Literary Arts

Author Michael Gills: The 15Bytes Interview

Even though author Michael Gills has a doctorate from the University of Utah and was named in 2012 “Distinguished Professor,” he says in a recent profile about him in Continuum that, “In my mind, I’m still a poor kid from Arkansas … It’s just a miracle I’m not pouring concrete.” Gills is the author of Go Love, a novel; story collections Why I LieThe Death of Bonnie and Clyde, The House Across from the Deaf School; and White Indians, a collection of creative nonfiction essays, part two of which is forthcoming. An associate professor of writing for the Honors College at the University of Utah, he lives in the Wasatch Foothills with his wife and daughter.

Tamara Thomson, MFA Creative Writing candidate from BYU, caught up with Gills in an email interview earlier this month.


TPT: Donald Barthelme has famously said that “writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how.” Given that your stories in The House Across from the Deaf School seem to have autobiographical elements in them, how do you approach a story or a character from a place of mystery? In other words, when you first begin a story, how much of the story is already worked out in your mind?

MG: For me it’s a flicker or a flash out of the periphery, like when you’re in the deep wood and catch a flash of movement. Your heart starts beating and you know something’s there, and–whatever it is–you’re on its trail.  That’s how the stories feel, like I’m in the hunt, and nearly all mornings I end up with something in that day’s writing that I never could have guessed. All my best work has come that way. As for autobiographical elements, if the fiction writer’s doing their job, readers believe it’s true, if they’re not, the reader doesn’t care.

TPT: You may hate being asked this, but how autobiographical is The House Across from the Deaf School?

MG: Fiction is a composite, part what happened, what might have happened, what you can outright lie into happening, what you hear, dream, steal–all of that plus the magic of luck, when you trip into a truth that’s truer than truth.

TPT: Your stories deal with pain and tragedy, sometimes searing tragedy, but they don’t feel overwrought or self-indulgent, and you manage to instill hope and grace into your narratives in a way that feels natural. How do you manage that? Does that happen in your early drafts or in revision? Do you have to work to avoid being sentimental or is it more intuitive?

MG: The great power of a retrospective narrative is that a moment is never a moment unto itself. It is always fully imbued with all that has come before and all that will come after, interacting. Theodore Roethke’s [poem] “My Papa’s Waltz” teaches us such, as does, on a more searing level, The Diary of Anne Frank — her joy at the tree turning into leaf. Moments of light — they depend on dark.

TPT: When you started writing The House Across from the Deaf School did you plan to write a collection of interrelated stories? When in the process do you decide if a work will be a novel or a group of stories?

MG: The collection is my third, and quite connected, written in concert with four novels, The Go Love Quartet.  In this sense, the work is all part of a created world that gets fractured with the story “Last Words on Lonoke.”  I’ve now finished a third novel in the sequence, and am working on a fourth collection of stories in concert with a two-part series of creative nonfictions. A book of poetry, First Frost, is also interrelated.

TPT: Most of the stories in The House Across from the Deaf School are told in first person in Joey’s voice, but in the final story, titled “Finisterre,” it shifts to a third person limited point of view. Why did you decide to make that move and what do you think the collection gains from it?

MG: Third person gives distance. The last piece is an airy piece — an escape, almost. “Finisterre” is the grace moment of the book, hopefully. I hope it moves the future writing toward such. Certainly, it attempts to heal the ruptures that have occurred up through that point.

TPT: Dana Gioia in the essay “Can Poetry Matter?” (The Atlantic) laments what he sees as the “institutionalization” of poetry through the proliferation of academic writing programs and subsidized magazines and presses. What do you think about the idea that literary fiction has become marginalized into a subculture because universities have created a limited audience for serious fiction?

MG: To the contrary, small presses are producing the very best fiction and poetry today, and we’re fortunate enough to write whatever, whenever we want without censor, as we’re far enough under the mainstream radar to do so. The real crap is what’s coming out of New York now — small-minded books filled with middle class angst — how will I make my Pilates today, and still have time for little Ricky’s soccer tourney? The university presses and independents don’t have to worry about pleasing upper middle class sensibilities — they can rock the boat, and encourage us to rock it. Huffington Post ran a piece on this not so far back, noting that presses run by the likes of Paul Ruffin at Texas Review Press, and Jennifer Barnes at Raw Dog Screaming Press are where the real work is getting done these days. Have a look at what’s going on at The American Book Review — see what’s being reviewed there. It’s uplifting. So, contrary to being marginalized, I think we’re seeing a heyday–just under the radar.

TPT: Barthelme describes art’s project as “fundamentally meliorative.” What does fiction offer the world today when truth is as beleaguered as it is in our public discourse?

MG: William Faulkner has answered this question in his acceptance speech which I include here in its entirety:

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work–a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

MG: Amen.


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