Marston Hefner’s debut collection High School Romance is, in this reader’s opinion, an example of contemporary avant-garde fiction. In this wide-ranging collection, Hefner lays bare his own desires, insecurities, and fears, while exposing and examining broader societal trends and taboos. I spoke with Hefner, via email, about the collection, his influences, and his father, Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner.
Scott Burton: Marston, mothers and fathers appear and reappear in High School Romance. Why did you want to write about mothers and fathers? What does the spectral presence of authority figures do for your book?
Marston Hefner: Yes, mothers and fathers are in the book often though I do believe I would rather not write about them. They are, perhaps, the most important figures in anyone’s life and so writing about them is necessarily personal and hard to do. I think I wrote about them, despite the fear of writing about them, because of how important they are in developing the adults their children become. At the moment I am curious about the difference between extreme intimacy that can become sexualized precisely because of its extremely intimate nature and what the Greeks called a “filial” bond which is the relationship between family members and friends and is not sexual in nature. I think these two questions are core themes in High School Romance. Like, is any intensely intimate relationship destined to be sexualized slightly even if the two parties do not wish to act on it? Or, is the Greek notion of the filial bond possible? And then I wonder what these questions have to do with my own upbringing. I was brought up in a very sexualized environment, and yet my mother tried to hide and desexualize my childhood. So, on the one hand, I was looking at Playboy Magazines at my father’s house and then I was going to my mother’s house who acted like I had no libido. Basically, all of this makes me wonder how different are my sexual feelings from the rest of society. Though my personal feelings are that everyone's upbringing in the United States is all messed up when it comes to sexuality.
SB: In your opinion what makes Americans messed up sexually?
MH: It’s almost impossible to speak of in one paragraph. Each and every one of us has grown up in this country and hopefully gone through some sexual identity searching. Each of our adventures toward self-discovery likely has a “they” who put us down and shamed us. By “they” I mean society, teachers, parents, anyone who is acting in a Freudian super-ego way.
SB: Mental illness and depression are recurring themes in the collection. Is this something you’re particularly interested in exploring? Why was it important for you to explore these themes through the medium of writing?
MH: I am interested in healing mental illness. Most of my stories that revolve around depression reach a place of understanding and self-love.
SB: Have you reached a place of understanding and self-love yourself?
MH: Yes. I found that loving the parts I thought were the most unlovable was the key to opening up a pandora's box of happiness.
SB: Celebrities make appearances in your pages (Elon Musk, Don DeLillo, etc.) Are you curious about the idea of celebrity? What attracts you to the idea of celebrity?
MH: Celebrity doesn’t interest me much. I think our society is too focused on the appearance of things rather than the quality of things. Intellectuals are now pop intellectuals. Any artist has a hard time getting their work out in the world unless they have some sort of social media presence. I have more empathy and interest in those who are less concerned with becoming famous and more interested in having their work read by many while also doing quality work. In bigger picture terms, I like enjoying life’s journey, and being or not being a celebrity has little to do with that.
SB: You have a story about being Don DeLillo’s horse. Are you influenced by DeLillo? Did you just want to write a story about a fictional horse belonging to Don DeLillo?
I was probably reading Don DeLillo at the time. I think it was Mao II. I’ve been more influenced by David Foster Wallace, who was very influenced by and mentored by DeLillo. I think that story is more of a fantasy I have of my own father mentoring me, guiding me through life, and helping me achieve my full potential. Such a thing never happened though I have had very loving geniuses who were not my father encourage and teach me. The story is also an unconscious boast like, hey, my father was Hugh Hefner, and that makes me unique, my brain’s different, and I know it. It’s a kind of affirmation of the life I was born into.
SB: Joy Williams described Don DeLillo’s fiction as avant-garde. Do you think High School Romance is avant-garde?
MH: I do.
SB: How so?
MH: I think parts of it are inaccessible to the reader. Hopefully, that inaccessibility is temporary and will reward him or her later on. My use of repetition and free association in my short stories are completely absent in mainstream literary fiction.
SB: This is a rather, let’s say, eccentric collection. What category (if any) of American literature would you say High School Romance belongs to?
MH: Literary fiction and Independent Literature or wherever the heck Gertrude Stein is placed.
SB: What were your prevailing feelings while writing the collection?
MH: Many of the stories that actually made the cut were written in pure bliss. A couple of them took a bit more time. Strangely, I think the strongest stories in here came out of a sort of high where not much editing was needed. I imagine it would be hard to reenact that feeling, though I’ve never tried, and it comes about very seldom, say, once every five months.
SB: Will Self described every male writer’s first literary work as an act of patricide. Thoughts?
MH: I think I’d like Will Self. All I know is when my father passed away, I felt a great sense of relief. Yes, I was very sad, but I remember also feeling like huge expectations had been lifted. Though my father was an innovator, he was also very concerned with maintaining a sense of propriety and status quo. I know High School Romance would have been terrifying to publish if my father had still been alive. This book may not be what killed him, but the fact that he is dead has helped me become who I truly wish to be as a human being. With all that said, High School Romance would have been impossible to write without him. The sexual appetites of the characters along with the self-acceptance of those appetites is a continuation of the sexual revolution he started.
Marston Hefner lives in Portland. His debut collection is High School Romance.
Scott Burton grew up in San Diego, and studied politics in New York and London. He has worked at a library in rural Idaho, an arts nonprofit in California, and is a regular contributor to the LA Review of Books