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How A Book Happens with Mark Brazaitis by Kristi Carter

Click below to listen to Mark Brazaitis read his story "The Bridge".
Mark Brazaitis

This is the fourth installment of our new series in which Kristi Carter, our Book Prize Coordinator, speaks with a variety of book prize winners to discuss what goes in to the preparation of a manuscript, how winning affects the life of the writer, and the life of the book.

To submit your fiction or poetry manuscript to this year's Prairie Schooner Book Prize contest, click here.

Today, we're featuring her interview with Mark Brazaitis who won the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, for his fifth book, The Incurables.

How many times was the manuscript submitted for contests and publication? Were there any exciting milestones prior to winning the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction?

I submitted it perhaps six times. It was a finalist or a semi-finalist in every, or nearly every, contest in which it was entered, including the Flannery O’Connor Award. As I racked up near misses, I continued to revise and submit, revise and submit, until I received the good news about the Richard Sullivan Prize.

All but one of the stories in the collection were published in literary journals; each of these publications, for me, was a happy milestone.

The leading story, “The Bridge,” revolves around John Lewis, an English professor turned sheriff, and his reaction to a spree of suicides at the local bridge. This phenomenon brings Lewis to a crossroads. In combination with the apparent randomness of the suicides, he feels paralyzed by the imminent death of his terminally ill wife; meanwhile, he finds hope, in connecting with a young woman who tries to help him stop the suicides. What do you imagine becomes of him after the story has ended?

He continues to serve as sheriff of Sherman, Ohio. Despite what he witnessed and couldn’t stop, and despite his growing depression, he endures. He is a person Jennifer Michael Hecht, the author of an excellent recent book about suicide called Stay, would hold up as an example of what we should do in the face of unrelenting bleakness: stick around. Of course, as Hecht acknowledges, a rational mind is necessary to make a rational, life-affirming decision. Someone in the dark embrace of depression may not be in a position to make a rational, life-affirming decision. This is why, in our darkest moments, we need help—from friends (as in “The Bridge,” when CeeCee offers her hand to John Lewis), from medical experts (as in the title story, when Drew makes a connection with a kind and knowledgeable psychiatrist)—indeed, from anyone who will stop madness from triumphing.

If your book was a room, how would you hope people feel when they walk into it? How would they leave? What color are the walls? 

If The Incurables was a room, the people about to step into it would be told they are going to a party, half of whose guests are suffering from a mental illness. When they step into the room, they will have trouble distinguishing who is mentally ill and who isn’t. They will be cautious and curious. Perhaps they will laugh. Perhaps they will feel sad. Ultimately (I hope) they will realize what a tenuous border separates mental illness from mental health. As for the color of the walls: Each guest would perceive the color as whatever color the walls in his or her living room or kitchen or bedroom are. (Music playing in the room: Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. In a corner, on an armchair: a sleeping calico cat.)

How has winning changed your life?

As a result of winning the Richard Sullivan Prize for The Incurables, I was invited onto the Diane Rehm Show, where I connected with a number of men and women, both callers and people who emailed me afterward, about their experiences (their own or their loved ones’) with mental illness: http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2012-12-11/mark-brazaitis-incurables

I’ve also read from and spoken about The Incurables at several colleges and universities, including Slippery Rock University, Austin College, Ohio University, and Bowling Green State University.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a collection of short stories set at an ice-skating rink. One (“The Rink Girl”) is forthcoming in Ploughshares, another (“The Drive”) in the Notre Dame Review.

Why an ice-skating rink? Because one such rink (the Morgantown Ice Arena) has become my second home, thanks to my younger daughter, who skates five times a week.

If you were a natural disaster what kind would you be and why?

I would like to be a tornado—like a figure skater doing a scratch spin. My younger daughter has become amazingly proficient at jumps, spins, and moves I can do only in dreams—and even then not as well as she can. But I guess I’ll say I would be a waterspout. I’ve been a serious (which isn’t to say fast) swimmer since high school.

Mark Brazaitis is the author of five books of fiction: The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award; Steal My Heart, winner of the 2001 Maria Thomas Fiction Award; An American Affair: Stories, winner of the 2008 George Garrett Fiction Prize; The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize; and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His book of poems, The Other Language, won the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize. Brazaitis’ short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in The Sun, Ploughshares, Witness, Confrontation, Notre Dame Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Poetry International, Poetry East, and other magazines, and his journalism in The Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, American Medical News, the Charleston Gazette, Glamour, and elsewhere. He is the screenwriter of the Cine Golden Eagle Award-winning Peace Corps video How Far Are You Willing to Go to Make a Difference?