Welcome back! This week, I’m pleased to spotlight author Michael Griffin. Michael’s short fiction has appeared in Apex, Black Static, and Strange Aeons, among other outlets, and his short stories were collected in The Lure of Devouring Light, released in 2016 from Word Horde. His debut novel, Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone, debuted earlier this year from JournalStone.
Recently, Michael and I discussed his inspiration and process as an author as well as his advice to new writers.
A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
My journey toward becoming a writer was gradual, and unfolded in phases throughout my teens and twenties. I’ve always been a lover of books, and my desire to write grew out of my enjoyment of stories, that pleasure of visiting a world created by someone else. I experimented with writing in various genres and styles, and took a long time to find a mode that really fit. The stories I want to create take place in a world that seems exactly like our own, but transformed or shifted in some way to create a tension or confusion between aspects expected and unexpected.
Though I read lots of work that is more straightforward or less “weird,” many of my favorite writers do something more or less like what I describe. They present a world most of us would recognize, where the concerns of the characters resemble our own concerns — job, money, love, family — and add to that a level of confusion or unreality, or a distortion of time, or a confusion of cause and effect.
Some of my favorites include Laird Barron, S.P. Miskowski, Livia Llewellyn, John Langan, Richard Gavin and most recently, Michael Wehunt, whose debut collection made a big impression last year. I have so many other favorites — for example, I’m reading Brian Evenson’s latest and it reminds me “Oh yeah, another one of my very favorites,” I almost forgot — that it’s impossible to do justice to them all, either by listing them in situations like this, or reading everything they put out.
Congratulations on your novel, Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone, from JournalStone. Tell us a little bit about your process in writing your debut novel.
Thank you! A first novel is an exciting milestone for any writer, and I’m excited to have JournalStone involved. Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone is a story I’ve been trying to tell for a while. I always struggled to convey what I imagined that it ought to feel like, until I realized it needed to be much longer. Basically, I had an idea for a novel and I’d been trying to find a way to tell it as a short story. What it needed was the time and space to intimately reveal Guy’s gradual slippage from frustrated loneliness into an obsession so deep, he begins to detach from all other aspects of his life. That change needed to be shown not from the outside, but from inside Guy’s emotional state, which required a close-focus exploration of all his fears and desires, as he looks for something to grab hold of. Now I feel like it tells the story, and reveals the character Guy, I always had in mind.
Congratulations are also in order for your fiction collection, The Lure of Devouring Light, which was a huge critical success last year. What was the process for selecting the stories for the table of contents, and what was the biggest thing you learned from putting together and promoting a collection?
Again, thanks. It’s been a great experience in too many ways to list. I was so fortunate to find a publisher as great as Word Horde to release my first book. That helped give it a nice boost, sort of an instant credibility based on all the other great stuff Ross Lockhart has released through Word Horde before and since.
As to how it came together, I had some early guidance from writer and editor Joe Pulver, who really pushed me to begin preparing for the future possibility of that first collection, even before all the stories were ready. His idea was that I should start thinking in terms of a cohesive collection and build toward it, rather than just handing over whatever stories I had available whenever some publisher came calling. Often writers assume a first collection should come out as soon as they’ve written enough stories to fill a book, but it’s important to exclude anything, especially earlier work, that fails to match the quality or the “feel” or what the book ought to be.
That was the most important lesson that was reinforced through this process. You’ll only ever have one first collection, so it’s important at that stage to respect the notion of the book as a somewhat lasting artifact, rather than just flinging together random stories in a kind of giddy exuberance.
You’ve now written both short fiction and novels. Do you find your approach is different depending on the length of the story?
My approach is definitely different, and I’m still learning how best to write an effective short story, even though I’ve written many. The reason I struggle with this is that I tend to want to cram in too much story, too many scenes and details, and end up with an agonizing process of cutting words, shaving down every scene, struggling to reduce and pare away. Often I’ve work months on a story, with most of that time spent just going over and over it, evaluating every word and sentence, really obsessing way too much about every last detail.
With a novel, and really the same is true for novellas, I can spend more time and effort developing the world and the characters, and seeking interesting ways of making everything more complex or resonant. I’m able to write sentences that unfold more naturally, and seem to have an easier rhythm. I compare writing longer works to jogging or hiking at a comfortable, consistent pace, whereas writing shorter pieces feels to me like trying to do a very precise and complicated dance within the confines of a tiny room.
That may sound as if I don’t love short stories, which isn’t really true, but given the kind of narrative voice which seems most naturally to flow out of me, as well as my preference for telling stories with a lot of inward psychological intimacy, I have an easier time working within wider boundaries. More and more, I will probably shift toward working more on book-length stories, which will mean writing only a handful of short stories per year, rather than a dozen or so.
What advice do you have for writers who are just getting started in publishing and are finding all the rejection a bit daunting?
My advice would be the same bit of insight that helped me get through it myself, which is to recognize that it’s something everyone must go through, and an essential part of the growth and maturation process for every writer. Finally I stopped worrying about whether it was taking longer than it should, or whether the rejections were “fair” or not, and focused on what I could control. I decided to focus on writing the very best stories I could, and to aim higher than merely to write well enough to be published. I wanted to write stories so compelling, editors would want to find a way, even with limited slots available, to publish my work.
Soon after I shifted my focus to aspects under my own control, such as writing more often, working harder and acting like a professional even before I actually was one, I began to break through in terms of quality. Then publications began to rack up quickly. When I see writers saying “My goal is to have five acceptances this year,” I think they’re doing it wrong, because they’re setting a goal over which they have zero control. It’s a recipe for frustration and self-blame, which is how those nagging thoughts of “I’m not good enough” and “I’m never going to make it” come about.
The sooner the writer moves beyond that stage and focuses on themselves in a mature way, the sooner they’ll make progress, if they have it in them as a writer.
What projects are you currently working on?
I spent February trying to work my way out of a weird lack of rhythm, a kind of halting productivity, since we sold our house and moved across town at the latter part of 2016. I’ve always been good at working steadily, and have rarely taken breaks longer than a day or two. Luckily, I had several finished works in the pipeline, so I have stories coming out throughout the next year or so, not least of which is this new novel.
The projects I’m shuffling and trying to start moving forward soon include a longer spec novel, five or six short stories for anthology invites which I’ll spread throughout the year, and several planned novellas which I see as a series exploring the backstory of one of the characters from my story “Firedancing,” a man called Old Mallard who is “One part Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, one part Kwai Chang Caine.”