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The Novel Painter: A Playboy Conversation with Mark Leyner

The Novel Painter: A Playboy Conversation with Mark Leyner: Photo via Mark Leyner / Facebook

Photo via Mark Leyner / Facebook

There’s something you need to know about Mark Leyner. He doesn’t give a shit about David Foster Wallace. Another thing you need to know: he once wrote about an all-powerful god who used Lenin’s corpse as an anal sex toy to please a woman. And he’s not apologizing for any of it. There’s one other thing you need to know about Mark Leyner. He’s the best writer you’ve probably yet read.

The high octane-brain of Leyner has, thus far, produced a handful of novels: Et Tu Babe, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, and The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack. He’s the co-author of the humorous, non-fiction books Why Do Men Have Nipples? and Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex? He also wrote the script for John Cusack’s underappreciated film, War Inc.

Leyner’s writing is peerless. His sentences are like little amusement parks of syntax. He reinvents the novel every time he publishes one. The man is his own genre. If you were to ask a librarian or bookseller what type of novels he writes, they’d tell you he writes Mark Leyner Books.

Leyner sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Playboy to discuss his new novel, Gone With the Mind. He talked about how you can have an honest relationship with yourself and the world; he confronted the idea of lumbersexuals and what they mean for modern masculinity; he considered the symbolic power of an unseen penis. He explains why good feedback is better than the best advice. And just in time for the new movie about the late writer, Leyner explains why he doesn’t give AF about David Foster Wallace or the fact that the novelist was jealous of Leyner’s work.


Photo via Amazon

Photo via Amazon

When it gave you the Terry Southern award for “humor, wit and sprezzatura,” The Paris Review published a brand new story of yours. Is it an excerpt from your new book?
It’s a little unusual for me to show people pieces from something I’m working on. Certainly with my last book, The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack, I didn’t show it to anyone. My editor included. Not until I was almost done. This time I have shown pieces of if it. Last night I was having dinner, and I was talking about how squeamish I am about people seeing things while I’m working on them. I’ve discovered it always fucks me up in some way or another. It skews how you move forward.

I think the tendency is a very human thing—the want to be liked, to be loved. If someone says, ‘Oh, I really like that,’ even if you try to ignore it, there’s still some unconscious effort to try to recapitulate the thing that person was complimenting. I’ve always found it’s better to work in, like, psychotic isolation. If you have no one to depend on, if you have no other sounding board, no feedback, whatever you’re working on, it will be maximally strange. (Laughs) I mean, if that’s what you’re after. I think in my case, it is. I seek maximal strangeness.

For readers unfamiliar with your work, I pulled this two sentence-passage from your book, The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack:

Once he made her fifty-feet tall and put the mummified body of King Tutankhamen into her ass as she came. She liked that so much he turned Lenin’s corpse and Ted Williams’ cryogenically-preserved head into anal sex toys, too.

That’s you describing an all-powerful god erotically pleasuring his human lover. The Paris Review said your work has a “sprezzatura.” I had to look that up. It means: having a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and to make whatever one says, or does, appear without effort, and almost any thought about it. Do you consider that a compliment to your writing style?
I think it is … very interesting. A lot of my new book is about me attempting to introduce the reading that I’m about to give. I’ve really tried to make it read as a funny combination of very precise, very elegant language, the kind of writing people do when people sit down in front of a keyboard and think and write something and revise it. That. Combined with a much breezier extemporaneous flow, that feels much more artless, like a transcript of someone talking. The word the Paris Review used, “sprezzatura,” it’s particularly apt, I think, to my new book and my attempt to make something feel extemporaneous and effortless. But it certainly doesn’t seem effortless to me, I expend so much grim effort. (Laughs) Reading it is so different from the actual experience of writing it, which is sort of life or death, just this really grim struggle.

What is your new book about?
Gone With the Mind is about me giving a reading at a mall, at a food court of a mall, and my mother drives me. And no one comes to the reading. I mean no one. Not a soul. The only two people who are really even peripherally at this reading are two guys who work in the food court—one guy works for Panda Express and the other guy works for Sbarro. They’re not really at the reading, they’re just on their break, and they’re just sitting at some table. For the whole course of the book, I keep trying to provoke just a little response from them, like an acknowledgment that they’re listening. Which never works, because they’re not. They have no interest in what’s happening. They’re just looking at their phones and they’re on, like, Instagram and Snapchat. They’re just not interested. (Laughs)

This is the second novel you’ve written since you were publishing books back in the 1990s. At that time, along with David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Elizabeth Wurtzel and Dave Eggers, you all were the lit world’s superstars. You were part of that last generation of novelists as rock stars, if you will. You appeared on Letterman and Conan. You read your work on their shows. And I read that Eartha Kitt grabbed your junk on Bill Maher’s show. How was the fame ride for you, a presumably shy writer?
It was all completely wondrous and exhilarating. This might sound horrible, but I wasn’t that surprised about it because I felt my work was very unique. I didn’t feel like anyone was doing work like that. And I kind of thought—I’m talking about the work—I felt like it kind of deserved it. I always had a lot of faith in it. I started working when I was 17. From that point, until now, I’ve been maniacally devoted to it. I mean, to the exclusion of just about everything else. I’m terrible with money. I’m a terrible businessperson. I’ve never had an interest in being academic or having the sort of job that makes for a kind of cushy life. I’ve just been completely, fanatically, focused on this stuff. So, I was very happy and very proud.

But what about the life that came with it? Did you like being on TV?
It was quite terrifying at the beginning. I’m very shy. I guess writers are, for the most part. You certainly need to have a predilection for being by yourself most of the time. I think a lot of people do this because they want to be by themselves. I certainly do. The first time I was ever on Letterman—you’re brought from the green room to this place where they hold you, kind of on the periphery of the stage, you can see a little bit, you can see Letterman, and a little bit of the audience, and you’re with some guy who has a headset on and it’s his job to tell you when to walk out—and the first time that happened I just thought to myself: Why? Why would you do this? This is such a mistake. (Laughs)

It was terrifying. Right before I went on I went blank. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what my book was called. I didn’t know shit. I just wanted to go home. But then, I grew to kind of like it. I knew at the time it was a short-lived thing for me, and I’m an astute enough observer of the culture that I knew it was a short-lived time in the culture, too. That time was sort of coming to an end. Knowing that it wasn’t going to last long made it more bearable and comfortable for me.

You once said, “I have to invent the writer anew each time, not the narrator, but the writer.” How do you invent the writer each time?
I reassess every aspect of what it means to be a writer in 2015, in this country, wherever it is that I am. How am I feeling about myself as a mortal creature? How am I feeling as a masculine creature? How am I feeling abut the viability of literature? How am I being moved by other art forms? I’ve always been very interested in visual arts. I’m very, very interested in painting. Not doing it, but looking at paintings, reading about paintings, also reading about painters, meeting painters, all of that. Recently, I’ve gotten into dance a little bit, which I never paid enough attention to. That’s been instructive. The final writer that I get to may not be that dissimilar from the other ones but it feels very different. And it feels like I have to do that each time.

I’m very apprehensive about doing the same kind of book after book. I never wanted to do that. I’m not one of these writers who feel an obligation to write a book every couple of years in order to renew my membership to the writers club, or something. You know? There has to be some sort of problem I’m solving. Like, could you write a book that’s, maybe 150 pages long, and it’s just a mom and a son in a mall and they’re just talking to each other?

How do painters inspire you and change your view of your work?
There’s a really cool movie of Gerhardt Richter painting. I think it may be called Gerhardt Richter Painting, and you can see him thinking: What if I do this? And what if I do that? And what if I take a squeegee and sort of ruin it all? You watch him make these beautiful paintings, and then, he uses a squeegee to—in one way—just ruin them. And you, the viewer, think ‘Oh, fuck…’ But that next thing he makes is so fascinating and cool. I tend to try to think that way.

You have an extremely unique style. It’s often said you are your own genre. How do you think about your work, in terms of construction? Like, down at the level of sentences.
I always think about my work, like, ‘OK, you write a sentence and then you write another sentence.’ Then you see what the relationship is between those two sentences. Then, you write a third sentence and you see what the relationship is between that sentence and the relationship of the first two. It’s building a thing through a kind of heuristic, trial and error process. You ask yourself: What is this? And what is it now? What happens if I do this thing to it? Like, what if I use a squeegee to smush all this? How does that change the relationship? I think of all the other art forms, visual art is the one I feel most kinship with.

What’s the best advice someone told you about writing?
(Thinks a long moment) I don’t think that ever happened.

No one ever gave you any advice that proved useful?
(Laughs) No, I don’t think so. I mean, people have given me advice but—either out of defensive insecurity or out of spitefulness or just from being an aggressive kind of dick of a person, I tried to do the opposite. And I found that really works for me. (Laughs) I really spend a lot of time, in a kind of subterranean laboratory, figuring this stuff out, making this stuff work. At various moments when I was younger, when someone would get it, or maybe, they told me they enjoyed it—that helped me a great deal. You know? That was better than advice. It was a signal to keep moving forward.

In an interview you once said about life, ‘The only reasonable response to this situation is to maintain an implacable antipathy toward everything. Denounce everyone. Make war against yourself. Guillotine all groveling intellectuals. That said, I think it’s important to maintain a cheery disposition.’ Do you still believe we should make war against ourselves while maintaining a cheery disposition?
Yes. I think that’s pretty great advice. Hearing it read back to me. (Laughs) I mean, I was being funny, being so merciless and doctrinaire. But I’m talking about my writing process, and to me there are so many ways I am inculcated with all sorts of cultural criteria of quality, what sentences should sound like, what a narrative is, etc., etc. I have these go-to things that you do as a writer. I guess that’s the same for any artist. It’s very difficult—especially the constraints that are internalized—it’s very difficult to elude them, to break out of them. It requires this kind of little war against yourself.

How do you make war against yourself successfully, creatively?
One of things I realized when I was much, much younger, like in college, or graduate school: it was always more effective for me—if someone said they liked this but didn’t like that—to take the negative aspect of the critique and do more of that. (Laughs) Make it worse. Exacerbate it. The trouble was there isn’t enough of that. I was too tentative. If I think something is really, really awful, there’s something there. I’m missing it due to all those preconceived notions of what is good. If I don’t jettison the stuff that I think is garbage, and I really work it, work it, work it, usually, something breaks out of it that’s pretty cool.

In all of your novels, you’ve explored a sort of hypermasculinity. In many ways, you’ve been ahead of the curve of culture. Today, we have the lumbersexual, who is a mashup of gruff, rugged masculinity paired with emotional sensitivity that’s more suitable to our modern moment. Your protagonists are very similar as far as being recombined ideas of masculinity. Do you ever think your work predicted this rise of new modes of masculinity?
(Thinks a long moment) No, I don’t. I mean I would like to say yes, because it’s good to be ahead of the curve on anything. But I think I would be disingenuous if I said yes. At one time I was very interested in versions of hypermasculinity. That would include dictators, and demagogues, and mixed martial arts stars, and people who are mixes of those, like dictators who are mixed martial arts stars. (Laughs) Like, how we have this guy Putin, who sometimes seems like a character out of one of my older books.

But I have to say, recently, I’ve gotten into the transhuman thing. It’s sort of gender fluid. I’m not talking about my life so much. I have a very settled, not-too interesting life, for the most part. It’s just sitting and doing what I do. I’m married, and I have a great kid, and I get crazy a little bit when I drink but… (Laughs) But this is important. It’s important for me to do that.

Let’s talk about your penis for a moment. (Both of us laugh) The literary theorist, Susan Bordo has said that representations of penises are uncommon in popular culture because a penis can never live up to its expectations as a phallic signifier. You talk a lot about your body in your work, but not much about your dick. Do you agree with Bordo that a penis is best kept hidden as a signifier of male power?
Yes, I think that’s true. Signifiers are most powerful when they are hidden and occult and least powerful when they are manifest. You’ll read about certain Chinese emperors who were never seen by anyone. Ever. No one knew what they looked like or where they lived. There was a blankness, a void to their existence, which made them most powerful. I think that’s also true for the dick. That said, I do think that the dick has been important in my life. (Laughs) I think the dick—I realized early on in my life—it’s kind of an instrument of self-annihilation. Like, it was a tool to debase myself. And also, it’s a reason to go and travel. You know what I mean? It was my rocket elsewhere. (Laughs)

What’s the worst advice you ever heard about women?
The worst? I got a lot of bad advice about women, growing up. Probably the worst advice I got was that women like to be ill-treated.

I have to ask about the elephant in the room. David Foster Wallace. You have a very prickly history with him. He once wrote a letter to Jonathan Franzen praising you, saying how he was ‘sickeningly, searingly jealous’ of you and your work. But then he famously wrote an essay, E Unibus Pluram, which tore you down and reduced your work to a bad imitation of television. After that, you stopped publishing novels. Is David Foster Wallace why you didn’t write another novel for 15 years?
No, no, no. I haven’t read, in their entirety, any of the pieces, or essays, in which those things appear. I only know about them in a secondhand, anecdotal way, like, for example, you telling me about it. I knew David a bit. We had a couple of interactions. We were on Charlie Rose together. And socially, I had a couple evenings and afternoons with him. But as far as his criticism—I stopped writing novels because I wanted to stop. I had a daughter and wife. I wanted to support them in a slightly different way, so I started doing more movie stuff.

It didn’t seem like, at the time, that so much time was passing. You know what I mean? But no, it had nothing to do with Wallace. I don’t give a fuck about what David Foster Wallace said about me or my stuff. Or anyone else. I’m not singling him out. You brought him up. You just can’t think about that stuff. Having feelings of envy about attention other people are getting. Or deals. Or money. Or notoriety. Those are all the roads to hell, for a writer, or an artist, or anyone.

I love what I do. When I’m working on my stuff, it’s the most intensely vivid way that I’m alive, out of anything I do—anything. I just keep to that. None of those things that David was quoted as saying about me, or wrote about me, mean anything, really. I could care less what any one person said. What David said had zero effect on me.

After ‘waging this ghastly war against yourself’ for five decades—who’s winning?
(Laughs) It’s a war of attrition. No one’s going to win. No one’s coming out of this alive.


Zaron Burnett is a roving contributor for Playboy.com.


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