Interview with 21 Extremely Bad Breakups' Mark Leidner

leidner author umbrellaWalking Shadow first discovered author Mark Leidner's book of poetry "Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me" in a Tiny Free Library in Minneapolis. We began to follow his work, and when he released his most recent chapbook, 21 Extremely Bad Breakups, director Amy Rummenie contacted him about staging it in our 2017-2018 season. 

Walking Shadow Co-Artistic Director John Heimbuch interviewed Mark Leidner about his writing process on Friday, February 9 -- one week before opening night of 21 Extremely Bad Breakups.

 

John Heimbuch - Hello there!

Mark Leidner - Hey, John. How’re you?

John Heimbuch - Good, thanks! Was just giving Amy some feedback on last night's rehearsal.

Mark Leidner - How'd it go?

John Heimbuch - Very well. Lots of really lovely and sincere moments. Some good comedy.

Mark Leidner – Cool. I can't wait to see it.

John Heimbuch - So, basically I want to ask some questions, have a conversation, and keep it kinda informal but friendly.

Mark Leidner - Sounds good.

John Heimbuch - I wonder if you can talk a bit about how you developed the idea for “21 Extremely Bad Breakups”?

Mark Leidner - When I wrote it, I was struggling with story structure, so as an experiment I tried to use the list as a structure, which to me is the simplest structure there is, and just describe one breakup after another with no consideration for plot, characterization, or even meaning. To further relax the pressure of writing something "good," I let the characters, situations, and style of writing be “flagrantly unrealistic," “flagrantly stupid,” or even “flagrantly meaningless.” Such relaxations of qualitative considerations kind of opened the floodgates, and what emerged was unexpected to me. 

John Heimbuch - Neat! It's a really fun piece of writing, with these super wacky elements and moments of real poignancy that appear almost by surprise. 

It's also punctuated by translations other writers' poems. How did those fit into the piece for you

Mark Leidner - As the list structure became more ornate, I found myself wanting to watch certain characters, themes, or images grow and change in an open-ended way. So I started recapitulating characters and ideas from previous vignettes in later vignettes. A film I saw around the time I was writing this, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence by the Swedish director Roy Andersson, does this to beautiful, hilarious, and terrifying effect, and watching it felt like license to proceed in this manner.

That said, I still felt “21EBB” lacked pathos—and that led me to try to develop the narrator as a character, whose emotions could be explored indirectly through what the narrator chose to say about any vignette or about him/herself. At the time I was also reading Chaucer and growing interested in intertextuality—stories within stories, frame narratives, etc.

At some point I learned that by allowing the speaker to comment on poetry, kind of like a pretentious lecturer, I could reveal nuances in the narrator's emotional state, add tonal coloring between vignettes, and get to think about some stuffy old poems I might not have otherwise.

It was also fun to put grand old poems into contact with the absurdity of the vignettes. One of my favorite movies, Grand Piano, makes a similar juxtaposition with classical music in an preposterous thriller plot. Sometimes people only get to experience poems in such austere contexts that it’s like air too oxygenated to breathe. Bringing poems into contact with less esteemed contexts—futile relationship drama, sci-fi thriller, etc—feels like a way to revivify them. 

John Heimbuch - That's cool! Your poetry also dabbles in some genre-based themes, and elements of absurdity. I'm thinking about of your pieces in “Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me.” I'm also a big fan of non-linearity and intertextuality. I think the layers of this piece were part of what drew us to it.

Mark Leidner - Intertextuality is a great way to make narrative feel expansive when you have limited resources. Writing a great story takes a long time and a lot of luck, at least for me. But writing two mediocre stories doesn't take nearly as much time or luck, and if you can put one within the other, or put them both in conversation along some meaningful vector, the extra thematic complexity, irony, or tension can make the whole into an even richer experience than a single "good" non-intertextual story at a fraction of the cost in time. 

John Heimbuch - That's a really great insight. There's also a certain freedom, it seems, that comes from embracing implausibility and unreality. I wonder if you can talk more about what embracing the ludicrous has done for your writing?

Mark Leidner - Embracing the ludicrous was inceptional in my writing because writing seemed ludicrous on the face. The first time I wrote something, I was probably trying to be heartfelt, but it felt utterly ludicrous to do so because I did not think there was much value in the act of writing—even though I read and loved books my whole life. I was probably just a product of my culture, which did not value writing as an activity for young people, though it did value reading.

In terms of its benefits, writing in a self-consciously ludicrous mode certainly reduces the fear of failure, since the writing already feels predestined to fail.

Secondly, the ludicrous gives me, at least, somewhere to go. If I start in a ludicrous place, I feel a formal tension that demands resolution. After writing a “ludicrous” first line, for example, I might think, “Well, where the hell can this possibly go?” A “good” or beautiful first line, by contrast, usually makes me think, “This has nowhere to go because it’s already there.”

The ludicrous is also therapeutic. The part of me that is at the oases already—the part that is content and accepting of reality—doesn't need to go on a journey. The part of me that is lost in the desert—the sense of desperation, of futility, of heartbreak, of terror—needs a way to the water. So the journey from the ludicrous to whatever its opposite is is always a journey that part of me wants or needs to go on.  

John Heimbuch - I think "write it badly" is some of the best advice I've ever gotten.

Mark Leidner - It is often very good advice, but even if you do it once or twice, it’s hard to keep it up, because it paradoxically creates “successful” writing, which only makes it harder to follow later on.

John Heimbuch - Was that something you figured out on your own, or was that from a particular teacher?

Mark Leidner - The seed was always there, but it was definitely watered and fertilized by a long line of great teachers and friends. I would name them, but it would double the length of the interview.  

John Heimbuch - Totally.You've written poetry, fiction, and screenplays. Have you ever written work for the stage?

Mark Leidner - I've tried a little but haven't finished anything yet. Also, getting a play produced is an alien process to me, so it’d be hard to know what to do with it if I wrote one.

I have been going to the theatre more in the past few years—mostly as a way to learn more about acting and dramatic structure for film—and I have come to realize theater, even if I don’t love the play, is my favorite form of entertainment because the humanity of the performers is so raw, and the narrative mechanism is like a beautiful fusion of language and body in front of your eyes. I’d love one day to write something specifically for the stage. 

John Heimbuch - Anything you're particularly excited about seeing in this adaptation? (Spoiler warning!)

Mark Leidner - I'm most excited to see how Amy Rummenie, the director and playwright who adapted the story, structures the story for performance. And how the actors bring that structure to life. I was shocked when she told me she wanted to adapt “21EBB” because it has so many threads, so many absurd situations, and so much poetry. But then I watched some of the recorded work that Walking Shadow has done and realized that taking those kinds of risks were what the theater company was all about. Other than overall form, I’m probably most curious about the scene in which the aliens are trying to decide if they should break up while an asteroid they’re supposed to be looking out for is about to hit Earth.

John Heimbuch - Amy has a really talented ensemble of actors with lots of experience in physical theater and comedy. I think it's going to be a delight.
It's no surprise to any of us that she's a huge fan of your writing. She originally found your first book in a Tiny Free Library, and has been following you ever since. I take it you were surprised when she asked about adapting it?

Mark Leidner - I’m still surprised! It's not often that a stranger encounters your work in such a seemingly serendipitous manner and then reaches out to ask to do something interesting with it. It means a lot to me. 

John Heimbuch - I'm so glad to hear it! This story has such a heartfelt way of exploring the way people connect to one another, lose that connection, and then seek connection again. Absurd as they are, how did you find yourself drawing on personal experiences when writing these breakup stories?

Mark Leidner - One commonality among most of the characters in “21EBB” is that they overthink things. Overthinking comes from the urge to control what cannot be controlled. It’s a natural but problematic facet of consciousness that me and everyone I’ve ever met have struggled with our whole lives.

In writing this story, then, I was very comfortable turning this overthinking up to 11—giving characters even more desperation to control outcomes in situations which are even further beyond their control than usual—and letting that wreak havoc on them, exposing themselves to themselves, and then watching the narrator try, somewhat in vain, to control our interpretation of that. I am fascinated with the balance between the urge to control and the necessity of letting go—in relationships, in writing, in life—and that's perhaps the most personal part of the piece for me. 

John Heimbuch - That makes a lot of sense. And yet in practice it's such a difficult thing to do!

Mark Leidner - Almost impossible, but worth the effort, even if it fails. 

John Heimbuch -  What projects are you working on right now?

Mark Leidner - "Under the Sea" is a book of short stories coming out in June from Tyrant Books. “21EBB” is in that collection, along with 7 other stories.

Last year, I also wrote and helped produce a sci-fi thriller about virtual reality called Empathy, Inc., which is in the final cut and is currently being sent to festivals and producers. It’s directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, produced by Josh Itzkowitz, and stars Zack Robidas, Kathy Searle, and Jay Klaitz.

I'm also finishing up a romantic comedy that is, for the moment, a short novel. The challenge was sort of the opposite of “21EBB”—tell a relationship story with a happy ending, using only the most formulaic conventions possible. Another form of "writing it badly," in a way, which was just as liberating.

John Heimbuch - Awesome. Well, thanks so much for this, and for letting us stage your book! I look forward to hearing what you think.

Mark Leidner - Thank you, John. All of this was fun to think about. Can't wait to meet you, Amy, and David and see the show. 

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A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Georgia, Mark Leidner is the author of two produced full-length screenplays, Jammed (2011) and Empathy, Inc. (forthcoming, 2018). He is also the author of two poetry books, Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press, 2011) and The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator Press, 2011). A book of short stories, Under the Sea, forthcoming from Tyrant Books in June 2018, includes "21 Extremely Bad Breakups," which won the 2015 Newfound Prose Prize.

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