inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #0 of 56: Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 13 Apr 00 23:31
Please join me in welcoming our next guest.

Randall Silvis is a writer of many talents. He has published six
novels, with two more forthcoming from St. Martin's Press. He adapted
his novel "An Occasional Hell" for a film by the same name starring Tom
Berenger and Valerie Golina.  His twelve plays have been produced
regionally across the United States and Off-off-Broadway. He has also
published essays, short stories, poetry and creative nonfiction,
including several cover stories for The Discovery Channel magazines. 
His literary awards include the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and two
fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. When not writing
he teaches in the Graduate Writing Program at Seton Hill College and in
the MacGregor School of Antioch University. Pulitzer Prize nominee
William Allen says Silvis is "this country's most pitch-perfect stylist
... and one of the few writers in his generation who will make a

Leading the coversation with Randall is Mina Yamashita, who has been a
book designer, editor, and consultant for the print and publication arts
for nearly 35 years. She designed and illustrated some of Hallmark's first
children's pop-up and adult gift books, and Edward Abbey's last limited
edition of "Vox Camantis in Deserto". Her work has received many awards
and has been exhibited in international and regional exhibitions. Her
graphic works range from permanent airport displays to pastel paintings.
Recently named senior book designer at University of New Mexico Press,
Mina's independent work largely focuses on writing reviews and essays. She
is excited to extend this pursuit to Inkwell.vue's interview with Randall
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #1 of 56: Mina Yamashita (writetime) Fri 14 Apr 00 01:51
Hello, Randall, and welcome to Inkwell.vue.

Here I am, again, up during the wee hours, as I have been since I
began reading "Mysticus"! I suspected this would be the case when I saw
the intro copy for the book -- Marilyn Monroe...a fetus named
Ricardo...a roving band of mystics known as the Kerouacs. How could I
not be intrigued when the New York Times tells me this will all be made
available to me by a "...masterful storyteller"?

And on the cover, the icon of a maze to draw me in.

In fact, you weave an amazing basketful of images into a compelling
read. And you tell me you're now cached away "by the dim light of a
bulb" writing new tales. Shall I give you a moment to clear your mind
of your present work, to bring "Mysticus" back to the fore?

When I see the variety in your writing, and the range of works you've
accomplished, I'd like to know what moves you to take an idea or
cluster of ideas to a finished work? How do you decide, one day, that
Marilyn and the fetus and the maze wind up in one book?
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #2 of 56: Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Fri 14 Apr 00 04:09
Hi, Mina.

Well, first there was the fetus. This image was born as a literary
device back in 1982, when a doctor I knew told me that when he was a
boy, his mother had had a spontaneous abortion and, because she wanted
him to be a doctor, she saved the fetus for him in a jar. Gruesome but
true.  And, as a writer, I naturally thought, I can use that!

Sometime later--four, five, six drafts later--about the time, I think,
I got rid of a plotline involving the murder of four astronauts on the
moon--Marilyn came tiptoeing out of the moonshadows and whispered,
"Put me in, please."

The maze came in the final draft, circa 1998.  I had managed to talk
the publisher into letting me design the dust jacket (this was after my
editor wanted to put a "Seven Year Itch" image of Marilyn on the
cover, and I went apoplectic.)  I ran through six hundred or so
possibilities for artwork, had approximately four minutes left to make
a decision.  That was when, out of nowhere, I remembered a line of
Ronald's from near the end of the book. "What a maze life is," he says.
"What a labyrinthine notion."  And so, because of the many
connotations associated with labyrinths, I  listened to him.
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #3 of 56: Autumn Storhaug (autumn) Fri 14 Apr 00 06:41
Welcome to the Well, Randall!
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #4 of 56: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 14 Apr 00 12:31
What a pleasure to see you here, Randall. I have a few questions I'd like to
lob at you, but I think I'll wait a bit and let Mina get a word in edgewise
first. :-)
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #5 of 56: Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 14 Apr 00 12:59

Welcome Randall and Mina!  What a tantalizing beginning!

Let me just take a second and invite people who are not the WELL to send
their comments and questions to, and we will see
that they get posted during the interview.
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #6 of 56: Mina Yamashita (writetime) Fri 14 Apr 00 20:49
I like the idea of Marilyn asking to be included. Do you often have a
dialogue with characters, or characters-to-be, in the process of your
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #7 of 56: Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Sat 15 Apr 00 03:32
I don't want to give the impression that I'm Saint Joan and hear
voices all the time. (Though now that I think of it, a little heavenly
instruction from time to time couldn't hurt.) But the way it works with
me, a character enters my consciousness and simply refuses to leave.
For some reason while writing Mysticus, I became very interested in the
pathos of Marilyn.  

In some ways she seemed as much a victim of ambition as Ronald. I'm
not really sure what it was that made me so intrigued by her, but I
felt, perhaps, that I understood something about her, understood it in
a deep but inarticulable way. And that made me want to write about her.

The funny thing is, she appears only briefly in the book. But, because
of her effect on Ronald, her presence is felt, I think, throughout the

It's hard to say what kind of emotional and artistic forces collude in
a project like this. Yesterday during a magazine interview, my
interviewer pointed out that Mysticus is very much about women, that it
revolves around the lives and actions of women in a way my other books
have not. So maybe the time was right, when I was writing Mysticus, to
consider in an artistic way the influences of the women in my own
life. The interviewer also pointed out that several of the characters,
male and female, share my initials. What that means, I wish I knew. 
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #8 of 56: Mina Yamashita (writetime) Sat 15 Apr 00 06:04
One often speaks of finding the writer's voice. Jorge Luis Borges or
Tom Robbins come to mind as writers whose stray paragraphs could
identify their authors with as much authority as a fingerprint.

In this passage, from "Dead Man Falling", you write:

    "But in 1964 he had no thoughts about the virtues of obscurity.
Until that night he had remained fairly single-minded in his desire to
make a name for himself, to become another Jimmy Breslin or Norman
Mailer, another chronicler of all the songs and screams and impossible
desires in the tesselated carnival of America. On this September night
he had no idea that he would soon abandon the exercise of words
altogether, that he would live by images alone, those he courted and
those impossible to push aside."

This passage gave me a "frisson", that little prickle on the back of
my neck that I call a confirmation chill.

I've always felt that voice left to depend on choice of words alone
rings hollow. What you've described in this passage seems to be a
highly intuitive and inquisitive life that is compelled to use writing
to express itself. How much can I assume that you and your characters
are a mingled life? I guess I'm making a distinction between a
storyteller who narrates to entertain as opposed to one who is driven
to divulge something about his humanity.
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #9 of 56: Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Sat 15 Apr 00 12:11
You're kind of spooky, you know that? I get nervous when people
understand me too much.

But, in all fairness, I should at least try to answer your question.
Yes, I'm an intuitive and instinctive writer. I seldom pause in my
writing to think about the "right" choice of action for my characters,
seldom analyze what they should or should not do to best serve the plot
or drama of the story. I wake up in the morning, pour a cup of coffee,
sit down and start writing.  Two or three hours later I stop.  Between
the beginning and end of each writing day, very little conscious
thought takes place.

A director who produced three or four of my plays once said that he
thought I must have a direct pipeline to my unconscious mind. I can't
say if that's true or not; if it is, I wish I could be conscious of it
all the time.
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #10 of 56: Mina Yamashita (writetime) Sat 15 Apr 00 12:34
Don't want to spook you!

I suppose the reason I'm enjoying reading your books is because I work
pretty intuitively myself. You've hit a nerve. I'm also intrigued by
the variety, not only of themes, but of the forms you choose for your

When I first began making art, I floundered a lot, looking for
something that would identify a work as mine. Now my portfolio looks
like a hodge-podge of works by a raft of people. But at some point I
decided the art served its own agenda, and my agenda keeps changing.

You've worked in so many forms. Is there one that appeals more than
others? Do you know when you get into a work whether it's going to wind
up in a book jacket or on stage?
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #11 of 56: Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Sun 16 Apr 00 04:15
In most cases the story occurs to me in a certain form--as a play, a
novel, a story, a screenplay.  In a few cases, probably because I
didn't get at the heart of the story in the first effort, the story
will stick with me and I'll later decide to try it in another form. 

For example, several years ago I wrote a short story called "In A Town
Called Mundomuerto."  Usually after a story is "written out," I can
then forget about it, but this time I couldn't.  Apparently I hadn't
expressed it fully, hadn't explored deeply enough.  So, because
screenplays tell their stories through the characters' actions and
dialogue, I wrote it as a screenplay.  This helped me to see my
characters more completely. 

Yet still the story wouldn't leave me alone. I finally realized that
it needed to be told in a very rich language, the lyricism of magic
realism. Plus, I like to play with structure, with shifting points of
view, and to experiment with time and memory. For this story I
envisioned that it must take place neither in the past nor the present
but in that place where, if you dropped one stone in the ocean of
time-past and another in time-present, the concentric ripples expanding
outward from each time period would meet and overlap one another. This
could only be accomplished in a novel. So 
I wrote "Mundomuerto" again as a novel. And I'm finally satisfied with
it. Knock on wood.

What form do I like best? Without question, the novel. It's
solitary,it's all-consuming, it's the most challenging literary form.
Writing a play, a story, an essay, even a screenplay might be like a
lone walk at midnight through an alley of the soul; the walk might be a
bit frightening but it doesn't last very long. Nothing is as difficult
as writing a novel. Well, making a marriage endure is harder. Raising
happy children is harder. But no creative endeavor undertaken in
solitude is as demanding as writing a novel. To my mind the novel is
the highest artistic achievement.

Another reason I prefer the novel is because it doesn't get diluted
and altered by other people. My editor might suggest changes and
additional scenes, but there's never any of that abitrary fiddling that
so often occurs with a stage play and especially, always, unavoidably,
ad nauseam, with a screenplay.
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #12 of 56: Mina Yamashita (writetime) Mon 17 Apr 00 06:13
I want to look more at "Mysticus", but your comments on others
fiddling with your work remindeds me to ask:

Your bio mentions that you've written "creative nonfiction". One of
the difficulties of writing nonfiction is that, whether one wants it or
not, the state of people and things demands a certain integrity of
information, however one interprets it. I realize this is not exactly
intervention by others, but it does constrain or require something of
an author that the novel does not. Another author once said he prefered
fiction to nonfiction because he could change the geography of a
situation to suit the needs of a story. 

When one writes as intuitively as you do, it seems that fiction and
non-fiction might become hard to distinguish. What is it that you mean
by "creative nonfiction?
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #13 of 56: Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Mon 17 Apr 00 12:09
There are different genres of creative nonfiction, just as there are
with fiction. One of my favorites is the personal essay.  In this case
the goal, as Thoreau said, is to begin with a fact and hope that it
will flower into a truth. It's generally recognized in this form of
nonfiction that the essence of truth is more important than the literal
truth.  So, a writer can compress and even rearrange the chronology of
events for dramatic purposes. He can also create dialogue, as long as
that dialogue remains true to the essence of the character speaking,
whether the character actually ever spoke those words or not.

A more exacting kind of nonfiction, yet still creative, is the kind  I
used to write for The Discovery Channel magazines. Whether the subject
was Tecumseh, Blackbeard, roseate spoonbills, The McDonald
Observatory, or the Alaska Highway construction workers, I had to find
the drama of a few well-chosen anecdotes and depict those in a way that
would reveal the whole subject. Again, dialogue, description, tone,
pov--all the elements of a comprehensive narrative, whether fiction or
nonfiction, can be employed.  A writer can't deliberately lie or
present an untruth as fact, but he can and necessarily will omit facts
because they don't build toward "the essence of truth."

There's a lot of disagreement among nonfictionists in regards to how
creative the writing can be and still be called nonfiction.  In my
experience, writers with a more journalistic bent call for an absoute
adherence to known facts. Writers who also work in fiction allow more
of the facts to be manipulated for dramatic purposes.  As one other
creative nonfictionist once said (and forgive me, but I can't recall
his name), this genre is a very baggy pair of pants.
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #14 of 56: Alan Thornton (sd) Mon 17 Apr 00 12:40
Hello Randall,

I hope you'll enjoy your visit to the Well. In fact, I hope you'll
stay around after the dance is over here in inkwell.vue.

May I throw a few things out to see if there is anything you'd like to

I'm glad to hear from the co-designer that the cover illustration is a
maze. I thought it was a Keith Haring-ish candle as in "Candle in the
wind". I'm a great deal happier with the maze.

I normally dislike chapters that skip around but was really drawn to
your use of the device. Its like architecture, not Palladio but Frank
Lloyd Wright, fresh and distinctive. At least that is what I was
thinking until I realized that you were labeling the chapters as
movements. Then I wondered if you meant the piece to be a sort of
symphony. Themes and variations... The way that events unfolded rather
than occuring in broad daylight seemed rather musical, too. You know
someone is likely to do something, they drop a few hints, they tell you
outright, then the deed is done, almost glossed over, and you're
working with the consequences. That feels brand new to me.

Ricardo retardo reminds me of Frank Zappa's "The Idiot Bastard Son"
(Kenny will stash him away in a jar, the child will thrive and

I liked the remnants of the Astronaut theme, too. 

The Moon fixation caught me by surprise though, I went back to see if
I'd missed earlier references.

Reading Mysticus was like going into an antique store where there are
lots of touchstones to keep your thoughts occupied. Lots of fun,
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #15 of 56: Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 17 Apr 00 13:33

I am enjoying _Mysticus_ immensely, and I, too, want to know more about
Ricardo and about whatever could have possessed his mother to do that, but
I figure that <writetime> will lead us to that discussion when the time is
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #16 of 56: Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Tue 18 Apr 00 03:32
Thanks, Alan and Linda, for your comments.  The Zappa parallel to
Ricardo Retardo is very interesting;I hadn't been aware of it before
Alan pointed it out.

It's funny how often an image like that, a fetus in a jar, pops up. It
truly is gruesome, and many people are aghast at the mere mention of
it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I know of an individual whose
mother did exactly that, and precisely because she wanted her other son
to grow up to be a doctor, and believed that this specimen would
somehow inspire him.  That mother, of course, was not thinking as
clearly as she might have. Not surprising considering the shock to her
own senses which must have been caused by the miscarriage.

I also remember seeing such a specimen in a doctor's waiting room when
I was a boy. The walls were lined with medical specimens and
curiosities: large jars filled with alcohol, and each containing a
small floating corpse.  No wonder that place terrified and intrigued

And if I'm not mistaken, there's a similar image in one of Ray
Bradbury's stories, from my favorite book as a teenager, "October

A final influence might have been my own relationship with a deceased
brother. My oldest brother died at nine months old, while my father was
fighting on Okinawa. My father never saw his first son alive.
Strangely, maybe because this brother and I shared a birthday six years
apart, I felt a connection with him, and often visited his grave when
I felt most troubled or confused and alone.  But no; he never talked to
me from the grave. Darn it. 
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #17 of 56: jarring lyrics (sd) Tue 18 Apr 00 08:16
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #18 of 56: Mina Yamashita (writetime) Tue 18 Apr 00 11:10
<sd> slipped with Zappa lyrics in the hidden response.

Randall, I've come across a number of stories with the fetus, or
brain, in a jar themes. The birthday connection to your brother is

In Mysticus, Ronald's introduction to his brother made me cringe. The
passage seems a huge paradox to me, especially his mother's words:

    "...Look in the jar. That is what power does to the powerless.
Life created, life destroyed. And it could very easily be you or me
inside that jar, Ronald, because we don't have any power either, do we?
A child doesn't have any power, and neither does a woman. But you can get power for both of us. You have to....I want you to
keep reminding yourself, over and over again, that a person without
power isn't really alive or free. A person without power is no better
off than what you now hold in your hands...your little brother in a

That paragraph keeps me pondering.

I say paradox because the fetus is introduced to Ronald as a victim,
something dead, un-created. In my mind, I connect the fetus to the
roller-coaster nausea caused by Ginger's unborn child. Yet, there is
tremendous power in the fetus, in the memories of Marilyn, in all of
the beings who are physically unavailable to us, yet who influence our

When you speak of freeing one's self, I think again of the maze, of
finding ourselves inside or outside of circumstances we don't
understand, and over which we have little or no control. Do you feel
that writing is a kind of Grail quest -- a way to reclaim one's power?
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #19 of 56: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 18 Apr 00 11:18
> I also remember seeing such a specimen in a doctor's waiting room

I saw similar specimens as a child when we took our dog to our local vet. I
was creepily fascinating to stare into jars with pig fetuses and pickled
skunk babies and so forth.

I'm also sort of surprised that you drew upon your own childhood experience
of having a deceased infant brother with whom you communed over the grave,
so to speak. Now normally I *expect* writers to draw from their own
life experiences when they create their characters. But the situation
Ronald was in with Ricardo is, um... er ... so "out there" that I'd
presumed you made it up out of whole cloth. 

What other parts of Mysticus track in some way with your own life
experiences? Were you raised on a secluded island? Have you had a lifelong
obsession with Marilyn Monroe look-alikes? 
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #20 of 56: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 18 Apr 00 11:19
(Mina slipped)
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #21 of 56: southerndiscontinued (sd) Tue 18 Apr 00 13:17
Forgive my pummeling you with impressions but Mysticus still has me in
its grasp:

Do the neuters relate to the space brother suicides of late comet

Was I wrong to wait for a neuter to get a whiff of Moon Over Eros to
see what would happen?

Funny that the Kerouacs could also have been the name of the folks who
drank themselves to death on the government 'reservations'.

Those were rather like Methadone programs, too, eh?

Likewise, I seem to recall that Morphine was another government
substitute for Heroin at one time?
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #22 of 56: Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 19 Apr 00 13:01

Here's a question from the Internet:

From Wed Apr 19 12:59:58 2000
Date: Wed, 19 Apr 2000 13:12:29 -0400
Subject: Mysteries

As a hopeful mystery writer in the Seton Hill program, and a published
non-fiction writer, I'm curious about what kind of novels you most enjoy
Are mysteries your favorites? Why?
Nancy Myer
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #23 of 56: Autumn Storhaug (autumn) Wed 19 Apr 00 20:19
I don't have a question, just a comment.  I finished reading =Mysticus= a
week ago and can't stop thinking about it.  Tonight, I leafed through it
until I found the part where Ginger is spending the night in the abandoned
Trailways terminal and sees the mural showing the young Marilyn Monroe
jogging along a beach.  "But for the old-fashioned clothes and the platinum
hair, she reminded Ginger of herself; or, more accurately, of the kind of
quiet, contented moment Ginger used to fantasize for herself."
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #24 of 56: Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Thu 20 Apr 00 03:24
First off, let me thank all of you who have commented since my last

I'll respond to each now, starting with the most recent.

Thank you, Autumn. And it's interesting to me that the Trailways scene
should be a memorable one for you. Just yesterday a freelance writer
who is doing a profile of me asked for an excerpt to include with the
profile; I suggested one, but she said she would rather use the same
scene you mentioned. I went back and reread that scene and realized
that a large portion of the novel is foreshadowed and/or summed up in
that scene.

Nancy, hi. You know, I really don't have a favorite genre. I prefer
writing novels that are character-driven, regardless of genre, and less
driven by plot.  But for me, both as a reader and a writer, there must
also be action, movement, a character arc.  Even though two of my
books were categorized as mysteries, and my next two from St. Martin's
will be marketed as historical thrillers, I consider myself a literary
novelist--but one who hasn't abandoned plot.

SD, yes, the SADfacs are much like the methadone programs. With the
exception that the SADfacs encourage dependency and make no pretense
about it. But the Kerouacs abstain from all alcohol and drugs, even
coffee (my own favorite vice), so there were no Kerouacs in the
SADfacs.  There was a Kittawaia trustee; maybe that's what you're
thinking of. In any case, to me the SADfacs seemed an exaggeration of
the old welfare system as I saw it practiced here in the boondocks of
Pennsylvania. The day the welfare checks were issued, every bar in the
county was packed to the rafters until the money ran out.  I was an
emergency caseworker for a while in the early eighties, and, in the
aftermath of every welfare check day, escorted my share of individuals
to the local jails, hospitals and psych wards.

Cynthia and Mina; both of you commented on Ricardo, so I'll address
that topic now. Yes, to Ronald too, and to me, Ricardo is a source of
power, a source of strength. Rosemary, on the other hand, has been
thwarted in all her aspirations, so she views Ricardo as yet more
evidence of Ed's usurpation of her own power. It's the beginning of her
journey toward a skewed reality.  Ronald becomes her last hope for
some power; ironically, her influence over him "bottles" up his own

In the end my feelings toward these characters all depend on the
choices they make. While I feel a great deal of affection and empathy
for both Rosemary and Ronald, I most admire Ginger. She's the one
character who takes life into her own hands, who makes her own choices
and takes positive action accordingly. Ronald manages to redeem himself
a bit in the end by doing the same. 
inkwell.vue.71 : Randall Silvis - _Mysticus_
permalink #25 of 56: southerndiscontinued (sd) Thu 20 Apr 00 10:04
I was unclear. I only meant that whereas Jack Kerouac drank himself to
death, those who are doing the same could potentially be called
Kerouacs for that reason. Meaningless connection in the larger picture,

Interested in your use of "bottles" above. Ricardo is in a jar
(bottle?), Moon over Eros is in a little bottle, even our dear old
Granddad is bottled. The Dome over Xanadu III on the moon... Have I
gone too far? 


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