We had the pleasure of getting to know Michael Garriga when he came by Lemuria last month to sign his new collection of stories, The Book of Duels. Jana Hoops, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, managed to snag Michael for an interview.
This interview was conducted for publication in The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, as part of an ongoing series about Mississippi authors. A portion of this interview appeared in The Clarion-Ledger March 23, 2014. No portion of this article may be used without permission.
Mississippi native Michael Garriga – and most of his 100-plus first cousins – grew up on the state’s eclectic and temperamental Gulf Coast. An enormous, raucous bunch, the family is still making its mark along the state’s southern tip. Today he and his family live near Cleveland, Ohio, where he teaches creative writing in the English department at Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland, Ohio.
What people (teachers, other writers, etc.) or experiences influenced you to become a writer?
When I attended Ole Miss, I had the fortune of living next door to Barry Hannah, a tall-teller like my own folks. I didn’t know who he was. He was sober at the time and I just thought he was a regular old maniac. Then I took his class and everything changed. He was crazy but also kind and considerate and empathetic and sweet. I was starving and he’d feed me apples from his back yard and tell me wild stories of his youth. He told me don’t strive to be adequate or normal, be humble but not a bootlicker. He gave me inspiration and the drive and courage to sit in front of that blank screen, non-cowardly, look it head on, and talk to it. When I heard he died, I wept like a widow for a week. He was my second dad. In fact, when my dad met him, my dad called him “professor” and Barry, without a flinch, called him “doctor”—my dad who didn’t finish junior high—and so a relationship of respect was formed and sustained. Barry told me to not be scared, the same things my dad said to me. To work hard like Satan was on my back. To do things, any things: do, do, do. He taught me the word mattered and that to write was worth a grown man’s time.
I also adored Larry Brown, with whom I had many drinks. I’ve worked with Richard Bausch, Paul Griner, Mark Winegardner, Robert Olen Butler, Julianna Baggott, and many, many others.
Tell me about your life, professional and otherwise, now.
I have two beautiful baby boys, better than any two baby boys in America today, I guarantee, because my wife, Megan, is a gorgeous Kentucky woman. She teaches literacy to the college kids here in Berea, Ohio, and so too to our boys. They are strong and handsome. And she is too. I teach in Ohio at a really wonderful university—Baldwin Wallace University. My colleagues are sharp and sweet, my students able and kind, and the weather’s horrible. It’s a great private school, and I love it here. However, it’s way different than the South. I love teaching Southern Lit, because the students and I get into great debates about stereotypes, what they think of us, what we think of them, and what’s the truth. It ain’t easy, but it’s fun.
What is “The Book of Duels” all about? It’s a unique topic for a book!
“The Book of Duels” has 33 short stories, each comprised of three separate dramatic monologues given in the final seconds before an ultimate confrontation. Taken together they create a multi-perspective narrative. There are three perspectives because I learned in researching this book that, for a duel to be legal, you had to have a witness; hence, the third, different, point of view character was born. Plus, I love the idea of the triptych, the holy three. Examples of the duels in the book are a cockfight, Cain and Able, and then a joust, Don Quixote and the Windmill, and a bullfight – we were living in Spain at the time.
The book is described as “flash fiction.” Please explain what that means.
I often 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 flashbulb going off. That is, Flash Fiction, to me, connotes a moment when characters’ desire for self-knowledge and self-awareness dovetails with their epiphany of who they are. In one intense moment, who they are, at the deepest level, is revealed or made apparent to themselves or to the readers. I also use the word “flash” because these stories don’t fit nicely into any one genre. Are they dramatic monologues or short short stories? Are they poetry or fiction? They’ve been published as both. And they are truly hybrids.
How did you research “The Book of Duels?”
For each story I tried to embed myself in the historical situation, reading not only history books, but also books written at the time of the event to better gather the language. . . and to learn about the zeitgeist of the time and the slang—the foods, the politics, and the terrain of the place and time. . . . For a small moment in time, I was truly engaged with these people—their obsessions became mine. And, and I guess, in turn, I put mine on them.
Are there other writers whose influences we could find in this book?
I have read an awful lot of Faulkner. I don’t know if my work speaks to his except for my long-winded tendencies. The duels often contain a lot of playfulness and dark humor, which comes mainly through the poets I read: Jennifer L. Knox, Doug Cox, David Kirby, Maurice Manning, and Frank Giampietro, who edited many of these duels. I see the King James Bible in several of these stories, as well as Robert Olen Butler’s books of flash fiction. Barry Hannah’s work also had a profound influence on me: the illogical leaps, the playfulness, the drugs, the sex, and the general madness. The Drive-by Truckers created the book’s “soundtrack.” They’re among my favorite storytellers; they actively court the other Point of View. Their language skills are mind-blowing, the best puns ever. I use several of their lines as epigraphs.
Tell me about the illustration of the book.
These illustrations, which I love, came about because of an early editor, Ben Barnhardt. He solicited the book after having read a couple of published duels. He said he had a pal in Minneapolis—Tynan Kerr—who would be perfect for the book. TK liked the stories and started working on them. Man, he was fast: he had vision…and he has skill. His work is amazing. I saw the first four or five drawings, and Milkweed Editions began asking about the cover of my book, and I said, “Whatever Tynan sees.” And I was right. That cover is, to me, sexy. I love it. I thank Tynan…his vision and his skill and insight.
What are some other interests that you enjoy pursuing when you aren’t writing, helping your students learn to write, or reading what someone else has already written?
Seriously, keeping up with Megan and raising two boys—while teaching a full load and writing—is enough. That said, I like shooting skeet and drinking with men way older than me at VFW or DAV clubs, where men have things to share and not be scared to do so; it is more interesting than almost anything Shakespeare, who I love, could aspire to. I also enjoy cooking.
What will your next book project tackle – anything in mind at this point?
Yes, I’ve written a manuscript entitled “Loosh.” It’s a Southern Noir, concerning the Biloxi beach wade-ins of 1959 (staged to integrate the Mississippi Gulf Coast beaches). I’ve imagined the forces behind it on both sides and it should be ready for an agent in the next month.
Since you are a creative writing instructor, what are some suggestions you’d give would-be writers to embrace and/or avoid?
Seriously, don’t condescend to your readers: Treat them as if they are 10 years older than you, at least as well educated if not better, better read than you, and not nearly as much of a prude. Don’t talk down. Talk up. They expect as much out of art, and you should demand it, too.
By Jana HoopsWritten by Lemuria