We thought it would be a good idea to talk to Mark Sarvas about his new book, and we’re grateful that he took a few minutes to answer our questions.
Dennis Haritou: Thanks Mark, for taking our questions. Aside from the title character, there are many memorable secondary characters that take the stage in Harry Revised. Some appear for only a chapter while others seem to haunt the book. Do you have a favorite?
Mark Sarvas: First, let me thank you for this invitation and for your wonderful consideration of my novel. I don’t know why you picked mine to launch your venture but I am grateful you did, and every debut novelist should have the experience of being read as thoughtfully as I have been here. So, thank you.
And that gave us Elliott. I’m also partial to Lucille, who began as little more than a plot device and very quickly came fully to life – I think the Harry/Lucille relationship might be my favorite in the book.
DH: We did not touch upon this subject in the Three Guys discussion but social class plays an important role in your book. At one point Harry tries to help the working class waitress, Lucille. And you also have scenes with Harry’s upper class in-laws. Depicting people from different walks of life in Harry Revised seemed to be important to you. Is that right?
MS: It was, although not so much from a class warrior perspective so much as supporting this idea of exclusion, people rejected for a variety of reasons – income, birth, education. I think anyone who has ever stood on the wrong side of a rope line knows what powerful emotions that sort of rejection can roil up, and that seemed fertile terrain for this story.
DH: The meaning of your title, Harry Revised, came up in the Three Guys discussion. Does Harry revise himself or does he get revised by what happens to him? It’s probably a bit of both, of course, but I wondered where you would want to lay the emphasis.
MS: As you point out, it is, indeed, a bit of both. The theme that really occupied me during the writing of Harry was change – how does one change? Is change even possible? What does it mean? And at what point does it shift from the things one does to the effect of those things on others? It’s an endlessly interesting question with, I think, no single or clear answer. But one of the most important questions in the book occurs when Harry wonders if the secret of change is merely believing one’s own spin. Because at some point, we have a vision of what or whom we’d like to be, and we strive to move toward that. Does the striving make it somehow inauthentic? Or is hard work the only real way to transform? Like I said, I don’t have a single answer but I could chew on it for hours …
DH: In our discussion we talked about whether we liked Harry as a person. What kinds of feelings do you have about him as a character? Do you “like” him? Were you exasperated with him at times? I put it that way because many of your readers may have had those feelings about Harry and I wondered if you as the writer could share them.
MS: I do like Harry, yes, but I had inside knowledge – I knew he was going to more or less sort it out. And I also knew that I was going to be throwing the kitchen sink at him for his trespasses. So he sort of had my sympathy going in. But I knew all along that I was setting out on a hard road because he isn’t likeable, really, at least not until the end. I knew I was gambling that readers might be so turned off that they might abandon him before he reached his safe harbor, but I was hoping that they’d see it through. As I’ve said a few times now, it’s not that you need to like Harry – I just want you to root for him to do the right thing. And if you do, I suspect you’ll find that faith more or less rewarded. (Incidentally, in How Fiction Works, which Dennis alluded to, Wood talks about the silliness of requiring characters to be “likeable” – is Ahab likeable? Is Humbert Humbert?)
DH: Harry Revised is hilariously funny at times although the themes of the novel can be very serious. Was this a hard balance to strike and did you enjoy writing the funny stuff just as much as the most serious stuff? I wondered because you seemed to have a lot of fun at Harry’s expense, like that scene where he is snookered by the jewelry sales clerk or in his spin class where he literally did spin when he took a tumble.
MS: I think I took some of the gags a bit too far, and if I had the book to do over again, I might dial it down a notch. But the balance emerged over drafts, smoothing it out time and time again, working very diligently to try to get it right. I enjoy funny books, of course, but I require ballast, too, and I think the sections I’m proudest of tilt toward the seriousness, not the humor. (Jason mentioned the scene by the fireplace, which is one of my favorites, and only came in during the final draft.)
DH: The Three Guys talked about Harry’s mourning for his late wife, Anne. We debated whether it was genuine or not. I think that people who have been through the mourning experience will be impressed by your treatment of it. What is the relation between his mourning and Harry’s attempts to be a better person? And it seemed to be the case to me, not to become too personal, that you must have gone through such an experience yourself in order to depict it so well. I say that because I have been through such an experience and I recognized it in Harry when I saw it.
MS: Thank you – I’m really pleased by your reaction. Sure, I’ve experienced loss; I suspect most of us past a certain age have. What was central for Harry, though, was his dogged determination to avoid experiencing his loss, to distract himself at every opportunity in order to keep this terrifying grief at bay. So the becoming a better person part is, in large measure, a piece of that distraction but it has the ironic effect that if he does actually become that better person, he will be able to behold this loss in a way that Harry 1.0 would have been unable to.
DH: The Three Guys also debated Harry’s relationship to his late wife. Did you see their marriage as a success or a failure? Or how would you characterize it? It’s hard to tell what Harry himself thought of it and this ambiguity, like so many fine ambiguities in your book, was an asset that contributed to the novel’s richness. So did Harry both mourn for his wife and be glad that he was separated from her?
MS: I was most fascinated by this discussion between the three of you and I loved reading the competing interpretations, especially the idea that Anna married Harry to spite her parents, which wasn’t what I intended but is a wonderfully provocative reading. I think once the book leaves my desk and lands in readers’ hands, it’s all fair game, so I won’t go so far as to say any reading is right or wrong. And because I do intend the ambiguity, I am reluctant to weigh in too firmly on the question of the marriage other than to say that I think Harry considers it a missed opportunity – one, to his eternal heartbreak – he’ll never recapture.
DH: Managing change at any point in life is not easy. At midlife, where we met Harry, it’s especially hard. Whether people can change for the better or not is at the heart of the conflicts in Harry Revised. If you could say anything about change to the Harrys of the world that are struggling, what would it be?
MS: I think I hit on this in
my answer above about the title, but to directly respond to this question, I’d say that I do believe wholeheartedly that people can and do change, (I’ve seen it) but I also think it requires total commitment and hard work. If my surrogate Harrys are looking for it to come easily, they’re bound for disappointment.
DH: JR suggested that I ask you about The Count of Monte Cristo. That old classic seems to be a template for change for Harry and an inspiration, even though Harry is no Count of Monte Cristo as indeed none of us are. It’s sort of funny, sad and admirable all at the same time that Harry is so inspired by this book. Is that the way you felt about it? Also, I have to ask, did you read the abridged version, as Harry has, or the unabridged version…or neither? I have heard that you are a Francophile so I imagine that the novel is a favorite of yours and that you may have read through a lot of 19th century French literature, especially including all those swashbuckling adventure novels of the period like say, Captain Fracasse, as one example.
MS: Ah, abridged or unabridged – that is the question. I’ve read both. I read the abridged years ago when I was working on a film adaptation which involved setting it in the present day; and then I picked up the unabridged and took it with me to Paris one year, where I marveled at Dumas’ energy and plotting skills. It’s my hope that my French will get good enough to read it in the original language (unabridged) but that’s a good way off. One of the reasons for the inclusion is that it’s my nod to the whole plot/no plot argument in the world of literary fiction. Obviously, I’m someone who loves plot and thinks the imperatives or narrative and the imperatives of literary fiction (whatever those might be) can be married successfully, which is what I tried to do with Harry, Revised, even down to the cliff-hangerish chapter endings typical of Dumas. I don’t know Captain Fracasse, I’m sad to say, but have added him to my list …
DH: Your very distinguished blog, The Elegant Variation, has inspired a lot of people to love literature, I think, not more but better, like what Pound says about the importance of loving well. The Three Guys have started their book discussion blog and you were kind enough to notice us. But in relation to your blog, I feel that we are living in a shack but we are staring out the window of our shack at the foot of the Acropolis which is your blog. But if I could characterize the key to your blog in two concepts, I would say that it is comprised in equal measure of love of literature and the love of friendship. What do you think about that assessment? Have I hit the mark at all?
MS: I think you are dead-on in your assessment, though I fear the Acropolis comparison is kind overpraise. No false modesty here, I truly was lucky in the timing when I launched my site but what has kept it going (and growing) is this sense of a shared conversation, of an open literary community. I kind of try to make it feel like a virtual salon, where I can toss a few ideas in the air and invite my readers to catch them and run – as they often do. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a conversation unfold in the comments section – even a disputatious one – delivered by people who care deeply about books. And if I can keep delivering news and recommendations and surprises, they’ll keep coming back.
Are you planning or writing a new novel? Please answer yes to this question.
MS: I’m already at work. Can’t say much other than it is a complete 180 from Harry – a dark, sad book, no real humor, and probably first person. (Sorry, Dennis!)
DH: Last question Mark, the Three Guys are new to putting book discussions online. Can you tell how you think we did with Harry Revised?
MS: I haven’t seen a better discussion of my book to date. You guys could serve as a model for a thorough, engaged, thoughtful book discussion. I can’t wait to see what title you pick up next.