Sometimes I come across a writer so gifted and so eloquent I feel a need to encourage everyone I know to read him or her. Such is the case with Mark Richard, author of House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home. Rather than lather on lots of praise and compliments, though, I’ll excerpt a few passages from this memoir so you can read for yourself what I’m talking about.
I should note that I work with special needs adults and so a book chronicling a person described by others as “special” (though in this case it’s physical not mental problems) gets my attention and, at the same time, raises red flags that the author might exaggerate or otherwise play with the reader’s emotions. That is not the case here — he handles that subject with finesse.
While this is Richard’s first book of nonfiction he has won praise and awards for his novel Fishboy, and for short stories he has written. Some of those short stories are collected in the book The Ice at the Bottom of the World.
For this memoir he makes the daring choice to tell the story in second person, something a reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor sums up this way: “This is a powerful move – heavy artillery in any author’s arsenal. But deploying the second person in a memoir, as Mark Richard does in the entrancing House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home, is like dropping an atomic bomb. Richard’s prose is gorgeous – and hits with a force that sometimes stuns.”
Thus you get gems like this:
“Say you are a special child. Say one reason you are special is because there is something wrong with your legs. You cannot run. Your legs will not move fast enough. When you try to run, your hips click and pop. When you have to run a race … you pretend to trip and fall and not finish the race. You avoid footraces; you avoid running at all. When something bad happens and everyone else runs away, rocks thrown through greenhouse glass, loose spikes thrown at passing caboose windows, fishing boats untethered along a riverbank, you know you will have to face whoever is coming in their anger. You learn you must never get caught.
“In the new town the teachers don’t say you are special as the teachers did in the old town. They use the word ‘slow.’ And you are slow. But they also say you are slow when you are sitting at your desk unable to color the state bird. You can’t get the red crayon to work on the cardinal in a way that makes the teacher happy. Your father has said to be careful about signing your name to anything, so you don’t put your name on your homework. A suspicious teacher has said that if your parents are really from Louisiana, you must be able to speak French. ‘Oui,’ you say.”
Or this:”The problem with asking God for signs is that He sends them. You drive along a country road late at night and see a little cross atop a little church lit with a spotlight and you say, Okay, if You are real, make that light go out, and the light goes out.”
And, say, this scenario:
“You are working digging irrigation ditches, and one day you go into a convenience store to buy some beer and check out the magazines. There’s an Atlantic Monthly in the rack and you are surprised to see that you are a finalist in their American short story contest; the judge is John Updike. Boatwright (your teacher) had entered your story without telling you. You swing the nose of your truck homeward … A publisher sees the Atlantic Monthly and sends you a letter asking if you have a novel, so you write a science fiction novel called The Bug Hunters. It’s about shrimp farming in space on an aquatic planet where a father and a son shoot it out with .38 revolvers and there are Brazilian seafood pirates devoured by large eels. You send it to Boatwright for his opinion, and he sends you a note telling you, ‘You’re wasting your time and your talent….’ (Mark Richard writes a book). Your book comes out and nothing happens. A friend of yours who works at The Washington Post calls the publicity department of your publisher to get a copy to review, and they tell him you are not one of their authors. When he calls again, they tell him you are dead…. When it comes time for your book to go into paperback, the publisher says it may not be going into paperback. The publisher’s office says nobody has been buying your book. A week later, it’s announced that your book has won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award and you’ll be flying to Boston to receive the award from Norman Mailer.”
See how beautiful and fascinating this is? One more: He is considering going to steal a Playboy magazine but then writes, “The long afternoon you stand across from the bus station on your crutches you learn an important lesson: there are many great protections against temptation, and cowardice is one of the best.”
What was your goal with this book? How well do you think you succeeded?
My goal originally had been to find the pieces of Nat Turner’s body and “reassemble” them narratively. After Turner’s unsuccessful slave rebellion in my home county of Southampton County, Virginia, Turner was captured, hanged, decapitated, skinned by surgeons and boiled into fat. Many locals kept pieces of his skin as mementos and made them into coin purses, Bible covers, etc. I was interested in tracking down as much of Nat as I could, interviewing people as to how the artifact came into their possession. Of course, I hit a lot of dead ends, and silences, though I have an idea where some pieces of Turner remain. In fact, I think his skull survived a warehouse fire in Chicago a few years ago. I’d still like to find out.
Which do you find more difficult: Writing fiction, writing memoir or writing for television shows like Party of Five, Chicago Hope and Huff?
Television writing is the most difficult for me. It’s a craft all to itself. So much information to transmit in such a short amount of time. There’s a shorthand to television writing that I am still learning and am a great admirer of when I see it done well. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of room for nuance in a lot of cases. An early producer told me “If it’s not on the nose, it’s not on the page.”
You wrote the screenplay for the movie Stop-Loss. Are you planning on writing more TV shows or movies?
I’m working on a new TV show now called Hell on Wheels for AMC. It’s the story of a Confederate Civil War veteran tracking down the Union soldiers who raped and murdered his wife and killed his son while he was away fighting. It’s set against the building of the transcontinental railroad so it’s large in scope – veterans, Irish workers, freed slaves, robber barons, Indians — all colliding on the Great Plains.
How did winning awards and acclaim for fiction change your life and your writing process? I’m assuming it gave your more confidence about your abilities and skills even if it didn’t always improve things financially.
I’ve enjoyed receiving awards and yet it doesn’t help writing the next thing. If anything, it can slow you down, or slow me down at least. Sometimes I might feel like I shouldn’t go crazy on the page, just keep the writing to what it’s been, to what people respond to with the awards. Fortunately, once you get writing again, all that fear goes out the window when you realize you have no choice, you have to be free of all those worries to get a good word down on the page.
Are you still planning on going through seminary? I was surprised by how involved you became with the church given your comments early in the book such as on page 33 saying that anyone who would say “suffer the little children” must be a jerk. How do you square, or to what do you attribute, your change over time?
From page 33:
“One day after lunch, instead of a nap, a nurse takes you and her purse out in front of the hospital to wait for a taxicab. The taxicab takes the two of you to a laboratory downtown. By the way the nurse pets your head, you know this is going to be bad. They give you a shot that makes you drowsy and begin to dream, but you don’t fall all the way asleep. While you are drowsy and beginning to dream, they lay you on your side and push long needles into your spine. Someone in your dream is screaming.
It’s you. Later in the taxicab back in the hospital the nurse holds you in her arms like a backseat pieta, the sunlight burns your eyes, and the telephone wires hand and loop, hang and loop. In the hospital auditorium you had noticed these words painted in large letters over the stage SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN TO COME UNTO ME.
Who said that? you ask the nurse who took you to the laboratory, the nurse who sometimes sneaks Coke in your mental spout cup when everyone else gets tap water. Nurse Wilfong.
Jesus. Jesus Christ, she says.
What kind of jerk would want little children to suffer? you wonder.
Nurse Wilfong says you’re constipated. They keep track of everyone’s bowel movements in a ledger. You didn’t you had to report a bowel movement while you were still walking around, if they hadn’t sent you upstairs yet to let the young doctors practice taking you apart and nailing you back together.
Nurse Wilfong wants you to drink chalky stool softener while you want to talk about what a jerk Jesus must be if that’s what he said about children and suffering. It’s creepy, like the older boys going around saying a kid down in North Carolina went into a department store bathroom and some man cut his penis off with a pocketknife. The older boys say it was in the newspaper.
I didn’t understand “suffer” meant “allow” until much later, and by then I had been reading some writers who a lot of people read about spiritual matters – C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine and for me especially, Flannery O’Connor. I’ve also enjoyed smaller daily books – God Calling and Streams in the Desert. I think my conversion had less to do with reading massive theological tomes than seeing small acts of God’s grace fall around me and occasionally on me.
Both you and your sons sound intellectually gifted as you articulate how advanced and different you were from your peers. Did the testing they did of you bear this out as well?
My mother to this day boasts that I had the highest I.Q. scores ever recorded in Brunswick County but that was so long ago, and most of my contemporaries were poor black children and poor white sharecropper children, so I don’t think the bar was set very high. It’s all relative.
Do you think you have more appreciation for the special needs/special ed field having grown up being treated as the “special child”?
Certainly, as I have been a special needs child myself, though back then the terms were “special” and “crippled.” Just yesterday my eldest son and I were at the new Challenger division Little League game where he volunteers. You see kids with all kinds of needs playing a chaotic and fun game of baseball, blind children, children in wheelchairs, autistic kids — it’s great. By the way, this is a fairly affluent neighborhood, and I wasn’t aware of how many special needs kids live around here. The organizers were expecting maybe six or ten kids, and about thirty showed up. The parents are so grateful. There were a lot of choked-back tears on Opening Day, a beautiful thing was going on on that field.
The decision to write this in second person was brave – why did you decide to write it that way?
I don’t know, most pieces dictate how they will be told, and this piece chose second person. Also, I’m from a generation of Southerners in which it is common in storytelling to use the second person especially when the story may seem incredible. It invites the reader in and lends intimacy while for the writer it allows a tiny bit of necessary distance to write or say difficult things.
You describe in the book having a variety of odd jobs, including a disc jockey, a fishing trawler deckhand, a house painter, a naval correspondent, an aerial photographer, a private investigator, a foreign journalist, a bartender, and an unsuccessful seminarian. Which of those were your favorite, which most satisfying?
All were satisfying in their own ways and none was ultimately satisfying. Some days I still wish I could be the guy walking around the monkey house in Audubon Park zoo picking up trash with a nail on the end of a stick.
What are you working on next?
Besides the TV show, I’ve been sketching out something that I would like to think could be a young adult novel but I’m not sure. I have three young sons and I’d like to write something they would like to read. I’d like it to be a cross between Deliverance, Huck Finn, and Catch-22. I don’t know yet. I have a lot of little moleskin books in which I scribble notes. I see characters everywhere, in my sons’ Boy Scout troop, skateboarding down our street, and I assign little story lines to them. Yesterday I was at my eldest son’s jazz ensemble concert and the keyboardist suddenly got a massive nosebleed but kept on playing during a cover of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein.” I had to pull out my notebook and write it down.