Blog Archives

Author Update: Michael Backus

Michael Backus is a fiction and nonfiction author who teaches online writing courses for Zoetrope Fiction and Gotham Writers. His newest release, The Vanishing Point (Cactus Moon Publications, 2021), has been called “lyrical and stunning…readable and relatable. Subtly masterful without showing off…Utterly absorbing, it works along that interesting line that marries plot and artistry.” You’ll find Mike on his website and on Facebook and Twitter. For more about his work, read SWW’s 2017 interview and watch a book reading from The Vanishing Point.

What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in The Vanishing Point?
In the most basic way, it’s a book about trauma; about how a 10-year-old boy went through a tragic event that splintered and destroyed his family and how he as an adult visited this trauma on his own child, though in a much different way (he essentially abandons his daughter when she’s two). But it’s also about how easy it is for someone to drift away from all human contact (hence the title, The Vanishing Point, referring to that dynamic when some people seem to just disappear from everyone and everything they know) and how difficult it can be to come back from that. I think of my main character Henry as a moral character who in his 40s has found himself stranded in a New Hampshire town where he knows no one and he seems content to essentially find a corner of the world and wait to die.

Then through a series of circumstances, he finds himself in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he abandoned his child Cadence eight years before and slowly and haltingly, he gets to know her. So it’s also a redemption story of sorts and not just with his daughter but with his mother, who is a sad, alcoholic geriatric still living in the town where Henry grew up.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
At one point, this book was over 700 polished pages long! It was ridiculous. I always remember showing it to an agent in NYC and she liked the writing but said “it just keeps going on and on.” So my own verbosity was something of a challenge. But I also ended up with a lot of plotting problems. I’ve been teaching creative writing (at the college level and for a place called Gotham Writer’s Workshop out of NYC) for over 20 years, and I’ve often talked about the idea of “writing as an act of discovery.” That you figure out who your characters are and where the story is going AS you write. And I wrote this book that way, but when I finally reduced it to more or less its current length, I hit a lot of plotting problems with two timeline narratives (a past narrative with Henry as a child and the present narrative with Henry as a lost 40 year old) because I never planned for that past/present back and forth. I spent so much time making sure the chapters fit together and that a past chapter flowed into a present chapter and the juxtaposition of past and present carried some meaning of its own. This was not easy. On a practical level, I simply didn’t have enough “past” material to balance out the “present.” This caused me a lot of grief and, if I’m honest, I still don’t think it’s as good as it could have been had I planned the structure of the novel a bit more beforehand. My larger point is when you’re writing a novel, I think it makes some sense to figure out who your characters are as you write, but it can be helpful to have a little clearer, more laid out sense of the book’s plot.

How did the book come together?
Originally, I had this (quite possibly idiotic) idea of writing a story about a man who has abandoned his child, ends up meeting her and makes a moral decision not to be part of her life, a decision the readers would ultimately agree with. That went away once I started writing from 10-year-old Cadence’s POV. She was such a lively child (I felt freed up writing from a child’s POV) that halfway in, I realized there was no way I could have Henry just take off again. So the book became about something different, about a grown man pushing aside his own past and finding a way to be there for his daughter and also, by the end, his mother.

It took me maybe two years to write this, edit it, cut it in half, etc., but for ten years, I struggled to do anything with it. I have a lot of minor connections in the literary world and got this to a number of high-powered agents, all of whom turned it down. I had an agent for a micro-second after the short story magazine One Story published something of mine, but he never loved the book or the life and he quit the agency and while he passed the book onto his boss, the boss was not interested. So for years, I just let it be until I found Cactus Moon, a small publisher out of Arizona, willing to publish it.

Tell us about your main protagonists. Did they surprise you as you wrote their story?
Like I said, I knew I wanted to get Henry and his daughter together at some point, but I was surprised at how well Cadence came out as a character once I decided to write from her POV and once I’d started writing her chapters, I knew there was no way I could have Henry take off and leave her a second time. Cadence was just too lively to abandon a second time. Oddly, a lot of Cadence came indirectly from my mother. I have this photo of my mother when she’s 12 (she looks ferocious, determined, and sad) and by then, both her parents had died (in rural Kentucky in the 30s) and she was cast adrift into a world of despotic foster families and periodic stays in an orphanage. And in her diaries, she wrote about meeting her bus driver as an adult who said her and her sister were “the two fighting-est kids he ever met.” So I took that photo and that memory and fashioned a far less traumatic backstory for Cadence, but her general prickliness remained and that’s how Cadence’s character developed.

I also wrote a short story around the same time imagining the night my mother’s mother died from TB and there’s a lot of Cadence in that character. This story was published as a stand-alone chapbook, Coney on the Moon, a few years ago. (**See note on this at the end of the interview.)

While writing, I realized I needed to add something for Henry. This is a guy who had a bad relationship with his wife (Cadence’s mother, who is long out of the picture — Cadence is being raised by her maternal grandparents in Eldorado outside Santa Fe) and had abandoned his own child. I needed there to be some hiccup in the process of getting to know his daughter, something that hints at a personality able to do what he did. So I added an old friend of Henry’s who has a wife and Henry kind of pursues her romantically for a while as a way to not have to deal with his daughter This added a lot to the story and is something I only realized I needed after the early drafts were done.

One last thing. At one time, I called this book Double. Henry’s central trauma is he was a twin who lost his beloved brother to a freak accident when he was 10. That’s the incident that splintered the family. So in revision, I developed this idea that Henry as a young man was obsessed with reincarnation and decided he’d just wait until his brother is reborn somewhere in the world. But by the time the book begins, he hasn’t thought about his brother or reincarnation in decades. At some point in getting to know Cadence, he gets an idea and, as he puts it, you can’t “unthink a thought” once you’ve had it, that thought being that Cadence might be the reincarnated soul of his long-dead brother. The book never takes a position on this, it remains in Henry’s head (which is why I quit using that title, it’s not a major part of the book, more a character shading) but it adds nuance to Henry’s character.

How did you know you had taken the manuscript as far as it could go, that it was finished and ready for publishing?
At some point, I just had to admit, this is as good as I’m capable of doing at this time. When Cactus Moon accepted the book, I did a tightening revision where I lost seven whole pages simply by excising unnecessary words and phrases. I didn’t change anything fundamental about the story but I made it tighter. That was gratifying. That said, since I’ve published this, I’ve had to do a number of readings and I wish I’d been more ruthless in cutting. This is still a wordy book and even when I’m happy about the music of the writing, I see places all the time I wish I’d cut back.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Besides the writing, I really enjoyed working on the cover. I wasn’t that happy with what Cactus Moon suggested for covers so I got an idea, hired an artist, and along with my literary brain trust (essentially my sister and her partner, both writers and excellent editors), shepherded the creation of the cover. I was thrilled with how it came out.

Is there something that always inspires you or triggers your creativity?
Reading. Here’s an article I published in The Writer magazine many years ago about what reading the right thing can do for your writing. There’s nothing like a book or story that wows me to get me wanting to write and often it’s not the entire story, but a scene or moment that depicts something I recognize (an emotional dynamic for example) but have never seen described that way before. I go into that specifically in the article “The Trick of Reading the Right Thing While Writing.”

Do you prefer the creating or editing aspect of writing?
I’m a firm believer that the art of a story or a novel comes in revision. This is NOT how everyone works or should work (I always remember going to a reading by Joy Williams, who is an amazing writer, in the early 90s and she claimed she doesn’t revise at all. That she thinks about a story constantly for about a month and then writes it and when she’s done, it’s done.), but it is how a lot of us work. Get a first draft down any way you can by pushing through it and not stopping, THEN step back, see what you have and start adding details and nuance in the revision phase, which lasts much longer than the first draft phase.

What writing projects are you working on now?
A couple of years ago, I finished a book-length memoir about living in NYC’s Lower East Side in the early 80s in general (a time when the city was vibrant, full of art and artists, and much much scarier than it is now) and working in the Gansevoort Meatpacking district specifically. In the early 80s, New York City’s Gansevoort Meatpacking District, a small irregular patch of the West Village, was a wild confluence of meat market workers, gay men hitting the S&M clubs The Mineshaft and The Anvil, transgendered prostitutes, homeless huddled around burn barrels, New Jersey mafiosos, veterans of three wars, heroes of the French Resistance, and Holocaust survivors. It was a lively, insane world so long gone, it’s hard to believe it ever existed. The Meatpacking district in Manhattan today is a landscape of high end restaurants, shops, the new Whitney Museum, and the High Line elevated park. I’ve sent this book to a lot of people, both agents and publishers, and it remains stubbornly unrepresented and unpublished, though I feel it has some of my best writing.

I’ve started a new novel, but it seems way too early to talk about it, otherwise I’m like that person at a party going on about a book (or screenplay) they want to write but have barely started. No one wants to hear about that.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
**Earlier in this interview when I wrote about publishing a story with Redbird Chapbooks, I mentioned a note. This is it. When I first sent that story to Redbird (it’s called “Coney on the Moon”), I entered it in an Excel spreadsheet I’ve kept for 20 years detailing everything I’ve submitted and when I went to type in “Redbird” it filled in! So I looked and sure enough, I’d sent this exact story to Redbird a year before and had been rejected. I contacted the editor right away and apologized and said I’d withdraw it. She wrote back and said did I want to withdraw it? This was a different editor and I could just leave it, so I did. And they took it! The moral of the story is acceptance of publication is often a matter of timing and chance. The same story was rejected by the same publication but then a different editor took it. Good to keep this in mind when submitting.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

An Interview with Author Michael Backus

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 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.

KLWagoner150_2KL 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 and writes about memoir at

Sign Up for Elerts  Stay Connected

SWW YouTube Videos

Search Posts


More information about SWW Programs can be found on WhoFish.