Michael Backus is an author and creative writing instructor whose fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications. His novel Double was published by Xynobooks in 2012 and The Vanishing Point is forthcoming from Cactus Moon Publications. Michael’s most current work is the chapbook Coney on the Moon (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2017). You’ll find him on his website MichaelJBackus.com and on Facebook and Twitter.
How would you describe Coney on the Moon?
It’s my imagined and fictional take of the night my grandmother died in rural Kentucky in 1936. All I really know is my mother was 12, her mother began coughing up blood, and her sister and aunt yelled at my mother to go get the doctor. When I wrote the story, I wanted there to be a magical realism feel to it, a world of myth and legend, even though my main character Sally is kind of fierce and tries not to believe any of the stories her aunt Nan tells about rampaging giants, ghosts, and wolves walking on two legs. And I wanted to end it with a folk tale of sorts, which is where the title comes from. The mother relates the story, but she’s repeating something her husband said, and Sally is fascinated by any details about her father who died when she was too young to remember him.
What do you hope readers will take away from it?
I wanted to honor my mother’s experience emotionally if not literally—everything in her life changed the night her mother died. She wasn’t allowed to return to their house and get personal belongings (my mother had maybe a half-dozen photos at most of her family and no keepsakes at all), and she and her beloved sister were separated into different foster homes. They never lived together again, even though my mom was only 12 and her sister 16, and they had been extremely close. So in the end of the story, life has sort of intruded on Sally’s fantasy world, and there’s a strong sense that things will never be the same for her again. And that was how I honored my mother’s life experience, not with literal truth but with emotional truth.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Generally no more than any short story. I tend to work and re-work and re-work again a piece of fiction, often going over things literally dozens of times and making small adjustments each time. The only out of the ordinary challenge was the central folk tale that takes up the last quarter of the book. I wanted it to feel like a real myth. I wanted it to be such that if someone were to read it on its own, they would have no trouble believing this is a creation myth going back thousands of years. That took some time.
Tell us about your main character.
Sally is 12 years old and fiercely independent in her way, though she’s also young and doesn’t know everything, even if she thinks she does. She loves the idea of adventure but doesn’t believe the fantastical stories her aunt loves to tell. She believes herself to be different from her family, smarter for one, but also she imagines a life outside of Kentucky and dreams of faraway places. She believes in herself. In creating this character, I didn’t make a conscious effort to make her like my mother. I have this picture of my mother at 12, which is around the time she ended up in an orphanage. There’s a look on her face that helped guide me in creating the character. Her eyes sparkle, but there’s a kind of grimness to her demeanor. Like someone who has seen something she can never un-see and is changed forever because of it.
Why did you choose Kentucky as the setting for the book?
This was pre-determined because my mother was from rural Kentucky. I’ve always thought of Kentucky as a special place because she came from there, so I didn’t want to set it anywhere else. But I also wanted it to be the South because there’s a sense of superstition and myth in this story. The setting is a major part of it. She runs over a section of hill called Floyd’s Saddle. In the story there are all kinds of rumors about this part of Kentucky, massacres and cannibals and ghosts of murdered families haunting the living. And she spends much of the story running through the landscape on her way to fetching the doctor, so a sense of landscape dominates the descriptive details of the story. And while I’ve been to the area of Kentucky where this is set, many of the details like the names of creeks and such come from internet research. The internet really is a wonderful writer’s tool, and I’m old enough to remember a time when it didn’t exist, when it was more difficult to come up with specific details about a place you might not know very well.
You’ve taught creative writing for over a decade and currently teach for Gotham Writer’s Workshop and Zoetrope Magazine. What do many writers misunderstand about telling a story?
Beginning writers don’t understand how labor intensive a good piece of writing is. Everyone writes differently, but most of us do literally dozens of revisions of a piece of writing before we’re done. The other thing I see regularly is confusion over the difference between real life and life in fiction. In fiction, there’s a reason for everything that happens. Like Chekhov’s famous “gun on the mantelpiece” advice—if you create a detail in the beginning of a story, that detail has to play a part somewhere in the story. And beginning writers often struggle with cause and effect, the idea that if something happens in a story (the effect), we need to understand the cause. Things in life often just happen. Things in a story never can. There has to be a reason, and there has to be connection between the major elements of a story.
And a lot of writers struggle with timeline in fiction. Fiction is a temporal art. How time plays out and passes is central to the story you’re telling, but often with beginning writers, I see a confused timeline where you can’t figure out when something is happening on the larger timeline.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
The first writer whose work I dived into completely was Flannery O’Connor, and she led me to James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners. From there, I gravitated to Raymond Carver, then Richard Ford, Joy Williams, and Denis Johnson (whose Jesus’ Son is my favorite story collection of the past 30 years). More recent story writers I like are George Saunders and Mary Miller. I read mostly short stories for a long time because I was trying to write them, but when I moved on to novels, I read everything Robert Stone has ever written. I’ve loved a lot of Iris Murdoch’s work, and beyond that, Nabokov’s Lolita, Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels, Philip Roth, Jim Harrison (whose poetry I also love), Faulkner (of course, though I will say it’s only in the past 15 years that I really appreciate his work), and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.
Looking back to the beginning of your writing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
How lonely writing is, how much it separates a person from life and connection. When someone young asks me about being a writer, I usually play it straight and tell them practical pros and cons. But what I want to say is, “Run away, run away. Don’t do it.” I can distinctly remember sitting in a bar in the middle 90s with another writer friend in Chicago watching an all-girl punk band. During a break we both looked at each other and said, “Why the hell didn’t we start a band? Get better on the guitar, spend nights out with people rather than sitting at home rooting around in our own heads?” I still feel pretty much that way. I’ve heard it said a few times by writers that the only thing worse than writing is not writing, and if that has too much of a tone of self-aggrandizement in it for my tastes (I no longer have it in me to romanticize the life of a writer), it is true. I continue to write because I want to continue to write.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m shopping a book-length memoir about New York City in the early 80s in general and the experience of working in the Gansevoort Meatpacking District specifically. The meatpacking district today is a high-end mix of expensive shops, restaurants, the new Whitney Museum, and the Hi Line park. In 1982, it was a unique and wild mix of meat market workers in white coats, heavy leather S&M gay club goers, transgendered prostitutes. It was a place like no other in New York, and one of the reasons I wanted to write this is because it’s so long gone, it’s hard to believe it even existed. As my boss in the market said when I interviewed him in 2013 for this book, “I wish now I had a tape recorder and had just recorded every day down there. Just the stories alone, the things people came up with every day, the insanity of that place.”
I’m currently writing a novel which has bounced around in my head for years. I’ve probably written 200 pages of material, but I’ve reconceived it some and I’m not sure how much of that I can use (maybe 100 pages). It’s about a 70-something former NFL football player who is a large personality and his son who never played pro sports but who ghost wrote his father’s autobiography that transcended sports and became a popular success with the literary crowd (it’s a comic, rollicking, and not wholly truthful take on his father’s life). The book also deals with a mysterious death at the center of the family. I touch upon the physical damage done to men who play football and the contentious relationships between fathers and sons. My guiding theme is “American masculinity,” though we’ll see how successful I am once I’m done. What I have so far has a comic tone.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.