Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Bouncing Free Radicals: An Interview with Michael Byers


byers_photo_sm-11Michael Byers is a former Stegner Fellow. He earned his M.F.A. from the University of Michigan, where he currently teaches. His novel, Long for This World, won numerous awards and was selected as a New York Times notable Book. His story collection, The Coast of Good Intentions, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Byers taught at the University of Pittsburgh from 2003-2006, where he was noted for his brilliant and generous teaching style, colorful dress shirts, and basketball skills. Many former staffers of Hot Metal Bridge, including the interviewer, studied with him.

Hot Metal Bridge: Your first novel, Long for This World, takes place during the dot-com bubble collapse, which makes it even more interesting in light of our current economic atmosphere. Any thoughts on the parallels?

Michael Byers: I’d been living in my home town of Seattle and working on another novel, not at all topical, when I slowly awoke to the notion that the city I’d known so long was changing dramatically under the pressure of new money. I wanted to write about it, and I’m glad I did; I think I caught at least a little of that moment in history when we took ourselves for an ill-advised joyride. We were wrong, of course, to believe what we believed then—that the New Economy was really New, that earning curves wouldn’t correct—but even if we were suspicious of what was happening, it was hard in the moment to believe our own suspicions. Everybody was making real money, I mean, and doing real things with it, like buying the giant house next door and knocking it down because it blocked the view of the lake. It’s pretty convincing when that happens. And it’s humbling to be in the middle of such a thing, naturally, to feel oneself suspicious, and to be reluctantly convinced, and then to observe how wrong we were to have been convinced. You don’t know what the hell to believe any more. Which is where we’ve ended up again, although on a grander, more empire-fucking scale this time. No doubt some seriously greedy people got their way for almost a decade, and now we all get to pay. These are the same polo-shirt-wearing backward-Abercrombie-and-Fitch-hat motherfuckers who fuck up the planet in other ways, too, naturally; these guys’ chosen fields just happened to be in finance. Don’t get me started.

HMB: Capturing the feel of a time period is often difficult, either because that feeling itself is nearly ineffable or because the writer becomes tasked with detailing the massive zeitgeist. How did you capture the atmosphere of dread that rose in Seattle along with the dot-com bubble?

MB: In a period like that, more people have increased access to a broader range of choices and behaviors. People you know well can end up suddenly with a great deal of money, which is strange, and which—no matter how forcefully you remind yourself otherwise—can make you feel like a sucker. I mean, if he got rich, how come I didn’t? How stupid am I? Again, you begin to doubt yourself, you begin to doubt everything you’ve ever done, every choice you’ve ever made about how you’ve decided to live. And it’s a fairly simple trick to pass along this sort of doubt to your characters—nothing trains the mind on the self like seeing other people get ahead, I suppose; nothing is more illuminative of the self than uncertainty. The fact that people seemed to do it so effortlessly didn’t help matters, either.

And Seattle was changing physically, too. It wasn’t all ineffable. As with any boom city, you see buildings disappearing that you’ve known all your life, you see vacant lots being built on, you see old houses that you never thought anybody would give a damn about suddenly being fixed up and being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, neighborhoods creeping into other neighborhoods, taking advantage of people who didn’t have the wherewithal to make the most of their situation. So, it’s not all just zeitgeist. There’s stuff going on, too.

HMB: What was the most fun thing about writing Long for This World?

MB: The minor characters, including the kids’ friends and the various lesser players at both hospitals, and in the neighborhood. It was fun to fill a world with people who had their own histories, and who were just hanging around making remarks. Without any real friends, a writer finds himself making do.

HMB: One of my favorite characters in Long for This World turned out to be Arthur Dix, who is a very minor character except perhaps to Dr. Moss’ daughter. It was the way he was drawn…ultimately, a very likable character.

MB: He may be my favorite guy in the book. And Colleen, Sandra’s [quasi-Mennonite] girlfriend. I like the way Arthur bangs his arm on the side of the car to emphasize what he’s saying. ‘It is the country.’

Minor characters are great. They don’t bear the responsibility for carrying the narrative weight, so they act as these sort of free radicals in a novel. When I teach, I usually refer to them as “neutrinos.” Minor characters enter a story with their own momentum and trajectory. They angle into a story on their own path and pass through and go out the other side, usually kind of disposable. But they’re penetrative—they move swift and go deep, and they also can be used to reflect, to show the position and speed of your major characters. So you can use them analytically as well.

The good thing about minor characters is that they simply will themselves into being. They walk on. They’re free to perform as they please, and so they do.

HMB: The idea of minor characters as bouncing…elemental particles brings to mind some of the images in your short story “Dirigibles.”

MB: I drafted [“Dirigibles”], hated it, put it away, and then got it out several years later. And of its elements, I kept only the bees. And a man and a wife. So, I tore it down and built it back up again in the space of ten days. It’s one of those stories that, like some other stories of mine, I was unsatisfied with and then eventually figured out.

I thought of the bees as a one of the elements that are floating in the field “like a handful of pebbles that had been tossed into the air and hadn’t come down” and the dirigibles and James Couch’s daughter, who flies into outer space on a hang glider. That work was intentional, getting a kind of suspension into the air of the story.

HMB: Are there any characters or settings that you feel you might not be completely finished with? That you might return to in future stories or novels?

MB: I’ll write about Seattle again—I’ve written about it in stories since—but the characters are done with. That’s the pleasure of finishing a novel, you can go on to other new worlds. Like Jesus did, after he visited Earth, when he went to the planet Xanthippe and pastored to all the iron-based life forms there.

HMB: Speaking of new places and worlds—and since this is a Pittsburgh-based litmag—is there anything in particular you miss about Pittsburgh?

MB: Not the Salad, I mean the Pittsburgh Salad, which is of course mostly French fries. Bad, bad, bad. But I do miss the superb skyline and the grimy friendly extremely gray people who lived around me in Greenfield and who never failed to have a kind word: it is such a congenial city in that way. Parks, museums, of course…and I miss the old Cathedral of Learning and all its wonderful and inspiring people. Which is to say: I miss everything except the Salad.

HMB: I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for the past 8 years and have no idea what you’re talking about. Pittsburgh Salad? Did you get that at Primanti’s?

MB: (Laughs) You probably could. When I went to interview for the job at Pitt, we went across the street to one of those places on Craig Street, I think. I was feeling really queasy—I had the flu, of course, and I ordered the Pittsburgh Salad. It came with a head of lettuce, chopped mushrooms, a big gob of cheese, and a giant pile of French fries. And dressing. That sounds pretty good right now, actually.

HMB: At the beginning of your career, you wrote a lot about the Pacific Northwest: your story collection The Coast of Good Intentions was set there, as was Long for This World. Shortly after moving to Pittsburgh, you said in an interview that your writing style had shifted from writing about a certain setting to a more accretionary process, one that started and then built on a particular character or image. Has your approach towards writing short stories changed since then?

MB: My writing process (opens a file folder and shuffles through it). What do I notice about all these stories? Well, I went through a recent stage where I wrote all these stories which are almost completely plotless. I was surrendering to my…penchant for long, descriptive passages and summary. There aren’t a lot of those stories, and they were slow to get published, for reasons I suppose we can all imagine. They weren’t accretionary, but they took awhile to come together because the form was so strange—there wasn’t really a plot to hang an ending on. It took a long time to figure out how to end these stories. They’re relatively short, between ten and twenty pages apiece.

HMB: Was “Silver Maple” one of those plotless stories?

MB: No, although it’s kind of in the family. “Silver Maple” was a weird little artifact that came about as part of a challenge that Dave Daley, who runs Five now, sent around. The contest was to write three stories in an hour. No revising! And “Silver Maple” was one of [the three]. Some of the plotless, summary-heavy stories are “Betty Brown Calling,” which is coming out in The Michigan Quarterly Review and “Bartholomew’s Island,” which is coming out in Chicago Review. The funny thing is that I really like those stories—I love them, in fact. I’m extremely smitten with them. And at the same time, I realize that all evidence suggests that nobody else is all that fond of them. I must have sent “Bartholomew’s Island” out to twenty places. Either I’m totally foolish or I’m five years ahead of the curve.

At the same time I’ve been writing a few stories that are almost completely plot. One is about a man who tries to murder his wife…there are lions involved. That’s more what I’m doing these days, stories that are heavily plotted and take themselves a little less seriously. As a writer, one’s process changes. Right now, I find myself just trying to tell a story that has the traditional structure of a beginning, middle, and end—that wasn’t what I was doing a few years ago.

HMB: You just mentioned Five and I think the story about the man murdering his wife is “Darver’s Big Idea.”

MB: Yeah.

HMB: Which is vastly different from your early work. In The Coast of Good Intentions, a story about a spousal murder, three-ways, and a kangaroo attack would have really stuck out.

MB: (Laughs) Yeah.

HMB: Maybe this is a more specific way to look at your writing process. How did the process of writing “Darver’s Big Idea” differ from, say, “Settled on the Cranberry Coast”?

MB: Well, while I was writing all these stories, I was also writing a great big, difficult novel and so I was using these stories…I wasn’t trying to figure out how to write at that point, I suppose, so I was enjoying the process of writing a story. I allowed myself to have these ridiculous occurrences, these events.

HMB: In terms of novels, Long for This World is the story of Dr. Henry Moss, a geneticist who studies a disease called Hickman. He faces an impossible ethical dilemma when he discovers a possible cure (one side effect may be immortality). Shortly after your novel came out, there was a scientific breakthrough with Progeria, the disease Hickman is based upon. Your current novel is about the discovery of the (former) planet Pluto, which was demoted for some reason last year. If I remember correctly, “Pluto” actually became a verb, a synonym for demotion.

MB: (Sort of laughing and sighing at the same time) That was great, wasn’t it? I was really happy about that.

HMB: How did this unfortunate astronomical decree affect you?

MB: I sort of wish I’d been done with the book in time to take advantage of some of that publicity. That would have been fun. Yeah, that was a bad moment, really. When I heard them discuss it, I thought, “Are you kidding me?” The actual story of the discovery of Pluto is really cool…the facts themselves are fascinating, truly moving and touching. For those of us who know it, we think Pluto should be made a planet simply because of the excellent story. But [the changing of its planetary status] doesn’t change the way the book works because my book is a historical novel, set well before the scientific council’s decision. It really takes no notice of those facts and the story itself, the story of the discovery, remains as amazing as when Pluto was a real planet. But it’s funny, those two current events—I hit one and missed another. Or maybe I hit them both. I’m not sure.

HMB: Well, the Progeria breakthrough was wonderful for a lot of people. And even though it was not necessarily a positive thing for the planet or Pluto enthusiasts—when was Pluto last in the news before 2007?

MB: (Laughs) A cool thing was the outrage…a lot of people are really fond of Pluto. They love that little tiny planet…oid. Or whatever it is now. They love its tininess and it’s like the underdog planet, now more than ever. The tagalong “Little Rascal” planet out there at the edge of everybody.

HMB: Can you tell us more about your new novel?

MB: It has a large cast of characters, it is a historical novel about the discovery of Pluto. I can’t discuss a lot of details, though. Structurally, it’s a little odd because of the way the plot’s set up. It’s told from several points of view and…that’s all I can tell you about now. It’s tentatively titled The Elements of Orbit and is scheduled to come out in spring 2010. That date may have been moved, though. It’s hard to tell. There’s been a lot of upheaval in the publishing industry.

HMB: Has that affected you at all?

MB: It’s a long story, but yes. [He describes how his book contract was affected by consolidations, buyouts, and layoffs in the publishing industry]. After all that, I’m with Nan A. Talese, my editor at Doubleday, which is part of Random House. The book will come out under the Nan A. Talese imprint.

HMB: Maybe this question will allow you to discuss the new novel without giving too much away: setting it in a different time period almost forces it to be a much different from your previous work. Can you describe your research process? Did you find any fun or surprising things along the way?

MB: Yes, I did. Part of the pleasure of research is, of course, learning a language of the era. The era in which the book is set is full of great slang, a really self-conscious attention to getting off a great line. It was a sort of sport: people actually talked that way. Edmund Wilson’s diaries from the 20s and 30s are frank, sexual…selfish descriptions from a man who was determined to observe everything, write everything down—and that determination left behind some wonderful records of what people sounded like, ate, thought about. He was also careful, at least to some degree, to look at people who weren’t like him, to record what they were wearing and doing. So, I was able to mine his diaries for use in the novel. For example, at one point, I’ve got two brothers singing back and forth to each other downstairs while one of the main characters—a third brother—is upstairs. The two brothers sing a two-line song back and forth. The older brother sings “ratty, stinko, crocko, boiled” and the younger brother sings back “lousy, hi-hat, blotto, spoiled!” These are all contemporary terms for being drunk, and they all come from a much longer list in Wilson’s diaries. So that was fun—also, figuring out how trains worked, how characters would have traveled from place to place, what people knew.

One thing I’ll tell you: as I wrote this book, I drafted it several times in the past tense. But I found that in the past tense, I couldn’t produce a sufficiently textured feel—a thick enough matrix, somehow, of what it must have felt like to be there, alive, then. It was wooden and thin. And then one day I sat down and wrote a scene in the present tense and said to myself, “Okay, that’s what it’s supposed to sound like.” For whatever reason, the present tense kept my characters’ heads down in the moment, in the scene, and prevented them from knowing too much—what would happen next, where it would all lead, what people would think of them later. Writing in the present tense forces your eye down—forces you to see what’s happening then and there. So that was a huge change, a major redrafting of the novel, during which the world of the novel, the moment-to-moment experience of the characters, finally began to enter.

So (reads a passage from The Elements of Orbit):

The wheat in his arms is fresh and springy. If you leave your rake in one place too long the grasshoppers will crawl onto the handle and start gnawing, swiveling their mechanical heads, getting at the sweaty wood. If you upturn a damp patch out comes a cloud of long-legged Dutch flies, so wispy and transparent they are hardly visible, nip-ends of thread and knotted cellophane. Clyde likes the feel of an armload of wheat, its intershifting heft. You bring it to the gaping square mouth of the thresher and set it sliding down the chute. A moment’s pause. Then the whirring. A moment later a trickle of grain pebbles into the wagon bed, and the straw is rushed air-fluttery out the hayer onto the stack. Machines at work.

Just seeing that happening, for me, for whatever reason, required the present tense.

HMB: What was the most fun or surprising thing about writing The Elements of Orbit?

MB: I wanted to effect the feel of a certain size of book and I had to bring a fair number of plots to completion serially, as in Long for This World. But each of them was told on a larger scale and that was fun, bringing these bigger stories to a more or less successful landing, one after another.

HMB: Who are you reading now?

MB: I’m just finished a book by Katharine Noel called Halfway House, a novel I felt a certain affinity for because it’s told from four points of view: a mother, a father, a son and a daughter. Her novel covers a little bit more time and it’s a little shorter. She made certain decisions about how to move time and how to demonstrate character that were interesting to look at in light of what I’d done in Long for This World. What I enjoyed most about Halfway House, more so than any other novel I’ve read recently, is the writing. The prose in that book is simply marvelous.

I’ve just finished a superb novel called The Archivist’s Story, by Travis Holland. This is a telling of Isaac Babel’s last days in the Soviet prison system, told from the point of view of the archivist who’s in charge of preserving or destroying his work. And Nami Mun’s novel, Miles from Nowhere, is spectacular.

HMB: It seems we’re always hearing bad news about the current state of fiction and the publishing industry in general. Given your insider status as a writer, a professor, and a published author, can you give us any good news?

MB: It’s been a bad season in publishing but really the news is what it’s always been: truly excellent writing sees print, and eventually finds its natural audience, which is the world and its many current and countless future readers. All else is commentary. Write for people who live fifty years from now. Don’t read the blogs for inspiration. You possess a truth that no one in the years to come will ever possess: what it’s like to be you, now. Sure, you can’t ask to make a living doing this; there just isn’t enough demand for it. You can’t compete with Lindsay Lohan, for all the obvious reasons, I mean, look at her for Chrissake. It is just possible, of course, to pay the rent by writing quality fiction if you’re lucky and good, and if you do the obvious things right: tell a good story, see the world clearly and honestly, don’t make enemies when you don’t need to. But even if you do all that right, it doesn’t mean you will pay the rent, only that there’s a chance. But that the chance even exists means we’re doing a few things right, doesn’t it?