|Featured Fiction Author|
"A Careful, Affectionate Attention”
An Interview with Michael Griffith
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.
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.
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.
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.
what he shared with me about his new book:
did Spikes come to print?
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.”
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.
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)
why write about golf, Michael?
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.
do you do now?
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.
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.
does you day job as an editor affect your writing?
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.
you have any advice for writers?
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.
Michael Griffith at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2001 Robert
Hall, All Rights Reserved