Mark Glassman does a surprisingly good job of feigning confidence, fooling everyone but himself. Steve Oskie, the author of Glassman, talks to Book Glow about his novel.
Describe the book in one sentence.
What led you to write it?
As is often the case, it started with selfish motives: the pure joy of writing, the considerable pleasure of writing about yourself, and the therapeutic effects that autobiographical writing can achieve. But hopefully those motives evolved into an opportunity to connect with other people, and to enable them to recognize themselves in some of my experiences and to feel less alone.
How long did it take to write?
I took a circuitous route to Glassman.
Throughout the 90s, I spent as much time as I could on The Madness of Art, a work of non-fiction that explored the link between illness and creativity. The title came from “The Middle Years,” a Henry James story about an aging writer and a younger man who admires him. Toward the end of the story, Dencombe offers this to his admirer: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
As I delved deeper into the topic, I realized that physical afflictions could have the same effect on a person as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses that have a habit of showing up in some of the artists that we most admire. Over time, creative people have turned to art as the compensation they sought for the deficits that existed in other aspects of their lives. If you don’t believe that Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Emily Dickinson, and countless others were deeply troubled – and that they didn’t turn to art for salvation – you have another thing coming.
Because I had my own bouts with illness on a smaller scale – scoliosis in 1972 and scar tissue from the original surgery that was misdiagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis four years later – I turned to art also, although I struggled to produce anything resembling art for longer than I cared to admit. Still, by 2001, The Madness of Art had grown to 650 double-spaced pages, an obsessive total by any definition.
Say what you will about the quality of my writing during that period – or the lack thereof – I eventually realized that a section of the manuscript could stand on its own. Many rejection slips later, I self-published Mean Thoughts, a slim volume that introduced readers to Mark Glassman for the first time. That set the stage for what happened during the pandemic.
In November 2021, I took another look at The Madness of Art for the first time in more than a decade. Something had drawn me to a chapter I had written about my previous employment as a cookie salesman, a job that required me to contort myself painfully in order to deflect the humiliation. But it wasn’t masochism that drew me there; it was a faint recollection that I had mined the experience for humor.
As it turned out, a series of wisecracks drew the chapter along and safeguarded it against the kind of leaden prose that plagued the rest of my unpublished memoir; and when I found myself laughing out loud a few times, I reworked it and sent it two of my friends. One of them showed it to his son, who promptly responded with the following email:
“I just read your piece. I loved it, especially the narrator’s voice. Something about the matter-of-factness of the way he speaks and thinks, mixed with the peculiarities of his circumstances (Why the hell is this guy selling cookies? Well, what the hell else is he gonna do?) makes for such a funny and surprisingly human combo. Really enjoyed it. Are you planning on extending this? I could see people wanting to spend more time with this narrator.”
A lightbulb went off in my head when I read the email, and I felt that I might be able to describe how Mark became Mark, until eventually Glassman evolved into a prequel, a sequel, and a reworking of Mean Thoughts all wrapped into one, with Mark’s experience as a salesman featured prominently in the second half of the novel.
When I’m asked how long it took to write Glassman, I’m not sure of what I should say. Should I mention the six months it took me to extract the promising material from The Madness of Art, rework Mean Thoughts, and write about Mark’s adolescence? Or should I insist that it took more than thirty years since a lot of the material was written in the 90s? Or should I double down and contend that Glassman is a coming-of-age novel fifty years in the making, since it begins with my own experience in the 70s? Whether or not this is justified, it sounds more interesting that way.
What book most influenced your life?
I discovered a Samuel Johnson quote a long time ago that has impressed me ever since: “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” That said, here are some of my favorites. (As you will see, some of them are obligatory for a young writer, while others are off the beaten path.)
Look Homeward, Angel – Thomas Wolfe
On the Road – Jack Kerouac
The Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller
The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
The Dream Life of Balso Snell – Nathanael West
A Fan’s Notes – Frederick Exley
Rabbit, Run (and all of the other Rabbit novels) – John Updike
Any advice for novice writers?
I’m hardly in a position to give advice – and there’s nothing original in what I’m about to say – but I wish I had heeded these words when I was young. They’re kind of a “ten commandments” for me, even though there are only five of them.
- Read and write as much as you can
- See how other writers go about it
- Subject your early work to the scrutiny of others
- Be honest with yourself about the deficiencies in your work and don’t resent people if they call attention to them. Jealousy is rarely the only reason for their criticism.
- You may have vast potential, but there’s a strong possibility that you’re not as good as you think you are – yet – and that might always be the case. It’s definitely been the case with me.
I have a few ideas, but at this rate, I’ll have to live to 136 to tell the rest of Glassman’s story.