The Penmen Profile: “Southern Gospel” Memoirist Mark Beaver

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

beaver-headshot-sm“Suburban Gospel” draws upon high school teacher Mark Beaver’s religious background and what life was like for a teen coming of age in the ‘80s. The memoir debuted in early 2016 and has drawn positive response from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and many of Beaver’s peers.

The Penmen Review recently connected with Beaver to learn more about his writing techniques and influences.

Have you always written?
I wrote bad song lyrics masquerading as poetry throughout college, mainly to convince myself I was deep, but it wasn’t until I was 23-years-old that I declared to myself and to the world I was a writer. To celebrate, I proceeded to write perhaps the worst two novels in the history of American letters—but by the time I finished the second, writing had stopped being something I did and become who I was. That’s when my long, slow, often painful but always rewarding slog of an apprenticeship really began.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
With memoir, you’re of course given your storyline and characters. The challenge is to discover the narrative in what seems to be a series of random and disconnected events. Relying on the hazy scrim of memory, I have to re-imagine what it was like to experience an event from my past. Then in order to flesh out the context—the setting, the situation, the other people involved—I use what I do recall in order to reasonably imagine what I don’t. When I go through this process with a sequence of events, I start to see an overarching narrative emerge. I see the connections between one isolated event and other events from my life. I start to see my life as an unfolding story. When that breakthrough arrives, it is one of the most satisfying moments on Planet Earth for me. It’s transcendent. And that’s what I’m always shooting for: transcendence.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them? 
I’d say the biggest challenge is marching onward against a culture that by and large could care less about what I’m doing. If you call yourself a serious reader and writer, you’re automatically marginalizing yourself in relation to the rest of society.

Example: You’ll read a mind-blowing book, and you’ll want to share the experience with somebody, anybody, but nobody has read it and they won’t particularly care about seeking it out. They can talk for hours about Netflix shows or the back-up quarterback on their favorite football team or what Kim K wore on a magazine cover—but the idea of a book triggering a national conversation is almost absurd.

Thank God for a guy like Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates wrote a book that qualifies as a seminal text in our culture, but still: if he were brushing shoulders with you in the produce aisle at the Kroger, would you know who he is? If a Kardashian were checking out the tomatoes, though, everybody within 100 miles would know. So how do you overcome this startling indifference to the written word? You have to see your work as its own reward. I think it was Ruskin who said, “It’s not what you get for doing something that makes it worthwhile, it’s what you become by doing it.”

What has the road to publication been like for you?
Writing poorly for about 20 years until finally I found my subject matter. Mostly this meant swapping my quest to write the Great American Novel for the bone-deep need to write a memoir. Long story short: My dad died and things got complicated. I was suddenly confronted by the desire to explore my upbringing in ways that I had never felt compelled to tackle.

How do you market your work?beaver-book
I’m not as skilled at social media as some of my peers. I wish I were better. The face-to-face works better for me—I thrive when I get in a room with a group of people and have the opportunity to share my work with them. I love the challenge of getting in a room with folks who don’t know me from Adam and spending the next half-hour making them want to read my book to find out more. It’s performance in the same way that a band plays live and convinces people they should go buy the record.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
For most of us, the apprenticeship lasts much longer than we imagine it will. Actually, I wouldn’t have wanted to know how long mine would endure, because I probably would have quit at the mere contemplation of it. It’s a necessary defense mechanism, this absurd belief that we are somehow the exception—that the rules don’t apply to us. If we knew what we were getting into, most of us would give up the dream early on. The good writers are the ones that don’t quit—that’s what I’d tell my 23-year-old self.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
The Southern greats: Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, Ernest Gaines. Then there’s T.C. Boyle. He writes great sentences. Steve Almond taught me to embrace vulnerability. But if we’re expanding this question to include artists who’ve inspired me, the greatest is Prince, God rest his soul. His uncompromising commitment to his vision. His limitless fountain of creativity. His never-ending quest for the transcendent feeling.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?

  1. People laugh at me when I dare suggest that even though Faulkner was a better writer than Robert Penn Warren, he never wrote a novel as great as “All the King’s Men.” But, man, I wish I’d written that book. The magical thing about “All the King’s Men” is that it makes me feel as though I did write it, because it’s like Warren crept inside my brain and saw the images that I’ve accumulated deep in my subconscious throughout my lifetime and rendered them perfectly on the page in the exact way I would render them if only I possessed his lyrical sensibilities. It’s breathtaking, that book.
  1. Dennis Covington’s “Salvation on Sand Mountain”: I love the sly way Brother Dennis writes a memoir about his spiritual journey while making you think you’re reading a book about snake handling in Appalachia. The scene where he takes up a timber rattler is sheer terror, suspense and beauty.
  1. Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”: I named my firstborn child Chloe after Chloe Anthony Wofford, whose “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved” and “Jazz” are the literary equivalent of Prince’s “1999,” “Purple Rain” and “Sign of the Times,” which is to say: an unsurpassed run of brilliance.

For the record: I’d find a way to smuggle in Ernest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying” and Thoreau’s “Walden,” too.

Visit Beaver’s website to learn more.