Monday, June 7, 2010

Mark Kerstetter - A Deep Pool of Bluecollar Water

St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S.A.
Blogging at The Bricoleur 

"I'm a regular guy," says writer-poet-artist Mark Kerstetter. "Very boring."
That's pretty much the only thing Mark has ever said that I disagree with. Well, the only thing I could understand that I disagree with.
Right here, right now, I admit it. I do not understand everything Mark writes. Although sometimes I pretend to on his comments section because all the cool kids seem to get it and I don't want to appear dim.
It's just that Mark is so much smarter than me. So much deeper. My mind is a little bit like a bee, buzzing around pollinating stuff, happy for the most part but occasionally having the urge to reach out and sting someone that pisses me off. Mark, on the other hand, is a pool of deep water. Bottomless. Dark. Yet not cold, not brisk. Somehow warm. Like one of the great lakes on a mid-summer day. You test the water and it startles you but you also like the way it makes you feel. So you wade in, becoming more confident with each step until you lean forward and dive in, the cool water enveloping you, supporting you, embracing you.
When I first started writing flash there were three regulars who made me nervous. Mark Kerstetter, Anton Gully and Michael Solender. Why? All had really intense and/or weird headshots. Michael's is a giant eye on a giant head peeking out from something; Anton's is a old horror show Frankenstein or zombie or something; Mark's, while comparatively "normal," is just as intense. It's those eyes of his. Penetrating. Like the Mona Lisa, they follow you all around a room, wondering what you're up to, wondering if you're telling the truth.
So I was a little intimidated by Mark. Until I actually started reading his work on a regular basis and I discovered this was not an intimidating man, no lion, no predator. This was a lamb, a quivering mass of conflicted emotions, a man whose tender soul rests so close beneath the surface of his skin that you can almost see it moving amidst sinew, muscle and veins.
I like him so much now that I can't ever believe he intimidated me. I go from having a writerly crush on him to wanting to adopt him.
The piece he wrote that truly made me embrace all that is Mark Kerstetter was Ecce Homo, the angry, bitter, cathartic essay about his father that reads like a scream. It is, without hesitation, the best thing I have ever read about the tangled relationship between a father and a son. If you haven't read it, you're not alone. Only five people commented. It wasn't a #fridayflash, it wasn't promoted and it almost didn't see daylight. He posted it and then, just as quickly, he took it down. I was lucky enough to catch it before it was removed and when I saw it was gone I just hounded this poor man, begging him to put it back up again.
Do yourself a favour. Read it. It will tear your heart out and you will fall in love with this writer as I have.
I see Mark as a working class hero, a Springsteen, an intellectual in blue collar clothing. And until he sent me his photo, I always imagined him as the brooding face he has on his headshot. Imagine my surprise when he sent me a photo of him wearing a smile! Not just any smile, either, but an effusive grin, the kind that covers all the skin between the ears, the kind you can't help smiling back at. 
I could go on and on about Mark Kerstetter. Instead, I think I'll let him speak. 
Because, in case you haven't noticed, he's very good at it.
Mark's self-portrait, 'Sleeping.'

Tell me about yourself ... who you are, what kind of a person you are, what your day job is, why you write and why you wrote this touching romantic story in particular.
I'm a regular guy, very boring. I like all the simple pleasures: companionship, food, sleep. I don’t mind working hard, but can dig just sitting on my ass too. I have a couple of different jobs. One of them is restoring a house. I’m a laborer. I work with my body and have never been paid to think. Maybe that’s a good thing, but earning a living through my art/writing would be a dream come true. I love to cut jokes, sing and laugh. That doesn’t come through in my fiction much, which tends to be rather serious. I don’t know why I write, it’s a mystery. Not to be vague, but I can’t quite figure out why I’m compelled to write such serious fiction when so much of the fiction I love to read is humorous. Why write about love? Because it’s a great theme. I believe in it. 

Romantic stories aren't usually what you write for fridayflash but this story is true to the passion you write for your characters. They are as real as people on the street; and they are real people, with real foibles... Not cardboard cut-outs so often seen in fiction. Tell me, how do you make your characters come alive? And why is it the common man is a recurring character in your stories? There is a real working class ethos to your characters - if there was a soundtrack to them I think of Springsteen... Who do you think of?
I’m very happy to hear that you think my characters feel real, because that is very important to me. I work hard at it. If I had to pick one technique or approach that helps me do this, it's that I put myself into each of them, whoever they are. It doesn’t matter if the character is a little girl, a cross-dresser, a grandmother, a soldier or a sandwich maker, I put myself into their shoes. I feel what I feel as that person. This is similar to what actors do. I believe that there are universal experiences that allow us all to relate to one another. I write about working class people because that’s what I am. It’s funny that you mention Springsteen. Tunnel of Love is a great album. I didn’t think about it but I’ve listened to those songs so many times that they probably influenced this flash. Just a couple of days ago a friend of mine said he thought Springsteen was a phoney, always parading the “common man” persona like a costume. But I don’t see it that way. I think he has integrity to remain true to his core despite all the riches and fame. I try to imagine what that’s like and it seems to me that it takes a lot of strength. Eminem is the same way. I would also add Lou Reed, Paul Westerberg, Randy Newman and Bob Dylan as singer/songwriters who create characters and stories that inspire me.

What is your favourite book written by an American author, that sums up your feelings toward your country?
That’s a very hard question to answer. Maybe A Cool Million by Nathanael West. The subtitle of that book is “The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin.” It’s about a strong, bright-eyed boy who never fails to put his best foot forward, and every time he does his foot gets cut off—literally. By the end of the book the world has taken his hair, his teeth, one of his eyes and one of his legs. He is used as a prop for a man running for political office, given a speech and as soon as he stands up to speak is killed by an assassin’s bullet. Finally a marching band sings a song commemorating him as a hero. The book is a farce, a very dark satire on what a sham the American Dream is. And very funny. This is how I feel about America: if I didn’t laugh I wouldn’t have the will to go on. The song Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan also sums up pretty well how I feel about my country on any given day. It captures the delirious circus-like feeling of being on the treadmill of American life, it captures the absurdity of the capitalist lifestyle, with the highway being any kind of American Arena where any aspect of life is put on display, bought and sold.

In your story, your description of America's biggest holiday is littered with trash and hot dogs... Makes me wonder how you feel about Americana and your country in general. Do share...
Christmas is America’s biggest holiday, because it’s a celebration of spending (not giving, as the advertisements would have you believe). Independence Day is mostly a cliche; I don’t think most Americans think about what it means at all. However, I’m not quite as cynical as the narrator of this flash, even considering what I just said about A Cool Million and Highway 61 Revisited. I make a distinction between the capitalist lifestyle and people. There’s America—the Idea of America, and there’s Americans, and Americans are people, like anywhere else in the world. A part of me is disgusted with the bombast of an Independence Day celebration, but when I go I also notice the families sitting together, young fathers holding their babies, teenagers kissing and people just having a good time. Like I said, I believe in love, in recognizing myself even in people I don’t fully understand. It’s the only hope for our world. 

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
by Mark Kerstetter

"I feel like dying," she had said, words which will ring in my ears forever. And yet I was still consumed with my own folly, stumbling over the upturned earth of our life, afraid of falling into cold ditches, obsessed with my own shame. My shame was a burden. I wondered: is love the act of each covering the other's shame with a blanket of acceptance and kisses? For I have nowhere to lay my shame. I am naked with it. It waves to the world in bold colors, like a flag unfurled. My flag.

"Why don't you come downtown with me," I told her. It was July 4th and this is what we did every year. Joined the throng in the parks and streets of our little town to watch fireworks. "It always rains," she said. Then I reminded her of how we always enjoyed walking through the deluge in our raincoats and beach shoes, watching everyone scatter to their cars in a futile attempt to avoid getting soaked. I wanted to remember how much fun we had. I wanted her to remember.

On the walk down she let me put my arm around her. I was free to do this only because she had set me free to do whatever I liked, whatever I felt I had to do. The thought of it made me draw her closer. She allowed this too. I put my lips to her ear. "I've always loved you," I said. I told her more. I wanted us to remember what it was like when we first fell in love. I wanted us to remember how we had built our life, to see how much we had let go fallow, how much we had let fall away. I wanted us to restore the crumbled pieces of the foundation, fix the rot, fill and spackle, paint it bright and stand together again. She allowed me to say all of these things.

The funny thing is, she's the one that liked fireworks. I never did. It's the whole spectacle, really. A pointless display of beer and sparklers and hotdogs with nothing but a mountain of trash afterwards. Happy Independence Day, the day I flaunt my God-given right to be obnoxious and throw my trash on the ground. Well, I'm a cynic. People don't turn me on. When love comes it's a goddam miracle-you'd better grab it and not let go. And I always seem to end up right next to some little kid who screams, "Oh, I like that one!" with every single rocket blast.

But this time was different. We gazed in solemn silence as each burst illuminated the sky, for just a second, then showered down in little particles that disappeared-always disappearing. When the grand finale was unleashed we stood, alone in the crowd, hugging each other with all our might while everyone else craned their necks to the sky. "I'm sorry," I whispered, "I'm so so sorry." All darkness was obliterated. The brightness brought tears to our eyes.

Hey Mark, this one's for you. It's one of my favourite songs and it's deep. Kinda like someone I wish I knew.


  1. Great tribute, great story. Mark is awesome. :)

  2. Yes, Mark has many fans including me. Really enjoyed the Q and A here. And the story. Yes, love is a miracle, truly.

    "It ought to be easy ought to be simple enough
    Man meets woman and they fall in love
    But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
    And you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love."

  3. Love this story. Love the interview. Love the Mark.

    I called him a philosopher once, and he denied it. But Mark is a deep thinker, a deeper feeler. Everything he writes resonates so with me.

    Cathy, thank you for alerting me to Ecce Homo's return. I had begun reading, was distracted, and when I returned the next day -- poof! And thank you for this wonderful interview (and all the others). You are amazing. peace...

  4. I think one of the things I love most about American weeks is yur spectacular tribute to each writer...

    And thanks for introducing me to Mark's work. It resonates with me and I'm so very glad that I know where to find his stuff.

  5. Me too, thanks for introducting me to Mark's works. I don't know how I've missed him.

    I liked Mark's quiet appreciation of the everyday--through his eyes, it all feels special.

    Again, Cathy, stellar tribute.

  6. Hey, my favorite fellow floridian fridayflasher! hehe Wow. I hadn't got to read Ecce Homo before-- what a powerful, honest piece of writing. The only thing that I can think of that would be worse than what you went through, Mark, is if you didn't recognize it for what it was and felt you really were all those things your father made you feel. I'm glad you're a stronger, more self aware person than that. Otherwise, we wouldn't have had the pleasure of reading you and getting to know you a bit through your work.
    Though, I don't always understand what you're trying to say until the discussions, I am always moved. This story above had me in tears at the end.

    And Cathy- I loved the bee simile! lol you're such a good interviewer.

  7. Yet again, Cathy, a fantastic tribute to a wonderful writer. I have read three or four of Mark's stories and, as Shannon noted, they are always powerful and honest. Great work!

  8. I had read Ecce Homo in my reader and emailed Mark, since it was gone and I had no way to comment. His work erupts from a core of emotion.

    Fabulous intro and Q & A, Cathy! And Mark, there are just no words to adequately describe your writing. It's from the soul, which few are ever able to achieve. Quite simply, you are awesome.

  9. Bees are among my favorite things in the world, truly. You can ask V. Everything about them: how they navigate, communicate, buzz, honeycombs, hexagons, (their stingers), the golden and brown colors, that they hang out with flowers - everything.

    I don't understand everything I write either. Sometimes I get swept up in the beauty of the words. I'm working on that.

    Thank you isn't good enough, Cathy and everyone who commented. The encouragement is very important to me.

  10. Another great tribute, Cathy. Mark's one of my favorites for every reason you mentioned, and I'm tickled to get to know him better.

    And Mark, you're one of the best writers around. Period. This story is more gorgeous evidence of that. Off to read the other one now.

  11. I'm sorry I couldn't resist being a doofus (see above).

    The truth is that I agree with all the wonderful remarks about Mark. When I go through the #FridayFlash list, I always seek out his name because I'd hate to miss his insight and the lyrical flowing way he puts words together. I felt particularly smiled upon when one of my tweets made him laugh.

    I haven't read Ecce Homo, but I'm on my way to do it now. Thanks, Cathy, for this wonderful profile, and thanks, Mark, for sharing your talents. ~ Olivia

  12. Wonderful interview and tribute, Cathy. Great story, Mark, and fascinating answers to Cathy's questions. Just read Ecce Homo - an amazingly powerful and honest piece of writing.

  13. Cathy, this has got to be the best tribute I've ever read, and I agree - Mark is simply fantastic, as a writer, as a person. I'm honored to read his words every chance I get.
    That said, I somehow missed Ecce Homo, so Thank You Very Much for talking him into putting it back up. I'm on my way to read.

  14. "This was a lamb, a quivering mass of conflicted emotions, a man whose tender soul rests so close beneath the surface of his skin that you can almost see it moving amidst sinew, muscle and veins."

    Yes, Cathy you are so eloquent and of course so right.

    Mark, you will make money with your words. Your humor does come through, all the time. Your characters breathe, so keep doing what you're doing. You're incredibly special.


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