brock-clarkeBrock Clarke is the author of five books, most recently Exley and An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, which was a national bestseller and has appeared in a dozen foreign editions.

His stories and essays have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, OneStory, The Believer, the Georgia Review, and the Southern Review and have appeared in the annual Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He lives in Portland, Maine, and teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College.

Q (Meg Pokrass): What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer?

My feeling about mentors is that I’m all for them. But I’m thinking of two different kinds of mentorships: one is the teacher-student (and I’ve had some great teachers–Joanna Scott in grad school, Liza Wieland and Bob Olmstead in undergrad, Lee K. Abbott in a summer writers conference workshop) and the other is the relationship between yourself and the books you love. A relationship in which you pay slavish attention to how the writers you love (for me: Bellow, Cheever, Muriel Spark, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Frederick Exley, Kazuo Ishiguro) do what they do. The former is the kind of mentorship you need when you’re younger, when you need someone to tell you directly what you’re doing wrong and how you might do it better; the latter is the kind of mentorship you need when you’re beyond telling and you need showing. I wouldn’t have become a writer if I hadn’t been taught by my afore-mentioned teachers. And I wouldn’t have been able to write the books I’ve written if I hadn’t been taught how by Henderson the Rain King, A Fan’s Notes, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, etc.

What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?

I’m afraid the answer to this question is the answer to the question I just answered: when I’m stuck, I go back and start reading things that I’ve gotten me unstuck before. A writer’s plumber, or plumber’s snake, is other writers–an analogy, and a sentence, that I really wish I could blame on someone else. But unfortunately, it’s all mine.

Are there favorite writing exercises you give students that you can share? If not, can you make one up for me here?

I don’t use writing exercises, even though my students want them. That’s not why I don’t use them–I just hated them as a student. But I’ve been thinking about reconsidering lately–possibly because my students seem to want them so much. I read recently about an exercise in which students are supposed to write a scene in which a couple goes to a mattress store with the intention of buying a mattress. I like that very much. I mean, it could be any store, of course. But a bookstore doesn’t seem as promising as a mattress store. Another blow against bookstores: not only are they struggling to compete with online booksellers, but as the setting and subject of creative writing exercises, they don’t stand a chance against mattress stores.

What are some of the new realities for the future of the book and for writers that we don’t talk about enough? What do we talk about too much?

I actually think we talk too much about the future of the book. I mean, writers talk about it too much. I don’t think bookstore owners, or book sellers and buyers, or book publishers, talk about it too much, or could talk too much about it: it’s their job, they have to talk about it, just as long as talking about it, obsessively, doesn’t end up as a substitute for thinking about what to do about it, and then doing it. But writers, in my experience, don’t have a fucking clue when they’re talking about the future of the book. They barely have a clue when talking about the future of their own books.

What are you working on currently?

I’m working on a novel called The Happiest People in the World. It’s about Danes being named the happiest people in the world, and it’s about the Danish cartoonist controversy, and also about how one of those cartoonists, or rather not one of the real cartoonists but one who I made up, runs from people trying to kill him and to upstate New York, where he assumes the identity of a high school guidance counselor. A realistic, autobiographical novel, then obviously.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at

  1. Doug Bond

    From the forward to Clarke’s collection of stories, What We Won’t Do, “You haven’t read these stories before, and that’s the highest compliment that I can pay them. That and the fact that they made me laugh, out loud, and frightened me a little, and still do.”
    Which is just the way I felt upon discovery of his Brock Clarke’s fiction, courtesy of a wonderful blog, Riley Dog, wherein was posted the initial 400 or so words of the 3500 word story, Plowing the Secondaries (2001.) An intriguing excerpt, “flash fiction”-like, but be sure to read the balance of the story, available in the New England Review, Volume 22, #4. (
    Or the whole collection here:

  2. J. Mykell Collinz

    I enjoyed the interview, the information, and the exercise: “a scene in which a couple goes to a mattress store with the intention of buying a mattress.” That gives me an idea. Thanks, Brock. Thanks, Meg.

  3. James Robison

    Funny. Too much bla bla about future of the book, yeah. I see that. Danish cartoonist as guidance counselor, for only one thing here, is funny. Hating writing excercises-yeah. Yup. But maybe not if a mattress store is involved? I can see that. He did have some fine teachers, too. Or not teachers. Class leader people. This Pokrass woman…always asking questions. What do we know about her?

  4. Linda S-W

    Great interview, and looking forward to the future of The Happiest People. Sounds wilder than Exley, if at all possible. Peace…

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