Sunday, May 10, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Michael Chin

Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He is the author of three full-length short story collections: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books, Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle, and most recently The Long Way Home from Cowboy Jamboree Press. Chin won the 2017-2018 Jean Leiby Chapbook Award from The Florida Review and Bayou Magazine’s 2014 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Find him online at and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Functionally, I don't know that my first book or first chapbook changed my life, but I will say that each felt like a validation of what I'd been doing. Particularly for my first full-length book, You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue, I'd been submitting versions of the manuscript pretty aggressively for about two and a half years before Duck Lake Books took a chance on it, and it felt like a weight off to have it in the world and validate the time and effort that had gone into it.

That first book is largely a collection of traditionally structured short stories (albeit with a few more experimental pieces, and a few stories with overlapping characters in there); projects since have tended to play more with links and writing around cohesive  themes, in some cases like my second book Circus Folk, bordering on a novel-in-stories format.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I learned how to read fiction before other genres--both literally as the form of literature that I think most of us encounter first, and in the sense that I spent many years thinking that I simply didn't get poetry, and CNF wasn't so much on my radar. I think I've always enjoyed the elements of imagination of content unique to fiction, though, from my earliest attempts that tended to rely a bit too heavily on pre-plotting to evolving into writing in a more character-driven form. (All that is with the admission that I now find genre lines pretty fluid, and even teach a college seminar about how blurry the lines are between fiction and non-fiction in particular!)

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It depends, but I'd say it's usually a really good sign for a project when the beginning goes quickly, which often includes a few days to a few weeks of emailing myself copious notes as they come to me, and then getting rolling on a draft. I think my greatest strength as a writer is probably being a prolific writer of first drafts; I'm more sluggish and often not as good at revision. My first drafts are hardly ever good enough that I'd consider submitting them for publication, though, and I'd say most projects require a bare minimum of three passes in terms of more substantive revision, followed by polishing at more of a sentence level. It's not an exact rule, though I'd suggest for me that I tend to wrap up shorter pieces after fewer stages of revision, while full-fledged short stories and projects longer than that tend to take quite a few more iterations and quite a bit more time.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I tend start writing a singular piece, though I've had the good fortune a number of times for one piece to feel like it spurs on others. I'm resistant to our contemporary culture around sequels and making everything a series, but I do feel there's something to be said for telling a story and realizing I'm not done with those characters, that setting, or that situation, and picking up on it for another piece.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I do like readings. In general, I've found them supportive, and I think it's encouraging to access other people engaged with a similar type of creative work. I tend not to read from unpublished work if I can help it, though, as I find that sharing from a project too early can sabotage the project for creating the illusion it's more complete, or at least more fixed, than it ought to be, or feeling as though it's now subject to other people's reactions before  I was done tinkering myself.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

A lot of my work bends toward speculative elements, including magical realism or playing with concepts like ghosts. I also write a fair amount of sex into my work. I think that one of my big subtextual concerns is exploring the taboo and trying to uncover why something might make us uncomfortable, and what truths we might arrive at when we interrogate that space.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I feel every writer is a product of their context. I hit a rough patch with my writing in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election for feeling a lot of (self-imposed) pressure to write more politically and ideologically. I find I'm a much better writer when I don't feel beholden to such explicit responsibilities, and that I'll often write my way back around to issues I care about when I'm not consciously trying to foreground them. So, in a nutshell, I think that's a writer's role--to say something that matters to them based on the world they live in.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I feel there's real merit in knowing when to show a project to someone else--be it because I'm stuck, or because I've taken it as far as I can on my own, or perhaps most particularly when I feel a piece is great, because it's usually not, and having a more objective outside opinion can help bring me back down to earth and recognize the issues I still need to work on.

All that said, I also feel there are some projects for which calling in an editor, advisor, or workshop isn't appropriate, especially for very short work. I have pet projects for which I'm happy with what I've got--if I know I'm not going to be receptive to criticism, then there's little point in going through the motions.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I spent a semester years back studying under Phil LaMarche and he relayed an anecdote I always took to heart about persistence and its value. The story goes that a student asked his teacher, "Do you think I have what it takes to be a writer?" The teacher asked in return, "Do you think you could keep writing, even when you're busy, even after your work keeps getting rejected, even if you don't make a dime?" The student said, "Maybe." The teacher said, "Then maybe you have what it takes."

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to flash fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I'm definitely a fiction writer at heart, if only for sheer amount of time spent on the craft. I don't have much trouble transitioning between short stories and flash--to me a story is generally going to run as long as it is, and the concern only comes into play if, for example, a piece is 1,007 words long, and I see value in trimming off seven words so I can submit it as flash.

It's a massive over-simplification, but I generally find, it's fiction or non-fiction if I'm focused on the narrative at hand, and it's poetry if I'm more focused on isolated moment or image. I tend to write fiction on the regular and only dip into the world of poetry more sporadically.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I make a good faith effort to write every day--I would roughly estimate that that results in writing about 300 days out of the year. I tend to be time or word count driven, in either case trying to squeeze in a half hour or 500 words or so per day to keep "in shape" and maintain some kind of momentum, especially on longer projects.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I'm a big believer in reading to to break out of creative slumps. I have a bank of ideas that I doubt I'll ever fully exhaust (I tend to add to it at much more aggressive pace than I finish things), so when I do get stalled it's usually more of a matter of grasping for words or feeling tired than not having ideas, and I find that reading good, diverse work can do a lot in terms of rediscovering a rhythm.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

When I get questions about home, I tend to revert to my childhood home. It's probably not the most romantic answer, but I'll say dust. We tended to have a lot of dust.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I'm inclined to agree with McFadden that books feed books better than anything else. That said, I do listen to music a lot and consume some television or movies most days, and find that it all feeds in in different ways--sometimes more consciously than others.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are probably too many to name, but in for relatively recent influences and favorites, I really like Carmen Maria Machado, Maggie Nelson, Don Lee, and Alexander Chee's work. Steven Moore's The Longer We Were There is probably the best book I've read in the last couple months.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

In terms of writing and publishing, I would like to see a novel through to publication (I've drafted quite a few, but my books to date are all collections of short fiction). I also have a vague interest that I may or may not ever fully follow up on in writing something for a YA audience.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I think it's likely I would have wound up teaching something no matter what path I took; it's hard to imagine in not being writing or literature, but who knows if I had gone a different path? It's a tough business to crack into, but I also like to think that I would have been good at writing for professional wrestling.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

There are a lot of things I've tried or that I'd like to have done, but I would suggest that when I started settling into adulthood a few years out of college, I settled on the idea that it was better to focus on a few things I really enjoyed and/or was good at than squandering time and effort on things I never would enjoy or thrive in. So, for example, I've half-heartedly tried to pick up the guitar a few times in my life, but it doesn't organically, instinctually make any sense to me.

Writing--writing makes sense to me.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I cited Steven Moore's The Longer We Were There already, but I'll add to that Alexander Chee's Edinburgh, Benjamin Drevlow's Ina-Baby, and Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House. For a film, I'll go with Horse Girl (and, though you didn't ask, I'll also add the new Netflix series Locke & Key to a list of recommended media--not quite as good as the graphic novels its based on, but I nonetheless really enjoyed the first season).

20 - What are you currently working on?

I don't like to comment too much on works in progress, but I'll say it's a collection of flash fiction pieces, rooted around someone working at a video store.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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