Peter Markus is the author of “What the River Told Us To Do,” a short story that appears in Fiction Gallery, an anthology of short fiction created by Gotham Writers’ Workshop. The story first appeared in Quarterly West magazine and is also included in Markus’s new story collection The Singing Fish.
“What The River Told Us To Do” is a very short tale about two brothers who are reluctant to leave the muddy, dirty place in which they live. It’s safe to say that the story is unlike any other work you’re likely to read, unless it happens to be another story by Peter Markus.
Markus holds a unique place in contemporary fiction, expressed by one literary magazine like so: “An author who nobody’s heard of but nevertheless has attained a kind of cult status despite the fact that neither his editors nor his groupies can spell his name right.”
We couldn’t resist the chance to ask this elusive cult figure a few questions.
GWW: Anyone who reads a few of your stories will notice that you have a fixation on certain words. Chief among these—brother, river, fish, and, especially, mud. What’s the deal with these words?
MARKUS: Everything for me begins with the word, in some cases a single word, and most often it is the sound of that word that sets me off into the sentence-making process. The words that you cite in your question are, as you might suspect, words in the language that I love. I love the way they sound when I say them, when they lift up from my tongue; I love the way they look when I look at them; I love the way they taste, and smell, and feel when I run my hands across them. How can a word taste, smell, feel? It just can. It just does. At least for me. And that’s where it all begins: in that sensory place where pleasure meets up with the desire to make something out of nothing: to make love. To make something that didn’t exist until the force of my sentences called it forth. These stories that I write with these words that I love, they are to me love stories. I’m not sure if anybody else views them this way, but I do, and I suppose that’s why I brought them into this world in the first place.
GWW: Your fiction is unusual in a variety of ways. Your short stories are very short, most of them running less than two pages. Most of your stories, if not all, consist of one extremely long paragraph that contains only a handful of serpentine sentences. And here’s the really strange part. Most of your stories, if not all, seem to be telling the same stories over and over, just looking at them from slightly different angles. And yet, the result is mesmerizing. Can you try to explain what you’re doing with your fiction?
MARKUS: I’m not gonna go at this question with that old metafictionist’s complaint that “all stories have been told.” Though I will say that I am doing my best to do something new on the page, to make for the reader a reading experience that they’ve never experienced before. And I’ve been told by more than a few readers that they’ve never seen stories quite like mine, which of course pleases me to no end.
But to answer your question which is asking about how I seem to be returning time and time again to the same story, especially to the same story ending, I guess what’s going on can best be explained like this. When I wrote the title story of “Good, Brother,” which is then retold later in the story “What the River Told Us to Do,” when I reached that scene at the end of the story with the hammer and the nails, I of course didn’t set out to end the story—these stories—this way. I knew that the brothers had to do something, they had to find some act of defiance to show, to prove, to themselves, how much they loved the dirty river town that was and would always be for them home. The fish-headed telephone pole was simply an image that appeared early on in the story, the one strong visual detail that, as the writer, I could see and be held by. I was anchored by that pole, with the fish heads nailed to it, a sort of totem pole that was sticking up from the center of this world. I suppose that, on some level, I knew that something important and perhaps even sublime would take place around or underneath that pole. And as I worked through towards the story’s end, the pole just sort of called the brothers and me to come to it. The fish heads were singing out to us brothers (myself included). I can tell you that I myself was quite surprised by what the brothers end up doing at the end. Did I gasp when I wrote that scene? I doubt it. Did I grin when I got to the closing lines?You’re damn right I did! I’m pretty sure I was very pleased with myself. I knew that I had gotten down to that place where the story needed to be taken to. ‘This is the way a story ought to end’ was what I was likely thinking, or at least feeling. It’s like what Henry Miller says in Tropic of Cancer, “If you start with the drums you have to end with dynamite, or TNT.” This story was the closest I had ever come to ending with TNT.
Personally I love to hear stories, the same stories, told over and over. I suppose I find comfort in the repetition. I don’t mean to get religious on you here, but as a boy I sometimes used to go—I used to get taken—to a Greek Orthodox church where the mass was said—no, it was more like it was sung— in Greek. The sounds of this strange language, the smoke of the incense, the paintings on the domed ceiling of angels, the images of saints standing trapped in stained glass, this was an incredibly mystical experience for me. What I discovered early on was that God was mostly just a sound. He was a language that I did not understand, one that I could not decipher, one that I could not speak. The whole business of God and religion was completely mysterious to me. I got none of the shame or guilt trips that end up turning most people away from God. And in that whole experience of going into a place that was completely foreign to me, there was one thing, a story, that held me, year after year, and it was the same story: the story, and of course the image, of Christ up on the cross. I would read that story, over and over again, every time that I’d go to church and sit down in the pew, I’d return to that story. And each time that I did, it was like I was reading it for the first time. I can’t explain it, really. I can’t really explain any of this, which I guess is okay by me. I’d rather, in the end, that it all, that all stories, remain a mystery.
GWW: You’re a likable fellow and a gentle soul, and yet most of your stories culminate with an act that is shockingly violent or horrifying. The ending, for example, of “What the River Told Us to Do” has been known to make readers gasp. Do you ever find that readers are disturbed by your work? And, if so, is that the desired effect?
MARKUS: I’m pleased to hear that you find me to be likeable. I like being liked. And of course like all writers I would like my stories to be as well-liked as me. Personally I find nothing disturbing about my work. I certainly don’t set out to disturb or shock. The apparent violence in my stories is softened, I think, by the fact that in this world that I’m conjuring up, these acts of violence (what some have called a crucifixion) lead the characters (the two brothers) into a world that is a sort of muddy-rivered neverland where miracles are known to occur. When was the last time you read a story about two boys who can walk on water, or who make out of the mud a girl for them to be boys to? I’ve seen the looks and I’ve heard the gasps that you’re referring to, but even when a boy’s head gets chopped off in one story, or when a boy drowns the first time he tries to walk across the river, the head grows back, the boy eventually walks back upriver, undrowned. In other words, if I had to say it, there is a resurrection of sorts going on in these stories that is made possible by the violence. Does that sound reasonable? To tell you the honest-to-goodness truth, I don’t know what’s going on in my own work. Perhaps I’m a disturbed fellow underneath that likeably shiny surface. If, as I tell my students, anything is possible in a piece of fiction, then it is certainly possible that, as a writer of fiction, as a man of words, I am working out some sort of Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde tension through the stories that I am telling.
I guess to get to the skinny of the question, maybe what’s at the heart of the whole Peter Markus the father, the good man, the lovable brother, etc., and Peter Markus the monster of a man on the page (I’m grinning as I say this), is that the page allows me to become other than what or who I am when I’m not on the page making a world that is wholly the world as I choose to make it. That seems to make perfect sense with what I often hear myself say to my students: that fiction’s aim is to displace the given with the made. I can’t help it that I’m a likable fellow. Maybe in my heart of hearts I secretly wish that I was born with more violent and/or disturbing tendencies. Perhaps on the page is that one safe and sacred place where this other side of me gets to be unleashed.
GWW: Let’s say you decide to take a break from writing short stories about mud and go for the big money writing a best-selling detective novel. What would it be about?
MARKUS: Funny you should ask this, because I recently finished work on a detective novel that I’m calling BOB, which is a story about a man, named Bob, who lives on a boat on a river and is fishing— not unlike a fish detective—for a fish. I guess the book is detective-like in that this man Bob is fishing for one particular fish—not just a particular species of fish, but one particular, singular fish—not unlike the way the protagonist in a detective novel might be trying to solve one particular mystery or one specific crime or whatever it is that a detective-novel protagonist is likely to do in a detective novel book. But in BOB the narrator, also named Bob, has as his core desire the desire to get to know fisherman Bob because this Bob who lives on a boat on a river is this other Bob’s—narrator Bob’s—father. That’s just the basic story of this closest-to-a-detective novel that I might ever sit down to write.
What interested me most about writing this particular story was the rhythmic shape of the narrative. Unlike my stories about the brothers, which as you pointed out in your first question are written in one long sweeping serpentine paragraphs that often end with either a hammer or a knife being raised back into the air, this new book is made up of mostly paragraphs that are, on average, one or two sentences long (or short). It’s a much quicker-paced read, not quite so dense, more white space, much easier, I’d say, on the reader’s eye. (Not that I write with my eye on the reader!). And though I know less about the conventions of plot than I do about the musicality of a sentence, this book is, in my view, very much a plot-driven book. But will this book—if it ever becomes a book—get me the big advance? Here again, this is a question that I think I know the answer to, though I’m willing to let it remain unanswered, and mysterious, and swabbed with possibility.