One Man’s Water Story: an Interview with Jim Marino, by Paul Chuks, Fiction Reader

‍ “Every writer has one dog story in them and one water-imagery story in them, and this is my water story,” Jim Marino, author of “Becoming Water”


Talk about your story and what inspired it? 

I tried writing an earlier story about this narrator, the story he tells Piper about running away from home and buying that ironing board. I never got that piece to work, but sometime later I found myself thinking about what that character would be like eight or ten years later. And that got conflated with where I was at his age, when I was about to leave Massachusetts for a PhD program in California and about to leave behind fiction writing for the next twenty years.


Which came first, characters or the plot?

I started with the narrator and the obvious plot question was whether, having won psychological independence from his difficult parents, he could form a stable adult relationship. That story didn’t work either until I discovered Piper, who’s very much his emotional peer, equally capable and equally neurotic.

The narrator was very insightful. I found the paragraph about meditating compelling, how he chose an unconventional style to meditate. And the paragraph about breathing and prioritizing wellness. A lot of paragraphs in fact. Was the narrator your moral messenger to the readers? Thank you for those generous words. But no! Please, please don’t drive across America without shoes! I think this narrator is very thoughtful about some things and has terrible blind spots about others. The story is about whether he’s going to grow past those limits or not.

The narrator having Buddhist literature in his stack was central to his image, why did you choose that? Is Buddhism the narrator’s religion? I don’t think he’s a real Buddhist but someone who, like many Americans, cherry-picks whichever bits of Buddhism appeal to him without feeling bound by its strictures. I’m part of this American-cafeteria-Buddhism phenomenon too, borrowing elements to enhance my Christian practice. This character takes his meditation more seriously than I ever have, but it would never occur to him that Buddha might forbid doing something he wanted. And most importantly, he has no Buddhist teacher, no guide, just as he reads psychology but has no therapist. Maybe the most helpful part of Buddhism for writing this story was the genre of the koan, those riddling teaching stories designed to have no right answer.


Water was the vein of the story. Is there any reason why you made this choice?

I think every writer has one dog story in them and one water-imagery story in them, and this is my water story.

What was the writing process of this story like?

I tend to work on multiple pieces at the same time, setting things down and coming back to them. I wrote this in mostly separate pieces, out of chronological order, and then found ways to fit them together. Then there were many rounds of polishing and many, many more of cutting.

People often lampoon writers for being preachy in their stories, instead of focusing on other things the story could do, what do you have to say about that? I personally have no problem with preachy stories, especially when done right. I think there’s a difference between depicting ideas in a story and using a story to preach. Ideas are part of our lives. If you banish all abstract thought from fiction, that fiction becomes less realistic, not more. But it’s also important not to hand readers ready-made conclusions. No one wants to be told what to think. They’d rather have the experience of thinking questions through on their own. And anyway, ideas are more interesting when there isn’t one clearly right answer.


What does writing mean to you?

Writing is a way of living. It is a way of inhabiting and moving through our puzzling, heartbreaking world.


Which is more important to you: character or setting?

Character, always. What do you do in a city where you don’t know anybody? It’s just tourism.


What was the most challenging part of writing this story?

I’m three decades older than these characters, so the challenge was to stay inside that twenty-something narrator’s perspective without letting the older man’s views intrude.


What authors speak to you?

I love Le Guin, Nabokov, Calvino, David Mitchell, Donald Barthelme, Borges, Kundera, and Kelly Link. I also have a day job as a Shakespeare scholar, so his words are almost always with me.


How do you tell a story is complete & ready?

I have to leave it aside for a while and come back. If I come back and want to change things, it’s still not done.


Are there nonfictional details in the story, or some parts are imagined too?

Nothing in this story happened. And I can’t write first-person narration without a very clear sense of distinction, of personal difference, between myself and the character. But like most writers I bolster my lies with details I’ve observed or experienced. I was a Harvard undergrad, so I know Harvard Square. Like Piper, I never, ever give away my books, and like her I have a PhD in literature. I used to run a lot after ugly breakups, with the side benefit that I’d be in better shape when I was ready to date again. Now I’m happily settled but have terrible knees.


I noticed one major theme in the story was bond, connection. Is this the meat of all your other works? Is this why you write?


I’m not sure. I think the failure to connect comes up more often. E. M. Forster says “Only connect,” but that “only” is doing a lot of work. It’s not necessarily that easy, E. M.

By Paul Chuks

Paul Chuks is a fiction reader for Mud Season Review, and a songwriter, poet, and storyteller. He is of Igbo descent and resides in Nigeria. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Brittlepaper, Heavy Feather Review, Trampset, Ginosko Literary Magazine, Epoch Press, Streetcake Magazine, Loftbooks, Glass Poetry & elsewhere. He’s a reader at Palette Poetry and Forge Literary Magazine. When he’s not reading or writing, he’s analysing hip-hop verses or moving his body rhythmically to the songs raving on his roof.