Our interview today is with Mark Zvonkovic, author of When Mermaids Sing
FQ: What was your life experience in the 1960s-70s? Were you going through the same personal growth as Larry?
I was a college student in Boston in the 60s and a junior high school teacher in Medford in the early 70s, before I went to law school. I donít think you could say I was exposed to Larryís specific issues, but I did share his questions about the meaning and purpose of a career in the then developing achievement oriented culture. I went into teaching thinking it was an end unto itself, and soon discovered that it was in so many ways just another business that put its emphasis on tangible success displayed by paper work and measurable criteria. That was the point of the discussion between the Doetonís and Jack about tracking and intelligence tests. Many of the ideals that I had previously fostered in my high school years in Pleasantville, New York and in my small classics courses in college were compromised in those early years.
FQ: What inspired you to write about the issue of cults during this era?
I did have a friend who experimented with cults, but not nearly to the extent as Bradley. Actually, I learned most of what is in the novel about cults much later, after I first started writing the novel in 1993 or 1994. I actually needed something that could develop the characters in the novel and the struggle with ideals. I thought about having Bradley being a returning soldier from Vietnam, but after some research decided that the cult experience from those years, particularly the real life dramas being played out in the news concerning Black Lightning, was a better platform.
FQ: You do an impressive job of presenting the philosophical debates surrounding the issue of cults from various sides. What are your personal views of cults vis a vis organized religion?
Actually, cults may be the most organized of religions. I think religion is what an individual makes of it, and the traditional organized religions create a comfortable environment in which individuals can express their beliefs. In a way, they are like belonging to a gym; they create the atmosphere and regimen that gets your beliefs in shape. The difference with a cult is in its inflexible structure Ė itís like being on the treadmill that wonít shut off. So, in a cult you are not exercising your beliefs (which to me means you are exploring them as well), you are only strictly practicing them. Iím not even sure you would say it was practicing a belief in the case of a cult, but more like embracing a doctrine. And where religious practice becomes cult activity is difficult to define. I recently read an excellent memoir called Matches in the Gas Tank that does a good job of illustrating the long term effect that a cult can have on an individual.
FQ: I am so curious about what happens to Larry after the bookís conclusion. Do you think Larryís life path alters as a result of his efforts to extricate his cousin from the cult? Or is he destined to be swallowed up by the academic track like his parents?
Itís not for me to say what happens to Larry. I believe reading is an interactive activity, so what happens to Larry is for a reader to say. When I have a chance to talk to someone who has read the book, I always try to ask what he or she thinks happens to Larry and to Bradley, and why. I find that the answers are often based as much on the personal history of the reader as what the reader may think the novel suggests. I tried not to suggest anything too strongly, in fact, because as in life, who canít really foresee what will happen next. The novel differs from so many novels out today because it is really all about the growth and interaction of the characters as well as a commentary on the generation coming of age during that time. There is nothing really sensational in the story, such as a vampire, and the plot doesnít drip with intrigue. In fact, the kidnapping turns into a comedy of sorts. So, I would say that what happens to Larry takes a backseat to the moment in life in which he finds himself. Perhaps young people in todayís fast paced, always connected culture wonít identify with that feeling.
FQ: I know this book took you a long time to write. (Thank you for your perseverance!) Do you have anything youíre working on now for your readers?
I am intrigued by how people think about things and what brings a person to experiencing something meaningful. Youíll note that the characters of Hal and Bradley were in the novel like two book-ends around Larry. You only saw them through Larryís eyes, and, purposely, you saw more of Hal in the first half of the novel and more of Bradley in the second half. Perhaps, if you were to find out more about what happens to Larry after the novel concludes, you would find out more about Hal. I donít know. I am working on a couple of short stories that work with my interest in character development. In one of them I am trying out a more conventional third person, past tense presentation, as opposed to the first person present tense narration employed in the novel. The characters are older and are not teachers. More than that, I canít say yet.