Music You’ll Never Unhear: An Interview with Mark Andrew Ferguson

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by Benjamin Rybeck

Mark Andrew Ferguson is banking on his maturity.

Let me explain: Ferguson came to fiction writing relatively late. “As a teenager,” he says, “I got the message that it’s cool and enriching to have creative outlets, but that you shouldn’t bother trying to make them your living.” Instead, he found his living adjacent to creative types, first interning with a literary agency, then landing a job at HarperCollins, marketing—among other things—audiobooks. But he yearned to make something tangible—more tangible, anyway, than the emails he sent as a daily part of his job. So he returned to his creative urges—graphic design, and then writing—after years of work: “I had to build confidence in the real world to feel like I had the authority to say anything.”

Judging from his debut novel, THE LOST BOYS SYMPHONY, he sure found his authority. It’s simultaneously comfortable and radical, its young characters trapped in a love triangle. Henry and Val have dated for years, until she feels the need to grow beyond her high school boyfriend, at which point she dumps him and heads off to NYU. Shortly thereafter, Henry vanishes, leaving his best friend Gabe to track him down, all the while facing his latent attraction to Val.

Does this all sound conventional? I guess I forgot to mention the time travel. When Henry vanishes, he discovers himself abducted by versions of himself from the future, one eighty years old, another forty-one. What do they want? To prevent Henry from making a horrible mistake as a young man that causes him to lose Val forever.

It’s a beautiful book full of music—not only references to the music Henry makes (chapters are often referred to with terms like “Sonata” or “Minuet”), but the prose itself also has that lyrical quality that usually gets called “poetic.” (“The bushes that bordered the road rustled in applause,” Ferguson writes in the first chapter, “and the streetlamps lowered their curious faces, burst open like flowers, and showed [Henry] with orange and yellow sparks of congratulation.”) Music informs how most of these characters experience the world, and midway through the novel, Gabe thinks of “[t]he music that Henry had told him about, the all-encompassing soundscape that he’d been warned he could never unhear.” For novel readers longing for the poetic, THE LOST BOYS SYMPHONY might be music they’ll never want to unhear.

But other readers may not pick up the novel’s frequencies at all. Its leaps from realism to fantasy might be difficult in the way that Charlie Kaufman films puzzle viewers unable to adjust to his mindset. “It’s a tough sell,” Ferguson admits, echoing his days in marketing. “A genre bender. A long burn. For this kind of book to work, it takes months of people picking it up, word of mouth, and a lot of support from booksellers.” Unsurprisingly, he heard different responses from different readers. For example, his agent wanted more about the characters than the fantasy, whereas his editor wanted less love triangle and more time travel.

So which of these threads came first? Ferguson answers quickly: “The time travel came first.” He explains that among his first literary lovers were Paul Auster, Philip K. Dick, Haruki Murakami, and Kurt Vonnegut, and certainly THE LOST BOYS SYMPHONY demonstrates these influences. The fact that it doesn’t collapse under them, however, is probably due to the personal connection Ferguson felt to his material.

He’d had the idea of the time travel for years—he’d even tried to write it at one point as a comedy sketch—but he kept getting stuck. Finally, he found himself reflecting on an experience from college: a good friend who lived with Ferguson at Rutgers (where Henry and Gabe go to school) was a music student and had a psychotic break. “It occurred to me,” Ferguson says, “that I’d been waiting for him to show up and be himself again, but that was never going to happen. And that thought really terrified me.” When he finally found the book, “I was in a time when I was coming to terms with my own growth and maturity.”

“The power of writing the book,” Ferguson tells me, “was I had to have empathy for a character that I modeled on myself. Gabe was experiencing a lot of the same things I had, and that empathy made me feel authoritative in my own life and experience.” Gabe’s own confusion about how to handle his mentally ill friend helped Ferguson to consider his own past: “What was [I] supposed to do? I’d never asked myself about that until I asked Gabe about it.”

The sharply defined experiences of Ferguson’s personal life help clarify the surrealism of THE LOST BOYS SYMPHONY, just as the incoherence of a Jackson Pollock painting only works because the shapes and colors seem so specific and real. But Ferguson stresses that he isn’t interested in always using his real life in this way: “What I’ve moved onto now certainly has pieces of me, but it isn’t all autobiographical, and I’m excited by that. I hope I can become more imaginative about the minds of characters in situations I’ve never been in.”

But this gets me back to the notion of Ferguson’s maturity, and his investment in the long arc of his career, not just in this particular moment of success. “I was [at HarperCollins] when we published Jess Walter’s BEAUTIFUL RUINS, and he was a guy who everybody loved but nothing of his had quite hit [before then]. I’m aware of authors who have gotten big on their fifth book.” Ferguson knows that it might take a while, but that as he grows and changes, so will the kinds of books he writes, and so will the kinds of audiences he reaches.

I’m banking on Ferguson’s maturity too.

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