I am delighted to bring you the latest interview in our ongoing series on the rising stars of speculative fiction. This week I had the opportunity to chat to the amazing Mike Griffin. Mike has been making waves over the past few years with his work, to the point where luminaries such as Laird Barron have compared him to the mighty Peter Straub!
Mike graciously took time out of his hectic schedule to chat, and we spoke about a variety of topics ranging from music through to his zombie apocalypse team. I hope you enjoy it!
Mike Griffin, welcome to Smash Dragons!
Hi Matthew. Thanks for the invitation to chat!
First up, tell me about yourself and your book The Lure of Devouring Light.
As for myself, I'm married, and my wife and I live in Portland, Oregon (which, since you're Australian, I'll add is in the NW corner of the USA). The Lure of Devouring Light is my first collection, 11 stories of dark weirdness and disquiet. It was published by Word Horde, a wonderful independent press located down the Pacific Coast in Northern California, and operated by Ross E. Lockhart.
Was writing always something you envisaged yourself doing when you were younger?
I did go through several stages of very serious interest in writing, though with long gaps where I pursued other things. Even during those times of involvement in other creative activities, I was always very much in love with books and stories and words. Though sometimes many years passed when I didn't write at all, I always expected I would start again, eventually take it more seriously and stick with it enough to start getting published.
You’re a musician and record label owner. What motivated you to create your own label? How has music helped you as a writer?
The ambient music activities, both recording my own work and starting and running Hypnos Recordings in 1996, actually explained my last hiatus from writing. Electronic music was another thing I always loved, and in the mid 90s I bought some synthesizers and recording gear, and started recordings sounds and mixing them together. The first impetus for starting Hypnos was simply to release a CD of my own music, though by the time I actually got the label going it had already grown from there, and became mostly about releasing other people's work.
I'm not sure recording my own ambient music has helped me as a writer, but I do think there's a lot of overlap between different creative processes. Building a deep soundscape that draws in the listener and alters their mental state is a bit like writing a dark, moody scene that takes the reader out of their own world and puts them someplace completely different, in an altered mood and with different emotions. Also, I've been surprised to see there's a lot of overlap between ambient music listeners and horror/weird fiction readers. Many people enjoy both.
The Lure of Devouring Light is your first collection. How did it come about? What was the reasoning behind collecting a lot of your stories into one book?
I don't suppose the idea of gathering stories together to form a book is a very original one! It's sort of assumed that a developing writer who has published enough good stories will eventually put out a collection at some point, and for me, other writers and editors and readers increasingly began to suggest that I should. I think it's an important step for a writer, to present a lot of their work together so readers can wade in deep, and really get a sense of what the writer is trying to convey. It's very different to read hundreds of pages by one person all at once, than to look at individual stories one at a time, spread out over months or years.
As for how this specifically came about, I had selected what I considered my very best work, with advice from friends who were writers and editors, especially Joe Pulver. Joe encouraged me to envision a finished book in all its aspects, said I should think about what stories to include, how to sequence them, what should be the title of the book, and which artist might do the cover art. Then, of course, the plan was to make a wish list of the most appealing publishers and start approaching them until I found someone suitable who wanted to do the book. I was very fortunate to quickly connect with one of the very best in our community, Ross at Word Horde. I couldn't be happier with how that turned out.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
I might give different answers to this question at different times. The first that comes to mind is Far From Streets, a novella which was originally published as a standalone book by Dunhams Manor Press. That story was important and very personal to me, and felt like a daring sort of a creative stretch when I wrote it, and it was well received by those who read it. This story was probably the main thing that made Ross at Word Horde consider doing my book. I'll always feel like that story marks an important stage in my development.
Really, though, I might say my favorite thing in the book, the one story I most hope for people to see, is the final novella in the book, The Black Vein Runs Deep. It functions as a sort of counterbalance to Far From Streets. Both stories involve a man and a woman exploring nature in Mt. Hood National Forest, and finding themselves altered and shifted by the landscape. The stories have different trajectories and despite obvious similarities, somewhat opposite worldviews. Both are very personal for me, and I wonder how people will receive them as a matched but somewhat unbalanced pair.
Just how hard is it to master writing a short story? Every writer I’ve spoken to has commented on just difficult it can be to write a really good tale within the confines of a short story. Have you found this to be true?
Writing any kind of a story is difficult, short or long. The more I do this, the more I believe it's more difficult to write shorter, rather than longer. I don't mean that writing shorter is a higher accomplishment, necessarily, just that it's trickier and maybe more frustrating to convey something worthwhile in a really compact form. There's extra work involved in condensation, trimming down and stripping away.
Lately I'm enjoying the different challenges involved in building a more complicated narrative with the time and the length to really gradually shift the world and introduce change in a character or a situation. Another way of saying this is that even though it's harder to write a really strong short story just because of the length constraint, doesn't mean I feel that's the best form for a story, or that I want to write primarily short stories myself. In fact, even as a reader, I'm more interested to see what my favorite writers do with longer forms. The novella seems like a perfect in-between. The writer doesn't have to pare everything down so ruthlessly, and can afford to spend more time and effort building a world with atmosphere and resonance, letting the reader learn non-essential character aspects that make the story seem more real and natural.
Speaking of novellas, Stephen Graham Jones and Laird Barron are both on the record suggesting that we have entered the 'Age of Novellas' in publishing at the moment. Would you agree with that statement? What other trends have you noticed emerging as of late, especially within the horror genre?
I think with novellas, it's partly that it's an excellent format for stories of horror, suspense and the weird, and also partly that this era of easy on-demand print publishing and the popularity of ebook publishing make more feasible the release of standalone shorter books. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to make an economic case for a short book by a less-known author, that might sell only a few hundred copies. Now, it's easy for small publishers to make this work, and this allows both writers and readers to explore this in-between length.
One thing I've found is that many of my earliest story attempts, which didn't quite work somehow, actually just needed to be longer. When I was just starting out, a short story of under 5,000 words seemed like the format most likely to allow me to get published. Sometimes I tried to squeeze an idea for what should have been a novella into that shorter form, and it just didn't work. At least for me, the possibility of writing 20-40,000 words allows me to revisit some of these ideas and do them justice.
Another sort of trend I've seen happening lately is related to the above, which is that the small presses, very often not just "indie" but truly small, like 1-2 person operations are putting out many of the best books. The small press has always had a role, but this segment of the publishing scene seems to me to be at an all-time peak.
What was the first story you ever sold? What was it about?
My first published story was called "Remodel With Swan Parts," a Science Fiction story about a near-future Seattle in which people are obsessed with body alteration, genetic modification and exotic drugs which make them much more variable, so that people can make the way they look, the very shape of themselves, and the way their bodies function, a sort of work of art or at least a creative exercise, the way people might use tattoos and piercings now. At the time I was working on SF almost exclusively but I found myself shifting into Horror and the Weird, and never looking back. This story can be read online for free. The link is at my griffinwords.com blog, on the "stories" page, or you can google "Electric Spec Remodel With Swan Parts"
Tell me a random fact about yourself that no one else knows about… until now.
It's impossible to come up with a good story that no one knows, because if it's an interesting story, I've already told someone.... but I can tell something that probably nobody reading this interview will have heard before. Once, when I was reading Lawrence Sutin's biography of Philip K. Dick, I became something like half-convinced that I was receiving communications from the alien or godlike intelligence that himself Dick had believed was speaking to him around the whole VALIS thing. This was a brief experience, nothing like what Dick himself went through, and probably had more to do with sleep deprivation, too much caffeine and the power of suggestion. Who knows?
Wait, hold up... Phillip K. Dick believed he was being spoken to by a god like or alien intelligence? Can you elaborate on that? (I had no idea)
Yes, it's a real thing. Dick's late VALIS trilogy (VALIS, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer) tell a thinly-disguised version of something Dick believed happened to himself in real life, which is a series of visions and communications. He called this the "2-3-74" experiences, and he himself struggled to understand what they might mean, or where they might have come from. It's important to remember that Dick suffered from mental illness, and abused drugs pretty significantly for long stretches of his life, so these things may have been a factor, yet this aspect of his personal story strikes me as possibly more interesting than his purely fictional work. If you want the short introduction, mixed into a very worthwhile and readable biography of an interesting guy and a great creative artist, read Sutin's biography, Divine Invasions.
One of the things I admire about your storytelling is that you are hard to pin down and label. You draw from many different genres, and seem to delight in the slippery nature of your writing. How would you define yourself?
"Hard to label" sound good to me, in the sense that this means I'm not doing something too simple or straightforward or common. On the other hand, there's probably some benefit to being categorize-able by potential readers or publishers. People do like to know if this reader or this book they heard about is likely to be something they'd enjoy. It's much simpler to convince someone to try something if it's straightforward, like "This guy is a horror writer and his work is really scary," or something along those lines, than to say "Well, it's good, it's really different, it's interesting, I'm not sure how to tell you what it's like." Comparisons and categorizations help us to feel comfortable trying something.
I would categorize myself as a writer of quiet horror, or maybe strange dark fantasy. There's a popular term lately, "Weird Fiction," which I believe applies as well. My stories tend to read like realistic, character-based or relationship-focused stories, except that one or two elements are off somehow, and these aspects disqualify them from being straightforward genre-free stories.
Have you found that your breadth of style has impacted on your marketability?
Maybe, though it's hard to know. Most editors aren't in the habit of saying, "You know, if you would just narrow your focus a bit, I might buy stories from you." They just don't buy stories from you and don't say why. Having said that, I've reached the point where enough really good editors get what I'm doing that I can keep myself busy just writing things to order for them. Joe Pulver, Mike Davis, Ross Lockhart and Justin Steele are the first that get to mind. Years ago, before I was ever published, I remember seeing a writer in an interview say something like, "To break through, you don't need to make all the editors love your work. You just need to catch a few," and this is really true.
Who are your literary influences? Why?
As I mentioned earlier, I've gone through a few discrete stages as a writer. In my teens, I was interested in Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison, Twilight Zone and Stephen King. In my twenties, starting in college, I focused on straight stuff like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and later Raymond Carver. Then I took a long break, and when I started again, I merged my earlier genre focus with my later interest in so-called literary fiction. Some of my earlier influences have faded, and other newer ones have replaced them.
A few writers I think about a lot lately include Cormac McCarthy, E. Annie Proulx and Haruki Murakami from the mainstream arena, and from the more local genre, Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn and John Langan. Also, Shirley Jackson. That's the thing, there are so many influences and writers I love... I could keep naming many more, lots of people influencing one tangent or another, or suggesting ways of approaching certain aspects of details. I could name fifty more, and the moment I stopped, another name would come to mind. I think all the writers I enjoy share one thing in common, above all else. They're capable of evoking vivid experience and intense emotion or feeling.
If you could meet one of them and pick their brain who would it be? Why?
I would really love to meet Cormac McCarthy, and have a chance to talk to him, though it often seems that people capable of that kind of artistic self-expression are often not so great at articulating anything useful about how or why they do it, or where it all comes from. Another of my favorite creative souls is David Lynch, but he's famously terrible at talking about his work. I can imagine McCarthy being the same way, reluctant to address what he does, and kind of irritated at being asked.
Worst story idea you ever came up with?
I've come up with an awful lot of terrible ideas. Usually, I recognize that I'm wasting my time and abandon the idea before I spend too much time on it. One that comes to mind is about an old woman who doesn't get enough attention from her last living relative, a selfish granddaughter who just wants the grandmother's money. The young woman gives her grandmother an artificially intelligent cat, and the grandmother expresses so much of her interior life to the cat, they become friends, and the cat begins to dislike the granddaughter intensely. Finally the granddaughter views the artificial cat as a threat, and secretly wipes the cat's memory so it can no longer speak and stops behaving like an friend to the old woman, which leads her to believe she's losing her mind. I don't know, maybe I could write a story with this idea and do it justice now, but the way I wrote it six or seven years ago, it was an embarrassing mess of sentimentality.
Take me through a day of writing with Mike Griffin. Are you a plotter or pantser? What’s your beverage of choice when writing? Snacks?
First of all, I don't write every day, though I try to write at least something on most days. I almost always skip Friday. My primary effort happens Sunday, when I shut myself in a room and block the internet and try to accomplish a lengthy block of work, say 10-12 hours. If I add this to five or six random spurts averaging something less than an hour each throughout the week, I can get a fair amount done.
I'm most definitely a plotter. I carefully plan, outline, organize, make character sketches, even seek out photo reference for characters, clothing, and indoor and outdoor settings. When I'm working up to a story, I create lots of scribbled notes or I record voice notes on my phone, then when I have enough of these organized that I feel like there's a skeleton of a story, I assemble and prepare. As for the actual mechanics of writing, I switch things up. Sometimes I do handwritten rough drafts, sometimes I speak a scene aloud and record myself, but probably most often I just load my many notes and outlines into Scrivener and start sorting and arranging. I don't try to create a perfect draft all at once, but start with something very ragged and start trimming, chipping away, and polishing very gradually. Usually I drink something with sugar, because I've found sugar is more important than caffeine to revving up my creative energy. Sometimes I add a little bit of candy, but not much. Maybe the most unusual thing about the way I write is that I often write on the treadmill. I clamp a work surface across the arm rests and set my laptop up there and walk slowly. It's one of my favorite tricks, and if I ever reach a time in my life when I'm writing full time, I'm sure I'll write on the treadmill almost every day.
The treadmill idea is a good one! What other things do you do in your spare time when you step away from writing and music?
I really love to get outside, especially if I can go somewhere that feels like nature. Often this doesn't mean deep wilderness, in the sense that my wife and I drive somewhere and park, then get out and hike around for a few hours and we're never more than, say, five miles from the nearest road. We might go to the beach and walk or run along the ocean, without ever being out of view of people or houses for more than a moment. But the main thing we're after is a kind of change in mental wavelength - peace, or relaxation, or maybe communication with trees, or becoming hypnotized by the sound of waves crashing or a river churning. If there's one thing I wish I could do more often, it's this.
What’s your take on the horror scene at the moment? What do we need to do better to become a more vibrant community?
I think the scene is plenty vibrant. There's more good writing coming out than any one person could keep up with, unless they were a full-time reader or reviewer. Plenty of my friends are writers or anthology editors, and I can't keep up with most of their output. In fact, there's so much horror fiction coming out that the party has begun to fragment into subgenres. I don't think the problem is one of lack of vibrancy. Maybe things are a bit scattered at the moment, because of that fragmentation I mentioned. Also, there are differences of opinion over things like Lovecraft's racism, or the male-female ratio in certain anthologies, but differences will always exist. It's possible I'm just a Pollyanna here, but I think the scene is in pretty good shape.
If you had to name 5 writers who are tearing things up within the genre right now who would they be, and why?
There are several obvious names, who are named one everybody's "year's best" lists lately, names like Barron, Langan, Llewellyn, Tremblay, Kiernan. Everybody already knows these names, so I'd rather name five more who are really tearing things up, who might be just coming out with their first books, or might have developed a bit of a readership with the release of a handful of books, but all of whom deserve much greater recognition.
The first that comes to mind is Michael Wehunt, whose debut collection Greener Pastures came out the same month as mine, and which immediately leapfrogs Wehunt over just about everybody else who's been trying to write horror. Next, Damien Angelica Walters, whose novel Paper Tigers is out pretty recently, and who has been up for several awards in recent years for her emotionally intense and beautifully poetic stories. Scott Nicolay is another, on the strength of Ana Kai Tangata, one of the best collections of the past decade... though since Nicolay won a World Fantasy Award last year, he might be in the process of stepping out of the "underrated" category. S.P. Miskowski is a very impressive writer, capable of wonderfully crafted, powerfully affecting stories, from her Skillute Cycle to the recent "Stag in Flight" from Dim Shores. Lastly, Richard Gavin is someone I can't believe hasn't received more attention, more love, and more awards. I find his work tremendously deep and chillingly dark, evocative of masters of the Weird tale like Blackwood and Machen and rich with esoteric themes.
What’s it like to be associated with a press like Word Horde? Are the stories about Ross's legendary awesomeness true?
As small presses go, having your book come out from Word Horde is like hitting the big leagues. It's one of the few small indie presses that operates like a much bigger, professional operation. Contracts and payments and release dates all happen exactly the way Ross says they will. Maybe most important, the roster of other writers involved with the press is top notch, and getting better all the time. I don't know about other people, but as a reader, I judge a press by the quality of its roster, and the presentation of the books. In both these areas, Word Horde is absolutely top notch. Now for a writer, there are other considerations, like promotions and connectedness, and Word Horde does very well in these areas too.
Aside from the quality of the press as a business, and a purveyor of appealing reading materials, the great thing about being associated with Word Horde is that Ross is such a great guy. Very knowledgeable, professionally experience and grounded, and also quite fun and funny. Just generally one of the best people in the field. Also, don't forget Elinor Phantom.
Favourite book in your library? Why?
I could answer by choosing my favorite novel (or collection), but that seems like a boring answer unless the book itself is a beautiful edition. I have some amazing art and photography books, and a few interesting or rare editions, but I might say that one of the books I prize most highly is the Centipede Press box set of Michael Cisco's works. He's one of my favorite writers, and the way Centipede designed and printed each book and presented them together makes the whole package really special.
Now, if I had to select a single book to take with me to a desert island, it would be the nice hardcover of the complete Lord of the Rings. I think if I had to re-read one book over and over, and nothing else, that would be the one.
Everyone has a funny convention story. What’s yours?
Conventions are wonderful fun, certainly one of the best things about this whole writing endeavor. Maybe my funniest convention story is from last summer's NecronomiCon in Providence. My wife and I were walking from the Omni Hotel back to the main hotel, the Providence Biltmore, with Joe Pulver and his wife Kat. As we approached the front of the Biltmore, we saw Ramsay Campbell standing out front with his wife. Joe knows Ramsay from the process of arranging and editing the Ramsay Campbell tribute book that's coming out from PS later this year, so he wanted to introduce me and Lena to Ramsay and his wife. Just as we walked up and Joe made noises like, "I'd like to introduce you to..." the heavy construction across the street began such a heavy onslaught of jackhammers and asphalt grinders and compressor motors, we literally could not hear each other speak even though we were face to face and practically shouting. So we had a very funny, animated conversation along the lines of "pleased to meet you, isn't this funny?" without being able to hear even the slightest thing the others were saying. We waited a minute for the racket to subside, but it didn't so we finally just left. That will always be my first meeting with Ramsay Campbell, one of the giants of horror.
What are you working on right now? What projects have you got coming out over the coming months?
I just finished a novella, An Ideal Retreat, which will come out as a Dim Shores chapbook in October. Since then, I'm working on a short story for a cool-sounding anthology by one of my favorite editors. After that, I have to write one more story for an anthology invitation, then I plan to put my head down and write a full-length novel. The rest of the year will be spent completing that, and trying to find a home for the shorter novel I finished recently, as well as beginning to assemble my second collection.
And finally, if you had to assemble a zombie apocalypse team filled with authors who would you pick, and why?
I would keep my elite zombie apocalypse survival team small and nimble. First, I would choose Laird Barron, because anyone who has made it through the Iditarod more than once knows a thing or two about enduring harsh conditions, and finding a way to survive by whatever means necessary. Second, Joe Pulver, who is a tough enough beast to survive anything, and always has an amusing story to tell. It's important to keep morale up! Of course the last member of my squad would have to be Kung Fu Johnny Langan. I mean, the man destroys boards with his bare hands and feet! These men would make a hell of a team, pretty much unstoppable, I think.
Mike Griffin, thanks for stopping by Smash Dragons!
You can find Mike's work online at all good book retailers. For more information about Mike, check out his site here. Be sure to also check out the other titles available at Word Horde. They are an amazing small press doing stellar work!
Until next time good people... be nice to each other and keep on reading!