When you are writing a story or a novel, the writing is the easy part. Getting it out to as many readers as possible is the difficult part. Now this is where Mark comes in. A generous supporter of his fellow authors, I had the good fortune of meeting Mark online. We both follow authors we enjoy and root for.
Two novels under his belt, his latest story is garnishing many positive reviews and generating a lot of excitement.
It’s a pleasure to have Mark join us this week for a 4Q Interview and is sharing an excerpt from his newest novel – The Old Block.
Mark Scott Piper has been writing
professionally his entire adult life. He is a longtime freelance writer and
video director/producer. Mark holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English from the
University of Oregon, and he has taught literature and writing at the college
level for several years. His debut novel, You Wish, was the 2019 American Eagle
Book Awards first-place gold winner. His second novel, The Old Block, has just
Mark's bookshelves are overflowing. Among his favorites are Christopher Moore, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Tony Hillerman, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anne Lamott--all of whom successfully conspire to keep him humble.
His stories have appeared in Short Story America, The California Writers Club Literary Review, and several online literary magazines, including, Scrutiny, Writing Raw, Fabula Argentea, Animal, Slurve, and others. In addition, two of his short stories have been Honorable Mention selections in Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction contests.
4Q: Thanks for being our guest this week, Mark. Before we chat about your latest work, please tell us about winning gold in the American Eagle Book Awards for You Wish. This must’ve been exciting. And can you give us a brief synopsis?
MP: Yes, winning the top prize in the 2019 American Eagle Book Awards was a complete surprise, especially given the circumstances. We were forced to evacuate our home because the raging wild fires in Northern California were getting dangerously close. That meant I didn’t have access to my computer for a while. Thankfully, we didn’t suffer any fire damage. Once the air became breathable again and we were settled back home, I checked my email. That’s when I found out I’d won. At first I thought it was another scam. Turned out it wasn’t.
Since You Wish was my debut, I had no idea how people will respond. So I’d already steeled myself for possible rejection. But the reaction to my novel was the opposite.
Here’s the elevator pitch for You Wish.
Imagine you are granted three-wishes—and your second wish is captured by a television news crew and broadcast across the globe. That means the whole world knows you can wish for absolutely anything, and it will come true. And they’re all watching. Now imagine you’re only fourteen years old.
4Q: Please tell our readers what to expect when they pick up a copy of The Old Block.
MP: You Wish was a YA crossover novel, featuring magical realism with a large dose of social satire. The Old Block, on the other hand, is a literary novel that touches a lot of subgenres—father-son relationship, mystery, adventure, humor, even romance. I’ve always had trouble staying strictly within a single genre,
Here’s a quick synopsis:
What would you do if you discovered that your father might not be the person you always thought he was?
Shortly after his father dies, twenty-four-year-old Nick Castle discovers what seems to be a draft of the novel his dad had always hoped to write. But a clue at the end causes Nick to fear that this story of a serious federal crime and escape from the U.S. may not be fiction at all. When Nick sets out to find out the truth about his father’s past, he learns more than he ever expected—about his father and about himself.
The Old Block is essentially two parallel stories. The manuscript Nick discovers is the tale of a federal crime committed during the student anti-war demonstrations in 1970, the subsequent escape from the U.S., and fifteen years in exile in Central America. The overall narrative of the novel, which takes place in 2012, is Nick’s reluctant quest to find out if his father’s tale is fiction or autobiography.
Here’s an interesting side note. I found a cover artist for The Old Block online. Designers were listed by first name and final initial. The one who’s work impressed me the most was “Nick C.” He was in London, and when we exchanged messages, I discovered his full name was Nick Castle—the name I’d already chosen for my protagonist. Didn’t see that coming.
4Q: Share a childhood memory and/or anecdote with us, Mark.
MP: One that’s stuck with me took place just before Christmas when I was eight. Everyone was asleep but me, and like kids everywhere, I wanted to know what I was getting for Christmas. Our tiny duplex didn’t allow much room to hide things. But we did have a storage space (not a full-on attic) above the ceiling in the bedroom I shared with my younger brother and sister. The only thing between me and my goal was a thin slab of plywood covering the hole in the ceiling from the inside.
I climbed atop the dresser and carefully pushed the plywood up out of the way. I leaned it back against one side of the framed opening. As I eased myself up into the crawl space, I accidently bumped the plywood lid with my knee and it dropped back into place with a thud. I was suddenly swallowed up in pitch black.
I tried to get a hold on the edge of the plywood, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do, but I did know I had to escape back to the safety of the bedroom before I found out exactly what other living things might be in the dark watching me. I did the only thing I could think of. I stomped on the slab with both feet, hoping to knock it loose. The board cracked just enough to allow me to get a grip on the edge and pull it back up. Back on the dresser, I put the injured board back in place, hopped down and dove back under the covers.
My parents didn’t seem to notice the minor structural damage, and they never said anything about it. I was tremendously relieved, sure that I’d gotten away with it. That confidence didn’t wane until may years later when I had children of my own. That’s when I discovered that parents know so much more about what their children are up to than they let on. Mine knew I’d learned my lesson without their having to teach it to me. Maybe there’s a short story in there somewhere.
4Q: You are also the recipient of two Honorable Mentions for your short stories, which have appeared in many publications. What appeals to you about short stories?
MP: Like many of us, I started with short stories. In some aspects short stories are more difficult to writer than novels, often you’re working with a tighter narrative than with a longer work. I like the way a short story can be open ended, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks.
For me, short stories are snatches of life. Snatches that have meaning in the moment and may even have long-term consequences, but the focus is on the moment, on the particular event. Then again, a short story can do whatever the author wants it to. That’s freedom, but that’s also a challenge.
4Q: What can you tell us about your writing habits? Do you have a favored spot to write? Has anything changed because of the pandemic?
MP: My alarm goes off at 5:00 every morning, and that means I have a quiet work environment every day for four hours or so, until the rest of the house is awake. I have an office where I do my writing. It’s my creative sanctuary. Afternoons can be full of errands and family, but the mornings are mine. If I’m really on a roll with something new or editing a manuscript, I sometimes go at it again in the evenings. You have to strike when the iron is hot, or some other appropriate cliché.
I’m retired—as much as any active author can be. My partner is retired and she’s also disabled. So, we didn’t go out much before the pandemic struck. Our daily routine hasn’t been affected as much by the restrictions—I still spend most of my time writing, re-writing, and editing. Although I try to keep my trips to the market to once a week, and we buy a lot more things online than we used to. As it is for most people these days, being cut off from family has been difficult.
4Q: Favorite authors? Novel?
MP: Disclaimer: I have advanced degrees are in English, and I spent the bulk of my academic career studying and teaching literary works. So, it’s not surprising that most of my favorite authors generally fall into that category. I have many favorite authors, and it’s tough to pick a single novel from my favorites. Christopher Moore’s Lamb is the novel I’ve most recommended and given as a gift. Here are some of my favorites who came up when I tossed a few darts at my bookshelves.
4Q: What are some of your interests outside of writing?
MP: I have four grown children, all of whom live near me. Of course, we’re all stuck inside at the moment, but we try to keep in touch through texts and emails. But I have one-year-old grandson, which makes staying away that much more difficult.
I’ve been a big baseball fan since I was a kid, and I still follow it, though not as closely, these days. While in graduate school in Eugene, Oregon I played softball in local leagues and in state-wide tournaments on weekends. When I moved to California, I continued playing as long as my creaky joints allowed, and until I’d reached the age where playing in an “Over-50” league became too much a misnomer.
When I’m not working on my own writing, I read and review the fiction of others as much as I’m able. I like to focus primarily on independent writers. Indies like us especially need reviews to help promote their work.
4Q: What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered as a writer?
MP: I’ve discovered several things by trial and error along the way. For instance, in a very real way publishing a book is just the beginning. You think the job is done when you see your first novel in print, but it’s only the beginning. If you hope to sell you have to market constantly and well. I’m getting better at it, but posting on social media and begging others for reviews can be draining.
But the most surprising thing I’ve discovered is how much I enjoy editing. I’ve heard that it’s like chewing gum twice, something dreaded. Yes, it’s a constant chore that’s never completely finished, but every time I edit a section I can see how much I’ve improved it beyond catching typos or grammar slip ups. It may be that I’m simply coming to the manuscript with new, rested eyes by the time I sit down to do a comprehensive edit, but it’s a wonderful experience. And I get to repeat it with each book or story I write.
Something you’ll appreciate, Allan. When I posted the excerpt from the first chapter of The Old Block below, I had to constantly stop myself from making edits—and it’s already published.
*********We all know that feeling Mark.
*********We all know that feeling Mark.
An Excerpt from The Old Block.
(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission)
I splashed cold water on my face to shock some life into it. I should be doing better than this. Over a month since the funeral, and I still wasn’t getting much sleep. I glanced at my reflection, eased out a sigh. Every time I looked in a mirror I saw Dad looking back at me. Easy enough to see why: same dark eyes, same jawline, same smile. A smile that didn’t come easily for me these days. At least I didn’t break into tears this time.
I ran a palm over my cheek. I’d either have to shave or commit to growing a beard. I flicked on the Norelco and started in on my six-day-old stubble. The buzz of the razor wasn’t loud enough to block out the voices that still wouldn’t leave me alone.
t t t
The clamor of a hundred simultaneous conversations overwhelms me at the post-funeral gathering in the Shoat Valley Presbyterian Church. The whole town has turned out.
The barrage never lets up. Everyone feels compelled to corner me, pay their respects, share their fond memories of Jim Castle—his kindness, his gentle way with people, his humility, his willingness to step in and help. As if I somehow didn’t already know what he was like.
Mary Ellen Camp, our mayor, pumps my hand with her two-handed candidate’s grip. “Nick, your dad’s smile always lit up the room. He will be missed.”
Charley Hanson, the town pharmacist and Dad’s frequent golf partner, leans in close to remind me: “Jim Castle was truly an honest man. Might be the only guy I know who never once cheated at golf.” I reward his hearty guffaw with a forced smile.
Mom’s sister, Eloise, sincere as always, drunk as always, covers me with sloppy kisses and tells me, “Your dad was one of a kind. He could make anyone feel special … even those of us who weren’t. I’ll never forget the time I’d had too much to drink, and I started to sound off about how life wasn’t fair and …”
I tune her out. I’ve heard that story so often, it’s embedded in my brain.
t t t
Okay, they were going to miss him. I got that. But now that gathering and those songs of praise were long gone. Those well-wishers had moved on as if nothing had happened. Their day-to-day activities shifted back to normal. Mine wouldn’t. My mentor, my role model, my best friend … my dad was dead. And now, my life had a cavernous void in the middle of it that would never be filled.
Dad and I did everything together. I was his shadow. For my whole life, the adults in Shoat Valley have referred to me as “Little Jim,” “a chip off the old block,” “the apple of his dad’s eye,” or “a spittin’ image of the old man.” Some still applied, but tired clichés couldn’t begin to describe our relationship.
As a young child, I was a fixture at Dad’s side at our family bookstore, Book Castle, and I tagged along while he ran errands. Even when I was only three or four, Dad would let me “help” by carrying packages back to the car, including some that were probably too big or awkward to trust me with. A proud moment. When I was older, I realized he most likely secretly spotted me the whole way, but he never let me know that.
I still remember, early on—I must have been five or six—my first Little League game. I’d failed miserably that day. I missed a couple of grounders, made a bad throw, and my performance at the plate should have earned me the nickname “Whiff.” On the way home in the car, I stared straight ahead trying to hold back tears.
Dad pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. After a moment, he laid his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Nick. It takes time to master this game.”
I looked over at him, my lower lip quivering my response.
He pulled me into a hug. “You’ve got to remember, Kiddo, baseball is a game of failure.” He ruffled my hair. “The best hitters in the big leagues average only three hits for every ten at-bats.”
“Wait. So, they fail seven out of ten times? Really?”
“Yep. But don’t worry, you’ve got the skills. You just need some help developing them.”
“What does that mean?” I wiped away the remnants of tears with my sleeve.
“Means you need some personal instruction.” He chuckled. “And you’re in luck. I know just the guy who can do it.” He threw his hands out to the side, grinned.
We both knew who he was referring to.
When we got home, he took me out to the backyard and showed me the basics of playing the game. We laughed, kidded around, had a lot of fun. No pressure, no disappointment. It was just the two of us. And we were out there nearly every day for weeks.
He taught me plenty of skills—how to place my feet in the batter’s box, how to generate power when I swung, all that stuff. But most of all he taught me how to have fun playing the game. It was a lesson in baseball and in life that I’ve tried to hang on to ever since.
I’ve never been as close to anyone in my life. Guess that’s why it’s been so hard for me to let go. Even at Sonoma State, I regularly Skyped with my parents, most often Dad on Book Castle’s computer. And when I returned to Shoat Valley with a degree, we picked up right where we left off. My degree was in English, which, if nothing else, made me a good candidate to run a bookstore someday. But Dad made sure I thought my career options through. Even an English major has some choices. I’m sure he knew all I really wanted to do was follow in his footsteps. Same as I always had.
But now, his footsteps were gone forever, and I wasn’t sure what that meant for me. Everything I did, everything I believed in, everything I hoped to become was a reflection of Dad. Being Jim Castle’s son defined me—like being Batman’s sidekick defined Robin. And now? Well, now it didn’t. Robin without Batman was just some weirdo in tights waiting for instructions.
Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts. Wishing you much success with your future writing endeavors.
Thank you for asking me. This was fun.
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