Mark Athitakis: interview

I recently had an opportunity to ask a few questions of Mark Athitakis, writer of the excellent book blog Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes and National Books Critics Circle member.

We talked about Washington DC writers, why he writes on American Fiction Notes, and J. Franz’s take on DC dowdiness:

Who are your favorite DC fiction writers?  Who should I read?

I should say first that I’m a relative newcomer to the DC area (I moved here in 2007), and I don’t claim to be an expert on the city’s literature. But I’ve enjoyed playing catch-up on the city’s writers since I arrived, and there are a few I admired before I showed up: Edward P. Jones, Ward Just, and George Pelecanos in particular. As it happens, Pelecanos edited a 2008 collection, DC Noir 2, that I think would be a fine primer on the city’s fiction for anybody who’s new to it: stories by Jones and Just are in there, as are pieces by Marita Golden, Elizabeth Hand, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others. I think you need to live here a while to get past the notion that D.C. is very binary city—federal/civilian, black/white, etc—and DC Noir 2 undoes a lot of that conventional wisdom.
When writing your blog–it’s been around since January 2008–whatwas the first post that got major attention?
I don’t think any post of mine has received what I’d consider “major attention.” Tyler Cowen once linked to a post I wrote about Mormon literature, and that led to my busiest day ever on the blog; Andrew Sullivan linked to something I wrote complaining about lists, and that got some heat as well. But those are really anomalies. The attention my blog has gotten has been more aggregated
over time and less tied to specific posts.
What do you feel your responsibility to your reader is?
It’s no different for me than for any other writer: to be honest and to get the facts right. I’ve bungled facts in public enough in my career that I’m as mindful about it on the blog as I am anywhere else—more mindful, if anything, because I’m not being backstopped by an editor. I realize that there’s a feeling that readers will correct you in the comments, so there’s less of a need to sweat this stuff, but I’m as mortified about errors on my blog as anywhere else.
Who do you write for? What’s the image in your mind of your reader?
I suppose I write for somebody who’s a little like me: Aware of a fair bit of what’s going on in contemporary writing but who wants to know more (and is certainly aware of how much he/she doesn’t know); is college-educated but not particularly enchanted by or interested in literary theory; and is eager to read a variety of perspectives on books. (I assume most of my readers consume other literary blogs, so I’m mindful about not overlapping on their turf too much.) I don’t think people are coming to me for practical reasons, like receiving specific guidance on books to read—there are plenty of blogs that serve that particular niche.
I have no idea if the reader I imagine is anything like the reader I’m getting. I know from my traffic logs that a many people arrive from .edu domains. If I’m in a self-flattering mood, I tell myself that I attract a lot of bright academics in English departments; in my more cynical moments, I figure I’m providing emergency assistance to undergrads crashing their term papers. The truth is probably a mix of both.
I read your notes on Freedom.  What did you think of the Georgetown/Alexandria settings in Freedom?
He’s pretty down on the place, isn’t he? “The pedestrians in every neighborhood all seemed to have taken the same dowdiness pills,” he writes about D.C. So, busted: This isn’t a city full of fashion plates. But I don’t take his criticism too seriously, because D.C. serves a very utilitarian purpose in Freedom: It’s a drab neutral spot to place his discussions about overpopulation and the overcommercialization of art. (You’ll remember that there’s a scene in D.C.’s 9:30 Club where hipsters moo over Conor Oberst, but Franzen has said in an interview that he’s never set foot in the place.)
I don’t think urban areas are Franzen’s strong suit: I’ve never been to the University of Minnesota campus, but I’ve heard people who find his descriptions of the place in the novel lacking. But then, I wouldn’t expect him to celebrate (or even spend much time detailing) cities in the novel, because the place he loves best is the wilderness—the West Virginia forest threatened by mountaintop removal that will destroy those precious cerulean warblers, or the sanctuary that provides the setting for the novel’s closing grace note. The fewer people around the better, Franzen seems to be arguing, which is part of the reason whyFreedom left me with the same mildly disgruntled feeling I get after watching a Lars Von Trier movie: If you don’t like people all that much, why are you interested in telling stories about them?
What was your best ever writing experience?  (I asked this question of Junot Diaz during a talk in college and he said that he went to the New York Public Library main building and wrote for eight hours in the reading room on Christmas Eve.  For example.)
I don’t write fiction, so I don’t really have an experience like Junot Diaz’s to share. But I think I understand the feeling. In a lot of interviews, novelists describe writing as being some variation of a dream state or trance, where the real world slips away and they wholly exist in the imaginary world that they’re creating. (Such proclamations are usually followed by a discussion of the messy real-world business of revising that creation; I guess writing is the high and rewriting is the self-hating hangover.) As a journalist and blogger, I don’t get a dream state to call my own; I’m just sawing planks and hammering them together as best I can. For me, the pleasure I get as a writer usually comes before and after the writing itself. There’s a sort of mental tickle I feel when I’ve identified something I really want to write about, or (more precisely) when I’ve identified a way into something I really want to write about, and there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes from having gotten the thing written as closely as possible to the way in which I’ve imagined it. In between is the writing, which is neither fun nor un-fun, just work—writing and rewriting, adding and pruning, etc, in an effort to hang on to that early sense of excitement and drive toward that final sense of accomplishment. A post I recently wrote on Andrew Holleran’s novel Grief would be a pretty good example of that process—I spent more time than I’m willing to admit trying to work my way into that book, but I was happy to have identified what I wanted to say, and I’m happy to have said it.
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