In this month’s literary arts profile, we talk to Portland author Jim Newman about how his work as a television journalist on WCCO-TV and OPB informs his satirical novels.
Obsessing over the word “Mammother,” which he made up, Zachary Schomburg set out on the ambitious journey of writing his first novel born out of that word. In short, a “Mammother” is someone who hunts for nonexistent mammoths. In a room in the back of Mother Foucault’s bookshop, he wrote the first paragraph of Mammother (Featherproof Books) and wrote the rest in a chateau deep in the French countryside where it became a full length novel. Instead of being driven by plot, Schomburg creates his world out of a fascinating set of characters surrounding Mano Medium, who seems to come from either a children’s tale or a Beckett novel.
The interaction with each other is what fleshes out the characters in Mammother. They love each other, and are sometimes severely wounded by each other. Mano is a devoted son who brings beer and cigarettes from the factory where he works to his mother who spends all of her days soaking in the bathtub until she dies suddenly from God’s Finger, the plague that has set the town into a frenzy. Then a close friend is also struck down by the plague. This is a major tuning point for Mano, and he transforms both mentally and physically into something completely different.
Like Beckett, or Donald Barthelme (who Schomburg credits as an influence), the setting and plot are in the secondary and the characters are not what you would see in a traditional novel. They exist like the ancillary characters in a dream. They represent an idea, or an emotion or display some kind of profoundly human quality or flaw. Zachary Schomburg wrote his first novel with a poet’s eye and keen attention to language and detail. He poignantly demonstrates this in the end of chapter two as the town’s priest tries to create a miracle by nailing a cross into the air. His feet slipped. The sheep were baaaing in the distance. Little yellow flowers blossomed all over the valley. Instead of just showing an awful death scene, Schomburg zooms out to let the reader see the world continuing on, naturally. Like many of the chapters in Mammother, the last line is finely punctuated and leads the reader to the next chapter by leaving them with a powerfully lasting image.
As a teacher, Schomburg is always challenging himself to take on new forms of literature and investigating the world through poetry, and now prose. He has been a mainstay in the literary community seemingly since arrived in Portland almost a decade ago. I met him after he read from his new novel at Ford Food and Drink. As we sipped on some coffee, he pulled an unbound book cover from a book cover for C.D. Wright’s book, 40 Watts. He told me that he and some new friends had gotten together one night and made that book cover. That soon evolved into Octopus Books, a small press that he runs with fellow poets Hajara Quinn and Mathias Svalina. Just recently, he as started conducting community workshops of his own at Outlet PDX, where he provides a laid back atmosphere for aspiring writers to learn the crafts of poetry and prose.
11: Let’s talk about this book. What is a Mammother?
ZS: It’s just a made up word. The whole story started with the word, Mammother. I probably picked that word up six years ago. I just started telling this story around that concept to myself until I had the chance to just write it out, which was three years ago now. It’s used in a couple of ways in the book. And I think as a poet, I’m so interested in words and language and how the letters fit together and all the ways that the word can work, and how it can be broken down. It’s just a perfect word for the book. And I think because it started with that, the story was born out of the word. So Mammother is a minor character in the book but is really a major part which propels everything forward. Mano’s father, who he doesn’t know, and is never in the book, is a Mammother and is talked about in one or maybe two scenes as this person who hunts mammoths. He doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive, and the mother is kind of incapable of talking about it. If he’s alive, he’s hunting mammoths somewhere. And mammoths don’t exist in this world. So he’s talked about as someone who wants to find mammoths so he’s going to hunt them even though he knows they don’t exist. Because that’s what great hunters would do. There’s a few moments where Mano is confronted with similar ideas about loving things that don’t exist and being disappointed by them.
11: This book addresses religion in an interesting way, can you tell us about that?
ZS: In the book, there’s a church and a corporation, and Mano is one of the few people in town who doesn’t go to church, and he kind of positions himself against the church who aligns itself with this corporation called XO. The church in the book is a real joke. Father Mothers is this real kind of a joke of a character. He’s an alcoholic and he just gets everything wrong. The church is something Mano has positioned himself away from because they are really concerned that everyone is dying from this plague, so they want to make money off of that. The church is becoming more successful because the more that people die, the more people show up to the church.
11: Can you also talk about the other meaning of mammoth in this book? How something becomes mammoth?
ZS: So Mano loses the only two people he loves. As that happens, he decides that he’s not going to love people anymore, because it’s too hard. He decides that he is going to love the things that people leave behind in their death holes, because things can’t die on you. He starts collecting all the things, because no one else wants them. If your loved one dies and there’s a toaster inside of them, then they do not want the toaster, it just reminds them of their grief. So he sees it as something that he can collect and love. His service, in a way, is to collect all of those things. But the only way that a thing will die on you is if you lose it. So he decides that he is not going to set any of it down, so he carries it. As one person dies a day, more or less, he picks up a thing and he never sets it down, so he gets bigger and bigger–mammother and mammother.
11: You have several scenes that concentrate on a character simply moving from one place to another. Can you explain that? Is this breaking the third wall?
ZS: I think there are these things in storytelling that you can take for granted because the most important thing is to move the plot forward and develop the character. We can assume that these tiny things are true. I think like Beckett, and other writers like Amy Bender or Lidia Davis can do a really good job at taking those things that you would otherwise take for granted and making the story about them in a way. In the case of Mammother, for example, it can’t just be assumed that a character can get from here to there. It can be assumed if you just want plot, but I like the idea of making the reader focus on the thing that you would take for granted and make that the plot, make that the story. You’re not breaking the third wall, but you’re asking the reader to to pay attention to the art of the writing, and the fun the writer is having.
11: This is your first novel, can you tell me about this as opposed to writing your poetry? How do you apply that same visual nature to your prose?
ZS: They are so different from each other. And that was what was hard for me to get over at first. I didn’t know what I was doing because the impulse in a poem for me is when I start a line, or start a narrative, the impulse is to think immediately, “How do I get out of this?” now that I started this little image or have this line. The next thought is literally, “How am I going to wrap this up? And how am I going to get there?” In a novel, I drive myself crazy because I’m not developing anything, I’m just trying to get out of it. Which is way too much information to hold in any one sitting, instead of just focusing on a scene or whatever. So I think once I was able to get out of that I think I still have an advantage because I’m still really interested in syntax, in the lyric, in wild images. More so than just developing this realistic narrative or these realistic characters. To get interested in working on a real sentence. I’m interested in last lines and first lines as a poet. I think it was important to me to see how each scene starts and definitely what’s the last line of each scene to try to really end on an idea or an image.
11: Can you explain a bit about your story structure? There have been some comparisons made to Patrick deWitt.
ZS: They’re very different worlds, but the structure is kind of similar. I wrote this draft before I read Patrick deWitt’s books. They weren’t influenced by his stuff as much as Marquez’s stuff, or Shirley Jackson , or Toni Morrison. So those three were the ones I was reading to structure the book. I think the thing that all of those people do is that they have their characters in the town together, bouncing off of each other. They are not static characters but the setting is static. They say, here’s the town and all of the parts of the town. Then all of the plot builds as the town grows and how the people grow and change and hate and love each other. So I’m looking at Song of Soloman and Sula and Hundred years of Solitude. Now I am working on another novel that is going to try to do something like what Patrick deWitt does. He has a character that is always moving forward through different towns, basically. It’s still a journey but every scene is like now I’m meeting this person, and now this thing is happening. He’s always kind of moving forward. That’s so compelling to me, that’s what I love, and for some reason it’s very hard for me to do and it’s so simple.
Me: So you went directlly from poetry to long form prose. Have you ever considered writing short stories?
ZS: I always wanted to be a novelist, or have written a novel. That sounds more interesting and romantic and I feel more proud of that than writing a story. I’m interested in the challenge of telling a story over a duration. From now, I think I’m interested in writing another novel, or maybe in the structure of a novella than I am of short stories. And I don’t know why. I think I’m interested in the idea of really short form or really long form. In the same way that with any music that I listen to for example, I want to listen to the most extreme version of that music. If I’m interested in metal, immediately I go what is the most metal? Or if I’m interested in minimalist music, I’m interested in what’s the quietest, what’s the most sparse. I think I’m interested, if I’m talking about storytelling, how can I do this in the most sparse way, or the most big way. So short stories for me are not that interesting right now, but maybe it will be.
11: What advice would you have for an aspiring writer or poet?
ZS: The best advice I can give if you have to simplify it all down is to relax. None of what you’re writing is precious. Nobody cares, in a way. If you think you’re going to write the most amazing stuff that is going to change the world then you’re really putting too much pressure on yourself. It’s a game, and it’s fun. And I think if you’re writing poems, for example, with the same level of entertainment as say, completing a crossword puzzle, you might have these little moments of pride, but you might start writing things that are pretty beautiful because they’re not precious. The pressure is off. You’re just entertaining yourself. But if you have this connection to your writing that feels like a real spark is there, and you’ve learned something about yourself and the world because you’ve made this little piece of art, then the world is because of that–as a result, not as an intention. As a result, the world is a little better because you’re now in it and you’ve learned something about making art.