Introductions are stupid. Mostly they get in the way. Probably you have skipped ahead to read the actual interview. That's what I would have done by now. If you're still here, this is what you need to know: This is an interview with Michael Poore, who has been compared to Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut. His stuff is funny and touching. Ambitious but with a light touch. Poore makes the hard stuff look easy in his latest novel, Reincarnation Blues, which is a swirl of delight and heartbreak from cover to cover.
Enough intro. Onto the interview, which was conducted over email in August.
This book's got a big hook: Your main character Milo has lived 9,995 lives, and has five more chances to "get it right," or he falls into oblivion. Tell me the origin story of this idea.
This idea came from Arizona.
At Christmastime in 2001, I had this magical visit with my dad and stepmom in Tucson. It seemed that everything we did, everywhere we went presented me with the seed for a story. One of those stories fell into my lap when we drove up to see my stepbrother, Steve, in Phoenix. Steve was--and is--a nationally-ranked bicycle racer, an incredible athlete. He rides up mountains, for Chrissake. He also makes handcrafted prosthetics for people, and he showed us around his shop and office, talking in a general way about his patients. Many of the people he worked with were Native Americans of the Tohono O'odom nation, whom he admired.
Well, this visit instantly flashed into an idea...I remember taking notes all the way home, and it turned into a story titled "Chief Next Lightning's Phantom Hand" (StoryQuarterly #39). The story featured an elderly Tohono O'odham chief who visited a prosthetic specialist (and racer). No matter what anyone did, though, the chief was nearing the end of his life. In fact, his death--which looked exactly like him--was approaching across the Southwest as the story progressed. Sometimes hitchhiking, sometimes catching a bus. Eventually, death caught up with the chief at the picnic table outside his trailer, and they smoked a cigarette together.
That's Part One of the idea.
Part Two took place in Arizona as well, eleven years later. I was on vacation with my wife and stepdaughter, and we drove cross-country. I love to drive. My car is like my office or studio; I get a lot of ideas there. My novel Up Jumps the Devil had just come out, and I had decided that I was going to come up with an idea for a second novel while we were on the road. After a week with my dad and stepmom, we started home, and somewhere on Rt. 10 between Benson and Texas Canyon, I started thinking about several friends and relatives who had done a lot of drugs and alcohol when they were young, but had cleaned up their lives. Thing was, though, their health never really recovered, and they died relatively young. I thought I might write a story about a middle-aged couple, former musicians and heavy users, who were starting to fall apart, and who decided to find a way to die that would be fun and dramatic. They would be really bad at making it happen, though, and go through multiple attempts. Meanwhile, their deaths would be trying to get to them, and would be put off time after time.
Over the course of a couple of months, this gelled into the story of one man approaching death, and then experiencing it, and I thought it might be interesting to go ahead and follow him through to the other side. The rest just kind of naturally followed, through questions like: Why would we come back, over and over? We must be trying to achieve something, and it must be difficult. In many religious traditions (while writing this book, I read a lot of books about Hinduism, and talked to a lot of practicing Hindis, and tried to meditate), it is thought that you eventually reach a state of resonance with the universe, and become one with a kind of cosmic soul. I wondered if that was really as attractive as it sounds. Is there pizza in the oversoul? Is there sex and wine? Are there doggies and books and tacos and road trips? What if my character didn't fucking want to be part of the oversoul? And there it was, the idea for the book.
If there aren't tacos in the oversoul, then what is even the point.
It's interesting that your ideas come when you're on the road with family (not least because that's how I step away from my writing life). Let me dig a little deeper into your process. When these ideas come, do you mull them over silently, or do you talk them out with your fellow travelers, or what? What does it look like when you're chewing on an idea?
When I work on ideas while on the road with my family, it has much more to do with being at the wheel than being with my wife and daughter. I'm talking about long drives across deserts and open plains, where there’s just too much time and space to fill with the Alphabet Game. These are long, hypnotic, Zen-fueled, inner-astronaut voyages, with imaginary soundtracks heavy on didgeridoo. I emphasize this because I’d like to be clear that this ‘idea time’ doesn’t come at the expense of paying attention to my family. If families driving cross-country don’t split off and do their own mental thing now and then, it gets whiny and snappish. You start quietly trying to banish each other to the Phantom Zone. I would also like to emphasize that these hypnotic imaginings take place on long, straight, thinly populated highways, not during multiple lane changes in Chicago traffic, at speed, when a Cubs game is letting out.
Working on ideas, of course, is the most mysterious part of writing. Later on, you have the actual writing, where you take the ideas and coax them into text, which is like doing calligraphy with a firehose. Then comes rewriting and editing, where you get down to nuts and bolts once the raw thing you’ve brought back from Dimension X cools off. Then you offer it up to your People, your crit group and your agent and maybe an editor, and you put on your collaborating hat, and learn to see The Thing through other eyes. Finally, you enter the weird space where your story is out there and has readers, and it’s not yours anymore. And so on.
Of all these phases of making a story, the raw idea phase is my favorite. It’s low-risk, for one thing. Any idea can be huge and elegant and important when you haven’t tried to do anything with it yet. Once you start putting one letter in front of another, you enter that uncomfortable country where it’s either going well or it’s not. But when it’s just you and your head and whatever demiurge brought you the idea, it’s all good. It’s going to be the best story ever, and there’s no evidence to the contrary.
There are two ways the idea phase begins.
One–and this is what happened with Reincarnation Blues–I feel an idea out there, and I go off into exploration mode. Usually behind the wheel. And I sift through what you might call mythical touchstones. Ingredients from the pantry of our subconscious. Death. Love. Time. Joy. Ordeal. Who we are, privately, vs. who we pretend to be. Bunny rabbits. Famous people. Duty. Laughter. Fear. Technology. Mortality as an idea. Our history. Tools. Cows. Television. Thinking. Addiction. Zeitgeist. Horror. Pride. Mortality as in actually, actively dying. Work. Injury. Everyone poops. The pain we carry privately vs. the pain we pretend to carry. God. Fish. Raisin Bran. The moon.
And I lazily, hazily start turning a meditative spotlight on some of these things, a couple at a time. Famous people and horror. Love and tools. Addiction and love.
With Reincarnation Blues, somewhere around Benson, Arizona, Addiction and Love stepped into the spotlight, and it was like watching two actors with good chemistry come together in a kiss that sets the camera on fire.
Okay, so that’s interesting. My nostrils flare. My eyes narrow (in a safe, attentive-driver kind of way). But it’s not an idea yet. It’s more like the door an idea might come through. It’s like playing that game where someone says, “You’re close, you’re hot. Hotter. Oh, you’re burning up! No, colder. No, hot!
Or maybe it’s like fishing, at that point. You’ve found what looks/feels like a place where fish might be hanging out.
I cast. I wait. The next move is up to the fish.
This is the most mysterious part. In order for lightning to flash, there has to be a gap, right? Well, this is the gap.
I don’t know what's going to happen next. Maybe a fish (or lightning) strikes. Maybe it doesn't. Bob Dylan says that ideas for songs come flying past him in the air, and he reaches out and grabs them. Stephen Hawking flashed on black holes while looking at flames through a sweater he was struggling to put on. The process isn't like Put tab A in slot B. When it works, it’s like a movie screen flickers, and I watch the story happen.
A fish is on the line. Next comes the part where I decide whether the fish is a keeper.
If I don’t immediately just HAVE to tell my wife about it, or my daughter, or call my mom, or tell my students (who are 11 and do NOT care), I either let it go, or string myself along in uneasy self-deceit because celebrating the idea is somehow more important than the idea actually being good enough to celebrate, until I calm down enough to be cold and reasonable about it.
But if the idea is worth getting excited and staying excited about…if I wake up the next morning, and my waking-up script goes like this: “Mmmfrzz…dog sniffing in my facezzsz…pills n water…what day is it?…OH YEAH! YEAH YEAHYEAH, I HAD THAT KICK-ASS STORY IDEA YESTERDAY!”—then I know it's probably a keeper.
I know a guy–we just did a panel together at ComicCon–who had an idea he was so happy with that he quit his job the next day. Think about that. Not right the very second he had the idea, but 24 hours later, after he’d had time to think about it, he called and quit a good job. That’s how powerful a good idea can be. (Now, you have to balance the fact that this was a stupid thing for him to do against the fact that it worked out for him.)
So, the short answer here is that yes, I blab about my idea to my wife and daughter. And that's another kind of test. My wife, Janine Harrison, is a poet and a professor and an activist. She has a calm, trained mind, and is not the kind of person who automatically shovels out affirmation when you present her with…anything. An idea. A finished project. An opinion about something. A mud pie. I have friends who are affirmation volcanoes (just between you and me, I really reallyreallyreally like those friends), but Janine isn’t one of them. If Janine shows the smallest sign of interest in an idea, I know it might be worth pursuing. Now, she’s not always right. One time I told her about a chapter I was planning in which a guy built a palace on the sun, and she said, “I think that’s your dumbest idea yet.” But I stuck with it, because as writers we sometimes understand our ideas and how they fit better than others, and it actually worked very well. But I’d say Janine has an uncanny (85%?) record of predicting whether an idea or a project will be worthwhile.
Next, like most writers, there’s a whole process of exploration and trial-and-error. I make notes, maybe even an outline. I do research. I read. I watch related TV programs. I discuss things with people. And all of that is still part of the mystical, inner-astronaut phase of the work.
You mentioned your People, which includes your crit group. I've wanted to ask about your group since I saw them pop up on your acknowledgments page. How do you work with a crit group when you're developing a novel? Like, how early in the process do you bring them your work? Do you go chapter by chapter, or do you give them a whole draft at once?
The crit group I meet with is called The Mean Group. We formed in 2005 because we found other groups to be just too damn nice. We agreed that the idea of ‘constructive’ criticism had devolved, in most cases, into ‘soft, useless’ criticism. The four writers in our group intended to write professionally, in very competitive arenas, and we needed to be able to hear, unvarnished, the kind of things editors and readers would say and think behind closed doors.
We try to meet every Sunday afternoon for a few hours. That’s never enough time to read everything we’ve done during the week, so we rarely critique whole drafts. Two of us are novelists, and we tend to bring something we’re concerned about. Last week, I took in a 10-page section right out of the middle of a long chapter, because it had a lot of exposition, and I was afraid of being too ‘explainy.’ In that case, the group thought that the language carried the narrative along briskly enough, so it wasn’t an issue.
The previous week, I brought a dilemma to the group. I wanted two characters to study Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallott,” and refer back to it throughout their lives (the novel is an epic). The themes and music of the poem served nicely to accentuate and color the themes of my story, too. Problem was, my characters are schoolboys fifty years before “The Lady of Shallott” was written. I wanted to use the poem anyway, and just ignore this inconvenience of history. The group disagreed, saying this would become an issue for some readers, and distract them from a more genuine experience in their journey through the story. So that’s the kind of thing we do. Now and then, near the beginning of a book, we might try to bring consecutive chapters or pages, but as things progress, it becomes impossible, within the Sunday meeting, to have the group make it through a manuscript as a whole entity. Not if we want to get home in time to go grocery shopping and do lesson plans and watch Game of Thrones. When we read each other’s work from start-to-finish, it’s something that takes place later, usually during a second draft, on our own time, and at our leisure. Our protocol is pretty loose…after twelve years working together, we’re good at getting into each other’s heads.
Last question. Your bio is really interesting to me. Reincarnation Blues is a fantasy novel, but you've also published a bunch of stories in literary mags. You seem to be crossing between the lands of genre and literary fiction. Does it feel like crossing back and forth to you? What are your thoughts on the distinction between genre and literary work?
There’s an anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer I read once. He was dining with some students, and they asked him what the purpose of fiction was. And he answered, “The purpose of fiction is to entertain and instruct.”
They thought he’d gotten it backwards. “Surely,” they said, “you meant --”
“To entertain,” he repeated. “And instruct. In that order.”
Fiction is best when it’s fun. That’s what Singer was trying to say, I think. If so, I agree.
Writers love to read. As kids and students, we read all sorts of things, but then one day we discover an artist whose work sets us on fire and sends us down the writing path. For me, that was Kurt Vonnegut with Slaughterhouse 5. He took an extremely difficult story about his own experiences in World War II, and set it within what seemed like a comic book tale of alien abduction and time travel. And the result is funny and entertaining and somehow not incongruous. The alien element brings the war story into focus and paints it in a sympathetic light. The interplay of these two worlds made me laugh at people (and Tralfamadoreans) and consider them from comic and tragic perspectives, and it also made me grieve for them…and grief is where the deep magic is, brother. Why are we so defined by loss? Why does loss make us laugh? That’s where Slaughterhouse 5 brought me.
Okay, so that’s a roundabout way of saying that I think the boundary between literary and genre fiction is illusory in the first place.
I know there are some who believe that a story can’t be literary if it has spaceships, time travel, detectives, talking animals, wizards, or unicorns in it. It’s easy to dismiss this sentiment. Shakespeare employed ghosts. Poe gave us the detective story. And there’s the towering artistry and scholarship of J.R.R. Tolkien. That’s just the old days. Today, all I have to say is "George Saunders." Someone forgot to tell George that literary fiction is supposed to be non-speculative, hidebound, dusty, and self-important.
Someone forgot to tell me, too. Or, rather, Vonnegut told me different. The fantastical creatures of our dreams and fears and fantasies tell us about ourselves in a way that takes us out of our daily lives and possibilities, and lets us look at ourselves from far away. We’re entertained and we're instructed.
What makes a work of fiction literary? It takes its language and characters seriously.
What makes a work of fiction ‘genre’? It fits into an easily-defined cubbyhole. Can it also be literary? Of course. We have the whole history of literature as our witness. The naysayers are just a few 20th-century snobs. People like Joffrey on Game of Thrones.
In mentioning GOT, I’ve led myself down the side-road of talking about media as literature. Genre writing is leading our emerging culture into territory where the lines between story and gaming are blurred, to say the least. See: ComicCon, where reality itself plunges through the looking glass. Where stories–good, instructive, character-driven stories–emerge on social media. Sometimes they appear as text, other times as snapshots or Vine videos. Anyone with a Smartphone can tell a story that actually reaches an audience! And I think this blurs, more and more, the lines between species of storytelling, and between story and real life. Wait ‘til you’re signing books at ComicCon, and an Imperial Bodyguard comes up, tall and forbidding in his blood red Grim Reaper uniform, and hands you a copy of your book, saying, “Hi! Can you make this out to Kevin?"
Heading into this age where ALL the boundaries of information and art are morphing at light speed, it seems that crossing synthetic lines between literary and genre writing is the easiest, most natural thing of all.