SSM 2011: Conversation between Paul Elwork and Michelle Reale, 5.20.11
In honor of Short Story Month 2011, I thought it would be fun to chat a bit with a short-story writer I know, Michelle Reale, about her work. Michelle has published many short pieces, largely flash fiction, in a variety of journals. She has also published a chapbook of her work entitled Natural Habitat (Burning River Press); her second story collection, Like Lungfish Getting through the Dry Season, is forthcoming from Thunderclap Press in 2011, as well as another short fiction collection, If All They Had Were Their Bodies, from Burning River. Michelle’s fiction has a compressed power and clarity of language that is both arresting and often deeply unsettling. She gives us engaging characters that suggest haunted pasts and troubled futures, all with warmth that never gets sentimental and a brutal honesty that avoids cynicism.
I asked Michelle to send me several links to her work and she replied with the following stories: “What Passes for Normal,” “Shells,” “Current,” “Frantic City,” “We, the Women,” and “Three Stories": Honeymoon, Local Custom, and Bone in the Throat.” Sample through them and see for yourself the qualities I’ve listed above. And now, let’s pick Michelle’s brain a bit…
Paul Elwork: These stories are so well-rendered, reading them is a bit like paging through a book of illustrations full of shadows and striking details. Dysfunctional family dynamics run through these selections. The mother in “What Passes for Normal” is absolutely frightening in her sociopathology and ability to put a good face on things for people outside her family. Can you put your finger on what draws you to this subject matter?
Michelle Reale: I will say that if there is a flaw, I will see it before most people will. I am very shy and I have been all my life. Being shy often means that you “participate” from the sidelines. In school, people thought I was mute! But I watched very closely, always. And I listened, and still do listen, very carefully when people talk. Even in conversation there is a “text” and a “subtext,” if you will. We are all schizophrenic in so many ways. Living in polite society often means sublimating what we are really thinking and feeling. We compartmentalize our feelings, what we will say and to whom and in what context. But I can see the underside of nearly everything. And I also know that people are not always what they seem: the good aren’t always so good, and the bad aren’t always so bad. Some of my fiction will really exploit that dark side of human nature. “What Passes for Normal” was hard to write in some respects. Our society does not like flaws. We abhor what isn’t “pretty” and we shun those who fall out of the strict parameters of “normal.” I don’t even really know what normal is!
Families, too, fascinate me. What an absolutely complex relationship system. I like to explore what happens there. We can live with people our whole lives and not really know them—we are all unknowable in that way, so when I write about people and families and relationships, I am really trying to figure things out. I realize that this is not very original—I think most writers are after the same exact thing—we are writing to make sense of things. My characters are flawed, indeed. They suffer. They are not pretty. They hurt inside and then they hurt others. My job is to make them live on the page to regret it. And if I get a reaction from a reader, I suppose I have done my job!
PE: Nobody really knows what normal is. It’s one of those myths of polite society. And I like the notion of discovery you proceed with. Does anyone write really good fiction if he or she goes in with it all figured out and ends with absolutely unchanged notions?
I agree that family dynamics are an endless resource for inspiration. What informs your fiction more: Your own family dynamics, past and present, or your outside observations? Or is that too difficult to tease apart?
MR: I have to say that I am not a person who sits down and outlines or any such thing. For myself, I simply don’t see the value, most especially because for me writing is an exercise not only in creativity, but in discovery. Often, I may have an idea in my head, the way I think a piece may go, but then it goes in the opposite direction. I don’t think the writing mind is rigid—at least not for fiction. I have written an academic book in my field—now that book I most definitely had a game plan for—and I laid the groundwork very carefully. Fiction, however, is a whole different ball game, requiring more heart than mind. I don’t want to think when I write fiction—does that sound strange? But I really don’t. I want to hit bedrock of truth somehow and I can’t do that with my brain. Brain turns fiction into formula. As a reader I am turned off by that right away. As I writer, it frightens me.
My fiction is informed not so much by real incidents either in my life or the lives of others, but from impressions of incidents. How something made me feel, how it might have made others feel. I think about the fallout from messy emotional situations. Things like that. I was recently buying coffee in a Dunkin Donuts where they also have Baskin Robbins ice cream. I watched in horror as a mother practically bullied her daughter who looked to be about 10 or 11 to me into getting two scoops (“might as well,” she kept saying) instead of just one on her cone. When she relented (she had her arms crossed over her chest—a very defensive position) the mother proceeded to make fun of the fact that she’d never get a boyfriend with all of that belly fat she had around. I stood there with my mouth open. I felt an instant stab in a vulnerable place inside of me. How awful.
PE: Such a staggering, loaded moment. It’s definitely one where your guts kind of clench from the emotional impact, even as part of your mind recognizes something that applies straight to fiction. It also sounds like a moment right out of one of your stories.
MR: I went home and wrote about it. It hasn’t made its way into a story—yet, but it will surely surface somewhere. Think of all the strange (and sad) dynamics going on there. There is a truth there somewhere. And my fictional truth may not be that family’s truth, of course, but it is fiction, after all.
PE: What are your thoughts on writing in longer forms? I find it fascinating how writers are drawn to different forms, like visual artists using certain materials, or singers working in different keys. Do you have any plans for longer works or any in progress?
MR: I hear this debate a lot with writers: whether to write in longer form or not, especially if they’ve been writing short, short prose. No one ever asks a poet that question! I have long considered myself a miniaturist—even when I was writing (awful) stories that were 10–12 pages long. What I was trying, all that time (I now realize) was to get to the shorter form.
PE: Sure, that makes sense—and it isn’t a matter of right or wrong, but one of personal inclination. I remember Joyce Carol Oates writing somewhere that any literary idea can be expressed in a poem, a short story, or a novel—it’s just a question of how you want to feature it stylistically, what kind of effect you’re going for, etc. I completely agree. You’ve got to go where your interest takes you and trust that.
MR: I am more and more interested in distillation, how to use fewer words. I use Virginia Woolf as my guide and concentrate on those “moments of being”—when I can see and feel an entire world in a gesture, or the look on a face. I also work in themes. Right now I am pursuing a certificate in Peace Studies because I am interested in all of the conflicts and revolutions in the world. As a result, I am writing prose poems about my experiences abroad and my encounters with immigrant populations, fleeing turmoil in inhospitable places. I was in Sicily twice in April and witnessed the not-so-ambivalent feelings the Italian government has toward those fleeing their countries (especially North Africa) to its shores. I am Italian-American and this moved me profoundly. I had the opportunity to speak with men from various countries that have been stripped of dignity, trying to make a new life there. I saw with my own eyes the confiscated boats where they seize these people (mostly men) and detain them or make their lives miserable enough until they leave for somewhere else, other places that also don’t want them. I cannot, for instance, write a novel about something like this, because I do not have the interest in a sustained narrative about a certain number of characters. What I do have is an interest in writing many, many prose poems that I feel will be more powerful for their “staccato” succinctness and that represent a wide variety of encounters, impressions, and especially strong images. I could change some day and decide to challenge myself and write a novel, but I am not sure that I even have the capability, to tell you the truth. The intersection of prose and poetry is where I really like to be right now. In fact, I have felt more comfortable in this form than in any other. I plant my feet firmly in this place, write, and get better and better. I still have so much to learn, but I am nothing if not a very patient person!
Michelle Reale is an academic librarian on faculty at Arcadia University in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her work has been published in a wide variety of venues, including Eyeshot, elimae, Pank, JMWW, Gargoyle, Word Riot, Monkeybicycle, Moon Milk Review, and many others. Her work was included in Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2010. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Paul Elwork lives on the outskirts of Philadelphia and is the father of two sons. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Word Riot. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group) is available online and in bookstores everywhere. For more information and links to short fiction and other content, please visit www.paulelwork.com.