With a title taken from a book by physicist Alan Lightman that draws some rather existential conclusions about the nature of reality, Gerard Marconi’s debut collection The Accidental Universe asks big questions and finds some level of comfort with an absence of answers. In stories as large as the biblical creation myth and as small as childhood friends drifting apart, Marconi explores the wavering line between order and random chance, meaning and meaninglessness.
Marconi came to fiction writing late in life, after a full career spent teaching theater and art history in colleges in Pennsylvania and Maryland. The Accidental Universe—which includes both short fiction and one-act plays—draws on his clear passion for the arts, with loving nods to notable playwrights and painters woven into grounded stories about love, death and the flexibility of truth. Shakespeare and Beckett make appearances—not just via references to their work, but as characters in the No Exit-indebted one-act “Waiting for Will.” Cezanne, Warhol and Wyeth feature in their own stories, which showcase Marconi’s deep understanding of their work without overshadowing their core humanity.
A Catonsville native, Marconi also includes some familiar sights for Baltimore readers—Patterson Park, Green Mount Cemetery, and the Male/Female sculpture at Penn Station all make key appearances. In an era when Baltimore-centric media tends to focus on the city’s policing and crime, Marconi’s stories convey nostalgia for the Baltimore depicted in John Waters and Barry Levinson films—the place that still exists, if you look for it.
On a hot summer day Gerard invited me into his home on Falls Road to discuss his journey into fiction writing, how he develops his stories, and whether Shakespeare actually wrote all those plays.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Let’s get this right—you got your master’s degree in theater, then taught it for about 20 years. Then you got a second master’s in art history, and taught that for five more. You didn’t start writing fiction until you retired from teaching, right? What drew you to fiction after all that time in other disciplines?
Gerard Marconi: I always wanted to write when I was directing, but there was no time, and I had to learn some of the basics of how to do it. I was still teaching online part time when I took a course from the Hopkins Writing Center. That got me interested. I ended up going out to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a summer session—it was a really good, intensive experience. After that I worked with the Bethesda Writer’s Center and met a lot of other writers there.
I started publishing short stories in different journals or literary magazines in the early 2010s. I had kept in touch with an author from the Writer’s Center over the years, and after her first book was published with Loyola University’s Apprentice House she urged me to submit a manuscript to them. It’s a student-run press that selects 20 or so books every February and spends the whole next year working on them.
BFB: Several pieces are written about or from the perspective of major artists—Cezanne, Wyeth, Warhol. What drew you to their stories?
GM: I wrote the one on Warhol because he did all this amazing stuff, but I looked into his life and wanted to bring out his personal side—to think about him as a regular, fragile person. And I had always liked the work of Cezanne, so I researched his life, and found all these things that fit into the same story.
My art history teaching came out in the story about the Riace bronzes—I remember the first pictures of those two warriors in the art history textbook. When they were discovered nobody knew who they were, but now it’s thought that they’re the sons of Oedipus.
Life is not what you think it is—that’s my feeling. Whenever I see anything that reminds me of that, I’m tempted to write about it.
BFB: Which authors or works were particularly motivating as you began to write fiction?
GM: Samuel Beckett. And I quoted Shakespeare a lot, so there’s a clear influence. There’s that line from Hamlet, “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”—that’s so modern, to say the truth is relative. That really got me going.
I took the title from Alan Lightman, who was a physicist at M.I.T. He wrote a book in 2013 called The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, but long before that, he and his colleagues had concluded that there is no universal law that explains everything that’s happening in the universe. Right up until the 1980s, scientists believed they would find this universal law and then they stopped looking because there isn’t one. Lightman had some personal events in his life—his daughter had a serious illness, I think—and he wanted to believe the religious side of things. But he’s a scientist, which didn’t really measure up with that. So that’s why he wrote his book, and that got me started, too.
BFB: It makes sense, then, that the title story deals with three people who are all in the process of poking holes in the commonly-accepted narratives of their respective disciplines—history, religion, and Shakespeare.
GM: I’ll tell you a secret—I shouldn’t tell you this—I don’t believe in the authorship of Shakespeare. I’m an Oxfordian, I’ve been reading about this for years. When I was at Catholic U, I took graduate courses from the Folger Shakespeare Library, so I know all the traditional stories about Shakespeare, and I’ve come to reject a lot of them because we really don’t know much about his childhood or youth. So this book, “Shakespeare” by Another Name shows pretty damn convincingly that it was Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who was the author—he was a writer, but that wasn’t acceptable in the nobility at the time. You couldn’t write plays. So that’s in the story. I don’t know if they’ll ever discover anything to prove it.
BFB: How do the stories come together? How much research do you end up doing?
GM: I like to focus on serious questions, which float around in the back of my head. And then I’ll read something and it gets me thinking about some experience I’ve had. You start doing a little bit of research and it’s amazing what you find, and if you can work it into a story it’s even better. I love doing the research, but it’s almost unending and you’ve got to start cutting things out—you have to ask what do I need to write the story?
BFB: You write fiction and plays simultaneously—do you approach them in different ways? How do you know whether an idea is a play or a short story?
GM: Most of the pieces in this book were conceived as short stories. I’m trying to translate a one-act play into a short story now and it’s terrible to do, for some reason. How do I describe what the characters are feeling? Because that’s what I do intensely in a short story, but not in a play. In a play, it all comes out in the dialogue, the action.
BFB: A few Baltimore landmarks show up in this book—including the Penn Station Male/Female sculpture. What do you think of it?
GM: I love it!
BFB: When I read that story I couldn’t quite figure out how you felt about it. It’s a very contentious statue.
GM: Oh, I know. I’m fully aware of that. I have to admit that it does stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t know if I like it there, but it’s got to be somewhere.