Mark Jordan Manner
As part of Canisia Lubrin’s (Dis)Order: The Single Question Series, Mark Jordan Manner answers a single question about his work.
Q: Writing converges different forms of knowing in ways that allow for the possibilities of knowledge to become particularly expansive because this seems to require listening for what is unknown to us. There exists a vitality that moves a thing from language to idea to fully-realized act. We mostly call such a thing vision, which implies form—whether poetry, fiction, stage play, etc.—and an amalgamation of copious other factors. What does this convergence mean for you as a novelist—particularly in the context of your first novel Most Perfect Things About People?
I don’t think my brain can help but oversimplify what’s probably a very complicated and abstract practice, but I look at writing no differently than anything else in my day-to-day. It’s something I enjoy doing, like how I enjoy playing with my cat, or eating poutine, or going on trips with my girlfriend, or fiddling on an acoustic guitar. The act of writing is not something I analyze or romanticize. I wouldn’t describe it as ethereal, crucial, or therapeutic. It’s fun. And when it stops being fun I will stop.
I’d compare the process of writing the book to playing with my action figures in the sandbox as a kid. You’re making things up as you go—characters and relationships and dialogue and action. And you are influenced, sometimes unknowingly, by all the things you’ve already read, heard, and seen, up to that point. You are creating your own version of pre-existing material that has likely moved you in some way. Like watching Han Solo get lowered into carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s scary, and sad, and you find your eight-year-old self dunking your favourite toy in a plastic cup of oatmeal, and ruining it, so your other toys will have something to avenge.
Most Perfect Things About People is a polyphonic novel, told from the perspectives of 23 characters, who range in age, sex, race, religion, class, and diction. I wrote the chapters about the young males first—kids, teenagers, twenty-somethings—because I knew what it was to be those things, so figured they’d be the easier stories to tell. And they were. Less research required, less of an effort in exorcising creative empathy.
As I expanded the cast of characters, and started writing from viewpoints other than those of young men, the process slowed and chapters took longer to complete, as more consideration was required in attempting to make the prose feel as true as possible. But despite speed bumps, writing remained relatively fresh and still felt fun, because I made sure to tackle only the material I felt truly interested in broadening my knowledge of.
Example: while writing the book, I stumbled upon a job posting for a company in need of worm pickers. I researched what worm picking was and thought it sounded weird and hilarious, so I contacted the employer, and got the job. But then my parents were like, “Don’t do stupid things just because you think it’s funny.” I wrote about it instead. I got to experience a night in the rain on a soybean field picking worms with a group of friendly Vietnamese folk, and it was a good time. And I know that sounds lame as hell. But it’s the reason I write, and why I think the book ended up taking the messy form it did.
The act of writing is not something I analyze or romanticize. I wouldn’t describe it as ethereal, crucial, or therapeutic. It’s fun. And when it stops being fun I will stop.
The polyphonic novel gave me an excuse to be scatterbrained as a writer, and allowed more freedom in pursuing random topics and types of characters. When I became interested in obsessive Kijiji dealers, I wrote about them. When I went through a phase of watching too many movies about bumbling criminals, I looked up true stories of petty thieves, then invented one of my own. And the book became a reason to learn more about my family as well. My brother was working on the grounds crew for the Blue Jays at the time; I was interested in what that entailed, so I talked to him and turned it into a chapter. I talked to my mom about her father’s experience in the Japanese internment camps as well, and my dad about his father’s memories of WWII and the Holocaust. I lifted surface details from their stories and tried to place them in an order that gave new meaning and light to the themes of the book.
I don’t believe in writer’s block because I only write about things I’m interested in, and there are endless things that seem interesting to me. It’s the one recreation in life I feel in total control of, and Most Perfect Things About People is the result of everything I know, and interpret, and feel invested in.
One of my teachers during undergrad said something along the lines of, “When you write your first book, what’s important is to give the reader a clear understanding of your own unique world view.” I wrote the first draft of Most Perfect Things About People when I was 25. I think the prose is a bit untidy and dramatic and wide-eyed and moody the way I was then, a representation of how I saw the world at that time. I tried to write the book as honestly as possible and asked myself regularly, “Assuming no one else will ever read this, would you still be writing it?” And as long as the answer was yes, I kept going. And so far, as I continue to write new stories, new books, the answer’s yet to be no.
My next novel will probably be much different, but my approach will hopefully remain the same. I’ll always try to look at writing in the most plain and literal way possible, as something I simply do when I’m not doing other things. Because I find it pleasurable, but no different or any more mysterious to me than playing with toys ever was.
Mark Jordan Manner lives in Toronto.