Talking About Life with Marion Deal.
If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
I would like to have the poet Li Bai over for dinner, and talk about swords, calligraphy, and maybe corvids (I think he would very much like the research that has been done on corvid brain function since the Tang dynasty). Because the conversation is the priority, I believe I would make my standby of unsauced pasta and egg, with the potential addition of Dino Buddies microwaveable chicken nuggets. We could sit on the counter and eat. This is optimal dinner, with optimal human.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
The fear of misrepresenting an experience or idea. I don't want to write something in ignorance that contributes to a societal prejudice or that streamlines a complex reality. I try to write, first and foremost, from what I intimately understand. If I'm writing from a perspective, featuring a character, or engaging with an idea that's not coming from my direct experience, I try to do in-depth research so that I'm better able to capture it. I try to continually ask myself whether I'm the best person to tell a given story. I want to be able to create casts of characters that aren't carbon copies of myself. I think that it's important that white writers, especially, research and engage with people and writers of color to write casts that aren't solely white. That might mean cowriting, hiring beta readers, and/or engaging with extensive interview/research processes.
But I also understand that there are some experiences and cultural contexts that writers of color, or writers who come from those contexts, are going to be able to capture with an attention that's far richer and more sensitive than I could. While I think it's important for white writers to do better and write better non-white characters, I don't want to try to tell a story that just isn't mine to tell. So I listen and endeavor to seek out non-white perspectives on white people writing characters of color (the Tumblr blog Writing With Color is a really spectacular resource for anyone wanting to write characters of color: featuring mods from a variety of backgrounds talking about ideas ranging from tropes to stay away from to ways of describing skin color/hair texture to accurate representation of non-European cultures). And I'm continually learning from comrades of color who talk about what they, personally, might want to see from white writers -- one opinion does not speak for an entire group of people, but every thought I hear is another piece of data that I can learn from as I put effort into doing better and sharing what I learn with other people in my community.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
Ahh. The time-honored & difficult question: life goals or wife goals? It's hard to separate people who are crushes from people who I would like to be, especially considering that many of the people who I thought were crushes before my transition turned out to be gender goals. A combination of both life goals and wife goals is Dominic Seneschal, from Ada Palmer's brilliant sci fi series Terra Ignota. He is a philosopher, genderqueer lad, and swordsman who embodies ideals of quick wit and quick rapier. I also have a crush on Ada Palmer herself -- professor of history? creator of exquisitely detailed fantasy worlds? imaginer of utopian futures? My type entirely.
What books are on your nightstand?
Looking at my nightstand, I see Alberto Giacometti's "Notes Sur Les Copies" -- a set of journal excerpts and interviews about the artist's views of creative exploration and growth through copying the work of others. I also see a children's edition of Die Beliebtesten Märchen der Gebrüder Grimm with which I'm practicing my German, and a copy of Taliessin Through Logres, a fabulous set of Arthurian epic poems by C.S. Lewis' friend Charles Williams. (The poems are so rich with allusion and labyrinthine stanzas that Lewis published a companion to the work to explain the thick mythological web the text is situated in; certainly the sort of friend I would like to have.)
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
Semicolon, hands down. How else can I connect threads of thoughts and associations that extend rhizomically through disciplines when brain go brrrrr and there is the need to convey thematic association and/or refrain from breaking the rhythm and connection of a sentence without adding commas or creating an insufferable, inconceivable run-on? Also, I just like the combination of crispness and fluidity; semicolons look like they would have a good mouth texture were one to eat them like chips. ;;;;;;;;;;;;;
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
I was a fool in high school who read every assigned book when it might have been more productive of me to spend that time sketching strip mall architecture or getting into fights behind the bike racks. Liminality, dead people, and lives in paper were home and safety, though; consuming everything in front of me as profligately as I could was a ballast at a time when things were very unstable internally and externally. I've been able to become more productively critical of the media that I consume now that I'm not relying on it so intensely as a survival mechanism, which is positive for myself, my community, and my writing.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
The paper Rimbaud head I cut out and pasted on my first notebook in 2016. It fell unperceived from grace, likely at a Jewel Osco somewhere in the Kenosha, Wisconsin area. It may be floating there still. If you're out there, paper Rimbaud head: I salute you.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
"But motive is a matter of belief; you would not want to do anything unless you believed it possible and meaningful. And belief must be belief in the existence of something; that is to say, it concerns what is real. So ultimately, freedom depends on the real."
-- The Outsider, Colin Wilson
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It depends on the sort of writing, and the time. Poetry is usually more exhausting for me than prose: if I'm writing a poem, it's a concentrated expression of emotion where every line, juxtaposition of word, and presentation of sound, space, and semantic color on the page is subjected to intense scrutiny. Poetry is where a singular and visceral confrontation with the part of myself that feels -- something which I'm still not comfortable with -- takes place. It's all here, all at once, and all being communicated within the space of a few pages; like how a slow motion camera allows visualization of components and movement that might not be visible at faster speeds. That's exhausting, but in a gratifying way.
Though I still care about craft and truth when I'm writing prose of some sort -- whether it's fiction or nonfiction or somewhere between the two -- there's more time for the emotion, idea, or dynamic to unfold when what I'm writing is 12, 25, 200 pages. That prosebound process of meeting characters who emerge like Athena, and watching as they claim space to grow and fail, is energizing. I know I've created a story I can be proud of when just thinking about the characters makes me electrically happy, and when considering the components of plot makes me want to hasten to my keyboard even if external circumstances mean that writing right here, right now isn't possible. It's more energizing to engage with emotion and ideal when it's more diffuse.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I can speak to traps that I've fallen into and that people in my writing community have as well, hoping that they apply on a more universal level. A major one is looking to the outside for reasons and affirmations for art. A community of fellow artists and writers who can challenge you and your work is vital. But developing and inhabiting a rich inner world from which comes conviction, joy, and vision for what you do will increase the efficacy of artistic comrades honing and disrupting your work, because they'll have good material to work with.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Being in love? I genuinely think so. Beyond extreme circumstances like chronic illness flare-up and hospitalization, or housing instability, whose impediment to writing is more about their limitation of time and energy I can allocate, being in love is the next greatest culprit. I'm 19, and I don't know jackshit about what a committed, healthy partnership should be. I'm also aromantic, so there's a whole process of 1) getting close to a person, 2) attempting to figure out whether the person is interested in a committed intimate relationship more like a Star Trek t'hy'la bond than conventions of romance or friendship, and 3) realizing that they're not and pining after them until I am able to jam the feeling into a few works of art and move beyond it.
That is distracting and inconvenient, to say the least. It's full of emotions I do not particularly understand or want to act upon, but which prove very persistent and frequently lead to interludes of staring out the window longingly and listening to my hanahaki playlist instead of typing or scribbling, which is far more important in the end. It's incredibly troublesome, and I'd rather not have crushes or love interests at all. Dear Ghost Writers In the Sky: please consider taking me out of all romantic plotlines for an indefinite period of time, and instead devote my character solely to plotlines involving revenge, betrayal, ethical use of power, and the temptation towards madness that's been ingrained into our culture's view of creative work. Please? Thank you. I'd like to get more writing done.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yes. Sometimes. It makes me sad. If I can, I try to find an inspiring bit of library architecture wherever I'm living; architecture built to evoke & house the feelings we have while reading is almost as good as the real thing. Otherwise (and frequently concurrently), I pick up fanfiction about some of the characters I adore most; the themes and tropes of this distinctive cultural world are comforting and I can sink into them even if I can't devote my whole focus to them.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I'm resistant to making statements like this. I've been criticized for how I interact with emotions all my life -- I'm not feeling enough; I'm feeling the wrong things; I'm a robot; I'm unable to dialogue and interact with my emotions. (On one memorable occasion, someone called me a sociopath; in the spirit of Warhol's commercialization and commodification of emotion, I borrowed a button maker from my engineering teacher and made a whole slew of buttons emblazoned with "Marion Deal is my Favorite Sociopath," then handed them out to all the students and teachers I could find at high school.)
I'm on the autism spectrum, which modulates and affects how and when I experience emotion; I care a lot about things that many people wouldn't think worthy of anger or tears or going nonverbal, and it's hard for me to figure out the appropriate emotional response to things that people consider intuitive. (Note: it's my responsibility to ensure that my divergence doesn't harm others overmuch, and to understand the people in my community around me such that I might support them if I can.)
But all this means that I don't think it's accurate or useful to make statements about what feeling an emotion strongly or weakly looks like. Everybody has different barometers by which they judge what "strong emotion" is relative to context including class, gender presentation, cultural background, and the sort of stimulus one might be responding to. I think that good writing comes less from experiencing emotion in a certain way, but rather from understanding how one, individually, interacts with emotion. So too, it emerges from becoming more comfortable with expression in both self & others by overcoming internalized biases about emotions typically considered "negative" or "irrational" when presented by certain people in certain circumstances. (E.g. stereotypes surrounding race or gender like the Angry Black Woman trope, a discomfort with men expressing emotion, or a judgement of intensity/type of emotion in neurodivergent people.) I think of Spock's character arc through the Star Trek original series and movies: he becomes better able to interact with his emotions and those of others by unlearning Vulcan biases towards his own human heritage and his crewmates. He'd be a better writer by the end of Star Trek IV than he was in the first season of The Original Series, I'd wager.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I'm friends with an absolutely absurd (and absurdist) short story writer, Markus Klimas, who is very discerning and frequently doesn't like, get, or write poetry of his own. Sending poetry to someone who has an active predisposition against poetry is a good challenge. I don't take any dislike of his personally, knowing that I'm shooting predisposed to miss, but it is a delight to have a safe space to have my work completely obliterated. Frequently his criticism, even if I don't wholly agree with his general philosophy towards poetry, helps me get out of a solipsistic isolated system of my own thoughts on the genre and how to articulate through it.
Being able to perform at open mics (virtual, these days) with poet friends of mine is also a privilege: seeing words reach and illuminate in real time makes me better because it makes me want to connect to other people with my work, and become more human in the process of doing so.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Each book should be able to be read and enjoyed as its own entity, but I am hoping to create a loosely connected extended universe of sorts with my writing. Each book will serve as a raggedy flashlight beam in a surrealist world that contains havens for the dead and haunted, late-nite otherworldly diners at the intersection of traditions and times, languages nonexistent in our world (I am fond of con-langing, the process of constructing my own languages), and wandering artists and ghosts who construct momentary cathedrals with their words and who are forever oscillating between places lit and unlit.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I feel much more confident that the oddments I write down can engage and matter to other people. The first book I published, Cool Talks, Dead I Guess (Bone and Ink Press, 2020), is... certainly bizarre. It's an amalgam of many of my hyperfixations and research topics: the intersection of ritual, obsession, "Greatness," and linguistic invocation, tied together by the continuous presence of the ghost of Jim Morrison. It also comes from an exceedingly personal place: my hyperfixations and fascinations are things I'm emotionally invested in and are a genuine attempt for me to communicate emotions in a way that makes sense to me, even though an infodump about the use of language in Confucian texts isn't listed in most "acceptable expression of emotion" categories. Seeing that someone could take this microcosm of myself that I put on a page and see enough value in it that they want to invest time and money to print it, and then hearing from people I've never met who reach out to tell me how much the book meant to them, has been heartening for me. Now that there's some concrete data that the things I write truly and deeply can in fact connect with other people -- data added to by the publication of Messiah, whose poems came into being when I was just beginning to write and in one of the worst depressive episodes of my life -- I am more confident in writing things oddly, rawly, and truly. I try to listen to myself more in the process, and care less about whether what I'm doing is something that's going to be "understandable," or "accessible," as long as it's true.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I bought a cup of hot tea after a frigid outdoor LARP (Live Action Roleplaying event) at a Denny's when I was maybe 13 that ignited my love for all-nite diners and liminal spaces.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I honestly can't think of one, even though I've returned to this question again and again. I've either liked an author, or I've not, or I've been marginally lukewarm about them. Those states haven't tended to change.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
The Renaissance Faire community that I grew up in has a certain tradition: the Bardic Ring. Rings are passed from generation to generation, along with a title: "the Steadfast," "the Musical," "the Keeper of History." When an artist, storyteller, or performer creates something that truly astonishes and touches another (especially a senior member of the community), the affected party may pass a ring on to the other creator. This might be one that they've worn for generations, or a new ring. When I was 14, I had been performing at the Faire for two years already, as well as writing and performing my art in other locales. A mentor and pillar of the community who I respect immensely stood at an end-of-day meeting, and began talking about a bardic ring she'd worn since she was young: the ring of the Wise Young Storyteller. This ring is traditionally given to someone who displays passion, relative wisdom, and desire to wreak change with creation. She talked about how she'd received it from her mentor, who'd received it from his mentor before him. And then she gave it to me, for the words that I'd been spinning in my performance at the Faire, in my poetry published and performed, and in the dialogues that I'd been sustaining with the community around me. It's a thin circlet of silver -- in her words, "It will bend, but will never break." I wear it proudly every day, a memory of the power my words have, and an impetus to keep the ring and the title in good stewardship until the time comes for me to pass them on.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
The Last Days of New Paris, by China Miéville. Surrealist artists and their sentient works of art joining forces to fight Nazis and demons in an alternate WWII-torn Paris? Brilliant, ravishing, labyrinthine. Precisely the sort of absurdity, worldbuilding, and stylistic boldness I crave.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
As a person, I think I am a flock of monstrous, many-eyed crows flapping around in a human suit, but as a writer I'm the fishman from Guillermo del Toro's film "The Shape of Water."
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I don't think I owe them anything. I consider it a personal imperative to treat every character with compassion, even if they're despicable. But that obligation towards compassion and the attempt to illustrate truth extends to anyone I would meet: human, nonhuman, fictional, or otherwise. This isn't a compassion that means nonviolence or a mandate to avoid harm at all costs. Sometimes harm is necessary: both to humans and characters. Sometimes truth is about what's needed for the character, not what directly mirrors the person/people who the character is based on. I've not heard of a valid construct of absolute truth yet, so though I'm bound by my own experience and biases, I'm doing my best to write characters that are true to themselves, or my view of them, whose accuracy is rooted in my compassion for both the characters and the people they're based on.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I have three major unpublished longform books: a surrealist novel set in a Paris of the Dead, a memoir/fever dream/treatise on language and philosophy, and a poetry book which attempts to capture the architecture and layout of a cathedral in poetic form. The surrealist novel delves into legacy, history, and perceptions of Greatness through prose, poetry, and maps, documents, and security footage of a meticulously mapped otherworld. The memoir is comprised of a constructed language (created by me), prose-poems, thoughts on philosophy of language, and photography. Another fantastical novel exploring what it means to be coming of age during a time of revolution is in the works. If you, dear reader, know anyone who'd be interested in the interdisciplinary amalgams above... send them to me!
What does literary success look like to you?
I want to be able to write every day, engage with the study and creation of words as my mode of making a living, and know -- at least every once and a while -- that my work has reflected, challenged, touched, or engaged with people, individually, or a People, structurally, in a fashion that makes things better.
What’s the best way to market your books?
I'm grateful to have a supportive artistic community ranging from my fellow actors at the Bristol Renaissance Faire to a set of poets in Paris. I promote through my social media accounts -- there's a lot of great people and artists in the indie lit scene who have a presence on Instagram, and being able to connect with them and their goodness of spirit is not only professionally positive, but personally fantastic. Having a central website -- as I do, www.mariondeal.com -- is also a fabulous place to refer people after readings, via business cards, or after other associated artistic events like performance art.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
My first thought about this question is... *shrug, error 404, gender not found* I'm genderfluid, masculine leaning. I grew up socially presenting and being responded to as a young woman, so that's the degree of social response to gender that I have the most experience with. My experience in the past year and a half, though, has included being responded to either as a man (with masks and presentation cues, I can "pass" as "male," though that's not always my goal), gender = ???? (a response of what-the-fuck in everyday life that I prize), or a transmasculine/gender-non-conforming person in queer spaces.
The idea of "the opposite sex" really doesn't apply here, but I do try to represent characters like me -- people who occupy spaces between the binary masculine and feminine, trans men, butch women -- alongside people who don’t occupy those gender spaces. When I write people who don't necessarily conform to my gender identity or identities that I've been perceived as (like trans women, or cis men), I try to rely upon the experience of my close friends and chosen family who've shared some of their inner worlds and experiences/experiments with how they're perceived in various scenarios. Trying to take that data into account, and sharing my work with people I trust who can challenge or suggest details to make those characters richer and more accurate, is a different process than writing from my own gender experience. It involves methodical listening and research, collecting and collating vast amounts of data, and asking people questions about their stories and experience, all things which are among my favorite pursuits. I'd say that's the most important thing about writing characters from gender identities who don't align with mine. It is difficult, but it doesn't feel draining most of the time.
What did you edit out of this book?
These are all poems I wrote in high school. They are some of the first poems I wrote, and some of the first poems I workshopped with enough positive response that I felt confident in being "Someone Who Writes." That being said, these poems came from a whole fray of paper and herd of notebooks. There are a lot of truly heinous pieces in those notebooks; mournful self-indulgent poems about loneliness and prairie flora, me experimenting with center-justified text (gasp!) and forms that patently did not work, me writing poems that were cheap Rimbaud, Morrison, and Neruda knock-offs. I don't begrudge myself those poems. They were necessary for me to grow as a poet and to get the confidence in my work as a vector for emotion that's kept me writing three years later. Sometimes I find a line or a stanza in the flotsam of that time that I can cannibalize and use in a poem even now. But I am certainly not going to air the outtakes for public consumption.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I'd be an academic -- which is something I'm working towards, though I'm still an undergraduate. I'm hoping to be able to knit a golden braid of psycholinguistics, poetics, translation, and Buddhist philosophy. My research, at least right now, focuses on emergent systems and the use of language in ritual and revolution; specifically the use of poetry in 19th-century French anarchism & queer spaces.
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