Alex Beecroft interviews Mark R Probst.
Mark R. Probst lives in Washington, works in the computer industry, and writes in his spare time. He is an avid movie buff, and has a special admiration for the western films of the classic era. He’s had a life-long interest in writing, though The Filly is his first published novel. He is currently at work on a second novel.
SiN: Who has been the biggest influence upon your work?
MRP: This is going to sound rather odd, but I’d have to say John Ford, because I was trying to emulate a John Ford Western in The Filly. But I’m sure you actually meant what writers influenced my work, so I’d just have to list a few of my favorites, Margaret Mitchell, Jane Austen, Dodie Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien, and E. M. Forster. But of course not to imply that The Filly could come anywhere near touching the brilliance of some of their works. You probably would have expected my influences to come from Western writers such as Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, or Max Brand. But to be honest, I had never read any of their works before starting on my novel. All my knowledge of the Old West came from the movies and that is the sort of golden, glamorous world I wanted to recreate. I started reading some of Zane Grey’s early works during the writing process because I wanted to get a feel for how a literary Western was structured. I was actually rather surprised to learn that Grey’s books weren’t quite so much the shoot-em-ups I was expecting, but rather romantic in nature. Unlike the movies, Grey’s cowboy heroes were somewhat tender and gooey in love with the damsels.
SiN: Who is your own favorite character?
MRP: It’s hard to pick between the two. So much of who I am, or was at a younger age, is Ethan, but Travis is the shining knight, the salvation I always longed for. In fact in the first draft of the story, he was too perfect. I realized he needed a few dents and scratches to bring him down to earth, so in subsequent drafts I allowed him more flaws. Both of them are very real to me and I imagine that in some ways I am both of them. I should also mention that Josh holds a special place in my heart as well. He started out as nothing but a minor side character, a sort of fun-loving, prankster cowboy, but grew and grew until he was real to me as well.
SiN: You say there’s a lot of you in Ethan. Just how much? Do you care to elaborate on that?
MRP: First of all, Ethan is a lot more mature than I was at seventeen. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 25 – or even date, for that matter. I was just so socially awkward and introverted that even though I knew I was gay at 17, there’s no way I was ready to take it on. Me at 25 is probably the equivalent of Ethan at 17. I chose to make Ethan younger because I felt that in the Old West when boys grew up a lot faster, if I presented Ethan as a 25 year old virgin, it just wouldn’t be believable.
SiN: Who is your favorite fictional character created by someone other than yourself?
MRP: It’s really hard to pick favorites for me, but I’ll mention a few that stand out in my mind because there is a little something extra that gives them real depth. Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, Cassandra in I Capture the Castle,and Jo March in Little Women.
SiN: What was your first book and what was it about?
MRP: Oh God, must I answer that? Can’t The Filly just be my first as it is the first published? Okay, when I was a little kid I wrote picture books with all my favorite cartoon characters: The Flintstones, Winnie the Pooh, Peanuts and so forth. I guess you could call it a kid’s version of fan fiction. Then I started creating my own characters in stories. Looking back at it now, they were really pretty awful and one would certainly not detect a shred of literary talent in any of it. When I was an older teenager, I attempted a short novel about a mortal girl who gets romantically involved with a warlock, sort of the reverse of Bewitched. It’s crap too and I would never allow anybody to read it. So I basically gave up writing at 19 and didn’t take it up again for another 20 years.
SiN: Do you do anything to summon up inspiration – write to music, have a special writing hat etc?
MRP: Generally, I have to pound everything out in my head before I ever set anything down on paper. I do this by pacing around the house and sometimes talking aloud to myself. Obviously I have to be alone when I do this, otherwise my partner would be calling to have them cart me off to a mental institution. When I’ve finally brainstormed enough to have some semblance of a story, I’ll set to work typing it out on the computer.
SiN: What works in progress have you got on the go at the moment?
MRP: I’ve written the first three chapters of a pre-quel to The Filly. InThe Filly Travis briefly tells Ethan about a girl from his past, a childhood sweetheart with whom he lost his virginity and who was deeply in love with him and wanted to marry him. I was thinking about writing some short stories about some of the events in my characters’ pasts to help flesh out the present, and when I thought about this girl, I realized she had an entire story to tell and, damn it if she wasn’t going to be the star of my next book. So I rolled back four years to 1874 to begin the story of Violet Foster, the 19 year-old daughter of a wealthy, widowed San Antonio businessman. She has all her hopes and dreams wrapped up in one soul, none other than Travis Cain. It’s less of a Western, and more of a post Civil War story, and deals with issues such as ex-slaves who are free in name only, but continue to live in complete servitude to their white employers. Now since Travis is yet again not the main character, but secondary, and he has yet to deal with the truth of his sexual desires, I don’t think it will qualify as “gay fiction,” so I may be letting down readers of The Filly who want more gay western lore. But it’s a story I need to tell, and I intend to visit Travis again in a sequel where he will finally get to be the star. It will be set circa 1905 when he will be about 50. Sorry, I’ve got no details figured out yet on that one.
I’d also like to write a fictional biography of a real-life historical character of my own choosing. But of course that takes a tremendous amount of research because you don’t want your fictional counterparts to contradict any known facts about your historical character. There are plenty of gay historical characters to choose from: Oscar Wilde, Alexander the Great, Edward II, Kynaston, Michaelangelo, to name a few.
SiN: If your book became a big Hollywood film, who would you cast to play your characters?
MRP: Oh good, a question that caters to my little fantasy. “Hello? Mr. Spielberg? You loved The Filly and want to make a movie of it?!!!” But seriously, it’s a hard question to answer because I didn’t visualize any famous actors when writing it. I think I’d prefer unknowns to play the parts.
SiN: How did you feel the day you first held a copy of The Filly in your hands?
MRP: There were three goals I set up in my mind that I thought would be a thrilling experience. The first was to see the Amazon listing of my book, the second to hold a finished printed and bound copy in my hands, and the third hasn’t happened yet – to walk into a bookstore and see it sitting on a shelf. I think I built it up so much in my mind that when the first two actually happened, it was sort of anti-climatic and I wasn’t as thrilled as I expected I would be. I know that’s not a very good answer, but I’m being truthful about it. I have gotten praise from different people, some of whom I was a fan, and others who were just readers that stumbled upon my book and I can honestly say, I was tickled from my head to my toes over that.
And by the way, my book did make it into three real-life brick and mortar LGBT bookstores. So if you live in Philadelphia, Northampton MA, or Milwaukee, go in, take a picture of my book on the shelf and email it to me. It really will give me a thrill!
SiN: Who is your favorite current author and what is your favorite genre to read?
MRP: I’ll limit my answer to mainstream authors since I don’t want to hurt the feelings of some of the other small-press authors with whom I’ve networked by not picking them. I’ll probably take some flack for this, but I’d have to say J. K. Rowling. The Harry Potter series has really been a delight and it’s done a lot to get kids back to reading again. Before Harry Potter, when have you ever seen kids willingly reading 800-page books and begging for more?
As for my favorite genre, I like anything that takes me out of the present day. So historical fiction is a biggie, even if it is just 20 or 30 years past. I also occasionally like the diversion of other-worldly stuff, like fantasy, sci-fi, or futuristic. Even though contemporary fiction is my least favorite, a good book is a good book and I’m not about to exclude an excellent read just because it may not be written in my favorite genre.
SiN: You started your own publishing company, didn’t you? What prompted you to make that decision? Would you recommend it?
MRP: Yes, I started Cheyenne Publishing for the sole purpose of publishing my own books. I tried the traditional route first, querying agents and receiving rejection letters. Unless you have a contact in the publishing business, it’s pretty much a dead end. And as I researched more and more about the publishing business, I realized that even if by some miracle I managed to get traditionally published by a big name, it was unlikely that the publisher would really get behind me and promote my book. Unless you are a name-brand author or your book is one of the very few that they really have faith in, they leave it to you to promote anyway. And if they don’t see really big numbers really soon, BAM you’re out of print. So publishing myself under my own imprint was all about me having control. Yes it means a lot of hard work to get even a small niche of readers to find you or know who you are, but you don’t have to worry about the axe dropping and you also have the final say in a lot of things such as cover design, and editorial content. Yes you need to get a lot of advice and weigh it, but ultimately, you decide. I also recommend that you hire a really good editor. That’s the one area where you don’t want to cheap out. Would I recommend it? That depends. If you have to max out your credit cards and have no means of paying off the bills should your book not sell well, then of course I would say no. But if you have the means and go in with the expectation that you may not get a return on your investment, but you’ll have the satisfaction that people will be reading and enjoying your book, then yes!
SiN: Why cowboys – and why historical?
MRP: That’s easy. Because I love the genre. With gay stories popping up all over the place in so many different genres, it seemed to me at the time that the Western was one place where homosexuality was still devoid. Of course I started writing my book before Brokeback Mountain came out as a movie. I thought it was unique when I first dreamed it up, but then once I started digging I found there were actually quite a few gay Westerns already out there, so even though I had to concede that it wasn’t a unique idea, I still tried to make it the best I could.
SiN: Some reviewers are touting your book as YA. Was that what you had in mind when you wrote it?
MRP: Absolutely. I wanted to write a book that I would have enjoyed and that would have helped me to come to terms with my homosexuality when I was a teenager. There weren’t any books like that 25-30 years ago and the gay books that did exist back then, if I’d had access to them, would have embarrassed me and would have filled me with guilt, due to their very adult nature. If even one gay teen reads The Filly and feels better about himself because of it, I will feel that I have been a great success.
Thanks a lot Mark, great interview.