Stephen Markley Interview Part 6: Post-publication blues?

by Jerry Waxler

Writers who aspire to publish a book are eager to reach the finish line. Then when they cross the line, that particular race is over but life goes on and presents new challenges. I asked Stephen Markley a few questions about how what changed after he published “Publish this Book.”

Does writing a memoir limit your life?

Jerry Waxler: Your writing teacher didn’t want you to publish this book because he warned you that your first book defines you, and he said the memoir “wasn’t you.” Is this another bit of satire? I’m not sure how a memoir wouldn’t be you?

Your writing teacher’s advice is probably not that far off from one of the common fears I’ve heard from many aspiring memoir writers. They are afraid that if they write their memoir, it would mean their life is over, as if at the end of the memoir they are supposed to put down pencils down the way you would during an exam, and everything after that is cheating.

So what do you think, now that you’ve published it? Was the writing teacher right? Did it lock you into a direction you didn’t want to go? Was it the end?

Stephen Markley: I certainly hope it’s not the end. Look, I want from my career what every writer wants: the ability to choose whatever project interests me regardless of commercial relevance. Whether this will ever happen remains to be seen. I certainly found it was easier to publish a non-fiction book, so I can’t disregard that, but I do want to write fiction and follow my other passions and let my intellectual curiosity take me where it will. What my professor feared was that I would be essentially trapped in this young-guy-snarks-on-the-world shtick without any way of returning to some of that darker literary territory that I was writing when we first met.

To a degree, that trap has been sprung and I am caught in it, but I’m not worried yet. “Publish This Book” is partly an advertisement for books to come: it’s saying to readers, “Hey, here’s what I did with a memoir. Any interest in other genres?” To the extent that I get people telling me that they look forward to reading a novel, I think it’s succeeding in some small way.

Basically, I’ve resigned myself to being a writer with a small following. I doubt I’ll ever have the mainstream success of some of those big-timers who can throw together a book based on a reliable script every year or so. It’s just not who I am, and writing the same book over and over again does not interest me.

Marketing the book

Jerry: Are you really running around to colleges the way you planned to do in the book?

Stephen: Well, I just quit my job at and plan to spend the summer out and about on the east coast driving around doing bookstore signings. Then in the fall, I’m going to go full bore at colleges again. My reasoning is that if ever there was a time to be young and unemployed and a little stupid, this is it. I’ll stay with friends, drink a lot, and kiss a pretty girl or two. I doubt I’ll look back when I’m fifty and wonder what would have been if I’d stayed in my cubicle making a reliable $35k a year.

What’s next?

Jerry: What are you working on for your next project?

Stephen: What I’m working on now is either an unwieldy disaster that I will give up at some point or an inspired fictional experiment. I feel the same way about it now as I did when I was at roughly the same point in writing “Publish This Book”: I’m not at all sure if it’s going to work, but I’m having a hell of a lot of fun writing it. It’s about writing (again), but also about the current cultural and political epoch. I have a feeling almost everything I write for the rest of my life will in some way be about the past decade: the years 2001-2010 have just been too breathtaking in horrific and wonderful ways to not dedicate an entire branch of literature to them.

Mostly, I just want “Publish This Book” to sell enough copies and garner enough fans that I can write and publish for the rest of my life. It’s really rare to get an opportunity like this: to be young and single and unattached and constantly inspired and ferociously hungry. There aren’t enough hours in the day to get every idea I have onto paper. I sometimes blink and wonder if all this has actually happened for me. Only once, I spotted someone in public reading my book. It was on the Brown Line in Chicago, and I did a double-take when I saw the cover. I just wanted to walk up and hug her.


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, click here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 4: Structure of a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

The first thing that caught my attention when I picked up Stephen Markley’s “Publish this Book” was that it was a parody of itself, a memoir about “writing this very book.” This trick of self-conscious awareness, or “meta” as it has come to be called, played a big role in my thought process in college. If my friends and I observed something, we could then continue the discussion by making a comment about making the observation. It’s a mental twist I still enjoy 40 years later. In fact, now that I think of it, this might explain my interest in memoirs. First, we live our lives. And then the memoir is our commentary on what we just lived. A memoir is by its nature “meta.” But Stephen Markley’s memoir is even more meta than that. In this Part 4 of my multi-part interview, I ask him about his fascination with the structure of memoirs, and the shape of his own.

How you playfully constructed the long middle

Jerry Waxler: One of the known problems with writing a book is that you have to somehow keep the middle moving along. In writing classes I’ve heard it called the muddle in the middle. As usual, you do a great job of sending up the long middle, by using an extraordinary trick.

You separated your mind into parts, and dramatized the battle between the parts. Wow, talk about being able to discover the conflict within everyday life. This was a lively, intriguing technique. I think any author who fears they won’t be able to find the dramatic tension in their lives ought to study some of the devices you used in your book to realize how the author discovers and accentuates tension that is already there.

One thing that surprised me about this technique was that you used the terms Ego and Id, to show your personality being broken into parts. I would have thought these Freudian terms were old-fashioned. They were already starting to lose favor back in my day. So help me understand, were you using Freudian terms to be retro, or are these terms pretty widely understand in your generation as well?

Stephen Markley: I chose the terms because they are very identifiable. Everyone has heard of them, even if they might not be able to give the exact definition. Plus, I loved the idea of part of myself being this completely self-consumed narcissist and the even deeper part being just plain fucking crazy.

Jerry: One of the things I love about reading memoirs is that it helps me understand how other people think, what they believe, and so on. With your Ego and Id battle, you’ve given me a front row seat, but into what? How well do these scenes reflect your own inner process? Do you actually think about the battle of your mind? Were you trying to develop an authentic glimpse into your inner process?

Stephen: Obviously, everyone is more complicated than a simple three-way personality battle. I used that device because 1) it was comical and 2) it allowed me, Stephen Markley, off the hook. I had embodiments of poor decisions or cruel things I said or did. This sounds cowardly, but it helped me write more honestly. The crucial scene comes at the end, after I’ve found out that the book will be published, and my Ego’s swagger is suddenly gone. Because the only purpose the Ego ever serves is to buffer the writer from cold reality, criticism, and setbacks. When the Ego realizes the biggest obstacle has suddenly been removed, he becomes terrified. It was my way of showing that all ego is always a shield.

How authentic is any of this? I have no idea. I’d say it’s as close to the bone as I could cut. But when you’re sawing off your own arm, you might think you’re halfway done and look down to discover you’ve barely pierced the bicep.

How do young people end a memoir?

Jerry: In memoir writing workshops, many young people are nervous about writing memoirs because their lives have not arrived at the conclusion. For example, if an author had not yet married, how would they reach closure on loneliness? You seem to have addressed this problem head on, but not with a simple answer. You use a variety of literary devices to reach a conclusion. The strange thing is that you reach the end in several ways: with a relationship, with a long footnote (huh?), and with the publication of “this very book.”

Your ending was a send-up of memoir endings, and like your joke about discussing false memoirs in a false scene, you are ending the book with a variety of ways to end the book. I’m amazed that you have so much interest and passion about the form that you are sending up the whole structure of a memoir. Your youthful craziness is applied so beautifully to this writing challenge it makes me proud to have been young once. Thanks for this fun exploration of story form.

Stephen: You’re welcome.

Extreme Meta

Jerry: Your memoir takes the prize for meta- a book about itself. I told my writing group about the concept of your book, not really expecting them to understand what I was talking about. The moment the first sentence had left my mouth, they cracked up laughing. Your publisher apparently liked the joke, too.

Books that were huge in the college scene in the 60’s often had this self-referential or ironic or self-aware humor. An example that comes to mind is Catch-22 with all of its paradoxes, like the fact that Major Major Major was bullied because people thought he was being arrogant, which turned him into a recluse and yet also promoted him to becoming a major.

Just as the ironies and paradoxes did not detract from the serious points of Catch 22 (war stinks, power corrupts), I felt that your humor did not interfere with your serious points about the difficulties of growing up, the hunger of the aspiring artist, and the urgent relevance of compassion lurking within your devil-may-care attitude.

Do you find that self-referential humor is still a hallmark of college reading? Has the meta thing struck your college audiences as a big deal? Have you decided to hang your hat on meta, or do you think you’re just passing through?

Stephen: While I certainly don’t think the obsession with self-referential humor is anything particularly new, I do think the generation I’m a part of just finds it really engaging and useful given the times. Aside from that, books that call out people’s bullshit will always be popular. I remember reading “Catch-22” and just being floored. Same with “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and “Breakfast of Champions.” Young people just like to hear that the old and wise are actually old and unimaginative. It gives us hope that we can do better. As far as “meta” goes, I think that label is basically a buzzword. If you read my book, you do discover fairly quickly that for all its meta posturing it is as old-fashioned and classic a story as there is: young man on journey faces obstacles, ponders love, loss, friendship. It’s as sweet and simple as it comes, and that story will never go out of style.

It’s possible my next project will also be thoroughly meta, but that’s OK, I think, because it will be meta in an entirely different way than “Publish This Book” was. When it comes to choosing projects I will be driven entirely by my own inner angels and demons (with the possible influence of loads and loads of cash money).


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, click here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 3: Satire, Truth, and Risk

by Jerry Waxler

When you publish a memoir, you expose yourself to a variety of risks. In addition to the obvious one that not everyone will like your work, there are others, such as mistakes of memory, exposing vulnerable areas of self, and annoying relatives. If you want courage to balance on the high wire of your own memoir, look for inspiration from those who have gone before you. Take for example, Stephen Markley, author of  “Publish This Book.” He is a risk taker of the highest order. In this part of my multi-part interview, I ask about his willingness to take risks in his writing.

Jerry Waxler: There have been a few huge media dustups about memoirs that were demonstrated to have introduced major factual errors. You discuss this interesting topic when shown were teaching a classroom full of young, under-educated children. It’s a powerful scene, and the kids offer some of the cleverest commentary on false memoirs I have seen anywhere, but the whole time I was reading it, I thought my head was going to explode, like that robot in the original Star Trek series who short-circuited after the humans presented it with a paradox.

“These kids couldn’t possibly have said such complex things. You were faking the whole situation. Your memoir scene about false memoirs was false. Wait a minute. This book that I’m holding, ‘Publish this Book’ is supposed to be a memoir, meaning it’s supposed to be true. And you have a fictional scene in it about kids discussing false memoirs. Wouldn’t that make you one of those memoir falsifiers?”

I couldn’t tell whether to be pissed off or ecstatic over this mind-burn. Yes, I know that’s part of the joke, but it’s so complex, who in the world is going to get it? (Oh, wait a minute. I guess I did.) What do you have to say for yourself?

Stephen Markley: I honestly don’t see what there is to be mad about. I feel like the chapter’s intentions become clear at the outset when I’m describing my ex-Soviet bloc, John Birch-loving drug dealer. I’m daydreaming on the page about how I could possibly fake my own memoir and win the glory all writers know they desire. The point of the chapter is that “Publish This Book” is about a painfully dull guy told in an engaging way, and that, as I said earlier, anyone’s story has these moments. For instance, I’m sure James Frey may well have had a harrowing experience as an alcoholic, but instead of describing that, he made up this “willfully contrived” story that makes him out to be this James Dean-badass crack addict (I’m always baffled by people who defend “A Million Little Pieces” as “still pretty good” even though it essentially reads like a season of “24” only less believable).

The invented parts of that chapter are nothing more than a fun device, a way of discussing the serious and troubling implications of memoir fabulism without dropping a dull essay into the middle of the book.

I would like to somehow take a poll of the book’s readers to see how many of them actually got it (glad that you did). I’ve had many people ask me who the semi-famous actress I was sleeping with was…

Jerry: In fact, the whole book seems loaded with one risk after another. It’s too long. It’s too meta. It’s too political. You have this strange ending with multiple false starts that could be confusing for some readers. And yet it works. I guess that’s one of the hallmarks of humor, that you have to take risks and if someone doesn’t get it they think you are just being stupid.

In Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking,” she reports that in her early days, while she was still trying to make it, she went on Jack Paar’s television show. The audience loved her but Paar didn’t get it. He said “I didn’t believe a word she said” and refused not only to bring her back on the show. He refused to talk to her again. I already know from your book that you have had similar experiences with people confused by your intentions.

I am inspired by the fact that you keep trying to push forward and just focus on those people who do get you. I think all performers could learn a lesson from this sort of courage, to focus on the people who love you and ignore the ones who don’t. What sort of self-awareness do you have about this aspect of your courage to write?

Stephen: This goes to pretty much the heart of any kind of writing, no matter the form. There have been some really harsh reviews of the book, and I admit, when I first read these, my gut sank. But the kind of writing I do–and the kind of writer I want to be–is pretty much predicated on the idea that I am going to swing for the fences more often than not. What some call fearlessness, others will call dreck, and there ain’t a whole lot I can do about that.

To some degree, you have to be responsive to an audience–after all, I’m not just writing for myself. So I do listen to criticism and I do read what the people who despise me say. But on the other hand, I think being even a boring writer takes a pretty thick skin. I know a lot of people who simply haven’t developed the callouses they’ll need to see them through. However, if you want to be an entertaining writer, if you want to take chances pretty much every chapter (and when I was getting critiques from my writing groups, it felt more like every other page), you’ll need that thick skin more than ever.

One of the most personal parts of the book (and some of my friends told me it was one of the most interesting) are the chapters where my professor Steven basically tells me the book is terrible and he’s questioning if I’ve been faking my persona all these years. When all that actually happened, it really sucked, and I was pretty hurt. Then, when it came time to finish the book, I realized I had to put it in because it was so central to the conflict of writing the thing. It would have been so easy to take the coward’s route and leave those chapters out (not to congratulate myself or anything), but by keeping them in and inventing a fun device to jazz up what amounted to an e-mail exchange, I basically offered up one of the most devastating moments of my writing career for everyone to read.

For a long time I thought it might be an epic mistake (especially when I sent the finished manuscript to Steven), but whatever–you only live once, and Heaven sounds boring anyway.


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, click here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 2: Humor and Politics in his Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

“Publish this Book” by Stephen Markley is funny from the first glance at the cover to the last page. His quirky, irreverent style of humor does not work for everyone, which is evident from the hate mail he regularly receives. But it works for me, making it one of only a handful of books that have ever made me break out into a belly laugh. In this part of my six part interview, I ask Stephen more about being funny, and about including his politics. In a later section of this six part interview, I will ask him to comment on taking so many risks in his writing.


Jerry Waxler: Your writing is really funny. A number of times I found myself laughing out loud, or muffling it so my wife didn’t think I was losing my mind. I only rarely get a belly laugh from a book, but when I do, it is a real treat. I remember years ago cracking up in a waiting room reading John Steinbeck’s affectionate account of his dog in Travels with Charley. And I enjoyed the laughs I got from a Dave Barry book, who you said was at one time one of your literary heroes. But it puzzles me how any writer could learn this skill.

Joan Rivers (“Enter Talking”) and Steve Martin (“Born Standing Up”) had to struggle for years to make people laugh. It’s a daunting goal. But at least a stand up comedian knows whether or not the joke worked. A writer doesn’t have that kind of feedback. Do you remember how you learned to get people to laugh at your writing?

Stephen Markley: Writing funny is hard, for the reasons you just mentioned, but also because people have very different ideas of what they find funny. Believe me, as I’ve tried to write funny over the years, I get diametrically opposed reactions all the time. Someone will write me and say, “That was over the top!” “Not funny.” “You’re so juvenile, get a life.” And then I’ll open the next e-mail and it will be a girl telling me something I wrote caused her to laugh to the point of involuntary urination (I swear I have gotten this on multiple occasions). Therefore, all I can say is that much like a stand-up comedian, it’s been a lifetime of trial and error.

Jerry: Could you share a trick or two to help the rest of us steer towards this valuable skill?

Stephen: Yeah, probably not. All I can say is that over the course of my life, I’ve inadvertently become friends with a lot of people who are way smarter and way funnier than me. Once you’ve surrounded yourself with smart, funny people, you can steal everything they say, do, think, and believe, put it on paper and call it your idea. This is not plagiarism but rather a kind of mental osmosis. You just gather from the best sources, put it through the sausage-maker and out comes a really funny riff about a cussing baby trying to figure out what a human nose is.


Jerry: I thought that including one’s political leaning in a book would be strictly forbidden by the industry who wouldn’t want to piss anyone off. So I was surprised that you were so outspoken about your unabashed favoritism towards Obama. (Was I dreaming or did you actually work Noam Chomsky into a conversation? I think it might even have been a pick up line?)

Stephen: Yes, a girl in a bar tells me she didn’t expect to hear Noam Chomsky quoted in a country song.

Jerry: Did you have to struggle to assert your political position? Did your publisher give you any sort of feedback or pushback about it? What sort of feedback do you get from readers?

Stephen: I never struggle to assert my politics because I think about them constantly and they’re just part of who I am. For instance, I get really pissed off at myself when I use a plastic coffee stirrer because it’s a petrochemical product I’ll use once and then toss out, thus providing financing to petro-dictators and their terrorist affiliates while deepening our energy crisis. I once kept a single plastic stirrer in my desk drawer for seven months to avoid this guilt, but it got gross.

The point is not that I’m insane (although I might be), but that I no more could have written this book without including my politics than I could have written it without including my passion for writing. They’re both just parts of me that belonged. As far as the publisher, yes, I did get pushback at first, but as the book progresses, it’s easy to see why this political vein becomes more important (and plays in heavily to the fortuitous ending). I cut some of the more extreme animosity toward Hillary Clinton because a large chunk of the book was written during that primary when tensions were running high and everyone was a little crazy, but the rest stayed.

Readers tend to love it or hate it depending on their politics obviously. I recently got a letter from this guy in Florida who said he was a conservative Republican but he still loved the book. I asked him why, and he said everything but the politics spoke to him. So I guess it’s not a deal breaker for some people, but even if it is, like I said,I don’t particularly care.


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, click here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 1: Launching from College to Career

by Jerry Waxler

Stephen Markley, fresh out of college, decided to write a book about “publishing this very book,” a catchy idea which made it all the way from his imagination into my book store. (Read my review of “Publish This Book” here.) In this first part of a six part interview, I talk with Stephen about his transition from college into the working world.

Jerry Waxler: In my teens I read “Catcher in the Rye” and “Lord of the Flies” about the terrors of trying to grow up. In my early twenties I read books like Henry Miller’s “Sexus” about remaining a perpetual adolescent. But I had no literary heroes who actually grew up and became responsible adults. The absence of such role models may have contributed to my ineptitude at becoming an adult myself.

Flash forward 40 years: I am on the other end of adulthood reading your book about the complexities and anxieties of this life transition, joining you on your struggle to become a fully functioning career guy. I wondered if your book could have helped me, or more importantly could actually help a few people now who are struggling out of their college world and into the first leg of adulthood.

Did you read books in which this transition into adulthood helped you visualize where you were heading, or did you notice the same gap I did?

Stephen Markley: I certainly didn’t think of it that way at first, but since the book has come out, I’ve realized there really is a pretty noticeable gap of reading material about this life stage. I’ve since read a pretty awesome book by a guy named Keith Gessen called “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” and I think guys like Dave Eggers and Chuck Klosterman definitely speak to that moment in life, but as far as literary influences for “Publish This Book” I promise I had no overt ones.

Jerry: Were you conscious of this book fitting into that space?

Stephen: At first, not at all. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I began to realize I wasn’t just writing about trying to publish a book but also about this moment in life that it turns out is very, very familiar to people. After reading the first three chapters, a fortysomething guy in my writing group said, “This reminds me so much about my life after college, it’s eerie.” It meant nothing to me at the time, but it turns out that was an important moment in the book’s development.

Jerry: Have you heard from readers who appreciate this empathy for their own struggle to boost themselves across this threshold?

Stephen: Absolutely. The bulk of the e-mails and Facebook communiqués hit on this point first and foremost. People note moments in the book that they recognize from their own experiences: hating their jobs, not finding a job, being broke, struggling to figure out what they want to do, missing college, ending things with a significant other. People love to get these things off of their chests, and I think I just managed to articulate it well enough that it resonates with people living through a certain time and experience.

Jerry: Have you had feedback from readers who recognize the gift you are offering them of a sort of confused flawed role model on the journey towards “real life?”

Stephen: Well, “gift” may be a strong word. As I wrote the book, it wasn’t until I was 100,000 words in that I actually knew it was going to be read by anyone, so I generally didn’t think of myself as offering a gift so much as just generally bitching. Bitching humorously, but bitching nonetheless. Still, there’s a lot of bitching going on in anyone’s life, so it’s easy to empathize. I offered myself not as a confused, flawed role model, just as a guy who has problems like anyone and dreams like anyone. I worried in the book that my story was too normal, too uninteresting to merit attention (there’s a whole chapter on it), but I think that’s what makes people write to me and say, “Hey, man, this exactly what I’m going through right now.” Because most of us just have normal American lives, but even those normal lives are full of drama and conflict and hope and tragedy and hilarity and intrigue and wonder.