As the following interview illustrates, I’m 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 son’s friends that listening to me talk was like riding on a verbal roller coaster. “You say one thing,” he said, “and then you say the exact opposite.” I thanked him for the compliment. “There’s a reason for that,” I said. “It’s because I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
The interview is taken from the March 2001 issue of Barbaric Yawp and is used here with the publisher’s kind permission. It also appears in the August 2007 issue of Healing Matrix.
A separate, more extensive interview appears in the Fall 2007 issue of Cosmopsis Quarterly. It’s also available on the publisher’s website. A third interview, an ongoing Q & A called the “RBL Open Interview,” was launched June 11, 2009, on my blog, Recently Banned Literature.
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: I’m glad you asked that question. When I start a story, I have no idea where I’m headed. But I don’t want to know. I want to find out. That’s 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, I’m a great believer in luck — which, in this case, is another word for receptivity. You know? The stories are out there, floating around. If I’m open to them, I’ll catch one. But I won’t control it, or own it. It will own me. That’s why writing is so much fun. And that’s where variety comes from. God — when I think of some of the stories I’ve written — it’s crazy. Some are traditional and very straightforward, and others are, well, you know. You’ve seen them. I’ve 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. Nancy’ll get it. So — do you write poetry from the same part of your brain that you write prose? Pass the hummus, please.
WM: Oops. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep it all to myself. There you go. It’s excellent, by the way. It has just the right amount of lemon juice. Anyhow — to answer your question, I think my stories and poems come from the same place. They’re 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. It’s sort of like my brain is a sponge, and I have to wring it out occasionally. Granted, it’s messy. And smelly. Not as smelly as Nancy’s 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: You’re so sweet. Here, try some of these.
WM: You know, if you keep feeding me like this, you’re going to have to wheel me out of here. Umm. That is good. Whatever it is.
JB: So Bill — who are a few of your favorite authors?
WM: Huh? Oh. Well, mostly, I like the dead ones. Let’s see. Saroyan is way up on my list. In fact, it’s my humble opinion that America is missing the boat right now as far as he’s 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, there’s 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 I’d probably develop a nervous twitch. — All right, what’re you looking at? — Anyway. Let’s 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 I’m 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 he’s still alive, so I don’t like him.
JB: Do you think something is missing in today’s literature?
WM: Of course. No self-respecting writer is satisfied with today’s 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, that’s a bit more complex. Not that it should be, but it is. What’s 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 “The Literary Awakening of America.” If I ever get home I’ll send you a copy. I’d recite it now, but I’m not very good at memorizing poems. Which reminds me — in the sixth grade I had a heck of a time with “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” — poems I love to this day, but that I have to dig out and read every so often because I can’t remember them. And they’re worth remembering — which is exactly my point. If you’re afraid to live, your writing’s not going to be remembered. It might be temporarily satisfying to people who buy cars to match their hairstyle, but that’s about it. It might even make a lot of money, but money is not worth remembering either. Although I do wish I had some. That’s something I can’t forget. Jeez. But there’s one other thing I want to say. Then I’ll 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, that’s encouraging. Inspiring, even. And I’m 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 you’re publishing — 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 d’oeuvres.
JB: Yeah, Nancy’s pretty handy in the kitchen. Well, considering the lousy literary scene we’re 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 I’ll tell you what really bothers me. These days, everybody wants to be a writer. And, by some strange coincidence, there’s this cute little “how to get published” industry that’s ready to help. There are schools, retreats, workshops, books, magazines — it’s 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 can’t believe it. “Tired of the solitude?” “Want to be part of a real writing community?“ Give me a break! Solitude is a blessing! If you need someone to hold your hand, don’t write. Do something else. Writing, by its very nature, is an outrage and a gamble. That’s what makes it so powerful, and so appealing. If you’re unable to recognize this opportunity, then you’re 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, you’re 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 — too vital to be treated as electronic
JB: Electronic styrofoam. In your opinion, is the internet a positive or negative factor in today’s scene, literary or otherwise?
WM: When used as an encyclopedia or means of essential communication, the internet is fine. Beyond that, I don’t think human beings can possibly benefit from spending more time slumped in front of screens. Especially if we’re seeking entertainment. We need to be doing things — not having them done for us, or to us. In terms of literature, the reading of books is a mind-body experience that I’ve 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 can’t 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 you’re suggesting that the answer, if there is one, lies
within . . .
WM: Am I? That sounds awfully profound. I don’t know. All I’m 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, I’m an idiot and a blowhard. I guess that’s obvious by now. On the bright side, I’m fairly certain my intentions are good. Of course, that could be something I’ve talked myself into in order to survive — 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 don’t know. What do you think? Do you think there’s an answer? Do you think there even needs to be one? . . . John. . . . John? . . . Are you still there? Johnny — baby — talk to me. Don’t stare at my forehead. You know how self-conscious I am. My god, I think he’s 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, I’ve 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, I’m feeling rather, shall we say, enlightened . . . that is . . . these voices, you understand . . . and there have been unexplained footprints . . . I love that story. It’s called “The Bishop’s Right Eye,” 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 — 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?
Also by William Michaelian
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
80 pages. Paper.
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