Mark Foss is the author of the short-story collection Kissing the Damned and the novel Spoilers. His new novel Molly O (Cormorant Books, 2016) follows Montreal film professor Little Joe’s obsessive search for his missing sister Candy, who may or may not be Molly O, the lead in a series of erotically charged silent, experimental films. When a death sets the stage for reconnecting with his brother Hoss and his father Joseph at the family homestead, Little Joe must relive the rural auctions and wastelands of his past to get to the truth about Candy. Brad de Roo got some cinematic answers from Mark for carte blanche this May.
The process of waiting is a major conceit in Molly O. What about waiting is narratively attractive? Is there something about waiting that is essential to human experience?
When I think of waiting, I think first of Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir waiting endlessly for Godot. Everything I need to know about the human experience of waiting is embodied in that play. Hope, despair, confusion, existential paralysis. Although for Molly O, I was probably more influenced by Charles Schulz’s It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I thought about Linus waiting in the pumpkin patch all night while I was writing about Little Joe sitting on the flat rock in the back field waiting for a sign from Candy, his long-lost sister. Like Linus, he never gives up hope.
LJ is anticipating Candy more than waiting for her. He is not passive. He plans, schemes, dreams and looks for signs. He is convinced his blog will be the catalyst that brings her home. This waiting, or anticipating, allows for irony when the water-tight arguments in his head spring a leak.
LJ’s process of waiting strikes me as comparable to the waiting that is often central to making art. How do you process such waiting? Did you ever think of your book as a kind of Candy?
Writing can involve waiting — not necessarily for “inspiration”, but maybe for the moment when the characters are so fully formed that they take possession of the book, and the writer’s choices become easier to make. There’s also waiting for time itself to allow space for writing. Writers have some control over this part of the process. Once you reach out to agents or publishers, the waiting becomes more passive and anguished. Especially because it’s so often connected to silence. It’s like the uncles and aunts in Molly O looking into the face of the mute newborn and finding a blank slate on which to project their worst fears. The character of Candy also has an elusive and enigmatic quality that could be likened to the writing process, too. Any moment she might walk in the door. Any moment the right word may jump out of nowhere onto the screen.
Disappearances haunt your book. Have any historical or literary disappearances influenced your treatment of disappearance? Do you share any of your narrator Little Joe’s obsession with a particular unexplained disappearance, or unexplained disappearances, in general?
For years I had heard about the Polish writer Bruno Schulz who was shot by the Gestapo during the Second World War. He had published two collections of stories in his lifetime, but there is a mysterious manuscript — a novel called The Messiah — that has never been found. I had read novels by Cynthia Ozick and David Grossman who both imagine in their own ways what might have become of the lost novel. I looked for Schulz’s work for quite a while. I probably could have ordered The Street of Crocodiles on-line, but I like to stumble on books. When I finally found it at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, I felt, in a strange way, as if I had found the lost manuscript. Schulz’s writing is dreamlike, whimsical, and dark, and it passes freely between realism and the fantastic.
Was such a find at all disappointing?
Shakespeare and Company has an aura around it for its association with writers — from James Baldwin and Langston Hughes to Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, and more recently with authors like Paul Auster, Lydia Davis and Dave Eggers. It’s housed in a 17th century building, and you can almost feel the history — the time embedded — in the dark wood. There are lots of nooks and crannies, and strange alcoves. I spotted several copies of the Bruno Schulz book in a Penguin Classics edition along the wall of the stairs that heads to the second floor. It’s a one-way staircase, and heavily used so I couldn’t bask in my find too long. When the long search ends for something or someone, there can definitely be a sense of loss. Is this all there is! It would have been more romantic to stumble on a single copy of an out of print edition. Luckily, there’s always a new dream and a new obsession around the corner.
Film, television, and music references provide many of your characters’ names and are deeply linked to their development. Are such references the stuff of modern allegory?
Yes, the three siblings are named after characters on the old TV western Bonanza — Hoss, LJ, and Candy. I wanted the brothers to have nicknames because this supposes a level of intimacy that they don’t actually have.
Few of the characters are willing, or able, to communicate directly. They use television and music as a proxy for intimacy or even self-awareness. Despite all of Hoss’s spiritual retreats, for instance, he sees his life through the lens of progressive rock. Candy, who can’t or won’t speak, re-imagines sexist television commercials to find her power. LJ, the film prof, obviously sees the world mostly through film. But this is an easy out for him. It allows him to reenact a scene from a Tarkovsky film rather than risk sharing his feelings with Candy’s best friend.
A lot of the cultural references, both real and apocryphal, appear in the blog entries. Ostensibly, LJ is analyzing the films of Molly O, but really, he’s sending an oblique message to Candy. “I know you’re Molly O. It’s time to come home.”
LJ’s blog entries on Molly O’s films often provide an analytic interruption of the narrative. What about this form appealed to you? Are you a devoted blogger or blog-reader?
My first novel, Spoilers, uses ironic factoids to comment on the story and expand it. In Molly O, the blog entries allow for an ironic space to develop between the analysis of Professor Joseph Grant, Jr., PhD of the long-lost Molly O and the obsessive search of Little Joe for the long-lost Candy. Even as the evidence mounts that Candy and Molly O are the same person, the fragmentation between, say, the “rigorous professor” and the “bereaved brother” seems to grow until the moment when those two halves come together and force a crisis.
Film is especially central, and silent film even more so. How has your knowledge of film shaped how you write? What can a novel do that a film cannot?
Film offers great lessons for constructing a scene through point of view, and revealing character through the visual. LJ lives in his head most of the time so it’s important that he has something concrete to do.
Early in the novel, LJ says that time and space are the most difficult concepts to master in film. We’ve come to accept the conventions that mark time and space in film. We no longer need the pages of a calendar flapping in the wind. But time and space are still much easier to convey in a novel. In Molly O, time and space are sometimes elastic. Does it take hours or minutes for LJ to reach the flat rock in the field behind the house?
There is a wonderful scene in Steve McQueen’s film Hunger, about the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands. A janitor is washing the floor outside the prison cells. In another film, the scene might last a few seconds. In Hunger, the janitor starts at one end and slowly makes his way toward us. The scene seems to last forever, which I think is the point. It shows how time passes slowly in a prison. Which also speaks to your question about “waiting”. I have heard that short-term prisoners believe that “lifers” — those serving a life sentence without parole — live in a kind of suspended time, unable to produce children if they are ever released. They think that waiting literally drains lifers of their vitality.
Does writing ever feel like you are self-imposing this sort of suspended time?
In Crime Wave, by Winnipeg filmmaker John Paizs, a would-be screenwriter waits for the hum of the street lamp outside his window each night to jumpstart his creative juices. He sits at his typewriter in suspended time, and so it’s the act of writing that allows him to enter time. Unlike a prisoner in the middle of a life sentence, writers have the luxury of choosing whether to stay or go, and how they will approach their relationship with time.
Have any of your concerns here been influenced by modern experiments in silent film? Guy Maddin, for example?
I am more influenced by Stephen Dwoskin, an American experimental filmmaker who lived and worked in Britain. He lived with polio from the age of nine, and much of his work focuses on the limits of the body and questions of voyeurism. I made LJ a specialist in Dwoskin’s work. Maya Deren, who made experimental films in the 1940s and 50s, was another inspiration.
In your book experimental films must be actively preserved, so they are not forgotten. Do you think experiments in fiction call for the same preserving vigilance? Is experimentalism alive and kicking; or are the market forces just too drastically limiting?
Publishing is such a big tent now. Self-publishing, although the writer is judge and jury, doesn’t have the same stigma, and it’s technically easier than ever. Whether those books are more experimental or conventional bodice rippers is hard to say. There will always be writers more concerned with challenging convention than selling a product.
There is a subtext of familial sexuality in the book, of an incestuous male gaze. Was it a challenge to establish this precarious tone? Does a culture of objectifying women in art, religion etc. start at home?
At some point during my studies in film, I — ahem — went to a bachelor party at a strip club. The next day I saw one of the dancers through the window of a Laundromat washing her clothes. She was not aware that I was watching her. I asked myself: in which situation does this woman have more power?
From an early age, Candy takes power from men, both her father and her brothers. Silence is her first tool, but she quickly learns to challenge conventional depictions of women, and to subvert men’s gaze.
The actress Molly O has any number of strategies she uses to comment on, and deflect, male desire. LJ says he has no creepy thoughts about his sister, but that it’s hard not to be a little in love with Molly O. I suspect his love is based on admiration for her films rather than on carnal desire. LJ can’t decide sometimes who he wants to see more — his dead mother or his missing sister.
How does Candy’s muteness complicate characters’ readings of her gender?
Candy was supposed to have been born a boy. As a girl, and a silent girl at that, she is not expected to become an auctioneer. Yet she ends up becoming the main attraction. All of her characters on the stage — whether TV or movie stars — are women. She does have an androgynous name and at times plays with the androgyny of Marlene Dietrich. Maybe all that would have passed as eccentricity if she had spoken, but her silence disarms and infuriates. Her family, her peers, the teachers, the auction goers, they all project onto her, trying to figure her out. Unlike girls who are shushed into silence, Candy enters her mute state genetically, willingly or both. This extreme state is not how girls are supposed to behave, and it becomes her power. She can even withstand the power of Joseph’s chant where others fall sway.
Her father Joseph’s auctioneering prowess seems a contrasting trope…
Yes, and apart from Joseph and his hypnotic auctioneer chant and Candy’s silence, Candy’s friend Rox has a deep voice whose vibrations can throw LJ off the bed, Hoss’s voice is squeaky and high because his voice never broke, and LJ’s voice seems fragmented between his analytical self and his identity as a grieving brother.
Does writing ever feel like auctioneering; or is it more akin to playing a role in a silent film?
Milan Kundera talks about “small immortality” as the memory that lasts one or two generations and “great immortality” that can come through art that endures. So maybe writers aren’t auctioneers so much as the crowd in front trying to get the high bid.
Were this interview an exercise in experimental cinema, how would you end?
An image of an auctioneer’s gavel crashing down over and over to signal closure mixed with the bang-bang sound of The Beatles’ psychopathic medical student in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to suggest it never ends.