A Conversation with Michael Mirolla
ORB's John Delacourt spoke to Michael Mirolla in Toronto.
The author of a clutch of novels, and short story and poetry collections, MICHAEL MIROLLA describes his writing as a mix of magic realism, surrealism, speculative fiction and meta-fiction. His publications include the novel Berlin (a 2010 Bressani Prize winner); The Facility, which features among other things a string of cloned Mussolinis; and The Giulio Metaphysics III, a novel/linked short story collection wherein a character named “Giulio” battles for freedom from his own creator; the short story collection The Formal Logic of Emotion; and two collections of poetry: Light and Time, and The House on 14th Avenue (2014 Bressani Prize). His short story collection, Lessons in Relationship Dyads, is scheduled to be published by Red Hen Press this fall. Born in Italy and raised in Montreal, Michael now makes his home in the GTA. In January 2010, Michael and his business partner, Connie McParland, took over the reins at Guernica Editions, one of Canada’s oldest, still extant literary presses.
ORB: I want to start by asking you about your own work: your novels and short stories primarily, while touching upon your poetry and work for theatre. If we can agree that, with the first strike on the keyboard or scratch of the pen, each approach represents a kind of enquiry into the nature of the world in which we live, what does a novel accomplish for you that a story does not, and how and when do you know that what you have on the page has taken on the shape of one or the other?
MM: For me, a novel allows for layers of complexity that a short story does not (and perhaps cannot) achieve. A novel allows you to build a world while a short story focuses (for the most part) on one construct, one event within that built world. For instance, it would be extremely difficult to take the events that occur in my novel Berlin and tuck them into a short story. However, at the same time, there are areas where the short story (or rather a series of short stories) can work its way towards a novel. Here, I’m thinking of a series of linked short stories such as The Giulio Metaphysics III. In The Metaphysics, we have one character named Giulio appearing in each of the short stories. While we can never be absolutely sure that this is the same Giulio from one story to the next (given that we sometimes see contradictory elements in the character), the stories do move in a novel-type of direction. Towards some kind of conclusion. Even if that conclusion turns out to be circular. Normally, you would have that world already constructed in your head (or the framework at the very least) before putting pen to paper. It’s at that point that you already know whether you’ll be constructing a novel or a short story.
ORB: Related to this, what does poetry accomplish for you that your prose does not?
MM: Poetry to me allows for a compression of language and a concreteness of imagery that prose doesn’t usually achieve. Poetry does away with the “mundaneness” of having to explain, of having to set things up in a linear fashion. With poetry, you can skip the connections and go straight to the heart of the matter. That’s where the concrete images come in. I think there’s an irony in the creation of good poetry. The irony is that poetry might arise from an emotional response to something or someone but, in order to create a good poem, the poet needs to go beyond the “gush” of the emotional response. That is, a lot of mental discipline, a lot of thought, goes into a gut-wrenching emotional poem! Or at least it should. In terms of reaction, a poem offers the type of instant satisfaction that the prose can’t. Finally, a good poem takes you closer to the “thing-as-it-is” than other forms of writing. The poem is an effort to do away with intermediaries between you and the objects of the world. Of course, it’s an impossible task and no one will ever touch the “thing-as-it-is” because, as direct as poetry is, there still remains a barrier, the barrier of human consciousness.
ORB: Character, image, form or perhaps even the shape or sound of a line. Where does the writing process usually begin for you?
MM: Interestingly, poetry for me arises out of a feeling, usually something vague and unclear to start. However, as I start to write it down, it becomes sharper and more in focus. Various links start to connect and then the lines form, shape themselves around/towards a predominant motif, theme. These days, those themes and motifs are starting to become predetermined so that I’m thinking about collections rather than individual poems – and how each poem will fit into the collection. When it comes to short stories, the process usually starts with a situation that encompasses a theme as expressed through a character or set of characters. The same thing when beginning the writing process for a novel – except that the “situation” is replaced by a narrative arc, a grouping of events and relationships, many of which I already have in mind when starting. I like to create the “spine” of the narrative and then hang the story on it, something like strands of narrative DNA. Often these evolve into sets of relationships that pair off and struggle to come to terms with things such as identity, being, existence versus nothingness, and finding the best pizza!
ORB: In her essay, “Two Paths For The Novel,” Zadie Smith compares and contrasts a certain generic “lyrical realism” in novels versus those that evince what she calls a “radical deconstructive doubt” that “questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with any accuracy.” She suggests the latter path for the novel has been by and large abandoned.
Yet the closer one analyzes this binary opposition, it seems to posit a false dichotomy. On the one hand, there is the suggestion of a naïve faith for the contemporary realist novel to render the world, through the formal conventions of a “straight story” more than explicable but somehow deeply affecting, with luminous moments of insight and catharsis. On the other, there is the novel that destabilizes our sense of character and creates radical breaks from our expectations of resolution, continuity, or even authorial voice (to name just a few tactics). The prose provokes a contemplation that can touch upon the nature of identity and the way we frame experience and memory.
It might be more helpful to see a significant amount of contemporary work as positioned on a kind of continuum from, to use Smith’s terms, radical doubt to naïve faith.
MM: I’ve spent a good part of my writing career trying to decide what exactly good writing is all about – as a writer, editor, publisher. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the sort of determination that can only be made on a personal level because it depends very much on the background knowledge that one has picked up along the way. If someone is not aware of the type of fiction, for example, that has worked its way to the cutting edge in the first part of the 21stcentury, then it is best for that person to simply sit in front of the Big Eye in the living room and catch the latest episode of “Lost” or “CSI”. Writing today is (or should be) ironic. It has to be. How can someone write a Dickens novel with a straight face? Or a Raymond Chandler mystery? You must be aware of what came before in order to create. Otherwise, all you’re doing is mimicking. Aping. Re-inventing the literary wheel. A favourite metaphor of mine is to compare that re-invention to the making of a Juggernaut which then crushes the inventor to insignificance. It’s comfort reading for mass consumption. Like McDonald’s supersized dinners. I’m interested in the craft of writing. The art of the word. Stories, per se, mean nothing to me. It is how they are enveloped, wrapped, sliced and diced, that counts for me. It is also the realization that, no matter how “realistic” and “naturalistic” a story may seem, it is in fact a piece of fiction, a desperate attempt to connect words to things. It doesn’t reflect or represent the world. It is its own world, something unto itself and separate from the world of things. Herman Hesse recognized that in Siddhartha. Those who try to use words to capture the world are barking up the wrong tree. Writer William Gass famously said: “In every art two contradictory impulses are in a state of Manichean war: the impulse to communicate and so to treat the medium of communication as a means and the impulse to make an artefact out of the materials and so to treat the medium as an end.
The other thing that interests me is the meta-fictional nature of writing, not just by those avowed writers of meta-fiction but also those who insist they are merely documenting the already-created universe out there. Put simply and without getting too technical about it, the writing no longer masks itself as an attempt to reflect some external “reality.” Rather, it recognizes its self-reflexive nature. Put another way: the “reality” that the work of art presents is not something that exists on its own “out there” but is rather something that is constructed during the act of writing. Representational art about the external world gives way to projective art about the internal world; construction takes the place of imitation.
In his introduction to an edition of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Bersani analyzes what is often considered an exemplar of the realist/naturalist genre and calls it “an early, only half-explicit, not yet fashionable attempt to locate the drama of fiction in an investigation of the impulse to invent fictions rather than in any psychologically, morally, or socially significant ‘content’.” Bersani goes on to say that “the care with which Flaubert sought to make language transparent to reality consecrates the very opaqueness of language which he dreaded.”
The implication here is that the harder Flaubert tried to take himself out of the picture and present the “reality” around him without any interventions ... the harder he worked to shape the word into the object ... the more he ended up putting up road blocks to that “reality” and obscuring the precise objects he wished to capture ... and this happened through the very act of dazzling readers with his writing skills and masterful ability to craft a fiction.
ORB: Where would you situate your own novels and stories on this continuum?
MM: I don’t know about a continuum ... my own short stories ... novels ... I like to think that they’ve gone off in different directions throughout the years. My first stories were strange in themselves ... often surrealistic ... little vignettes ... Later, the stories tended to become more self-referential ... tongue in cheek ... wrapped in ironic envelopes ... as if I were rubbing the reader’s nose in the fact that they were only stories after all. I guess the epitome of that approach occurred in something like “The Truth-Tree Method” from The Formal Logic of Emotion collection. The Giulio Metaphysics III linked-short-story-novel takes it to another level: the creator outright tells the reader that he is manipulating the character; the character rebels against the creator, reflecting I guess the existential state of many people today; the character and the creator become one and the same trapped inside a space where they/he must scratch upon the wall to tell the story and thus to invent themselves, to invent their history, to invent their identities. And my novel Berlin is about a janitor in a Montreal mental institution writing about a philosophy professor who goes off to Berlin during the period just before the city was re-united, a weird combination of schizophrenia, possible worlds and second order logic theory, and love stretched to the extreme. So, if there is a continuum, I would say that my short stories and novels are on the far end of the meta-fictional side of that continuum.
ORB: Whenever a conversation takes this particular direction, however, I always feel that there’s the shadow of another dialogue behind it: one about art versus commerce. That dialogue must be all too familiar for someone who has now become a publisher as well.
Do you feel that as a reader your tastes have changed taking on your role with Guernica – and more to the point, has it changed how you write as well?
MM: Yes, it’s a fine line. Both as a writer and a publisher, there is the need to survive. As a writer, one can survive by being true to one’s art while at the same time taking on other tasks to supplement what is at most a pittance earned from book sales, honoraria, and payments from journals. As a publisher, you don’t have that option. The brutal truth is that, as much as we’d love to publish loads of experimental poetry and fiction, we also need to make enough money to pay for the necessities that come with running a publishing house. There is a certain amount of compromise without which we wouldn’t have the opportunity not to compromise. A dilemma that anyone who cares about art must face sooner or later – as an individual and as a business.
ORB: More to the point, do you see Guernica’s redefined mandate, to publish “fine Canadian literature with a special understanding of different cultures” as working to ensure that not only alternative voices but alternative ways of writing poems and telling stories still find a readership and a place within our culture?
MM: After taking over Guernica, I have had to separate my own writing from that which I’m reading for the sake of possible publication. One of the things I’ve found is that alternative voices are a lot easier to find than those who can write well in alternative and/or experimental ways. In fact, I’m still searching for the author who combines those two elements well. And like Picasso and his straight line, I’m a firm believer in the idea that one has to learn the art and trade of writing before one can start experimenting. But I do hope that what we publish forms a mosaic of different voices, some traditional, some more experimental, that together work to enhance our understanding of ourselves and other cultures.
ORB: You’ve been quite open about the fact that Guernica is not, given all the doom and gloom of a post-Amazon, post-Kindle-and-Ipad marketplace for books, going to revert to some bunker mentality of retrenchment, but that you’re going to embrace new technologies and new approaches to connect books to readers. Can you speak about how you might accomplish this?
MM: Well, when you work your way down, it seems to me that there’s nothing intrinsically special about the printed book. And I must confess that, as much as I love physical books, having owned thousands in my time and having spent way too many hours sneezing amid the dusty bins and slightly stale repositories of used book stores, I don’t have a manic belief that a bunch of paper with scribbles on it between two somewhat brighter and shinier pieces of cardboard is the only way to do things in the publishing world. I see physical books as simply one method of getting ideas across, one vessel among many. It is the ideas that count ... the words ... the patterns that reflect a thinking, emotional, exploring brain. I have no problem with the use of eBook technology to get our books to the market.
More importantly, if we want to survive as a publishing house, we have little choice. Proper use of this technology will allow us to better reach areas such as libraries and universities which are moving more and more to eBooks. We can also reach those who don’t usually go to bookstores and who like the convenience of being able to download hundreds of books for their serious holiday reading. These who consider their cell phone apps as the end all and be all.
ORB: If you can imagine a young, word-drunk Michael Mirolla, just starting out today as a writer, what would you tell him?
MM: I would tell him to examine himself very very closely to determine if this is really what he wants to do (knowing now what he didn’t know then). Ask himself: what drives you to write? For me, the motivation is far in the past. I started writing when I was in elementary school, after spending a great deal of my time under the dining room table reading Tom Swift and his many adventures in outer space and alternate universes. What drove me to write? I don’t know. It was just something that I had to do. It was an essential part of me (this was before I learned that there is no such thing as an essential part of a human identity). By the time I got to high school, I was substituting fiction for some of the English Lit questions on exams. I still remember a portion of a story that I wrote about a city in the jungle and how a person was standing on one of the walls of the city as the jungle crept back in to reclaim its natural spot. I described the person’s hair blowing in the wind. The brother (my teachers were the Christian Brothers of Ireland at St. Pius X in Montreal) who read the piece was bald and he wrote that he was envious of the character whose hair was blowing in the wind.
Would I have the same motivation this time around? I don’t know. In any case, I would tell the young word-drunk Mirolla to find a nice quiet garret, write till he’s ready to explode, and then get out there and promote himself until everyone’s sick and tired of listening to him. I would tell him to knock on the doors of publishers and literary agents, to believe in himself and his talent, to continue honing that talent, to learn all he can about what came before him. If at the end of all that, if all he’s left with is his own writing, so be it. He at least can say that he has given it his all.
ORB: What do you think the publishing landscape will be like in ten years?
MM: That’s a very difficult question to answer. And much depends on what happens to the various government funding agencies. Without this funding, I would say that 90% of the independent book publishers in Canada would cease to exist. If the funding remains intact, then the publishing landscape should look pretty much as it does now, with publishing houses producing a mix of print and eBooks.
ORB: What kind of work do you see yourself writing in ten years, given that you have written with considerable distinction in a variety of forms?
MM: Given that it has taken me more than 20 years to complete a novel (and I’m still working on it), I would see myself producing pretty much the same material as I’m doing today and continuing to work in the various formats as I’ve done in the past (with a special push towards plays). Or at least embarked on the same search – to make the words come as close to the “thing-as-it-is” as possible without getting burned by the unshadowed image. All the while with the knowledge that there is no “thing-as-it-is” outside of the word itself. To quote Maurice Blanchot from his masterwork, The Space of Literature: “The work is mind, and the mind is the passage, within the work, from the supreme indeterminacy to the determination of that supreme. This unique passage is real only in the work – in the work which is never real, never finished, since it is only the realization of the mind’s infiniteness. The mind, then, sees once again in the work only an opportunity to recognize and exercise itself ad infinitum. Thus we return to our point of departure.”