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Secrets and Make-believe Family Trees: Mark Winkler Chats about His Gritty New Novel, Wasted

Mark Winkler

Mark Winkler recently launched his second novel, Wasted, in the company of John Maytham at The Book Lounge.

Wasted is a dark, intense novel, told from the perspective of Nathan Lucius, a young man who sells advertising by day and sleeps with the lights on at night.

Books LIVE had a chat with Winkler about this compelling story.

WastedAn Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything)Hi Mark, thank you for doing an interview with me. How did you come up with the story for Wasted?

I stumbled across a little book called PostSecret, the outcome of an experiment by an American sociologist, in which he distributed free, postage-paid postcards and asked people to send him their innermost secrets anonymously. The replies were almost all in clipped, terse language. Some were tragically sad, some bizarre, some creepy, some funny, and reading them was strangely but fascinatingly voyeuristic. I wondered if I could create a character who spoke in this stilted and unfiltered way. So Nathan Lucius happened before the story, and because he became quite interesting to me, I built his story around his character, a story which explores how and why he has come to be the way he is. I’ve always found characterisation, both in reading and in writing, more interesting than pyrotechnical plot points, and the more character drives action, the more believable the course of events.

The Cape Town in your book is very dark and gritty. How important is setting or world building to the telling of the story?

The world should, I think, be related through the eyes of the beholder. Nathan’s Cape Town is very much one of his own making, and in it the lyrical Cape Town of tourist brochures isn’t really relevant. Pretty much like the Venice depicted in the movie Don’t Look Now and Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers. I guess I’m saying the interpretation of the setting should be congruent with both character and action.

How did you write the character of Nathan Lucius?

Once I’d found a voice for him (thanks to PostSecret), his character fell into place almost without me – socially awkward, living in the moment, unambitious, insular, secretive. Of course there needed to be a motivation for why he is the way he is, and this motivation became the bones of the story. The more the story developed, the darker and more interesting Nathan became (to me, anyway). He’s a little like a road accident – you don’t really want to look, but you can’t help yourself.

Where did you get the idea for Nate’s family tree?

I needed a device to demonstrate that Nathan had disowned his family, or had been disowned, that would sit believably with his unusual character. The book sets out to bring conclusion to two things Nathan mentions in the first bullet-pointed paragraphs of the first chapter: why he sleeps with the light on, and why he creates his make-believe family trees out of antique photographs.

Why is Madge such an important figure to Nate and to the story?

Superficially, as an antique-store owner, she is the provider of the old photographs Nathan buys. But she’s also (although he would never admit it) a powerful maternal figure. Nathan has deep-seated fears of abandonment by women, and he worries about her inevitable “going away” as a result of her cancer. This pre-empts the other “goings away” that Nate experiences on his journey. Madge is important to the story because I needed to demonstrate that Nathan is capable of affection, and reasonably normal relationships, to steer the reader away from concluding that he is a sociopath. The fact that she knows very little about the antiques in her store allows Nathan to show off his own knowledge of them, the source of which is clarified only much later in the book.

There’s a point in the novel where you start to realise what’s going on and you want to put the book in the freezer rather than have your suspicions confirmed. How did you manage to keep that tension throughout?

I’m very happy that you had that reaction. Everyone I know who has read Wasted has responded in pretty much the same way. It was quite a challenge to get right, and risky too, because when you’re writing, you’re so close to the material that it’s impossible to step away and decide objectively whether something is working or not. The challenge was to balance the bits of information given away in the first three-quarters of the book so that the key events are credible when they are revealed. I didn’t want the reader to feel cheated at the points of revelation – and at the same time, I didn’t want to telegraph these plot points too much, which would have allowed the reader to figure out things before they were revealed. I was hoping to achieve a forehead-slapping moment of “I should have seen that coming” at the right time.

Describe your writing style, why did you opt for short active sentences rather than heavy dialogue, for instance?

I’m still pretty much a novice at this book-writing thing, but I’m approaching it on the premise that voice and writing style should be specific to the main character and the particular story, rather than attached to the author. Cormac McCarthy, one of my literary heroes, does this brilliantly – compare The Road with Blood Meridian, for instance. Both are clearly McCarthy, but both are distinctive in terms of voice and style. So my first book, An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything), has a very different style to WastedTheory is related by a well-educated, wealthy, middle-aged guy, and is correspondingly written in longer, far more complex sentences. The “difficult third album” I’m working on at the moment again tries to shift voice and style into territory that’s appropriate to the main character.

In Wasted I wanted the writing to mirror what goes on in Nathan’s head, and I’ve tried to challenge the reader a little with Nathan’s staccato and sometimes disconnected sentences without irritating him or her into putting the book down.

To amplify this sense of disconnection, I removed any instances of the conjunction “but” from Wasted. I’ve also used other conjunctions sparingly, consciously stuck to the active voice as much as possible, and wherever possible chose not to begin sentences with a subordinate clause.

Because it’s written in the first person, and because of who Nathan is, most of the dialogue happens in Nathan’s head, too. And because he is so insular, his conversations with other characters are quite limited – especially after he decides he’s going to stop speaking altogether.

Lastly, when can your readers expect the next book?

Hard to say. I’m on the fourth draft of my third, The Safest Place You Know, but I don’t think it’s working yet, so I’ve left it to rest for a few months before I revisit it.

A while ago, I was given a box of letters and telegrams that span a period of five years in the mid 1940s, the correspondence between a married man and his mistress. This intriguing collection, while infuriatingly cryptic and incomplete, has all the promise of an epic love story, so I might just tackle Theo and Flora before I get bogged down by Safest Place once again.
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