Michael Gills was McKean Poetry Fellow at the University of Arkansas and Randall Jarrell Fellow in Fiction in the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He earned the Ph.D. in Creative Writing/Fiction at the University of Utah. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Oxford American,Verb 4, Shenandoah, Boulevard, The Gettysburg Review, The Greensboro Review, Quarterly West, New Stories From The South and elsewhere. Why I Lie: Stories (University of Nevada Press, September, 2002) was selected by The Southern Review as a top literary debut of 2002. A 2005-06 Utah Established Artist Fellowship recipient, Gills is a contributing writer for Oxford American and a board member for Writers @ Work. He is currently a professor of writing for the Honors College at the University of Utah, and is promoting a second collection of stories, THE DEATH OF BONNIE AND CLYDE, and a novel GO LOVE.
Do you see any correlation between fishing and writing? I say that because I remember you and Dale Ray Phillips taking some time off during Writers@Work so you could take Dale to a decent fishing river, which I thought was a cool thing to do for a guy in mid-conference mode.
Writing has everything to do with fishing. My grandfather, Weldon Treadwell, was sort of a famous guide out of Shangri-La Boat Dock on Lake Ouachita in Arkansas. Morning's, he'd rise hours before light, listen to radio weather for the Ohio Valley to the Deep South, have us on a school of large mouth at daylight, casting six-inch Devil's Toothpicks at the fuckers, limited out by 8 a.m. At the cleaning station, huge bass named Big Arkie and Beelzebub and Bucket mouth would drag our fillet skins down into the deep where they glowed like hands. Write before daylight, use lures no living being can resist. Cast and cast and keep casting until you can hit what you aim at, the silver line singing. Learn to work your lure, jerk jig until *bam*, come home to daddy. Don't ever forget there's images down in the muck that can take your head off. Reach into the deep for such. Turn off your mochine by 8 a.m., drink coffee, hard to fuck up a day like that. For the record, Uncle Dale's the finest caster I know, can hit a five-gallon bucket at forty yards five times in a row. Once, this woman left her panties at his house over by Brenda's Bigger Burger in Fayetteville. He cut the crotch out, tied the four corners around a razor sharp treble hook and hooked a five pound channel cat from Otto Salassi's canoe over at Bud Kid. I'm swearing to god–there's no better story than a fish story.
Where did your novel 'Go Love' come from? Its style seems free to me, open to just about anything in those short sections. Not that you or your style are ever reticent, but this is different.
GO LOVE was written in one year of straightforward writing on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Those mornings before light, for four hundred pages or so, I never looked back. When one of the metal bands broke, I wrote by hand, just like my best mentors. There was this energy about that first draft, and I tried not to mess it up in revision. A dozen drafts later, a good bit of the fire's still there. I put everything I had in that book.
Ye gods. A dozen drafts? That's impressive. Does every story of yours go through as lengthy a process? Go Love seemed to me to not only burst with energy, but almost written in concrete. I'm going to be one jealous SOB, I think. I guess what I'm saying is the seams don't show. Did Bonnie and Clyde require that kind of Herculean effort as well?
I don’t think of it as a Herculean effort. That’s just how I work–doesn’t everybody? B & C is eleven stories, each drafted until they seemed right, then sent out until they were taken and published, and each one was subsequently nominated for the Pushcart though none won. The title story, which won Southern Humanities Review Hoephner Prize for best story published there in 2010, once had this whole long section on shipwrecks of the Outer Banks–fifteen pages or so that dragged it down. After that was cut, the pace picked up, but I’ve got this killer riff on shipwrecks now if anybody’s interested. I work from hard copies, mark the Jesus out of them, then revise and do it all again so each story sits about four, five inches tall when it’s said and done. Richard Bausch once saw a pile of story drafts (“Foolishness to the Perishing,” my first published story, Greensboro Review, no. 45, Winter 1988–89) and said, “Can I have a look at that novel?”
What writer is most indispensable to your own writing work?
There is no “writer” indispensable to my work, though plenty of regular folk are. To tell the truth, except for a couple of writers–like Uncle Dale or Rick Campbell, both fishing buddies–I’d just as soon steer clear of them. My wife and daughter keep me straight for the most part, as does a spring and summer garden and real hard work under the sun. That said, Fred Chappell–I heard he got up every morning at 4:30 to work, and I once sat outside his house and I’ll be damned if the lights didn’t come on at 4:30. When working, I try to do likewise until it’s routine.
How does living in Utah feed the writing you do about the south? Is there an exchange of energies somehow, with Utah standing in sometimes for another place you'd rather be?
I live in Utah because it’s kick ass to look off my front porch and see Nevada one way, these eleven thousand feet tall mountains the other, with flat out wilderness within a half hour’s walk from my back door. Alta Ski resort’s twenty-five minutes away. My daughter and I ski Sundays in season–our church. I love my teaching job. There’s no other place I want to be. This all makes a great backdrop to turn my inner-gaze south and east. Where my roots remain, though I’ve just published a piece called “Last Words on Lonoke” and I think I bygod mean it…
Usually I can get at least an inkling about the sources from which a writer's mojo comes, but your books mystify me in that sense. I see Faulkner sometimes, Barry Hannah others, even Larry Brown, but mostly I see what I think is your own true voice, paid for in blood, I imagine. How long ago in your career did you finally think to yourself, 'ok, this is the real work here, I'm doing it now?'
My first writing teacher, Buddy Nordan at U. of Arkansas, walked me out of workshop, down to the Arkansas Press and introduced me to Miller Williams who sat far across a big room at a desk. He liked my first poem, called “Night Dreams in Logic Class,” about meeting this girl in a barn where “eyes of hoses shone from buckled straw.” Thing was “hoses” was a typo, it was supposed to be “horses” only he loved that I’d thought of “hoses,” said it was brilliant. So my first poetry when I was a sophomore in college won a graduate writing prize from the MFA program at UA, which I won again, and then won fiction too. Eudora Welty said she wrote because she was good at it. I won’t presume to use Miss Welty’s words, but that early praise buoyed me and still does.
What are you working on these days?
I have a book of essays, WHITE INDIANS, under serious consideration at a press, and a 3rd book of short stories, THE HOUSE ACROSS FROM THE DEAF SCHOOL, about three quarters of them published, ready to mail out. Anybody wants to see it, say so. GO LOVE has turned into a quartet, and I’m about 100 pages into the first book, EMERGENCY INSTRUCTIONS, with the other two mapped out. A 4th book of stories, EARTH’S LAST NIGHT is tacked up (the title story appeared in The Wasatch Journal which, before they went under, paid real good money) on my wall and I’ve got a collection of poetry awaiting revision. I have a novel in stories drafted, sort of a redneck Canterbury Tales called TALES FROM THE HUNT. So I’ve got plenty to keep me busy for a while.