About the Author:
Damon Ferrell Marbut was born in Mobile, Alabama. A Southern novelist and poet, Marbut’s “Awake in the Mad World” is a contemporary fiction novel and is currently an entrant for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives and works in New Orleans, Louisiana. His collection of poems, The Difference Between Young Gods, is under review with several publishing houses, as are two short fiction titles. His follow-up novel to Awake in the Mad World, which is based in New Orleans, is in progress.
MF: Your debut novel, Awake in the Mad World, professes to “free its audience to believe again in the wildness of the young American heart, how it beats just to prove that it will always survive and succeed on its own terms.” What inspired you to write about this subject?
DFM: I’d written a few books before Awake in the Mad World, and they all bore resemblances to some sort of truth in my life, either as it was occurring, a life I more or less imagined ahead, or intertwining parts of my past with that of my characters. But what propelled me forward with this particular novel as the foundation of my public authorship was that it contained the most truth to date for my life. I felt the characters of the novel were telling the better story than others prior. To some extent, I must have been writing the other books to finally know what it was I was hoping to “say” first.
Awake in the Mad World fictionalizes a very real and beautiful time in my life during and after graduate school, when my friends and I were all trying to figure out where we best fit in our lives, together and individually, after a couple of incredibly challenging and gorgeous years of writing and arguing and learning about the world through our passions.
MF: Do you work with an outline, or by the seat of your pants?
DFM: I never maintain or use an outline. I’ve tried to frame a chapter or two ahead of time, but I never stayed with it. I find that for how and what I write, conforming to a preset notion of imagined circumstances limits the scope of what my characters do, think or say, as well as what environment can be created. I always have a few general ideas that are concrete and serve the greater theme of a story, but I won’t outline because it hurts the narrative for my work. I appreciate others who can do it, but it’s not for me. The surprise is so invigorating, when you experience a story’s turn because you relaxed to it after removing the rigidity of a template or outline. It’s a rush, leaning back from the screen and exhaling and wondering how the hell it is it keeps happening, that surprise.
MF: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
DFM: The toughest criticism so far was an attack on the characters themselves, by a reviewer who didn’t even read the entire book. So, “tough” I suppose isn’t the word I’d use as much as I’d say “unfair” or “inaccurate.” I took it well, because not every book is experienced similarly, but it seemed a bit unnecessary that this person would essentially make up what the book was about, or what it was “doing,” and then attack the characters for that very misrepresentation. But such is the nature of reviewers and being a public figure once your book is being read.
The best compliment came from several people who agreed at different moments in our correspondence that the novel had inspired in them the confidence that the pursuit of passion, joy and beauty in one’s life was always relevant and not worth dismissing, just because sometimes it gets difficult to maintain it. Being an emotional “wow” book for someone has been an intense, incredible reward.
MF: What are some ways in which you promote your work? Do you find that these add to or detract from your writing time?
DFM: I’m doing a small national tour in the last half of Winter 2013. That takes planning for travel, and working on filling 1½-2 hours of talking about the book, new projects, etc. So person-to-person contact with bookstores and readers is important and does consume time. Online promotion is competitive and extremely time-consuming, but I’ve met some really energetic and thoughtful readers, reviewers and writers who at their core are just book nerds like myself, and lovers of the written word in multiple forms. I sometimes review books as well, and write articles for blogs and online magazines. But yes, promotion does take away from writing time. Just a couple weeks ago I was so busy doing interviews and writing articles I had a sudden moment of clarity and looked at the clock—what I thought would be three days of concentrated effort became two weeks, with Christmas travel to California to get ready for, and I had no clue where the time went. My better half was really feeling neglect that I understand must have been frustrating, because it was very real. And in that time I didn’t write a single paragraph on my new novel. I’ve written a little bit recently about sacrifices made in this kind of work.
MF: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
DFM: I love different writers for different things they give their readers. Baldwin and Salinger, for some real and sustained moments of beauty in style layered on top of serious or absurd or lovely moments. Marquez does that, too. Kerouac sometimes for energy and a kind of spirituality to the cadence that seems desperate in a romantic way, not negative. Morrison for her gravity and force. Sharon Olds and Dorianne Laux, both amazing poets, just give so much of the human experience in their work as well. I suppose it’s safe to say I haven’t a single favorite author.
MF: What do you read? What do you re-read?
DFM: I read poetry, philosophy texts sometimes, books or articles on psychology, novels and historical fiction. It takes me a while to commit to a book. If I go to a bookstore and I buy six books, it might take me a week before I can determine which one should be read first. I know I need them all, but then I guess it’s like letting them get comfortable on my bookshelf before I’m ready for the experience they provide.
MF: What is your favorite writing tip or quote?
DFM: Not sure. I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird against my will about a year ago. I usually don’t like texts on writing because they seem to say the same things. But it was a gift from a photographer friend of mine, and I read most of it not looking to learn much from it, but rather, to see the writing world through another author’s lens. It was a lovely book with good energy. I think I remember her writing something about how books tell us about who we are and how to live and die. I like that relationship with a text and feel it’s a simple, accurate explanation of how what we read can have an impact on us. It also raises the responsibility level of committed writers who wish to move others with their work.
MF: Are you currently working on another novel or writing project?
DFM: My guess is that I’m about four or five chapters away from a draft of my new novel, which is set here in New Orleans where I live. I’ve begun to see through to the end of it, which usually means for me that the writing will begin to accelerate. But the holidays, this year, are really eating up more time than they’ve ever done before. Mostly because I’m engaged and doing big family travel for the first time, but also because Awake in the Mad World is beginning to do really well.
MF: Do you have any advice for other writers?
DFM: I think if anyone who writes loves what they do, strives to remain humble and always build on their efforts to improve, and writes for themselves first and foremost, then creative and personal success is there for the taking.
MF: If you could jump into a book, and live in that world … which would it be?
DFM: I recently read Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. I think it would be kind of nice to just leave the conventional world as I understand it for a while, go hang out in the trees and read books and be largely left alone.
Pete Rattigan is a frustrated young newspaper journalist caught up in uncertainty of the post-graduate “real world”. One night, one seemingly minor encounter sparks a philosophical journey which leads him to discover that in the most beautiful or even cruel moments of life, the power of friendship explains the power of the universe. And that perhaps there is no such thing as chance.
With force, humor and sensitivity Damon Ferrell Marbut presents his debut, Awake in the Mad World, which frees its audience to believe again in the wildness of the young American heart, how it beats just to prove that it will always survive and succeed on its own terms.