Mark Goldblatt is a theologian, novelist and journalist as well as a professor at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. His first novel, Africa Speaks, a satire of black urban culture, was published in 2002 by Permanent Press. Sloth, a comedic take on postmodernism, was published in 2010 by Greenpoint Press. A book of political commentary, Bumper Sticker Liberalism, followed in 2012 from HarperCollins. The Unrequited, a literary mystery from Five Star/Cengage, was published in 2013 — the same year Random House released Twerp, a novel for young (and old) readers.
Loren Kleinman (LK): Do you read reviews written about your books?
Mark Goldblatt (MG): Until the last one, my middle grade novel Twerp, I always did—and reacted in the typical gastro-intestinally injurious ways most writers do. But Twerp now has hundreds of reviews in newspapers, magazines and blogs, so I haven’t been able to keep track. I will admit to Googling myself on an embarrassingly regular basis. It’s a sign of immaturity. But, hey, Twerp is written from the perspective of a twelve year old boy, so I’ve made the immaturity work for me.
LK: Did you know the title before you started writing?
MG: The working title of Twerp was What Happened in Ponzini . . . which the editor at Random House disliked so intensely that she stipulated in the contract that the title was definitely going to change. She proposed Twerp—which I hated. That began a long back and forth, over the course of weeks, where we bandied around over a dozen titles. We both liked Running from Shakespeare. But there was a problem: the dominant word was “Shakespeare.” That meant that kids who heard the title might remember only the word “Shakespeare,” and if they searched for the book on Amazon, they’d never find it.
Gradually, I came around to Twerp. Now when I say “came around,” what I mean is I went from hating it, to hating it slightly less, to feeling indifferent, to not-quite-liking it, to accepting that it was going to be the title. Now I’m very fond of it. I can’t imagine the book with another name.
I’ve got one other story about a book title—my novel Sloth. I actually began that book in the mid-1980s, and it passed through many iterations before it was published in 2010 by Greenpoint Press. I was originally calling it Work In Progress (for obvious reasons) and had that on the first page of the manuscript. But my roommate at the time, who was working 60 hour weeks, and who used to rag me about my eight-hour-a-week adjunct lecturer schedule, noticed the title page on my desk one morning and said, “You should really call that thing Sloth In Progress.” I thought that was pretty funny, so I changed the title page. Then, when I finished the book, I realized it was no longer Sloth In Progress. So the title became Sloth.
LK: Did you do any research before the start or during the writing of your books?
MG: I did a lot of research during the writing of my 2012 political book, Bumper Sticker Liberalism. (Did I mention that I’m a political conservative? I’ll wait for the hissing to die down….) That was pretty standard internet-based stuff. More interesting was the research I did for my first novel, Africa Speaks—which is a satire of black urban culture, narrated by young black man, in hip hop dialect. I researched that one for a full year before I started writing it, jotting down phrases I overheard on the street, buying copies of Source and XXL magazine, recording hours of banter between public-access cable hosts, etc. I enjoyed it, but I’d never want to do it again.
LK: What is the one book you think everyone should read?
MG: That’s easy. The Bible. Whether you’re a believer or not, the Bible is the ur-text of Western Civilization. I’m continually astonished at how many of my writer friends have no acquaintance whatsoever with the Old and New Testaments. I don’t mean you need to recite chapter and verse. But you’ve got to know the basic stuff—the books of Genesis and Exodus, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jonah, Job, the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letter to the Romans. You should also know a little about the composition of the books, the languages in which they were written (Hebrew for the OT, Greek for the NT), the evolution of the canon, etc.
Let me give you an example of why it’s important. In the last speech he ever gave, Martin Luther King concluded with an eerie statement, which many commentators have heard as a prediction of his death: “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
That closing makes no sense whatsoever unless you know something about the story of Moses and the Israelites. That whole, “been to the mountaintop…seen the promised land…I may not get there with you”—that’s straight out of the book of Deuteronomy. (So throw in that one too.)
MG: Well, they’re here to stay, obviously. There’s one part of me, the Luddite part, that is appalled; I mean, I love books. I love them as physical objects. I literally slept with my first novel after I got the galley—I stared at it for hours and fell asleep with it next to me.
On the other hand, e-books open up possibilities with the narrative form that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. We now live in a world in which, for the first time, there are two distinct ways to read: 1) with your eyes alone, and 2) with a cursor. The two ways to read point to two very different reading experiences… and that difference will affect how books are imagined and executed.
The potential for annotations and links is the most obvious change. But the experiential possibilities of an e-book are not limited even to words on the screen. With inevitable hardware advances, there will eventually be suspense novels, for example, with creepy background music and momentary visual effects. As the heroine steps inside the seemingly deserted house, a bass line will pulse through your headset. As you scroll across the words, “She heard a sudden rustling of wind through the tattered curtains,” you’ll hear a rustling. Then, as your pulse quickens, when the villain leaps out from behind the curtains, an animated graphic will emerge from behind the words on the screen to menace you for a split second, then recede.
As unsettling as such innovations may seem, they needn’t encroach on the experience of traditional readers. The option of sight reading, of scanning down the page line by line, without using the cursor, will always remain. But the range of new possibilities is sure to impact how writers write; many will write with an e-book specifically in mind. They’ll become orchestrators as well as wordsmiths. The results will be hybrids… not unlike the way today’s graphic novels are hybrids of traditional novels and comic books. I know it’s a scary prospect. But I suspect more people, rather than fewer, will become book lovers. They’ll just love their books in different ways than book lovers did before.
LK: What is in the works for you next?
Right now, I’m working on a sequel to Twerp. The tentative title is Pickle. I’m going to fight very hard to change it.
Where can you find Mark Goldblatt?
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