2014 Contest: An Interview with Fiction Winner Michael Mau
Michael Mau’s short fiction has appeared in Mount Hope, Firewords Quarterly, Subtopian, Ferocious Quarterly, and other places. His story “Best Launderette” was selected by guest editor Pam Houston for the Fall 2014 edition of Fifth Wednesday Journal. The flash fiction “Uncle Wally in the Omniverse” earned him a Pushcart nomination. He received his MFA from the Bluegrass Writers Studio in central Kentucky where he teaches.
Interview by ZACHARY DOSS
Black Warrior Review: At times, the experience of reading “Little Bird” was challenging – or perhaps uncomfortable – in what I found to be a very productive way. What were the challenges you experienced in writing it?
Michael Mau: Movie directors say that working with kids and animals is always a challenge. The same goes for writing them. In the case of “Little Bird,” I had the dual task of speaking in the voice of an adolescent female narrator and layering her with antisocial precociousness. She’s a kid but she’s highly intelligent but she’s also been traumatized by her father—and she’s living in a community that has a history of marginalizing women. It was a bit like Being John Malkovich where sometimes I felt in control of her and sometimes I was just in her head watching her react to her father and these boys.
I also had the challenge of sexuality. Sure, it’s a right of passage for kids to pull the old “I’ll show you mine, if…” routine, but the setup was about humiliation from the start. The boys are wrong for objectifying women and shaming their overweight friend, but that’s a game of truth or dare compared to her synthesis of her father’s daily lessons. I also wanted to show that this wasn’t a case of the molested child molesting others, but the effect of mixing depravity and naiveté.
BWR: What was the genesis of this story like? At one point did all of the elements of this story begin to come together for you?
MM: All of my stories start with a single image that slowly takes on life. In the case of “Little Bird,” it was the image of a girl organizing supplies on a bomb shelter shelf. Everything had to be exactly right, and I had the sense that she did this daily. Others her age appeared in the room, and when she turned to face them, her eyes were cold.
I wasn’t raised on an Army base, but the film Stripes gave me an appreciation for the call and response that accompanies the cadence of marching. There is something childish about these songs, so it made sense to me that kids would eagerly learn them. When I found the one about the little bird on the window sill, that was my dance around the kitchen moment. That juxtaposition of the innocent bird and the wanton violence all wrapped into a tidy rhyme—that’s the story I wanted to tell.
BWR: This story is told from the point of view of a young girl, and throughout the struggle between the little girl’s voice and her father’s voice creates one of the central tensions of the piece. Was it difficult for you to get those voices right?
MM: I teach high school during the day, and something that has become abundantly clear over the years is that almost all kids speak with their parents’ voices. Not just the diction and syntax but their point of view. A bigoted, small-minded father will often raise his son in his image. What sticks out, though, is that while an adult has had years to cultivate his or her world view, adolescents are like parrots. They’ll speak their parents’ language, but it’s clear that they don’t fully understand what they’re saying.
She is learning through repetition, so she has the phrases down, but she doesn’t understand the implications. This may be a silly comparison, but in biology, I learned that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Someone says, “mitochondria,” I’m right there with a “powerhouse of the cell.” You want to talk about rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum? I can use the words because they were drilled into my head, but my knowledge of basic cell biology could fit into a Golgi body (don’t know what that is either).
Her voice is just a distorted version of her father’s, which is a distorted voice of his father’s and so on.
BWR: “Little Bird” feels very contemporary, but at the same time, it is timeless in the way that it deals with what Lily Hoang calls “the violence of emerging sexualities and bullying.” How important was it to you that this piece transcend the moment that it came out of? Was that timelessness one of your goals from the beginning?
MM: I hate to defend the father, but I honestly believe that he thinks he is doing what is best for his daughter. He is trying to teach her to be a soldier, to transcend human weakness and maintain complete control of herself. He is sharing with blunt honesty his version of the truth. He doesn’t coddle her or try to protect her from the horrors of the world. What he doesn’t see, and we hope she eventually will, is that he is a proud representative of the horrors of the world. A child’s first teachers are her parents, and those earliest lessons are the most powerful. That’s where I hope the timelessness of the story lies.
BWR: What about this story feels typical of your style of writing to you? Does it have themes or elements of craft that are consistent with the rest of your writing?
MM: Because I am myself often stuck in the past—whether it be nostalgia or an inability to let go when I should—with many of my stories, the through-story is told in past tense, but the flashbacks are all in present. I find myself building a past that seems much more present than the present.
This is more of a stylistic failing than anything, but one could create a drinking game out of the number of times my sentences begin with “I verb…” It’s embarrassing.
Thematically, as I already mentioned, I obsess over adults failing the children they are supposed to be helping grow. Maybe it’s the teacher in me. Like some dystopian Disney universe, the world in which my characters live is peopled with adults who abuse, ignore, manipulate and neglect children. Let me just say right here that I love my parents dearly.
BWR: How does writing fit into your daily schedule? What are your motivations, habits, routines, processes, etc.?
MM: Set alarm for 5 a.m.. Hit snooze two or three times. Futz around in the kitchen making coffee and wiping counters. Sit at the counter on my writing stool and stare at my MacBook®. Ignore the internet. Ignore my e-mail. Ignore my—pour cat food.
I was told that first thing in the morning is the best time to write because the noise of the day hasn’t clogged my brain yet. I’m less of a morning person than a vampire, but that established routine has helped me create many stories, a novel and a half, and a hard-core coffee habit.
Any night writing has to be attacked in a public place. The movement, the white noise, and the energy of the room—exactly what I need.
That being said, a large section of “Little Bird” was drafted in my car using the voice memo app on my phone. Long runs are great for preliminary revisions. No matter how beautiful the landscape, a fifteen-mile run can get excruciatingly boring. I’ll talk to my characters or watch them interact with one another.
Also, I don’t have a TV.
BWR: What are some of your favorite books, or books that you go back to for inspiration or strive to emulate?
MM: Oh, the book question. Let me start by saying this: I am not a fan of electronica. I don’t dislike it, but I’m not going to go out and buy a record by…I don’t even know any band names off the top of my head. I fancied myself a punk rock kid, and I have the record collection to prove it. However, when I am playing composer using Garage Band, 90% of the songs I write are laden with keyboards and drum kits and samples. I create the music that I wouldn’t buy. I wouldn’t want to try to emulate The Clash or Jawbreaker or any of my favorites because they already did it.
Here are the books that are stacked up beside my bed: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, Blindness by Jose Saramago, The Miniature Wife by Manuel Gonzales, No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (I let someone borrow Tunneling to the Center of the Earth), Tenth of December by George Saunders, Blank Gaze by Jose Luis Peixoto, and My Life in Heavy Metal by Steve Almond. I would have my copy of Tampa by Alissa Nutting sitting out, but the cover looks like a vagina and I don’t want to have that conversation with my kids just yet.
Are these my favorite books? They’re the ones I don’t want to put back on the shelf because I like to have my bedtime stories close by. They’re all inspiring, but I’m more of an “imitation is suicide” than “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” kind of guy. If I have stolen from any of these authors, it was an accident.
One of my all-time favorite writers who you may not have heard of—but you will—is a woman named Che Yeun. I met her at a summer residency in Scotland, and I have tried to read every story she has ever published. If I could emulate any writer, it would be that 20-something Korean woman. Cheyeun.com, kids.