Truly, Brutally Alive: An Interview with Michael Parker

Katy Hershberger

Michael Parker’s new book of flash fiction, Everything, Then and Since, is a collection of short stories about large truths: identity, love, wandering, and truth itself. Parker lives in Texas and North Carolina, where he teaches at UNC Greensboro and the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, and his writing conveys the rich settings and voices of the South. His characters are misfits and outsiders, searching for things that elude them, and many of these stories explore youth and adolescence (see “Work Camp,” about a group of friends who heckle inmates in a nearby prison yard, and whose adult lives diverge from that moment). I was thrilled to talk to Parker about the lyricism of Southern prose, creating characters who suffer, and the music that makes him dance instead of writing.

 Katy Hershberger: There’s a vivid sense of place in the stories in Everything, Then and Since, mostly in the rural South, where many of your other books take place too. Can you tell me about how the South informs your writing?

Michael Parker: My work is certainly informed by landscape, specifically as a receptacle of emotion. Since I grew up in the rural South, and did not need to make up that landscape, it was natural for me to set my work in a place I knew well. I have always been interested in the stripe of vernacular speech which is mostly lost to us now—the idiomatic syntax recognized by writers from Shakespeare to Whitman to Twain as a source of mystery, surprise, beauty. The South has a lot of syntactical variation. It’s not what people say, but how they say it that carries meaning. I’ve just been reading the recent work of Laird Hunt, whose work is set mainly in Indiana, and he has a wonderful ear for colloquial speech that many readers might identify (or dismiss) as “Southern,” when in fact it is just American. So, landscape as emotion, and language as a vehicle for the nuances of meaning—these are things that are important to me, but they are also important to writers from Queens and Dublin and Sacramento as well.

My first four novels were set in eastern North Carolina, where I grew up. The Watery Part of the World takes place on the Outer Banks, which is in North Carolina only technically—it’s decidedly not Southern, a mer-world, a ribbon of sand stretching for miles out in the sea, accessible in places only by ferry. The novel after that, All I Have in This World, is set in Texas and the forthcoming novel, Only the Horse Knew the Way, is set in Oklahoma, Wyoming and west Texas. So I suppose the South is informing my work less and less, though the things I grew up paying attention to, and that drew me to writing fiction—landscape and our emotional responses to it, and the music of human communication—these things will always interest me.

KH: I’m struck by how rich these characters’ lives are, even if their stories are just a few pages long. How much of these people, places, and stories do you construct that never makes it onto the page?

MP: Actually, quite a few of these stories were much longer. “Concession,” was nearly thirty pages long. I have a version of “Medicine Girl” that’s nearly fifty pages, and nowhere close to any sort of resolution. When I started writing these stories, I’d been writing a novel, and it wasn’t working out. I wrote the first of these, “Deep Eddy,” because I felt so badly about how the novel was (not) going. It was also longer, but only by a page or two, and so I started cutting, and the result was something I was proud of. I’d been working on these shorter pieces to compensate for the failure of the novel, but after a couple years of this, I realized that they were both coherent in their subjects and different enough formally to suggest a collection. I showed them to Ross White, of Bull City Press, who was gracious enough to publish them.

KH: Similarly, you seem to take such care of your characters, to really understand them and love them. I’m curious about your relationship with them, though I don’t necessarily mean “are these based on real people?” More so, how do you think about them as you’re writing? And yes, are these people you recognize in daily life?

MP: I love them about as far as I can throw them, which is as it should be. I can throw them four or five pages at most and that means I need to get quickly to their contradictions and their fears and their triumphs and present them as conflicted, maddening, redeemable humans in as few words as possible. A lot of “flash fiction” I’ve read seems more invested in ideas and concepts than in the recesses of character. Most “short-shorts” interest me intellectually, but I wanted to write some very short stories in which you ended up more invested in the character than in the situation, or in the writer’s ideas about, I don’t know, global warming.

As for thinking about the characters when I write, I’m trying to find the language that makes them seem, to me, and of course to the reader, truly, brutally alive. A lot of them are suffering—from regret, from problems with drugs or booze, from bad choices or gone wrong love—and those are people, sure, that I recognize, both on the street and in the mirror.

KH: Your writing is so precise, and I’d imagine it has to be, since you have to pick your words wisely in short pieces. But it’s also very poetic and musical while still being true to the narrator’s voice. Can you talk about how you create your prose on the sentence level? Does it come along naturally with the voice of the narrator, do you build it word by word…?

MP: This goes back to your first question, which I believe I might have not-so-artfully dodged. I can’t speak directly to the Southern thing without talking about the two things that the South has given me—an instinct for lyric vernacular speech and an appreciation of landscape as an emotional force. And yet I like to think I would have found those things had I been born elsewhere. The writer William Goyen, who is from East Texas, said somewhere that “a marvelous instrument of language was given to him,” and he went on to list the forces that had created that voice—black spirituals, the Mexican imagination, the cotton gin, the King James Bible, etc. I could make my own list and it would have some crossover, but we all could.

I would wager that all writers who care about sentences (which is to say, all the writers I care about) would include something on that list other than books. I would hope they’d all include music. A sentence has to do dozens of things at once, as it’s all we have to work with, and yet to my mind its highest calling, the thing it has to do to punch the clock, is become the thing it’s out to describe. My ex-wife’s mother owned the brilliantly-written 11th edition of the Encylopedia Brittanica. I used to read and re-read the entry on knots, for those knots had names that sent me: “Cat-Paw,” “Bowline on a Bight,” “Spanish Windlass,” “Turk’s Head,” “Double Wall and Double Crown,” and my all-time favorite: “Turning in a Dead-Eye End Up.” I also read—and this was nearly 30 years ago, and I have a patchy memory, but I remember it still—that in the scientific sense, a knot is “an endless physical line which cannot be deformed into a circle.” Somehow, in ways I can’t or don’t know how to articulate, this scientific notion of a knot stretching endlessly, resisting attempts to deform it, influenced my idea of the sentence. And yet they are not all knots, or knotty, my sentences. There is sometimes a great need for a sentence like, “He slid over.” Nothing knotty there.

KH: One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Work Camp,” which felt very evocative of my favorite movie, Stand By Me.

MP: I’m so glad to hear you liked that story. Thank you.

KH: I loved the examination of friendship and identity, and how those things change over time. A lot of your characters are kids or teenagers, and I think we’re seeing more and more stories in books and pop culture about adolescence that wouldn’t be classified as “young adult,” from Stranger Things to Lady Bird to Jesmyn Ward’s novels. What draws you to these younger characters? And more broadly, what do you think makes adolescence so interesting to adult writers and audiences?

MP: Adolescence is of interest to me because it’s when we first take note of the ways we’ve been wounded. You can be wounded, sure, before puberty, but you’re not likely to understand or acknowledge it. (Not that you’re ever able to fully understand any wound.) Adolescence is not only raging hormones but unbridled emotions. Isn’t that why we can’t ever get away from it? Because it’s when everything gets all stirred up?

My own adolescence, in the early to mid-1970’s, coincided with the shift from the peace and love of my older siblings’ time to a kind of mindless, apolitical “comfortably numb” existence. And then the “comfortable” part of it went away, and the drugs got harder, and it got harder to stop. I lost several good friends. There before the grace. That story is a tribute to those who didn’t make it, and also to who I was when I was with them, which the sober part of me tends to forget about.

KH: You’ve also written novels and magazine pieces. How is your writing process different for short stories—particularly very short stories—versus novels or journalism?

MP: I just finished a novel and I can barely remember having written it, whereas I remember writing each of those tiny little stories. The last three novels I wrote in a kind of manic blur. It was more bender than job. I just pushed and pushed, every day, until I came to what seemed like an end, and then I went for a long run. Or that’s the way it seems. I used to say that I loved writing novels better than stories because writing a novel is like getting a two year contract for a good job. You know where you have to be every day, there’s a kind of security to it, and writing stories (or poems) felt more like showing up at ManPower, or some temp agency, and hanging around waiting for someone to drive up and offer you a two-day gig pruning trees. But that analogy doesn’t seem to fit anymore.

Magazine work is impossibly hard for me. I write the articles quickly and then I make everyone I know read them and I beg them to make them better. I like writing personal essays but straight up reportage has never been my thing. My father was a newspaper editor. He is a man who would know a fact if it crawled into bed with him. I am a firm believer in the trafficking of facts, especially in these crazy times, but it requires a certain stripe of patience and thoroughness that does not come easily to me.

KH: How long does it take you to write a piece of flash fiction?

MP: Some of them came quickly—the first drafts—and others not so quickly. All of them were revised many times, more, maybe, than regular-length stories, because their brevity compels it.

KH: Do you have any rituals in your writing process? A certain place, music playing, etc.?

MP: I like to write in airports while waiting around for airplanes. I am well known for arriving five hours before my scheduled departure. I don’t like to listen to music at all when I work, so that rules out coffee shops, especially in Austin, where the music in coffee shops is almost always what I am listening to at home or in the car, which is no good at all, I just sit there and sing, or sometimes I get up and dance, it’s awful, I can’t do it, I gave up.

KH: What kind of music is that?

MP: Currently? New records from The War on Drugs, SlowDive, Jay-Som, Julien Baker, Hiss Golden Messenger. But there’s a coffee shop that, every time I go in there, seems to be playing my favorite Waylon Jennings song. I stopped going. The coffee’s not that good, and again, I can’t get anything done if they’re playing Waylon.

KH: How does teaching influence your work?

MP: I’ve been at it for thirty years, teaching. The way it has informed my work has changed over time. I’m less uptight about class prep than I once was, which means, perhaps, that it informs my work less? But I feel like I’m a little better teacher for it.

When I first started teaching, I’d have thirty pages of notes for two class periods on a novel. I would get through page three. I thought that the process of writing all that out, and asking myself all those questions, was making me a better writer. But now I believe that teaching a book I’ve taught five or six times to a different generation, and listening to their responses—really listening, not just pretending to listen, which every teacher is occasionally guilty of—is the best thing for my work. It alerts me to the multitude of questions one might ask about a novel. It reminds me of how our reading tastes change. How wrong we can be, and for how long. For years I thought that certain Willa Cather novels were to be put up on the shelf alongside My Antonia but not actually read. Death Comes to the Archbishop is a deeply strange adventure—episodic, oddly structured, formally unsettling and, while not as good as The Professor’s House, terrific. Realizing how versatile she is—how formally daring, and how many landscapes she knew well enough to imbue with mystery—well, I hope that carries over, somehow, to my own struggle to sing my little ditties.

Michael Parker is the author of six novels – Hello Down There, Towns Without Rivers, Virginia Lovers, If You Want Me To Stay, The Watery Part of the World, All I Have In This World—and three collections of stories, The Geographical Cure and Don’t Make Me Stop Now, and Everything, Then and Since. A new novel, Only The Horse Knew The Way, is forthcoming in 2019. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various journals including The Washington Post, the New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Oxford American, Trail Runner, Runner’s World and Men’s Journal.  He has received fellowships in fiction from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Hobson Award for Arts and Letters, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. His work has been included in the Pushcart and New Stories from the South anthologies and he is a two-time winner of the O. Henry Award for short fiction. He is the Vacc Distinguished Professor in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is on the faculty of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers.  He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina and Austin, Texas.

Katy Hershberger
is an MFA candidate in Nonfiction at The New School. Her work has appeared in
The Rumpus, Bustle, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.