Scott Stein is the author of the novels Lost and Mean Martin Manning. You can read my review of MMM here. He also edited the online magazine, When Falls the Coliseum: a journal of American culture (or lack thereof), and has written numerous satires, articles, essays and reviews for lots of other folks, including this recent essay for the magazine Liberty: "Autopsy: The Failed Playwright of Virginia Tech." He's the acting director of the certificate program in writing and publishing in the department of English and philosophy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. He also enjoys grilling. You can read a detailed bio at his website.
EGP: I have to admit, I’ve had the kind of Kafkaesque trial nightmare that happens to Martin Manning in your new novel, in which the health do-gooders of the world force me to “improve myself.” Pitney, the caseworker, categorizes Manning as having “resisted all opportunities to broaden his potential.” Have you resisted, as well? And do you see a kind of value, beyond one’s individual rights, in partaking in activities that might not be “good for you?”
SS: I haven’t resisted “reaching my potential,” whatever that means. I have resisted letting anyone dictate to me what I should enjoy or find valuable.
Unlike you, I haven’t had much direct experience with aggressive “health do-gooders.” That aspect of the novel is not based on my personal experience. It has more to do with what is happening in our society, with the unprecedented aversion to risk and the lumping of more and more personal behavior under the umbrella of “public health,” giving society an excuse to interfere with individual choices. And it has to do with people who think they know what others should value, and who are willing to impose their views on everyone else.
As a society, we’re focused not only on avoiding risk and being healthy, but also on self-improvement. For example, some want children’s cartoons to have educational value--they have to teach Spanish vocabulary, as in Dora the Explorer, or include classical music and works of fine art, as in Little Einsteins. Parents play Mozart for their babies, not because many of the parents care about music or art, but because they’ve been told that it will make their children smarter.
My son is currently obsessed with superheroes, Spider-Man and all the rest. He plays with action figures and can sit and color them in his coloring books for hours. There are benefits to this, I suppose, such as developing fine motor skills. But what matters is that he enjoys it. He’s happy. As parents, we make sure that he does other things, like read and play outside. But his joy is the only justification needed for coloring superheroes.
Pleasure, entertainment, escape, diversion, whatever you want to call it, is valuable in and of itself. It should be enough to want to listen to beautiful music because it’s beautiful. We don’t need a justification to want to ride a roller coaster. It’s fun. That’s reason enough. I don’t drink milkshakes for the calcium. I also don’t have milkshakes every day. Or salami. But I’m not Martin Manning.
For adults, what is the right balance of pleasure for pleasure’s sake and doing what is good for us is a matter of individual priorities and values. And “what is good for us” presupposes that we agree on the desired result.
EGP: I find especially interesting how Manning’s lifestyle is likened to heroin addiction and spousal abuse. Bad habits become transgressions (literally, sins) against, first, the self, then against society as a whole. I see this kind of hyperbolic argument against “unhealthy lifestyle choices” all the time (and it burns me up). But I’ll play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. What about the “cost to society” argument? If an adult’s pleasures can be calculated into a specific monetary cost that the rest of society must pay in order for that adult to enjoy him/herself, then isn’t society responsible for curbing that adult’s pleasures?
SS: I have heard it argued that people who engage in “unhealthy behavior” -- bad diet, smoking, etc. -- actually save society money in the long run, despite their initially higher medical costs, since they die many years earlier and don’t spend years in expensive nursing homes collecting social security. As people live to be older and older, those who die early will save society more and more money. One makes such an argument at the risk of being accused of cheering for early death in order to save society money: “Help your country--smoke cigarettes!” Still, if the argument is that society should curtail unhealthy adult behavior because that behavior costs society money, we might ask whether in the long run it really costs society that much. Manning points out something to this effect during his trial, when he cross-examines Dr. Kravis. I am not a researcher and don’t know what the numbers are, but the calculations are worthless if they don’t take everything into account.
Either way, “Devil’s Advocate” is apt. This road leads to hell. We can name dozens of activities that are risky, that many people enjoy, and that have medical costs, statistically. If monetary costs to society were reason enough to curtail adult behavior, we would have grounds for near-totalitarianism. The government would have a justification to limit all sorts of behaviors that most people in a free society take for granted as belonging beyond the scope and power of government. One reason to reject or at least limit government’s role in paying for healthcare is that it makes private, personal choices have “public costs,” which creates an excuse for people to tell other people what to do. What your neighbor does, as long as he does not violate anyone’s rights, is his own business. But when the public is forced to help pay for his insulin shot, his midnight chocolate binges no longer seem like only his business. We don’t want to live in a society that requires adults to seek chocolate permission.
EGP: Martin Manning isn’t really a mean guy. And I fully expected the character to live up to the title, that he’d be some nastily acerbic curmudgeon, hating the world and the people in it. But he really does care for others. He just wants to be left to his own devices. Do I read him the same way you do?
SS: More or less. He mainly wants to be left alone. I don’t know that he cares about others generally, but he does seem to connect to a couple of other characters--for example, Rhonda. And he doesn’t want to hurt the innocent members of the group. There are indications in the novel that earlier in his life he caused a bit of trouble, wasn’t especially nice or pleasant. Manning doesn’t tolerate nonsense and doesn’t fit the sensitive society growing around him. He says as much, so people think he’s mean. Maybe he is mean, but mostly, he just won’t buy into their program. And he seems to take a certain glee in sticking it to people he thinks have it coming. But if they’d left him alone, he wouldn’t have bothered anyone. Remember that he didn’t call himself “Mean Martin Manning” until society named him that. He’s meaner by the end of the book than he was at the beginning, and we might ask who’s responsible for this change.
EGP: Do you see MMM as a dystopian novel? Were you conscious of that genre/tradition while you were writing?
SS: While writing Mean Martin Manning, I wasn’t consciously trying to write a dystopian novel or trying to echo the themes from anything in particular. I wasn’t thinking in terms of genre or tradition. When I’m writing, I am more conscious of my characters and story and themes than I am of a larger tradition.
Still, it quickly became clear that I was writing a satire about a certain kind of tyranny. I was also aware early on that Mean Martin Manning had something of the Kafkaesque about it (as did my first novel Lost), and by the end I saw a bit of a connection to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s hard to predict what connections readers will find between one’s work and other authors and books. For example, your review of Mean Martin Manning in the Philadelphia Citypaper was the first time I saw any connection to A Clockwork Orange. It just hadn’t occurred to me.
EGP: I only use those kinds of connections in a review because I have such limited space. And I find references to other well-known works can help as a kind of shorthand for the reader of the review. And it’s true that I do see MMM as part of this tradition/genre. I’m looking forward to reading your first novel, Lost. I managed to find a copy in a used bookstore and, interestingly enough, I think the copy I found belonged to a reviewer because it is full of marginalia that refers to what is going on in the text, like “goes into store,” “Brother’s job,” “wears janitor uniform but brother brings clothes.” These are the kind of markers that someone would use to help review the plot.
SS: Lost is not in that tradition/genre. I am curious to know what you think of it. It’s quite different from Mean Martin Manning. But yes, I see how Mean Martin Manning could be viewed as a dystopian novel. I have read dystopian novels and stories, including Orwell’s 1984, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Rand’s Anthem, Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” In MMM, Pitney is trying to shape a perfect world that many of us would not want to live in. But her focus is really on Manning. I think that most dystopian novels deal with the larger society more directly than Mean Martin Manning does.
For example, in 1984, the surveillance society is explicit. In Mean Martin Manning, the surveillance society is implicit. Pitney obviously knows a great deal about Martin, and it can be inferred that she has been monitoring his activities by computer and investigating his past. The extent of the lack of respect for individual rights becomes clear through how Martin is treated. The reader can easily conclude that this is just the beginning, on a societal level, whereas in the dystopian novels I refer to above, the totalitarian society is already firmly established.
EGP: Implicit surveillance is scarier than explicit surveillance.
SS: I wouldn’t like either of them. Maybe you’re right. I did see the connection to 1984 and surveillance. If asked to describe the novel by comparing it to other works, after I completed the manuscript, I might have said something like, “1984 meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with punch lines.” Such glib comparisons shouldn’t be taken seriously. They are very different books. It’s just a shorthand way to convey some of the themes. Anyway, I don’t think writers should spend too much time considering where they or their works belong. Not while they’re writing, at least.
EGP: I especially like Manning’s thought, “Apparently everyone was nuts, but me.” That’s the kind of line that I see as funny Kafka. And, of course, that line is the running joke of Cuckoo’s Nest. McMurphy isn’t really nuts. So, in the big picture, do you think our society is going a little nuts?
SS: The quick and easy answer is “Yes.” But some historical perspective is called for. Our society, probably every society, has always been a little nuts. Some societies have been and still are a lot nuts. Our society is not as nuts in some areas as it once was. But yes, our society is going a little nuts.
EGP: Have you thought about a sequel to MMM? Seems that the adventures of Manning could continue.
SS: I’ve thought about it. The ending does leave that open. Maybe one day.
EGP: Your first novel, Lost, was published in 2000. MMM was published in 2006. Were there other novels in those six years?
SS: In the middle, after I wrote Lost, I started and ran an online magazine, When Falls the Coliseum (which was active from 1999-2002), and wrote and edited lots of essays for it. I got married, started a teaching career, had a son, and was pretty busy. But really, I didn’t have an idea for another novel, the main reason for the delay. When I got an idea, I didn’t know how to write it. I finally figured it out, and it became Mean Martin Manning, which I wrote a couple of years ago. MMM was officially published in early 2007.
EGP: Could you go into a little more detail about the genesis of MMM? What was the original inspiration? What was the process of "figuring it out?"
SS: I must have been thinking about nature versus nurture, because one day I wrote the following on a small square of paper:
His mother would sing to her baby in his crib with the voice of an angel. But when the angel sang Martin wept, because Martin was a mean baby. Some might say that babies are neither mean nor nice, that babies simply are—like moldable clay or blank slates. But Martin was mean all right. A mean baby. Later, he was a mean boy, still later, a mean adult, and his meanness, like a garden well tended, grew with age. He was, at 83 years, meaner than in his youth, not the result of a hard childhood or bitterness at old age, but the predictable culmination of a life steeped in cruelty and uncaring.
For a long while, I had no plot or concept, just this paragraph. I guess the initial idea was to jab at the “blank slate” view that some have of human nature and behavior -- that it’s infinitely malleable, if only we have the right environment or program to improve people. This opening paragraph announced that some people were not going to be made into the people others wanted them to be. But that was all I had. At some later point I wrote a couple of pages more, developing Martin into a loner who rarely left his apartment and didn’t like people. That opening chapter included his love of preservatives and processed meats. I still didn’t have a plot or direction for the novel. Then it sat for a long, long time. Maybe I was busy, but also, I didn’t know what to do with it. What was the book about? What should happen to this old, ornery guy? I didn’t know. It’s easy to give in to every possible distraction, far easier than sitting down and working on a novel at that stage.
When I finally did attempt to write the novel, I got the idea for Caseworker Alice Pitney to try to force Martin Manning out of his apartment and make him a better person. But when I wrote, it felt stiff, wrong, amateurish. I was boring myself. Part of the problem was that I liked the opening paragraph. Whether or not it was any good, it was what I’d written first, and I was attached to it. I couldn’t see past it. I was writing in this third-person narrator’s voice, which is what I’d used for my first novel Lost. I think that narrator worked well for Lost, but only when I realized that it wasn’t right for the new novel did the book stand a chance. I’m not sure what made me turn to first-person. Desperation, maybe. I don’t know if it was because I’d read Flowers for Algernon some time shortly before this (which kids these days read in middle school), or if I was thinking of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’d only read for the first time a year or two earlier, or something else.
I wrote an opening two pages, which was where I first captured his voice. I threw out the third-person chapter I’d lived with for months and months. I made him younger than in my initial third-person paragraph. The only thing I kept was a short bit about how much he loved food preservatives. Once I had his voice, the novel started flying out of me. That decision to write in first-person was the key to the book. I don’t know why it took me so long to discover it. It seems so obvious now. Those crucial opening two pages, which I called the preface, do not appear in the final, published version of the novel. Instead, they introduce Martin Manning’s home page.
EGP: How do you write? Computer? Pen? Do you have any writing rituals or particular environments in order to write?
SS: Both of my novels began with paper and pen. I am talking about the first paragraph, note-taking, brainstorming. But nearly the entire manuscripts were written on the computer. I rewrite constantly, rereading and polishing the first chapter before moving onto the next one. Before I start the third chapter, I revisit the first two. And so on. By the time I am writing the tenth chapter, I have revisited the first chapter at least nine times. Dozens, really. I keep working this way until it becomes impractical to go back to the beginning of the entire book every time I reach a new chapter. When I get to the end of the “first draft,” I have a manuscript that is more polished than you might ordinarily expect a first draft to be.
I write while wearing headphones and listening to loud music. For Lost, in the early going, I listened over and over to Mahler’s fifth symphony. Other stuff too, but mainly Mahler’s fifth. When I was further along, I switched in loud rock music. But in the beginning, lyrics bothered me. The same thing happened when writing Mean Martin Manning. Early on, I listened over and over to Mahler’s sixth symphony. The beginning of it captured, for me, the tension of his desperation as Alice Pitney threatened his peace in his apartment. It’s about creating the right frame of mind, mood, intensity, as I’m writing. Later, I was able to switch in rock songs with lyrics. I don’t know why it’s been Mahler at the beginning of both books.
I usually write at night. Once I found an approach and got going on Mean Martin Manning (which took a long time), I wrote a chapter a night, nearly every night. The chapters are short, so this is less impressive than it sounds. I would polish the chapter that night, get my wife’s take on it, maybe make some more changes, maybe take it to bed and read it half a dozen times. In the morning I would polish the chapter. Before starting the next chapter that evening, I would read the previous night’s chapter again and a chapter or two before that one and make some changes. All of this helped me start the new chapter immersed in the voice and mind of my character.
EGP: What kinds of books do you like to read?
SS: I like history, philosophy, fiction, political philosophy, anything that’s good. I don’t read lots of genre stuff, though if it’s good, I don’t object to it. Plenty of so-called “literary” fiction doesn’t do it for me, either. I deliberately bounce around in my reading. I think writers benefit from exposing themselves to different styles, subjects, voices.
EGP: What was the last book you were reading?
SS: Right now, I’m reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I just finished Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses. Before that was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; before that was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; and before that was Brink Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance (which I reviewed for the Philadelphia Inquirer). That brings us back a couple of months.
EGP: What is your favorite book? Favorite author?
SS: I’m going to cop out on this one--I can’t name a single book or author. A couple of years ago, the journal of the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University, ASK, asked faculty to list 15 books that they would save from their library in event of a fire, or bring to a desert island, and I copped out that time, too. There are books I would add to that list if I were making it today, and maybe books I would remove.
EGP: What books or authors have inspired you?
SS: Kafka was a big influence when I was an undergraduate. I went on to write my master’s thesis on his short stories when I was at NYU, and while in important ways my fiction is nothing like his, there is a sense of the Kafkaesque in both of my novels. I think I had that sense of the absurd before I ever read him. I learned a lot about writing by reading Cheever, Orwell, Dostoevsky, James, Chekhov, Greene, de Maupassant, many others. I’ll sometimes read a good book and think, Maybe I should try something like that. I don’t want to copy anyone or be derivative, but when I read excellent work, I do briefly imagine that I could do interesting things with that approach or subject. As an example, I remember reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and thinking how much fun it would be to create a world like that, to play with that sense of wonder and invention. I’ve also thought of writing a genre book. I’ll read a good thriller, or see a movie, and think, Maybe I should try something like that. It wouldn’t be an ordinary thriller, I suspect--it might come out as absurd satire no matter what I set out to do. I do a lot of thinking, too much perhaps, about what to write next, and how to write it, and reading is part of that.
EGP: You’re originally from NYC. How do you feel about Philly now that you’ve been here for a few years.
SS: I’ve been working in Philly and living in Bucks County for about nine years. There is something about me that will always be New York, but I like it here. I’ve met lots of good people.
EGP: Do you have any favorite Philly books or authors?
SS: Well, I like Poe. Does he count as a Philly author? But no, I’m not usually conscious of books and authors belonging to certain cities, even though my first novel Lost is clearly a New York book.
EGP: Poe definitely counts as a Philly author. He wrote his greatest works while living here.
EGP: Do you have a favorite spot in Philly?
SS: I’ve become Suburban-Man since moving here from Manhattan. I work in Philly, and we’ll sometimes drive in, to see dinosaur skeletons or go to a restaurant (we really like The Rose Tattoo), but probably my favorite spot is on my deck in front of my grill. My publisher, ENC Press, thought I looked happy there and used the photo on its site. (I’ve recently shaved and now only resemble the guy in that picture.)
EGP: What websites do you visit regularly (aside from the Bibliothecary, of course)?
SS: I visit Books, Inq. every day, which sends me off to all sorts of sites. I also check in regularly with cnn.com, reason.com, instapundit.com, and libertyunbound.com (especially when I have an essay there).
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