Salzman describes his teen years 'Lost in Place'

August 27, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Mark Salzman's latest book is a memoir of his teen-age years, "Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia" (Random House, 1995, $22), and with it he is sure to increase his readership.

Fans of Salzman's previous three books have fallen into three distinct categories. Those who enjoyed his first book, "Iron and Silk," tend to be people interested in China. His second book, "The Laughing Sutra," attracted both the first group and added to it mystery readers. Musical readers enjoyed his third book , "The Soloist," about a cellist, a child prodigy, who lost his early talent. Salzman is hoping a wider range of readers will follow him to newest book, his memoir of teen-age life in suburbia. Those who do won't be disappointed.

This is how it begins: "When I was 13 years old I saw my first kung fu movie and before it ended I decided that the life of a wandering Zen monk was the life for me. I announced my willingness to leave East Ridge Junior High School (in Connecticut) immediately and give up all material things, but my parents did not share my enthusiasm. They made it clear that I was not to become a wandering Zen monk until I had finished high school. In the meantime I could practice kung fu and meditate down in the basement. So I immersed myself in the study of Chinese boxing and philosophy with the kind of dedication that is possible only when you don't yet have to make a living, when you are too young to drive and when you don't have a girlfriend."

Early in "Lost in Place," Salzman describes what he calls his trademark habit: "the obsessive pursuit of unrealistic goals."

These goals included, at different times in his life, the desire to be an astronaut (he sat in small cardboard crates for hours at a time), the desire to be a Zen monk (he not only meditated in the basement for hours at a time, but walked to junior high barefoot), and the desire to be a martial arts expert (he studied for several years with a sadistic kung fu master).

He hated high school, didn't date, and had a serious flirtation with drugs when he took a year off before going to Yale. His parents were enormously patient with him. His mother is a musician and his father was a social worker. During Salzman's year off before college, he was working to save money for college. Yet he spent every dollar he earned on sports cars that didn't run and ended up parked on the edge of the family's driveway.

Yet somehow things worked out for him. He discovered Chinese studies while in high school and the pursuit of that extra-curricular interest seemed to have attracted the attention of Yale's admissions department. And his parents forgave his youthful excesses and mistakes. It is a very funny and hopeful book.

"I would have loved reading a book like this at age 14 or 15," Salzman said in a recent interview. Salzman and his wife, documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu, live in Glendale, where Salzman says he is better known as Jessica's husband than a writer.

"I'm convinced that anyone could write a book if they focused themselves," he said. "Anyone who sits down to write everyday and gives it some thought and sticks with it long enough to produce results can do it. In my case I was motivated by desperation. What else could I do? "

He never became an astronaut and years of abuse and bad training resulted in chronic back problems, thereby ending his would-be career as a martial arts expert.

"Martial arts is really the last thing I should have done," he said. "I've never even been in a bad argument. But that attempt to become something I wasn't led me to be comfortable with who I am. This came about by attempting to do something I was not suited for."

Still, he's in constant pain. "If I could get a new spine, I would," he said. "But my injured back led me back to playing the cello and that rediscovery is a treasure."

Five years ago, Salzman started concertizing again, playing in small halls. And this led to a new relationship with his mother. In January, Salzman played a joint concert of Bach and Vivaldi sonatas with his mother, a harpsichordist.

And he still appreciates his life as a writer.

"I like doing interviews and readings, which are like performances. But the hard part is socializing after the events. I'd like to disappear in a cloud of smoke. People always ask for help and I don't have any to give."

Salzman says he doesn't teach writing, doesn't belong to a writing group, and relies mainly on his wife to be his critical first reader.

"Jessica is a phenomenal reader. I show her everything, all my past three books."

Salzman said he met Jessica after he wrote "Iron and Silk," which was based on nearly two years he spent living in China. The book was later made into a movie in which he starred and did his own martial arts routines.

Salzman says he still hasn't mastered the Zen attitude of detachment when it comes to reading his reviews.

"The good ones make me feel euphoric," he said. "But the bad ones sting."

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