The Tangled Threads of Narrative

Mark Sarvas and Maud Newton

In Conversation

In Mark Sarvas’s Memento Park, Matt Santos becomes aware of a painting that he believes was looted from his family in Hungary during the Second World War. To recover the painting, he must repair his strained relationship with his harshly judgmental father, uncover his family history, and restore his connection to his own Judaism. Mark Sarvas’s narrative is as much about family history and father-son dynamics as it is about the nature of art itself. In a conversation with Maud Newton at Greenlight Bookstore, Sarvas explored these key questions at the core of his writing as well as how his own life influenced his book.

Maud Newton: How did you decide on the subject of your second novel?

Mark Sarvas: I had this idea for a long time and it drives me crazy that I can’t remember the actual spark, but the first short story I ever published in the late ‘90s was a story called “The Number.” It’s a story about a guy whose infant son is born with a number tattooed on his arm, and he has to figure out what that means. And in the author bio for that story it said, “Mark is working on his first novel about looted Nazi art.” So I know it was bumping around in my head for a long time. But I also realized I wasn’t good enough yet to write the book the way I wanted to write it. I didn’t have the chops. A lot of times when you’re sitting down to write your first novel, it’s this proof of concept. Can I even do this? Can I get a beginning, middle, and end that someone will want to read?

And so I made a very conscious decision—I was eager to get novel one into the world, so I decided I would put this in the drawer and have that learning experience of writing the first book and return to this after that. So it’s been with me in some form or another since the ’90s.

Newton: I know in your personal life that over the past decade or so, you have become more interested in Judaism, like your narrator. And I’m wondering if you foresaw—all those years ago when you were contemplating this novel—that there would come a time when you became more interested in that part of your history.

Sarvas: That’s a great question. This is good when your friends are talking to you because they know all the inside stuff—they can ask questions like this. I don’t know that I really foresaw that. I recently published an essay in the “Visiting Scribe.” It was something called “Notes from a Lousy Jew”—and it was about how, as a child, I wasn’t really raised with much of a religious tradition and I didn’t have real access to it. I started writing this novel, and I realized I expected my character to go on a journey that I hadn’t experienced or that I didn’t have an understanding of. So I reached out to a rabbi friend of mine in LA—David Wolpe. He traveled the country with Christopher Hitchens and would debate God with him. I’m an atheist, and I always thought David got the better of Hitchens in those arguments. David suggested I go and take this introduction to Judaism course at the American Jewish University in LA. It’s an eighteen-week course and it’s mostly for people who are converting to marry into Judaism. I show up, and I’m the one Jew in the class, and they’re all looking at me like, “Dude, you’re already in. Why are you going to school?” And it was through that experience that things opened up.

I realized I expected my character to go on a journey that I hadn’t experienced or that I didn’t have an understanding of.

One of the things that I gave to Matt, one of the things that resonates with him and his journey, is the idea of Sabbath. The idea of the day of rest becomes meaningful to him. Things like that became meaningful to me. I’m not going to lie and say I came out of an eighteen-week class an observant Jew or a practicing Jew. But my posture toward all of this changed considerably and became open in a way that I didn’t anticipate at all. It was a pleasant surprise.

Newton: I definitely want to talk about John Banville because I can see his influence in a great way in this book.

Sarvas: I think it’s a naked rip-off, so it makes me happy you say it’s great.

Newton: And I also want to talk about art. As you know, one of my favorite novels is Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, which involves an atheist who’s sort of forced to reckon with the possibility of God. And that comes up here. Especially toward the end.

Sarvas: That’s funny—I teach The End of the Affair in one of my novel writing classes in LA and yet I’ve never made that connection until you raised it just now. When I started writing this book many years ago, I was just consumed by the plot—the narrative of the painting. I thought, Oh, this is great, people are going to really be into this. And one by one, different themes asserted themselves: Oh no, this isn’t about the painting, this is about fathers and sons. But when that sort of spiritual, religious element—the Jewish question—emerged, it emerged really powerfully and really unexpectedly.

I can’t remember who said this—maybe you’ll know because I see it variously attributed to Joan Didion, Anne Carson, all sorts of people: “I write to find out what I think about something.” And I realized in writing this novel I was finding out what I thought and felt about these religious questions. And it coincided with a period that I took up Buddhist meditation, and really started to bring that into my life. So there’s this weird clash of religions and beliefs, yet I think they all sort of supported each other in a strange way.

Newton: I find it fascinating that all of these different threads emerged as more important to you than the last, over time, as you were working. I don’t want to harp too much on the ways your personal experience connects to this book, but I do think the fact that your narrator’s name is Matt Santos invites that a little bit. I remember when your dad died and I think we saw each other that very day.

Sarvas: Some coffee shop—it was right off the subway stop on 6th or 8th avenue or something like that. I remember that.

Newton: Yeah. And so it was impossible not to think about that as Matt was reckoning with his dad and what his dad meant to him. So I wonder how your dad’s death affected your sense of what the novel would be over time.

Sarvas: Yes, I did give my narrator my initials, and that’s a decision I haven’t stopped second guessing to this day. But I think I sort of inverted the usual paradigm where most people write their autobiographical novel first—I didn’t do that, there’s nothing autobiographical in Harry, Revised.

My dad was in dialysis for a long time and then he made the decision to stop dialysis, and so I came home and spent about two weeks with him. And I went home every night and took notes, which is this weird, sort of slightly cold—what did our friend Graham Greene say?—that the novelist must have “a splinter of ice” in his heart.

My father and I had an uneasy relationship, though not as bad as depicted in the novel—it is a work of fiction—but I don’t think I could have written it freely while he was alive. I only started writing it two months before he passed away. Over time, he found his way into the book in a number of ways, and as I read tonight, I hope, some sensitive and some kind moments as well as some more troubling ones. The funny thing is, now my dad’s been gone for nine years and I’ve lived with Matt’s father for nine years and there’s this blurriness that’s starting to happen. Did my dad really do that? Or is it Matt’s dad? It’s weird, but also a little bit fitting for a novel that is concerned with how memory works and how we remember and experience those things. This novel took a lot longer than my first because I was kind of rolling up my sleeves and getting into the muck of things. I know you know what that feels like.

Now my dad’s been gone for nine years and I’ve lived with Matt’s father for nine years and there’s this blurriness that’s starting to happen.

Newton: Oh, I do! One thing I found really touching in the book was the relationship of the father to Tracy, Matt’s fiancé. The narrator and Tracy have their issues, and the son and the father have their issues, but Tracy and Matt’s dad seem to have a natural affinity and rapport. How did that develop?

Sarvas: It’s funny you happened to pick up on that point, because that was really a major revision point in the novel. The first draft took four years to write, between difficulty of the material, divorces, childbirth, all those other things. Life intervened and it took a long time. And when I finished that first draft, the one thing I knew even before I read it back was that the character of his fiancé was an afterthought.

I hadn’t been that interested in her when I was writing, so of course she hadn’t really come to life. And I had no real idea what do with her. But I knew the first real revision would be about her character and figuring her out. And two things happened in the figuring out of her. The thing about Matt, my narrator, is he’s one of those actors who gets two, three lines and if you saw him you might say, “I totally know that dude, what was he in?” And the fiancé is sort of the analogue to that in the modeling world—she models for catalogues like Penny’s and Sears. I had a former student who is a very well-known actress and former model so I went and talked to her and just ran the tape recorder for ninety minutes. I wanted her to talk about the details of her daily life, because those are the things we care about as novelists—you’ll hear something that will spark an idea. But as I was listening to her, I realized she had a strong yen for social justice, and that was something that entered the book through this character.

The other part was, when I was going back through that first revision, I knew I had this terrible character and I had no idea how to fix her. I fastened on the idea of, Wait a minute. Why does she get along with the dad? Why do they have this relationship? I thought if I could understand that, that would be the way in. I tell my students all the time: your subconscious is much smarter than you are, and everything you need to fix the next draft is lying in wait in the first draft if you can notice it. And when I noticed it, this connection between the two of them—which was an instinctive choice when I wrote the first draft—became a lynchpin for helping me figure out that character.

Your subconscious is much smarter than you are, and everything you need to fix the next draft is lying in wait in the first draft if you can notice it.

Newton: As you know, I’m really interested in patterns in families and ways that dysfunction gets passed down. Sometimes the more we try not to take on a particular dysfunction, the more we take it on in some warped and horrible way that we can’t see ourselves because we’ve convinced ourselves we would never do that. I was really struck and pleased by the richness of those considerations in the book. I wondered if you could talk about the sort of multi-generational quality of the book and how that might have played into your thinking about the painting.

Sarvas: Oscar Wilde famously said that the price of not becoming our parents is eternal vigilance. I was having this conversation with my mother last night about the handful of ways in which I see my father’s “isms” creep into me, and how I desperately swat to keep those down. But there’s a recognition that, nevertheless, it’s part of what makes you up. I think that bringing those threads into the book became important. I like unreliable narrators.

There’s one unreliable narrator whose self-awareness can sort of begin to grow with the reader’s awareness. And that’s really what I wanted in that book. My actual dad had more of an appreciation for art than perhaps the book lets on. I like what you said earlier about how the book does contain all these threads. I always tell my students—if your scene is only about one thing, then it’s not done. Nothing is just one thing. It’s a little bit instinctive: some years after I am done writing and actively thinking about it, the different threads become a little harder for me to disentangle.

Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel Harry, Revised, which was published in more than a dozen countries around the world. His book reviews and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review, Bookforum, and many others. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, PEN/America, and PEN Center USA, and teaches novel writing at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. A reformed blogger, he lives in Santa Monica, California.

Maud Newton is a writer, editor and blogger. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Newsday and other publications. She is a recipient of the City College of New York’s Irwin and Alice Stark Short Fiction Award. She is currently writing a book about ancestors and the stories we tell ourselves about them, for Random House. She lives in Queens, NY.