Salzman, Mark 1959–

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Salzman, Mark 1959–

(Mark Joseph Salzman)

PERSONAL: Born December 3, 1959, in Greenwich, CT; son of Joseph (an artist) and Martha (a musician; maiden name, Zepp) Salzman; married Jessica Yu (a documentary filmmaker). Education: Yale University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1982. Hobbies and other interests: Playing the cello, martial arts.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Neil Olsen, Donadio and Olson, Inc., 121 W. 27th St. No. 704, New York, NY 10001.

CAREER: Hunan Medical College, Changsha, China, teacher of English, 1982–84; writer and actor. Once worked as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant.

MEMBER: Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS, HONORS: Literary Lions Award, New York Public Library, Christopher Award, and Pulitzer Prize nomination for nonfiction, all 1987, all for Iron and Silk; Alex Award, Young Adult Library Services Association, 2004, for True Notebooks.


Iron and Silk: A Young American Encounters Swordsmen, Bureaucrats, and Other Citizens of Contemporary China (memoir), Random House (New York, NY), 1987.

The Laughing Sutra (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1991.

(With Shirley Sun) Iron and Silk (screenplay; adapted from Salzman's book), Prestige, 1991.

The Soloist (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1994.

Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia (memoir), Random House (New York, NY), 1995.

Lying Awake (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.

True Notebooks (nonfiction), Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

SIDELIGHTS: Mark Salzman is a scholar of Chinese language and literature who has distinguished himself as an author of nonfiction and fiction books; he is also a screenwriter and actor. He is well known for his Iron and Silk: A Young American Encounters Swordsmen, Bureaucrats, and Other Citizens of Contemporary China, his memoir about his experiences in China. Salzman learned Chinese while working as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant and became interested in martial arts after watching action films. In 1982, after graduating with honors from Yale University, he went to China and began working at Hunan Medical College, where he taught English to doctors and medical students. He stayed in China for two years, and in that time he studied martial arts and calligraphy and practiced to maintain his skills as a cellist. More importantly, he managed to befriend a range of people and thus obtain keen, personal insights into Chinese life.

Iron and Silk is essentially a series of sketches and vignettes, some of which are particularly amusing. In one notable episode, Salzman attends a lecture and notes its dullness to a just-awakened audience member, who relates that one's appreciation of such a speech is directly related to one's ability to sleep through it. On another occasion, Salzman assigns his students the task of relating their happiest moments, whereupon one student fondly recalls eating duck in Beijing, then confesses that his wife had actually dined in Beijing, not him, and that she had related the tale on so many occasions that he felt as if he too had enjoyed it.

Salzman also writes in Iron and Silk of his efforts to master wushu, China's traditional martial art. Notable in these sketches is the portrait of his teacher, Pan Qinfu, one of the art's most accomplished exponents. Pan is a fearsome instructor who intimidates with his spellbinding gaze as well as with his actual physical prowess. Indeed, Salzman discovers that concentrated staring is actually an integral aspect of wushu. He also learns that mastery—whether of wushu or calligraphy—can be perceived as the easily realized result of focused attention and diligence. "All you have to do is be kind and work hard," his calligraphy instructor tells him in the book, as quoted by Jean Fritz in the Washington Post Book World. The instructor adds that the mastery of eating and sleeping are more difficult because they are less easy to actually control.

Upon publication in 1987, Iron and Silk received substantial praise. New York Times critic John Gross found Salzman's book "altogether admirable," and Carolyn Wakeman, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, deemed the memoir "remarkable" and "utterly compelling." Another reviewer, J.D. Brown, wrote in Chicago's Tribune Books that with Iron and Silk Salzman had fashioned "a rich series of anecdotes." Richard Selzer, in his appraisal for the New York Times Book Review, found the book compelling and appealing. "If there were a prize for most winning writer," Selzer affirmed, "Mark Salzman would [win] it."

Iron and Silk intrigued filmmakers as a work of considerable potential for adaptation. Salzman, however, was determined to write the adaptation himself. In addition, he planned to play the lead role. Nicholas D. Kristof, in a New York Times article, reported that moguls "laughed" when Salzman revealed his film ambitions. But in 1989 he collaborated with filmmaker Shirley Sun on an adaptation, and by the end of that year they had actually completed filming. Much of the film is derived from the book's episodes. There are even martialarts sequences, complete with Pan Qinfu playing himself. But in fashioning the film, Salzman and Sun, who directed the adaptation, also developed a romance story line in which Salzman—named Mark Franklin in the film—falls in love with a Chinese woman whose parents are aghast at her attraction to the foreigner. The love story does not end in a conventionally happy manner.

Iron and Silk was well received upon its release in 1991. Los Angeles Times reviewer Kevin Thomas found the film "unsophisticated and bittersweet," and noted Salzman's "impressive martial arts skills" and "pleasant screen presence." Likewise, Janet Maslin reported in the New York Times that the film "has an essential guile-lessness." She also observed that it "includes a lot of interesting observations about Chinese life," and she described Salzman's perspective as that of "an affectionate and sharp-eyed observer."

In 1991 Salzman also published a novel, The Laughing Sutra, about a Chinese man, Hsun-ching, who travels to the United States in search of a legendary Buddhist text. Accompanying Hsun-ching on his adventure is Colonel Sun, a two-thousand-year-old warrior of penetrating gaze. Together, the adventurers conduct an essentially comic journey. In San Francisco, for instance, they witness a dwarf-tossing exhibition, attend an art exhibit full of buffoonish patrons, and encounter profiteering Buddhists.

Writing about The Laughing Sutra in the Chicago Tribune, William H. Banks, Jr. deemed it a "fish-out-of-water adventure story." Among the novel's enthusiasts was Allan Appel, who declared in the Washington Post Book World that Salzman produced "a wonderful book." He concluded that "the fortunate reader will find himself entranced, entertained and very definitely enlightened."

For his next work, Salzman drew upon another passion in his life—the cello, which he began playing at the age of seven—to create a novel about thwarted artistic ambitions. He dedicated The Soloist, his 1994 novel, to his mother, who abandoned her career as harpsichordist to raise her family. Its hero is thirty-four-year-old Reinhart (Renne) Sundheimer, who was once a child virtuoso on the instrument, but who now teaches at a university. "I wanted to create a character who had a hard time with his dreams," the author told Suzanne Mantell in Publishers Weekly. Once a feted teenager, Renne became obsessed with the notion of perfect pitch at eighteen and felt his hearing was failing him. Now, he cannot bear to hear his own music and survives by teaching music at a Los Angeles university, though he fantasizes about returning to the concert stage.

Renne's life begins to change when he agrees to teach a nine-year-old Korean girl, an apparent prodigy herself. Then Renne is called for jury duty, and he is selected to decide the outcome of a trial for a gruesome urban slaying. A disturbed young man went on a Zen retreat, and his teacher gave him a koan, or spiritual riddle, to solve; the student's solution was to beat the master to death. "Just as you begin to suspect that the novel will end inconclusively, Salzman winds the story down subtly," stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Renne is the lone jury holdout on the case, and he solves the koan himself. He also awakens from a long period of romantic inactivity when he falls for another juror. The author, wrote Diane Cole in the New York Times Book Review, "finds engaging points of comparison between the disciplines of meditation and music."

The heroine of Salzman's 2000 novel Lying Awake is a Roman Catholic nun, Sister John of the Cross, whose all-night prayer vigils have brought her visions and even spiritual ecstasies. She then writes about them in verse form, and her published works have earned her and her Carmelite order a degree of international fame. But Sister John's visions begin to coincide with painful migraine headaches, and after she collapses from one, she consents to an appointment with a specialist. The doctor tells her that it is a form of epilepsy that is triggering the visions and it is treatable; in fact, it may endanger her life if she lets it go untreated. The news triggers a crisis of faith for the sister. A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that expressing such abstract concepts as spiritual ecstasy in fiction is difficult, but "what Salzman conveys with perfect clarity is that momentary, extraordinary mental state in which physical pain becomes pure, lucid grace poised between corporeal reality and eternity." Entertainment Weekly reviewer George Hodgman observed that Lying Awake "should be shortlisted for all the literary prizes, but it has the kind of grace that doesn't demand them."

In 1995 Salzman published a memoir of his eccentric but pleasant childhood under the title Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia. Here he recounts his early years in Connecticut, living in an artistically gifted household; his father painted in the evenings as a salve against a day job he hated, while his mother gave music lessons. Salzman recounts his discovery of martial arts at the age of thirteen, and his interest in Buddhism, the Chinese language, and martial arts, which he studied until his early teens. Salzman's obsession then turned to the cello, and he studied music at Yale University until he burned out after a year and underwent an existential crisis for which his father provided pragmatic advice. In a review of Lost in Place by Sara Nelson for People, the critic praised Salzman as "a charming, self-effacing writer" who is still familiar "with the peculiar combination of arrogance and terror that comprises teenage angst." Blake Morrison, in a New York Times Book Review assessment, described the book as a "Bildungsroman," or coming-of-age story and added that several of the book's adult characters, including Salzman's parents, "are beautifully observed."

In his 2003 work True Notebooks, Salzman focuses on the lives and thoughts of a teen culture far different from that of his own past. The book was inspired by his experience teaching creative writing to a group of teenagers incarcerated in the Los Angeles Juvenile Hall. Most of these "high-risk" offenders had committed serious crimes and were destined to continue through the prison system, some of them for life. Salzman presents their writings, and "documents his insecurities, his frustrations, and his occasional inability to coax much work or interest … from the class," noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Salzman does not dwell on the negative, however, but instead finds humor, poignancy, and talent in these teens' writings. As a reviewer noted in Publishers Weekly, Salzman's book's "power comes from keeping its focus squarely on these boys, their writing, and their coming-to-terms with the mess their lives had become."



America, March 19, 2001, John B. Breslin, "Mad for God," p. 34.

Booklist, September 1, 1995, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, p. 37; September 15, 2000, Michael Spinella, review of Lying Awake, p. 219.

Chicago Tribune, February 18, 1991, section 2, p. 3, William H. Banks, Jr., review of The Laughing Sutra.

Christian Century, November 22, 2000, Gordon Houser, review of Lying Awake, p. 1227.

Detroit Free Press, January 6, 1991.

Entertainment Weekly, August 18, 1995, D.A. Ball, review of Lost in Place, p. 51; October 6, 2000, George Hodgman, review of Lying Awake, p. 80.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 16, 1991, p. C8.

Kirkus Reviews, July 3, 2003, review of True Notebooks, p. 900.

Library Journal, October 15, 2000, Starr Smith, review of Lying Awake, p. 104.

Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1991, Kevin Thomas, review of film Iron and Silk, p. F8.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 24, 1987, Carolyn Wakeman, review of Iron and Silk, p. 2.

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001, Judith Bromberg, review of Lying Awake, p. 12.

National Review, September 25, 1987, Katherine Dalton, review of Iron and Silk, p. 62.

New York Times, January 9, 1987, John Gross, review of Iron and Silk; January 22, 1989; February 15, 1991, Janet Maslin, review of film Iron and Silk, p. C12.

New York Times Book Review, February 1, 1987, Richard Selzer, review of Iron and Silk, p. 9; February 6, 1994, Diane Cole, review of The Soloist, p. 22; August 13, 1995, Blake Morrison, "Growing Up Somehow," p. 11.

People, October 2, 1995, Sara Nelson, review of Lost in Place, p. 30.

Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Laughing Sutra, p. 47; October 11, 1993, review of The Soloist, p. 68; January 17, 1994, Suzanne Mantell, "Mark Salzman: He Uses Fiction to Question What Happens when Dreams Don't Come True," p. 357; June 26, 1995, review of Lost in Place, p. 101; July 17, 2000, review of Lying Awake, p. 171; June 16, 2003, review of True Notebooks, p. 57.

Smithsonian, July, 1987, William Dieter, review of Iron and Silk, p. 142.

Time, March 2, 1987, p. 76.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 25, 1987, J.D. Brown, review of Iron and Silk, p. 6.

Washington Post Book World, January 25, 1987, p. 8; March 3, 1991, Allan Appel, review of The Laughing Sutra, p. 9.