Featured Fiction Author  

"A Careful, Affectionate Attention”

An Interview with Michael Griffith

by Robert L. Hall  

 

“Not many magazines and very few book publishers can afford to devote much time, energy, and expertise to editing these days.  We feel that’s one thing that sets us (at The Southern Review) apart: a careful, affectionate attention to work we admire and have accepted.  Working with authors is one of the chief pleasures of my job, and the vast majority of contributors seem to enjoy the process and appreciate being read closely and appreciatively.”   -- Michael Griffith on the subject of writing.

Michael Griffith is a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton, where he earned a bachelor of arts in Germanic Languages and Literatures; he holds a master of fine arts in Creative Writing from LSU.  Since 1992 he has worked at The Southern Review, one of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished literary quarterlies, and for the past seven years he has served as the magazine’s Associate Editor.  His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Oxford American, Southwest Review, New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, Witness, The Washington Post, and dozens of other places.  He is the regular fiction reviewer for The Key Reporter, the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s national newsletter. 

And now, it is Michael’s turn at bat, with his debut novel, Spikes (Arcade Publishing.)  It is the story of Brian Schwan, a washed-up hacker at twenty-six, who happens to be paired with another golfer who shoots an amazing score on the course one day.  Before he can crawl back to his room, however, a flirtatious reporter who has mistaken him for his record-setting partner approaches him for an interview.  Dead at the game of golf, he decides to see the young woman and ruin his marriage as well.  What happens next is a fast-paced story filled with unexpected possibilities and a tale of self-delusion gone mad. 

Recently, I met with Michael at Burke’s Bookstore in Memphis, where he was graciously signing copies of his new book, en route to Oxford, Mississippi and the writing conference there.  We talked of his writing and the book, as well as his job at the Southern Review.   I listened intently as he spoke at some length to the owner of Burke’s and other listeners, regaling us with stories of the eccentricities and interesting personal and literary styles of local Southern writers. 

Here’s what he shared with me about his new book: 

How did Spikes come to print?

It’s a long and tangled tale.  I wrote the first draft in 1992 as my master’s thesis at LSU.  I sat on the manuscript for a year, tinkering now and again, and then found an agent.  She sent it around and got generous responses, but no offers.  (It’s hard to tell how seriously to take praise that comes as sweetener to a turn-down.  I have a friend who says that he’d like, just once, to get a vicious acceptance instead of a tender rejection on the “We like this very much, but” model—to receive, just once, a note that said, “We hated everything about this miserable piece of swill. . . but I suppose we’ll have to take it.”)  Part of the problem for Spikes was a perceived incompatibility between subject matter and style; editors with an interest in sports novels complained, “But it’s literary,” and literary editors said, “But it’s about golf.”

There was, though, something of a consensus that one character needed work, and I agreed.  I thought it would be a quick easy fix, and I breezily told my agent that I wanted to pull the manuscripts for six weeks or so.  Three years later, I finally finished the stem-to-stern rewrite. . .by which time my agent, understandably, had lost some of her enthusiasm.  She’d sent the book to the people she thought most likely to want it, and she couldn’t ask them to reread the manuscript, no matter how much it had changed.  So (after a good bit of dithering) I switched agents, and the new guy immediately worked some kind of sorcery and, for a book rejected fifteen times over the preceding five years, managed to get two offers on the same day.  Even a blind pig finds an acorn now and again. . .but it helps a lot if the blind pig has a great agent.  From first draft to publication was nearly nine years.

 

“This is,” my father announced solemnly, “a layout (golf course) by the Great Robert Trent Jones.”  I knew, I knew.   Robert Trent Jones was held in higher esteem at my house than Jesus.  Water into wine was parlor magic, no great shakes; Robert Trent Jones had turned scrub pine and swamp bottom into Elysium.  My father invoked his name with veneration, and never without the adulatory adjective: Ivan the Terrible, Richard the Lionhearted, Andre the Giant, and Great Robert Trent Jones.  He was the club’s crowning glory, the source of its magnificence.” (Spikes, pg. 57)

 

So, why write about golf, Michael?

My brother played professionally for several years, and I spent a little time caddying for him and became fascinated by the weird subculture of the mini-tours.  There were arrogant kids just out of college who thought of the minors as a momentary glitch on their way to inevitable fame and fortune on the PGA Tour; there were leathery veterans who’d been out there for twenty years, just scraping by, hustling locals for extra money, living in vans or campers.  And there were guys like my main character, Brian-players who expected to make a brief stop in the minors but who’ve now been floundering for several years, failing, players near the end of the string.  I began to wonder what it must be like for someone to be a prodigy at something-whether violin or algebra or gold-and, after investing your entire youth in that skill, that bailiwick, that one happy preserve where you’re THE BEST, to reach a point where you realize that you can’t hack it anymore.  You are now an also-ran, a mediocrity. 

What do you do now?

Brian?  Or me?  I’m just finishing a book of stories.  I’m working on the capstone novella, which has to do with a postmenopausal university librarian who’s pressed into duty as a sex cop; she wanders the stacks with a cowbell, listening for moans that can’t be explained by the pleasures of silent study.  I’ve discovered that there’s a fairly extensive literature, in library-security journals, on the subject; there’s a peculiar romance, apparently, to the idea of lovemaking among the musty tomes.  I’m also working on a couple of other novels.  One of them is called The Blue Pencil of the Apocalypse, and it has to do with a band of grammar terrorists.

Grammar terrorists?

Yes, they roam the countryside committing acts of mayhem against folks “what use the language improper.”  The other book has to do with a teenage boy who mucks stables for one of the last of the rail circuses, in the mid-1950’s.  His father has basically run away to join the circus; he’s an accountant who quits to become a tumbler, and he brings his wife and child along.  The boy finds himself delivering animal dung to farmers as fertilizer, trying to convince them that zebra scat will produce watermelons with bolder stripes and chevrons, that camel caca results in pole beans that don’t need so much water.  I’m about seventy-five pages into each of these projects.

How does you day job as an editor affect your writing?

It helps, mostly.  It promotes the habit of meticulousness, for one thing, and taking sentences apart and putting them back together again is, of course, excellent training.  The main drawback is that when you spend your day manipulating words, it’s hard to go home and get away from it all by. . . sitting down to manipulate words.  But it’s mainly a boon, and I very much enjoy my job.

Do you have any advice for writers?

I don’t purport to know much of anything that’s useful, but I guess I could say this: Writing is all about failing.  Again and again, day after day, you labor in solitude; again and again you mess it up, and mess it up, and mess it up.  It takes enormous patience to wait for, and then to thrive on, the tiny, ephemeral triumphs.  But private failures (and then, later, the semi-public ones of rejections) are the only way to get better.


     Spikes : A Novel
    By Michael Griffith
    Arcade Publishing, Inc. 2001  

                     Southern Scribe Review

 

Contact Michael Griffith at mgriffi@lsu.edu

    


© 2001 Robert Hall, All Rights Reserved