Monkey or No Monkey: An Interview with Mark Gozonsky

Literary conversation?

This interview was conducted in August of 2022 by Keppie Usage’s Imaginary Editorial Intern Edwin “Intern” Turner with Mark Gozonsky, author of The Gift is to the Giver:  Chronicles of a 21st Century Decade.  They spoke in Gozonsky’s office, at a glass-covered table piled high with books, bicycle lights, and baseball caps, near his large-by-Los Angeles-standards garden. Amid this 1200-year Southern California mega-drought, the garden currently features some robust outcroppings of kale, a few yeomen zinnia, and otherwise parched soil punctuated only by a billowing cloud of lavender against a backdrop of banana trees.

KU:  Writing?

MG:  Yes!

[Pause.  Not awkward.  Maybe a little awkward.]

MG:  Is your interviewing technique noun plus question mark?

KU nods affirmatively.

MG:  That’s a good technique.  I use it too.  My answer to writing, question mark, would be what I said, yes.  To elaborate… I really have to write for a minimum of about half an hour every day, just to vent my brain fumes.  Otherwise they build up inside my skull and make me cranky.

KU:  You have to turn over the merchandise.

MG:  That too.  Aerate the compost.

KU:  You have published a book.

MG:  Yes!  Finally.  Are we still allowed to talk about having monkeys on our back?

KU’s expression is non-committal except for his eyebrows ,which may be imagined to be thick and luxuriant like the best fur, chinchilla, although they would certainly be faux chinchilla fur, not real; and they implore MG to pour forth his mind and heart and soul.

MG:  Monkey or no monkey, I felt really deficient as a writer for probably 30 years because I didn’t have a book.  I had a few prestigious and prestigious-ish publications here and there.  I once even had an agent, but it was like having a mantra or a magic spell that didn’t work.

KU:  Could you explain what you mean?

MG:  Gladly – and thank you for asking.  I mean, I felt like crap to a certain extent, in a compartmentalized, obviously I have it pretty good and strive to be thankful and pay it forward but meanwhile this essential thing is what I lack and it’s eating me up inside… way — from let’s say the age of 30 which is when I should as an aspiring writer have had my first book published.  I love to write and it’s necessary for me to write and I read about writing all the time but despite all this love and passion I felt excluded from the literary conversation.

KU:  There’s a literary conversation?

MG:  We’re having one right now.

KU:  We are? 

KU looks startled plus almost indiscernibly happy.

MG:  Most assuredly so.  I can tell you want to ask me what changed so I will tell you.

KU nods eagerly.  Now you can tell he’s happy. He’s glowing!

MG:  I reached the age of almost 61, and still no book.  I had three essays in a row accepted and published by the most prestigious publisher of literary essays in the United States, and fewer than a dozen people actually gave a crap.  One of those essays got anthologized in the Best American series which is SUPER-PRESTIGIOUS.  Both of my daughters went to bookstores to buy a copy, which just adds further to the list of reasons why I love them so much.  But otherwise, there was no clamor for me to collect all these fine and groovy essays and stories and unclassifiable outpourings into a physical volume other than from me.  So finally I just said fork it, I’ll do it myself.

KU:  Isn’t there a strongly negative stigma attached to self-publishing?  Isn’t self-publishing an admission of defeat and unworthiness?

MG:  Yes and no.  I remember my daughters had an English teacher in high school who self-published a couple of books and I remember thinking hah-hah, loser, despite the fact that I was a high school English teacher who had to my own credit zero books.  But I have come around to thinking that this stigma is foisted upon the writing public by the literary establishment, which as you have probably noticed is busy consuming itself nowadays, what with one mega-publisher eternally buying another mega-publisher, and meanwhile they don’t pay their employees a living wage, and they take years to publish a book once it’s finished.

KU:  Was that the yes part or the no part?

MG:  It was both.

KU:  Could you please explain what you mean?

MG:  Sure!  Yes, the Big 5 or however many is left, plus I would also lump in there all of the prestigious independent publishers such as You-Know-Who and You-Know-What – they would like to maintain the illusion that the prestige of their imprimatur balances out their non-living-wage salaries and increasingly unsustainable business model.  So, the stigmatizers of self-publishing are… prestigious publishers.

KU:  You use the words “prestige” and “prestigious” a lot.

MG:  I know.

KU:  How do you feel about that?

MG:  I feel like I’ve swallowed a load of hooey.

KU:  Are you ok?

MG:  Oh yes. I’ve built up a tolerance.  Also – and this is getting to the “no” part of self-publishing being a confession of loser-hood – uh, let’s see.  Oh right.  I was getting ready to retire from being a high school English teacher and I was trying to look out for my psychological well-being for the time when Back to School came around and I didn’t have a bunch of classes to try and inspire — which is right now, August 2022… and back then, say around March 2022, that’s when I started thinking hey, y’know, Thoreau and Whitman and those guys, they self-published.

KU:  Kafka and Dickinson barely published at all!

MG:  Funny you should say that.  I have a friend – Hi, Wendy! – who tells me to write for posterity.  She means so well it makes my heart go pitter-pat.  But I’m also like, fork that.  I want to see my book for sale on Amazon.  And now it is.  So now I want to see it for sale on Bookshop.

KU:  Don’t you really want to be able to walk into, like, Skylight or Vroman’s or The Last Bookstore and see your book there.  Wouldn’t that be the pinnacle?

MG:  No.  Yes.  Maybe.  In that order.  I think seeing my book in the bookstores I actually go to is a do-able goal.  It’s just gonna take some hustle.  Right now I am in the magical thinking phase of my marketing plan, wherein I think that by having it up on Amazon and also Barnes and Noble, FYI, that word of mouth is somehow going to emerge like life on earth and that my work will start reaching beyond my mom and my best-of-best-of friends.

KU:  It’s funny, or wait no I mean, telling?  That we haven’t even discussed the book qua book.

MG:  Oh.  It’s good.  Lotta good stuff in there.  Lots of assonance, and also consonance. There are sections about bicycling.  About gardening.  About still playing baseball as in hardball when you’re reaching senior citizen age.  Also lots in there about unorthodox pedagogy.  I was just thinking today that it would make a good gift for people who like bicycling, gardening, baseball, teaching, and/or lots of references to Bob Dylan.

KU:  Do you think there are too many references to Bob Dylan in your writing?

MG:  Maybe there used to be.  I started taking them out after a while.  I thought, “Maybe instead of using a Bob quote, you should write how you feel.”  I think that was an example of me giving myself good advice.

KU:  I agree.

MG:  Thank you.

KU:  Tell me about the project that you’re working on now.

MG:  Gladly!  My goal is to play tennis on every free public tennis court in Los Angeles.  And to get there, I have to ride my bike or take the bus.

KU:  People have been liking this idea?

MG:  They like it more than me saying I write just to release my brain fumes.  And I think they’re right.  It gets me outside of myself.  I am going to have to confront or at least witness a lot of homelessness and drought in these travels.

KU:  I read somewhere that this book is going to be like Don Quixote with a tennis racquet.

MG:  You must have been reading my thoughts because I don’t think I’ve written that yet.

KU’s eyebrows express “And your point is?” without saying this explicitly.  MG hastens to earn back KU’s trust.

MG:  I really like telling people I’m working on writing an epistolary non-fiction novel.

KU:  Which means what?

MG:  Well, I have always felt that my genre, in the sense of what I’m best at, is letter-writing.  So instead of spinning out all these bus and bike rides and tennis games with people I meet on Facebook to some generalized imaginary audience…

KU looks like he’s going to say “ahem” but diplomatically says nothing while glancing around for a mote of dust to ponder. 

MG stifles a sigh – you really can’t please some people – and then goes ahead and lets it out, experimentally, to see if that makes him feel something positive, such as, fulfilled.  The results are not known.  Both participants in the conversation observe an “It is what it is” moment.

MG  breaths in, gathering the strength to continue.

MG: … uh, yeah, people have always liked getting a letter from me, especially if it comes with a typed transcript so they can read my handwriting.  So that’s how I’m reporting or chronicling my tennis escapades, as letters to friends.  I envision this project gaining sufficient notoriety that people will eventually pay me to write them a letter about going hither and yon to play tennis.  I also envision this project being not just one book, but a series.  The first is about playing on every free court in LA, then the next is about playing on one court in every state in the USA, and the third in the trilogy will be about playing tennis on one court in every country in the world.

KU:  Don’t you think that plays into the construct of borders and boundaries, which is so oppressive because it encourages nationalism and xenophobia.

MG:  It depends on how you write it.

KU:  I buy that.  So my last question for now is, the hustle?

MG:  Yeah.  I’m gonna let the magical thinking phase of marketing run its course, and when I become disillusioned with that, I guess I’ll dream up some kind of press release and/or pitch letter and start getting the word out to, like, public radio talk shows and I don’t know.  I hear TikTok is a big source of book influence nowadays.  That seems kinda through-the-looking-glass-y to me, ‘cause I came up thinking it was all about getting a good review in The New York Times Book Review.  I read recently somewhere that even The New York Times Book Review considers itself like, the fourth-most influential source of book recommendations among print media, which is to say, a relative drop-in-the-bucket.  So I am looking forward to exploring the bucket and its contours.  That’s really in keeping with what the whole play-tennis-on-every-tennis-court-in-LA adventure is all about.  Seeing what’s out there and playing with it while I still have the strength.

KU:  Oh?

MG:  Well, I’m 61.  That’s all.  Use it or lose it.  Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.  Things of that nature.

KU:  Right, right, right.   That brings me to my I promise last question.

MG:  Yessir!

KU:  Retirement?

MG:  Oh yes thanks for asking.  Yeah I am kinda proud of how I’m handling my retirement.  Because it was pretty handy, having all those classes to attempt to inspire for all those years.  Being a public school teacher was an excellent all-in-one way to reciprocate for the good fortune I’ve been… good-fortuned to have.  So now, y’know, instead of just waiting around for it to be late enough in the morning for me to ask my wife what’s for lunch, I have this whole program of tennis-playing and literary empire-building to work on.  And I’m happy about that.