Once a year, Newfound Journal awards its Prose Prize to one author and publishes their work in a chapbook. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mark Leidner, winner of the 2016 Prose Prize, about some of the themes of his winning work and his relationship with writing.
Rebecca Henderson: Mark, did you write this piece specifically for the Prose Prize, or was it something you already had written?
Mark Leidner: I saw the contest advertised when I was in the middle of writing it. I thought because it’s multiple stories within a single story, it would make a good chapbook if selected.
Henderson: What aspect(s) of a relationship did you want to explore in your work?
Leidner: Thematically, I was thinking about overthinking in love. It’s related to a problem in computer science called “recursion.” Recursion occurs when a computer tries to make strategic choices in a context with so much uncertainty that any strategizing is wasted effort. The computer can get stuck trying to figure out what the right thing to do is when it should just move on. A sort-of example of this is the poisoning scene in The Princess Bride.
Most of my stories involve characters struggling to understand whether their circumstances are the products of chance, fate, or their own thoughts and actions. – Mark Leidner
If you obsess over trying to make the right choice in scenarios that have no right choices because they require the impossible task of predicting the behaviors of others who are also trying to predict your own behavior and act accordingly, you can become trapped in a recursive loop. Worse yet, anxiety can put you into a recursive loop with yourself. Trying to make a decision that will please your future self can be agonizing if your future self’s preferences are also unpredictable. Maybe it’s foolish to care about anything other than the present, then. If true, most of the characters in these stories don’t know that yet.
Also, formally, I was trying to make the conflict in each relationship so absurd that any thoughtful moment arising out of that absurdity would feel like a surprise.
Henderson: Did you decide to write the piece around the various quotes you included, or did they become part of the manuscript afterwards?
Leidner: While writing this, I was re-listening to Michael Drought’s Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, which is one of my favorite audiobooks. One thing Chaucer did brilliantly, and which I wanted to practice, was using a frame narrative to link a bunch of other sub-narratives. I think that such frames don’t even have to be that compelling if they interestingly contextualize the inner stories. So, the quotes were partially the result of experimenting with a frame narrative and partially just transitions improvised in the moment to add texture to each vignette.
Henderson: Which character do you relate with the most?
Leidner: For better or worse, I relate to them all more or less equally. No matter how stupid their point of view or ridiculous their situation, it echoes something I have felt or observed. My favorites are the aliens probably, but maybe that’s because their section is so brief and science fiction-y. The narrator is probably my least favorite, because in the writing process the narrator was invented to sew the vignettes together and not the other way around, so the narrator’s characterization feels a little thin. Though, by the last section, I do feel some sympathy for the narrator and hope others do too.
Henderson: Discussions of chance and fate seem to underlie this work. Is this theme something you continue to work with in your other pieces?
Leidner: Most of my stories involve characters struggling to understand whether their circumstances are the products of chance, fate, or their own thoughts and actions. I think it’s a question anyone with a conscience asks themselves from time to time. On a good day, I wonder if I deserve any credit at all for any success or happiness I have, or whether I should attribute it to the luck of birth. On a bad day, I wonder if all my choices have led directly to my own suffering, or I wonder if that suffering is scripted somewhere, say, on a scroll in heaven. Or I wonder if my and anyone’s suffering is completely random. I think how you attempt to resolve, or refuse to resolve, these sorts of thoughts determine the logic of your conscience, which determines your behavior. I like to explore that with every character. The explicit nature of chance and fate in “21 Extremely Bad Breakups” is probably a result of that desire, plus the formal impulse to make each conflict as absurd as possible. I think absurdity and fate go hand in hand. Absurd twists feel fated because fate is just a broader pattern that we can fit anything, no matter how unexpected, into.
Whatever you want to do, try it, make a mistake, reflect on why you failed, let go of the mistake, then try it again with new understanding. – Mark Leidner
Henderson: How do you see place shaping identity, imagination, and understanding in this work?
Leidner: I like places that are tropes—cafés, deserts, cityscapes, apartments—more than actual communities anchored in a specific geography and history. For example, there’s an abundance of stories about Los Angeles. Some are about the real LA, and others skew toward an imagined LA. I usually opt for the imagined version of a place. For one, I haven’t been many places, and the places I’ve been feel almost too interesting for me to ever to justice to in a story. I have also been trying to make films for a few years, and that has only increased my tendency to think about place as a “location” that you can either sell on camera or not. I also think I’m not skilled enough, like the great writers are, to write about specific communities rooted in specific places with specific histories. If you aim for realistic portrayal of an actual place and fall short, it sticks out more than if you aim for an imagined portrayal and fall short.
Henderson: What is your favorite style or form of writing?
Leidner: I can get into anything. I love poetry, especially anything ancient. My favorite stories have surprising plots, complex and memorable characters, blend humor and sadness, and have a theme that makes me reflect on life in a way that I can remember and apply to living. If I could only read one author, it would probably be Shakespeare, due to sheer density of the above. Since I’ve been trying to write movies for the past few years, my current favorite kind of writing is what goes into high-concept B-movies like The Perfect Host and Grand Piano. Any story that begins with a preposterous setup and develops it into something vaguely thrilling is my favorite.
Henderson: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Leidner: Trial, error, reflection, letting go, and trying again . . . is the only process I’ve ever found that allowed me to learn anything about love, life, or writing. Whatever you want to do, try it, make a mistake, reflect on why you failed, let go of the mistake, then try it again with new understanding. If you do that enough times—5, 10, 10,000—I believe you will learn what you need to in this life. The more times you can cycle through that process without giving up, or dying, the faster you will learn, and the more things you can apply it to, the broader your learning will be. For writing, specifically, I think school can supplement this process, but it’s not an effective substitute for it. Everyone I’ve ever known who was a good writer, a good person, or had a loving relationship, arrived at it through chance, fate, or this process.
Henderson: What was the hardest part of writing this piece? [Spoiler alert!]
Leidner: I struggled the most with the performance artists’ plot. A few readers suggested that I not make their breakup an elaborate performance, arguing that it sucked the wind out of their interpersonal conflict. That’s a criticism I don’t disagree with, but, ultimately, I needed to make their relationship do something new relative to the others stories. Being meta was perhaps not the best way to do that, but it was the best idea I could think of at the time. I still go back and forth about it.
Rebecca Henderson holds a Master’s in German and a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing. Best expressing herself through the written word, she enjoys the smell of burning rubber and can recite the ABC’s of the automotive world upon command. Rebecca hopes to shift your world perspective through her words, because looking out the same window every day hardly makes for an interesting life.