2001 Barbaric Yawp Interview
As the following interview illustrates, Iím not one for beating around the bush. The truth is, I come from a long line of blowhards who readily proclaim their views, even before they are fully formulated. No one in our family is satisfied by simply saying something. We all speak in pronouncements. Everything is either black or white. The result, of course, is that we frequently contradict ourselves. In fact, I was informed recently by one of my sonís friends that listening to me talk was like riding on a verbal roller coaster. ďYou say one thing,Ē he said, ďand then you say the exact opposite.Ē I thanked him for the compliment. ďThereís a reason for that,Ē I said. ďItís because I donít know what Iím talking about.Ē
The interview is taken from the March 2001 issue of Barbaric Yawp and is used here with the publisherís kind permission.
John Berbrich: Bill, your stories are a little bit different from the usual. When you sit down to write, do you have a pretty good idea where the story will end up, or do you just start off and go?
William Michaelian: Iím glad you asked that question. When I start a story, I have no idea where Iím headed. But I donít want to know. I want to find out. Thatís what writing is to me. Finding out. Being surprised. Being surprised, and waiting for that feeling of luck to come over me as I work. Really, Iím a great believer in luck ó which, in this case, is another word for receptivity. You know? The stories are out there, floating around. If Iím open to them, Iíll catch one. But I wonít control it, or own it. It will own me. Thatís why writing is so much fun. And thatís where variety comes from. God ó when I think of some of the stories Iíve written ó itís crazy. Some are traditional and very straightforward, and others are, well, you know. Youíve seen them. Iíve subjected you to enough of them. In fact, I really should apologize. I should apologize first for abusing your editorial kindness, and then for going on and on, which is something I always do. May I have a glass of water?
JB: Sure. Nancyíll get it. So ó do you write poetry from the same part of your brain that you write prose? Pass the hummus, please.
WM: Oops. Iím sorry. I didnít mean to keep it all to myself. There you go. Itís excellent, by the way. It has just the right amount of lemon juice. Anyhow ó to answer your question, I think my stories and poems come from the same place. Theyíre different forms, but a byproduct of the same twisted mind. I do tend to write poems in clumps, though. Sometimes I even write them two or three at a time, simultaneously, on the same piece of paper. Itís sort of like my brain is a sponge, and I have to wring it out occasionally. Granted, itís messy. And smelly. Not as smelly as Nancyís hummus, but almost. Ah, water. Bless you. We were just talking about your wonderful hummus. You have a way with garlic, my dear.
Nancy Berbrich: Youíre so sweet. Here, try some of these.
WM: You know, if you keep feeding me like this, youíre going to have to wheel me out of here. Umm. That is good. Whatever it is.
JB: So Bill ó who are a few of your favorite authors?
WM: Huh? Oh. Well, mostly, I like the dead ones. Letís see. Saroyan is way up on my list. In fact, itís my humble opinion that America is missing the boat right now as far as heís concerned. He had a great storytelling ability and a genuine sense of humor. By that I mean, he knew that laughter and tears walk hand in hand. His later autobiographical work is also tremendous. Then, well, thereís Dostoevsky. I would truly hate to live in a world without Crime and Punishment and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. I could do it, but Iíd probably develop a nervous twitch. ó All right, whatíre you looking at? ó Anyway. Letís see. Who else? Maupassant is a favorite. And I admire Balzac, for his endless blather and coffee drinking. But I know there are several others Iím forgetting. I like a lot of writers. A few years ago I read a couple of novels by Yasunari Kawabata that were good. At a sale in the library basement, I picked up a nice hardbound novel for fifty cents called Not as a Stranger, by a guy named Morton Thompson, who was a doctor. In fact, they tried to make a movie out of that one. Hey, how about Kerouac? Ha! I almost said Kesey, but heís still alive, so I donít like him.
JB: Do you think something is missing in todayís literature?
WM: Of course. No self-respecting writer is satisfied with todayís literature, as you put it. Or ever will be. Now, assuming we still have something that can be called literature, as to what might be missing from it, thatís a bit more complex. Not that it should be, but it is. Whatís missing is risk. These days, by and large, we are slaughtering what trees we have left in order to print tons of juvenile, prefab drivel written by people who are afraid to get out there and live. In fact I wrote a poem on this very subject, called ďThe Literary Awakening of America.Ē If I ever get home Iíll send you a copy. Iíd recite it now, but Iím not very good at memorizing poems. Which reminds me ó in the sixth grade I had a heck of a time with ďO Captain! My Captain!Ē and ďWhen Lilacs Last in the Dooryard BloomídĒ ó poems I love to this day, but that I have to dig out and read every so often because I canít remember them. And theyíre worth remembering ó which is exactly my point. If youíre afraid to live, your writingís not going to be remembered. It might be temporarily satisfying to people who buy cars to match their hairstyle, but thatís about it. It might even make a lot of money, but money is not worth remembering either. Although I do wish I had some. Thatís something I canít forget. Jeez. But thereís one other thing I want to say. Then Iíll shut up. In my opinion, there is some wonderful stuff being written today. The hard part is finding it. The Yawp is a perfect example. Your publication routinely includes writing that is fresh. To me, thatís encouraging. Inspiring, even. And Iím convinced there are many more people out there who would love reading your magazine, if they had the chance. Just think how nice it would be if high school students could be exposed to the stuff youíre publishing ó and how upsetting and confusing it would be to most teachers, and certainly the administrative staff. The very idea makes my mouth water. Then again, it might be these fantastic hors díoeuvres.
JB: Yeah, Nancyís pretty handy in the kitchen. Well, considering the lousy literary scene weíre mired in now, do you see any modifications in say the next twenty years. Can we expect writers to start living, or must we be content with Virtual Literature and E-books?
WM: Ah. The question is, what do writers expect of themselves? How far are they willing to go? And when the going gets tough, will they suffer for their work, or will they give it up? Of course that can only be answered one writer at a time. But Iíll tell you what really bothers me. These days, everybody wants to be a writer. And, by some strange coincidence, thereís this cute little ďhow to get publishedĒ industry thatís ready to help. There are schools, retreats, workshops, books, magazines ó itís ridiculous. Everywhere you turn, there are these sappy little discussion groups designed for people who are afraid to go it alone. I get this junk in the mail, and I canít believe it. ďTired of the solitude?Ē ďWant to be part of a real writing community?ď Give me a break! Solitude is a blessing! If you need someone to hold your hand, donít write. Do something else. Writing, by its very nature, is an outrage and a gamble. Thatís what makes it so powerful, and so appealing. If youíre unable to recognize this opportunity, then youíre not a writer. Not yet, anyway. Because, really, the formula is simple. To be a writer, you have to write. And then you have to keep writing. No matter what. When you stop writing, youíre finished. You slam the door on possibility, and on yourself. And when that happens, you enter the realm of excuses. To put it another way, death comes soon enough. Why hurry it along? Things will get better only when you decide to make them better. If enough of us decide, and then act on our decision, the literary scene will really be a literary scene, instead of a nationwide support group for crybabies and pretenders. And what we write will be vital ó too vital to be treated as electronic
JB: Electronic styrofoam. In your opinion, is the internet a positive or negative factor in todayís scene, literary or otherwise?
WM: When used as an encyclopedia or means of essential communication, the internet is fine. Beyond that, I donít think human beings can possibly benefit from spending more time slumped in front of screens. Especially if weíre seeking entertainment. We need to be doing things ó not having them done for us, or to us. In terms of literature, the reading of books is a mind-body experience that Iíve always treasured, and have no plans to sacrifice. Printed matter is sacred to me. It has a life of its own, a life not strictly limited to its content. Just as a library is a place, so is a book or magazine. And you canít pull the plug on a book. You can put it away, or sell it, or give it to someone. You can even burn it. But the very act of burning a book makes it unforgettable. The burner is also burned, so to speak. As I see it, the internet is our latest technological mirage. When we finally get there, it will look an awful lot like here, and we will be just as bored and dissatisfied.
JB: So youíre suggesting that the answer, if there is one, lies
within . . .
WM: Am I? That sounds awfully profound. I donít know. All Iím really suggesting is, life is too wondrous a thing to treat it the way we do. Otherwise, I plead complete ignorance. I pretend to know it all, but when it comes right down to it, Iím an idiot and a blowhard. I guess thatís obvious by now. On the bright side, Iím fairly certain my intentions are good. Of course, that could be something Iíve talked myself into in order to survive ó in order to preserve the preposterous notion that I am who I think I am. As if it mattered. As if the universe was interested in such things. Hell, I donít know. What do you think? Do you think thereís an answer? Do you think there even needs to be one? . . . John. . . . John? . . . Are you still there? Johnny ó baby ó talk to me. Donít stare at my forehead. You know how self-conscious I am. My god, I think heís dead.
JB: Uhh. . . . yeah. Drink some of this. By the way, Willie, have you had much success writing in altered states?
WM: No. None whatsoever. Wait a minute. I take that back. Once many years ago, I did write a story while driving tractor in a vineyard in 100-plus-degree heat. Does that count? The strange thing is, ever since then, Iíve heard voices. I suspect the extreme heat and noise opened a passage in my brain, and . . . hey, what kind of hooch is this, anyway? You know, Iím feeling rather, shall we say, enlightened . . . that is . . . these voices, you understand . . . and there have been unexplained footprints . . . I love that story. Itís called ďThe Bishopís Right Eye,Ē and is all about this bishop whose right eye has been removed by a band of fire worshippers in a cruel public ceremony. The eye takes on a life of its own, and turns up in the strangest places ó on the trunks of trees, for instance, and at the bottom of clear pools. This spooks the fire worshippers something awful, and to atone for their crime they remove their right eyes and convert to Christianity. Shortly thereafter, the bishop falls in love with a little one-eyed beauty, thus upsetting the elders in Antioch, who respond by exchanging a rash of letters. You know how elders are. Anyway, after a wild year together in a cave in the mountains, the one-eyed beauty flies the coop, leaving the bishop bereft, bewildered, and babbling. Ah. Yes. Yes, indeed. This is good stuff. May I have another glass?