Drone on Drone: Kat Zhou interviews writer Mark Chiusano '12

When you imagine an acclaimed author, perhaps you picture grumpy old men and women slaving for years over gargantuan tomes. Likely, you don't imagine someone like Mark Chiusano '12, the baby-faced young author of Marine Park, whose success (and Pen/Hemingway Honorable Mention) belies his youth and cheery good nature. Below, in our latest installment of Drone on Drone, theater practitioner extraordinaire Kat Zhou '17 interviews Mark about writing, The Signet, and a garbage bag of donuts. 

KZ: What is the first thing you remember writing?

MC: Beyond ripoffs of "In a Dark, Dark Wood" in elementary school? Probably the first real thing was a story I wrote freshman year about two kids from Marine Park who fall in love with their next door neighbor. I named one character after a new college friend, Shadman, and I'm still reaping the friendship benefits of that choice.

KZ: Who are your biggest influences, or what’s the first thing you read that made you think you wanted to be a writer?

MC: I think I toggle between Willa Cather/F. Scott Fitzgerald on one side and Roberto Bolaño on the other. Cather and Fitzgerald are so clean and evocative and observant, and Bolano is never not bold and exciting, which is a pretty good thing to aim for in fiction.

KZ: What is the hardest part about the writing process for you, and how do you confront it?

MC: I think the hardest part is getting started, so I try to keep up writing as a regular habit, just something I do before going to work for the day.

KZ: What is the best thing you’ve read recently?

MC: Loved The Sympathizers, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, story of a double agent from North Vietnam who straddles American and Vietnamese culture. It's extremely funny, and dark and riveting, but really often funny, as in scenes where the main character tries to make an Apocalypse Now-type movie less stereotypical.

KZ: Your book, Marine Park, was originally created as an undergraduate thesis. What was the editing process like to get the project ready for publication?

MC: My thesis made up about half of the book, then I spent a few months after graduation writing new stories that also went in (those included the two Ed Monahan stories about basketball, haircuts, and fighting, for those who'd like to check out the book). Then I rearranged the stories a bit and submitted to my editor, who had some tough but good advice on ways to expand a few of the stories in key places, sort of urging some of them towards more action which I think helped the book tremendously.

KZ: What were your go-to places on campus to work done?

MC: The Winthrop Library! Particularly good given proximity to Noch's. And Widener too, those wide tables. Never underestimate how great it is to have places in college where silence is mandated. I have writer friends here in BK who choose cafes because they don't play music. 

KZ: Do you have any favorite memories or weird stories to share about the Signet Society?

MC: I should have said that the third place I would write was at the Signet, usually late-ish at night or post lunch hours. A few friends and my girlfriend and I would write all together, which made it fun but sometimes diminished the amount of writing. Under my girlfriend's leadership we were often planning things like a play about the Titanic with giant puppets (which I did eventually write a monologue for, and an actor friend did a reading of it in a directing class, which basically felt like Hollywood).

KZ: What is the most important class you took as an undergrad?

MC: My creative writing classes taught me how to stay disciplined and got me started on short stories, for which I'm really thankful. A really cool class I took outside of English was a math seminar called "Circles" in which we basically spent the semester close-reading a long 17th century proof by a mathematician who was searching for an early form of calculus and also found a formula for pi. The proof itself is almost literary though, in the mathematician's ups and downs and asides, and I tried to use some of that feeling in a few stories. Which helped encourage me to look at different topics for fiction when possible.

KZ: This is a strange time to be working in the press. What kind of changes do you sense either in your professional environment or your own journalistic approach? How has that impacted the way you write fiction?

MC: It's a strange but interesting time to be a journalist. It's made me think a lot about the importance of facts and the way lies can become unshakeable narratives, on either political side. I think my fiction has always been somewhat influenced by journalism--I try to do some "reporting," informal interviews with people, reading nonfiction, etc., for stories about things I'm not familiar with. I think that has always made stories better.

KZ: I believe you’re working on a novel right now. How is that going? How have you matured as a writer since 

Marine Park


MC: Yes I just finished a draft of a novel! It's really different from Marine Park, much longer but also less clipped line by line. I had to retrain myself to go deep down into particular characters without looking for the space break and the story's end. It was refreshing eventually, though, really fun to be returning to the same characters and themes for months at a time.

KZ: Is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked or an anecdote you’ve ever wanted to share? Alternatively, what’s your go-to dinner party story?

MC: The go-to story that my friends usually tell about me when I'm at their dinner parties is the time I came into a large dorm room our junior year along with another friend, carrying an enormous garbage bag of donuts. Dunkin Donuts used to throw them out at the end of the night in the dumpster next to the Crimson and, well, I learned this. Everyone was pretty excited too and we sat in a circle and noshed down on the donuts for a few minutes, until someone reached in for thirds or fourths and took out a sticky spoon. And then another person reached in and found a half empty ice cream carton. And then we threw out the garbage bag.

KZ: Any parting words of wisdom for aspiring writers? Hardest lessons to learn?

MC: Denis Johnson came to the Advocate when I was a sophomore or junior and his advice was something like, write every day for two minutes. Everyone can find two minutes, and sometimes you'll end up writing for more. Either way it develops the habit, and you'd be surprised how many words you can get out of sticking to the habit, and building it up when possible. 

Interview with Colleen McGuinness '99

As we pass through a "golden age" of television, it's easy to forget that each and every one of our most beloved programs was created by real, living, mortal people. And not just any people, but actual Signet alumni.
Below, in our second installment of Drone on Drone, comedian and erstwhile Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt intern Joey Longstreet '16 interviews Colleen McGuinness '99, a former writer for our favorite show, 30 Rock. 

JL: What are some of your favorite memories from the Signet Society? What's the weirdest thing that either happened to you or that you saw happen at the Hive? 

CM: I loved the lunches.  That apple cider.  And the Friday teas.  Talking to people you might not meet otherwise.  I remember bringing my English professor to a lunch and he got a real kick out of it.  People were playing the piano and listening to records.  We were pretending to be from another time.
The weirdest thing that ever happened to me was when I met Tommy Lee Jones at the Signet.  He was there for lunch.  I was about to graduate and was very fearful about moving out to Los Angeles without a job so I asked him if he had any advice for me.  He said, "Sure, I have advice.  My advice is for you to call me."  And he gave me his number!  It was so unbelievably nice of him.  So... I called him after I graduated but he was away shooting a movie.  I left my number, which was my parents' phone number, since I didn't have a cell phone yet.  I moved out to LA that August, and what do you know.  One day, my parents' phone rings, my mom answers, a man asks for me.  She says, "Who's calling?"  He says, "Tommy Lee Jones."  He actually called back!  What a kind man.  My mom dined out on that story for a while.  The ladies at King Kullen were all aflutter.
JL: How did you engage with the arts in your time as an undergraduate? 

CM: I was very involved with the arts as an undergraduate, particularly in the theater scene.  I started out performing, mostly in musicals, and then moved on to directing and producing.  I directed a production of Guys and Dolls that was the first co-ed production in ten years to be held in the Hasty Pudding Theater.  Our application to the Loeb Main Stage had been denied and since this show needed to be on a big stage, we went outside the HRDC umbrella and asked for help from Dean Archie Epps III.  My plea to him was that the arts scene was expanding but there weren't enough resources, and those needed to grow, too. He very kindly gave us some money.  I met the owner of the Hasty Pudding building and he rented us the space with those funds.  So, our rogue production made us the underdogs.  No one was sure if we could pull it off since we didn't have real support from HRDC.  It wound up being a very successful show and afterwards, Harvard renovated the Hasty Pudding theater and made it the beautiful Annenberg Theater [now Farkas Hall].  We took the left over money Guys and Dolls made and started a fund for other musical productions at Harvard.
JL: What advice do you have for current undergraduates pursuing comedy writing at Harvard? 

CM: Comp the Lampoon!  I never did.  My freshman year, I was on my way to the Lampoon open house or whatever, but some entryway mates stopped me and said, "No, no, don't comp the Lampoon.  Those guys are a bunch of assholes."  So I guess the second piece of advice is, don't listen to everything your entryway mates tell you!  But if you don't want to comp the Lampoon, that's okay, too.  Above all, you have to follow your own path.  
JL: What are some of your comedic influences? 
CM: I was raised by my grandparents and they were very strict about which shows and movies were "appropriate" so a lot of the comedy I loved as a kid was very clean, nothing too racy.  I Love Lucy.  The Muppets.  Old movies like The Out of Towners with Jack Lemmon.  Family Ties was my favorite comedy from second grade on.  Discovering SNL in middle school was a big deal and I've watched it ever since. Seinfeld was the big game changer for me.  I loved it so much and used to memorize scenes and act them out with my friends. 
JL: Who are your favorite comedians / what TV shows do you watch? 
CM: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Schumer, Kristen Wiig, and of course Tina Fey.  I will always be interested in whatever Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are doing.  Louis CK and Chris Rock.  I  watch comedies like Veep and Silicon Valley and Inside Amy Schumer.  I'm sad that The Grinder just got cancelled.
JL: In an era of "peak TV", how does a TV show stand out? What to you makes a "good" TV show? 
CM: There are many things that have to fit into that crazy alchemy but one of the most important is that you have to love the characters and want to spend time with them.
JL: What was it like to work on 30 Rock? There are many undergraduate members who are religious fans of the show - do you have any fun stories or tidbits or gossip you wouldn't mind members knowing about? 
CM: It was crazy.  30 Rock was my favorite comedy before I got a job writing for it, so coming onto the show was very intimidating and totally surreal.  My first day of work there, Subhas the janitor came into my office and emptied my trash.  I was really confused.  I didn't know Subhas was a real janitor!  
I loved working on 30 Rock.  I learned so much there.  Everyone was funny and fast and smart.  It was a very complicated show.  There were always these insane guest stars showing up and like, three episodes shooting at once.  The writers did a lot of fun things, like we rented a party bus on Halloween and did a homemade Secret Santa.  The hours on that show were long so naturally you bond with each other in a very intense way. 
JL: What is your day-to-day life like when you're writing for a show? 
CM: You sit in the writers' room and talk and eat all day and, depending on who's in the room with you, it's wonderful or terrible or both.
JL: What projects are you working on right now? 
CM: I'm writing a comedy pilot for HBO -- an adaptation of the Curtis Sittenfeld book PREP.  I'm currently a co-executive producer on an upcoming Nick Stoller-Francesca Delbanco comedy for Netflix.
JL: Why is comedy important? 
CM: I don't know if it's important but there's so much sad stuff that happens in life, it's nice to laugh.  You know, I had to go to the ER last year for something and was feeling awful and then I found "Everybody Loves Raymond" on the TV and it made me feel better.  Sometimes you just need to feel better.  Comedy can do that for people.
JL: They always say there is no one "path" to working in entertainment - what advice do you have for graduating seniors who hope to make it in the biz? 
CM: Unless you want to write for late night, or you have a trust fund, it's much easier to start a writing career in Los Angeles.  So just move out here.  That's the advice I was given.  Start writing something original as soon as you can, so that when the opportunity arises, you can get your work read (or seen, if you're a performer).
Also, there's that quote that I will paraphrase:  "Keep your life simple so your art can be complicated."  Take good care of yourself.  Find a stable, sane partner who encourages you.  Finish your work instead of going to some dumb party.  Eat well.  Exercise.  Meditate.  Floss.  I'm serious!  If you're in it for thelong haul, you need to practice good self-care.  You need stamina.
JL: Are you a Liz, Jack, Tracy, Jenna, or Kenneth? 
CM: I was asked that question on a panel once and I had Scotch tape holding my bra together so I had to say Liz.  Like Liz Lemon, I love cheese and "Annie" and I was single for a long time.  Thank goodness for characters like Liz.  She made me feel like it was okay to be a true nerd, like it was okay to be myself.  A soon as you allow yourself to do that, life gets easier.


Interview with Matt Aucoin '12

Think art ends with graduation? Not for Signet members! Below, catch our first in a series of short interviews with our awesome Signet alumni working in the arts.
A few weeks ago, recently elected Signet officer Faye Zhang '17 had the chance to chat (via email) with Matt Aucoin '12, composer, conductor, poet, and consummate gentleman.
Matt is the current Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera and has conducted premiers of two of his original operas: one at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and one at Lyric Opera of Chicago. For more information about Matt, head over to matthewaucoin.com.
Faye: Why are you compelled by opera, and why are you compelled to create new opera?

Matt: I think opera continues to fascinate me because I don’t know what it is – or rather, its definition is endlessly flexible. Opera can be many things along the spectrum between spoken drama and instrumental music. It could be, say, a play which is spoken, but with notated rhythms; or it might be a piece for solo oboe and mime. The essence of opera is the intersection of music and language in a dramatic form – and that intersection can take innumerable shapes. I think of Beckett’s plays as operas, for instance, especially the later ones; the silences are the loudest things in them. His rhythms are as subtle – and as hard to get right – as György Kurtag’s or Morton Feldman’s are.

I also have a utopian side, and that part of me is drawn to opera as a kind of 3-D hologram of life itself – an art form which pays equal attention to all the senses, to sight (the sets, the lighting), sound (both music and poetry), touch (the sensual aspect of sound, and also the sensuality of movement onstage, the dance of it)…Uh, taste and smell are trickier. Though I did just conduct a production in New York where we served dinner to the audience mid-performance.

Faye: How do you see the future of opera? How do you see it changing in content or form, or becoming more accessible? How does opera fit in relation to other types of music and/or musical theater?

 Matt: Look, classical music is a subculture. And that’s OK. We should embrace this reality, rather than whining about how we don’t sell as many tickets as Justin Bieber. Why would we want to? Who in their right mind would do what it takes to be “mainstream” in 21st-century America? Can you imagine being under the kind of commercial pressure pop artists are under?

The only kind of “accessibility” I care about it is physical accessibility – intimacy in a performance space. I think it’s a lack of intimacy in the concert hall, rather than anything in the music itself, that keeps some potential listeners away from classical music. If you sit in a cheap seat far away from an unamplified orchestra – well, it can be an underwhelming experience for someone who’s used to listening to music through headphones.

Often, small venues provide the most thrilling experiences. In the end, it’s intimacy, rather than grandeur, that classical music and opera do best. Grand opera is much less grandiose than arena rock, but the thrill of hearing a human voice up close, with no amplification – or of being so close to a great string player that you hear all the work being done between the finger and the string, and you can hear the way their breath relates to the music they’re making – that’s what we classical musicians are good at.

Faye: What have been some of your favorite conducting experiences?

Matt: A few of them were at Harvard, though I had almost no conducting technique when I was there, so conducting was as terrifying as it was exhilarating! The Dunster House Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro was a magical experience, as was a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto I did with Keir GoGwilt at ArtsFirst. Conducting my own music was more agonizing than enjoyable when I was an undergrad, as I was so preoccupied with how bad I felt the music was that I couldn’t really enjoy the experience yet.
A concert I conducted with the LA Philharmonic last fall stands out, too. It was in a middle school in the Inglewood neighborhood of LA, and the audience was almost entirely middle-and-high-school students, many of whom are aspiring musicians from schools that don’t have big arts programs. You could feel their attention and fascination and enthusiasm in the air, and I think that affected the orchestra and me very positively.


Faye: What introduced you to poetry at Harvard? Do you feel that your poetry and composing come from similar sources? Do you still write poetry, and if so, what sort of things are you working on now?

Matt: I actually chose Harvard (rather than a conservatory) in order to study poetry. I’d discovered poetry – I mean really discovered it, in a religious-conversion sense – late in high school, and I knew I didn’t want to go somewhere where people communicated only through musical notes.
I’m blessed or cursed with a kind of musico-poetic synesthesia: I read poetry through a musical lens and I read music through a poetic lens. These two art forms exist on a spectrum, the spectrum between pure language (a system of assigned meanings) and pure sound. Language, approached poetically, is anything but pure: it’s raw, sensual, musical. Music, on the other hand, is not raw sound: it’s the sculpture of sound into a grammar, into something that resembles language – but it differs from language, crucially, in its lack of denotative meanings.
So the art forms that we call “poetry” and “music” are points on this spectrum, whose two extremes would be, for example, some horrific unmusical technocratic jargon on one end (“leverage the transferability of best practices”) and, I dunno, a baby burbling to itself in its sleep on the other.
Do I still write poems? No, not at the moment. It’s not something I want to dabble in. Someday I’ll return to it with a fury, the way I wrote when I was an undergrad, but for now it’s taking all my energy to be a composer.

The Signet: A Hive of Singer-Songwriters

While the Signet may be better known for its battalion of classical and jazz musicians, today's drones are just as interested in Lady Gaga as Gershwin. When not penning poems or performing in concert halls, many of our students keep busy composing and playing music with their Signet peers, much to the delight of any so lucky to visit the Hive during an impromptu performance. 

Here, vocalist Joshuah Campbell '16 and jazz guitarist Alex Graff '16 perform Campbell's original song, "One More Time." 

Of course, musical ambition doesn't end with graduation! Many Signet members continue to collaborate well after they leave Harvard. Just months ago, Jacob Brandt '14, Mateus Falci '14, Ben Lorenz '14, and Sam Richman '15 joined together to form the New York City based rock band The Golden Hours. Their first single, "I Still Miss You, Ramona Baker," can be seen below. 

Later this month, on April 21st, the Queen's Head Pub will host a concert of original material by Alex Graff and Tree Palmedo '16, followed by an encore performance at the Signet on May 5th. Alumni are encouraged to attend if they're in town. 

Have work that you'd like featured on the Signet blog? Drop us a line at signetalumni@gmail.com.