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A writer who resists categorization but whose writing is always characterized by passion and integrity... meet Richard Marcus.

Blogcritic of the Month, December 2006: Richard Marcus

The purpose of this monthly series is to highlight an outstanding contributor to the site as chosen by the editorial staff. This designation is meant to recognize and celebrate the best of the best, those writers who not only shine by virtue of their talent, but whose ongoing participation gives all of us a reason to tune in each and every day. As new readers are continually discovering Blogcritics, we also hope to introduce these fine writers to a new audience.

Please join me in a virtual round of applause for this month’s honoree, Richard Marcus!

We first encountered him here in June of 2005, a writer who called himself Gypsyman and whose work was remarkable for its breadth, its honesty, and its prolific nature. Some 357 articles later, Gypsyman unmasked himself and we met Richard Marcus, a self-described “long-haired Canadian iconoclast who writes, reviews, and opines on the world as he sees it.”

In the past eighteen months, Richard has graced these pages with an impressive 655 articles (as of this writing). To attempt to pigeon-hole him is futile. Is he a music writer? Yes, certainly, and a book reviewer as well. A politics writer? A prolific one, to be sure. An observer of contemporary culture? That sounds like him, too.

In short, Richard’s contributions to BC have spanned the site and are remarkable not only for their breadth, but for the attention to detail that his work evidences. Not content to merely tell you whether a book or a recording is worth your time, Richard will tell you everything you need to know about the artist and the genre in which he or she creates. Haven’t paid too much attention to Canadian politics? You’ll know more than you ever thought possible after you’ve read a few of the articles in his series. While his writing is impossible to categorize, it is always characterized by Richard's passion – for his work and his subject matter – and his personal integrity.

Honesty and unflinching self-examination are also qualities that can be found in Richard’s writings. It’s impossible to have read his work here and not feel as though you know the man, sight unseen. Music Editor Connie Phillips, whose section is a frequent home to Richard’s work, says, “Richard Marcus brings passion to his writing. Whether his topic of choice is politics, his NaNoWriMo attempts, or his reviews for the music section, he writes from his heart and draws his reader in.” And it’s that personal connection that keeps us reading.

BC publisher Eric Olsen sums Richard up perfectly when he says, “No one writes with more of himself than Richard Marcus: his sensitivity, generosity of spirit, insight, and personal honesty are unprecedented. Blogcritics would be a very different and lesser place without him.”

Before we get to the interview, a bit of background on Richard, in his own words:

I was born in a one-room log cabin with an igloo outhouse. Oh, alright… I was born in Ottawa, Canada sometime in the previous century when a Kennedy was President of the United States. My father worked in the Justice Department of the Federal Government and we moved between Toronto and Ottawa twice before I was twelve. He switched to corporate law when I was fifteen and we moved backed to Toronto where I lived until 1990.

I studied theatre in University and worked in theatre as an actor/director/producer and technical director from 1982 until ’92, by which time I'd had enough. I had started writing during my time in theatre and had one script produced, an adaptation of Dalton Trumbo's book Johnny Got His Gun, which I wrote while watching the first Gulf War on CNN. Instead of music I used news items from the broadcast as transitions between scenes.

I moved to Kingston, Ontario in 1990, which is where I currently live with my musician wife and our four cats. I turned my energies towards writing in the early nineties with poetry and the occasional short story. Currently I'm on a provincial government disability pension and write whenever and whatever I can. My first novel, The Paths Life Takes, is sitting in the offices of Penguin India awaiting a decision, and I have self-published two collections of articles that I've culled from my work at Blogcritics: NaNoWriMo Notes – An Exercise in Creative Insanity and Voices of Creation: The Blogcritics Interviews. The former is from the series of the same name at Blogcritics, while the latter consists of the interviews I've conducted over the past year accompanied by reviews of each of the subject’s works.

 

Q&A: The Serious Stuff

Your work spans the entire site in terms of content (I think you have yet to write a gaming article, but everything else has been covered), and has a huge amount of depth. Rarely do I read one of your music reviews, for example, without learning a great deal about either the genre or the artist. Learning any one subject in depth is enough for most writers, but you seem to have all your bases covered, from politics to music. Where does that relentless need to know come from, and how do you go about doing your research?

I hate to admit it, but I actually do very little research, or I should say that what I do is mostly find the articles that will substantiate what I already know. I think a clue to me might be found in the fact that my wife refers to me as her database/encyclopedia.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOver the years I've become a walking compendium of general knowledge. Perhaps it's because when I was in school a general liberal arts education wasn't considered a sin, and accumulating knowledge for the sake of accumulating knowledge was seen as something normal, not deviant. I would guess that even under those circumstances I was probably a little unusual in the amounts of information I had accumulated on my own.

Part of it comes from my family, in that reading was always considered the first choice for entertainment over anything else. If I complained about being bored, I would invariably be handed a book to read, or given suggestions as to which books to read; it became second nature for me to seek out books at an early age. So much of my general knowledge of things like history, social conditions of different ages, cultures and whatever comes from the number of books I read as a kid.

The fact that I was easily bored also meant that I was constantly looking for new things to be amused or entertained by. So I would devour huge numbers of books on many different subjects and file the information away for another day. It was really quite ridiculous when I think about it now, the amount that I knew almost without being aware of it. When I was in grade twelve I showed up for my end of year exam in European History having studied for French and still finished in the top of my class.

When I told the teacher afterwards what had happened he said that I probably could have written the exam on the first day of school and still done better then the majority of my classmates. I didn't really understand the implications of that until years afterward. But in some ways I'm a bit of a freak because I do have so much information at my fingertips, and I don’t think anything of it. I'm always surprised that not everybody knows the stuff I do.

When I do research on something or somebody now, it's second nature to fall back on the old pattern of finding something to read about it, preferably as first-hand an account as possible that I can find on the web, which in the case of a writer or musician usually means their own website, and for news I'll usually use The Globe And Mail. For historical events I'll try to find at least two sources, an overview and one that substantiates the first; preferably ones that are as neutral as possible. Wikpedia is my usual starting point because they provide the best general overview of a subject. If I want any more specific detail on a subject I can usually find a link from there that will help, or I'll do a search relating to that specific topic.

I really enjoy the research aspect of writing a story, and if I'm not careful will sometimes get lost for a couple of hours just wandering around the web following a trail. In some ways it's like putting together the pieces of a novel, you find out the plot and the major characters involved in the action. The only things that stop me from going deeper and deeper into the story – researching all the individuals involved, etc. — are common sense and time constraints.

I spent years accumulating all sorts of bits and pieces of knowledge about subjects ranging from sports to the times of the crusades and honestly never really found much of a purpose for it. Now in the past few years that I've begun writing on an almost full-time basis, all those little bits and pieces are being put to use. It's like everything I have done up until now has been in preparation for what I'm doing, at least that's what I like to tell myself when I wonder what ever possessed me to become a writer.

If you had to restrict yourself to one type of writing (not that we'd want you to, mind you), which area would you be most content to work in, and why?

What a mean and nasty question. But actually it's not as hard as you think because I could make a case for writing about almost any subject under the Culture heading. That's cheating, I know, but I'd hate to have to choose to write in only one category because I would get bored so quickly.

I'm also tempted to say books and writing, but there would come a point where that would start to drive me crazy, because there's only so many books you can review without your brain snapping, and believe it or not, I do get bored talking about my own writing after a while.

So I would choose the Culture category because it is the most open-ended of the headings. In fact I'd say aside from reviews I would think that the Culture category is the one I write the most for anyway. It seems that the topics, even political ones, that interest me the most have to do with how we work as a society and the rules that we impose on each other in attempts to control the way we interact, and that's definitely culture-related.

In Culture I can also have fun with stuff like new age and other gobbledy-gook and write satires about the strange things people do to avoid doing anything constructive about themselves. That of course leads to all the "sincere sharing" that passes for the exchange of information on Oprah – until, of course, it's found out to be all lies (well, only the once).

There are also the more serious issues like how different cultures view the same situation and the misunderstandings that can arise from those different interpretations. Or how our chauvinism can blind us to the fact that maybe ours isn't the only way to do things. It's the perfect section in which to do a lot of comparative studies in an effort to build bridges between philosophies, instead of the usual building of walls that goes on in most of today's media. I don't know if anyone reads those articles when I write them, but at least it gives me a forum where I can make the attempt.

Of course I can also expound upon art to my heart's content whenever I feel like it as well. Unfortunately those usually end up being diatribes that probably get up people's noses a little too much, but that's what having an opinion is all about.

To be honest that's probably what I like about the Culture section the most; it's the place you can be the most opinionated of all on the site. Even in Politics there are more constraints just because you end up toeing a party line too often; in Culture you can just let loose with both barrels. That's fun.

You've done a long-running series on NaNoWriMo and have written extensively about your experiences as a writer. How has the Internet influenced the writing life, both generally speaking and yours in particular? What kind of impact has your affiliation with BC had on your work?

"It was the best of times and it was the worst of times"… That's really what I think of the Internet in terms of its general effect on writing. A while ago I wrote an article for BC and the title was along the lines of "Blogging and Writing Aren't the Same Thing." A lot of people got upset with that because they took it personally and didn't understand what I was talking about.

What I had been trying to say was that people had begun to assume that because they could put words on the Internet, that qualified them to be an author. That they had even less knowledge of sentence structure than me, and wrote using Internet short form (u r 2 kind) hasn't seemed to deter them from thinking that their life stories are of interest to publishers.

In early 2006 when I started to shop around for a publisher for my manuscript, I discovered that many of the houses – Orion, Penguin, Random House, and Harper Collins, to name only a few – had stopped accepting manuscripts from authors without agents as of November 2005. In an interview I read with an editor from Alfred Knopf, he said that it was directly as a result of the number of bad manuscripts they had started to receive in the previous two years from people who wanted to tell their life stories.

He said that not only was 90% of the subject matter ridiculous but that the majority of the manuscripts they received weren't even in an acceptable form for reading. It was like people had just printed off their blog pages and submitted them as books to be published.

In my mind far too many publishing houses stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts at the same time for it to be a coincidence. Even looking for agents was difficult; a lot of them had begun only accepting authors who had previously published, not self-published, with a reputable publisher.

What had already been an almost closed door for new writers in North America and England had become a drawbridge drawn up and bolted. Getting your work even seen by a publisher would take a small miracle, let alone managing to have it published.

On the other hand though, the Internet has provided people who are serious about their writing with some golden opportunities that were not previously readily available. Sites like Blogcritics where you can have your work published on a regular basis, while at the same time receiving critiques on your writing in a generally professional manner, are a godsend to aspiring writers like myself.

Prior to the Internet you would probably have had to enroll in some sort of creative writing course through a community college and pay for the privilege of maybe having one story critiqued over a two or three week period by someone with dubious qualifications. At Blogcritics there are I don't know how many different editors now, each of whom have something they can offer to a writer in order to help them develop good habits no matter what they want to end up doing.

I admit that I sometimes get frustrated with some of the editorial decisions, but that's more my stubbornness in not wanting to admit that sometimes less is more. Learning how to write a good clean paragraph is much more important than flashy prose. That your first priority should be to make sure you’ve written something comprehensible is an idea that has finally begun to take root in my brain.

That this is happening at all is mainly due to the patience of certain editors at Blogcritics, and their willingness to keep hitting me over the head with a two-by-four, for which I will be eternally grateful.

The other thing that has happened for me because of the Internet has been the opportunity to connect with other writers on a personal and professional level. There are three gentlemen in particular, men whose books I've reviewed, who have been of incredible assistance to me both professionally and as moral support.

I'm still slightly amazed that they consider me their equal (one has published eight very successful books in England, the other who knows how many around the world, and the third is in the middle of a four-book contract with Orion books of England) and have no problems writing me back with advice and even reviewing my work for me at the site where I've self-published.

Without the Internet or Blogcritics I would never have had any of these opportunities, so for me personally it has advanced my career farther and faster than I really had a right to expect.

You put a great deal of your personal life into your writing — do you find it therapeutic to put some of this stuff down on the page, and do you ever wish you'd held more back?

I haven't really given the whole issue of utilizing my personal life that much thought. My intent when I write about those issues is not to talk about myself but to use myself as an example. It's true that I probably wouldn't have written about the subjects if I didn't have personal experience with them, but I don't think they are topics that anyone would be inclined to just start talking about off the top of their head anyway.

It's also not a decision I reached lightly. It's taken me about eleven or twelve years before I've become comfortable enough, or even able to, write about the sexual abuse I went through as a child. Anyway I don't think I've ever really specifically sat down to write about those circumstances, it's always been in reference to other subject matter.

I've written about things like repressed memory syndrome because I believe that it exists and I believe that I'm proof that it does. I've written about EMDR therapy using myself as an example of how it can be effectively used to let people know that it is a viable means of therapy and if properly utilized can be of great help.

My own experiences are important within the context of those subjects, but to be honest, having to live with stuff like chronic pain is tedious enough without talking about it just for the sake of talking about it. The times when I've written about it have been in an attempt to tell people about the reality of a person who has to live with it, to let people know that pain is an illness and that it needs to be treated like one.

I'm not writing those articles for sympathy or to be inspirational or whatever reasons people have for going on Oprah and telling their life stories. When I think of what I could have written, I've actually said very little about myself on the pages of Blogcritics, or anywhere else publicly.

I'm constantly amazed at how personal and confessional people are on their blogs, and I don't necessarily see that as being equivalent to good writing. There needs to be some other reason for writing about those types of topics than just talking about your life, or it becomes self indulgent

I happen to think I'm pretty blessed: I have a place to live, enough to eat, a wife who loves me, and I get to write every day, something I wouldn't be able to do if I were healthy enough to be working. If ever I even start feeling a little sorry for myself I think of people like Jay Gordon, the co-author of The Eldarn Sequence who died this time last year of ALS, but who was able to keep writing and contributing to the writing of the trilogy until the last month of his life. Now that guy was amazing.

Anyway I have no regrets about using myself as an example for certain articles I've written and I hope none of them have ever come across as whiny or looking like I'm appealing for sympathy. If they did then my regret would be that I didn't do what I wanted to do with the article, not that I wrote about myself.

What's the hardest part of writing?

You mean aside from grammar, spelling, sentence structure, editing, proofreading, and any of the other technical things that I still struggle with? I'm going to assume so, because otherwise we can stop right here. If my spell check didn't work – I shudder to think (although I'm getting better – my Word documents no longer look like they've been over to Dracula's when a food fight has broken out) …

I think the hardest thing for me is getting the words on the page to be as exciting as they sound in my head. I'll have a thought that sounds great, or really profound, but when I write it out it just doesn't seem that exciting anymore, or say exactly what I wanted it to say. It's not even necessarily because of sentence structure or style problems, although that is sometimes the case, because even when I fix those it still doesn’t ring true to my ear.

It's almost as if I have a tune in my head, but I can't quite remember it well enough to sing it out loud. Or I only know one or two of the words in a verse but I'm trying to write it out anyway. Sometimes it ends up meaning I haven't thought out the idea fully, or that I'm still not quite sure what it is I want to say. But other times it's like the words just don't want to come.

Sometimes I feel like I'm writing in a foreign language, or that the words at my disposal weren’t created to do what I'm trying to do. Everything feels like a compromise and I'm continually struggling to write even a few hundred words.

I feel like I'm not living up to my own expectations of what I should be capable of accomplishing when I write. I'm relatively smart; I've done whatever research required to write the article, but everything I write sounds trite or superficial, most definitely not what I want it to sound like.

I guess what I'm talking about is 'voice', the way a particular writer's work sounds like when it's read off the page or silently in one's head. Some days no matter how hard I try I just can’t recreate how I think I should sound on paper. I read back what I've written and it sounds all right in most of the important ways, but it doesn't sound like I wrote it.

The hardest thing for me to do on a continuous basis is to bridge the gap between conversation and writing. How can I make it sound like I'm talking to the person who is reading my articles and not "telling" them something? If it doesn't sound like I wrote it to my ear, how believable is it going to sound to the person reading it?

Maybe that's demanding too much of myself, but that's what I strive for whenever I sit down to write something – fiction or non-fiction, it makes no difference. I want the person reading to feel like they are involved in the article as much as I was in writing it.

That's still my biggest struggle everyday when it comes to the creative side of writing.

Q&A: The Fun Stuff

What book/CD/DVD do you have more than one copy of, in case something happens to the original one?

None at all, but if I could I'd probably back up every book I owned and store them somewhere else. I once lost my whole library of books and records when a roof caved in – including some rare first editions that I had cherished of e.e. cummings poetry. Very depressing.

If you had to pick one sense to do without, which of your five senses would it be?

Smell. I hate perfumes, which people seem to bathe in; the smell of dryer sheets, and all those other things people use to cover up the fact they don't wash.

What do you wish they'd do a series about on TV?

Something to do with most people's reality, going to work, and trying to survive without it being a soap opera or without any shtick.

If you could, would you swap sexes for a week?

God, no — and have to put up with men?

What do you think you'd learn if you could swap to the opposite sex?

What pigs men really are.

What sports team will you love until the day you die?

The Montreal Canadians.

What's one sign that you're a total nerd?

I like troubleshooting my computer. I can spend hours trolling through the system files and tweaking this and that in an effort to improve performance by a hair.

What's the first book you recall reading?

Paddington Goes Abroad by Michael Bond – I still own the same copy forty years later.

What magazines do you subscribe to?

None.

Who is your favorite writer?

Currently? Neil Gaiman – I don't really have a favourite writer of all time, but if I had to chose between buying one author over another, I think my first choice among people still writing would be Steve Erikson because he's in the middle of a ten-part series I'm hooked on.

Who is your least favorite writer?

That's even harder, because it's very rare that I'll read anything by people I don't think I'll at least halfway enjoy, but of authors I've read, I really don't like Charles De Lint. He seems too in love with the darkness he writes about instead of merely including it as part of his stories. He feels to me like one of those anti-porn people who, while pretending to deplore what they are talking about, secretly lust after it and make your skin crawl.

Do you have a favorite Blogcritic?

The one writer who I will always read is Al Barger. I hardly ever agree with my buddy, except for his great taste in music, but the fact of the matter is it's great to have people you disagree with who you can like and respect. I'd much rather know people like him than a lot of people who might have the same opinions as me. He's much more fun. Anyway who would call me a "beady-eyed Canadian" if he wasn't around?

What do you think is the best part of Blogcritics?

The fact that it exists. No I'm serious, it's probably the one place on the web that I've found (well, now there's Desicritics as well) where writers not only have the freedom to pretty much write what they like, but also have the pleasure of free editing and writing advice. If there's a better place to learn your craft out there while practicing it I haven't found it yet.

What song is stuck in your head right now?

My wife says I was just humming “Everything is Beautiful" which is really sort of depressing.

What do you have set as the home page in your browser?

Boring but true – Google.

Who was your idol as you were growing up?

I used to really like Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadians hockey team for the simple reason he was the first athlete I ever heard of who had my name as part of their name. The fact that he played for my favourite team didn't hurt.

What are three items you would need to have on a desert island?

A satellite dish, a radio transmitter, and an emergency beacon so I could get off the damn thing as quickly as possible.

What's the best place to get a meal in your neck of the woods?

Dollar for dollar the best place to eat is The Right Spot Diner where you can still get a real Clubhouse Sandwich for $4.95 and a milkshake delivered to your table in the mixer. The old Greek couple also sells homemade pies and desserts, plus houseplants. It's got all the chains beat by a mile.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

Change the way people view religion. Believing in God should be a beautiful thing, not a punishment or something you inflict on other people. Instead of religion being a place of wonder we have turned into a means of control. That is very sad.

Richard Picks Richard

We asked Richard to pick some of his personal favorites from among his BC writings. Do check these out, and check out the rest of Richard’s archive while you're at it.

You Know You May Be An Artist – My version of Jeff Foxworthy's "You Know You May Be A Redneck" but taking a fun look at the way I, and others I know, obsess about what we do. Partly serious but mainly tongue in cheek.

Sensitive New Age Guy – A piece of short fiction where our hero gets a little more than he bargained for at his meditation circle. But at least he gets the girl in the end.

Parts one and two of my interview with Willy DeVille – I don't know if it came across in the write-up, but these were two of the most fascinating hours I've ever spent on the phone. A truly remarkable man who has been through hell and back and still remains a remarkable performer and writer. I didn't receive permission to publish this interview in the book Voices of Creation, so it will always remain a Blogcritics exclusive.

Eggheads and Artsies: Scary Monsters and Super Creeps – This was another silly piece, but this time about growing up different and the difficulties of being a child and not fitting in for whatever reason. If you thought adults were hard on non-conformists, they're nothing compared to their children.
 
Right To Die – I've picked this one as my favourite heavy piece because it is something I believe in passionately. I firmly believe that we all deserve the right to die with dignity and not have to hang around when we don't want to and are merely suffering out our last days on earth for no reason. My biggest fear is that someday this will happen to me and those I love will be forced to see me become something that will cause them to suffer. I've already seen their faces when I've been hooked up to tubes and oxygen temporarily, and that was bad enough.

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