Contributor Interview: Eric Schlich

Eric Schlich’s story “Merlin Lives Next Door” was published in Leaving Home, Finding Home (60.2) last spring, and his “Lucidity” appears in the current issue of Nimrod, Awards 39 (61.1). His collection Quantum Convention & Other Stories, featuring these stories originally published in Nimrod, recently won University of North Texas Press’s 2018 Katherine Anne Porter Prize. The book will be published this November. We talked with Eric about his writing and editing life—here’s our Q&A:

Q: Do you have a specific place where you like to write?

 A: Yes. I’m of the Virginia Woolf mind on this one. I need a room of my own, where I can close the door, think my thoughts, and put words on the page. This room has changed as I’ve moved about for academic programs and university teaching positions.

During my M.F.A. in Bowling Green, Ohio, it was a cramped attic (my head touched the ceiling—I’m tall, six-three). My wife (girlfriend at the time) referred to it as my “batcave.” “Fortress of Solitude” might have been more appropriate, since she’s a Superman fan.

In Tallahassee, Florida, while I was in the Ph.D. program at Florida State, it was a tiny bedroom filled with crummy black fiberboard bookshelves from Walmart (we dream of living in a house with a library room someday and swoon when we see or hear the words “built-in bookshelves” when looking for places to rent).

In Dunkirk, New York, where we currently live, I have another small bedroom, but most of the bookshelves didn’t survive the move, so many of my books are stacked on the floor, lining the walls all around the room. My friend (and previous roommate), poet Anna Rose Welch, has diagnosed me with “tsundoku,” which is a Japanese word for compulsively buying books and letting them pile up on shelves, floors, nightstands, etc. I never seem to have enough bookshelves and I’m loathe to sell my books even after I’ve read them.

 Q: Do you wait for inspiration to write?

A: No. Absolutely not. Waiting for inspiration is a good way to never write a novel or even a short story. Yes, there’s such a thing as a lightning-in-the-bottle eureka! moment that surprises and delights you, but who has time to stand in a field with an open mason jar during a thunderstorm, just waiting for that to happen?

I trust habit more than inspiration. Everyone thinks they have a novel or story in them, simply because they have an idea. But the work of writing is not merely in idea-making; it’s in actually writing. That’s the hard part: sitting down at your desk on the days you feel like it and (more importantly) on the days you don’t. I’d choose discipline over inspiration every time.

 Q: Both stories of yours we’ve published have magical elements. Is this typical of all of your writing—do you find that you’re drawn to stories with some magic?

 A: Yes, I’m drawn to stories with magic, and I mean this both literally and figuratively. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is a generational touchstone—unavoidable as an influence. And elements from fairy tales, fables, and myths have shown up in several of my stories.

Many of my favorite contemporary short story writers—George Saunders, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender—are doing wonderful things with (for lack of a better term) “magical realism.” Once upon a time, magical realism referred to a Latin American aesthetic attributed to the founders of the genre, such as Gabriel García Márquez, but it’s since been diluted (and Americanized).

I’m most interested in exploring stories that juxtapose a grounded reality—mundane, often suburban—with the magical (as in “Merlin Lives Next Door”) or operate on a conceit that gets at a deeper issue, often the internal struggle of a character (like the lucid dreaming conference as a parallel to A.A. in “Lucidity”).

I’ve always wanted to write about time travel. I taught a literature course on The Time Travel Novel (in which we read Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia Butler, Audrey Niffenegger, and Charles Yu), but so far I’ve only been able to write about the subject at a slant. For instance, Geoff lives next door to Merlin, so his experience of his neighbor’s time travel is all vicarious and only emphasizes his own stasis. I also have a story called “Quantum Convention” in which the main character, Colin, meets his multiple selves at a parallel universe convention. Not quite time travel, but close.

The line between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” (if such an artificial line need exist) has become increasingly blurred these days with writers like Benjamin Percy, whose novel Red Moon uses werewolves (or “lycans”) to comment on America’s war on terror. Look at Gregory Maguire’s Wicked books, in which a children’s classic is adapted into an adult series that tackles complex issues of sexuality, coming of age, and being a social outcast.

Literal magic is not typical of all of my writing. Figurative magic is. For instance, there’s “magic” in post-apocalyptic or dystopic fiction. (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Feed by M.T. Anderson are two favorites.) It’s hard not to get political these days, and I’ve begun my own dystopic fiction with a story called “Unpresidented!” that reacts to the 2016 election by envisioning a presidential election reality TV show.

I’m also currently writing a novel about a boy whose claim to fame is that he died and went to heaven when he was three. He and his family are recruited in a publicity stunt by a televangelist who owns a religious amusement park called Bible World. The “magic” of this project is in the absurdity of a spiritual belief system (America’s Christian mythos) taken to a commercial extreme (capitalism).

 Q: You’re an editor as well—how does your editorial work affect your writing process?

A: During my M.F.A. at Bowling Green, I was the assistant fiction editor for Mid-American Review. While in my Ph.D. program at Florida State, I was the nonfiction and production editor for The Southeast Review.

Working as an editor is empowering for a writer in a number of ways. For one, it puts you on the other side of the slush pile. You get to see what’s out there and you can’t help but measure it against your own work. It’s confidence-boosting to read a story or essay (more like ten . . . twenty . . . a hundred) that’s just terrible. And yet somebody thought it was ready to be published! Submitting your art is an inherently vulnerable act: you have to be prepared for rejection. Before working as an editor, I was hesitant to submit. The writing was never good enough. But the writing never will be. Reading a lot of bad writing in the slush gave me permission to submit.

It also trained me as a reader of my own work. This is most helpful in the revision process. In the drafting stage, you want to turn that editorial part of your brain off. In revision, you have to distance yourself from the draft and read it objectively—as you would as an editor of someone else’s work. Only the “someone else” is you. This is why Chris Offutt calls revision “performing surgery on yourself without anesthesia.” It’s a difficult skill to learn.

Keep in mind: even if the sentence-level writing is good, the story-telling has to be good, too. Many times a voice would grab me in the opening pages of a submission, but then the story’s climax and resolution (its endgame) would fall flat. This happened so often I’d sometimes get nervous halfway through reading a story I liked (will they stick the landing?). It taught me to pay as close attention to last pages of my stories as to the opening.

Reading submission after submission also allows you to sense when your attention is flagging. Where is the writing not sustaining reader interest? I would then bring this eye to my own work. Is this scene entertaining or can it be cut? Should this dialogue be summarized? Where does the language bog down?

Even more practically, it makes you aware of word counts. Before working as an editor, my stories were all too long. The writing was gratuitous, self-indulgent. As an editor, you only have so many words to fill per issue. And we’d deliberately choose a variety: flash, medium-length, and longer narrative. This challenged me to write shorter, and many of my flash pieces were picked up before my longer stories. One story of mine has been rejected over 80 times, and I swear it has to do with the length (it’s 8,000 words). An editor has to really get behind a story that long to publish it.

SchlichEric Schlich‘s stories have appeared or will appear in Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Fairy Tale Review, Mississippi ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature, Redivider, River Styx, Nimrod, New South, and other publicationsHe is the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, an Edward H. and Marie C. Kingsbury Fellowship, and a residency at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. He currently teaches at SUNY Fredonia and lives in Dunkirk, New York.

The Feast Before Her / The Threat @ Her Back: A Review of Mitchell L.H. Douglas’s dying in the scarecrow’s arms

Authentic (noun) — a word too frequently used in literary reviews.

All art is authentic in one sense: it is the genuine product of a mind and the culture surrounding it. But all art is also inauthentic, because it is something someone has labored over with the goal of perfecting it—something we don’t often get the chance to do with our everyday speech. At worst, authentic is the wrong way to describe art, and at best it is inadequate.

But it’s the word that leaps to mind when I think of Mitchell L.H. Douglas’s writing style, and it’ll have to do until I find a better one.

Douglas’s voice in his third poetry collection, dying in the scarecrow’s arms, is conversational and intimate, and he isn’t afraid of addressing the reader directly. Talking in an interview about his tendency to do this, the poet said, “This is my attempt at the poem being between people instead of between pages in a Frank O’Hara kind of way,” and described his work as “thinking aloud.”

Dying in the Scarecrows Arms - Cover

In his poem “Heretics,” Douglas puts it even more directly: “the rebellion you speak of / is a poet rejecting the language of poetry.”

This authenticity is not just an element of dying in the scarecrow’s arms, but an integral part of its power. Douglas’s celebration of himself, his voice (even when he works in persona), and his blackness is a political act.

The beauty in this collection isn’t only found in the self and the voice, though—quite the contrary. Douglas celebrates the human body, and the work and personalities of countless poets, musicians, icons, and ordinary people. Muhammad Ali, Rita Dove, and Robert Hayden (from whom the title of the work is drawn) all make appearances.

These aren’t name-drops, but ways of getting at what it means to be human—even, or especially, when denied humanity by one’s society. The beauty of Ali’s physical form when fighting, as well as the beauty of his poetic language and quick wit, are quietly emphasized in Douglas’s “{Ení (of the Unreliable Knuckles)}” and “Epilogue”—and the artistry and day-to-day life of an unnamed fellow author are celebrated similarly in his poem “Two Black writers walk into a bar in Colorado is not the beginning of a racist joke,” where he speaks of “lives devoted to lines of witness” and “dare[s] a motherfucker to say something about Alizé or Courvoisier.”

The poet Martín Espada comes into the book early on, his voice entering the poem “Used. Sold.” in the form of a note in a book Mitchell Douglas “rescued” after it was removed from circulation in a Michigan library. The idea of finding beauty—both in the artistic sense and in the sense of a personal connection—in an unexpected place is crucial to this book.

It’s no accident that “Used. Sold.” follows “Loosies,” a poem addressed to the NYPD officer who murdered Eric Garner over cigarettes. Both poems, in very different ways, explore the violence our society directs at people of color. “What’s that like, / standing in place / night after night, / your spine exposed?” the speaker asks in “Used. Sold.” Douglas spends the rest of the collection answering this question—and confronting the answer.

A series of poems titled “Persist,” gradually unfolding a tale of two lovers’ encounter in quiet, intimate language and image, is threaded throughout dying in the scarecrow’s arms. “We glow,” one says, “in candlelight, now halos / in the mirror’s bend.”

In somebody else’s book of poetry, “Persist” might be a respite from the violence that makes up so much of the rest of the book. In this collection, though, “Persist” offers not relief, but a reason for the speaker to continue getting out of bed in the morning; or, put another way, to continue living. Again and again, Douglas finds beauty, joy, and humor even in the world where so many are murdered every day—some names we’ll recognize, from Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland to Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X, and some whose names never get reported or recorded.

A poet I know once casually dismissed Martín Espada’s work as “too political”—a descriptor I’ve rarely heard attached to a white writer’s work— and perhaps it was too political for the library depicted in “Used. Sold.” I can easily imagine Douglas’s work facing the same criticism from some quarters, though the book is much less concerned with something as narrow and sharply defined as “politics” than it is with the things that human hands can make and do: songs and guns, punches and caresses—as in “Selma Love Song,” when Douglas writes: “This body / tuned & flawed, / the fret board / a plank of mercy. / In the burn / of the baddest juke, / no soul fears dance.”

The complication of small moments of joy and power, acts of compassion and mercy in the face of all this pain and oppression, is central to the book, as when the speaker in “Family Business: Indy” asks “How / is this living? How do you keep / your daughter’s mind on the feast / before her, not the threat / @ her back?”

There’s no easy answer in dying in the scarecrow’s arms, but perhaps asking the question provides its own answer—if there is a daughter or fellow writer or friend or lover, or even someone you don’t know, barely audible somewhere out in that “guncentric city” or violent country, then there is a reason to live, and a reason to fight back.

dying in the scarecrow’s arms is available from Persea Books on March 6, 2018

Mitchell LH Douglas

Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Author site

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.