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Mike Young: The Short Form Interview

It’s a zigzag. It’s things that don’t work. It’s the next step after the stairs give way. Plot is something I love.

Author of story collection Look! Look! Feathers, and We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough, a book of poems. He edits NOÖ Journal and runs Magic Helicopter Press.

The Interview

The manic nature of much of your stories seems to exist outside of a world of craft. To cross genres, I think of Reggie Miller hitting an inconceivable amount of 3-pointers and saying how he might as well have been blacked out, so as audience we ignore the lifetime in a gym preparing for that one transcendent moment. This is a long way to ask about process. When do the notes start to sound right? Are you collecting a mass of images before anything?

It’s funny, I wouldn’t have said so if you hadn’t brought it up, but I guess I often am collecting a mass of images. I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I often find myself training on something I observe and sort of instructing myself to remember it, then leaving it alone. Trusting subconscious impulses to pull it up later or whatever. I don’t know if I can point to a specific success story with this process, so who knows: it might be mystical self-fooling bullshit. In my current project, I am doing a lot of strenuous manual notetaking, lots and lots of nabbing and saving, letting it all ferment in different documents. Sometimes I know “where” it’s going to go, and sometimes I don’t. This also may or may not work out in the long run, but there have been a few satisfying surprises so far, so I’ll probably keep doing it. The downside is, obviously, that it tends to convince me I’m working when I’m not.

The notes sounding right is something that changes always. What’s good on the ear one year is vexed the next. Working on longer fiction has really pushed me toward accepting things faster than I do in short fiction. There’s still a lot of tinkering and fine-tuning, but I’m very slowly learning a few rhythms that consistently feel settled—at least for this project. I’ll have to blow it all up the next go round, I’m sure. Otherwise where’s the fun?

It’s ultimately probably not a good idea to write to meet the kind of people you want to meet, but that’s what I’ve done and I don’t see myself stopping.

Lipsyte, another rung in that comedic master ladder, talks about having a sentence or a phrase stick in his head long enough that he decides to pursue it into a story. And this is probably overlapping the previous question some, but what do you know about a story before you write it? At what point do you begin to consider plot?

Every story is different. I think each story is a unique contraption that can collect pre-inspiration from a lot of different categories: sounds, sentences, images, plots. I mean, a story is built to do so many things. Or that’s how I think of stories, anyway. Maybe on some basic level a story just has to carry you for a while and leave you re-sloshed when it drops you off, but I know for me there’s so much greed I bring to the reading experience. It’s where I go to get rewired everywhere. All the feelings, all the mindings. So I write toward that greed. And I like to juggle complicated things. Give me a complicated juggle any day.

Plot is what Kurt Vonnegut said about it when he used to sketch out Cinderella on chalkboards: it’s a zigzag. It’s things that don’t work. It’s the next step after the stairs give way. Plot is something I love, actually. When I was a kid, I came up with this plot for a weird political cruise ship story. There was this wooden cabinet thing I had, and I remember drawing doors on the side of it, all labeled 1-6, for the different characters’ cabins. The characters were action figures. The plot was insane. It was based on the computer game The Last Express, the plot of which is pleasingly complicated. Movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels—I like plot when it’s so complicated that the plotting itself, like if you imagine it as a series of lines, the actual physical twists and turns—the lines would be beautiful on their own, plot becoming its own aesthetic gesture.

It’s funny, because I never thought of myself as a “premise” dude, but a good handful of the stories in LLF were conceived when I was teaching creative writing to really imaginative 5th and 6th graders at a summer camp—I was sort of stuck halfway through what I wanted out of a “story collection”—and they reminded me of that joy that comes from storying forth from a premise. Like “What if a town got its own gameshow?”

For data’s sake, here’s a rundown of how each story in Look! Look! Feathers started, listed in the order the stories are in if you want to play along:

  collection of images image-based premise premise character(s) news story story someone told me voice premise setting opening paragraph premise
The Peaches Are Cheap x                
Burk's Nub   x              
Look! Look! Feathers   x              
Susan White and the Summer of the Game Show     x            
The World Doesn't Smell Like You       x          
What The Fuck Is An Electrolyte?         x        
Same Heart They Put You In           x      
Snow You Know and Snow You Don't             x    
Mosquito Fog     x x          
Stay Awhile If You Can       x       x  
Restart? Restore?                 x
No Such Thing As a Wild Horse           x      

A few notes: image-based premise is, like, a tiny baby in a medicine cabinet, a nub on someone’s hand that allows them to see the internet. Voice premise is for “Snow You Know”, which is in second person addressed to the narrator’s unborn child. “Mosquito Fog” was like “I want to write a story about a mosquito fogger who meets someone on the internet who isn’t who they say.” “Restart? Restore?” started as a paragraph about an old couple who retire to spend the rest of their lives driving around in an R/V, and the paragraph is about everywhere they go in America, like an exercise on how much America I can cram in one short paragraph. But the story just sat there as one dizzying paragraph until I got the idea to have it based on all these different voices responding to or accounting about the main character, Orrin, without ever giving Orrin a chance to narrate. Fuck, I like that story—I think now that the book has been out for a few years and I’ve had time to sit with it, “Restart? Restore?” is my new favorite story in it because it’s the most complicated and expansive.

Let me preempt this question with an “I’m sorry,” but who do you read for voice? It’s a silly question, I know, but I jump when I hear Elkin because he’s fading out of fashion rather quickly, and there seems to be some of him and his friends in your stories.

Alas, I’ve not read that much Elkin. Magic Kingdom is the only full novel I’ve read, though I’ve peeked at stories here and there. He’s hilarious, a real crack in the jaw, and I could see how you might sniff him out. For one thing, he’s walls-balls with list-making and so am I. Can’t get enough of them lists. I really enjoy the high you get from sitting and stewing in an accumulation. It’s not the only way you get toward presence, and you could argue it’s gluttonous or not distilled enough or that art should be about paring and pairing more than plopping, but I dunno, I like it. I’m curious in who you’re thinking of as Elkin’s friends—it reminds me of how much praise John Gardner ladles onto him in his books, which I think is what tuned me into Elkin in the first place.

Not a lot of surprises, probably, in who I read for voice: Barry Hannah, Padgett Powell, Mary Robison, Kenneth Koch, Sam Lipsyte, Amy Hempel, William Gay, Grace Paley, James Purdy. Maybe a few surprises. Maxine Chernoff I think is, these days, an underrated short story writer these days. I have to give a shoutout to my voicey friend Rachel B. Glaser. Recent vox-box favs include Iris Owens, Sam Michel, and Trinie Dalton. The voices—which, really, I think of more as “the arrangements” maybe—in Leni Zumas’s The Collectors and Bill Peters’s Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality are both spitfire.

I think it’s true that dialogue is really tricky because it’s some secret potion of realistic and unrealistic. Straight up transcription is boring as shit, but so is dialogue that’s overly designed or seems too goal-oriented.

Somewhere you said the phrase “a space for trust” between the writer and reader. The writer/reader relationship is often taught in the negative–don’t alienate your reader–but the idea of trust makes it a positive. You seem to be saying you’re going to write this dizzying and wild prose not as way to keep readers out but because you believe in the reader and know we can keep up. Could you expand on this, and detail what are your thoughts on the writer/reader relationship?

Yeah, well, it’s ultimately probably not a good idea to write to meet the kind of people you want to meet, but that’s what I’ve done and I don’t see myself stopping. Because it’s worked, by and large. I’ve made some amazing friends just by way of what I write. It’s sort of like a socially acceptable version of standing on the street corner and yelling and singing and dancing your elbows and waiting for your soulmates to come along and totally understand you. So now I’m in this interesting space where maybe I used to write to meet cool people, but now I’ve met them, which means I can write for them. Except I can’t stick exclusively to that because I have a feeling that insulates and isolates and is too easily a road to stagnant, easy satisfaction. But I can’t pretend they don’t exist because that would be mean. And unappreciative. So far what I’ve worked out—and I feel still very much in the middle of this—is to write for your most attentive friend, or your friends’ most attentive moods. And their forgiving moods. Not in a cheap way, but there needs to be some startlement. A little bit of sauce, like a little bit of what you love to put between you and the people you trust because you have a pretty good idea of how good it will feel to have that between you, but an even more generous amount of what you’re unsure about, of what’s exciting, of what might honestly make someone a little throttled or sick or weepy.

It’s sort of part of the deal, isn’t it? That’s what I want out of the people I read too. If they’re alive. I mean, I know I’ve talked about invisible friendship, and that’s what it has to be on a practical level, but I feel like it should be (or at least feel) battle-tested on real friendship. To admit the following is a little uncomfortable because I’m worried it makes me sound arrogant or mouth-foamy, but: I’ve had people punch me and say “Goddamn you” and/or cry in front of me after hearing/reading something I’ve written. And I’ve cried/punched in return. And that’s what I want. Language, mind-exchange: the great thing about reading/writing and art and shit is we can all want different goo out of it, but yeah: what I imagine is a frame that allows everybody into a messiness together they wouldn’t otherwise open themselves up to.

Some of the first bit of dialogue in “Stay Awhile If You Can” is a great reminder that everybody is the main character in his or her own story. When the narrator asks, “How many stickers have you gone through?” Allison responds with, “We get them at the station.” She answers, but she doesn’t answer. So much of our daily conversations are us talking at people, not with, and it’s easy to mess that up in writing. Do you have specific aims outside of what the characters are discussing when you write dialogue?

It used to be I had tricks, rules. I still have them, but they’re buried at a muscle memory level now. I think it’s true that dialogue is really tricky because it’s some secret potion of realistic and unrealistic. Straight up transcription is boring as shit, but so is dialogue that’s overly designed or seems too goal-oriented. I’ve thought about it a million different ways, and I’m not sure I’ve landed on any single one. It’s something about faces and rhythms and suction—maybe there’s science behind how much a mind actually attends to a conversation during a conversation, and the art of satisfying written dialogue might be explained through that. It’s definitely one of my favorite parts of writing though—like, slice backhands, it’s like “Oh great, here I get to practice my slice backhand again,” = “Oh great, here I get to do some dialogue.”

One of the tricks regarding “Stay Awhile,” is a really simple one: figure out some way to not directly answer questions. This can really easily become programmatic and cliche because it’s one of those “rules” that everybody invades, but like any rule of its ilk, I think of it at heart as a challenge to thwart yourself, to not be lazy.

This isn’t a question really, I just stopped when I read this: “We’re headed back to Oakland after this weird birthday party at a villa.” The whole book is so flooded with exact images that when the narrator uses a vague word like “weird” it becomes much more important than it normally would.

Ha, yeah, it’s funny because “weird” is a weird I overuse IRL constantly. It’s got this neutral placeholder quality. It can be “go on” or “I feel you” or a million things. It’s true that I have an irrational dislike for people who use the word “weird” pejoratively. One summer I was seeing this girl, and we were in a 99 cent store, and we saw this old dude playing with one of those “The cow says MOO” twisty-wheel toy things. He was sitting down in the toy aisle and totally transfixed. When we left the store, the girl I was seeing said, “That guy was so weird,” and disgust was the wind that bent the word toward italics for her. And after that, I sort of just knew it was over. Which is sad and dumb, I know. Actually that’s probably not true. Probably what’s true is I tried to keep making it work and was too nervously self-protective to open up about silly concerns like: see above, and the relationship ended miserably. Could’ve gone like that, who can say.

Tell us a little about the stories you've picked.

Eric Shade’s “A Rage Forever” ––  All of Eric Shade's stories in Eyesores taught me the final click of what I needed to know to make LLF—especially how to make a story begin—so really I should pick all of them, but this is maybe my favorite.

Mark Anthony Jarman’s "Burn Man on a Texas Porch" –– A ferociously jubilant monologue whose conceit and title doubles as a literal throwdown of linguistic prowess, of which omg omg omg.

Rachel B. Glaser’ “The Monkey Handler” –– Monkeys writing books in space, the ballooning of sexual tension in simulators, the sordid fates of sad astronauts. It's all in this jam-packed story from the best short story collection of 2010.

Trinie Dalton’s “Jackpot (II)” –– So much fable and character and dream logic and rooting around to dig all the food out of a story's teeth.

Recommended by Mike Young

A Rage Forever

After thirty minutes our man Big Al got two cans of Aquanet from the trunk of his car, put matches to their nozzles, and made flame throwers, screaming, spinning his arms, drawing circles of blue. He looked like the Chinese firewheels we used to get on the Fourth. The Bootjackers hurried to their cars. I threw my bat at one of them and knocked a hubcap free. They left.

Then Big Al bought us a case of beer.

We drank, stacked the empties into pyramids, and bowled our rolled-up socks at them in my parents carport. We used the hubcap I'd knocked free as an ashtray. Big Al wasn't with us for the party, but his wildness still infected us, made us howl at everything, the moon and the streetlights and a pair of pantyhose whipping on a clothesline in the moonlight. We were nursing the inspiration, the sheer fact of Big Al's existence, and our own.

We read it in Eyesores.

Burn Man on a Texas Porch

Propane slept in the tank and propane leaked while I slept, blew the camper door off and split the tin walls where they met like shy strangers kissing, blew the camper door like a safe and I sprang from sleep into my new life on my feet in front of a befuddled crowd, my new life on fire, waking to whoosh and tourists' dull teenagers staring at my bent form trotting noisily in the campground with flames living on y calves and flames gathering and glittering on my shoulders (Cool, the teens think secretly), smoke like nausea in my stomach and me brimming with Catholic guilt, thinking, Now I've done it, and then thinking, Done what? What have I done?

Slept during the day with my face dreaming on a sudoral pillow near the end of the century and now my blue eyes are on fire.

We read it in 19 Knives.

The Monkey Handler

On Earth and in space, humans prove themselves human. Circular thinking, temporary joys. A Hall and Oates song will bring on the same feelings. Waiting for Costello to get out of the bathroom, the monkey handler slowly peddled on the stationary bike. Holly signed him something. Rory saw and absently tried to translate. I’m hungry happy. This day has time. Rory couldn’t remember the signs Holly had taught her.

The monkey handler met Holly in the Meditation Sphere. Holly was used to the weight of a man. Pushing and leaning, letting down on top of her, her breasts usually rolled and flopped how all do. Her butt was a weight that kept her thoughts from lofting. In space, sex was astounding. They laughed it was so great, maneuvering in one position then spinning spontaneously into others. The monkey handler held the ceiling handles and Holly floated freely. Her breasts were buoyant as floats. Sex made sense in outer space. His penis was a thing that kept them together.

We read it in Pee On Water.

Jackpot (II)

But that night, Little Egg grabbed two newly sharpened machetes while Flo got out a pairing knife, a switchblade, and a slender sword Huevito affectionately called her Lady'chete. Stealthily, they tiptoed over to the tree's iron railing, upon which hung a sign hand-painted in cursive: Forbidden to Cut Parts of the Tree. They'd memorized the way each letter looped righteously upwards. Pausing to read, then hopping the fence, was a ritual that made Flo and Little Egg reverential but devilish, apologetic but elated.

Sphinx moths flitted about like teeny dollar bills. Stray cats squatted on every branch, hissing at each other. Little Egg and Flo arranged their knives on the ground as if hosting a yard sale. Each blade glinted in full moonlight from different angles, reminding Flo of diamonds and Huevito of power tools. Flo leaned over to kiss Huevito as he fondled the big machete.

We read it in Baby Geisha.