Interview: Mark Spencer
October 31, 2020
Hello Mark, Thanks for doing this interview with Middle House. I know you from the University of Arkansas at Monticello, but can you introduce yourself to the readers?
Thank you, Michael. I have published a dozen books and over 150 short stories and essays in a wide range of journals. My work has received the Faulkner Society Faulkner Award for the Novel, the Omaha Prize for the Novel, the Bradshaw Book Award, the St. Andrews Press Short Fiction Award, and four Special Mentions in Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. I’m the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and Professor of English in UAM’s Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing.
In addition, I have served as a book coach for a number of published novelists, including Michelle Cohen Corasanti, author of the international bestseller The Almond Tree, which has been translated into 20 languages.
My latest book is a zombie novel, An Untimely Frost. It has literary themes concerning time and reality. It’s both horrifying and humorous, and it even has some romance.
My author’s website is www.authormarkspencer.com.
You are pretty comfortable with the supernatural – where did your affinity for the paranormal begin?
All my life, I’ve had eclectic tastes as a reader and as a movie watcher. I enjoy fiction grounded in gritty reality—Tolstoy, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver—but I also very much enjoy the fanciful and fantastic worlds of Vonnegut, Stoker, Bradbury, Mary Shelley, Poe, and Stephen King.
Was there a time when it was evident that a major part of your body of writing was going to concern paranormal narratives? Did you start there?
For most of my career, I wrote almost exclusively in the tradition of realism. All of my early and most of my mid-career books—Love and Reruns in Adams County, The Weary Motel, The Masked Demon, Wedlock, Trespassers—evoked the recognizable worlds of small towns, farms, wrestling arenas, and trailer parks without any hint of the paranormal, only the suggestion of the absurdities of everyday life.
I read paranormal fiction, but I didn’t write it.
Then I bought a famous haunted house (The Allen House in Monticello, Arkansas). I didn’t immediately believe it was haunted, despite its 50-year reputation for paranormal activity. My wife and I just thought it was a very interesting and attractive Victorian mansion. After moving into the house, which was the site of a suicide on Christmas night 1948, my wife, our children, and I started having experiences we could not explain. At first, I was resistant to having paranormal investigators come in, but finally my wife insisted. The investigators, who had been mainly interested in debunking stories of hauntings, concluded that our house really was actually haunted, largely on the basis of voices (EVPs) they recorded.
I admit I remained skeptical until I went to the attic alone one evening and recorded voices myself. In particular, I asked the woman who committed suicide whether she liked the house. And she answered me. Clearly, distinctly answered me—in a complete sentence, as if to leave no doubt in my mind that she was present.
I became a believer in ghosts. One hundred percent.
Then about a year later, I was led—truly led—to a stash of 82 hidden love letters under a floorboard in the attic that revealed the woman’s motive for taking her own life in 1948. That day, I knew I would need to write a book about my house. It became the bestselling nonfiction novel A Haunted Love Story: the Ghosts of the Allen House, which led to me and my house being featured on the TV shows My Ghost Story, A Haunting, Paranormal Witness, Ghost Hunters, and Ghost Brothers.
I subsequently wrote a novel set at my house, Ghost Walking.
What is your first memory, or project, where you committed yourself to writing?
The summer between kindergarten and first grade, I had time on my hands and decided to write a novel. It was about 1920s gangsters, and my goal was to make it a hundred pages long, so I included drawings of the lurid action, and I wrote big.
I wrote off and on throughout my childhood and adolescence, but I didn’t get serious about writing until my sophomore year of college when I took a creative-writing class and was encouraged by the professor to keep writing. I wrote a couple of insanely bad novels when I was about 19 years old. I don’t even want to think about them now.
I went straight from undergraduate school at the University of Cincinnati into the MFA program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
What is a lesson about the writing life that you wish you knew then (as an undergraduate) that you know now (as a writer)?
As an undergraduate, I wish someone had emphasized to me the importance of close reading and had taught me how to be a close reader—how to analyze and be sensitive to the nuances of language and imagery. I emphasize to my students that they cannot hope to become good writers until they become exceptional readers.
Who was your most important professor and their lasting lesson?
At the University of Cincinnati, the professor and novelist Austen Wright (Tony and Susan) said in class one day that there weren’t any rules for writing fiction. No rules. I was somewhat dumbfounded for a while, but over time I realized exactly what he meant: you can do anything you want—as long as it works; the challenge is making it work. Successful writing is about the execution of the material as much as it is about the material, and whether something works is always a matter of context. What works in one story will not work in another.
We have conventions and certain ways of normally doing things, and there are always subjects and methods that are in fashion for a while, but the major works are the ones that upend expectations, that offer something new. F. Scott Fitzgerald became famous because he offered subjects that were new. Ernest Hemingway became even more famous because he offered both new subjects and a new style.
Major influences to your fiction writing and do you separate the prose works that inspire you by
I don’t favor one genre over another. For instance, the most recent novel I finished is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a completely realistic historical novel. The most recent TV series I watched is Carnival Row, which is a fantasy full of mythological creatures, winged fay folk, and monsters.
As far as influences are concerned, I like to think I’ve learned from a wide range of writers, but in terms of my realistic work, I certainly acknowledge the influence of writers like Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Tyler, John Updike, Alice Munro.
As for my speculative or paranormal work, I can see that I’ve probably been influenced by H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Isaac Marion.
Who or what would you list as major influences to your nonfiction writing?
Ernest Hemingway (Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa), Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff), Norman Mailer (Executioner’s Song), John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). Good creative nonfiction is no different from a novel. It should be vivid and intimate and compelling in the same way fiction is. Creative nonfiction is just based more on facts than fiction is.
Where did your interest in history come from?
I think I was born with it. I was fascinated with history as a little kid. I loved movies with historical settings, and I sought out elderly people and asked them to tell me what the world was like when they were young. My grandmother was born in 1890 and her mother was born in 1862. They both lived to be 103, and they filled my childhood with stories of the past.
Do you have a stronger interest in local and/or regional history?
I’m fascinated with local history. I’m the co-author of the book Images of America: Monticello. But I’m also fascinated with national and world history. I like old stuff in general. I love places that are full of history. In 2018, I went to Hawaii in January and to Ireland in June. I liked both places, but I much preferred Ireland because of the old houses, bridges, government buildings, monuments, and castles.
What is one thing about horror or paranormal literature that you appreciate most?
The strange, the absurd, and the magical are compelling to me on a visceral level. But also there’s the potential to evoke powerful metaphors in horror and paranormal contexts, to evoke from the fantastic elements of genre fiction timeless and universal truths.
In my novel An Untimely Frost, for example, I found the opportunity to play with themes involving time and the perception of reality while conjuring zombies who are not all from the same historical period and whom not everyone in the novel perceives in the same way.
In horror and paranormal fictions, the writer and the reader are not bound to everyday realities for experiencing pathos, comedy, and truth.
I love the line at the end of the first chapter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when the first-person narrator says, “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”
Who are your favorite horror / speculative / fantasy writers? What is your favorite genre film?
Although I have mixed feelings about everything Stephen King has written, I do admire certain skills he has and really enjoy his novels Salem’s Lot, Carrie, Misery, and 11-22-63. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five are classics in my mind. Margaret Atwood (A Handmaid’s Tale) is a major figure. I like the zombie novel Warm Bodies.
And of course Edgar Allan Poe. A master.
I’ve always been a sucker for a good time-travel story, like the movie Time After Time. As for ghost stories, the movie that comes first to mind is The Sixth Sense. As for alternate realities, I really like The Matrix (the first movie; I can do without the sequels). And I like the movie Total Recall a great deal.
What are some thoughts you have on literary fiction without genre elements?
Obviously, I immensely admire and respect a lot of literary fiction without genre elements. But I’m clearly not the kind of academic who dismisses genre fiction. All I care about is good writing and an engaging story. Regardless of whether a story is about a convenience-store clerk or a wizard or a vampire or a ghost or a zombie, I want to be moved and made to think. I want pathos; I want comedy; I want a vivid world, whether it’s the so-called “real” world or the richly textured fantasy world of Carnival Row.