The Visiting Writers Series of the department of English will host acclaimed writer Mark Richard next week for two public readings of his work. Richard has authored two award-winning short story collections, “The Ice at the Bottom of the World” and “Charity.” Also a journalist and screenwriter, he has corresponded for the BBC and written various screenplays for television and film, including the Emmy-winning series “Huff” and the AMC series “Hell on Wheels.”
~ Compiled by Ramona Tausz
When did you begin writing?
I think I wrote my first short story in second grade — “The Ancient Castle.” It’s not great, but it’s not too bad, and I see a little bit of my later style in the last sentence of the story. So second grade I began to write short stories, and then I really began to write in earnest in high school. I had great teachers who encouraged me to write all along the way.
At what point did you first consider making a career of writing?
I think I was driving home from college, Christmas break. I was failing a lot of classes, and I was failing out of pre-law, and the only class I was getting A’s in was creative writing. So when I went back to school after Christmas break I switched my major to journalism; I figured that in creative writing you couldn’t make a living, but maybe in journalism you could.
How did you transition from journalism to fiction writing?
I think that journalism sharpened my eye to become a fiction writer. There’s an old saying: “a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.” I think when you’re trying to record a story (especially since I was writing features), you look for the details of the story. Journalism creates an awareness of the world that is really crucial to a fiction writer, I think.
At the same time that I was a journalist and writing for a newspaper, I was beginning to write short stories and send them to magazines in New York, so I was sort of doing both at the same time. I would see things while I was reporting — stories that weren’t news stories. There were stories about people that if you just tweaked them a certain way, you could really have a Flannery O’Connor short story.
I think that you always want to manipulate events so that they create a story, and you weren’t able to do that in journalism. You just had to kind of report on what was. In fiction you can sort of record what could be. So I was reporting on people and then turning them a little bit into other characters and sending those stories to New York — Esquire magazine in particular.
How do you navigate the two distinct styles?
It’s not an either/or proposition. Like I said before, the skills I was holding in journalism were exactly the skills that I needed for fiction writing — developing my eye.
I always say that one of the best things I learned in journalism was not to be precious about your writing. When you write journalism, you hand your story off to an editor and they’re going to chop it up, cut it up, edit it, do what they need to do to make it fit into the paper, and it may not be what you wrote in the end at all. But because you can’t be precious you can also be playful.
I think that you have to be able to have a sense of playfulness and not be afraid of the failure. Failure is going to come, the rejection is going to come, but you can’t be fearful of it. You have to be fearless in your work, and if you’re fearless you can be playful. One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older as a writer is that you must keep the sense of play in your work, even if it’s journalism and especially if it’s fiction.
During your visit, you will give a reading from “House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home,” a memoir that traces your development as a writer and your growing-up in the South as a child struggling with hip failure. How does your experience of the American South appear in the work?
I think that I was a kid in the South during one of its greatest upheavals: the beginning transition during the civil rights era. When I was a kid, the civil rights movement had not reached my corner of the universe. But during my childhood, race relations were at a boil, and informed all the years that I was growing up with integration and racial violence.
At the same time I was in and out of children’s hospitals in which the patients were either poor inner-city black kids or white kids from Appalachia, so I was seeing first-hand humanity. Especially in terms of the black people, these were not demons — they were demonized. I was living with them for years and seeing the suffering on the physical level that they were going through in these hospitals. And, I think that informed the way I feel about people all being the same. Suffering is a great common denominator, and a great leveler — as is poverty.
How did you get into screenwriting?
A former student of mine at the University of Mississippi was a script supervisor in Hollywood, and she moved to Los
Angeles. Coincidentally, my wife and I moved to Los Angeles and I kept in touch with the script supervisor. It turns out she was a script supervisor for a director named Robert Altman, who was very famous. She introduced me to Altman, who had read my short stories, and he said “The Ice at the Bottom of the World” would make a great film. So I went to the library and checked out some books on screenwriting and got some scripts and watched the movies while I was reading the script and taught myself how to write a screenplay. So I turned that in to Robert Altman. Unfortunately, he died, but an agent had heard about it, and suddenly I had an agent, and then the agent took the script and started sending it around as a writing sample. I got a call from the producers of an old show called “Party of Five,” and they asked me to come be on the writing staff. So suddenly I was on a television show.
It’s been a bumpy ride, we’ve had ups and downs and feasts and famines. I made a film, we had a writers’ strike, I’ve been broke several times, but after a while you get a little traction. Knock wood, we’ll be OK.
You just wrapped up four years of writing and producing “Hell on Wheels,” a television series about the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. What do you enjoy about writing for television?
The “Hell on Wheels” experience was great — we were shooting in Calgary, which was a great double for the plains of America. I enjoy it because as a writer, it was very satisfying to hear the actors speak the words that you spoke for them. I started out in Hollywood in feature film, and the feature film industry is pretty dead for writers. It’s mostly cartoon movies, or franchise movies, or superheroes — there’s not a lot of real drama in movie houses. Most of the drama today is to be found on cable and premium cable. So I was happy to find a home working on the railroad for four years, and I worked with fantastic actors, including the lead actor who plays Cullen Bohannon. He’s a young actor named Anson Mount, and he was an undergrad at Sewannee when I was the Tennessee Williams Fellow there — so I remember him when he was running around in the drama department there. It was really fun.
What are the unique challenges of writing for specific television characters?
In the case of “Hell on Wheels,” I was blessed to be working with Anson Mount. Anson is from Tennessee, and I’m from the South, and I knew Anson personally, so I knew his cadences of speech, I knew the character that he was trying to build as the writers were trying to build the character together with him. I remember one time, Anson and I were sitting at the monitors waiting for something to be set up, and he said, “You know, we have a Holy Trinity.” I said, “I don’t know what you mean by that.” He said, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” What he meant was, that I’m the father, he was the son, and the ghost was the character that we’d developed together.