[Interview] Michael McIrvin

Michael McIrvin has five poetry collections, two novels and a collection of essays to his name.

His latest novel, The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time (BeWrite Books, 2009) has been described as an implicit indictment of the use of murder and torture by modern nation states.

In this interview, McIrvin talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?.

My most recent book is a novel, but I have also published poetry collections, and that genre was my first calling.

I started writing poetry at age 12 after my first crisis of faith. I read the Bible like a cabalist in my search for answers, every syllable, afraid I might miss some truth hiding there. When I reached the last page, I started over; but this time I only read Genesis, Revelations, and the Psalms, the Christian creation and destruction myths and the King James’ version of poetry — the good bits in my 12-year-old opinion.

In fact, the intersection of language and mythology remain important to both my poetry and my prose. My first poems were a cross between the Psalms, poetry that looked like that text in terms of long lines (mostly Whitman and Wordsworth) in my father’s old intro to lit textbook from college, and popular song lyrics.

I 'published' my first book a year or so later, a few copies of Xeroxed poems stapled together (I did the cover art too, of course). My first real book came out from a small poetry publisher in New Mexico, USA many years later, and I have published eight books in total since: five poetry collections, an academic essay collection, and two novels.

I can’t claim to actively seek publication like I did when in my 20s and 30s, but rather, I generally send mss to publishers who ask because they have seen my work in literary magazines or because of the previous books. I did send my current novel manuscript to BeWrite Books unsolicited, however, after a friend suggested that the themes in the book would be more readily acceptable to a non-US publisher.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

The most recent novel from BeWrite Books is about counterintelligence, and it is billed as a literary thriller. It is perhaps as accurate to call it social and political commentary in the guise of literary fiction, but the book is still fiction and so said commentary is implicit in the story, sublimated to story and character.

The poetry collection on which I am putting the finishing touches is about death and war and memory, and I am starting a new one that is made of stories: vignettes of working class life that all seem at this point to be, as a friend said of them recently, transcendent, the stuff of myth and ritual in everyday existence.

I am trying to find the time and energy to start the next novel too, which will be based on a short story I wrote some years ago about a feral child and his memories of his time in that mode. The novel will then follow him through his life as a 'tamed' adult, a man living on the edge of society even as he walks through it. At least that is the plan presently.

Has your personal experience had an impact on your writing?

I am a poet, fiction writer, and essayist with cultural concerns, but all of these genres are connected for me, the writing all of a piece. I frequently write narrative poems, for example, poetry that tells a story or has a character at its center. I also include some of the poet’s most powerful tools in my fiction, especially figurative language, and I use these same tools in my essays as well. And all of my work includes the stuff of modern life, the kinds of cultural issues that figure prominently in our current existence, like what constitutes individual identity in an age of hive behaviour, like how political power functions in the lives of individuals.

Don’t get me wrong. The overriding aims in my poetry and my fiction are still artistic and my poems and novels are not textual soapboxes. But like every writer, the elements of my life, what concerns me, enter the work almost inevitably and I always try to figure out how to make them serve the project at hand rather than the other way around.

Who is your target audience?

I do not aim my work at a given demographic, but if anything, I guess I write for an astute reader, one not only capable of considering the thematic elements but who also appreciates what the poet Robert Duncan called the snakelike beauty of living syntax. A good metaphor is only worth its weight in gold if the reader gets it.

Which authors influenced you most?

The influences for The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time will probably shock my publisher because those influences are perhaps not readily apparent. I am of the age now that influence is not so much stylistic as something tougher to explain, like how a given writer handles a topic or the overall tone of the prose.

Don DeLillo (Underworld) has always impressed me with his ability to include what one might term topical material without waxing didactic, and some of his prose is so lyrical it is obvious that he understands the poet’s toolkit well (again, tools I use in my fiction too). The protagonist in my latest novel is a former CIA agent, and the subject of torture is important to the book, but the book is not a heavy-handed expose on the subject but rather a larger indictment via a dramatization of the practice in historical context — in this case Mesoamerica at the end of the 20th century.

I also love Cormac McCarthy’s terse prose (Blood Meridian may be the best US novel of the 20th century), his ability to make the reader shudder for a long time in few words but also his ability to move the story forward quickly. Many of his characters also rise to the level of archetype and their story to the level of mythic undertaking. The main character and his tale in The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time, I hope, achieve those levels to some small degree.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I just want to get it right, which is of course a moving target and a writer does not “get it right” via an algorithm. So, the work at hand is always an exercise in problem solving as well as creation. I suppose the key is tenacity, a willingness to go after my own text as many times as it takes to find shortcomings and figure out the necessary fix.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

These days, time and energy. I somehow manage to find both, and it frequently amazes me to open a notebook or a manuscript file and see how much I have done. But the work tends to proceed more in fits and starts than when I taught because that profession included a known time that one could set aside to write, but fits and starts is the necessary rhythm now.

Do you write every day?

I do not write every day, and I marvel at those who do (my heroes, in a way). However, I am always working on the next poem or novel. I keep notebooks, wherein there are ideas or scenes or drafts, and then I have to find a larger block of time to do “official” work: to put down a draft that is closer to finished with each iteration, to revise, to put together a manuscript in something like the fashion it will look ultimately.

I also think about what I am working on even if not writing something down, which can be a pitfall if one mistakes it for actually writing; but nevertheless, that kind of imagining is important to the finished work if kept in perspective. That pitfall is not a problem I have to worry about, however. I know when it is time to do the writing viscerally, almost as instinctual need, and I will turn over heaven and earth to find the time to get it done.

And a book is a book only when the galleys are proofed. Up to that point, any reading of the manuscript can result in changes. So, I don’t let a project go, so to speak, until it is a half step from being a book.

How many books have you written so far?

I am the author of eight books:

How long did it take you to write The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time?

The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time was started in 2001, but it was put aside for a long time because of the political climate shift that began then (you can read a bit about this decision in an essay I wrote for Comparative Literature and Culture, “Poetry and the Aesthetic of Morality”.

The book is about a former CIA agent who must reconsider his one-time role as a counterintelligence agent, what constitutes terrorism, and the nature of power in the modern world. His journey takes him from the American rustbelt to Chiapas, Mexico, where he meets another former intelligence operative who doubles as a jaguar shaman for his Mayan tribe. The main character must also deal with other former CIA colleagues and has flashbacks to his bloody role in American history. A Mayan boy he meets has a cultural role and a future that are perhaps the most terrible revelations in the novel.

As I noted previously, a friend suggested that perhaps the topic and my handling of it might be more readily acceptable to publishers somewhere other than in the US. BeWrite was the first non-US publisher I sent the ms (and I must admit that I had not sent it to many in the US either, believing the exercise a waste of time on this side of the Atlantic), and the editor, Neil Marr, accepted it immediately and enthusiastically.

The book was published in December, and so I am too early into the process to know much about “advantages or disadvantages,” but the people at BeWrite are consummate pros and attentive to every last detail. I am also impressed by the fact they are actively exploring “what comes next” in publishing. For example, they offer an eBook version of The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time on their site (in PDF) as well as a traditional paperback, but my book was also the among the first BeWrite titles to be made available to all current eBook devices via Smash Words.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

The book is an implicit indictment of the practices of modern nation states, specifically of counterintelligence and its methods, including murder and torture as tools of state. As noted in the essay I just mentioned, many of my acquaintances did not understand my desire to write such a book let alone to include these thematic elements. The book is about the practices of the CIA in Mesoamerica late in the last century, but as one reviewer has said, the topics covered are utterly timely. Some readers of early drafts thought them too timely, apparently.

The atmosphere of panic brought on by the attack on the World Trade Center has abated a bit with the revelation of just how cowardly and dishonest the previous US administration’s actions were in response, but the desire for vengeance still permeates the culture to an extraordinary degree and the entire population seems in a malaise that can only be deemed moral confusion. All that made finding my way with the book, if not harder, at least a more self-conscious act. Moreover, some elements in the book, extraordinary violence and the consequent suffering, let alone the larger thematic of culpability on the part of the US government in the destruction of tribal cultures, were really tough to write about. Some of the research was in fact harrowing.

What sets The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time apart from other things you've written?

My previous novel has an element of irony that — in spite of sometimes tough topics (like murder, the black market organ trade, and genocide) — makes the reader laugh along the way. It is something of a fairytale in this aspect. Pratfalls might be bloody but they can still be a hoot.

The present novel is not ironic, except in the darker definition of the word, and not funny in the least. But it probably shares this with my poetry, which tends to be serious and imagistic and to plumb the depths, both psychologically and on some level that might be called philosophical (though I hope always to avoid a kind of dryly didactic language that kills the art in any literary work). In this latter case, The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time includes Mayan mythology, which is quite violent, and those tales are brought forward into our age as historical fact — the characters in the novel are, symbolically, incarnations of the characters in the myths and carrying out bloody prophecy.

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Unknown said…
I think I'm going to appreciate you as an editor.

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