Suspend Your Disbelief

It’s Not About What It’s About: An Interview with Michael Carroll

"Most stories we tell don’t have the self-blinding moment"

Interviews |

It’s Not About What It’s About: An Interview with Michael Carroll

"Whatever happens next, it won’t be a wacky departure for me. I write about gay people and their families and how restless places like Florida suburbs set their inhabitants to dreaming of travel and fame. I write about the South and the literary life."

The first time I finished a Michael Carroll story, I had an experience similar to the first time I finished a Jane Bowles story: I felt confused by what seemed like an abrupt ending, a lack of resolution—and then the story flooded back on me as if returning with the tide. The stories in Michael Carroll’s Little Reef, out in June from the University of Wisconsin Press, make up worlds that you swim in rather than drive through. Carroll takes readers into the mercurial human psyche, all the while grounding us in the external world through masterful, funny dialogue and connections between friends and lovers.

Though the stories in Little Reef have a postmodern way of asking the reader to do the work of interpretation, there is also a strong foundation in the classic tradition of fiction, and it’s easy to see that Carroll reads widely…and a lot. As with all writers who defy tradition in their craft, I was curious to know how Carroll might pinpoint his influences and articulate his process. I was also interested in his straightforward honesty, both about his life and within his fiction.

Carroll’s stories have appeared in Boulevard, Ontario Review, Southwest Review, The Yale Review, Open City, and Animal Shelter. He lives in New York with his husband, Edmund White, who was one of my first creative writing teachers, back in the 1990s at Brown. Early in 2014, I sent Ed the galley of my most recent book, and Michael, whom I’d never met, wrote me after Ed had passed the book along to him. An epic email correspondence, and delightful friendship, followed.


Alden Jones: The stories in Little Reef are non-traditional, in that they don’t follow any kind of easily traceable story arc. They are more character-driven than plot-driven, I think—do you agree with that statement? And the characters seem pulled ahead by their associations, their inner thoughts, as much as they are by external events. Do you have a sense, when you begin a story, of how it will end or resolve, or are you more likely to throw a character into a situation and see where it takes you?

Michael Carroll: I’m glad to say that I agree with that, although the effect of non-traditional shape wasn’t precisely intended originally. At some point in my writing life I got so tired of trying to force my stories into a traditional shape. I have nothing against the usual arc. It’s just that I realized I was spending too much time writing thinking about making my stories conform to a classical form, and less thinking about the characters—so yes to both ideas, more emphasis on character and less emphasis on something that resembles the build-up to the climax where Oedipus puts his eyes out. Most stories we tell don’t have the self-blinding moment, and I write too many stories for each of them to become religious and classical drama, which is what the original Greek plays were, of course. Religious experiences, heavily form-circumscribed rituals. Again, when a writer can do and have all that, that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t feel forced.

To wit, when I start a story it’s usually because I have a first line that I like. Then I ask myself what the second line is. I’m trying to make it funny all along. The characters emerge at the same moment I’m writing about them. Does this make sense? I just mean that I don’t do a lot of planning. Although: most of my characters are either autobiographical or based partly on people I know (people who might be getting mad at me as we speak), mostly. I want spontaneity. I’m gratified that several people who’ve already read Little Reef have pointed out their inability to guess what’s going to happen. And oddly, this wasn’t my original desire in writing fiction. I just got tired of the old Freytag-pyramid structure. It was too intimidating and confining. I’m building a brick wall, not constructing a shapely pyramid you could lay roller coaster tracks on.

And no, I almost never know the ending from the start. John Irving claims that he always knows not only the ending but the exact last line, even before he writes his first line. But he read my book and said he liked my last lines. An email that came in from him was subject-headed “your last lines.” So I was obviously ecstatic, having always adored John Irving’s writing, and for a while having felt horrified that I didn’t work in the same structured fashion that my hero did. But now it’s all okay. I just want to entertain, as I think John Irving would say he does, too. At least I think so. Seems spontaneous to say!

Little Reef I definitely feel this sense of spontaneity, mostly in the way your characters allow themselves to leave the situation or conversation they’re in to muse about an inflection, a doubt, or something that’s distracted them. I associate your work with Modernism; you give weight and space to the inner thoughts of your characters even when those thoughts don’t necessarily further the plot, or what we think the plot is. The first story in Little Reef, “From the Desk of…Hunter B Gwathmey,” seems to be about a teen aspiring writer and his first encounter with a published author. The author is a war veteran who writes pulp, and as I read I expected there to be some sad realization on the aspiring writer’s part having to do with the shortcomings of those we make our heroes. But the part of that story that stuck with me most was a seemingly random side trip the teenager takes with his parents to New Orleans, where an older man tries, somewhat aggressively, to pick him up on the street. When I finished the story, I wondered if I was supposed to be thinking about that scene as much as I was. Do you think it’s up to the reader to do that kind of work—to decide how to read a story, what to assign importance—or do you think there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to read to read your stories?

I just hope that most readers don’t think they’ve done a “wrong” job of reading me, I suppose.  Thank you for asking this since at some point in my writing life, right around when I began reading Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor (the Brit novelist and not the actress), Richard Yates, and Joy Williams, I began to think more in terms of what the reader might be thinking or feeling.  I’m not trying on purpose to “get” or surprise the reader, but I am trying to entertain without going too far into David Lynch territory.

When I begin a story I do those first few lines and figure out what the main story material will be centered around. In the case of “Gwathmey,” I wanted to recall a more naive time for myself, my teen years, when I was hoping to become a writer. I only got the spark for the story when my father got a lung cancer diagnosis; then it became imperative for me to escape into my youth. The older writer in the first section was a real man with a different name. The Brit in the street in New Orleans. All of that is pretty much verbatim. Then I decided to write about the narrator putting all of this together into the context of small-town aspiring-writer-boy, and I invented the cultural critic for the local paper. That part was totally made-up. There were certainly guys like him but I had to invent him, someone who would be kind and affectionate without scamming on the main character–and who would decide to do the “right” thing and never see young Matt again. The story just unfolded as I wrote it. And mainly I was in the midst of developing a new writing ethos.

It is my motto: “It’s not about what it’s about.” That is, when it started to sound like my older published writing, I cut that sound out. I was putting in pencil lines, telling you what it was about, which naturally affects the writer’s course of action. I didn’t want it to sound like my old self. I wanted it to be funny and real in the way that life can be in a suddenly exceptional case. Meeting older people, looking for role models, hanging on their words for advice, with the sexual and gay stuff thrown in because that always leaks in. And then I let those internal parts you mentioned, long paragraphs full of odd-ball thoughts that don’t always necessarily go together, get compressed together as adjacent sentences, just to watch them rub together hoping something interesting will happen mentally and dramatically. One minute you think that character’s in love with Vickie, which he certainly is, then he’s being propositioned on the street by an older man and acting cool about it, thinking, “If my parents weren’t maybe watching, I’d go back to the Marriott with him.”

Tom Beller, my editor for that story at Open City, at first resented this moment in “Gwathmey.” He said, “Hang on, MC.  One minute he’s in love with Vickie, and the next he’s saying he’s fooled around with guys before and he’s all cool about it?”

And I replied, “Yes, that’s how we were back then. We could tell ourselves one thing because we wanted it to be true, and completely believe it, and next thing we know we’re apparently contradicting ourselves. Because of what we’re supposed to be versus who we really are.” Hard to explain to younger, out gay people who didn’t necessarily have to hide, or just couldn’t. So a “wrong” reading of my work, I guess, wouldn’t be wrong but misunderstood because I don’t give all the clues or exposition, although I do at times like to psychologize. I want to invite the reader in, and not hyper-motivate my characters. I want a reader to say, “Wait, why’d she say that?”

Richard Yates and Joy Williams both throw us those curveballs, and they’re fun but also more like life. And overexplaining is dull and gets you as a writer too far away from the dialogue and action, and that’s death, that’s narrative poison. “Keep it hummin’.” When it’s humming you don’t need to rely on classical structure and you don’t ever need to explain yourself. Remember the first time you read Salinger’s stories? I thought, “What the hell is going on here?” It’s a bit swank and over your head, but one thing it’s not is boring.

I’m so interested in how candid you are about the autobiographical elements of your stories. Most fiction writers I know recoil when asked if something “really happened” or if a story is based on the writer’s life. Why do you think so many writers feel cagey about this question, and how have you avoided feeling as secretive as the rest of us?

The second half of the book especially. That sort of came about as an accident. You might think I have an overabundance of love for Proust, Knausgaard, Sebald, or St. Aubyn, but in fact I got the “autofiction” bug from Edmund White, who got it from Isherwood. I’d been whacking away at stories and novel attempts for years, decades, thinking I needed to disguise the true aspects of my narratives, because that was more artistic and what fiction was about. In the first half of the book there’s more of a mix, with characters coming out of several inspirations each. Or in the case of “Werewolf,” I began writing nostalgically about Florida while writing about New York for contrast, yet at the same time I was writing about myself and my high school best friend. The sex and the feelings and so on are straight out of real life. I just gave him a disease to create more of a story, and I wanted it not to read like YA. I wanted it to be about perspective of earlier events over time. It was the last story I wrote for the book, after the stories in the second half were done. I guess I was on a roll.

The autobiographical stories about Scott and Perry happened pretty much the way they happened in real life, except for the sparse sex in “Avenging Angel,” which I put in there for shape and meaning. The final story, “Unsticking,” I decided went last because it gave the sequence of five autobiographical stories some shape and finality, and not all of what happens in “Unsticking” really happened. (I’m avoiding giving a spoiler for sticklers!)

author photo Eileen O'Donnell

author photo Eileen O’Donnell

But Perry’s stroke and all of the medical and personal and family material throughout those five stories came out of my partner Ed’s health crisis, hospitalization, as well as my own health worries. They just bundled nicely. I was asked if I didn’t want to make all this a novel, but only those five stories could neatly be reconfigured as a single long narrative, and anyway that wasn’t my purpose. My purpose was to have independent episodes. In this I was inspired by Updike’s Bech stories, which I like better than the Rabbit novels because they’re funny, grimly funny and satirically funny about the literary world, and in a weird way, I feel, more honest. Some of the first seven stories sort of happened and sort of different. I was working hard to create, based on real-life models.

Put another way, I had very little time to create architectures for purely fictional stories while I was helping Ed recover, attending him in the hospital. I would go see him and stay with him every day then go home exhausted and drink wine and fret, until I was ready to write about my feelings and what was happening. That was three weeks of taking notes or not doing any writing at all, just worrying and resting and getting up the next day to start the day’s errands and visiting all over. When he got out of physical therapy and this great rehab facility, I had even less time to write. I was the caregiver, the shopper, the cook, the backup. Eventually my time eased up. I got babysitters (people were great, and they love spending time with him, and they wanted to help me). Either I’d make and leave dinner for his visitors or let them take care of it, and I’d go across the street to a bar at happy hour when it wasn’t so crowded with my laptop and sit back in the empty lounge and write with whatever time I had. I’d order white wine and put on the turbo and not judge myself in terms of structure or other formal concerns.

In other words, I felt like I had no choice. I took what I was given, and I thought the story elements alone were enough for each story sequence. I eliminated the thoughts and descriptions I thought were unnecessary, and I got done the action and dialogue. They are long stories and couldn’t appear in magazines. They have odd form, but I kept think about Updike’s Bech, about a made-up Jewish New York writer, and Bech’s wives and girlfriends and companions, his career mishaps, his setbacks, his grumpily sunny and overall dimly but undeniably optimistic disposition. Plus I love writers and writing about writers and I was never self-conscious about this either. I’d created a gay writer from real life who’d seen it all from Stonewall on, and he was fun company, complex.

The only other interviewer to ask this question was a fiction writer, too, Andrew Holleran—so I guess that says something. For us autobiography and writing about the profession is like entering a Hall of Mirrors. But which of us, actually, isn’t narcissistic?

Perhaps that is why we fiction writers dodge the question so readily! Your candor is refreshing, both in your work and how you speak of your life. You are married to a powerhouse in the literary world. Edmund White is THE name in gay fiction. Before Ed’s health problems, which obviously resulted in a particularly fertile writing period for you, how did this relationship influence you as a young writer?

Well, Edmund White was always THE name for me, along with Holleran. But I’ve lost perspective on this question of influence since we got together. What about Ed influenced me most has shifted. When I was a relative kid first reading his books, I wanted not only to be as free as him but also to write like him. I was into those baroque sentences and sumptuous metaphors and similes. When Michael Chabon put out his first book in 1988, I think it was, I thought, “Thank God, pretty language is back.” And I emulated it, running from the otherwise prevalent minimalism. The only problem with that was, I wasn’t very good at it. If you saw some of my earliest published stories, you’d see what I mean. I was straining. It was well-worked, but sort of not at the same time. It wasn’t my natural capability. Not so ironically, this was just when I was about to shift from letter writing to writing emails. People had liked my letters, but email had set me free. I thought my emails were funny and succinct and rich, and then I began to write my fiction with sentences like those. To the point. And then I began reading Richard Yates and Joy Williams and the deed was officially done. I became more of a minimalist gradually, and now I say I’m going back to my 80’s roots. In writing workshops I did what most of us do: try different styles. But I wasn’t going to be Raymond Carver, because that wasn’t my social milieu. The tight-lipped and slightly wryly wincing style of narrative couldn’t be mine–that “bummed-out, working-class” deal, as Ed just described it to me, when I read him aloud this paragraph. I was suddenly liberated by not having to tell everything. And so I settled on this partially defaced sentence and narrative style. No need to get everything down. You can trust the reader. In fact, it’s more fun if you’re collaborating with the reader, since the reader’s contributing as well. The reader is the underrated component in the mix.

But: what’s happened ultimately is that I’ve become Ed’s partner. I listen to what he writes as he’s writing it. And he invites my comments. I never invite anyone’s comments because I just send it out after writing it and bringing it up to my own personal speed.

When Ed had a series of strokes a couple years ago, I became a caregiver. And then his influence on me solidified as an interlocutor. We talk about things philosophically, and it’s less about influence, per se. We are like close friends who are ready for each other, ready to be there. And that has been the most important thing. When he began to get better after the hospital, I asked people to come over and be with him. I cooked and left the meals and went to the Barracuda, my neighborhood bar, and I wrote there. The bar became my office, and the “office” became the joke and meme among my friends. But I’ve written two books there. And he accepted my need to go away for several hours each night during happy hour and write. I put in earplugs and wrote when it was relatively calm. And wrote and wrote. And am publishing the first of my two books’ fruition.

Arts and LettersBut mostly, Ed has always been there. Period. Supporting me, vaunting me, helping me do what I decided I wanted to do and without interfering. We met when I was thirty, so by then I wasn’t so easily formed or reconfigured. I was trying my own thing, which only later became what I insisted on doing. I’d always been working on one novel or another, and even though it was nice whenever he applauded whatever piece of crap writing I’d put down, I didn’t believe in it, because I’d already written a (long-rejected) first novel and because it had never been published I just kept writing new first novel type novels, not listening to the higher voice in me that would have reminded me to move on or back off for a while. Yet at the same time I suppose I knew what I was expecting from myself, something more mature than what I’d finished but not published before. And when I didn’t hear it, I knew. I started listening to myself and stopped needing applause while I still had my head ducked down. And Ed gave me that, too. That permission. He said he’d been a member of an all-praise club back in the 70s, and he was giving me that. I had enough criticism already–from myself and from the rejections of editors and agents. So a sage and loving nod was all I desired. And, as it turns out, needed.

So you’ve worked on several novels, and you mention you finished one at your bar “office,” Barracuda. Is a novel the next thing we should expect to read from you?

I don’t know, and not from lack of trying to know. In this world of publishing, which as you know is so uncertain (your own saga of bringing TWO books together around the same time sounds tricky and fraught!), I try to finish, finish-finish that is, completely, one thing at a time. But then what if it doesn’t get published or just sits around and you end up fiddling with it again? I have unpublished stories from before this collection, all related to the character Matthew Hammer, and I have more Scott and Perry stories, and yet more unlinked stories I’ve written since writing those. But the novel I hope I’m going to start the second revision of any day now, as soon as I can calm down about the excitement over my first book publication. That doesn’t mean I’ll find a publisher for it. I don’t have an agent, for one thing. I got Little Reef into print without representation. So while I’m revising and waiting I’ll be sending more stories out, maybe writing more.

I wrote an earlier Matt Hammer story partly set in a country club, which closes almost as soon as it opens, or has to be refinanced to stay open. I didn’t know what any of this involved and I just left it hanging, since the story was long and rejected by everybody I sent it to, anyway. Then someone, a hedge fund guy, at Barracuda, explained it to me. He gave me the key. He said that recapitalizing something like that was called a private placement, so it’s a detail to touch in when I get back around to submitting that story. I don’t do heavily research-based fiction, but I need to sound authentic.

Whatever happens next, it won’t be a wacky departure for me. I write about gay people and their families and how restless places like Florida suburbs set their inhabitants to dreaming of travel and fame. I write about the South and the literary life. Story or novel, it’s all going to sound pretty similar. I’m ecstatic that I’ve been invited to move on to the stage of putting out books under the banner of this project or enterprise. I struggled for a long time but finally feel very lucky indeed.


Alden Jones

Alden Jones’s collection of short stories, Unaccompanied Minors, won the New American Fiction Prize and an Independent Publisher Book Award in Short Fiction, was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, and was a Star-Ledger best book of 2014. Her memoir, The Blind Masseuse, was a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award, the winner of an Independent Publisher Book Award in Travel Essays and an IndieFab Book of the Year, and was named a top ten travel book by Publishers Weekly, the Huffington Post, and A Traveler’s Library. She lives in Boston, where she teaches at Emerson College and Grub Street.


Literary Partners