MICHAEL WASHBURN, A MASTER STORYTELLER
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist. His short stories have appeared in numerous journals and magazines including Green Hills Literary Lantern, Rosebud, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Weird Fiction Review, New Orphic Review, Stand, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Lakeview Journal, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Bryant Literary Journal, Meat for Tea, Marathon Literary Review, Prick of the Spindle, and other publications. Michael is the author of an acclaimed cover story in the Philadelphia City Paper, entitled “Home and Abroad.” He is the author of a previous short fiction collection, Scenes from the Catastrophe (2016).
Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
I’m a little like H.P. Lovecraft in having an odd mix of highbrow and lowbrow tastes. I like to read William Shakespeare and Marcel Proust, and I also collect back issues of Fangoria magazine.
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
When I was sixteen, I wrote a short story called “The Gift,” which retells the myth of Prometheus in an Australian Outback setting. It’s the story of a disgruntled farm worker who turns against his employers, steals fire from the gods, figuratively speaking, and gives it to aborigines. Of course I wrote essays, stories, and poems before I was sixteen, but this work proved to be a breakthrough of sorts. My high school’s literary magazine published “The Gift,” it generated a buzz, and I think it was partly on this basis that I received a scholarship award for creative writing at the end of the eleventh grade.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
My latest book is The Uprooted and Other Stories. When I was considering possible titles for the collection, I realized that virtually all the tales in the manuscript, and not just the titular one, deal in some way with the themes of displacement and alienation. People wander in a strange and hostile land or find themselves driven out of a place with which they’ve long identified. It’s a Lovecraftian theme, if you think about it, and an inexhaustibly rich and interesting one.
How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
My most recent short story is “The Night People,” which appears in the debut issue of a journal called Serial. I guess I spent two weeks working on it. My productiveness varies a great deal but once I have a good idea, I tend to run with it and produce a story in a fairly short time.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
By today’s standards, yes. Many if not most people nowadays will pull out their laptops to write. I usually compose early drafts of my work in notebooks, then sit down and key what I’ve got. I certainly admire people who can produce a story or novel at will without writing longhand, but in my mind, for reasons that are good or bad, a distinction exists between writing and typing.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
At present, no. When I was younger, I dabbled in art and violin playing.
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
There are far too many to list, but I have always had a penchant for the literary curiosities and cult figures, the talented voices outside the mainstream. These include B.S. Johnson, Nicholas Mosley, Nathanael West, John Hawkes, Tom Clark, Charles Bukowski, Paul Nizan, Ödön von Horváth, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Miroslav Krleža, and others.
There’s a contemporary Australian writer, Andrew McGahan, who is really wonderful but has few readers outside Australia. The latter country has also given us Patrick White, Edward Dyson, Helen Garner, Robert Drewe, Peter Carey, Les Murray, John Tranter, and quite a few other extraordinary modern and contemporary writers and poets.
Looking at the French literary tradition, there are far, far too many writers to mention here. I can’t begin to imagine world literature without the French moderns and existentialists.
What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
I have several stories and a couple of novels at different stages of development.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
I have only just begun publishing books, so most of my readers to date are people who read literary journals such as Rosebud, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Concho River Review, The Long Story, and the Brooklyn Rail. Those are excellent publications. I hope that the publication of my stories in book form will bring new readers everywhere.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
My advice is simple. Read constantly, read as widely as possible, absorb many different styles, but always be a highly discerning reader. Don’t waste your time on work that isn’t carefully written. The more you read, the more your critical judgment will develop, until you come to have a built-in sense of whether a given piece of writing has merit or not.
When it comes to writing, remember what the late Harlan Ellison said: “It’s not supposed to be easy.” He knew what he was talking about. I think that writing can often be a miserable experience, and part of the trick is to expect that and even to welcome it.
What is the best advice you have ever heard?
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I am always reading something, often a few books at a time. It’s hard to give an annual total. Right now, I’m immersed in Kashuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and I’m also reading some of Russell Banks’s early short stories. I also turn with regularity to poets such as Theodore Roethke and William Bronk. I don’t really have a favorite genre.
What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is most important to be remembered by readers?
I would like to think that at its best, my writing unites certain timeless qualities of storytelling with highly contemporary subjects and themes, and it illustrates why fiction writers always have a place, why people will always need storytellers to help them forge a path through the dark.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
I have worked in publishing for a good part of my career, and I am not naïve about the contemporary publishing industry, which is the subject of a satirical and humorous story I published in Rosebud a few years ago called “The Publishers’ Lunch.” Like many industries, this one has its good side and its soft white underbelly. But if you are patient and persistent, you can find discerning editors and publishers with high critical standards who recognize merit and promote it.
What is your opinion about your publisher – Adelaide Books?
Adelaide Books is a really distinguished publisher that performs the indispensable service of recognizing and promoting emerging talent.