Mark Dennis, DDS is not your average writer… and he thinks we need to stop treating kids like they are average readers. He has poured all that he loves about great books into Song for a Summer Night. For his effort, critics have compared his inaugural work with classics like Wind in the Willows and The Bridge to Terabithia. In Song for a Summer Night, Dennis offers advanced and curious readers a compelling story, with the elements that make a classic book: strong, vivid characters, symbolism, and thought-provoking events.
By day, Mark is a self-described country dentist. When time allows – between patients, in the evenings, on weekends – he writes. His is a slow process. Song took four years to write and publish. Still, he continues to write. Mark’s poetry has been published on Ship of Fools.
RT: Welcome to the Reading Tub and congratulations on Song for a Summer Night, your first published novel. Song clearly defies simple (or even traditional) characterization. Reviewers have described it as a story “reminiscent of” The Wind in the Willows, The Bridge to Terabithia, Alice in Wonderland, and Lazy Bear Lane. How does it feel to have your debut book compared to these classics and award-winning books?
Mark: Thank you. Lo and behold, what began as me tossing ideas around led me to the room where the men and ladies with big voices and big boots gather, albeit with me just a child left to poke about. I still have to read Lazy Bear Lane, but it feels good to have my book compared positively to other good books, however cosmetic comparisons like that tend to be. It gives me hope that Song left a positive impression, and will continue to, just as those books did on me as a kid, and still do.
RT: On your website, you describe Song for a Summer Night as “less a tumble down a rabbit’s hole than a swan dive into a bowl full of Jell-O.” Did the story come together in that same way (all at once)? Or was it a plot that developed slowly, “between patients”?
Mark: Slowly, like four happy years in a state of suspended animation. Most of that came after the book was accepted for publication. I consider that time to be time spent with my book in its childhood, which, sadly, must also mean that it is already in its adulthood now, getting old, and I may soon outlive it. But it has certainly been good. Maybe if I find success as a writer in a broader sense someday, I might re-introduce Song in a bigger way, and give it life again. Apocalypse and genesis, that’s what the book’s about anyway.
Fortunately for me, writing is an avocation. The fun of writing to me is in the honing and polishing, after the project has taken shape and I feel I’m onto something good. I’m free to work slowly and meticulously, and I do work through many distractions. For me, this book needed to take time, just like all my significant thoughts, which mature as they steep in my mind, and give time for certain correlations to become clearer. I’m simply not nimble enough mentally to go from page one to three-sixty in a single draft, at a certain number of pages per day. To me, that actually sounds like a dreadful way to approach writing. It sounds too much like homework that way. “It” either comes to you or it doesn’t. You can’t force it, but you do have to try every day. Then again, that’s easy for me to say when writing is an avocation.
RT: You describe yourself as a “simple country dentist, a wordsmith – which is to say, not quite a poet.” With your novel now published, are there other types of writing you’d like to try?
Mark: I have had poetry published in the wonderfully ironically named Ship of Fools. Words are fun to tinker with, and the product of a poem is very personal, but you need not worry that I might ever try to sell a volume of poems, because I know, they cause disorientation and an itchy scalp in those who happen upon them, and no one but a record producer can afford the liability (thereby, I suppose, making fools of us all).
In each of writing’s separate genres, or disciplines, if you will, there are nuances which take time and practice to master; otherwise one only puts forth mediocre material. Being able to write a novel does not translate directly to an ability to write short stories or screenplays, for instance. Screenplays seem to me far removed from novel writing, at least in the way I personally like to write. I do like to dabble, though, and I may try, but I’m not sure time is on my side.
RT: Song for a Summer Night is filled with references and quotes from philosophers who were prolific writers, including Sun Tzu and Sohren Kierkegaard (sic). As a self-described wordsmith, are these quotes you collected for their own purposes or were they amassed specifically for your book?
Mark: Maybe I should have said Neanderthal instead, and a poor one at that, based on the way I misspelled Soren Kierkegaard’s name. I hope it is corrected by now in the recent printing. Song is intended as an abstraction, or conceptualization of many philosophies, or ways of looking at life and the meaning of existence. I needed characters to represent these views, and the quotes were intended to help peg them, or even vice versa: I imagined one day the character might help peg the quote, and Song would serve as a sort of introduction to Kierkegaard and existentialism, or Nietzsche, or hedonism, or Christianity 101, the way Bugs Bunny did for classical music.
My aim through Song was to leave it in the pit of a young reader’s stomach for use down the road, when the questions Song poses became more relevant. The answer to your question is both: I collect quotes because they’re good and relevant, and I wished to share some by way of a story. Everyone should be familiar with a broad spectrum of ideas, even if they disagree with them. As a part of adolescence, I think we set out to annihilate all the things placed before us by others, including ourselves as the persons mommy and daddy hoped to create, in order to reemerge as the people we choose to become. I hope for my writing to help young people in that sense.
RT: Going back to the website for a moment, in December 2008, you wrote what is probably best described as an open letter for book reviewers. You describe the story, but you also raise an interesting point: comparisons can frame one’s expectations of a story, and not always accurately. Given that readers tend toward “read alikes,” is it possible to find success if you aren’t compared to something else?
Mark: Aside from having a publisher select your manuscript from a slush pile, success ultimately means number of books sold, and it is possible, but only with tremendous effort and/or a good bit of luck, to find success with something people have difficulty categorizing. “Read alikes” are just convenient labels, after all. Original thinkers are rare in this world. Most people, I’m sorry to say, are sheep, moving through life looking down at the feet in front of them. When a person wants to know what a book is like, they’re really asking is it worth my time to read? Would I be better off watching TV or doing something else for the five or six cumulative hours it will take to read this book?Add to that, this: The average kid reads because he or she has to. Likewise, I’m pretty sure the average adult reads for the same reason, just to keep up with their friends, or to steal ideas for use over cocktails or barbecue. These “read alikes” are just the general public’s way of minimizing their risk of doing something they’d rather not do: read a book they didn’t really have to.
Success for books from small publishers with limited or no power to put books on bookstore shelves should be measured differently than success by big publishing houses. In the entire commercial lifetime of Song, say a year, selling 1,000 copies would be considered a success by nearly everyone in the publishing world, and those sales would come almost entirely from my own legwork. Compare that to just a week on the front shelves of every Borders in the country and a number like that would mean failure to the publisher that went to the time and expense to arrange it.
So in answer to the question, comparisons are inevitable and they can help sell copies. But more important than the comparison itself is who is making the comparison. We’ve all seen what a good word from Oprah can do for book sales, and that’s because people actually wait for her to tell them what to read. Not many will buy Song based on the opinion of a 13-year-old black kid from west Oakland, no matter how flattering or how much it means to me, the author.
RT: The number of authors that Song for a Summer Night references and the stories with which you and others compare it, suggest that you are an avid reader. Have you always loved to read? What are you reading now?
Mark: Avid is a good word because I’ve always loved what books offer. Voracious implies gluttony, which is a bad thing, and I know people who devour books in what I might term unwholesome ways, never really enjoying them the way they were intended. I’ve always been a rather slow reader, so maybe I’m just jealous, but I have always tried to take everything an author had to offer from the books they wrote. As a boy, I started with Hardy Boys mysteries, simple enough and a good respite from the summer heat. I still played ball and swam, and even watched a little TV, but nothing in my recollection surpasses the joy of lazing in the shade with a book in those carefree days of summer.
I don’t care much for genre fiction since the Hardy Boys days. Right now I’m reading 2666, by Roberto Bolano, and I just picked up Jess Mowry’s latest YA novel, When All Goes Bright. I’m still getting to know Bolano, but I’ve read other books by Mowry. He is fearless in his depiction of life on the bleaker side of the tracks.
RT: Can you tell us more about this statement: “As far as entertainment goes, though, in this modern era, reading is a slow, relatively labor-intensive pursuit, and we are truly blessed to have so many other toys to play with, although it bodes poorly for books.” What do you think reading will look like in the future?
Mark: There was a day when books and chintzy wood and makeshift toys were all a kid had to play with. Remember Tom Sawyer’s cache of wealth? twelve marbles, a few dead tadpoles, a piece of blue glass to look through, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a dead rat and a string to swing it with. He obviously read too, as evidenced by his ideals of chivalry and adventure. I wonder: if it was brand new today, available in book form only, would kids take to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the way they did in 1890? Anything short of yes shows the trend as I feel it presently exists.
There is a new form of communication evolving right this very minute: the instant message, with a vernacular all its own. Kids are more visually stimulated today, and are not being taught the value of postponing gratification. This will impact the future. I think there will be more emphasis on action and plot in tomorrow’s books. There may be more interest in graphic novels. I don’t think Kindle is the future, it is still too laborious and slow for the average reader, and lacks the corporeal satisfaction a bibliophile takes from holding an actual book in their hands. There will be more interest in audio books due to their efficiency. As the publishing industry continues to struggle, big conglomerates will dictate more and more what the world reads. There will be a rise in POD (print on demand) and self-publishing as small indie publishers try to stay above water and move costs over to the writers. With that comes a lot of subsequent hit-and-miss in terms of quality. All things considered, a truly good and unique hardcover book may be hard to come by in the future.
RT: One reviewer said that Song for a Summer Night “will be liked most by more advanced readers or kids and teens who normally read adult books. Even though this is a book for kids the author doesn’t talk down to kids and uses many complex words.” You also describe the book that way. Have you had the opportunity to talk with kids about the book?
Mark: I get emails now and then, and there seem to be two types of readers: The first is the one who likes the challenge of a verbal or literary labyrinth. These types of readers laugh at irony and find Song appealing. Then there are those who find many of the passages in Song to be like speed bumps. They tend to laugh more at pratfalls and words like “underwear.”They want to start and finish a book – period – and generally put Song down feeling like they didn’t get it, or that there was really nothing to it.
I’ll say up front that Song is not for everyone, I knew that as I was writing it. I’ll also say, though, that I’m very impressed by the kids that do “get it.” Song is a book that really fits somewhere between young adult and adult literary fiction. The gamble I took when I wrote it was that we sell too many kids short, and I’m still confident that I’m right.
Overall, the response has been more one of “thanks for saying this is a kid’s book and thinking of me as up to the challenge.” Then they ask “how could Peter not know his mom drank?” He did. I have added some things to my website relating to themes to help answer those kinds of questions.
RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Mark: First of all, I’d like to say thanks to you for your most excellent questions. You really do your homework. Also, I admire the work you do as one of the last bastions of an artform in peril, and you do so because you know, as I do, that kids who grow up as readers see the world with more clarity as adults. I hope my view of the future doesn’t seem overly pessimistic, and I should add that while I foresee the future full of commercial knock-off and easy-to-read books, there will always be a niche for good, literary quality books. Finding them may become the trick. People should be made aware that more exists in the world of written words than the material handed to us by the big houses. Look to the small presses and independent publishers for new and fresh voices.
And finally, I wish you at The Reading Tub continued success in the future. I look forward to talking again someday.