A few weeks ago, it was Michael Bible’s birthday. His girlfriend Kelsey got him a landline: red and corded, like the one from Dr. Strangelove. We conducted this interview over that secret line, sharing drinks on either end.
All his books have been novellas. All his books have been immaculate. The most recent, The Ancient Hours, is a stunning lyrical look at guilt, love, and the small triumphs that are still available to us despite the indignities that time and other people ruthlessly dole out. It centers on Iggy, who burns down a small town church and is sentenced to death and dies, and the lives he’s affected. Imagine Meursault in the American South and you’ll have some idea of Bible’s achievement.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Well, first I knew I wanted to be a poet. And I remember the exact moment: when I read Robert Frost’s “Home Burial.” And I can remember the line, too. “She took a doubtful step and then undid it.”
Who was the parent responsible for the Frost book being there?
My mom. She’s a housewife but if she’d kept working she would’ve been a librarian.
Loves football, always had season tickets. And he’d take turns choosing which one of us to bring—my older brother had a turn, my younger brother had a turn, and I had a turn. I remember when it was finally my turn. I brought a copy of The New Yorker with me and hardly looked at the game. Pretty sure my dad almost got up and left me there. But there were some great long-form essays in that one.
They read your books?
You’re a middle child. Did you prefer being an older brother or a younger brother?
…I wish I’d had an older sister.
I went to Sewanee. Geologists and priests.
The bit about taking the doubtful step and then undoing it makes so much sense with your work. I feel like that’s how your characters are—taking doubtful steps forward and wishing they could take them back. But you never actually can take it back, and your books sort of center on that relationship to time, its irreparability. But also, none of your characters seem to regret—with Iggy, the past becomes almost a shelter from the storm in the face of sure death. So, how do you move through life without regret?
Consuming dangerous levels of THC. My mind is in a fucking constant fugue state of digressions. [Laughter] Just kidding.
The operative word there might be move. It’s a question of proceeding, a matter of rhythm. It’s an aesthetic solution to a psychological problem, but it works. You move through life the way art moves through time. This idea probably comes from a poem by Richard Wilbur and the fact that I was taught by big formalists. My college and high school were diagramming sentences, rhyme, meter, it was the sonnet and spondees and iambs and all that sort.
With time, I’m most interested in the fluidity of it. The idea that there’s a general measurable thing that exists that’s time but how we experience that is anyone’s guess. I’ve started getting interested in how we can possibly imagine anyone else’s life.
There’s that Marquez quote about everyone having three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life; and I think the same goes for time. There’s a secret time that you can’t explain even to yourself. Hidden unfathomable rhythms.
Like the Constant in Ancient Hours, the unnamable thing that forms the foundation of Cleo and Iggy’s relationship.
The Constant is time. I would even suggest that The Constant is different to Cleo than it is to Iggy. So the Constant is only constant in its inconsistency.
You’ve been involved in the film and music worlds. Do those feed into the writing?
Absolutely. It’s all rhythm.
The Church seems to be the locus of some bad stuff in your books—violence, sanctimony. What’re your feelings about it?
When I was a kid, I thought I was gonna be a minister. My parents did too. Didn’t work out. Quite the opposite.
I don’t hate it, though. Here’s my thing about religion: people like to say that they’re spiritual but not religious. It’s the opposite for me: I’m religious but not spiritual.
If Church was just a bunch of people who knew where you lived and they’d be there for you if you needed them, then I’d be all for it. It was like that where I grew up, really close. But where you get into talk about the soul and heaven and everything, that’s where I can’t get on board.
So you acknowledge that death is the end of everything?
No. [Laughter] I just don’t know. And you don’t either!
When did you doubt it, though? Enough to not be spiritual?
Probably when I was nine. They told me about heaven and how you’d live forever. I thought, ok, if I live to 100 and then die, I go to heaven forever. And what’s forever? I imagined it’s 100 years after that and 100 years after that and so on and so on. It just struck me as too much.
Again, your fascination with form. Life’s like a novella—it needs to have that limit to make sense.
Life is a single discrete experience and it’s great when art can be that way too. We don’t often read in the same period of time that we watch a film and that’s a loss. The novella is the only literary form that gets that. Short enough to read in a single sitting but long enough to feel like a journey. Something where you think “I’ll just read 25 pages” then you end up reading the whole damn thing. You can hold the beginning and end simultaneously in mind.
Barry Hannah always brought up the Power to Size ratio; if you wanted to keep it short, it had to be strong. He also said you wanna keep them there until they have to pee and then you make them hold it.
Barry wasn’t your only mentor. There was also Jane Rule who was a friend too, and who you’ve written about before.
Still is a friend—she’s met my whole family; she is family. She came from the Mississippi Delta and was supposed to be a debutante and get married but she never wanted to do that and instead she became the Gertrude Stein of Oxford, Mississippi.
Was it fun down there with her?
You know what they call it? The Velvet Ditch. If you wanted to, you could stay there forever in a state of inebriated rebellion. And Jane Rule has a compound there where she let all manner of artists hang: young and old. And that was one of the best things about that place, the way older people and younger people were together all the time. It wasn’t weird to watch Holy Mountain with undergrads and senior citizens on any given night.
[His dog starts barking] Hold on that’s Cleo. Cleo. Cleo! What. What do you want. She’s a little crazy tonight because Kelsey’s not here.
She’s a great dog.
She is, man. Pets are funny. Your pet means everything to you but you are everything to your pet. Their whole life depends on whether or not you respond to a bark. I like that. If I had my druthers, I’d be in the British countryside with five or six dogs. Writing.
How’s Ancient Hours different from the earlier books? It’s the first one without Alvis Maloney.
The Ancient Hours is the most conscious of my books; the most conceived. Sophia and Empire are action painting books. Not that I Kerouac’d them. I wrote all of the books in feverish stretches, it’s just that this last one was the most deliberately pieced together sequence of feverish stretches.
And that goes for the editing of the book too. I cut double the finished length of The Ancient Hours from the manuscript. It’s more of a sober book, in every sense of the word.
It’s still very vivid.
Booze and debauchery.
Debauchery, and darkness. But despite the intensity of the subject matter (particularly in Iggy’s section), it’s really not a sensationalist or salacious book.
I have no interest in writing violent books. I’m not interested in what Iggy does so much as I’m fascinated by the psychology of people who do things like Iggy. Same thing that drew me to Maloney in the first two books. I’m drawn to characters who’re really seeking and searching. Like in Sophia, Maloney is a canonized Withnail. He wants to be a worldly saint.
He’s obsessed with the Lives of the Saints.
I’m a very obsessive person myself. In Sophia, chess and saints became lodestars for order. An order that doesn’t quite encompass the unruliness of our lives but which we need nonetheless. That’s why I became obsessed with David Markson. That obsessive friction between order, randomness, and time. His books are always asking questions: Is this a novel? What am I doing? They’re invigorating. Funny, engaging, dark, laid-back texts about dying—that’s what every book should be.
And they’re short too.
Exactly. Longer stuff tends to be so in love with what it’s doing. And there’s a concentrated sincerity to shorter stuff. Do you like last words?
As in, famous last words?
Exactly. That was another thing I was obsessed with for a while. I’d carry around this collection of famous last words because they have so much energy. Markson’s writing is like that and I think every writer should write as if they’re writing their last words. Because that’s what they are. Faulkner’s last words are his novels—volumes of last words.
And the honest thing about last words is this: we tend to regard life and death as outside us. We think we have time. We should be writing like we don’t have time, because we don’t.
Any favorite last words?
Napoleon. “France. Army. Josephine.”
John Wilkes Booth. “Tell my mother I died for my country.” Then he looked at one hand and then the other. “Useless. Useless.”
Looking back on your beginnings in Oxford, would you say there was a lesson you learned? Especially from Jane Rule who seems like she was special to you.
There’s not really a lesson. But I can tell a story.
Jane Rule had two grey cats and she named them both after old generals. One day one of the cats died. She was beside herself with grief so a bunch of her friends decided to throw a proper funeral for the general.
We showed up wearing black and Jane Rule descended the stairs like the war widow she was. We did a 21 gun salute. We went out to the backyard to offer communion using moonshine as the blood of Christ and weed brownies as His body. Then we had a party and it felt like what Jane Rule always wanted everything to feel like: we felt for a time that the world was not just what it was. And I hope that spirit’s imbued in everything I do.
Was it a real 21 gun salute? Like, with real guns?
Man. Hell yes, real guns. Would I lie to you?