01 May

Michael Canfield

I met Michael Canfield at Clarion, a workshop for writers, in 1999. Since then Mike has sold some 10 or so stories to places like Realms of Fantasy, Futurismic, Strange Horizons, and Flytrap. Mike also keeps an interesting weblog at http://michaelcanfield.blogs.com where he expounds on… many things. I’d say more about Mike, but that would be getting in the way of this off-the-wall interview we had.

TB: Who -is- Michael Canfield, really?

A meat puppet housing specific and unique memories and perspectives forming distinctive patterns of behavior.

TB: Why write? Videogames and TV are much more fun, isn’t it?

I think the earliest appeal of writing to me was that it seemingly required no special equipment. I know that from very early on, probably the age of five, I became curious about the kind of person who wrote stories. Also, I liked pencils, paper and most other office supplies. Also, writing is a very good occupation for the late-bloomer. I am very slow getting up to speed on things. Dancers and mathematicians are broken, beaten hulks by their thirties, many writers do their best work well into their seventies. Speaking of my seventies, I intend to get very into video games in my late seventies or eighties. For one thing, they will have even better ones by then. For another, video games really do sharpen the mind.

TB: Why genre?

Many reasons — some venal, some more respectable. Before publishing, I always believed (however wrongly, and based on absolutely no personal experience) that genre work had to stand or fall by it’s own worth, whereas literary careers could be built on getting into the right graduate program and befriending the right crowd. I always wanted to know if I could be the real deal or not. But now I know that that is something I will can never no, and so I don’t think about it any more. I think everything is genre anyway. What is mainstream? Is P.G. Wodehouse? No, he’s comic fiction. Is Richard Yates? No, he’s relationship fiction (I make up my own genres). What about Malamud? I’d say he’s a mainstream writer, generally considered. The Tenants is kafkaesque tempered by compassion. The Natural is a baseball novel. The Assistant is a “jewish” novel, or a novel of spiritual growth. Dubin’s Live is fiction of academia. If you read Malamud you might come across an interspecies romance, or a talking jewish bird. But most of the time you’re fairly near the mimetic. Do you ever get mixed up and think your reading Richard Yates or Wodehouse? Fuck no!

I think there’s too much talk about genre at the moment (I say that with the full knowledge that this is the longest answer I’m likely to give in the interview!) Genre is a fairly useful way to sort works for browsing, purchase, or study. We are the pattern-making animals. That’s what separates us from the other species; we have to put things into piles and then argue about the piles. But if we didn’t tend to do this — to sort bits of data into patterns in attempts to come up with new explanations, we wouldn’t be interested in stories in the first place.

TB: If you had to do it all over again, what would you do?

Everything different. I regret almost everything. There were a few good things I’d like to hold on to, but I fell into every one of them by dumb luck. Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would. Even the way I feel about the way things have turned out isn’t the way I would have thought I’d feel about them turning out. (That is, I don’t mind it.)

TB: What warps your writing the most?

The sum of my experiences and behavior warps it the most. I’m limited to one basic filter of experience. That can be dealt with to some degree, one can pour wider and deeper experience through the filter, one can consciously try to take in as wide a spectrum of raw existence as the synapses will process, but even Shakespeare was only one person (unless he was Marlowe and Bacon and Southampton in league together.) No one I’ve come across has come closer to being supernatural in understanding a wide breadth of human experience than Shakespeare. A couple others came close, but not really that close.

Having said that, all writing — all contemporary fiction anyway — comes down to a point of view. In order to tell a story one must have a point a view. That’s how I see it, anyway. That’s my point of view, you see. In that sense, all interesting writing is warped. Going back to the genre question, I once read a writing book that recommended close analysis of, say, twenty “typical” books in a chosen genre. I couldn’t find “typical” books! Is Dune a typical sf novel? Is A Scanner Darkly? The Stepford Wives? Is Patricia Highsmith a typical mystery writer? Is Graham Greene a typical — what? See what I mean? There are no genres. Well maybe two. “Outer Space” and “Not Outer Space.” I acknowledge that there are some people who will never read a book, watch a TV show, rent a movie, if they even suspect for a moment that it takes place in outer space. Pretty much anything else, in my experience, you can cajole people into at least trying if you pester them enough. I call this the “Deadwood/Farscape Conundrum.” (At least I call it that today.) It is possible to get someone who declares they despise westerns, depise violence or despise swearing, to watch “Deadwood” and you’ll hook them 9 out of 10 within two episodes. Someone who declares to hate what they call “Star Trek stuff” will eat through their own arm to get away from watching an episode of Farscape with you. They’d be okay with the early Star Wars movies though. For some reason the space prejudice doesn’t apply to George Lucas. I still don’t like Star Wars, I saw the first three only once, and haven’t seen the new ones at all. I have a Star Wars prejudice.

TB: Do you have a favorite place to write?

Yes. New York City in the late fifties to mid-seventies on a battered Underwood. I haven’t found a way to make that happen though.

TB: What’s the most challenging aspect of writing?

Staying in the present. Putting aside any promises I’ve made, fantasies I’ve had, ambitions I desire, in order to best serve whatever task is at hand. The story, or the book, or whatever the work is, is all that matters. Careers, genres, reputation — all of that is seriously secondary. Useless tripe. Everything has to be about the work at hand, which to a very daunting degree, requires learning it’s own special rules and using it’s own special language.

TB: What’s the most whacked out thing said in a review of your work?

I’ve gotten very few reviews and the ones I have gotten were very kind. Reviewing as a genre, however, truly infuriates me far more than it should. I believe many reviews are cynically done. Why for instance, when David Denby clearly demonstrated a pronounced hatred of all things Tarantino with his review of Kill Bill Vol 1, would the New Yorker also assign him to review Vol 2? Just spite. It’s mostly movie reviewers that annoy me. Most books that I read have been out for awhile, so the reviews are long gone. Reviews of Tarantino also, exemplify another aspect of reviewers that I despise. Every movie he makes is criticized chiefly for not being the movie he made right before it. Critics to that a lot. Trash work A, which goes on to be a classic anyhow, which proves once again (as if it needed further proving) that critics know nothing. Then trash work B because it is not identical to work A. — Great racket.

Hypocritically of me however, the thing that annoys me about almost all SF print reviews is that they are relentlessly positive. I suppose this is a case of “if you can’t say something nice …” and born of the fact that SF critics and writers are going to have to sit next to each other on endless panels for the rest of their lives. No, really, really, fuck reviews. For my own buying purposes, I find customer ratings such as those on Amazon much more useful. A delicate flower of the David Denby-stripe is unlikely to rate Kill Bill on Amazon. The bad Kill Bill reviews on Amazon will be from folks who like that kind of movie and are pissed-off that this one didn’t come up to snuff (if that’s how they feel). I really think there is something to this “Wisdom of Crowds” theory that’s come ’round lately. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s a mystery to me, but an encouraging one. Really, on the face of it, how could something like the blogosphere, or Wikkipedia be so fucking useful otherwise, and I think both those things are useful. Here’s my current favorite quote about critics. You probably know it, but it’s a doozy:

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”
from: “The Man in the Arena”
(Paris Sorbonne,1910)

TB: Okay, you’re going to get marooned on an island by a bunch of angry editors, what one book do you take and why?

It sounds cheeky, but I’d take my own current ms. to work on. It could be really good, if only I was stuck on an island long enough, and didn’t have to go to work in an office most days.

TB: Is there a book or story you wish you could go back in time and kill the author of so you could submit their manuscript as your own?

The Bible. And I’d add an author’s note. “Dear Humanity, sorry about all the plagues and floods, and hatred and brother against brother stuff. Sorry about everything up to and including the recent tsunami. Sorry I’ve been such a dick these past 5,000 years — Love, God.” An apologia.

TB: When I interview you again in 10 years, what will you hope to be talking to us about?

The difficultly of finding powerful fodder for fiction in a world free of religion, poverty, political instability, and individual unhappiness. Okay, since that won’t happen … I hope I am defending myself against
charges that I’ve sold out. You’re really not anyone in this culture until someone of absolutely no ambition, courage or accomplishment accuses you of selling out. Here is a true story:

For a little while Starbucks had an print magazine they sold in their stores. Patti Smith was on the cover. I was in a Starbucks, when a person came in, saw the cover, and said, “Wow! I can’t believe Patti Smith sold out!” (evidently this person didn’t know that public figures can be put on magazine covers without their consent or knowledge — but let’s suppose Pattie Smith DID consent to be on the cover.) After this person makes this brilliant statement, she proceeds to order her drink. Then she asks the barista to check the work schedule. It became clear that this person, calling Patti Smith a sell-out for being on the cover of a Starbucks magazine, was not only drinking coffee at Starbucks but she actually WORKED at Starbucks herself. I mean, WHAT THE FUCK! The mind boggles, it actually boggles. (Now is a good time to reread the Roosevelt quote above).

TB: What are your current plans for literary world domination?
I hope to get some novels written. I intend to write 20 novels before I will let myself think about giving up on novels. Then reassess.

TB: Last, but not least, if zombies were spreading throughout the land by infectious bite what would be your 5 point response?

First — I’d take full advantage of Blockbuster’s “No Late Fee” policy. Suckers!

2. I would steer clear of anyone with a handle-bar moustache. Zombie plagues invariably turn survivors with thick moustaches into warlords of post-apocalyptic neo-fascist enclaves.

3. I’d try to find a mildly-abrasive but hot and inexplicably-unattached tough chick. At least one survives every zombie attack ever recorded, and I’d stick as close to her as possible, hoping to be second-to-last to die.

4. Stay away from the malls.

5. And by the way – what do you mean IF zombies were spreading throughout the land? Have you looked outside today?

Thanks Mike!