Welcome back! This week, I’m pleased to present author Michael Wehunt. Michael’s work has appeared in such venues as Cemetery Dance, The Dark, Unlikely Story, and Nightscript. His debut short fiction collection, Greener Pastures, was released earlier this year from Shock Totem Publications and has been receiving rave reviews ever since.
Michael and I recently discussed Greener Pastures as well as how he became an ardent fan of horror.
A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
I think the larger part of me had always dreamed about it, felt it in me, but I let a very simple fear push me back for far, far longer than I care to admit. I didn’t take a deep breath and decide to try this until late 2011.
I have gained a lot of favorite authors since I began writing, but Flannery O’Connor and Stephen King were my first true loves. Flannery has continued to burn in me ever since, though I still obediently read every King book. I discovered Robert Aickman a few years ago and have joined his ambiguous cult. Laird Barron is still the only writer I’ve ever read who can genuinely write creepiness in a visceral way, and for that I’ll always swear fealty to him. Proulx, Nabokov, Welty, Faulkner, Oates, McCarthy, Agatha Christie (I’m a sucker for Marple and Poirot), Stephen Graham Jones, Reggie Oliver…and so many more. And poets! Mary Oliver, James Dickey, Louise Glück, Rilke, Plath…
Congratulations on the recent release of your debut short fiction collection, Greener Pastures! What was the process for curating this group of stories? Were certain ones left on the proverbial cutting room floor, or did you have an exact vision going in?
Thank you! So far it’s been wonderful and surreal.
I wanted a group of stories that really fit together, with direct and indirect threads binding them here and there. I very much wanted to resist the urge to have a collection just for the sake of having one. I don’t have a tremendous body of work to draw from yet, but I did feel as though I could collect a thematically unified, tone-specific book in which I believed every single story deserved to be in there. I wanted the collection to have a weird slant (which wasn’t difficult, considering I usually lose my balance and fall off the fence into the weird pasture anyway) so long as the great majority were still decidedly dark and in the horror camp. So that was my guiding hand.
Once those stories were together, I realized how prominently trees figure into my work, something I’d never truly noticed before. They’re everywhere, either in the foreground or background, but this was accidental. Less accidental was the theme of loss. There are a lot of stories here that deal with various shades and types of loss, and how people cope with it. Write what you fear, and that’s exactly what I fear. But I knew I had to provide a variety of moods and voices to bear these losses and keep things interesting for the reader. And, of course, a variety of darknesses, including some good old terror.
There were many stories I knew right away didn’t belong in the book, and there was only one story that was cut after the book took shape, a nasty little flash piece called “A Coat That Fell.” One of my editors fought for it, but ultimately we all decided that it wasn’t quite as strong as the others. I had one other story that was written for an anthology that’s coming out this fall. I was sorely tempted to take that story away from them and put it in the book as a last-minute original—it would have fit so well—but I decided to be nice.
You often write about creepy and darkly fantastical themes. Was there a certain story or film that made you know you wanted to write in the horror genre in particular, or was your love for the strange and terrifying more slow-growing over the years?
Both, kind of. I mentioned that King was a childhood obsession for me. But curiously, I never really read horror outside of him. I did love scary movies, though, which for some reason my mother would let me watch from around the age of seven. I remember reading Koontz as a kid and not being impressed, so I suppose stupid young me assumed King was the only good one…I’m not sure what snuffed out my curiosity. It’s one of my biggest regrets, not fully exploring horror until much later, just a few years ago, in fact. But part of me is glad, because I read a great deal of other stuff instead. There’s a lot of bleak wonder outside the dark fiction world, and much of it is incredible. I’m very grateful for all the Eudora Welty and Julian Barnes and David Mitchell I absorbed in those intervening years. Later, I would circle back around to Annie Proulx’s short story “The Half-Skinned Steer” and realize that it’s one of the greatest weird fiction tales ever written, in its way.
When I had my little micro-epiphany and decided to try writing a story for real, I searched on Amazon and found Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Volume Three. It had the word “best” in it so I bought it. I didn’t know a single name in the table of contents. I was loving it, feeling like I’d found my family, and then I came to Laird Barron’s “–30–” and a hole opened up. I crawled into it. It was warm and wet and I was home. I knew this was something like I wanted to write, but hopefully refracted through my own lens. That story was my true introduction to weird fiction as well as cosmic horror. I’d read “Crouch End” and “N” by King and loved them, but they were still just King stories to me. I was woefully, shamefully under-read in this world—I’m not sure if I should admit this publicly. But “—30—” opened the door, and I traveled backward, reading Lovecraft, Machen, Blackwood, Michael Shea, Ramsey Campbell, and the lot. I’ve been playing catchup ever since. Who knows—perhaps doing it in this roundabout way helped make me the writer I am.
The last few years have been prolific ones for your short fiction career, with publications in The Dark, Cemetery Dance, and Shadows & Tall Trees. What does your writing process typically look like? How many hours per week do you tend to write, and do you have any particular writing habits, such as writing at the same time of day or writing to certain music?
This is all a work in progress, as I don’t get much time to write and am striving to be better at time management. But typically I write for one hour in the evening, and sometimes I’m able to eke out 30-40 minutes during my lunch hour, chaotic as that can be. It’s not much but the routine is vitally important. With it I can sink into a groove and be consistent. Without it I’m unmoored and have to reacquaint myself with a story every time I should be adding to it.
I used to write in complete silence, but somewhere along the way I started listening to music while I work. Mostly a lot of drone and field recordings. I have an LP of a thunderstorm on a farm that I’ve listened to maybe 200 times while writing. One story will get ambient techno like The Field looped for days. Another will get the ugly drone of Indignant Senility. Occasionally classical or jazz, but those often require too much engagement with the music.
All writers have to deal with rejection. What advice do you have for other writers out there who are just starting out and might take the rejection of the publishing industry a little too much to heart?
If you acknowledge that rejection is part of the process, it helps tremendously. Because that’s truly what it is. Part of the process. Especially when you’re starting out. You’re learning not just how to write at a certain level of skill and structure but also how the world of publishing and audiences works, so there will be a lot of rejection. If you get rejected 95% of the time, you’re doing extremely well compared to most. And you have to level up more than once. There is a lot of frustration and a lot of joy. Many people say to read the anthologies and magazines you’re trying to get into, and while that is absolutely helpful, if you start trying to mold your writing for those places, just make sure you keep yourself in it. Make it something you would want to read. Make sure it carries your unique voice. It’s the only way, in my opinion.
What other upcoming projects have you got up your sleeve? A novel perhaps? More short fiction?
I’m finishing up a longer story called “The Tired Sounds/The Waking,” which will be published by Dim Shores late this year as a standalone chapbook with cover and interior art by the amazing Justine Jones. Dim Shores is a treasure. I’ve turned in a few more stories for upcoming anthologies. And I’m pretty sure I’ve decided to try out this whole novel thing in the fall. That will be another big learning experience in a couple of years that have been full of them. They’ve all been lovely and enriching.