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Author Talk: August 23, 2018

Stephen Markley’s debut novel, OHIO, takes place in a small town in northeastern Ohio, which has been ravaged by the Great Recession, an opioid crisis, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One summer night in 2013, four former classmates converge on their hometown, each with a mission, all haunted by the ghosts of their shared histories. In this interview, Markley talks about his inspiration for the book and the research that went into it; how he crafted his characters’ individual voices, created their backstories and decided how their lives would intersect; the ways in which his work as a screenwriter and journalist has informed his fiction; and the enormous role that Toni Morrison’s novel SULA played in his decision to structure the story the way he did.

Question: Congratulations on your first novel. Can you talk about what lit that initial spark that inspired you to write OHIO?

Stephen Markley: I’d been trying to write a version of this book for maybe a decade. I think many young authors typically try to explicate the place they’re from in their early work. Everyone has a sense that we need to prove where we come from matters (usually because it does). I finally began to stumble upon the framework that would become the novel after this bad night I had back home bouncing around a few bars, not unlike a few characters in the book. All I’ll say is inspiration is fickle and unpredictable.

Q: Did you grow up in Ohio or the Midwest yourself? If so, how did it inform the writing process --- and if not, how were you able to channel such a strong sense of familiarity with a community like New Canaan?

SM: Yes, I did grow up in a small town in Ohio. Also, once I got my driver’s license in high school and my friends and I could sort of venture out to the surrounding towns and cities, I became fascinated by the mythology of places that maybe other people wouldn’t find very fascinating: Mansfield, Cleveland, Columbus, Youngstown, Akron, and every tiny burgh and rural highway that connects them. The history, the burdens, the creepy backwoods stories --- so much of it was sitting around in my head waiting to be used.

Q: Can you talk about your experiences in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop? Did you start working on OHIO while still a student?

SM: I went into Iowa extremely skeptical, to say the least, about what I’d get from the experience. Stubbornly, I never thought I’d go the MFA route, but there I found myself, and within two months, I was just chugging the Kool-Aid. I had early pieces of OHIO written before I went in, but it went through a Cambrian Explosion–style evolution once I arrived there. It was a completely life-changing experience, not only due to the people heading the classes but also because of my peers, who turned out to be a crop of such funny, fearless, brilliant people. I can’t even name names because the list is too long and full of too much dirt that would compromise people’s careers in the best kinds of ways.

Q: Besides a fiction writer, you also work as a screenwriter and journalist. How do these other types of writing inform your fiction?

SM: Probably discipline, research and curiosity. Having always worked with a deadline, I basically can’t imagine not finishing a piece of writing when I’ve set a date to finish it. This means I’m at my desk every day working, even when I’d rather not. It may sound like a small thing, but having met all the talented writers who go days, weeks, months without writing a word, I realize what an asset it is. There’s also this old Kurt Vonnegut interview banging around somewhere in which he says (I’m paraphrasing), “Great fiction writers tend to have things on their minds other than just fiction.” In other words, interviewing a healthcare policy wonk about the ramifications of the Affordable Care Act or a filmmaker working on a documentary about violence interrupters on the South Side of Chicago remains one of my best routes into fiction.

Q: Can you talk about what kind of research you might have done to write OHIO?

SM: A better question: “What kind of research did you say, ‘Eh, that might be a little much’?” Which is to say, I’m a total psycho. If I’d had any more time with the book, I would have been looking up shift change schedules at Jeld-Wen Windows and Doors plants because a fifth-string character happens to work at one. As a reader can probably tell, I spent a lot of time on the U.S. Army and the combat experience, a lot of time wandering around Walmarts striking up conversations with employees from which I’d later jank ideas. Most insanely, I practically wrote Stacey’s dissertation on ecological catastrophe in the context of the global novel, only to cut 97% of it from the final draft. But for me it’s not so much getting this detail or that detail right, but in fully inhabiting the character, in seeing the world through their eyes entirely. So even if I end up cutting 97% of this thing I spent a year researching, I still have it all in mind’s eye. I get how Stacey views her interaction with a waitress spouting off an unexpected line of poetry because I’ve sunk all that time and effort into being in her brain.

Q: The characters of OHIO are so visceral, each so vividly alive and strikingly unique. Can you talk about how you crafted their individual voices, created their backstories and decided how their lives would intersect? Is there one you relate to most?

SM: That’s tough. You steal a little from people you know here and there, a little from your own experience, and then the rest just follows. Pretty soon, they are as alive and real to you in your head as, say, a good friend you grew up with. You can predict what they’ll do most of the time, and then at others they surprise you. It helps that I wanted each character to have a central preoccupation (as I think we all do), a wound that’s never healed, and a way of viewing the world that is distinct and hard-won. One of the most surprising scenes to write was when Bill, this brazen antiwar activist, is telling Dan, a vet, that Dan fought these wars for nothing, that his experiences in these theaters and the people he lost to these conflicts were a waste. I had it in my head that Dan would come back at him hard, challenge him directly. But then I got to the page and Dan’s voice guided the scene elsewhere. He allows Bill to keep talking and talking, and suddenly the power between the two characters flips entirely. And the result, I think, is much more interesting, much more wrenching. There’s this weird thing where you have to let your characters behave as they would behave, even if it goes against what you had planned.

Q: Similarly, even though many of the characters commit acts of cruelty, violence or selfishness, you also render them in sympathy and humanity. Can you talk about how you prevented any character in OHIO from feeling like a clear-cut villain? Did you feel it was important for you to do so? Do you feel like there’s any hope left for them?

SM: One of the clearest lines in the book is that notions of “villains” or “evil” are basically childhood fairytales adults tell themselves. I’ve heard people refer to a certain character in the book as a “monster,” and though I’m way too polite to correct them, I think the novel speaks for itself about the danger of these simplistic categorizations. Behind what we think of as evil acts, there are wounds, there is damage, there is grief, insecurity, fear and loss. This is not a relativistic philosophy either. One can acknowledge and combat the horrible philosophies and dogmas and individual behaviors of our fellow human beings without doing ourselves the enormous disservice of simply grafting “evil” onto people we don’t like or don’t understand. But in imagining villains and heroes, I always keep in my head that villains love and are loved deeply by others, while heroes frequently do terrible, unspeakable things for which they can never forgive themselves.

Q: Did you always envision OHIO to be organized in overlapping sections (plus a prelude and coda), each focusing on one character? What challenges or rewards did you experience structuring the story this way?

SM: The four characters in four sections was always the base of the novel, and the coda and prelude sort of grew out of suggestions from my agent and editor. SULA by Toni Morrison (not a bad Ohio author herself) also played an enormous role. The introduction to that novel just comes at you like a Scud missile, and Morrison talks about how the introduction was the very last part of the book she wrote. I’d had this moment that kept coming up over and over, of the parade following the return of a dead soldier. As soon as I started writing it, I knew that was the way in. Beyond that, I just loved the idea of being lost in each character’s world, of viewing all of their lives backward and forward and getting these miniature climaxes on the way to an accelerating ending. The organization, I hope, gives the book a kind of propulsion, it hurtles the reader forward as he or she tries to decipher how it will all come together. So far, I’ve not heard anyone say, “Markley, c’mon, I saw that coming.” You just want those last 40 pages to shock you and yet feel totally inevitable in retrospect. To leave you scrambling to unearth all the hidden depths of New Canaan.

Q: Were there any particular books, music, films or anything else that inspired or informed OHIO?

SM: I’m very bad at this question, panic and answer it differently every time. Like I think saying Bruce Springsteen and Toni Morrison is not inaccurate, but neither is Quentin Tarantino and Dead Prez or Edward Hopper and the poet Lisa Wells. It’s not that one seeks to be influenced, but that pieces of art and reportage and the irreducibly bizarre experience of being alive act upon your central vision at all times in ways you can never predict or understand.

Q: Can you talk about what you’re working on now? Do you think you’ll ever return to the characters of OHIO or the town of New Canaan?

SM: I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m in this place right now, with a book that, no matter what happens with sales or reviews and all that other glitter, is something I’m deeply proud of, that has this team of incredible people behind it and who believe in it. I don’t want to take any of that for granted.

Q: If you had to name a single emotion or feeling that you feel drives OHIO, what would it be? What overarching feeling do you want to leave readers with after they finish the book? What do you want them to take away?

SM: The interaction between the writer and the reader is the mystical, ethereal, inexplicable place, right? Like I know what I think is in my book and what it should be evoking and how it should be read, but as with every piece of literature, the reader will bring his or her own hopes, biases, determinations and dogmas to it. Like I can say that it’s a novel about love and loss and war and recession and addiction and ecology and religion and trauma and hope in the dark, but I’m not sure that means much except to taint that inexplicable encounter. Hell, I’m not even sure authors should answer questions about their novels! It breaks the Spell, even if just by a sliver of a degree. Mostly, I want people to close the book and say what all authors want to hear, which is, “Damn. I would throw my grandmother out a window to get an advance copy of whatever this guy writes next.”