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Q&A with Mark Farrington

Mark Farrington’s “Motherlove” won Editor’s Choice in the 2011 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. It is also one of this blogger’s most favoriteCarve stories. We recently caught up with him to learn more about “Motherlove,” and what he’s been up to since the 2011 contest.

Carve: What inspired “Motherlove?” And can you also tell us a little about your novel, Manion in Darkness (which “Motherlove” was adapted from)?

Mark Farrington: I had been working on telling Gerald Manion’s story for quite some time. My main focus was always on him as an adult, and the story of the novel is built around Manion and three other characters during one summer when he is in his twenties. “Motherlove” was actually Manion’s backstory, and the chapter from which “Motherlove” comes is the only section in the novel that deals with him as a child.

In getting to know Manion as an adult, I realized that he had certain peculiarities that were more than simple personality quirks. Something had happened to him as a child. When I began to explore that, an image came into my mind of this young blond woman jumping up and down out in a muddy yard in front of a trailer surrounded by woods. She was bundled up in a winter coat but I could clearly see her long legs in neon pink tights. She was excited, and she was calling to someone – and when I followed her gaze down the dirt road, I came upon young Gerald Manion scrambling to get up the muddy hill to her.

I knew right away there was a sexual undertone to all this, but I held off pursuing that and instead began to explore some of the men this woman (who I now knew was his mother) might have had relationships with. I began to sense her as having two sorts of lives – the life she led when there was a man living with her, and the life she led when it was just her and her son. It seemed to me these two lives would cause some conflicts for Manion, who needed his mother but also wanted her to be happy, and didn’t see those two things necessarily going hand in hand.

The scene where they have sex wasn’t in the earliest drafts. Manion seemed to me like someone who had been sexually abused, but it took a while for me to move from the metaphor (“like a victim of abuse”) to the literal (“was a victim of abuse”). And, too, it’s a weird kind of abuse because Manion never thinks of it as abuse, and he remains devoted to his mother even after the abuse ends.

Once I knew I had to go there, the question was how: how to tell enough without being excessive; how to make it detailed enough without being too graphic. I wrote and rewrote those paragraphs many times. I will say that one thing that helped keep me going here was how much I liked the bit where he’s watching the game shows on TV. And Mr. Worthington as a character, and Manion’s relationship to him, popped up out of nowhere as I was struggling with that scene. Though he never comes up again anywhere in the novel, Mr. Worthington is one of my favorite characters.

I’m very close to finishing the novel, Manion in Darkness. Actually, I’ve finished it three or four times over the past year, but each time I’ve realized (with the help of my agent, who is a terrific reader), that there’s still just a bit more that needs to be done. The whole novel has been written and revised and revised again, and what I’m doing now is targeted revision: have I really dug deeply enough into that scene, into that moment? I generally write blindly forward to see where the story takes me, but in this novel I found myself arriving at an ending in which one particular character must perform one particular act – the act has to happen, and no one else can do it except this one character. So now I’ve had to go back into that character’s earlier sections, to make a few adjustments so that when we get to the end, her doing what she has to do will seem convincing.

C: What was your reaction like to your story winning Editor’s Choice for the 2011 Carver contest?

MF: I was thrilled for a number of reasons. I think Carve is a terrific journal, and Raymond Carver has always been one of my writing heroes. It’s always great to have your work recognized and appreciated, and if there’s a little money that comes with it, so much the better.

I was also thrilled because I didn’t know if “Motherlove” could stand alone as a story; I thought it could, but would anyone else think so too? This was a difficult story to write, and I had no idea how it would be received. Someone once called me an “emotional writer,” which I agree with in the sense that of primary importance to me is capturing the emotional truth of my characters and the story. As a writer I’m not especially clever, so my work often depends on me digging deeper and deeper, getting as close as I can to the bone. And I never know how readers will react to that, especially in such a postmodern age.

“Motherlove” winning the Editor’s Choice also helped re-energize me for the novel. Even though the material in “Motherlove” marks the only time in the novel we see Manion as a child, that material (which, altered slightly, now exists as Chapter Two) was a kind of test for the novel as a whole: if readers accept and appreciate the story of Manion’s childhood, if they aren’t turned off by feeling it’s too bleak, if they sense that there is an emotional honesty I’m getting at, and they find that emotional honesty engaging – then it makes me optimistic that the whole novel might be received in a similar way.

I’ve also used “Motherlove” as a guide for myself, in this way: I kept digging into this story; I didn’t hold back or pull back; I simply tried to show the truth of Manion’s world. In looking at the rest of the book, I’ve asked myself the same questions about other sections, other scenes. I want every chapter to work as well as “Motherlove” seems to have turned out.

C: Can you give us an update on your writing since the contest? Any recent or forthcoming publications/projects we should be on the lookout for?

MF: I hope at some time soon I can say that the novel is forthcoming. I’ve got a few stories and a novella that I’ve sent out a bit, but which I’m also not totally happy with, and would like to take another look at. I’ve also begun thinking about a new novel, although I’m holding it at bay for the most part: finishing Manion in Darkness is where I’m putting all my focus now.

I teach writing, as assistant director and fiction advisor in the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing Program, and I try to give as much as I can to my students. I like doing that – I tend to consider myself a “writer and teacher,” as opposed to “a writer who also teaches.” I find that teaching writing makes me a better writer, just as writing makes me a better teacher of writing; I also find teaching a great complement to writing, because in class I get the kind of interaction and immediate feedback that never comes for a writer sitting off alone at some computer typing away.

At the same time, I find myself forever struggling to find the right balance between the two activities; to give as much as I can to my teaching without having it take away time and energy from my writing. Usually I seem to do a pretty good job of finding this balance, but in the final stages of revising a novel I’ve been working on for years, I find it hard not to wish I could simply drop everything else in my life and go off to some writing retreat for a month or two. Since I can’t (in the ninth week of the semester), I’ll keep plugging along the best I can.

About the Author: Mark Farrington is Assistant Director and Fiction Advisor in the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing Program. He has an M.F.A. from George Mason University, where he studied with Richard Bausch and such visiting writers as Jane Smiley and Tim O’Brien. His short fiction has won a Virginia Commission on the Arts Individual Artists Fellowship, the Dan Rudy Fiction Prize, the Metroversity Fiction Award, and second place in the Dame Alice Throckmorton Prize, and has been published in The Louisville Review, The New Virginia Review, and other journals. “Motherlove,” a story excerpted from his novel-in-progress Manion in Darkness, won an editor’s choice award in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in fall, 2011, from Carve Magazine, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Farrington has also published numerous articles on writing and the teaching of writing. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

The 14th annual Raymond Carver Contest is now open until May 15th.