This Midwestern Beer Lover Is Behind Some of the Year's Darkest Fiction
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
With his new novel, Stephen Markley cements himself as one of the brightest new American voices.
By Michelle Bruton
The idea for his first novel came to Stephen Markley on one of the worst nights of his life. Back in his hometown of Mount Vernon, Ohio, for Thanksgiving 2012, Markley and his childhood friends reconnected at a favorite bar. Later that night, a driving thunderstorm altered their plans, prompting what Markley describes as “a series of poor decisions” that landed one friend in jail.
“I’d had many of those nights in my hometown, but this one was different for many reasons,” Markley, 35, says. “I woke up with a raging sense of despair over what I was doing with my life. I wrote the first few words in my notebook the next day that would become the sensation of Ohio.”
Markley’s debut novel, Ohio, has been met with wide critical acclaim. The plot revolves around four characters returning to their (fictional) hometown of New Canaan, Ohio, one fateful night, and the fallout from their encounter. It touches on 9/11, the War in Iraq, the opioid crisis — political and social themes that have plagued the Midwest in the past two decades.
You write another book that doesn’t do as well … pretty soon people are preceding your name with ‘failed novelist Stephen Markley was found dead of autoerotic asphyxiation.’
Markley intended the novel to be politically confrontational, but he wrote the entire manuscript before November 2016. Still, he says, “It’s almost impossible for people to read it without the lens of what’s happening now.” Reviewers often paint Ohio as the fictional counterpart to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the 2016 best-seller that, for many, helped explain Donald Trump’s supporters in Appalachia. Of writing the novel before Trump’s election, Markley describes “a horrible sensation of wishing upon a monkey’s paw,” given how relevant his theme has become.
Fresh off a promotional tour, Markley is, by now, used to talking about the book. It’s a mental adjustment to talk about himself. The first layer of the onion? “I’m a pretty stereotypical, hypermasculine, sports-loving, Midwestern, beer-drinking dude.” But, as it turns out, the boy who grew up with his sister and now-divorced professor parents (Mom taught women’s and gender studies) contains multitudes. “At the dinner table, if you weren’t saying something interesting, you better come up with it,” Markley says of his childhood.
A youth basketball player, Markley’s primary goal was to make it to the NBA. But his secondary, more realistic occupation was writing — filling 300-page spiral-bound notebooks with his fledgling novels. He most vividly remembers his “shark novel,” in which Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts work at an undersea research lab and fight off a genetically engineered shark. (Yes, the creators of Deep Blue Sea may owe him some royalties.)
For college, Markley stayed close by at Miami University of Ohio, where he wrote columns for the school newspaper as he developed his voice. After graduating, he knew he wanted to be a novelist, but the road there was more winding than the ones he drove across the country after college, trying to “figure out the writing thing.” After moving to Chicago in 2007, Markley cultivated a freelance writing career built off a “jocular voice,” writing for local magazine Red Eye and other publications. That led to his first book in 2010, the aptly titled Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book. A few years later, he released the humorous part-travel guide, part-memoir Tales of Iceland: Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight. That irreverent voice was paying his bills, but it wasn’t fulfilling.
“I felt incredibly stuck. I was really bored with this voice that had taken me so far as a writer,” Markley says. His childhood love of novels loomed large in his mind, and he began applying to MFA programs.
The seed of Ohio had already been planted when Markley began at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2013, though it became something very different over the resulting three years. At Iowa, he finally found the needed “breathing room” for the novel to develop.
“As a student, Stephen was a powerhouse,” says Ethan Canin, member of the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and New York Times best-selling author. “He had it all: deep talent, a monumental work ethic and, rarest of all, a profound interest in the workings of the world.”
Ohio has been optioned for television, and Markley, who now resides in Los Angeles, is writing the screenplay — which requires flexing a different muscle altogether than fiction writing. Screenwriters, Markley explains, have to be more explicit and lose the ability to explore their characters’ interior lives, which is so crucial to Ohio. At the same time, however, a novel is a “blank page of goddamn nothing you have to fill out with interesting things,” Markley says. But if a writer has a good grasp on storytelling, screenwriting is easier because it’s “so spelled out for you” — software programs such as Final Draft help with proper formatting and provide dialogue cues.
While the novel version has not cracked the best-seller list and has middling Amazon rankings, it has been named one of the best books of the season by The New York Times, Vulture and Time. After achieving the publishing success he’s been chasing since childhood, Markley is still writing every day for the joy of it, and while as he’s quiet on the topic of his next novel, he faces a typical terror. “You have this idea that you can never do this again,” he says. “You write another book that doesn’t do as well, a third that doesn’t do as well, pretty soon people are preceding your name with ’failed novelist Stephen Markley was found dead of autoerotic asphyxiation.’”
Those who have been along for the ride are more optimistic.
“I can honestly say there was never a doubt in my mind Stephen would become a successful novelist,” says childhood friend and college classmate Megan Gentille. “He has a both jarring and validating ability to describe what all of us feel, or have felt at some time in our lives, but have never expressed, or were unsure how to verbalize.”
Friends and reviewers alike needn’t worry about their words of praise going to Markley’s head. He hasn’t read a review of Ohio, though he accepts it now belongs not just to him, but to the world. “The things you do exist so far outside of you once you part ways with them,” Markley says. Still, in choosing not to be involved in the discourse surrounding his novel, Markley has retained some small part of his home turf for himself.
- Michelle Bruton, OZY Author Contact Michelle Bruton