Debut Author Snapshot: Stephen Markley

Posted by Goodreads on July 30, 2018
The debut novel Ohio is both a mystery and social critique set in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The plot involves four former classmates returning to their hometown in Ohio on the same night, all for different reasons, all with a different mission and different secrets. Although Ohio is Stephen Markley's first novel, his previous books include the memoir Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book, and the travelogue Tales of Iceland.

Markley talked to Goodreads about the genius of Bruce Springsteen, feeling haunted by your hometown, and why he doesn't want his book to be an explainer for "what's happening in flyover country."

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Goodreads: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

Stephen Markley: I've been working as a columnist, journalist, memoirist ever since I got out of college, but writing a big ambitious novel is something I've been chasing since I was probably five years old and bugging my mom to sit me on her lap so I could dictate my book about King Kong fighting a giant squid in New York City. Simon & Schuster passed on that one, but they did take Ohio.

GR: What sparked the idea for Ohio?

SM: I was back banging around my hometown, having a night somewhat similar to the one described in the book, just seeing old friends and peers from high school, hearing what they'd been up to, talking about all the people we knew who were dead. Then the night took an ugly turn, a good friend of mine got arrested, and I woke up in a stranger's house feeling dreadful about not just what had happened that night but the way this place sometimes haunted me. It's something my close friends and I have talked about over the years, and that somewhat loose sensation was the first seed of what would become the novel.

GR: Tell us about your research and writing process for Ohio.

SM: I wrote it out of order, in strange bursts, and honestly the revision process took nearly twice as long as getting the first draft. I just had this sprawling world, and it was a matter of whittling it down to the central characters, story, and trauma at the heart of the book. Obviously, a lot of research went into creating the characters and the world, but their voices were always there. I guess it's my feeling that research can only be useful if you already have this—I don't know what to call it—this, like, living memory of the person you're trying to write about.

GR: Your book is told in four parts, each focusing on a different acquaintance of a man who was killed in action in Iraq. Why did you choose to structure your book this way?

SM: Hmm, I'm not sure that's how I would characterize it. The book is about a constellation of characters—four in particular—who act as vessels for understanding this one town in Ohio. But, of course, you can find a version of New Canaan in nearly every state. But to get at the heart of what has happened there—and in a larger sense what's happened to the country—you have to give the reader a lens. In this case, there are basically four different points of view with their differing explanations of their lives, their town, and what has happened to this place and the people they love. So with these four long stories that make up the heart of the novel, I wanted the reader invested in each one, almost mournful when one story ends, just so I could wrap them up in this entirely new character. And maybe you hate one of them and pity another and are in love with a third, but each character has a piece of the larger story, and you have to understand all of them to see it.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how are those influences reflected in your novel?

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SM: I've spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint an answer to that question, but every writer is just such an amorphous hodgepodge of influence, it always feels reductive to name just a few. But to name a few: Stephen King, Bruce Springsteen, Toni Morrison, and John Steinbeck. King was a childhood love, and the way he writes about community, especially small towns, always felt epic and true. Beloved and Sula, East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath were four books I happened to tackle over the course of the four years I spent working on this, and that's not bad DNA to work from. Springsteen is obviously the best short fiction writer of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut? What did you want to say about what's happening in Middle America from 9/11 through to the present?

SM: I think it's a fraught idea to want a reader to encounter your book in a specific way. That encounter between a reader and a novel is just bottomlessly mysterious, and I'm reminded of that every time someone new reaches out to me to talk about the book. That's not to be coy; I just hesitate to say, Ohio is about X. Hopefully, it's about everything—war and inequality and opiates and sexuality and depression and hope and loss and love—without actually being specifically about any of those.

As for the Middle America thing, I didn't set out to write a novel about "here's what's happening in flyover country," but due to certain political developments, that will undoubtedly be the frame it's given. What I did set out to do was write a book about people I know, people I care for, and how this avalanche of events has dictated the course of our adult lives.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

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SM: I'm reading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold because for a good long while I haven't had time to go be in a place where there are no cars, buildings, or people; it's a nice reminder that after some of the craziness of publication dies down, I can finally go stare at the clouds again. I'm also tearing through The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is preposterously entertaining. Patricia Highsmith is a straight baller.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

SM: I'm actually working to adapt Ohio into a limited series for MGM television. This, of course, comes with no guarantee that it will ever actually see the screen, but if you'd told me five years ago when I was freelancing for $35 a pop that I'd be in this situation—let's just say that monkey's paw actually worked.

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Sylvia (new)

Sylvia I'm from Akron, now living in California, and I look forward to reading your book, Stephen.

message 2: by Sharon W Gress (new)

Sharon W Gress I am from Elyria, now living in Virginia, and I also look forward to reading your book.

Michelle Manion I was born in Akron, but (thankfully) moved to the west coast as a child. My 82 year old mother was born and raised in Akron and now lives in Seattle - considering if this might be a good read for her.

message 4: by Mike (new)

Mike I was born in Akron, left for college and then all the big cities, traveled everywhere, and have settled back in Akron in my late 40's (thankfully). I really look forward to reading the book of luck with the film adaptation!

message 5: by Roger (new)

Roger Brandeberry I am looking forward to reading the book. I have lived in small town Ohio nearly all of my life and it will be interesting to compare it to my experience.

message 6: by Ellen (new)

Ellen I was born in Cleveland, lived in Euclid, Wadsworth, Lakewood (my favorite), and North Ridgeville. I always wanted to travel, to live other places, see things, experience things, however; here I am at 7? still in Ohio. It's not such a bad place to be when I hear about earth quakes, wild fires, floods, drought, huge snowfalls, bitter, bitter cold, stifling heat & humidity, bugs, rodents, critters that make one move in wide circles. Ohio has some of a lot of the above; not to the extent as so many other places. Ohio's an in-between place and it's home.

message 7: by Mark (new)

Mark I am from Ohio by way of Warren, Cincinnati and many places in between. I now live in California. It looks like this book may pique the interest of those Ohioans – myself included – who have traveled outward and perhaps returned at some point. Having read the premise, the material seemed fitting for a television adaptation.

Ohio is often overlooked in terms of notoriety but I have long seen a region with lots of character. It's a state filled with a rich history of achievements as well as disappointments. It's a state that always proves pivotal in the political arena and yet one that's struggled to find an identity ideal for these times. When I think of Ohio, I think of picturesque drives through rural towns and wooded country and through forgotten towns and urban decay.

message 8: by Duncan (new)

Duncan Rosie I've never been to Ohio. Been to some other states. Love the USA.

I'm interested in reading it - purely from the photo on the front cover. Nothing else. I haven't read any of the reviews above.

It's gotta be American somewhere! Looks like a diner or a 7/11 type
joint. Solitary car! Such a cliche. But - it's the land of the free...

Or is it?
Duncan, from Edinburgh.

message 9: by Leandra (new)

Leandra Canton, Ohio
How far away is your town?

message 10: by Dee Renee (new)

Dee Renee  Chesnut I lived in Camden, Ohio, the birthplace of Sherwood Anderson. I now live in Fishers, IN.

message 11: by Juana (new)

Juana Katz I live in Argentina Bs As I will read the book in a short tlme .naw im reading two brothers.My best wishes for you

message 12: by Keith (new)

Keith Surprising you mention Springsteen, but your book only describes pick-ups and econoboxes. My Northeastern Ohio had these gearheads and the stories, ala Springsteen, were always of someone who hijacked somebody's ride, because of a girl, and got away on foot after a chase. I guess I'll have to write that one.

message 13: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Lindauer Hey, Stephen: I'm a Middletown native -- gone a long time, though (a lucky Vermonter for decades). I'm thoroughly delighted by the way you handle words, e.g., "... on a fried fever of a summer night in 2013" and "... his truck's gas gauge had the accuracy of a creationist biology textbook." Hoping we'll see more of you in the future.

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