On Flawed Substances


An Interview with Mark Mitchell

After editing Mark Mitchell’s new novel, “The Magic War,” I caught up with Mark over the phone to gather his thoughts on characters, signature images – think cartwheels – and writing a historical novel. I spoke with Mark at home in San Francisco as he prepared for his book release party. – Lisa Levine, freelance editor

LL: “The Magic War” mixes Prohibition-era values with post-adolescent awakenings, sexual and emotional. How did you get the idea to unfold the story of a small-town guy like Frank McCorrie in conjunction with subjects that tend to stay buried in small communities?

MM: The first thing that came was the name: Rainey Ballantine. I saw it when I was fifteen years old on the back of an envelope at the St. James Church. I fell in love with the name and tried to write any number of things. That was the germ. The plot of “The Magic War” was about this imaginary conflict at the beginning of the 20th century between two famous rival magicians, MacGregor Mathers, who founded the Order of the Golden Dawn, and the infamous Aleister Crowley. The outline comes from history –that, and the moon landing happening on the anniversary of the Scopes trial. The story is written to Sinclair Lewis’ America of Babbitt and Elmer Gantry. But it only starts to work when Frank comes along. Once I had Frank’s voice, the librarian as a hero, I could sit down and write it. I also had a shaping factor in the major arcana of the tarot deck. Frank’s bike comes from the coming of the chariot— how else do you show a chariot in 1925 America?— and tarot influences the vocabulary of each chapter. The cover art shows that deck, popular in the 1920s, and the female on those cards drove Rainey’s style of dress. Those ideas are there, shaping it.

The other thing to know is that I wrote this novel 17 years ago. I took a long time to get it published.

LL: Alchemy plays a major role in the plot; did you ever think about turning lead into gold as an extended metaphor for what’s happening in Frank’s life, or was the idea of transformation practical?

MM: There is alchemy in bootlegging. What would have been excess crop turns into gold. In Frank’s transformation, one thing to remember is that all of this is written from the point of view of Frank as an older man. I think that Rainey has been idealized in his memory; for example, alchemy and gold and Rainey’s gold hair.

LL: Rainey sort of dazzles Frank at first sight. How was it writing their traditional romance in the modern era? Was it an inward journey, or did you lean on contemporary notions of love?

MM: I had to rely on my memories of falling in love for the first time. Everything is what you’ve been conditioned by. I’ve been  deeply and religiously in love with the same woman for 40 years.

If their parents were in the scene, Frank and Rainey would have married. Without parents, there’s only the government to turn Rainey over to.

When I’m writing well, I don’t really know what I’m doing until after I’ve done it. The moment when you write – Rainey Ballantine would have been atypical of the 1920s; she had much more freedom.

LL: What about Frank?

MM: Frank has a little more independence. Interestingly, in two follow-up stories to “The Magic War,” there’s a subtheme of blacklists and persecution for ideas. For example, in the 1920s, the KKK acted against Catholics. They drove them out of the town, particularly in Indiana. In Brightness Falls, that persecution leaves Frank isolated. He went to a church, and his community got changed. This is also evident in the Scopes trial. Having grown up Catholic, all this has resonance for me.

LL: Readers always want to know about process. How do you write?

MM: I’m primarily a poet. I studied writing in college. My first teacher was Raymond Carver. He was also a very good poet. After studying writing, I published 4 chapbooks of poetry, but every now and again, I decide to write a story I want to read. I wrote a historical novel about Sir Thomas Malory…when I write a novel, it’s something I want to read. I wasn’t done with the characters when I was done with the story.

As far as the physical process, I used to drink a lot. I don’t now. It was never alcohol-fueled. I sit down in the a.m. and write for a couple hours before work. I handwrite five to six pages. I rewrote this three times before deciding to find a publisher. The fun part was that I got to create a town, Brightness Falls, this place where I wanted them. I grew up in Southern California. In Brightness Falls, the streets are a grid of tree and mineral names. When I went back [home] to visit, I was crossing Pearl Street, Garnet Street, Diamond Street. It’s a fun aspect. When I’m writing fiction, there is that sense of play. But, at the same time, they’re in a suburb of Sinclair Lewis’ America.

LL: What do you mean by Sinclair Lewis’ America?

MM: He has the big city of Zenith, which was basically Minneapolis, and the small town Gopher Prairie, in kind of a corrupt version of Kansas. I decided on small town American with an undercurrent – things are not quite what they seem. It’s geographic freedom within a slightly fictionalized world. Also, it’s in homage to my father. Sinclair Lewis was his favorite author.

LL: Is the father figure an important part of “The Magic War?”

MM: Sure, there’s the mythic father quest. Culpepper is a father figure to Frank. That’s what draws Frank to him. There’s a Latin pun in his name.

LL: What’s the pun?

MM: O felix culpa means “Oh happy fault.” His niece Millie Culpepper’s name means “A thousand sins.”

LL: What about women, female archetypes? Are they present in the novel?

MM: There is light and dark with Rainey and Millie, who’s a 1920s vamp. Rainey is always cornflower blue and blonde, pure even in her sensuality. The image of her is turning cartwheels out of the library stacks.

LL: Is there anything I haven’t asked about “The Magic War” that you would like readers to know?

MM: I do hope there’s a humor to it. It’s bathed in nostalgia. It’s also meant to be a look at a shaping moment in American history – challenges to the idea of science on flawed substance. It’s driven fully by characters. My wife says it’s something different holding a bound book than a pile of printed pages. She stayed up two straight nights reading it and said, “There’s a lot more sex than I remembered.”