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Reviewer Richard Labonte recently branded Michael Graves “a next-generation master of prose” based on the strength of his startling original collection of short stories, Dirty One (Chelsea Station Editions). Tom Cardamone chats with the refreshingly enthusiastic author about Halloween, Mitt Romney, suburban drug use and more.
‘Tis the season, so I’d like to start with some Halloween questions: did you trick or treat as a child? And what was your favorite costume?
We love Halloween in our house! When I was a child, I’d trick or treat every year. Usually, my dad took me around the neighborhood. I have to say, I never really had any amazing costumes. Trying to be someone or something else always made me anxious. I was a cowboy one year, a Garbage Pail Kid another year, Snoopy once, I think.
What’s a favorite scary movie?
Tough question! Around this time of year, our horror flick marathons begin! I love The Shining. I’m terrified one of my projects will turn out like Jack Nicholson’s novel, “All work and no play makes Michael a dull boy.” I love Jaws, my husband’s favorite. The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dawn of the Dead…too many to name, I suppose.
Congratulations on your shiny new collection of short stories, Dirty One! What can you tell us about the process of putting it together and finding a publisher?
Thank you! I feel very grateful and blessed. The stories in Dirty One are stories I began writing in my twenties. I never set out to form a collection that was linked. It was just, well, linked all by itself. Writing these pieces was almost like putting together an album. I wanted fifty-dollar words and I wanted to create literary pop. Colorful, fizzy, glitterized fiction. I’ve always wanted to be the literary pop star next door. If that makes sense? Is that lame? Anyhow, I’m truly proud of the collection. Finding a publisher? I met Jameson Currier years ago at a reading. He was so funny and kind and he always smiled. He’s a prolific writer and I was floored when he inquired about my fiction. Years later, I bumped into Jameson again. He said, “I always look for your name out there.” Again, I was floored. And now, just recently, I decided I was ready. I basically said, “Screw it, I’m going to jump into the business of sending out my very own book. I’ll throw elbows!” I made a dream list of publishers and Jameson was at the top. I sent him the manuscript and, magically, he sent me a sweet note saying he loved Dirty One. I read his email on a Sunday morning. I just paced from room to room and my heart was thumping crazily.
Your writing contains a sweetness that lures readers in, but the core, the theme, can be quite dark. What can you tell us about this dichotomy?
The flavor, the dichotomy in Dirty One is my view of childhood and adolescence. Everyone laments about the manner in which they grew up. We were fed wholesome sitcoms, idealized commercials…lies. And we wanted to believe them. Badly. But lies are not the truth. Being a child is frightening! The world is brutal, harsh. Assimilating to this reality while trying to fashion your identity is a rough business. I guess I love polarity in life. Beautiful objects can be vile and disgusting. And vice versa.
Queer writers mostly write about the city, you write about the mall and backyards, what attracts you to the suburban?
I grew up in the suburbs. Leominster, Massachusetts…the setting for Dirty One. It was all that I knew. My universe was that of roller rinks, arcades and dollar stores. The suburbs seem much more intimate than the city or the country. And, maybe, darkness is a bit more hidden or stashed away. I’ve lived in Boston, I’ve lived in Los Angeles, but now, I live in Leominster.
One thing the city and suburbs share in America is a penchant for drug use, something that crops up in your work, “Seahorse” and “This Whole Galaxy.” From Coleridge to Huxley, literature has long used drug use as a metaphor or a jumping off place. What do you think is the queer literary connection?
I think, for me, drug use in Dirty One was about being honest. Growing up, teenagers feel invincible. So…why not? That’s what they do. The characters in the collection aren’t sampling high end drugs. They are snorting crushed up prescription pills and huffing hairspray. Very suburban. Craft-wise, in literature, drug use shows a character’s need to escape, fit in, move along, detach. My characters do all those things…because they absolutely need to.
I see a bit of Dennis Cooper and Scott Heim in your prose, are they influences?
Yes! Absolutely! Both terrific writers. Dennis Cooper is utterly dark. He flirts with so many taboos. Sex and death. Scott Heim is such a gifted writer. His imagery is priceless. Scott was my first sort of writer idol. I loved Mysterious Skin. Around that time he was featured in Interview Magazine holding his book in just briefs. I was like, “I want to do that!” I was only in high school then. I’ve been fortunate to meet both Mr. Cooper and Mr. Heim. Two class acts. Great guys.
Who were the first queer writers you discovered?
Jim Grimsley. Bret Easton Ellis. I read and re-read American Psycho in my History of America class junior year. I received a D-. Scott Heim and Dennis Cooper, of course. Michael Cunningham. Paul Lisicky. William S. Burroughs. My most sterling influence is Capote. His words are like diamonds. Real ones.
Who are you reading now?
Tomas Mounian’s Hidden. I read a lot of poetry too. Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson. I’m obsessed with Louise Bogan. I read and re-read them throughout the day. I also try, and when I say try I say it doesn’t always happen…but I try to read writing craft books and Buddhist prayers or chants everyday.
Which books on writing have been the most useful-inspiring?
Anything by Ursula Le Guin. Read her! And her work! I love reading intimate interviews with authors like Carver and Capote. I’m attracted to the process that other writers have. It helps. But all artists have their own process. I guess you have to find it and own it.
How did your interest in Buddhism come about?
I studied a great deal of religion in college. Every faith really. And Buddhism clung to me. It’s about being in the moment. It’s about truly being HERE. My novel, PARADE, is very much based on Buddhist truths. I’m no spokesperson. Please, no. Buddhism, when I can practice it, simply helps me to carry on and create. It fuels me. As all faiths should.
So growing up in Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was Governor for a hot minute in the 90s. I think of him as some Reaganesque Frankenstein- what’s the opinion of him there?
Like my grandmother used to do, I wrote him a letter once. My grandmother wrote everyone letters. The President, companies with poor products. Anyway, at one point in his career, way back when, I felt as though Romney was trying to appeal to EVERYONE and I felt it was just so artificial and demeaning to the people of Massachusetts. He was lying to us all! So, I told him that. I received a generic reply, thanking me for my thoughts. I guess I don’t really trust any politicians. It’s a rather creepy system…and we’re the ones who have to suffer.
And congratulations on getting married! As America becomes a crazy quilt of civil rights, equality here, but not there, can you share something of your experience with us?
Thank you! Yes, I’m a husband! I’m very lucky and very happy! I’ve always wanted to get married and I told my husband that nine years ago when I first met him. As a little boy, I felt the same way. I knew it wasn’t legal, but, being a precocious youngster, I decided I would just do it anyway. When legalization occurred in Massachusetts, I was beyond thrilled. Really, we were already married in our commitment to one another, but going to city hall and filling out those documents…it was empowering. I felt like I was free to be recognized because of the work done by so many leaders before me. I felt proud. Of the LGBT community and the fighters who keep fighting. Our marriage certificate is framed on the wall.
Now, can you give us a wee little hint of what’s coming out of your keyboard next?
I’m finishing up my first novel, Parade. It’s the story of two cousins who burn down a church, flee to Jupiter, Florida and create their own glamorized religion/government. New short stories are on the way. Eventually another collection, I hope. A memoir, too. I really want to start taking poetry workshops. I’m busy creating posts for my blog: www.michaelgraves.blogspot.com. Oh, and book reviews.