Mark Salzman

“I WOULD HAVE BEEN THE WORST KIND OF PRISON GUARD, I THINK, BECAUSE I WOULD APPEAR NICE AND I WOULD WANT TO BE NICE AT THE BEGINNING AND THEN I’D GET BURNED AND I WOULD BE SO HURT THAT THEY DIDN’T APPRECIATE MY NICENESS THAT I’D PROBABLY END UP BEING VERY CRUEL.”
Non-verbal punctuation in this interview:
Laughter
Morbid Laughter
Continuing Laughter
Chuckles
Low Laughter
Mutual Laughter
Mock Sobbing

Mark Salzman is my idea of the perfect prison cellmate. Mostly because he is like one of those mythical underworld jinn creatures that can take on different forms. I know a little about prison cellmates and assuming different shapes because before I started writing, I served seven years in federal custody for robbing many banks. Facts supporting my assumption that Salzman would be a good cellmate:

  1. The best cellmates pay astute attention to housekeeping details. Seeing as Mark was invited by Yo Yo Ma to perform as guest cellist for a program broadcast nationally from Lincoln Center, I’d say he’s enough of an aesthete.
  2. He courteously laughs at my most asinine comments. That talent would defuse many conflicts that do arise among the hordes of knuckleheads who roam the prison corridors.
  3. In 1985, he was the only non-Chinese invited to participate in the National Martial Arts Competition in Tianjin. No prisoner would dare bum rush our cigarettes or otherwise connive to defile our cell.

And the stories he could tell. To date he has published six books: the Pulitzer Prize finalist Iron and Silk (1987), The Laughing Sutra (1991), Lost in Place (1995), The Soloist (1994), Lying Awake (2000), and his most recent book, True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall, released last month.

Just so you know: I was released from prison in 1996 and three months later I became an associate editor with the Pacific News Service, periodically writing op-ed essays for the Los Angeles Times. Through my work, I met Salzman and his wife, the filmmaker Jessica Yu, who co-produced the film Breathing Lesson: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, which won an Academy Award in 1997 for Best Documentary Short. On one occasion that I encountered the couple, I’d recently written an op-ed for the LA Times and Salzman praised my opinion. I, of course, being sufficiently flattered, insinuated myself into Salzman and Yu’s life. My friendship with Salzman to date consists mainly of interrogations we conduct with each other. He’s shown up with a page of questions for me on forgiveness that made for a three-hour conversation. I’ve done the same with him on the topics of grief and humility.

Recently, when I found myself in L.A., Salzman and I went to the L.A. County Museum of Art together to check out the Legacy of Genghis Khan exhibit. On our drive to the museum we spoke of Lucian Freud, fake empathy, why he hates writing workshops, Kimba the White Lion, Gogol, Doonesbury’s Honey with the little Mao hat, in other words, all The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existing Things that constitute late-night prison-cell conversation.

—Joe Loya

*

THE BELIEVER: What convinced you to write your memoir Iron and Silk?

MARK SALZMAN: When I came back from China I assumed that I’d be a martial arts teacher. I had a little studio that I shared with a dance troupe in a dingy room in a dingy part of New Haven. I ran up against the really depressing reality that it is really difficult to find people that are interested in martial arts as an art form. Most folks who are interested in it, initially anyway, have hopes that it will turn them into brave powerful fighters, or that it will make them have control of supernatural, as yet undefined, powers. When I confessed that I didn’t posses either of those things their response was generally, “Then why would I take lessons from you?”

Friends were always asking me to share my China stories. They encouraged me to write one of those down, and that was the first time in my life that I actually wrote something for myself. To me, I never thought of writing a book as something that I could do, because writing was always something you were assigned to do in a school. I thought that to be a writer you had to be a really voracious reader. And since I am not a strong reader I thought I wasn’t qualified.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Joe Loya is an essayist, playwright and associate editor at the Pacific News Service. His memoir, The Parole of Buddha Lobo, will be published by HarperCollins in 2004.

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