On the Road with Mark Leyner by Jürgen Fauth

In April, Jürgen Fauth read from his debut novel, Kino, in our reading series at the KGB Bar alongside Mark Leyner, an author he liked to read when he was a creative writing student in America.  Whether you’re an experienced writer, or you’re just beginning, meeting an author will never cease to be a special experience. As Jürgen Fauth writes about the ties between writers and readers, we hope that our students will also be inspired by the authors they meet through Behind the Book.

I was born and raised in Germany and came to the U.S. as an exchange student in the early 90s. There, I discovered creative writing classes, which were relatively unknown in Germany at the time, and decided I wanted to be a writer.

Through the luck of the draw, I spent my exchange year at Mississippi College, a small Baptist school outside of Jackson, MS, and I was making interesting friends – the slackers and outcasts, the people who enjoyed skipping chapel and staying out past curfew (which only existed for the female students.) At home, university students were considered adults, with all the rights and responsibilities that came with it, but here, there were rules to break and hall monitors to dodge. It was easy to imagine myself a rebel, and the books we were reading reflected this. The beats were our favorite because even if Mississippi College wasn’t exactly like the fifties; it had more rules and regulations than any place I’ve lived before or since.

With my love for Kerouac and Ginsberg came the siren song of the open road. My Mississippi friends weren’t of drinking age, but they had cars, gas was cheap, and the roads that started behind our dorm led to I-55, which connects Jackson to New Orleans and Memphis, and goes on from there to St. Louis and Chicago. Whenever we got the chance, we drove – Florida, New York, Denver, San Francisco, it didn’t matter. We drove and drove, and I must have crossed the country four or five times that year, coast to coast, north and south, any which way between.

On these trips, no matter how impulsive or spontaneous, we always brought books with us: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon was the first in the trunk every time, along with an actual copy of Kerouac’s On the Road, the collected poems of Allen Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar — revolutionary books that allowed just as much youthful, exuberant exploration as the wide country stretching before us. We would sleep in the car; we parked at Bryce Canyon waiting for the sunrise, reading poetry. Outside of Williams, Arizona, the axle broke, and I remember sitting on the curb — the actual curb, not the air-conditioned waiting room — reading our favorite Pynchon passages out loud.

I made a great many discoveries during that first year in America, and one of them was the work of Mark Leyner, which I immediately added to our traveling cross-country library. Unlike many of the books I cherished most, his novels – Et tu, Babe and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist – had only come out recently, but in their wild play with language and pop cultural references, I saw them coming from a clear tradition of writers storming the heavens, afraid of nothing. They were also unmistakably contemporary, and that gave them an additional edge. They were hilarious, outrageous, yet somehow deeply felt, and more than the other books that somehow belonged to a time before mine, they seemed to give me the license to try this for myself. You can write this kind of thing right now, Mark Leyner’s books said to me. You can do anything you like.

And I did. After my exchange year was over, I returned to Johannes-Gutenberg-University in Mainz, but it was no longer what I wanted. My German professor greeted me with “ah, the creative writer,” the slightest hint of a smirk on his lips, and I knew I’d have to leave. I had to get back to America, where I had found encouragement. I applied to the graduate program at the Center for Writers, not far from where I’d spent my exchange year, and took the first serious steps on the long path of becoming a writer.

Decades passed. I wrote stories, I wrote books, I threw half-finished books away. I moved to New Orleans, I moved to the Caribbean, I moved to New York. I wrote and wrote. I got married, I had a daughter. I submitted stories, edited magazines, started a literary community. I got an agent. And finally, nearly twenty years after I had taken my first workshop, I published a book, my novel Kino, which is, among other things, the story of an immigrant who moves between continents so he can keep making art. And when it came time to read from the novel, Behind the Book was kind enough to invite me for an event at KGB Bar. Tom Perrotta, a writer I admire, would read with me – exciting enough, until, a week before the event, one other name was added to the line-up, somebody who hadn’t published fiction in many years but was now celebrating his return: none other than Mark Leyner, who’d read from his new book, The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack.

I was glad to be the first reader because I certainly didn’t want to follow the others. I read a section from Kino called “Lang’s Dragon” that was also excerpted in the online magazine Guernica. Tom Perrotta read, then Mark Leyner read, and as expected, his performance was sharp, over-the-top, loaded with word play and whiplash cultural references. He was outrageously funny. When I came over afterwards to ask him to sign a book for me, he asked me to sit, graciously told me how much he’d enjoyed my reading, and we chatted: about the movie War, Inc., which he’d written, about Gerhard Richter Painting, a documentary we both admired, about vanishing advances and making it as a writer.

I left KGB Bar feeling that something had come full circle that night, a long story that had begun in Jackson, Mississippi, led all over the country and the world, and had finally reached its long-awaited pay-off. It was a wonderful reminder about how writers speak to other writers, in ways they can never know or predict. Every book ever written doesn’t just tell its story, it also secretly gives license to its readers to try and write something like it themselves. I can only hope that someone might one day pick up a book of mine, Kino or the next one, and that it nudges them a little closer toward saying, hey, maybe I can do this too.

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