An Interview with Mark Lyons

By Fran Metzman

Fran Metzman: When and why did you start writing?

Mark Lyons: I was fifty-two when I began to write. It all started in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks where I was camping with my wife and two kids. As I watched my son Jess, then fourteen and full of his lanky self and Kool Aid-colored orange hair, scamper over the rocks then hunker down by the fire with A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, I thought about my fourteenth year—the year our Southern California suburban family fell off its foundation and my mother made her first of many trips to mental institutions. All I could remember of that year was loss, rage, escape plans, being alone in the world. Nothing else? So while hiking Algonquin peak with the kids I began a catalog of my fourteenth year, and reclaimed events and friends and safe places I went to that had long been lost. I wrote those memories on a napkin, and when I returned home began to write it all down. Eventually I turned to fiction, where I could explore other people’s voices and lives, and where it was imperative to make up things.

FM: Can you talk about the title of your collection of short stories published by the Wild River Books, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines?

ML: Many years ago, while traveling in New Mexico, I discovered Descansos—Spanish for resting places—those shrines built along roads and highways where someone has died. I always felt unsettled by those shrines as I zoomed by them in my car, knowing there were stories of loss and sadness buried beneath them. But occasionally I would stop by a shrine, and noticed how it was kept up year after year. Flowers were replaced and planted, the grass was mowed, plaster and bricks were whitewashed, water was left for visitors. So I began to see how shrines bind the leaver and the left, that they hold the stories that brought them together. Finally, I saw the shrines as celebrations, ways we keep memories alive, meditations on our place in the world. Shrines are the thread that runs through all of the stories in Brief Eulogies. Some are concrete, such as a cross made of hub caps or a totem pole on top of a high-tension electrical tower or a whirligig cleaved in half with a hatchet; some are metaphorical, such as the imprint of an owl wing in the snow, or a jukebox in a diner.

FM: Much of your work is about people who live on the margins—immigrants, vets with PTSD, snake-handling preachers, denizens of a dead-end hospital ward, hobos, a wall painter in a Mexican village, a loner in a 3:00 a.m. diner. Your stories seem very personal, as if you know the people you write about and want to introduce them to your readers. What are the seeds of your stories, what experiences have you had that help you make your characters seem so real?

ML: By the time I began to write, I’d been around a bit: working in an end-of-the-line ward in a county hospital, living in a Black community in the South and doing civil rights work, working with migrant farmworkers, organizing against the war in Vietnam and refusing induction into the military, teaching inner-city high school kids, living on a farm on Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier, getting a fair share of hitchhiking under my belt, being a health provider in a poor Latino community, working with undocumented immigrants whose families are being torn apart by deportations. Many of these experiences stretched me beyond the boundaries where I grew up, kept me off balance, made me look at the world with big eyes the way you do when you’re a traveler in a foreign country. They also introduced me to poor southern whites and Blacks, hobos, immigrants who risked everything to get across the Arizona desert and find a job, farmworkers who followed the same migratory path as birds to harvest the food we eat, veterans trying to survive being home, women who finally could talk about being beaten.  I lived and worked in their communities, we shared meals. “Tell me your story,” I said; and they did. They taught me to see the world differently, through their eyes, a gift. These people, and their stories, have haunted me. So I had to write them down, to turn the seeds they gave me into fiction.

FM: Most of your short stories are in first person, and each voice is distinctive and reveals much about the narrator, without creating stereotypes. How do you unlock so many voices, as well as your own?

ML: A confession: I hear voices. When I began to write I realized I had been recording voices in my head, collecting them and storying them away. The way I remember people—friends, strangers I meet, people on a bus, people I have lived and worked with —is first by their voice: tone, inflection, bend of a vowel, rambling, pitch, pauses, pulses, silences. Their voice is an essential element of their story. When I remember them, I hear them as much as I see them. Many of my stories begin with a voice, around which I create a character, then build a space for the character to tell his or her own story. By writing in first person, I allow my characters to speak for themselves--in a sense I feel that my job is to get out of the way, not interrupt. Writing in first person makes me go more deeply into the characters in my stories—what would they say? How would they say it? How do their voices reveal who they are, where they are from, their station in life, what they feel? For me, creating a story, finding its arc, comes more easily than finding the right voice. Much of the fine tuning I do when I edit focuses on the voice.

FM: Can you tell me about the work you do as director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project?

ML: When I worked with migrant farmworkers for eight years, I heard remarkable stories of risks taken, survival, sacrifice, dreams deferred and achieved, and hostility in a foreign land that depended on their labor to harvest food, yet resented the presence of their foreign language and culture. The stories I heard in the fields and camps where I worked were not the stories being told by the larger communities that wanted immigrants deported because they were illegal. I wrote a bilingual book of oral histories of those farmworkers, called Espejos y Ventanas, Mirrors and Windows—a way for immigrants to tell their own story, to have a voice in the great debate about immigration that has consumed our country. However, I was somewhat frustrated by the medium of print, felt it created a gap between the storytellers—who see the world much more through an oral tradition rather than the written word—and the larger community. So I founded the Philadelphia Storytelling Project with Manuel Portillo, who had fled the civil war in Guatemala, and began to work with immigrant communities to create audio stories about their lives. I work primarily with storytelling circles, in which the participants determine the content of their stories, decide what questions will be asked to explore themes, and sometimes interview each other, sometimes learn the technology to edit and mix their own stories. Creating and listening to their own stories together builds community and a space for immigrants to reflect on their place in the world—the risks they have taken, the dreams they have, the need to support each other. The stories are also shared with the larger community—they give immigrants a voice. I have also done similar work with homeless veterans and high school youth.

FM: Your work is seamless. Where did you learn the structure of writing?

ML: It is much easier for me to find voice and build character than to develop plot. That’s why I gravitate to short stories—I can’t imagine how writers write novels. The structure of my fiction—the arc of the story, where it begins and ends up, is really dictated by the character. I never know where the story is going when I begin. So, I almost always hear a voice, create a character who has that voice, put the character in a place, and let him or her take over. I feel as if the character is building the story—why is she there? Has he lost something? Is she looking for resolution? What is he surviving? I don’t mean this to sound hokie, but in a sense I let the narrator be my guide. Of course there are unfulfilling paths and dead ends, returning to the main road of the story, false starts and unsatisfying endings. It almost feels as if I am in a dialogue with the primary character: Really? That’s good. That would never happen. Let’s go back to this turning point and try another route. Would you use this word or phrase? No way. I also spend many hours over many visits with my characters—on one eighteen page story, I opened the file to write and edit 484 times.

FM:  I’d like to ask you about the memoir you’re working on right now, called Homing. The excerpts I’ve read are brutally honest. How do you feel about exposing the traumatic aspects of your life?

ML: Homing is about my fourteenth year, the year of my mother’s irreparable mental breakdown, which broke our family as well. I began to write it twenty years ago, then put it down for fifteen years. I’ve picked it up with a different perspective, trying to understand that experience through my mother’s eyes as well my fourteen year old eyes. The first round of Homing was in a sense reclaiming my childhood, like Humpty Dumpty, putting fourteen year old Mark together again. The second round of writing, over the last five years, has been a reflection on whom I have become, how I ultimately did not share my mother’s sad fate.

FM: How does your family feel about their secrets being exposed?

ML: The two most important family players in my memoir are my mother and father, who have long been dead. I think that if they had only read the first round of my memoir, written twenty years ago, they would have felt that I had been unfair, only focusing on the destruction caused by my mother’s illness. I think that after reading the second round, they would have felt that I had come to understand how complicated and rich our family had been, how remarkable my mother had been before she was brought to her knees by her illness, and understood my lamentation for all that was lost--that in a sense it was a family tragedy, not just mine. I think, ultimately, I have been fair to them.

FM: Yes, it has taken you a long time to write your memoir, understandably. Do you feel it has been somewhat healing?

ML: Yes, although I would not use the word healing to describe the process of writing Homing—I think I would use the word restorative.

FM: What other projects are you working on? Will you continue to write short stories?

ML: I’m doing a long oral history with a young Guatemalan woman who when fourteen decided she was going to make a better life for herself and set out for the United States alone. After riding on tops of boxcars and being robbed by narcos in Mexico, she was caught at the US border, spent time in detention centers, and finally is living with a foster family in Philadelphia. She reminds me of the power of stories to move people. Of course, I will write more short stories.

A Note of Thanks from Mark: In the spring of 2003, the Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts published one of my earliest Brief Eulogies stories, “Arnold’s Roadside Café,” then nominated the story for the Pushcart Prize. Fran Metzman and Joy Stocke were fiction editors then, and Fran keeps on editing the Journal and supporting the work of fellow writers. Peter Krok was editor of SVJ then, and still is. Joy joined Kim Nagy to found Wild River Books, which published Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines. This is a small, rich world of writers, editors and publishers, and I never take for granted how fortunate I am to be part of it.