On the cover of the book POP! there are a bunch of scratched-out tags: A fictional Memoir, A fabulist Memoir, A Nonfictional Novel. A Novel. A Memoir. And then it says that it is just “A Book.” Why?
The heady reasons: I am absolutely fascinated by the mixing-up of genres. Life is not composed of nonfiction, of facts, of consistency, of predictions and correlations, of accurate memories. Life is made up of dreaming, of living in our heads, of imagining things that haven’t happened or we wish could happen, of thinking about people wrong, of creating stories and lies that we live by, of misremembering things, of finding out our assessments were fraudulent, of inventing fiction upon fiction in our ambitions, relationships, romances, careers, passions, hopes. Our real lives are as composed of fictions as they are of actual objective events. So, it makes no sense to me to put a label of “nonfiction” on something about our real lives. And, then oddly, reversely, crazily, in fiction, we try to tell the truth, when our everyday lives are more dreamt than lived. I see so much of life as parts of a developing fiction. It’s perhaps, for me, a protective device (see: my book all about making up fiction in order to process an unexpected catastrophe).
The technical reasons: There is much that is nonfiction—my dad died on a tennis court when I was seventeen; I did speak at a bereavement group meeting for teens who lost a parent. This is nonfiction. But then there are fictional stories all throughout. All the stories are about death, so they serve as my form of therapy, where I put all my messed-up ideas about loss. That’s fiction, though. It isn’t one or the other.
When my agent was shopping this book around to publishers, the main reason publishers balked was that they couldn’t decide if it was a memoir or a novel. They said they couldn’t market it without it being one or the other. And some places wanted it changed so that it could be labeled as either fiction or nonfiction entirely. But that ambiguity is important to the experience of the book—that fiction invades real life and real life penetrates fiction. So, instead of couching the hybrid nature of the thing, I announced it. Thankfully, Stillhouse Press is excited about this crisscrossing of genres and styles and wanted to announce it, too.
What is your book about?
POP! is about loss, grief, confusion, and my pseudo self-therapy of writing weird stories about the death of my father when I was seventeen years old and never quite getting a handle on the loss and its effects on me and my family.
It sounds like a sad tale.
It’s absurd and funny and irrational and wild. That’s why I don’t usually answer that question like I did just a second ago. I typically talk about what happens in the book, how it’s structured rather than what the book is about when someone asks what the book is about.
What happens in the book?
The book takes place over a week leading up to a talk I gave at a bereavement group. When I was twenty-seven I was asked to speak at a bereavement group for middle school and high school kids who had all lost parents. That narrative of the week is broken up with short stories I wrote about death and loss, and re-imaginings of real life events surrounding the death of my dad. So, the book is a mix of fiction and nonfiction, all chopped up and not chronological. People call it a mosaic or kaleidoscopic, but it’s much more a pastiche of collages.
When I was seventeen, my dad died suddenly. So ten years later, when asked to speak as a sort of grief expert to this group of kids, it threw me for a loop. I spend the week—in the book—thinking about everything I’ve done to deal with the loss. And what I sort of discover or at least fear is that I didn’t do really anything to cope with my father’s death. And I started to freak out. What was I going to offer these kids who lost a parent? I hadn’t done anything myself over the decade since losing my dad.
And you think this description makes the book sound more fun?
Jeez, no. You’re right. Both descriptions make the book sound heavy.
Are you opposed to being “heavy” in your writing?
Yes, actually. But I misspoke—heavy is fine, and the book is heavy in places, but I worry that heaviness can be confused with melodrama. And I think this comes through in the book, in its odd and shifting tones and styles and angles. One section will be a total absurdist short story about my dad spontaneously combusting on a tennis court; the next section will be a serious mediation on all the things I don’t get to have with my father anymore. This tonal two-step totally exposes my unwillingness to get too heavy. Although the experiences in the book are the most profound, complicated, and absorbing of my life, I do hesitate to take anything about myself too seriously, too heavy. But, of course, shit gets heavy sometimes—not frequently—but certainly sometimes.
I have used a lot of humor throughout my life to help myself cope with difficulty. I laugh when I should cry. I do not see “true” as heavy; I see true as not any one thing—mostly unpredictable and absurd—which is why the book is so mixed up. Again, heaviness is good, in parts, and it isn’t melodrama. Heavy can be fine. Melodrama cannot be. I loathe melodrama. It’s inauthentic.
What is melodrama?
Frequent unearned moments of profound-sounding things that when analyzed reveal the writer’s ego instead of insight about humanity.
You’re not being funny, despite saying how funny/weird your book is and how much you value humor in writing/life.
You know why I don’t help the blind?
I like to be recognized for my good deeds.
How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Umm, I dunno.
It’s actually a really obscure number. You’ve probably never heard of it.
Moving on: What’s your favorite part of POP!?
There’s an imbedded short story about a toilet and how the toilet helps the family deal with the death of the father character. I like that part, because it’s so absurd and it gets at some of the absurdity that comes with life after the death of a loved one.
So, who should read POP!?
People interested in atypical structure should get a kick out of it. People who have lost a loved one might connect with it. Tennis players could enjoy it for the parts about tennis. Artists who have seen a particular wound in their lives popping up repeatedly and often subconsciously in their art might relate. Writers and writing students might like the parts about teaching and writing and all the commentary on the fictional stories throughout the book. Fans of books about someone figuring out how to deal with a huge and complicated emotional problem in their life with bizarre and frenzied methods should find something in POP!.
And if a reader has a question about the book, at any time, I’ll answer anything. Seriously. Try me.
MARK POLANZAK’S stories have appeared in Third Coast, The Southern Review, and The American Scholar, among others. His fiction won second place in the 2014 Italo Calvino Prize. His hybrid memoir, POP!, is out March 22, 2016 from Stillhouse Press. He is a founding editor for draft: the journal of process, and teaches English at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.