Mark Goldblatt Derek Alger One on One

portrait Mark Goldblatt

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 162 ~ November, 2010

Mark Goldblatt is a journalist, theologian, and college professor, as well as a novelist. His most recent novel, Sloth, was published earlier this year by Greenpoint Press. His first novel, Africa Speaks, a satire of black urban culture told in the voice of a young black man named Africa Ali, was published by Permanent Press in 2002.

A graduate of Queens College of the City University of New York with a degree in English, Goldblatt attended the CUNY Graduate Center and was awarded a doctorate in English Literature in 1990. His dissertation was on the theological tensions underlying the Protestant Reformation in England.

Goldblatt is well known as a political commentator. Over the years, he has written hundreds of columns and book reviews for periodicals and online journals such as The New York Times, The New York Post, Newsday, Reason Magazine, The New York Daily News, Commentary Magazine, USA Today, National Review, The American Spectator, and The Claremont Review of Books, among others. His academic articles have appeared in Philosophy Now, Sewanee Theological Review, and English Renaissance Prose, to name a few.

Goldblatt has taught writing and religion at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York since 1989. He currently resides in midtown Manhattan where he says he keeps a low profile and varies his route to work often.

Derek Alger: You received a warm reception at a recent reading at the KGB Bar in New York City’s East Village.

Mark Goldblatt: That was part of the Trumpet Reading Series run by Jonathan Kravetz and sponsored by the New York Writers Workshops. I thought the evening went pretty well. It’s always difficult to gauge the audience’s reaction from behind the podium, but people seemed to laugh at the right places, and no one threw produce. I’ve read there before. It’s a good atmosphere. Lots of writers in the crowd. Photos of Soviet villains on the walls. Occasional police sirens from the street below. It feels like the kind of place you could hatch a decent conspiracy.

DA: I enjoyed being at the KGB that night.

MG: I’ve been doing more readings in support of Sloth. That’s part of the deal when you’re working with a small literary publisher. You need to help generate publicity — since there’s no ad campaign behind you, and the newspaper reviews are few and far between. The upside, of course, is that you get individual attention, and you have greater editorial control.

As for readings in general, I’m not a natural performer; if the material isn’t up to par, I have the potential to bomb in a big way. But the book is funny, or at least it’s meant to be funny, and it’s full of word play, and that sort of thing tends to work when read aloud. What’s Chuckles the Clown’s motto? “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

DA: Tell us a bit about Sloth.

MG: The novel consists of journal entries written by a guy who gets paid to wait in long lines — literally, a waiter — who falls in love with a TV exercise girl. He tries to win her heart by writing love letters, which means that the love letters not only have to win her heart but also demonstrate that he’s not a stalker. “Have you ever tried to convince someone you weren’t crazy?” That’s the first line of the book, the predicament.

Eventually, she does write back . . . and asks the natural questions like: Who are you? What do you do for a living? The narrator realizes he can’t tell her the truth — that he’s a waiter — so he assumes the identity of his best friend, Zezel, a former newspaper columnist, who wrote under the pen name “Mark Goldblatt.”

Unfortunately, Zezel gets wind of what’s going on, breaks into the narrator’s house, and then into his computer and begins writing his own entries in the narrator’s journal. Zezel’s entries are risqué (which strikes me as a much nicer term than “pornographic”) and mock the narrator’s original love quest

DA: The book cover claims Sloth is a satire of postmodernism, while also being a postmodern satire, in which nothing is what it seems.

MG: Well, you’ve got the narrator (who goes unnamed) pretending to be “Mark Goldblatt” in order to woo the TV exercise girl, and you’ve got the narrator’s best friend Zezel also pretending to be “Mark Goldblatt” — that is, when he’s not breaking into the narrator’s journal and pretending to be the narrator. Then, of course, you’ve got Mark Goldblatt pretending to be both of them in the act of writing the book. What I was attempting to do was poke fun at highbrow lit-crit concepts like the de-centered self, the fluidity of identity, and the death of the author — but to do it in a no-joke-is-too-cheap way. I wanted to write a book that would be slapstick page by page but would carry a darker subtext: the corrosive effect of postmodern cynicism on the human heart. The whole would make sense if you were a Norton anthology geek, if you had an ongoing affection for Dostoevsky, Dickens, Sophocles, Dante, Yeats, Nabokov, Philip Roth, Nathaniel West, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice . . . as well as Aquinas, Descartes, Martin Buber, Henny Youngman, Mr. Ed and Dr. Seuss. Otherwise, it would just seem like an odd but (I hoped) funny book.

DA: Which it is, meaning funny.

MG: Sloth is a postmodern satire in the sense that the form and the context are at odds. The outcome of postmodern literary theory is to level all literature, to render absurd the ranking of one text above another text. So I wanted to write a postmodern text that was, at its core, a celebration of dead white males or, in the case of Mr. Ed, dead white horses.

DA: You were fortunate to find a dedicated literary agent who believed in your work.

MG: Scott Gould is my hero. I queried him out of the blue back in 2004 and sent him the manuscript for Sloth. I didn’t have high hopes; I liked the book and was proud of it, but I realized I’d written a quirky novel whose target audience was pretty narrow — really, literature profs, graduate students and other writers.

DA: Including me.

MG: Despite that, Scott took it on; he had a particular editor at a major house in mind and sent it out on an exclusive submission. The editor read the book and wanted to acquire it but was voted down by his colleagues. The easiest thing for Scott to do at that point would’ve been to cut bait. But he believed in the book and stuck with it. For the next five years, he blanketed the market; he was relentless; even after he switched agencies, he retained me as his client. Several more editors expressed interest but were voted down. Frankly, I was willing to throw in the towel. But every month or so, I’d get an email from Scott saying something like, “hey, I was just talking to a new editor at Farrar, and I told her about Sloth, and she said she’d take a look, so keep your fingers crossed.” Remember, the book hadn’t earned a penny for him, and he’d been championing it for half a decade. We lucked out when Greenpoint Press, which had been publishing memoirs exclusively, expanded its mission to include fiction. Scott sent Sloth to Greenpoint, and the rest is history . . . obscure history, but history nonetheless.

DA: Is it safe to describe you as a native New Yorker?

MG: Yeah, I’m a city boy. I grew up in Flushing, Queens — a forty minute subway ride from Manhattan. It was a middle class neighborhood. I didn’t have much of an interest in writing until my second year of high school. Really, I wanted to be a baseball player. Only a profound lack of talent held me back.

DA: Were you thinking of writing when you first went to college?

MG: Not really, or at least not primarily. I’d written for my high school newspaper, and I’d even written a very bad novella my senior year — it was called Myopia. It was a third-person story of a guy named “I” who falls in love with Kay, but his best friend Jay comes between them (in retrospect, it’s got the same wise-ass quality as Sloth.) But to your original question, I was planning to be a mathematics major at Queens College. Around my third semester, I signed up for a Creative Writing course because it fit with my schedule. The teacher was Sandra Schor — a novelist and short-story writer. She saw promise in my writing, and she got me a job as an English tutor. She also encouraged me to enter the school’s writing contest . . . which I won by submitting Myopia (I suspect my win had more to do with volume than with quality; you know, my novella vs. other students’ short stories and poems). I ended up winning the contest two more years. By the last year, I was counting on the money to pay a month or two of rent.

Sandra Schor became my mentor. I switched my major from math to English, and she enrolled me in a program where I took a semester off from regular classes and received fifteen credits to write a novel. That was another awful book — I can’t even recall the title, but I remember it was about a male stripper. What was important was that I was getting a lot of bad writing out of my system. You have to do that. Bad writing is like a fever you have to sweat out of yourself. Once the fever breaks, if it does break, you wind up much stronger.

DA: As is often the case, reality after college proved to be an unexpected awakening.

MG: By the time I graduated, I was pretty insufferable. I expected to be making a living as a novelist within a few months. Meanwhile, I was still working as a tutor and taking graduate classes in creative writing. We had a famous author visit the campus — I won’t mention his name — and Sandy introduced me to him. He shook my hand and said, “you’re not the Mark Goldblatt I’ve been hearing a lot about you. You think you’ll win the Nobel Prize before or after the year 2000?” He was razzing me, but I didn’t get the joke. I told him I’d deserve it before 2000 but would probably win it after 2000. He laughed, but I was dead serious.

It took dozens and dozens of rejection slips to chip away at that ego. Eventually, I left the cocoon of Queens College, worked part time in a bookstore, then worked as a nighttime security guard, then got a nine-to-five job as a proofreader and was promoted to copy editor. I worked forty hour weeks just long enough to hate it.

DA: A lucky break came your way.

MG: It was Sandra Schor again. She got me an adjunct teaching job at Queens College; at that point, I didn’t even have a master’s degree, just a few graduate credits in creative writing, but she vouched for me, so I taught one semester in Queens. I was excessed afterward but landed at Queensborough Community College, where I taught for eight years. I also enrolled in the city University Graduate School.

DA: You earned a PhD writing your dissertation on Richard Hooker, an Anglican priest and influential theologian during the latter 16th Century.

MG: I wanted to study theology — I’d had an interest in the religious philosophy of Thomas Aquinas dating back to several undergraduate courses. But CUNY didn’t award doctorates in theology. As a compromise, I pursued a degree in English Literature and focused on the theological underpinnings of the Reformation in England. The topic of my dissertation was Hooker — I went to an actual Hooker convention in Evanston, Illinois — because his thought had strong connections to Aquinas’s.

What I liked about Hooker was what I liked about Aquinas — the attempt to make sense, in scrupulously rational terms, of religious doctrine and practice. Both acknowledged the mysterious elements inherent in Christianity, but both had an abiding faith in human reason to negotiate spiritual matters. That appealed to me. It’s worth noting that Hooker was a political conservative — reason and tradition were his guideposts; even though I wasn’t writing political columns at that point, I felt affinities there too.

DA: You eventually found a home teaching at Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

MG: It’s the best job I’ve ever had, no contest. I like teaching, and I like FIT students . . . and not just because of a disproportionate number of them happen to be beautiful young women. I like their intellectual spunk. They’re dead-set on getting professional training in the fashion industry, but they’re also serious about studying liberal arts (FIT is part of the State University of NY, so the students are required to take a core curriculum). From a professional standpoint, they don’t need to know about Antigone’s argument that morality trumps legality, or about Boethius’s attempt to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with human free will, but they want to know about it. They are also jaw-droppingly talented. The portfolios they put together for their majors are works of art.

DA: You also teach religion at FIT.

MG: Yeah, in addition to my regular course load in freshman reading and writing, I lecture in the honors program. I teach one course called “The Old and New Testaments in the History of Ideas” and another called “Religion and Religious Dissent in American History.”

DA: Your first novel, Africa Speaks, came out of your teaching experience.

MG: That was an incident in a developmental English course, probably around 1999. I discovered that a black student of mine was sabotaging her own essays, intentionally using non-standard English and random punctuation. Her writing had improved for the first half of the semester — she was even coming to my office after class to do extra work — but then she stopped, and her papers nosedived. She bombed out on the final exam, so I tracked her down and offered her a chance to retake it. She began to cry and said that her friends were teasing her that college was turning her white.

That just passed me off — the black urban mindset that equates academic progress with race betrayal. It’s not universal, of course, but it’s prevalent enough to rack the best and the brightest with guilt. So I wrote an Op Ed about the incident, but that went nowhere. Then I wrote a poem — you know, because I was one of the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But I still felt irked by what had happened. So I wrote a short story about a young black guy who refuses to wait for a green light to cross the street because of what America has done to his people. But the thing was — the more I wrote, the more I liked the guy. The more I liked the voice. I thought I might be able to get a novel out of it. That’s how Africa Speaks was born.

DA: John Podhoretz called you “one of America’s most uncompromising literary iconoclasts.”

MG: I like that idea because I’m the opposite of an iconoclast in so many other ways. I’m more of an icon-polisher in my political columns. But Africa Speaks was a polemical novel — a full frontal attack on the notion that black authenticity is only achieved by perpetual victimhood. Then of course there’s the fact that I’m a white writer telling a story in all black voices. I was courting controversy, and I got it. Not much, but a taste.

DA: You’re also known as a political commentator, but to your credit, not one who can be easily pigeonholed.

MG: Not sure if it’s to my credit, but I have received hate mail from both sides. I’ve written in favor of legalizing gay marriage, and of upholding Roe on the basis of stare decisis; on the other hand, I’m an absolute neocon on the subject of the war against totalitarian Islam. I argued for the invasion of Iraq and still think it was the right thing to do, even after the discovery of no WMDs. My politics begin and end with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Whatever stands in opposition to that, I oppose. Whatever conforms itself to that, I support.

DA: Seems appropriate to ask you about Juan Williams recently being fired by NPR (National Public Radio) reportedly for his comments on the Bill O’Reilly show.

MG: Yikes, that was a boneheaded move. I’ve been interviewed on NPR a couple of times, so I’ve got a soft spot for them. NPR is skewed, but it’s still an intellectual cut above, say, MSNBC — which seems to have pieced together its nighttime lineup around the theme “Look what doody-faces those Republicans are!” Seriously, though, I don’t mind left bias or right bias. I don’t like lowbrow, regardless of the slant.

DA: I can’t help mentioning you once lived on the same block as the Empire State Building.

MG: Just me and the Big Gorilla. I’m smarter, but he’s smoother with the ladies.