Author Q&A with Marc Eichen
by Christine Nessler
February 22, 2023
This week’s Author Q&A is with Marc Eichen. Eichen has a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Geography, Clark University. From 2015 through 2022 he was a Visiting Faculty member at the State University of Zanzibar. His fiction focuses on life in Zanzibar and in red-state America. He has had stories published in Still Points Arts Quarterly, The Adirondack Review and West Trade Review and reprinted in Toyon. He is the winner of the Richard Cortez Day Prize in fiction. A book of short stories in Swahili and English will be published in Nairobi Kenya in 2023. He is represented by Kristen Carey at Blue Hen.
Eichen’s fiction short story, Who Takes the Bus in LA is featured in Issue #10 of The Good Life Review.
Tell me about yourself.
Many fiction writers are reluctant to talk about themselves – and I’m no exception. Where I stand out, where I hope to stand out, is on the page.
With that preface, ok, here goes. I grew up in New York and began life thinking I would be a musician. Life intrudes (and I wasn’t good enough) – so I spent much of my working life as an academic administrator, first in New York and then in Massachusetts, where I live with my wife, Deborah Drosnin, most of the year.
When I’m not in Massachusetts, I live in East Africa, Zanzibar (Tanzania) to be specific where I’ve had the privilege to learn Swahili and teach natural resource management at the State University.
Some of my fiction focuses on the intersection between the Swahili and foreign communities. This is particularly interesting and challenging for me. How do you make sense of that friction, or lack of friction because the communities don’t “see” each other? China Miéville’s novel, The City & The City is a good example.
I don’t think you need to come to Zanzibar to observe this. And some of my fiction, including Who Takes the Bus in LA?, is about the poor, the ragged, the old and otherwise marginalized and often unseen communities in the United States.
What is your writing process? How do you make it a part of your daily life?
I try to write four days a week and always in the morning. I tend not to write at home because the distractions are endless. So I’m lucky enough to have found The Writers’ Room of Boston and I work there.
What inspired you to write Who Takes the Bus in LA?
Both Deborah and I grew up in New York City and we lean in toward public transportation. So when we were visiting LA before the pandemic, we took the bus. Taking the bus in LA is a meme. Many Angelinos would ask, who takes the bus in LA if they’re not crazy or unhoused?
Riding the bus in L.A. is a parallel city. It is the purest expression of L.A.’s one-hundred-year dialogue of urban and antiurban, a bridge to the city’s streetcar past and an epitaph to its car-addled future. Riding enables another mode of looking, seeing, hearing, and smelling that “eludes the discipline” of automobility even as it reproduces it. (Hutchinson, Sikivu. “Waiting for the Bus.” Social Text, vol. 18 no. 2, 2000, p. 107-120. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/31869.)
For all these reasons, I find the stories of people taking the bus and driving the bus to be of interest.
Please tell me some unique details related to Who Takes the Bus in LA and what you learned from it.
I’m always interested in place. How does place influence what we see and who we are? How would the protagonists in this story live in Boyle Heights and yet have never been to Venice Beach? Why would they think Culver City was another world (because for them, it was)? Is it possible to transcend our individual world and tell a story which would resonate with someone from another place?
What is your favorite book? Or who is your favorite author?
Wow, that’s a hard question. Ten authors in no particular order: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Donna Tartt, Richard Russo, George Saunders, George Eliot, Olga Tokarczuk, Russell Banks, Zadie Smith, Benjamin Lerner, David Foster Wallace. I could go on.
If there’s any common thread, with the exception of Olga Tokarczuk and David Foster Wallace, these writers embed you in the story. They are all wonderful writers, but they’re not self-conscious writers. Their work doesn’t say, “hey – look at this piece of genius.”
What books did you enjoy reading as a child?
My mom read A Child’s Garden of Verses (Robert Louis Stevenson) to me and then, it was one of the things I wanted to read most, when I was able to read. As a teenager I would never leave the house without stuffing a book into the back pocket of my jeans. I went through jags, reading as much as I could of a particular writer before moving on to someone else: Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, Henry Roth, William Faulkner, Laurence Durrell. Even on the subway in New York, slamming through the tunnels with the windows open, their work would bring me somewhere else.
Do you have a specific genre you enjoy writing the most?
I write literary fiction. I love poetry, but I’m entirely in awe of people who are able to write it. There are wonderful science fiction writers (Samuel Delaney, Ursala K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, N. K. Jeminsin), but I find much of this genre formulaic and uninspiring.
What part of the artistic process do you consider to be the most difficult, as well as most satisfying, and why.
Interesting you ask this question. I’ve noticed that each individual in my wonderful writers’ group has a different strength. Mine happens to be drafting – getting an initial draft on paper. What I work on after that is the voice of the story, finding the voice which tells the story in the strongest, most authentic way. Re-drafting at the word level is the most difficult for me. But I try.
Do you have any fears as a writer?
Not having anything to say. Telling the same story over and over. My fabulous agent, Kristen Che at Blue Hen, who reads my first drafts, is able to say, “You’ve done this before – try it another way.”
What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “The Good Life?”
Walking in the mountains in New England or on the beach in Africa with my family, talking about a book or maybe just watching the sunset. Tuko pamoja milele. (We are together, always)
Thank you, Marc, for sharing your words with us and we appreciate the extra time and consideration you put into answering our questions. It was a pleasure working with you. We wish you the best in life and with all your writing endeavors!