Bookpleasures.com is excited to have as our guest today, Michael Kardos who is the author of Before He Finds Her, which launches February 3 from Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic.
Previous books include the novel The Three Day Affair, an Esquire best book of 2012, the story collection One Last Good Time, which won the Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters Award for fiction, and the textbook The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Writer's Guide.
His short stories have won a 2015 Pushcart Prize, and were cited several times as notable stories in Best American Short Stories.
Michael grew up on the Jersey Shore, received a degree in music from Princeton University, and played the drums professionally for a number of years. He has an M.F.A. in fiction from The Ohio State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. He lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where he is an associate professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.
Norm: Good day, Michael, and thanks for participating in our interview.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Michael: I grew up playing the drums, majored in music, and played in rock bands for years. So I’ve always considered myself a drummer and musician. Maybe because I didn’t really start writing fiction until my twenties, I was much slower to call myself a writer without feeling like a fraud. I’m not sure exactly when it was, but I’m sure it was several years after I was already writing a lot and sending out my work.
Norm: What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
Michael: A drug-dealer drops a live lobster into a pot of boiling water, and once the dinner is on the table, the lobster leaps off the plate and enacts its hideous revenge on the drug dealer. I was twelve. The manuscript no longer survives.
Norm: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Michael: Revealing the first story I ever wrote.
Norm: What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Michael: Often, what makes advice “good” or “bad” depends less on the advice and more on what a writer needs to hear at that particular moment. But I often think that more and more, beginning writers sometimes feel—or are made to feel—as if they ought to “professionalize” (e.g. start submitting their work to build up the resume), and I think this kind of pressure can dissuade a newer writer from the main task, which is to work on the writing itself. Fiction writing is a very long apprenticeship—there’s so much craft to learn and artistry to develop—and I’m not sure it’s a great idea to think of every session at the keyboard as a publication opportunity—for anyone, but especially for newer writers. It would seem crazy for a first-year violin student to put out a CD or audition for a symphony orchestra, right?
Norm: Why do we read fiction?
Michael: It’s fun and interesting and thought-provoking. We get to walk around in people’s shoes. Above all, I think that novels and stories remind us what it feels like to be human. Our lives often move at such a quick pace, with so much multitasking, so much noise in the ether—and a good story makes us slow down and pay attention to nuance in a way that we often otherwise wouldn’t.
Norm: How did it feel to win a 2015 Pushcart Prize for your short stories and could you tell our readers what the prize is all about?
Michael: Since 1976, every small press in the country gets to nominate work for the Pushcart Prize, and then the Pushcart editors choose the winners each year and publish an anthology of the winning stories, essays, and poems. My story “Animals” was originally published in the journal Crazyhorse and was just republished in the most recent Pushcart anthology. It felt wonderful to be selected, because the Pushcart is a prize I’ve known about for as long as I’ve been writing and an anthology I always seek out.
Norm: What's your average working day like? Do you have any unusual habits/rituals? What helps you focus when you write?
Michael: I do my best writing when I’m on a regular schedule. Ideally, 3-4 hours in the morning, then some tinkering later in the day. But my ideal isn’t always what happens, because in addition to writing, I teach full-time and I have a family with young kids. It’s all a balancing act. Other than coffee and an agreeable font (for a while now, it’s been Garamond 12.5), I don’t have any rituals.
Norm: Are you a plot or character writer?
Michael: To me the two are inseparable. In 1884, Henry James wrote, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” Hard to argue with that.
Norm: Which of your books/stories are you most attached to and why?
Michael: Two answers. One is the new novel, Before He Finds Her, which I just spent the last few years writing—which meant having those characters and their predicaments in my head for nearly a thousand days. The other answer is an unpublished first novel, my MFA thesis. It’s the faux autobiography of a heavy-metal soundman. I learned so much about writing by working on that manuscript. And I’d just come off eight years of being a drummer, so there were definitely autobiographical moments.
Norm: What has been the best part about being published?
Michael: Well, my author copies for Before He Finds Her recently arrived in the mail, and I can say with confidence that for me the best part is paging through the finished book—casually reading scenes that took me forever to write, when I obsessed on every word, every detail. When I’m writing and rewriting the book, I’m always swimming (drowning?) in the possibilities, in all the large and small decisions to be made, in the “and” versus the “or,” in whether the car is a Chevy or a Dodge and where the prepositional phrase ought to fall. But paging through the finished book, I know that all those decisions finally, somehow, all got made, and I’m able to take in the story the way a reader might.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Michael: We all matter; that’s not debatable. The challenge is to put that mattering-ness into narratives that other people will want to read. You won’t know unless you try and keep trying, and even then you might never know. As I said earlier, fiction writing is a long apprenticeship, a long haul, and the discipline it takes to improve can be difficult to maintain in the face of so little validation and so many other worthwhile endeavors competing for our attention. Lorrie Moore once said, “If you can’t write, don’t write…don’t torture yourself.” That’s kind of harsh, but I agree that writing is only one of many valuable ways to make use of one’s creativity and intellect. That said, the writers I know who have met with some success in the long run all have one thing in common, and that’s that they stuck with it for the long run.
Norm: Could you tell our readers a little about your most recent work Before He Finds Her?
Michael: Melanie Denison is 17 and has lived her whole life in the Witness Protection Program. Now she’s pregnant and doesn’t want her child to live in fear like she has. So she sets out on a quest to find her father, who murdered her mother years earlier and is still at large.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for the book?
Michael: My antagonist, Ramsey Miller (Melanie’s father), is a secular Doomsdayer—he believes that the world is going to end imminently because of an interplanetary cataclysm (an alignment of the planets, resulting in a massive gravitational fluctuation on Earth). I’d been thinking about that character for a number of years. But also, there was a technical inspiration: my debut novel was written in the first-person, and I thought it would be a challenge, this time around, to write a third-person novel from the perspective of more than one character.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story?
Michael: I don’t think much about “purpose” when I write—it’s more about trying to create something that is structurally sound and emotionally resonant, and that believably represents some aspect of the world. What matters to me is that the novel reads like a complete emotional and intellectual experience.
Norm: Did you know the end of your book at the beginning?
Michael: I had a rough sense of where the story was headed, but the details mainly came as a result of the writing itself.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Norm: After your success as an author, what, if anything, remains "undone" for you? What is the one thing you haven't done, that you are still "itching" to accomplish?"
Michael: It’s funny how it never seems to matter what’s happened in the past. Once I finish a story, I can hardly remember the process of having written it. So the blank page—the story that isn’t written yet—is always daunting. What remains undone? The next book. I want to be able to write the next book.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close, what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Michael: Q: What can readers do if they like Before He Finds Her (or any new book, for that matter)? A: Tell a friend. Better yet, tell a friend and then post something on Facebook or Twitter. Write a review on Goodreads or Amazon…basically, help spread the word however you can, because word-of-mouth is so vitally important.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Thank you very much, Norm!
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