However nontraditional, it’s still the dawn of summer in the northern hemisphere, and people are creaking their doors open and heading to the beach for some socially distanced fun in the sun. In between sandcastle supplies, sunscreen, and enough towels to dry an army, many of us will be tucking a book into our beach bag, intent on stretching out under an umbrella and letting that sea breeze carry us away to another world.
If your summer reading list still has a few slots open, Mark Paul Oleksiw’s growing list of titles are the perfect escapist novels to keep you company on the beach, by the pool, or in your living room playing seaside white noise tracks (we won’t judge). From college campuses to secluded wilderness lakes, Mark’s immersive settings and dynamic characters transport and compel—just don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen!
We reached out to Mark to hear more about the work behind his worlds, as well as find out what else he has coming to a bookstore near you. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Many of your novels have the sense of a slowly unfurling tapestry, with flashbacks or similar devices revealing information and illuminating understanding in a gradual way, providing the audience with what they need while whetting their appetite for more. How did you develop this signature narrative style?
My desire is for the reader to connect with the characters and their emotions. I hope all of my characters have an emotional texture that the reader wants to touch. Being introduced to a character is very much like picking up a puzzle piece and imagining the completed image. Each new piece is a revelation and draws the reader closer.
In real life, our initial interactions with people commence with an encounter at a random point in their lives. When we make a leap of faith, we make discoveries via glimpses of their past. Over time, we weave together a narrative and perception of their soul.
In my second novel, Munching on the Sun, we are introduced to Lukas, the protagonist, when he is a drunk, miserable university student. Basically, a lost soul. Within the first ten pages of the novel, he confesses, to the professor who discovers him, this horrible sin. The reader could easily stop reading and dismiss the character as beyond redemption. But we, the reader, can take a cue from this wise professor who senses a “masterpiece” lay hidden beneath the horrid façade. He refuses to judge Lukas and is determined to save Lukas. With each new page, there is an insight, an emotion and a deeper connection formed with Lukas. What we find is a bittersweet love story at the novel’s heart. By the time we reach the conclusion, our hearts and minds are fully engaged.
One thing that stood out to us within your latest novel, Time’s Musicians, is the way the story plays with an unreliable narrator, the audience unsure how much of Billy to take at face value until the truth is revealed at the climactic finish. Was this approach intentional on your part? If so, how did you come to select it?
Without a doubt, Billy was one of the most challenging and rewarding characters I ever created. I agonized over the portrayal of Billy and finally decided an unreliable narrator captured the true essence of his journey. Billy had to be an enigma since he represents children. Children imagine mystical worlds that adults often dismiss or fear.
The novel opens with a young Billy journeying into a dangerous cave because he believes in a kindred soul, Dieter. Billy also senses the sadness of Dieter’s life. When Dieter disappears, the adult world is skeptical of Billy’s tale and treats him as unreliable and emotionally unstable. So, the stage is for the audience to question their perception of Billy and his motivations. Later in life, Billy accepts the blame for having done something awful to his best friend, John. We now fear an evil lurks within Billy. Why? Because adults have learned to fear what they cannot explain. The adult world casts him as “dangerous.” There exists, though, a clue into the inner core of Billy. He has created this comic book world entitled “Time’s Musicians” as a magical place of heroes and music, welcoming to all children. Its cult following derives from Billy’s ability to connect with children. He hears their voices but, hauntingly, can also hear their screams!
Enter Carrie, the retired psychologist who, like the reader, chooses to seek to understand Billy. She follows the path leading to the climatic events. The climax represents many things symbolically. The finale is the setting for a collision of Billy’s mystical narrative with the harsh reality of a horrible loss of innocence, lurking in the background through the novel.
I chose the tagline for the novel, “A hero believes, a friend just has to follow,” with a purpose. The story’s engine is about suspending belief for a friend and entering the metaphorical cave to discover without fear. Hopefully, readers enjoy exploring the many layers of meaning in this work.
Comic books—and the heroes and villains therein—play a prominent role in Time’s Musicians. Are you a comic book fan yourself? Did any provide inspiration for the fictional comic described in the novel?
Comic books have a special place in my heart, and my reverence for them comes across in the novel. When my paternal grandfather came to North America, he learned English by reading comic books. As a child, I was rewarded on our family’s weekly grocery run with enough money to buy something from the magazine stand. It was always a comic book and usually something sci-fi or paranormal. The power of a comic book to tell a concise tale, on a dozen or so pages, with just colorful images and so few words, amazes me to this day. While I was not a specific devotee in one book, some of my closest friends were true comic book diehards. They were also incredibly creative people with artistic talents dwarfing mine. This novel is a tribute to what was then a very underappreciated form of art and a positive creative influence on a generation of kids.
The title Time’s Musicians is also an homage to the power of music, one of my great loves. The title itself suggests time (a science construct) can be manipulated by an artist, in particular, by sound/music. (All of my novels have carefully placed references to songs during critical scenes.) Yet, science gets a lot of hype and funding as the key to understanding the universe. My novels are a not-so-subtle suggestion that maybe music is the path to a “truth” that science will never find. One of my favorite Inayat Khan quotes is, “He who knows the secret of sound, knows the mystery of the whole universe.”
In all of your novels, but especially Time’s Musicians, blended themes and styles create a unique reading experience that defies consolidation into a single genre, including elements of literary fiction, magical realism, and science fiction, to name a few. What advice would you offer aspiring authors who feel somewhat constrained by the expectations of what their target genre should or should not look like?
I am tremendously complimented by your description of a unique reading experience. I strive to be original and even experimental. When I studied literature ages ago, I took a class called “The Lyrical Novel” and studied the works of authors like Hermann Hesse, Virginia Woolf, and Leonard Cohen. Their writing styles profoundly influenced mine because their works demonstrate that writing needs to be unencumbered from strict rules.
From the time I began writing my first novel, The Boys Who Danced With The Moon, I struggled with genre and realized thinking about it too much only hindered my creativity. Imagine someone gave you a box of crayons with every conceivable color available. Now, imagine you have a choice. You can either color anything you want on a blank page or color within the lines of a predetermined outline of an image created by someone else. Well, I never could color between the lines if my life depended on it.
My advice to aspiring authors is to be true to yourself and what makes you comfortable. Grab those crayons and fill blank page after page. Write the story that comes from your heart. Create a character to be your voice. If you love poetry, create a character that loves poetry, as I did in The Boys Who Danced With The Moon. Trust that character and tell their story. If anything, be true to your story. A genre is just a “box” that will trap your creativity. A box is protective but claustrophobic and isolating. Write in an open field with a horizon that keeps moving.
Finally, do you have any more projects in the works at the moment?
Yes, I am really excited about my fourth book entitled Rain for the Puddle Splashers. It is about teenagers growing up in current times who are struggling to articulate their own emotions, baggage, and frustration with the way to the state of the world. In a time when everyone is seemingly connected, they are intensely alone. The main character has just moved to a new school and neighborhood following some traumatic event. A fragile character, he finds himself across the street from this troubled teen who seems to have anger issues. For better or worse, their paths are about to cross as they embark on a journey to exorcise their demons. I am targeting publishing it in the winter of 2021.
I am also toying with writing a sequel to my debut novel, The Boys Who Danced with the Moon. The heart of that story struck a chord with so many readers who saw themselves in one of the three boys, Kiran, Marius, and Moony, particularly those who were teens in the 80s. If anything, it allows me to sneak in poetry again!