Oyster River Pages: Who are the writers who have made you who you are?
Michael Backus: In teaching beginning fiction writing classes, I often start with a very similar question and because of that, I’ve developed my own sort of writer’s timeline (which may or may not have anything to do with how my reading career really played out). I start with Jack London, Call of the Wild being the first book about which I can remember thinking, “Who wrote this?” And from there, I discovered Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (seemingly in every short story anthology) and read every short story of hers I could find, which lead to Joyce’s Dubliners stories. After Joyce, it was Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Joy Williams, Denis Johnson (Rock Springs, Taking Care, and Jesus’ Son are the story collections that probably had more to do with my own developing sensibility than anything else). I was committed to writing (and reading) short stories for a long time, but once I jumped into novels, I’d add Robert Stone (though his Bear and His Daughter story collection is outstanding), Iris Murdoch (especially The Nice and The Good and The Black Prince), JP Dunleavy (The Ginger Man’s Sebastian Dangerfield really helped me understand where you can go with a character; I mean, he’s a cheating, wife beating drunk yet somehow still sympathetic – I named my first cat after him, though Sebastian the cat went blind pretty quickly and ended up having a long life skulking around a yard in Santa Fe, catching crickets by sound), Malcolm Lowry, Philip Roth, Jim Harrison (no one can write a comic geriatric sex scene like Harrison, except maybe Roth, though Roth’s are rarely hah hah funny), and Faulkner, who started to make a lot more sense after I got older.
ORP: What are the lenses that shape your worldview?
MB: I love the idea of the private story behind the public one, the revisionist truth at the heart of all situations. And it’s true about pretty much everything; we spend a lot of our lives unlearning all the bullshit we were fed as children. It even extends into arenas like sports, where the idea of new statistics has invaded baseball and basketball in particular, giving us new insight into conventional wisdom about what constitutes a great player. Digging into the how and the why of events is not dissimilar to what a fiction writer does; all life is subtext and it’s this subtext that I’m increasingly interested in, no matter the forum.
ORP: What’s the most important thing you’ve read lately?
MB: Important seems a high bar, but I will say I found George Saunders’ Tenth of December thrilling in a way a book rarely is for me (that date is also my birthday, which has nothing to do with my liking the book, I’m just saying....) I’ve loved select stories in Saunders’ collections before this but never felt like he sustained a high quality outside of these few stories (“Civilwarland in Bad Decline” and “Pastoralia,” the title stories of two collections being the most obvious examples) but every story in Tenth of December is first rate. Special mention to Mary Miller and her two collections (Always Happy Hour, The Big World) which I’ve read in the past year and found consistently engaging.
ORP: What’s your least favorite word?
MB: Elegiac. I like how the word looks on paper and I love the idea of it, the meaning, but I’ll be damned if I can find any way to say it out loud that doesn’t sound just wrong. Clunky. It’s an elegant looking word that doesn’t to my ear sound at all elegant and I have trouble using it in my work because I can’t find its music. It always feels fake and self-conscious when I try and use it in a story.
ORP: What’s your favorite thing that you’ve created?
MB: From an unpublished book-length memoir about working in NYC’s Gansevoort Meatpacking district in the early 80s, when it was this wild and rowdy confluence of people. It’s impossible to say this is the favorite thing I’ve created, but I thought it’d be more interesting to pick an excerpt from something not yet published, and I like how this captures the sense of that place as I experienced it.
The homeless around the burn barrel are no problem, we pass each other much as the other elements of the market do, as if we occupy separate universes which only tangentially overlap. The heavy leather homosexuals, the meat market workers, the homeless, the he/she’s, we are mostly spectres to each other, sensations more than corporeal entities, presences that pass not just by but through each other, leaving nothing more than a moment’s shiver or the feeling that someone is close when no one is.
ORP: What do you want to read more of in the world?
MB: Like a lot of kids, I wasn’t much interested in history as a kid but as an adult, it seems more interesting with each passing year. As a writer, I have to respect the stories, whether they happened 25 years ago or 2500. It’s all a narrative and there’s as much human comedy and nuance in the corners of history as in every book of fiction. The best writing is about creating those details that bring a character to life, and a great history is no different. Books like Evan Connell’s “Son of Morningstar,” Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror,” Taylor Branch’s trilogy of the books about the Civil Rights movement, and Robert Caro’s LBJ books are just some examples of history books that really drill down into individual characters’ lives and bring the past to life.
ORP: How do you pay it forward?
ORP: What is the space that has shaped you the most?
MB: Water and manicured grass. I grew up in a house where the back yard butted up against the 5th hole of a golf course. My family didn’t play golf and ours was a solidly working class neighborhood, but it really was the best playground a wild young teenager could have. We sledded down the hills in winter, played endless pickup football games along the edges, threw the baseball back and forth, fired arrows straight up and waited to see where near us they’d hit, tormented the golf pro (who was always calling the sheriff on me), on and on. It was best at night where you could run barefoot over the entire course, play in the sprinklers, steal pull carts and ride them down the hills like sleds (pulling up on the handle for balance), sneak up behind the night groundskeeper’s truck and hold onto the bumper when he drove away, sliding on your stomach across the wet grass. In winter, we’d find a spot overlooking the road and throw snowballs at cars and even if the car stopped and tried to chase us, we had the entire snowy golf course to hide in. And water was always present, our house was an easy walk from a lake where something was constantly going on (swimming, water skiing, canoeing, hunting and fishing, hockey and snowmobiling in the winter, even motorcycle racing with tires with spikes to grip the ice) and Lake Michigan was eight miles away. I spent so much of my early life in water.
ORP: You’ve just written your autobiography. What’s the title?
MB: What The Fuck Are You Looking At?
Michael Backus’ writing, fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in Okey Panky, One Story, Exquisite Corpse, Digging Through the Fat, Prime Number magazine, Hanging Loose, The Writer, The High Hat, The Portland Review, and The Sycamore Review. His short story “Coney on the Moon” is slated for publication in early September 2017 in an upcoming Redbird chapbook and a novel The Vanishing Point will be published in 2018 by Cactus Moon Publications. He taught film studies and creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City and currently teaches beginning and advanced fiction writing for Gotham Writer’s Workshop and Zoetrope Magazine. He can be followed @MikeJBackus and more information is available at his website here. Read his story "Act of Love" from Issue 1.