The Smoking Poet: Welcome to the pages of The Smoking Poet, Michael. You have roots in many places—Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas. Where do they go the deepest? How has living in many different places influenced your writing?
Michael Loyd Gray: Thanks very much. It’s an honor to be here and do this interview.
I think I have been more like a tumbleweed than anything with roots. I was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, but we left there when I was a baby and lived in Chicago for a year before settling in Champaign, Illinois, where I grew up. I was too young to be aware of the neighborhood in Chicago or even remember it, but I told Stuart Dybek the address and he said it was a pretty rough neighborhood back then.
I haven’t been to Arkansas in many years. In my teens and even into my 20s I often went there to fish for trout on a beautiful river near the Missouri border. I like Michigan and chose to come back here three years ago and buy a house. I lived in Arizona for five years when I was a staff writer for a Phoenix newspaper, but I grew to dislike the heat. I tried California – too expensive. I also spent a year near Houston teaching at a university – also too hot. I’m not a Texas kind of guy.
As for writing, Illinois and Michigan have had the most influence in terms of setting. For example, I created a fictional town – Argus, Illinois – for my novels Well Deserved, The Last Stop, and King Biscuit (KB is forthcoming in 2011). I got the name Argus from the album Argus by Wishbone Ash. For a recently finished novel, Blue Sparta, I created the Lake Michigan coastal town of Blue Sparta, Michigan, which in my mind is just south of Ludington.
TSP: For Well Deserved, you chose Illinois as your setting, and the fictional town of Argus. Tell us about this town. How did you create it? Argus appears in December’s Children, as well. Will you be returning to it in future writings?
Michael: I could point out on a map where I believe Argus would be – near the Sangamon River just east of Bloomington and a little north of Gibson City. Lake Argus is a few miles outside of town. Argus is pretty small, just a few thousand people, and the sort of central Illinois town where people frequent Cameron’s Café on the square and buy plumbing supplies at Fleener Hardward and gas up their cars at Roger Gilstrap’s Texaco station. Argus makes its earliest appearance in my work in December’s Children – now titled King Biscuit – and that story is set in 1966.
Well Deserved and its sequel, The Last Stop, are indeed Argus stories and I keep thinking there could be a third book in that series, which is essentially a trilogy featuring Art Millage, the Argus police chief. He’s a character I’m very fond of.
TSP: Aside from the setting, something of a character in itself, you have four main characters in this novel: the small-time drug dealer, Jessie; the Vietnam vet recently returned, Raul; the town grocery clerk, Nicole; and the new sheriff, Art. Talk to us about how you build your characters. Do you create them to fit scenes you have in your mind, or is it the other way around? Or simultaneous combustion? The characters take shape in your mind and they itch to move in certain directions …
Michael: For Well Deserved I had in my head who Jessie was and what he did and how he lived and I started writing the first chapter with just that to go on. Quickly I felt I was really in Argus in 1970 and the first chapter not only introduced Jessie, but through Jessie’s point of view it also introduced Raul (Dominick Cruikshank) and it occurred to me it would be fun to have chapter two be Raul’s point of view of what had just happened in chapter one. From there Art and Nicole came to me and I started a process of revolving points of view among the four characters. I admit I enjoy multiple points of view from having read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and also The Tent Peg, a nice little novel by Aritha Van Herk.
I agree about Argus as a character. Very early on I saw it that way. Lake Argus is very loosely based on a lake I spent summers on as a kid in Illinois. In 1968 and 1969 I pumped gas at the lake marina and met guys coming back from Vietnam. One of them returned to Vietnam but didn’t make it back. I’m sure that Raul somehow comes from all that.
TSP: Elvis Presley lives. In your work, he certainly does. He makes an appearance in several of your works. What is it about the music idol that fascinates you?
Michael: Jonesboro, Arkansas, where I was born, is not far from Memphis. My mom took me to Graceland when I was around twelve or thirteen, I think. She had a friend who lived near Graceland who had had met Elvis various times. I remember being a kid visiting Arkansas relatives and going to an Elvis double feature at a theater downtown with my cousins. We drank RC Cola and ate Moon Pies. If you found a star under the bottle cap to your RC Cola you got a second one free. Elvis was revered around there and pretty quickly I picked up on the fact that he was perhaps the coolest person that ever lived. Men liked him and women fell for him. I also liked his voice. I still do even though my music passion has always been the Rolling Stones. December’s Children was named after the Stones’ fifth album, released in 1965. It was the first rock album I ever bought. It was as if Elvis was in the air – in everything – in those days.
TSP: In Well Deserved, there is interesting interplay between the law and the outlaw. Enough said, as we don’t want to give away any plot twists, but … which way do you lean, Michael? Are you an outlaw at heart or the sheriff with compassion?
Michael: Well, I lke Art Millage a lot. He’s a good man. I admire him. He cares about people and doing the right thing. He also is tolerant – and yes, compassionate. I’m not Art Millage. I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s and I subscribed to the Keith Richards approach to life a little bit. I still have a few scars to prove it. I fell a tad short of being an outlaw perhaps, but also well short of being a saint. I flunked out of Eastern Illinois University in 1972 because studying got in the way of drinking beer, smoking pot, and chasing girls. Over time I grew up some and became compassionate, too, I believe, but there is still a little bit of an outlaw streak in me. And the Rolling Stones can still be heard loudly at my house.I see the relationship between Jessie and Art as having a little bit of a father/son type of flavor to it. And with Raul, too, Art comes across as a bit fatherly, although those two have war in common – Art was in Korea and Raul was in Vietnam.
TSP: Along with Elvis, music is another scene and mood setter in this novel. How much did the music of the day create the day? That is, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Elvis, Hendrix, talk to us about how music influenced that entire time period (the 60s). Do you write to music? Or in silence?
Michael: I can write to music and have a few times, but mostly I don’t. I don’t need background noise – once I am into the story I stay there and the outside world becomes distant. If I were to write with music it would probably be to Let it Bleed, Beggar’s Banquet, or Get Yer Ya Yas Out! by the Stones. Or Jimi Hendrix, The Who – Neil Young is a longtime favorite. I saw him play in a small theater in Santa Barbara, California. Music is important in Well Deserved because it’s important to Jessie and Raul. It’s what initially connects them. They listen to the Stones, Beatles – the Jefferson Airplane. Raul tells Jessie about seeing the Airplane in San Francisco when he first got back from Vietnam. I can visualize and hear Grace Slick right this moment in my head. That was the soundtrack of those days. That was the music I grew up with and still listen to. As you get older you don’t have to be older. If someone made a movie out of Well Deserved it would have a great soundtrack.
TSP: You choose to move from one narrator to another in this novel, rather than the more conventional one. What kind of challenges did that present … or eliminate?
Michael: Initially I probably wondered whether I could make it work, but it was easier than I expected. I would go over the last chapter while assessing what I wanted to accomplish in the next chapter and it sailed along very well. The key to constructing a following chapter was to make sure that while the point of view in the following chapter was from a different character than in the previous chapter, they remained compatible in terms of accuracy. The difference, of course, would be in how each character viewed events, but the events had to be fundamentally accurate in both versions. There’s always some variations in each account, but the event is still the event. One character may perceive how fast a car was going, for example, differently than the character in the previous chapter. I hope that makes sense. The challenge became fun.
Multiple points of view can open up a novel quite nicely. Because Well Deserved is about four people who discover their paths are intertwined and that a shared event will affect their futures, it helps to use multiple narrators to reveal more about each person than we would get from filtering the story through just one point of view. All four characters get their time on stage to reveal who they are. The story needed to offer the inner feelings and fears and desires of each character.
TSP: Along with being a writer, you have been or are a journalist, a professor. How has this influenced your creative writing? Do you teach to support your creative writing habit? Or do you teach because that is another love in its own right? What does teaching teach you?
Michael: I like teaching. When a student says you helped them that’s a good feeling. Like Art Millage, I appreciate the accomplishment of helping someone. And teaching and writing are compatible pursuits. Being a newspaper staff writer wasn’t compatible with wanting to write fiction, though, and that was one reason why I got out of that business. Journalism and fiction are different races – one’s a sprint and the other is more of a marathon. Hemingway famously advised writers to get out of journalism before it ruined them as writers. He spent a short time with the Kansas City Star and said it did teach him to write declarative sentences. A little of that happened for me, too — but writing for a paper ultimately wasn’t creative enough for me. I wanted to put color in my stories and the editors bleached it out. So I got myself out of there and went into the MFA program at Western Michigan.
TSP: Almost all writers can tell a novel about the process of getting a novel published. What’s your publication story? Who discovered you? Or has it been a matter of pounding pavement and getting yourself discovered?
Michael: I love to tell people that my overnight success is going on twenty years now. It’s true. It’s been about twenty years since I started trying to seriously write fiction. When I got to the MFA program at WMU I already knew how to write – I was coming off ten years in newspapers – but I didn’t yet know what to write about. I credit Stu Dybek and John Smolens with helping me a little to discover what I could create through fiction. And Daniel Curley at the University of Illinois was the first real writer to take me seriously and read my stuff and tell me I could do it – that I was good enough to do it.
If anyone is interested in what I read as influences eventually on my own work, they were Hemingway, Bobbie Anne Mason, Ellen Gilchrist, and Raymond Carver. Stu Dybek and Dan Curley, too.
I guess my breakout short story was Little Man, which won both the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize and the 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction. I don’t write short stories anymore, but I am proud of that story.
As for being discovered, that’s still a work in progress. The publication of Well Deserved gave me a little boost and King Biscuit will come out in 2011. An agent in New York is currently reading samples of several of the unpublished novels.
But the person I really must credit is novelist Monique Raphel High, who has become a dear friend. I was in Los Angeles recently and had dinner with her and her assistant, Susan Chin, in Santa Monica overlooking the ocean. They had to kick us out at 1 am after we had depleted their Sauvingnon Blanc supply, but it was terrific fun.
Monique (and Stu Dybek, too) wrote a letter on my behalf that helped me get a grant from Elizabeth George. And Monique gave me great advice on the drafts of several of my novels – she edited Blue Sparta. For a time Monique represented me through her own agency, but she got out of the agenting business and just recently wrote a new novel that I hope will be out soon. Her fans have awaited her return and I know they will be pleased. She’s a treasure and I am very loyal to her.
TSP: What’s on the horizon?
Michael: I’ve written 52 pages of a new novel called The Family Negative. It begins in Dowagiac, Michigan, and then moves up to Blue Sparta, the fictional burg along the Lake Michigan coast that I created for my novel Blue Sparta. I like the first 52 pages, but I confess I don’t know what comes next and so I have sent that dilemma down to my subconscious. I expect an answer will come presently and I can pick up the story again. I believe in the ability of a writer’s subconscious to keep a story going.
TSP: You’re a pretty prolific writer. More discipline than inspiration? Routine to the madness? Allow a manuscript to marinate? Rewrite endlessly, or at least until Elvis appears and makes you stop?
Michael: Well, if you have Elvis in your book it has potential!
Inspiration is a big part of the process, but so is discipline. When I was first in Dan Curley’s writing class at Illinois he wrote that famous saying on the chalkboard: “Sit at your machine.” I thought I heard that Flannery O’Connor might have first said that. And it’s good advice – certainly for a novel, anyway. After Dan Curley was tragically killed in an accident in Florida, I went back to our old classroom upstairs in the English Building (it might have been Room 313, I think) and on the chalkboard I wrote “Sit at your machine.” Dan would have smiled at that, I think.
When I am writing a novel I work on it every day – Sundays, too. If you sit at your machine every day you’ll find that it’s easier to pick up the narrative thread from the previous day and keep it firmly in your grasp and unspool it more each day toward the inevitable ending.
So, each morning I re-read the previous day’s work and limit myself to only quickly fixing obvious things or adding something obvious to it that came from my subconscious overnight. As soon as I can I want to start the new day’s writing after refreshing myself on what happened the day before. There’s plenty of time to revise later. Like I mentioned above, it’s a marathon race and you need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
TSP: Best writing advice you give to your students …
Michael: Do it your way. Never quit. And suddenly that makes me think of the singing advice Robert Duvall’s Mack Sledge character gives to a young band in Tender Mercies: “Sing it the way you feel it.”
Write it the way you feel it. Don’t copy anyone else’s style, but learn what you can from their style. I don’t write like Hemingway, but certainly I read and loved his work and I read it to try and learn how a story can be told. The same for what I read of Bobbie Anne Mason and Ellen Gilchrist and Ray Carver and anyone else. I read their stuff trying to see where the seams were and the nuts and bolts and how it all got stitched together. Then I worked on developing my own voice and style. Stu Dybek says I’m cinematic. I think there’s something to that.
And as far as trying to get published, adopt Tom Petty’s line as a mantra: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down.”
When you get a rejection, send the story out again that same day. If you send it out that same day it cancels the rejection and is back in play. A simple approach, but it can work. In the publishing business you have to hear a lot of no before you start hearing some yes.
TSP: Some or even much of your teaching happens through the Internet. Learning has changed. So has writing. More and more, we are writing and editing and reading and connecting online, and publications are going to electronic venues. Has this or will this change your approach to writing and/or reading? How?
Michael: I don’t see it changing how I write or what I write. I’m a full-time English professor for the online English department of a university in Georgia. All my teaching is online and I enjoy it. Writing fiction is a separate thing for me.
TSP: Must ask. Your cats are called Moonpie and EH. What does EH stand for? Why don’t we see cats in Well Deserved? They don’t insist?
Michael: EH stands for Ernest Hemingway. EH is a brawny and feisty orange cat with a lot of charisma – he’s sort of Hemingwayesque and so I named him EH when I found him wandering a Kalamazoo street back in 95, when I was in graduate school.
Moonpie, I’m very sorry to say, died earlier this year. She was 17 and I got her as a kitten. She was a magnificent and very independent cat. I loved her a lot. People assume she was named after the Moon Pie pastry, but actually I named her after Moonpie the cat in Bobbie Anne Mason’s novel In Country. I had just read the book when I got her.
Last month I found a homeless kitten in South Haven and now she lives with EH – she’s orange like him, too. I named her Suzette and it seems to fit her.
I’m not sure why there are no cats in Well Deserved. Maybe I feared that putting one in would seem contrived to people who know how much I have always loved cats. Maybe I should open a novel with this line, “And then the cat crossed the road.”
TSP: How important is it for a writer to be involved with a literary community? That is, in your own town. Or has social networking replaced that? Kalamazoo has a rich and very lively literary community. Does that have anything to do with why , after all those many places, you chose Kalamazoo? Planning to stay?
Michael: I don’t know if I will stay. I have decided to try and sell my house. Maybe I would buy another in Kalamazoo or go elsewhere in Michigan. I love the country up here, appreciate the milder summers, and winter does not bother me all that much. But if one of my books would make real money I’d consider the lovely weather out in Santa Monica.
I’m not sure how important being part of a literary community is. If someone enjoys being part of one they should do it. I’d say this much: if sitting around with other writers involved some good wine and pleasant conversation about writing in general and who we’ve read and enjoyed, that could be fun.
I don’t have anything against hanging out with other writers as long as it doesn’t involve angst or an artistic pose or pretending to be a misunderstood genius writer. I’d rather talk about movies, football, history, what the food is like in some faraway place – or how Keith Richards is amazingly still alive.
TSP: Thank you, Michael. Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
Michael: In Kalamazoo you can get Well Deserved at Kazoo Books or at Michigan News Agency. I’d like to tip my hat to Gloria at Kazoo Books for featuring me at an Art Hop and also to Dean at Michigan News Agency for handling my book when I read at the Kalamazoo Library.
I go to Water Street Coffee Joint on Oakland Drive many days a week to work on my laptop if anyone is interested in finding me. Once someone who had bought a copy of Well Deserved approached me at Water Street. That was fun. I appreciate it very much when I hear that someone knows the book. We write novels, at first, for ourselves — to tell the story that wants out of us; but ultimately we need and want an audience.