Sometimes It’s Just Nice to Wake Up
Give Yourself Up to the Big Sour Mash
An Interview with Mike Young
For me, there’s a trio of gritty, knock down get up and get knocked down again story collections that I’ll probably be paging through from tomorrow until endsville, and even then I’ll likely crib my last words from one of them. I’m talking Venus Drive, Airships, and Jesus’ Son. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come to quaint relations with many others, but these three are the ones I come back to. And that return can be owed primarily to one thing: voice. Voice affiliated with place.
Mike Young’s work, whether his story collection, Look! Look! Feathers, or his MC Oroville prose poems or his poetry collection, We Are All Good If We Try Hard Enough, is filled with whisky-wrought voices forged from the clash of young men and women with bygone sensibilities (blue collar workers and, in any other era, cowpokes and wranglers) dealing with the long and small talk of each other and the Internet in 2011. And these voices are distinctly western worn. Whether from Northern California or Oregon, Young’s folks are trying to come to terms with the idea of a Starbucks outglowing the mythos of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. From this place, Young has spawned a new voice, especially, in his latest, Look! Look! Feathers.
Looks like it’s now a quartet.
Gene Kwak: Place permeates your work, whether it be the Oroville prose poems or your short fiction. Even street names like Belchertown Rd. make appearances in poems. Was this always the case or did you have an ah-ha moment? I think you've mentioned watching Harmony Korine's Gummo as allowing you to write about your hometown.
Well, definitely Gummo was big on the permission level. And it taught me a lot about making scenes out of feelings you don't understand. But I'm not sure I could trace my obsession with place to an a-ha moment. What's true is I always feel "out of" place. Maybe this gets me thinking about it. Like the way when you know you've lost something, when you can't find it, it's all you think about. Certainly when I was eighteen, I was as obsessed as any decent pop-punk song with getting out of my "one horse" town. Which was Oroville in Northern California, a town made of a dam, Indian casinos, a cannery, meth, and retired people. But for some weird reason I turned down an opportunity to attend UC Berkeley for community college outside Mt Shasta. Which was its own one horse scene, except the horse had a logger's cap and dreamcatchers for hooves. Then Ashland, another small town, then Western Massachusetts, hip but also small. Honestly, the reason I'm retreating to autobiography here is because I have no idea why place wants to be its own character in a lot of what I write. It's true that I have felt at home almost everywhere I've visited. And it's also true that I have felt the most at home in NYC, though I've yet to live there. Maybe it's just because of all the people. There is something though about people outside of big people groups, people tucked away, havens, side roads, that shit is really interesting to me. The people there. And to get there you need to make a map first. To talk about how they feel you need to talk about what kind of light they're working with, which is an issue of place.
How often do you go back west and when you do, are you aware of having refreshed your source material or is it more just about the comfort of mom and land?
Flannery O'Connor said you can get two or three novels out of childhood, right? So I probably don't need to go back all that much. In writing about a place you're kind of writing your way out of that place. I mean, in writing about anything you're obsessed with, there's this very simple motivation at the bottom of it, which is you're trying to make that obsession go away. And maybe you produce a lot of shit and you're fond of that shit and you want to take care of it, share it, but the actual writing is trying to make the obsession go away. The fever is trying to cure the infection. All of which is to say I don't really enjoy going back. I do enjoy the redwoods because they are particular. There's nothing like them. Of course that is a dumb thing to say because there's nothing like anything. Everything is something that nothing else is like. Maybe this is why I do need to go back in spite of my feelings.
So much fiction these days is just accretion of detail when it comes to scene-setting and your stories work in that Hannah/Carver-esque way where scene is more a state of mind and a cutting detail or two. A voice or a stance. Is this approach forged from place or is it more a style that's been hammered from literary influence? To clarify, I think of Carver, for example, of coming from small town Yakima, WA, where people probably weren't "big talkers." The whole blue-collar, silent guy type. I mean, besides the Lish influence in his work.
Oh man, I have thought so much about this. I very much have strong opinions about Carver as a regional writer. Sorry to get autobiographical again, but it's true that I have weird personal possessive affection for the guy. My dad was born in Yakima, for one. And where Carver grew up, in a mill town, was very much like my father's experience in Humboldt County. Plus while Carver was going to Chico State and studying with John Gardner, he lived in Paradise, which is literally down the road (in West Coast terms) from where I grew up. So even though I appreciate that Carver is important to everybody, in some deep level I have a very selfish obsession with him. Gene, you are right on the money about his voice being forged from place. There is a style of "well, I don't want to tell you this story, but I'm going to tell it." Which is true for tough guys and slow talkers all over, sure, okay. But I indulge myself in thinking there's something tired and unique to the Pacific Ocean about it. On HTMLGIANT, I wrote a little about this in relation to a video of Carver's mother talking here.
While I've thought about this on the level of narrative impulse, what kind of voice tells a story that is begrudging and how that voice works, I haven't really thought about it in terms of accretion of detail in scene, like you're saying. Which is interesting. It reminds me of one time this dude was fixing my family's swamp cooler. Our apartment was on the third floor, so this means he was on the roof outside, shirt off, on the overhang, doing some hammer shit. And we were talking to him through the window that had the swamp cooler in it, letting him know what was working and what wasn't, and he and my dad were sort of joking around. This was the middle of July, hundred-degree dry heat, and my dad says "Hot out there?" and this dude says "Man, sometimes it's just nice to wake up," and my dad says "I hear that." They didn't even like each other very much. This dude was a little crazy and convinced the landlord to cut down our persimmon tree and our avocado tree. His dog was a maniac. He and his wife tried to rig the mayoral election. But that moment was an exchange of sentiment was a scene that did a lot with very little. I don't know. Maybe it isn't place at all. Maybe it's frugality. Like don't use too much because you don't know where your next meal's coming from, etc. I think it is a mess you can only poke at, but it's also true that they don't have swamp coolers where there's too much humidity. They don't have swamp coolers where the air is already full of water.
I mean, people have told me that stuff from MC Oroville reminds them of growing up in Kansas. Gummo is set in Ohio. But I'm also sitting in Massachusetts and someone behind me at this coffee shop just said he was "entertaining his friend Emma for a week," which means that Emma is staying with him, I guess. But no one I grew up with would ever say that. Is that a class thing or a place thing? It is both, Mike, duh. Plus class is place and so on and so on. A mess!
That's funny you feel home in NY. I used to want to live there and felt like it was the center of the world. Now, not so much. I've been plenty of times, but every one and her mom moving to NY makes me feel like they're old timers yearning for a bygone time. Like, I love Omaha because we're growing ridiculously and our music scene is internationally known and we've got one of the best contemporary art museums/residency programs in the country. Mostly though, it's dirt cheap to live here, so artists flock. I feel like pockets like this (Austin, TX; Northampton, MA; Athens, GA) are much more the hotbeds for new than NY even though it's in the name. All of this is a way of saying, tell me more about this feeling home any place. That must be some super human connection that you have working.
Yeah, I should clarify this. For me, feeling like home is not necessarily a good thing. All I mean is I feel like I could live there immersively. Some of this is just trivial: I hate driving, and you never have to drive. Plus I like eating food at weird hours, which the city is great for. But also I associate the idea of home with having each new day's infinity very close to you. Wherever you go, bound to be new shit. Take a train this way and that. If you don't like somebody, you never have to see him or her again. I like giving myself and my identity up to the big sour mash. It feels very safe and calm. So in effect, the kind of living that goes on in NYC is what I would call feeling like home. Being in NYC I find to be a life-size version of being in my mind. So that's why it feels like home. But I don't really want to be in my mind or feel at home all the time. There is something very important in not feeling at home, in feeling like a hawk-eyed outsider. In terms of community and hotbeds, yes, definitely, I don't really think of NYC as having anything to do with artistic communities, though there are some very nice people who live there and do their thing and get together. But I like getting together with transients in small places, yes, like Northampton, schleps gathered to the same minor and sturdy lighthouse. Athens is a place I've always really wanted to visitâ€”Omaha as well. For me, it's much more important to wander and visit and fantasize and observe than to feel "at home."
How important is place to you as a reader? There are a slew of contemporary writers who count place as a tertiary or even barely necessary element. Characters aren't characters but 'man' or 'woman.' Place is, at most, a room.
Yeah, absolutely, I hear what you're saying. A lot of contemporary fiction basically takes place unabashedly in somebody's head. Then it's a head to head exchange, which is it already, so why not be explicit about that? So goes the logic, which I understand. But I don't really want to be trapped in this rainy day head exchange the whole time. I'd rather something sort of carry me, Tinkerbell-like, or in its talons, over a larger vision. There is something very claustrophobic about being stuck in someone's "imagination project." It's like, Jesus, do you ever leave your bathroom? Do you leave your headphones on all the time?
I do honestly have a good time reading a lot of that stuff, but it makes me anxious. Maybe you have all this dream logic you want to showcase, which is great, but there is also this whole category of other things, which is the eavesdropped, which is the observed, which to me is very mystical because it's made up of the active byproducts of other peoples' imaginations. Everything we see around us that we didn't come up with, somebody else came up with, and we will never truly feel what it's like to be in their head while they are using it. Sure, okay, maybe we're never able to fully articulate what it's like to be in our own head, and yeah, okay, there's something interesting about that, but we at least feel what we feel. With others, we don't even have that! So to me it's very interesting to record the observed real. I mean, not even to record it. Just to have it there. Opera glasses hung on a street sign. Crumpled box of cough syrup in the gutter. This dude on a bicycle with a rickshaw full of canned yams, stopped at a red outside the police station.
Now I feel guilty and want to mention a newer book that combines the "surreal" and the "real" beautifully: CA Conrad's The Book of Frank. Which works because it's a person who arms themselves with their vision, they do not pretend away the world, they walk through the world in a costume of their own imaginative power.
I should probably actually answer your question and mention some books that do "place" very well. Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. Any Vollmann, any McCarthy but especially Orchard Keeperand Suttree. Mary Robison's Oh! shows us that family is a place. Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramoshows us that places can be made of voices. Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah.Already Dead by Denis Johnson, which is a mess and kind of a failure, but which I love because it's a testament to a place I'm fond of. Sometimes A Great Notion. The stories of Lewis Nordan. Charles Portis, oh my god, Charles Portis for sure. Jesus, Charles Portis times infinity. Eric Shade's book Eyesores. Ron Carlson's novel Five Skies. Eugene Marten’s Firework. So-called humorists from the 50s, Dave Barry types of their day but better stylists, used to take these sort of wacky trips around the country and write about them. H. Allen Smith is somebody who comes to mind. Campell McGrath's American Noise, which is kind of immature and hyperbolic but in the best way. I mean, whatever happened to walking around, you know? Maybe this is what I mean about New York. You have to walk around.
Lastly, let's talk about the Internet. Talk about how life was before you hit the community at Amherst. Back when there weren't writers around to shoot the shit. How integral was the Internet as a saving grace? For me, it was the world. All my friends back home are musicians/visual artists so we connect on some levels, but it’s not the exact same yammer. And even in my MFA program, something like twelve out of fifteen fiction students were from Boston so they were set in their social norms. Finding the work of Blake Butler, Rachel B. Glaser, and yourself, was a lifeline.
I feel that. The Internet is a place for sure. As a teenager in Oroville I was heavy into different online communities. My Dad used to do this BBS stuff, which was pre-internet, computers just calling other computers, more ragtag. Message "conferences" instead of message "boards." I had conversations about Star Wars and professional wrestling. Later, with the Internet, I got into amateur game making, RPGs and stuff. Every time I played a really good computer game I wanted to find out if you could edit it, if you could make your own levels, and there was usually a community. Ultimately I was always harangued by a lack of visual art chops, the inability to articulate the sandboxes in my head, so I became a wordy schmuck. Easy to say elephant in words. Boom. There's an elephant. And so on. I know I'm contradicting my earlier diatribe against the magic properties of the imagination, but it's not the imagination I have a problem with, go imagination, love ya, it's just this retreat from the world, this cocooning. I mean, duh, gee, maybe being online promotes that? I try to think of it in more healthy terms. Like here I'm going to walk around the world, then I'm going to plug into this great swirl of lonely voices and share my walking around from this chair in my kitchen with other people in their kitchen. I don't know. I know this is naive and somewhat full of shit. For example, I know most people don't keep their computers in the kitchen.