Michael Griffin’s most recent collection of dark fiction is The Human Alchemy (Word Horde, 2018). Today, he joins us again to discuss his newest collection, his influences and style, and what the future holds.
HELLNOTES: Congratulations on your second collection The Human Alchemy (now available from Word Horde)! For readers who might be new to your work, what can you tell us about this collection? How would you describe the overall tenor or flavor of this book?
Michael Griffin: Thanks for having me back for another round of questions. People often call my work Weird Fiction It’s also in the Horror category, on the more subdued end of the spectrum, more psychological in focus than physical, and more about unease than violence or terror. My stories usually involve people in situations that resemble our normal, rational world in most details, but there’s a fracture point, beyond which things start to come apart.
HN: Building on that, where do you see your influences, both those that readers might pick up on through these stories as well as those that might be buried more deeply? What other writers working today do you see as kindred spirits?
MG: My earliest influences were in fantasy and science fiction and comics, which led me to Twilight Zone and Lovecraft, and Harlan Ellison and Stephen King. After that I found mainstream literary writers who dealt in psychological strangeness or extremity, or at least a more intense “feel” than your standard domestic drama. It’s that heightened tension and altered mental state I enjoy, more than the genre elements themselves. Writers that come to mind are Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, Haruki Murkami, Donna Tartt.
More recent influences, which are probably more likely to show in my current work, would be Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn, John Langan, Brian Evenson, and SP Miskowski. Lately I’m reading a lot of creepy crime and thriller fiction, and of course I always try to keep up with what’s going on in the “weird scene.” There are so many people doing incredible work within this narrow little niche, it’s amazing.
HN: What was the process like for selecting and arranging the stories in this collection? A number of these tales seem to operate within a classically Weird structure, in which characters possessed of a sensitivity or a sensitive nature have a potentially numinous encounter which they either accept and emerge opened to the mysteries of the universe, or reject and remain closed. Beyond structural similarities, though, are there any particular themes or preoccupations that you see swirling around within your book? I’m curious as to what through lines you might retrospectively see in your own work.
MG: Selecting stories for this second collection was simpler than for the first. Because my work is more consistent now, there weren’t many stories I needed to exclude because they didn’t fit with the rest. As far as arrangement, I considered which stories wanted to be grouped together, such as the first three which play off one another. Other than that I tried to create a trajectory in terms of feel, though that’s so intangible I don’t know how I’d describe how I approached it or what I was trying to do. It seemed important that the title story should come last in the book, and because that one’s pretty long, I didn’t want to place the even lengthier novella “An Ideal Retreat” too near the title story, nor right at the beginning, because it would be intimidating to have such a long piece up front.
The major through lines have become more apparent with time, the first being the geographical focus in the NW and particularly in Oregon, and the second being the way relationship tensions and troubles overlap with the weird external elements and lead to glitches in chronology or causation. And of course there are characters and groups that have popped up more than once, often in the background or referred to in their absence. Those will probably come up more and more.
HN: When you look back at your first collection, The Lure of Devouring Light (whose title story we’ve discussed before), do you see any sort of shift between those stories and the ones in this most recent collection? Do you observe a difference in what those stories did or contained, versus the ones in this new collection?
MG: I don’t see any conscious shift in the sense of a new aim, but I think over time I’ve gained a sense of what I’m better at, as well as what I enjoy writing, so probably the new collection benefits from this experience and self-understanding. Also at this stage, more of the stories have specific interconnections or cross-references, rather than just thematic similarities.
Otherwise, the two collections are pretty similar in my estimation, though I’d like to believe the new one is slightly better. We all want to believe we’re improving over time, don’t we?
HN: Getting into The Human Alchemy’s particular stories, while we could never ask you to pick a favorite, or a least favorite, perhaps you could talk about one story that you found harder to write than the others and how that finally came to fruition. What about a story that was comparably easier to write?
MG: The hardest one to get right was “Endure Within a Dying Frame.” That story went through many versions, not only drafts, but long periods of time when I thought the story was finished and started sending it out, then decided “No, it needs major changes,” so I’d tear it apart and rebuild it. This process repeated several times, with huge chunks of the story scrapped and rebuilt, and the emphasis changed. In the finished version, the mathematics aspect is much more prominent, and the desires and agendas of both characters have been built up, whereas in earlier versions neither were so clearly rendered.
That kind of repeated overhaul is something I used to go through fairly often, and the first collection has several that went like that (including some of the better stories in the book), but I’ve gotten better at figuring out what a story needs to be the first time through. Almost half the stories in The Human Alchemy came out relatively easily, and took a normal (for me) month or so to complete. The one that stands out as easiest, though, is “The Only Way Out is Down.” That was the last story I wrote for the book, and the only one that appears here for the first time. I made two earlier attempts at a final piece for the book, stories that ended up being set aside to appear elsewhere, but once I had the idea for “The Only Way Out is Down,” I could envision the whole trajectory of it, and wrote it in less than two weeks. For me, that’s very fast. That ease might have come from the the story’s inspiration being partly based on real, recent events that were clear in my mind.
HN: One striking element in your writing here is how you use your prose style to render an aesthetic world that might well be described as both sensuous and sensual. You capture physical spaces quite sharply, evoking the desolate Oregonian beaches as well as the numerous strange dwellings that are decorated down to the nails. You also utilize your lush descriptive powers to evoke the pleasurable aspects of music, food, and drink. I wonder if you see that element of your fictional voice arising from a particular literary – or even real world – source? Do you find this an intentional stylistic effort, or a reflection of your innate sensibilities?
MG: Well, thanks! That’s not just a question, but also what I consider a very flattering judgment. It’s very important to me that not only should the people seem real, but also the settings and the various “props” of life should create an impression in the reader’s mind of a world they can see, hear, smell and feel… maybe even taste. Details are so crucial, I mean not just filling the story with detailed and specific information, but choosing all the right quanta of sensory information to evoke the complete world I’m after. If a writer does their job well, prose can render a scene with all the vividness and clarity of heightened reality, or a dream.
Sometimes I worry that I obsess too much about describing architecture and rooms and natural settings, or people and their clothing, or music, or food and drink, but if I don’t include those things a scene doesn’t fully vibrate with life for me. To answer your question, though, I don’t know whether I would call it an intentional stylistic choice, or just something I can’t help. Probably the latter. There have definitely been times when I’ve written a story and the plot is resolved and the dialog is all good, but it still just doesn’t feel quite finished, and what’s missing is that sprinkling of the fairy dust of the right details.
HN: Keeping with the discussion of style, its also impressive how you draw on your home of Oregon as both a physical setting and an emotional one. From its beaches to cities, from compounds in the sprawling countryside to mountain towns, the stories in this collection might seem to be entries in an atlas of a “Weird Oregon” that exists just alongside the margins of the real one. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to the area and how your work either draws from or is influenced by that?
MG: This is an interesting question, I guess because I never consciously decided “I will only write about Oregon.” It’s natural to me to envisions stories in place I love, and especially in evocative settings like the beach, the mountains and the forest. I’ve seen a few readers suggest, “Oh, he’s just describing his own life,” and while I definitely think that’s not true (at the same time feeling flattered that a reader would think this must be what my life is like, because they wouldn’t think that if I had rendered the people and places in a way that seemed flat or fake) I’ve certainly spent a lot of time on Mt. Hood, and in Lincoln City and Cannon Beach, and Portland and Bend and Roseburg. The house in “The Only Way Out is Down” is definitely the SE Portland house where I lived from 2004 to 2016, with many story aspects changed, of course.
I guess it goes back to the last question, the importance of evocative detail. It makes sense to me that if I’m trying to conjure a real-seeming place in a story, I will use at least part of an actual setting from the real world. It’s important to actually see things, to notice what’s different and distinctive about objects, places and people we encounter. It’s not so much important to me to document Oregon, let’s say, though I do think it’s interesting to mix up interesting, imaginary worlds, and the characters I’ve created to inhabit them, with actual places where I live, work and play.
HN: Finally, what can we expect to see next? What sort of concrete plans do you have in the immediate future, but also what kind of ideas and plans are developing?
MG: Right now it’s hard to say what will come out next. At the moment I’m moving quickly on a new novel. It’s set in my immediate neighborhood and inspired by things my wife and I have seen and speculated about since moving here, so there’s further proof of my sense of the importance and influence of familiar settings. In the past year I’ve written most of another novel, which I’ve set aside temporarily, and before that most of a novella which takes place in a vast, deep bunker occupied by only four people, possibly after the end of the world.
Generally I’m more interested in writing longer stories such as novellas and novels, but I also have an itch to write the occasional short story… but probably not until I finish at least this one novel. My heart and mind may be focused more on longer tales, but there’s something to be said for completing short work now and then, at least so people out there in the world don’t forget I exist!
Michael Griffin’s books include a novel, Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone (Journalstone, 2017), and short fiction collections The Lure of Devouring Light (Word Horde, 2016) and The Human Alchemy (Word Horde, 2018). His stories have appeared in magazines like Apex and Black Static, and the anthologies Looming Low, Eternal Frankenstein, The Children of Old Leech and the Shirley Jackson Award winner The Grimscribe’s Puppets.
He’s also an ambient musician and founder of Hypnos Recordings, an ambient record label he operates with his wife in Portland, Oregon. Michael’s blog is at www.griffinwords.com and on Twitter, he posts as @mgsoundvisions.