A few years ago, I went to visit Michael Griffith at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches in their PhD program. I was there in my usual capacity (i.e. to terrorize students of creative writing). But I was also there in my other usual capacity, which is to lunch with other writers in sad cafes and complain.
Michael, who is from South Carolina and is thus polite, was accommodating of my complaints, which were –- as complaints go — especially insufferable. We’d finished most of our food before I thought to ask him how things were going with his work.
He offered me a pained look. The company that had published his previous two books, Spikes (2001) and Bibliophilia (2003), appeared to be going belly up. Worse yet, he was at work on a novel that appeared all but impossible to write.
“How so?” I said.
“Well,” Michael said, “it’s about a guy who gets crushed by a giant stuffed bear.”
“That sounds pretty dramatic.”
“It takes place in the single second the guy is getting crushed.”
“Okay,” I said.
“And it’s in present tense.”
We were silent for a time.
“That does sound a tad daunting,” I said finally.
Imagine my delight, then, at finding a copy of that very novel in the mail last week. Trophy tells the story of Vada Prickett, a 29-year-old car wash employee, who, as the book opens, is being crushed by the stuffed grizzly bear belonging to his romantic rival, Wyatt Yancey.
Despite the limitations Michael placed on himself (or perhaps because of them) Trophy is a sprawling, exuberant investigation of memory, love, regret, and faith. Actually, “exuberant” doesn’t quite do the book justice. It’s genuinely ecstatic. The sentences are charged not just by Vada’s desperation to live, but by Michael’s own worship of the language. The guy loves words like no other writer I’ve ever met. And the miracle of his book is that he makes you – the innocent reader – love words the same way.
Forgoing the sad café, I zapped him an electronic interrogation as to his motives and methods, and waited for him to throw his magic back my way.
How, in God’s name, did you come up with the idea for Trophy?
Oh, my long, pathetic crush on collapsed timelines. My first novel covers less than a day, and the novella that makes up most of my second book spans less than an hour. I guess the inevitable next step was one second.
Years ago I read those first two funny, resourceful Nicholson Baker books, The Mezzanine (which takes place over a single escalator ride) and Room Temperature (set in the span it takes for a bottle of infant formula to cool). Baker’s radical break appealed to me in concept, but I wondered whether it might be possible to write a novel in which the digressions (and Baker’s are brilliant) seemed born as much of a character’s motivation as of the desire of a lightly disguised writer to show you the amazing shit he could get away with, and in which one preserved (eventually) more of an emotional payoff. In other words, how might one marry a celebration of digression and the minutiae that we actually invest our lives in with some kind of (askew, disguised) narrative urgency?
I was also inspired by Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis.
Who Who Who de Who?
Machado is an amazing figure: the son of a mulatto housepainter in Brazil, he built a career for himself as a successful but conventional novelist until 1878, when, nearing forty and afflicted by rickets and epilepsy, he retreated to a sanitarium outside Rio. The novelist who emerged was utterly different, a risk-taking, iconoclastic, darkly comic voice who seems, if we take the twentieth to be the century of the unreliable narrator, the proto-twentieth-century writer. One of those later books is The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, a novel told by a vain and grumpy corpse who’s pissed at being dead and who still has scores to settle. The novel consists in large part of his retroactive–or retro-not-quite-active–efforts to torture the facts of his life into something he can declare to be a victory.
That book provided the eureka moment for me. I thought: What if you had a novel that took place in the instant during which a guy was dying early and absurdly, and he knew it, and he felt that he should be allowed by the Law of Cliché to have his whole life pass before his eyes before he croaked. And what if, for maybe the first time in his life, he’s RIGHT, or at least no God seems inclined to contradict him and cut the thread pronto? If so, then for as long as he can keep his life flying across the screen of memory, he CAN’T DIE; the novel becomes his shot at immortality–sure, fine, it’s a poor, pitiful, cut-rate immortality, but you take your small victories where you can. Namely, in the midst of the one big defeat.
Did it occur to you that this might be, technically, an imprudent approach?
As you know, I traffic only in stupid ideas . . . but this one was irresistibly stupid, stupid on a suitably grand scale, and I knew instantly that I’d spend years pursuing it. A novel that gives away its only plot point in the first sentence, then announces on page one that it’s about wasting time, then asks the reader to pretend not to realize, for almost 300 pages, just whose time it is being wasted? How could I not?
And as usual, after I got started I discovered that I sort of BELIEVED in the premise. Plot is a petty tyrant, almost always the part of novels that seems to me most false and dull. Lots of lives are full of incident, but whose has a plot? Digression gets a bad rap. Even the word itself implies that there’s a proper gress from which one has strayed, that every life is a line. But surely linearity is a myth, is something we impose only afterward, when it’s time to make a narrative. We are poor, forked animals who live most of our lives in a state of ungress. I like fiction that accommodates as much of the mess of consciousness as possible, and it struck me that this was a chance to put up or shut up. Digress plus egress equals progress. It’s not Archimedes, but it’s what I had to go on.
As with Bibliophilia, Trophy is a novel that’s consciously concerned with language, word-drunk really, both playful and reverential. Would it be fair to assume that you’re a “word geek?”
Fair to assume, if you’re the assuming type. There’s a chapter called “In Defense of the Pun” in which I verge on the claim that wordplay is one of the principles of Creation.
On a related note: what’s your favorite word? Why?
“Rhubarb,” because it applies both to pies and to skirmishes and because I’m told it’s what extras in movies and TV have traditionally been told to murmur in the background of scenes in which bigger-name actors are talking up front. As often as not, I’d rather hear the extras say “rhubarb.”
It’s been my impression that, as the big NYC publishers start to contract, more and more of the literary work is migrating to smaller, indie presses, and university presses. That’s certainly the path we’ve both traveled. Where do you see the future of literary publishing headed?
Our mutual friend Keith Morris said something a year or so ago that struck me as right on. The way he sees it is that publishing is on precisely the same track as the music industry, but twenty-five years behind. When indie music took off, the scale of the business was such that major labels could still afford to put out good music. Their employees WANTED to put out good music–their first, and deeper, loyalty was to good music–and if they wanted to keep their jobs, they needed the good music to help make their companies rich. But as the marketplace splintered and atomized and balkanized–choose your metaphor–a bottom-line mentality came to dominate. You still had people who wanted to produce good music, but they were ordered to mesh that desire with the business model. Stockholders can’t afford a definition of “good music” in which good means anything other than “profit-maximizing.” Which is why, as Keith put it, you can basically assume these days that anything put out by a major label sucks.
Something similar is happening in literary publishing, I think. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of great books being published by big houses, but it seems to me that more and more they’re being published by big houses not so much because they’re spiky and weird and chancy, as greatness may require that they be, as despite their being spiky and weird and chancy. Literary merit is just another niche market, and not a big one. I remember years ago being told by an editor that John Grisham and Anne Rice subsidized all the mid-list books. And all over New York there were literary-fiction-loving editors trying desperately to find a bestseller so that they could be indulged the half-dozen quirky books a year they wanted—and, to be fair, that they thought they could also make money on, or at least not lose money on, though they knew they couldn’t make the kind of money on them that you can make on the Vampires-in-Bustiers series.
But it doesn’t take long, in a bottom-line-driven corporate culture, for management to figure out THAT scam. Subsidize what, and why? That novel is best that sells most. Period. So why not publish ONLY bestsellers?
Which leaves independent houses (or writers themselves) to do the old kind of publishing—not publishing that fetishizes losing money or publishing that produces obscure, haughty, unreadable books, but publishing that doesn’t see money as the sole purpose of the enterprise. Much of the fiction that seems to me most interesting and most ambitious and most fun is migrating to independent houses, yes. Not all, not by a long shot. Not yet. But I suspect Keith may be right about 2036.
Can you talk a bit about your work as an editor, first with The Southern Review, but also more recently LSU Press and Cincinnati Review?
What I love most about editing is the feeling that you can help along, in however small a way, someone who’s doing fresh and exciting work but who’s not well-known or widely published yet—you’re making some contribution to the confidence and the success of a young writer you think will go on to big things. At the Southern Review that was folks like Bonnie Jo Campbell, Lucy Corin, June Spence, Tom Franklin, Cathy Day, George Singleton, Elizabeth Stuckey-French. At Cincinnati Review, I’ve been lucky enough to publish terrific talents like Brendan Mathews, Micah Riecker, Rachel B. Glaser, Kevin Wilson, Brian Mooney, Jessica Hollander, Meghan Kenny, Andy Farkas, Christie Hodgen, Ted Wheeler.
I love doing the Yellow Shoe Fiction series with LSU. I’ve been a fan of their original fiction for thirty years, since A Confederacy of Dunces, and to get to be part of their resurrection has been both an honor and a blast. I’m thrilled with the folks we’ve published—Nick Montemarano, R. T. Smith, John Fulton, Margaret Luongo, Darrin Doyle, Allison Amend, Josh Russell, Lori Baker. Our current title is Chris Bachelder’s brilliant Abbott Awaits, one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years. It seems to me that there are unprecedented opportunities now for small and university presses to publish phenomenal work, though I also feel depressed at how many genuinely good things I have to turn away.
What sort of work are you seeing from your own students? I ask because it’s been my sense that young writers are reacting in a number of ways to the dominant visual culture.
It seems to me that if fiction is going to survive and thrive, we can’t keep thinking of it as some sad, quaint, antique art that needs to get with the program and be more relevant and central to the culture, like it used to be. That’s a pointless, terrible ambition, and all it does is doom the novel to be a second-rate imitative visual art. Is fiction as good at car chases or JACKASS stunts as TV is? No, and it can’t be. The way to “save” fiction is not to make it more like the art forms greater numbers of people like. I urge students all the time to concentrate on the things that fiction is BETTER AT than other media, the things that are more or less unique to it. To my mind, chief among those are two. One is the intricacy of language play available to prose fiction (including in dialogue), and the other—the big one—is psychological interiority. For my money, fiction can provide the closest thing human beings have yet devised to what it feels like to be someone else, to be transported by a leap of empathetic imagination into someone else’s history and mind and diction and experience and way of reckoning with the world. Fuck trying to out-movie movies at the visual; someone show me a movie that can capture the complexity of what it’s like to THINK in the way that really good fiction can.