was Calgary and I didn’t say it was Dublin, but I just feel like I’m allowed some poetic license, I guess. As I said, I didn’t sign a contract so I kind of think the lines are blurry and I don’t mind that at all – I think it’s part of the fun in a way.

Kilfoil: Now, you also teach English at UNB. Is that right?

Jarman: Yeah, I teach English and creative writing, mixed lit…

Kilfoil: What’s it like on the other side, then, talking to folks that are obviously interested in writing, or need to build up their skills? Is it kind of difficult to separate yourself as a writer from that process or do you not want to separate yourself?

Jarman: Well it’s hard to separate, I guess, because I have things that I like, and leanings I don’t like, so I might get students who are obsessed with Stephen King or Harry Potter and I might not think as much about them, but it works out. It depends on the level. If we have grad students from all over come to Fredericton. I have two students from Iran right now and students from another foreign place called Ontario but they’re pretty well-prepared – they’re doing things they want to do and I just try to help them with editing. We have workshops so they’ll hand in stories and they get feedback from 10 or 12 people so it’s not just me and I don’t have rules that I can give them – it’s different for every person. But then at the undergrad level, people beginning – that’s harder because they just don’t have the same kind of background or experience and so it’s really mixed. Again, you just need to give them a chance to do some writing. It might be the only time in their life that they get told, you know, write two or three stories and we’ll have a workshop. We’ll look at them and talk about them and give them written feedback, so it’s not a science. I don’t have rules or a formula I can give to every student but it’s just a chance for them to work on their own material and see how it goes.

Kilfoil: So among your visitors this week – has it been more people who themselves want to write or is it readers who have been talking to you?

Jarman: Well, there have been a couple people interested in writing, but it’s kind of just anyone who’s walking by. I’m amazed how sometimes they’re people from Switzerland or France and you can’t tell – it’s just people wearing a t-shirt and shorts so you can’t tell where they’re from, but I’m surprised how many people are from elsewhere and are just kind of drifting through. And there’s construction going on here so it’s not the most welcoming spot right now, but we still get a lot of people. I think we had about 32 people come through yesterday and they’re often just curious. They might not know I’m here so they’re not seeking me out, but they just wanna stop in and see what we’re up to, and as I said, the basket-making is much more visual or if you’re a painter they can look and see what the painter is working on, whereas I’ve got magazines and notes and drafts and newspapers and a CD and a bottle of water on my table – it’s not quite as interesting as a painting or a basket or photography.

Kilfoil: So when you first heard of this opportunity and you were thinking about this, what kind of preparation did you make for yourself in terms of “I’m gonna be writing in public and people are gonna ask me questions”?

Jarman: Well I guess I wasn’t really sure. I’ve done it a couple times now and I wasn’t really sure at first – it’s almost a learning experience. I’d figure out what I needed to bring with me during the day or what people might be interested in. I know some writers who have done this and they worked on a manuscript while they were here to see what would come while they were here, and they might have an old-fashioned type-writer to be more visual, but I knew I had one piece I wanted to work on but I’m open to other things. I’ve also got a hockey piece that I’m working on and I usually like to have a few things round so if I’m not in the mood for one I can switch to something else, but I didn’t really prepare too much. I might try to get a poster or two or just say hi to people as they come by.

Kilfoil: Do you have a sign or a shirt that says, “I’m a writer – ask me a question”?

Jarman: No, but maybe I should. I think I’d rather hide a bit than do that and I’ll let the basket-maker talk more.

Kilfoil: We often think of writers as having a solitary profession. Is that an accurate, perhaps, stereotype?

Jarman: Yeah, it is. You have to put some time in on your own and in your head. I’m fairly social but I like that mix. I like time on my own and I like time to do some work, and then I wanna have a break, ride a bike, or have a beer or something but yeah, you can’t escape the fact that you’ve got to put in some time just sitting in a chair. In fact, I’ve come up with some ideas and some images – this doesn’t sound exciting – but even transitions. If I’ve got a scene in a café in Mumbai and I wanna go to the street or to another scene, I’ve got to figure out, how can I move from this scene to the next one? The other day I had a really good idea and I thought “well if I wasn’t sitting here, I wouldn’t have had that idea” so you do have to put in the time. I think Lisa the basket-maker was talking about that, too, I think it was Malcolm Gladwell talked about how many hours before people were really good in their field and how many hours they put in. That’s a reality we often don’t like. I think writing attracts a lot of wannabes. There are people who think “if I go to Paris I could write a novel.” You can write anywhere. You can write in your basement, in the coffee shop, on the bus…

Kilfoil: And you can write in the Barracks.

Jarman: That’s right. I’m actually surprised because I thought it would be more dealing with people and less writing but I’ve gotten more done than I thought I would, so it’s good both ways.

Kilfoil: Mark, where can people find out more about your books and stuff that’s out there?

Jarman: Well Westminster should have my books, Chapters should have my books, and online they’re available under Mark Anthony Jarman. Goose Lane Editions is my publisher in Fredericton and they’ve got a good web presence. I’m a bit of a luddite because I don’t have much of a presence in terms of a website but the books are definitely out there. I also have some and I’ll give people a good deal.

Kilfoil: Well I hope you have a lot more visitors down to the Barracks in the next couple of days, and I know to actors I’m supposed to say ‘break a leg.’ What do I say to a writer, break a pencil?

Jarman: (Laughing) Yeah, that’ll work.

Kilfoil: Ok, thanks a lot Mark.

Jarman: Thank you very much.


Find the audio podcast of Mark’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Mark Anthony Jarman (Writing)



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