Interview with Michael Gills

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.

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