Mark Hummel’s fiction, poetry, and essays have regularly appeared in a variety of literary journals for more than twenty years including such publications as The Bloomsbury Review, Dogwood, Fugue, Talking River Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, and Zone 3. A longtime former college professor and writing program director, he has also served as a teacher in an independent high school, directed a writers’ conference, worked as a librarian, and taught on the faculty of several writers’ conferences. He is the founding editor of the nonfiction magazine bioStories. A native of Wyoming, Hummel lives in Montana’s beautiful Flathead Valley.
Hello, Mark! Congrats on the B.R.A.G. Medallion for your book, In the Chameleon’s Shadow. Please tell me about your book.
Thanks, Stephanie. I appreciate the chance to talk about In the Chameleon’s Shadow. The novel is something of a dark-sided literary love story, if love is possible when you have a protagonist like Aaron Lugner, who makes his living as a “method actor” sort of con-artist and a lothario. What sets the novel in motion is this con-artist’s belief that he has found love and for love he will change. The object of his obsession is Myriam, an Amerasian orphan adopted from Vietnam. The story builds its tension from Aaron’s promise that with Myriam he will be his true self and only tell the truth, even when truth is painful, and he will only allow himself to participate in his alter life when outside of her presence. There he lives by his old patterns and sets about developing a series of financial scams, including creating a fund for a fictional teen cancer victim and staging a modeling contest, among others. Aaron is adept at manipulating other people’s desires of what they need/wish to believe about themselves. Whether Aaron is merely guilty of such self-deception as well is one of the things the reader must decide. So is he actually in love or in love with the idea of love? Is he so blinded he cannot see that perhaps Myriam is guilty of another kind of deception as well? These are among the questions the novel pursues. Before it is done, the book travels inside the memories of the American experience in Vietnam and the collective deception we acted upon there and in the aftermath of that war and the history that has followed. The book gathers momentum as the two worlds Aaron tries to straddle threaten to collide.
I love the title and what a fascinating premise! How did you come up with it?
All of my work tends to develop organically. That’s how it has already been for me, so I’m the sort of writer who never knows where the work is going until it gets there. That, for me, keeps writing joyful and fresh, though I know it might drive some others mad. In the Chameleon’s Shadow happened this way. I had what is now the opening image of the novel cemented in my mind—a moment where Aaron is looking at his reflection through a broken drink glass he holds and into an antique mirror. The distorted image he sees makes it appear that two halves of his face don’t align. It’s this image that obsessed me—this idea of the many selves we may all possess. Quite quickly that image took on the more extreme form of having Aaron lead a life of deception, not just cons or manipulations of women, but becoming the sort of person who would try on entire new identities every time he crossed an international border—assuming make-believe pasts, careers, accents—really in essence becoming a new person with regularity. The natural question that emerged was this: if one lived such a life, would one lose a sense of actual identity? So if I was creating this character who lived his life by lies, then I needed to bump him up against a character who is so focused on only telling the truth that she sometimes hurts people and thus Myriam emerged. But as she became alive in my mind, this woman who had a lot of pain in her past, I began also to ask the question: isn’t not answering the question that is never asked a kind of deception too? We all edit what we share. The novel allowed me opportunity to examine, fully, the ways in which we all participate in a kind of deception, particularly self-deception, which we may need to survive.
Why did you chose Seattle as the setting for your story?
I chose Seattle in large part simply because it is a city I love a great deal, one with a very identifiable identity of its own. But I also wanted a place that offered a good deal of atmospheric mystery, something that its weather supports, that more literal idea of a “shadow” place, where the presence of rain and mist and fog and alternating bent-light can create a sense that one must see through things to identify them. Lastly I knew I wanted a city with an underground, one that people can still visit, this literal city beneath a city to support the metaphorical notion of layered lives where the pavement you walk on may be a kind of deception too, masking another, older pavement somewhere down there below your feet.
What is one of the obstacles or challenges Myriam faces as an orphan?
The greatest obstacle Myriam faces because of her personal history is a sense of guilt, for she knows that the reality is for every orphaned child who succeeded in getting from Vietnam to the U.S. (or other western countries), hundreds, if not thousands, did not. She spends a great deal of energy speculating on why she was adopted and others were not and feels she has not lived a life that warrants her rescue. Myriam is a twin, and she does not know the fate of her sister, so the guilt she feels is personal, for she simply does not know if her sister was also adopted or is she was left behind in Saigon. Moreover, Myriam, like many of her counterparts, is a very particular kind of orphan. She is Amerasian, the child of an American serviceman and a Vietnamese mother, and so she is what the Vietnamese label the “bui dui” (“the dust of life”) and, as such, feels she may not belong anywhere, not in her past or her present, not in Vietnam or in the America into which she was adopted. Both primary characters, Myriam and Aaron, are mixed race, and this is another level with which the book explores the nature of identity, for too often others are trying to label and categorize you according to how they believe they see you. This is another place of regular challenge for how Myriam sees herself.
Your story touches on several themes-if you will. One of them being the human capacity for self-deception. In your character what drives this person to this act or behavior and how can a person find their true self with so much deception? If this question makes sense….
Stephanie, your question makes a great deal of sense, and in the time since the book was published, the notion of self-deception has continued to rise as one major take-away in the novel for me. I’ve always been fascinated with the notion that as fiction writers we make our living by a complex kind of lying, but the sort of fiction that I want to write is to tell stories that get at the heart of greater truths. We lie in order to tell the truth. So this juxtaposition is likely what propelled me towards the creation of Aaron, a man who literally lives by his lies but how, in his heart seeks truth, wants love, desires monogamy, or at least wants to believe so. (Or, alternatively, that may be the greatest self-deception of all—for Aaron or for me in creating Aaron.) In Aaron’s case, he was abandoned early by his father and so, like Myriam, he spends some capital on wondering who he came from and somehow believing he might be to blame for his father’s absence. To think so is illogical, but then that’s always the case. He feels acutely aware that his presence has been a burden for his single mother and he loves her so much that he wants to ease the burden and simultaneously to fulfill all of her dreams and ambitions for him. Yet he thinks he can’t measure up, that he’s failed her, and rather than facing such failure, he begins to fuel her ability to believe he’s become someone of whom she could be proud. He has some of the outward manifestations of success—charm, confidence, poise—and he’s a world traveler, speaks several language, and holds real intellectual capacity, so in attempt to fool his mother’s perception, he begins to fool himself. After a time, such deception becomes second nature, a bad habit. And as you’ve pointed out elsewhere in your questions, such habits, such continuous lying, can make one lose a sense of identity. For me, there are parts of Aaron that are an extension of the collective American identity we see in contemporary times—like the belief that we are a nation of the rich and the successful while we turn our back on the disconnect between the wealthy and the poor or overlook the sometimes savage nature of our poorest neighborhoods or our slippage as the educational leaders of the world. As a culture we are pretty adept at denying when we’ve created or contributed to injustice or intolerance in the world, because rightfully, we want to hang on to our roots of representing the opposite. In this regard I think there are elements of Aaron as a product of our culture.
Your story is fast-paced and tension-rich. What advice would you give to a writer who was trying to build their story on that level?
Well, fiction lives within tension, and properly developed tension can fuel pace. But the advice I give writers is to differentiate tension and plot. Tension arises naturally. We all have competing desires that exist simultaneously within ourselves, and that alone creates meaningful tension. That kind of tension can give fiction valuable and valid conflict on which to build a story. Then you need just enough plot to hang the story on. In the case of In the Chameleon’s Shadow, there was always a natural conflict in having the two lives Aaron leads needing to collide, so following him along this course of collision created plot opportunities that allow the pace to build over the course of the text so that by the time we reach the last third of the book, we find ourselves in a sprint. I’m certain that if we truly dedicate ourselves to writing character-focused fiction, tension is always present if we’ll only see it, just as it is in the living people around us.
Please tell me about the historical significance of your story and your focus on orphanages of Southern Vietnam.
The presence of the role of Vietnam and specifically the orphanages, particularly the ones run by French Catholics, came as a lovely surprise to me in writing the book. I certainly did not set out to write a book about the orphanages of Southern Vietnam, though some mighty fine books have been written on that topic and I relied on their expertise to write this book. But as Myriam began to emerge and as I grew aware of the themes that were organically developing, the role of her orphan past became critically important. That created some of the most rewarding research for the book. And in learning so much greater detail about the period immediately following the American departure from Vietnam and about the treatment of the Amerasians by the North Vietnamese following the war, as well as learning more about the dedication shown by nuns and others to their charges in the orphanages, I began to experience that happy accident of writing fiction in which details, and timelines, facts and emotional truths aligned with the book’s needs. How can one not be moved when hearing the firsthand accounts of individuals who saw themselves and an entire subset of their peers labeled by others as “the dust of life”? The presence of children (now adults with children of their own) adopted by Americans is yet one more extension of the complex history of our own country and a visible reminder of the scars of our collective slow healing from the American experience in Vietnam.
What are you hoping that readers will get out of this story?
Well, of course I hope readers will first simply fall inside the story and enjoy their time there and the ride they are in for with its twists and turns. Beyond that I hope readers take a moment and recognize that people are not what they always seem on the surface. Now this may seem cliché as well as seem a negative sort of statement on first glance, which may also be true, the whole, old, apply-a-little-critical-thinking-thing and don’t get burned by those who are out to take advantage, but I mean it in the opposite too, for often we judge upon appearances or on limited information and fail to see the person before us. Aaron can be extraordinarily manipulative, even conniving, but before the book is done, he shows he is capable of attempting selfless action, that he is, in short, desirous of achieving change. I think in fiction and in life, while we need to keep our eyes open, we shouldn’t grow so callous and to believe individuals incapable of change.
How long did it take to write your story and where in your home do you like to write?
Compared to other books I have written, this one was written rather quickly, with the first draft completed in less than a year. It’s always hard to say ultimately, for I’m often still active in revision long after I’ve begun new projects and I tend to let manuscripts sit on the self for a long time in order to gain editorial distance, but all told this book took something close to three years from start to being ready for publication.
This book was written in a little town named Alpine, WY, about thirty miles south of Jackson Hole in a study I’d built specifically for that purpose, a quiet space full of books and good light and lots of wood. At present I don’t have a dedicated room for writing but I do have a space where no other activity other than writing occurs and that space, featuring a library table I refinished and repaired twenty or more years ago that dates deep into the last century, is adjacent a window overlooking the magnificent Flathead Lake and the Swan and Mission mountain ranges.
What book project are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a full draft and the first couple rounds of revision of a new novel that is a re-imagining of the old Orpheus and Eurydice story from Greek mythology. My version builds on the Rilke poem “Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hermes” where Rilke, for the first time, examined Eurydice’s growing consciousness on a plane equal to or greater than Orpheus. I try to build on that nature of the Rilke poem. My version is set in 1926 in the heart of Prohibition and features a singer/songwriter/guitarist and the woman who becomes not only his lover but his manager and booking agent, and Hermes is replaced, improbably, with a priest who has become a kind or roadie/driver/advisor.
I have also just started on a literary crime novel that uses the case of a missing person to examine the wealth divide.
How did you discover indieBRAG and what has your experience been like with independent publishing thus far?
I rather happened upon indieBRAG while looking for reviewers for In the Chameleon’s Shadow. I greatly appreciate all that indieBRAG does for writers. They hold a tremendously important place in the modern publishing market, for while the changes in contemporary publishing are exciting in that they open up the market to texts that we might not otherwise see, there is a dire need for curators to help differentiate texts that demonstrate quality from those that do not. The marketplace is flooded with books right now, and readers need the means to identify the quality works that fit their own reading niches. As a writer of literary fiction, this need is only exaggerated all the more as major publishers often make decisions based upon projected sales volume alone.
Thank you, Mark!
Thank you, Stephanie. It’s been great to have the chance to talk with you.
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Mark Hummel, who is the author of, In the Chameleon’s Shadow, our medallion honorees at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, In the Chameleon’s Shadow, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.