Thursday, April 10, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Michael Garriga

This is perhaps the most specific interview on craft, on the specific how-it's-done, that I've ever posted here. Full of very clear insights and ideas on getting at the work, as well as the role of research and a story-rich childhood, Garriga's creative process is one to look at very, very closely -- it's one I'd like to test-drive, in fact. 

And his debut is a work of art. The Book of Duels is unlike anything you've ever read before and one of the most masterful debuts I've come across. Click on the Buy the Book link below to get a look.

But first, here six questions for Michael Garriga. Dig in. 

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration--the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas--but I don't deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

One day, I came across an article that claimed in one year there were roughly 1400 duels in the city of New Orleans alone. I found another article that claimed only 1 in 14 people were mortally wounded in duels. So, that's 100 people killed in duels in one year. This would have been in the 1840s. Then I learned that once Louisiana banned dueling, the duelists would often board trains along with witnesses, doctors, picnickers, etc. and cross the state line into Mississippi, fight a duel, and re-board the train, and go home. This blew my mind. We're only talking about 150 years ago. But my interest wasn't piqued enough to actually start writing until I came across a footnote on p. 763 of The History of Hancock County. It cryptically read, "Philip Lacroix killed Etienne Thigpen in a duel over the ownership of a cow." (Seriously, that's all it said, and that was the impetus for the first duel I ever wrote; it couldn't really be over a cow, now, could it?) That was the proverbial light bulb going off. I imagined that one man had fought in the Civil War and the other had refused: Tell both men’s side of the story, because both men had to think they were right in the course of their actions. So, originally they were only diptych stories. Then I began to read everything I could about the history of duels, and in so doing, I learned that for a duel to be legal, you had to have a witness; hence, the third, different, point of view character was born. I now had a triptych, which I love because of the holy three and because this approach to flash fiction hadn't been done, as far as I know.

That said, I'm reminded of the great painter Chuck Close's quote: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” Not to put myself on par with Chuck Close, but I agree with his sentiments here whole-heartedly. Writing is a daily grind. It is labor intensive.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I'm like a shy, self-conscious teenage boy at the Jr High School dance approaching a much taller, much prettier girl. I hesitate. I often recite to myself what I'll say first, pacing and rubbing my sweaty palms one over the other, till I get what I want to say down pat. Still, sometimes I shy away at the last second. Other times, I break that possibly heartbreaking, publicly humiliating moment, and sometimes she laughs at me and her friends laugh too. There's finger pointing. But sometimes, sometimes she says yes and we dance, and who knew, this kid's got some moves after all, moves I never even dreamed of before the dance started.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

After working on this book for four years and then waiting another year for its publication, I was so excited to hear that there were Good Reads reviews. I read the first one, and it was about 90% positive, but there was a line in it that said, "He has a penchant for profanity." Well, fuck you. Of course these characters are cursing; they're about to kill or be killed in the next moment. I dwelled on that one phrase for weeks. I vowed not to read another. Then a buddy sent me the positive Publisher's Weekly review that said things like "Garriga triumphs"--good things--but ended with the line "though some stories are stronger than others." I flipped. Well of course some are stronger than others. Some Shakespeare plays are better than others. (See: That's how crazy I got, putting myself in the same breath with The Bard.) Then I remembered an interview with my great hero, Prince, in which he said, and here I am paraphrasing: "Man, those criticisms are all about the critic. He's describing his aesthetics not mine. Their words don't have a thing to do with my work; it's about who they are, their tastes on that particular day. Plus, if I read a good review and take it to heart, then I have to take to heart the negative ones too. So I just don't read 'em any more." Thank you, Prince. I will not read another one either.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I read more nonfiction preparing for this book than in the whole rest of my life combined. I learned little things like how in the 14th century French Court they would put perfume in the manes of their horses or that Andrew Jackson died with two dueling balls buried in his body. And unlike school, I could just luxuriate over the historical readings for as long as I wanted; I wasn't rushed like I felt in school.

So, I would get an idea for a duel I wanted to pursue--Burr v Hamilton or Don Quixote v The Windmill--and I'd already know the basic plot of the thing, because they are historical or literary facts. Then I'd start reading about that time, those characters; then I'd read things written during that time period. I'd take notes on interesting phrases or foods or trees that were unique to that place; I secured a better understanding of their ideology, mythos, rhythms, and the zeitgeist of the time. Next, I'd write the two duelists, one at a time, trying to inhabit their minds and bodies (a kind of method writing), pacing in my writer's room and speaking like I thought they might. Generally, a nice snappy first line would pop, and then I'd be at the desk writing, printing, revising off the hardcopy draft, typing again, etc. This activity generally went on for days at a time--long walks and talking to myself. I'd edit in my bed, first thing when I woke up. Once I had a decent draft done, I'd start compressing language, taking out any unnecessary words and stripping it down to only the most necessary punctuation to keep the thoughts clear.

However, I also might just stumble across a rumor--Jack Johnson played chess with Rasputin or how Robert Johnson was supposedly poisoned--and that would be enough to spur my imagination. A friend of mine saw the last legal cockfight in America, and I thought, sure, why not have birds fight? Or a bull fight? Or John Henry take on the steam engine? Or for instance, I was reading a lot about tobacco farming for whatever reason, so I decided I should set a duel on a tobacco plantation. I had the landscape and work down cold, then all I had to do was invent a new type of duel (a whip fight).

I love the research for its own sake, but also so I have something new to talk about at parties. But the research is ultimately a conduit to get to the actual writing, the hard work and the hard-won joy.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I have two much older half-brothers whom I love dearly, but I was the first child born to my parents together and so was doted upon. My dad and many of his twelve syblings all lived in an enclave of Garrigas--maybe 60 or so of us in this two block section of Gulfport, MS. They were loud talkers, all story-tellers, each trying to top one another, and they passed me from beautiful aunt lap to beautiful uncle lap. And God they could laugh and be raunchy and tell good whoppers, full of hyperbole and violence and sticking it to the Man. One would tell a story she'd just told last week, but last week that woman wasn't a dwarf, but no one would ever call her on that inconsistency. They let this version stand or fall on its own...take it for what it is at that moment. My mom says I didn't speak until I was almost two and a half years old, but when I did, I let fly with full sentences. I guess I was just waiting for a lull in the conversation before I could get my two cents in. I'm sure my head was rubbed raw. And I've been talking long ever since.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

I wrestled mightily with a duel concerning Cassanova. He even wrote a book called The Duel. I read it. I read about his life. I read about the other duelist's life, the times they lived in, the landscape of Warsaw. I made notes. I paced and paced trying to use their language--my usual prewriting method--and though I think I got the other duelist and the witness, a ballerina they were fighting over, I never, ever even came close to cracking that hard nut Cassanova. He is an illusion. There's no there there with him. And so, alas, it is not in the book.

However, one of the last duels, "The Magic Hour," came to me in a flash and took less than 36 hours to finish (instead of the usual 4-6 weeks). I didn't have to research it, because I lived it, experienced it. It concerns Megan giving birth to our first son, Jaume. They're the two duelists, and I'm the witness, which I felt like during her 31-hour, drug-free labor. Months after Jaume was born, I asked Megan to free associate those final hours, and she did. I went into my room with her notes and wrote her monologue, trying to put myself in her body, which I couldn't, of course, but I gave it my best shot. Then, I wrote mine, which was like a confession. Then Jaume's--which you would think would be hard because he was, you know, six-minutes-old--came in a quick flash of utter love. I showed Megan hers, and she tweaked it and kissed me and said, "Good job, Bub." Then she read the Jaume piece and cried. That's when I knew I had something.

 Michael Garriga's debut, The Book of Duels, was recently published by Milkweed Editions. It consists of thirty-three short stories, each comprised of three separate dramatic monologues rendered in the final seconds before an ultimate confrontation, and that, when taken together, create a multi-perspective narrative. One could use the term “flash fiction” to describe these works because of the layers of association: firing a pistol (as in most of the stories); a flash in the pan (referring to when a pistol misfires and also to those people quickly forgotten); flash forward and flash backward (two narrative strategies that engage the reader at the emotional level); the speed and brevity of these monologues; and the flash of an epiphany or a moment of yearning in the characters, like a flash bulb going off. That is, Flash Fiction can connote a moment when characters’ desire for self-knowledge and -awareness dovetails with their epiphany. In one intense moment, who they are, at the deepest level, is revealed or made apparent to themselves or to the readers. 
The book also contains thirty-three pieces of original art by Tynan Kerr, who also created the cover.

Michael Garriga's work has been published extensively in magazines and journals, including New Letters, the Black Warrior Review, storySouth, and the Southern Review. He has worked as a sound man in a blues bar, a shrimp picker, and a bartender, but currently teaches creative writing in the English department at Baldwin Wallace University. Garriga currently lives with his family outside of Cleveland, Ohio.