Musings from Mamatas: Insights from the Work of an Obscure Writer

by Nick Mamatas

One thing that is always frustrating about being an unknown writer is the number of famous writers who are called unknown writers by journalists. I’ve read about such obscure figures as Cormac McCarthy, David Goodis, Daniel Woodrell, and John Fante for years, and indeed for years some of these writers (Goodis and Fante) were among my favorites.

But no, they’re not obscure. To the writers of personality profiles and obituaries, if an author only has five or six novels with major publishers, and a well-regarded film adaptation, and a handful of acolytes in academe writing biographies and editing collections of correspondence, then they hardly count as authors at all until they die.

Mark SaFanko is a legitimately obscure author. His autofiction straddles the line between the confessional material of Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski and the noir of Charles Willeford. Like many writers of his type, he’s huge in France, or at least big enough to be flown out to that country and feted by a literary festival now and again. In his native language, not so much, despite or perhaps because of his work’s daring. How daring? The last paragraph of his novel God Bless America includes his actual home address. Good thing nobody reads him!

I first encountered SaFranko in the pages of The Savage Kick, a homebrew literary magazine from the UK whose first few issues were run off a home printer. The magazine’s publisher, MurderSlim Press, also published several of SaFranko’s novels, and these books were also roughly produced, made perhaps at a copy shop and lacking either barcodes or ISBNs. 

It’s not that SaFranko hasn’t had a couple of above-the-waterline publications. He published a story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and his most famous MurderSlim novel, Hating Olivia, was republished by Harper Perennial, some years ago. The influence of John Fante’s son, Dan, who published several novels and a memoir with Harper at around that time, likely played a significant role. But now Dan Fante has passed away, but SaFranko and his alter ego Max Zajack are still alive and kicking in the micropresses.

The real measure of an obscure author isn’t just minor fame, or the sheer fact of being unpublished or very frequently rejected, but how an author is published. SaFranko is the sort of author that makes his fans launch publishing companies. His noir No Strings was originally published by Black Coffee Press, an outfit that came and went so quickly that if you Google its name all you’re going to get on the results page is ads for pretty slick kitchen appliances. (The book has since been reissued by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint.) His current novel, the fifth Zajack title Nowhere Near Hollywood, is published by another small outfit out of the UK, Honest Publishing. Using print-on-demand technology and even barcodes—though lacking  price on the book and an imprint on the spine—Honest is giving SaFranko an honest shot.

So honest that they sent me a copy of the book and some months later sent a normal, brief, email asking if I had a plan to review it. It was such a pleasant experience after having received dozens of breathless and badgering follow-up emails from publicists and salespeople these past six months through my work as an event coordinator for a bookstore that I immediately pulled out a copy and started reading it. So, good email! Also, a pretty good book!

In Nowhere Near Hollywood, Zajack sees that someone with whom he was in a play back in college has become famous, so he decides on a whim to be an actor as well. What follows is a years-long journey through the tedium of auditions, failed film projects by trust-fund kids, the occasional paid work as an extra or at a Central Jersey dinner theater, and more. Along the way, Zajack has his wallet lifted by a streetwalker, and gets married to his pregnant lover Gayle.

SaFranko’s prose is straightforward and his themes are upfront. Zajack reads Henry Miller, collects rejection slips for his own stories and novels, complains to himself about his life as a failure, but keeps waiting for that phone to ring and answering it when it does. It’s the 1990s, and it’s all real, with only the names changed. Is Bart Barlow and his film All The Incredible Lies obviously Hal Hartley and his first feature The Unbelievable Truth? Definitely. Is the mob drama The Altos Zajack gets a bit part on obviously The Sopranos? Of course! Is embittered Zajack, who at one point goes to a bookstore and wonders to himself How could a writer ever make his work stand out in this ocean of vomit? (good question!) wrong about the quality of both productions—that the former is boring and the latter clichéd? Well, also yes, but one doesn’t read about Max Zajack in order to agree with his opinions about everything, or anything. Indeed, one may not even root for him to get anywhere either as a writer or as an actor. Maybe you want him to fall off the Hollywood sign to which he clings on the cover, and get run over by the next passing car.

We read SaFranko, the few of us that do, because we’ve been there. We’ve had the garbage jobs—proofreading legal notices for Swanson Foods is a Zajack highlight. We’ve had the relationships fall apart, and we have been 100 percent to blame. We’ve experienced rejection and failures and, just thanks to the sheer facts of geography, brushes with the fame and riches and acclaim that fill the streets of New York.

I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to posit that the folks who literally found small presses in order to keep SaFranko in print see themselves in Zajack. They too read Henry Miller and watch French films, find themselves just short of middle-class status despite either a college degree or at least an apartment full of books you would have found on college syllabi a generation ago, and their relationships are resolutely unhappy. Alcohol is drunk so regularly it may as well have been prescribed. Hollywood churns out garbage, and the New York Times best-sellers list glorifies shit, and they all know it. The majority of SaFranko’s readers probably fit this mold, at least in the English-speaking world, and that’s too bad. Odes to humiliation and anguish are no longer common, and with every other paragraph, SaFranko winks at his reader to let them know that Zajack’s own worst enemy is himself. SaFranko is as real as a home address.

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and Sabbath, and has published short fiction in Best American Mystery StoriesYear’s Best Science Fiction and FantasyNew Haven Review, Tor.com, and many other venues. Nick’s reportage and essays have appeared in the Village VoicePoets & WritersIn These TimesThe Smart Set, and dozens of other places. As an anthologist, Nick co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning Haunted Legends with Ellen Datlow, the Locus Award nominees The Future is Japanese and Hanzai Japan with Masumi Washington, and the hybrid cocktail recipe/short fiction title Mixed Up with Molly Tanzer.

More Articles by Nick Mamatas