An interview with Peter Markus, author of 'The Fish and the Not Fish'

Child's play

Local scribe Peter Markus has developed a name for his poetic prose, reducing storytelling to its primitive core for a result that is both childish and dreamlike. His latest book, The Fish and the Not Fish, came out last month, and tells stories from a strange, post-industrial town where a boy decides he is a bird and Death himself is just another neighbor, among other oddities. The Trenton-based writer has covered the literary arts as a writer for Metro Times before, so we thought we'd turn the tables and interview Markus for a change.

Metro Times: Was The Fish and the Not Fish fun to write? At times it was humorous, but it could also be quite sad.

Peter MARKUS: I wouldn't write the writing that I write if it didn't bring me some amount of pleasure. I enjoy playing with words and making things out of our language. If there's a kind of sadness present, that's an element that's almost beyond my control.

MT: Do you consider your The Fish and the Not Fish to be a naturalistic story, or allegory?

Markus: It's all fiction. It's all made up. It's truth that can only be arrived at through a kind of lying. All stories can be read as a kind of allegory. All words give way to some other hidden meaning. As for this being a book of naturalistic fiction, I don't know. I guess if you mean that the characters all have specific relationships with their personal landscapes, their surroundings, then yes, I guess you can say this is true.

That said, I don't set out saying in my head I'm writing anything but a fiction, a made up thing; call it a fable, a fairy tale, a story, a long poem, et cetera. The reader always sees things that I don't. Which is cool. I like to learn about my own work, to see it through somebody else's eyes.

MT: A lot of The Fish and the Not Fish seems to revolve around ideas of decay, especially of a post-industrial town. Even though it was a rural town, it was hard not to think about Detroit.

markus: I like that. Post-industrial rural. I mean, Detroit is sort of post-industrial rural in certain places, is it not? I spend much of my life in Detroit, so it makes sense to me that Detroit in some form makes its way into my fiction, though, as you say, the landscape in this new book is not Detroit, is not a named place, is more small town in the aftermath of what these places maybe used to be. The bulk of my other books have been set in a post-industrial river town not unlike the landscape south of Detroit, though here again I don't name these places, these rivers, these towns. I guess I'm aiming for a more mythic representation of landscape, a place that doesn't exactly exist on a real-world map.

There's something beautiful and, of course, storied about a ruined place. Our eye is drawn to both the broken and the beautiful, and at times the two seem to merge to make its own kind of broken beauty. I think that's what draws people to a place like Detroit, and maybe even — or hopefully ... will draw those same people to this book.

MT: I do get a mythic, timeless feeling from it. It could take place in the past, or even an apocalyptic future.

markus: That feeling that you get from the fiction pleases me to the end and to the beginning of time. I want to blur that sense of time. I do want these stories to take place in both the past and the future. Maybe this book begins at the end of one apocalypse and ends at the beginning of some kind of second coming.

Maybe every book begins and ends in this way. Or maybe what I'm saying is that I wish more books did, or would. I think the books that matter most to me certainly do. And because they do, I'm blown away by them.

MT: The simple prose makes it at once accessible, like a children's book, but it also gives it a distancing effect. It seemed almost alien at times, like the narrator is far removed from the subjects.

markus: The prose is deliberately simple, of course. It's stripped down to its barest of bones, monosyllabically so. It's a strange instrument I'm playing in this book, a single-stringed guitar. I like the idea that you might feel removed by such an effect in the way that anything that's aiming to do something new causes us at first to step back from it and to ask, 'What is that? I've never seen or been asked to listen in such a way before.' I'm hoping this is the case here in this book.

I'm not writing stories about characters that readers can relate to. I don't turn to fiction for that. I want a world entirely its own, and the people who might inhabit that world — I hope they might be their own creatures that have little to do with who I am. As both a writer and reader, this is how literature works for me.

MT: It may seem to people that writing simple prose like that might be easy or effortless. Is it a challenge to constrict yourself in that way?

markus: It's all a game for me. The self-imposed constraint makes it interesting to me. To write a story any other way would be too easy, though its effects, I fear, would be too easy, too. Too predictable, too conventional, a story in the worst kind of way. I do my best to get the most out of each sentence. I pay close attention to the shape and sound of each sentence. Meaning and event and invention itself rises up from this kind of attention-paying. I like to stare up close at the spaces between words, that bit of silence, I tend to hover around commas, I always ask myself, 'Is there another way of saying this sentence?' And of course there are always other ways of saying. My aim, in the end, is to say it in a way that only I could say it at that moment before I say to myself, 'OK, you can go on. But remember to listen to the sound that just came before and make from that, or move away from that.' That's how I work my way through a book.

In the end, I think there are far easier ways for a writer to work. I like to build my house stone by stone, brick by brick. The hope, in the end, is to build something that will do its best to stand up against time and to resist both fashion and decay.