Author Michael Washburn is here today chatting about his collection of short stories, Stranger, Stranger.
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).
What inspired you to write this book?
Stranger, Stranger is a collection of stories written over roughly the past ten years. I was experiencing a great creative ferment during this period and was constantly getting ideas for stories, at odd moments in the course of the day, and writing down notes and outlines. As the title of the collection suggests, many of the plots and scenarios grew out of my fascination with the interplay of strangers. The titular story, I think, sets the tone. A couple of highly complicated individuals with dark pasts meet in a dreary motel. An acquaintance who read the story said she found the protagonist intriguing, even if he wasn’t someone she’d want to have over for dinner. If the two characters in question were personages in Dante’s Inferno, it might not be immediately evident to the reader which of them should be on a lower circle of hell, but the reader finds out in due course of time. It’s a dark and atmospheric story.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I’ve been reading a lot of James M. Cain lately. He evokes Southern Californian milieus in a way that feels completely convincing, naturalistic, and unpretentious. His narrators relate events in a darkly ironic idiom that keeps the reader engaged and fully reflects the way some people really think and talk. Yet Cain reaches a level of high art in books like Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Sinful Woman, and Mildred Pierce. It’s no surprise when you read about all the buzz some of these books generated when they came out. What Cain did, he did extraordinarily well.
All this is by way of answering your question. Partly under the influence of Cain—not to mention Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, and others—I’ve been working on a number of stories set in and around L.A. Is it logically possible for a place to be fascinating and inspire a certain ennui at the same time? That’s been my experience in parts of L.A., and certain of my stories attempt to capture my impressions. At the same time, the deserts outside L.A. are a gift to writers interested in austere and haunting settings with philosophical and metaphysical resonance. I’ve set a few of my stories in the desert.
Any writer who broaches the subject of L.A. must acknowledge the elephant in the room. “Don’t you know it’s been written about countless times?” Of course I do, but no two writers’ impressions and sensibilities are quite the same. To my mind, it’s an inexhaustibly rich setting.
I have a number of other short stories and novels in the works, including a story inspired by the life and career of a controversial journalist I used to know who worked for a major paper until he was forced out. I’m not going to name him here, but he was an incredibly smart, and at the same time, a difficult and polarizing person.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Lots of people go around calling themselves writers without having produced very much, and I was no different growing up. I did write short stories in high school and college, but not a very great number. I’ve been a journalist virtually all my professional career, but I began seriously writing fiction, and getting it published, in my early thirties. I’ve written stories and novels intensively since then and couldn’t imagine not writing fiction at this juncture.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I am a member of a couple of different writers’ spaces here in New York City. I find these environments highly conducive to productivity. There’s no reason I couldn’t sit in my studio apartment and write all day, but in the “quiet areas” of the writers’ spaces, distractions are fewer. You are there to write. Of course you could get on Facebook and waste the whole day just as easily in that environment as anywhere, but you know you are there to write.
Having said that, I also work a fair amount at home, but that tends to be after I’ve already made significant progress on a project—when I’ve progressed beyond what Stephen King calls the “closed-door phase” of the creative process and entered the “open-door phase.”
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I don’t know that this is a quirk, precisely, but unlike many people nowadays, I still write longhand, in notebooks, before keying my work. A distinction exists in my mind between writing and typing.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I used to have dreams of becoming a police officer, until my parents convinced me that that life isn’t quite what you see in TV police dramas.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I can’t overstate the importance of keeping print media alive and well. Read ebooks all you want, but remember that a book is properly understood as an aesthetic object whose components can come together beautifully and ennoble our lives in ways that faddish technologies can’t. A traditional book is a thing that exists in the world. An ebook has, at best, a highly contingent existence. It would be beyond tragic if the latter edged out the former.
Thanks for sharing a bit about your writing!