Q and A with Michael Marcus about his story collection #1 Son and Other Stories
Jon Hess has this to say about #1 Son and Other Stories , Michael Marcus’s debut story collection: “Michael Marcus takes us on a wild adventure through the darkest depths of addiction, sexuality, deceit, and depravity with a raw grace and eloquence that brings to mind the voices of Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries, Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting, Denis Johnson in Jesus’ Son, and Junot Diaz in Drown. Not for a moment do we question our narrator’s truth as he depicts larger-than-life characters who are in a constant struggle to survive. Marcus has an engaging voice as an author that is matched by his raucous humor. To read #1 Son is an experience of monumental proportions. A powerful, fresh new voice has taken center stage on the literary scene.”
1. What inspired you to write these stories (which are based on true events)? Was the experience at all therapeutic? I had an English teacher in 9th grade who encouraged the class to journal every day, a diary of our daily experiences. He told us all it was confidential and was for his eyes only, and that he would grade for spelling and grammar only. I wrote of my experiences related to stealing, drug use, parties, alcohol, Quaaludes, mushrooms, coke, and working and stealing at my father’s auction gallery. This teacher helped set the stage for the prose and poetry that I would eventually write. The stories in #1 Son are all based on true events; some of these events and conversations took place over the course of many years, but were combined to offer more character description, story resonance, and arc. Feel free to Google the details in this book or … ask my mom! She’s one of very few living eyewitnesses at this point. I took a couple of writing workshops (and many improv classes) that helped me access a lot of this material as well. I barely finished high school and have no former schooling as far as writing goes. It just happened. It was cathartic, but it also brought up some trauma. And I mean real trauma. That’s a catchword that comes up frequently in today’s therapeutic and 12 step settings and I believe it’s lost its luster. But where do you go if you grew up in the mix of drugs, porn, and violence? I’ll tell you where: hell on earth and unable to connect…On the other hand not facing all of this has brought me back to relapsing many times. So I did a lot of 12 step work and therapy, and continue to, I’m under no illusions that I’m healed, but I am on the road, way down the road of recovery.
2. What has been the response from family members, friends, and strangers to #1 Son? My immediate family (my mom) was a little offended, but got over it quickly and realized it was imperative for my own recovery. My extended family, cousins, aunts, and uncles, seem to be OK with it. My stepmother and stepbrother who basically inherited everything, well, I haven’t spoke to or heard from them since the book came out. But I was the black sheep in their eyes, most of the time, anyway. My stepmother who got full control of my father’s estate made sure I got very little when he died. And he had and has a very successful jewelry operation. When he died, I was grateful for the pittance she said he left at first (which now I believe is bullshit--she had power of attorney and she could have come way more correct with the money), but then over time I was enraged. I thought about how he never paid child support or alimony. I still have some bitterness there but not as dominating and overwhelming. But strangers love this book! A lot of great reviews on Amazon and kudos at live readings!
3. Your father was a larger-than-life character and you said during the episode you recorded for Marc Maron’s WTF podcast that you realized after he died that he was a horrible person – while he was alive, did you ever think it would be best to cut all ties with him? Yes, he was a horrible person. In today’s climate if he were outed, he would be ruined, for his lifetime of crime and hideous behavior towards women and children. Here’s something: many years ago while he was slipping into Alzheimer’s and dementia, he bragged about a murder he brokered. I knew the original story, but had no idea he was that deeply involved, and I couldn’t keep the secret. I told the police about it years ago but nothing was ever proven, and he had fallen fully into Alzheimer’s and dementia, so there was no way they could corroborate the details I shared. I did cut all ties with him and he did the same to me on and off for years. I tried to mend things and accept him and the situation between us, but it was futile. Daddy shit: I know plenty who suffer from it on some level. It's like going back to alcohol and drugs … insanity. So many times I guess I wanted it to work out but as the old song goes “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
4. You work in the addiction field as a 12-step group facilitator. How does this work affect what you write? Did it greatly influence your process when you sat down to write the stories in #1 Son? Absolutely. Over the course of time, writing, re-writing and editing #1 Son and Other Stories, and also working in recovery, helped me really access my insanity and delusional thinking around my behaviors, emotions and belief systems. I see different stages of recovery in all of the clients I’ve been in these groups with. Also, this isn’t just about my active addiction, but how am I stone cold sober and clean? That’s when the real fucking demons surface, when my fear is driving me around town, and it’s like I’m stuck in a haunted Uber with my thoughts and there seems to be no way out! But there is, and for me it’s been a combination of 12 steps, therapy, and a healthier lifestyle across the board.
5. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we’re in an era where violence is being celebrated and in some quarters, men are only considered real men if they’re willing to be violent—look at the NRA, the endless war in the Middle East, the rise of white supremacy. It’s clear in #1 Son that you have intimate knowledge of violence and violent people and I’m curious about how you react to these trends now as opposed to during your formative years. It’s unsettling, to say the least. American culture has forced beliefs of what it means to be a man on me for as long as I can remember. GI Joes, cowboys and Indians, boxing, fighting, war, and guns, toy guns, BB guns, and the real deal. Be it machismo, racism, xenophobia, the extreme importance of getting laid as quickly as possible, or just that good ol’ homegrown nationalistic idea of “America’s the best, fuck all the rest!” To those I say, OK, please list and define what makes America the best, and get back to me, because I ain’t feeling it. And I'm not going anywhere either. That being said, god forbid you speak up, because deep in the political/cultural fabric is that “Love it or leave it” ideology, and if you question those principles you’re a commie, or a liberal, or a traitor. It’s like that old saying, “I’d move to another country, but I’d be the victim of our foreign policy there as well.” It’s going to take a while to turn this ship around. I also loathe when I’m labeled or marked as macho or privileged or not awake to what the fuck is going on. One night I had a member of the Improv community tell me that I couldn’t fill in on a team because they didn’t want a ‘cis-gendered white male’—instead, they were looking for people of color, women, transgendered people. Needless to say, that’s exclusionary, and I’ve never been a person who would say or do that to someone else. And I’m hearing this from someone who doesn’t know anything about me. I grew up in Los Angeles, went to Hollywood High, but was also a ward of the court system—I could go on. The bottom line, whether it’s the left or right, I don’t judge people that harshly about their behaviors or belief systems. For me it’s always about being an example. I try to bring experience, solutions, and a deep understanding of the fact we are in a warped society. Me constantly complaining about it would create zero results. So it’s about showing up! Voting, protesting, fuck…sometimes just sitting quietly and not reacting to petty shit so quickly.
6. Who are some of the writers who most inspired you? Donald Goines he wrote about the street rawness of addiction like no other. Donald Barthelme—his short stories are fascinating and borderless. Eddie Bunker—his writing about his childhood and the never-ending bleakness of relapsing into crime and drugs and death and recidivism being the only option. Denis Johnson—Jesus’ Son…fantastic. Jack Kerouac— On the Road ; Charles Bukowski—more raw street survival and the mundane grind of trying to make it in the American machine, only to end up as a broken cog! John Fante—I’m a sucker for L.A. stories; David Foster Wallace—his books of short stories and Infinite Jest captivated me for YEARS—I still go back. Iceberg Slim—more horrific childhood shit and the horrific behavior of a really damaging upbringing, SE Hinton—come on man, The Outsiders—I grew up around dudes like that. Hunter S. Thompson…so many more…
7. What are you working on now? I’m working on a book about my experiences of working as a sober companion, part truth and part fiction, as well as a TV and movie project.
Michael Marcus was born in Freeport, Long Island, or, as he lovingly refers to it, “Cirrhosis by the Sea.” His lineage consists of a long line of restless, irritable, and discontent New Yorkers, which, in Marcus’s view, makes them some of the most irritable people on the planet. His years of drug and alcohol abuse (along with improv, storytelling, and a plethora of extremely undesirable jobs), have created the kind of prose you always wanted to hear but were too afraid to ask for. Marcus admits he’s been beaten to within an inch of his life, due to his own horrific bad decisions. And he’s happy to get to write about it."#1 Son And Other Stories chronicles some of these events. He was raised in an extremely dysfunctional environment that was rife with crime, abuse, misogyny, racism, and a host of other horrifying principles, ideals and belief systems. #1 Son And Other Stories explores these issues through the eyes of a man who miraculously managed to survive it all and didn't end up becoming the people who raised him.