An Interview with Michael Parker
Few writers mix danger and melancholy as seamlessly and effectively as Michael Parker. The Watery Part of the World, his latest, is as dark and seductive as its island setting -- a story and a place, in spite of the heartbreak they contain, to which you can’t help wanting to return.
In 1813, Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of infamous Vice President Aaron Burr, went missing on her return to New York from South Carolina. In 1970, two white sisters and a black man were the last residents on a small barrier island off the coast of North Carolina. Michael Parker blends these two historical facts to explore “the ways the past not only haunts the present, but in some ways anticipates it” (Kirkus). It is a tale -- in the truest sense of the word -- of longing and adventure told in prose The New York Times has called “deadly.”
Bookslut managing editor Michael Schaub called Parker’s last novel If You Want Me to Stay one of the greatest rock and roll novels ever written. To that list I would add the funk-tinged short novel “Golden Hour” from Parker’s first collection, The Geographical Cure. If there’s any logic to how a book is received, The Watery Part of the World will soon take its place on lists of best novels set on islands. Parker’s fifth novel and seventh book comes out this month from Algonquin. He recently answered some questions about the new book, how it took shape, faith and doubt, and when a writer shouldn’t be trusted.
First off, for the first time, one of your characters is a real historical figure, albeit a fairly obscure one. What led you to Theodosia Burr Alston?
A story in a book of myths and legends of North Carolina I used to read to my daughter. Theodosia’s story seemed open-ended, and I had always been interested in Aaron Burr, who was sort of a crackpot but also an extraordinary statesman, savvy and megalomaniacal, perhaps delusional. He tried to take over Mexico by floating down the Mississippi with a band of what my mother would call hoodlums.
One thing we know for sure about Theodosia, according to Wikipedia, is that her ship went missing at sea in 1813. You imagine her fate, and of course this is fiction, but clearly you’ve done more research than my own click on Theo’s Wikipedia page. You’ll be asked this many times in the coming months, so what kind of research did you do for this novel?
I read a biography of Theodosia, and I skimmed a couple of historical novels about her, and I read several biographies of her father, and of course Gore Vidal’s Burr. The most research I did was about the Outer Banks. I’m from coastal North Carolina, but I grew up near the Inner Banks -- the coastline that hugs the state, the barrier islands in sight of the mainland. I had the great pleasure of living and working in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, which is just forty five minutes from Nag’s Head, in the early '90s, but I haven’t spent much time there since, so I had to check my flora and my fauna.
Portions of The Watery Part of the World resemble a good old-fashioned adventure story with a shipwrecked damsel, lurking pirates, and a potentially mystical painting, to say nothing of the unpredictable ocean, a vivid character in its own right. Were these parts as fun to write as they are to read?
I had some fun. But in the first draft the lurking pirates all sounded like Snoop Dogg. There was a learning curve. I’d never written anything of this sort. I’d never written anything that could be called “historical fiction” (a term I dislike, by the way) except stuff set in the '50s. Since I was born in the '50s, I don’t think that quite qualifies.
The Watery Part of the World began as the short story “Off Island,” which appears, in addition to several anthologies, in your 2007 collection Don’t Make Me Stop Now. Your second novel, Towns Without Rivers, was also a sequel to your first, Hello Down There. How do you know when you’re not done with certain characters?
In the case of “Off Island,” it was really a structural anxiety. That story did not satisfy me on the level of narrative rhythm, or form. It dogged me. I thought I would expand it into a novella, but that didn’t work either. So it languished in my pile of Languishing Stuff until I spliced it with the 19th century part of the novel.
As for Towns Without Rivers: the end of Hello Down There was ambiguous in a way that suggested, well, more. I never planned on writing a sequel. And I didn’t think of it, while I was writing it, as a sequel -- more as a continuation of the story of one or two of the characters, though technically, I suppose it is a sequel, because the action picks up after the death of Edwin Keane in Hello Down There, which makes it sequential. I had written another novel -- a massive thing, called Lake Amnesia -- and I spent five years on it and could not get it up off the page. So I started writing this other thing which became Towns Without Rivers, which is also a long book for me now, as the older I get the less I know, so my books get shorter and shorter.
When asked about your process of writing If You Want Me to Stay, you said something about trying to ignore your writerly instincts. Could you explain what you meant by that? Were there any instincts you had to ignore while writing your latest?
I have no idea what I meant by that. I’m sure it made sense at the time. But in fact, it sounds like the opposite of what I usually do, which is to employ all my writerly sensibilities in an effort to make the work seem as unwriterly as possible. I don’t believe you can make a well-hewn and organically satisfying thing without thinking hard and long about the structural and syntactical choices you are making. I hate to say this, because I am in the midst of giving an interview, but you ought not to trust everything a writer says in an interview. Except for this interview.
Patton Oswalt recently said, “In terms of landscape, alcoholism, and literary prowess, the South is America’s Ireland.” I want to ask a couple of questions about the landscape and how it shapes these characters. First, how “Southern” do you see the setting and/or these characters, separated as they are from land by forty miles?
This is a good question, because I don’t think of the Outer Banks as all that Southern. That strip of land, cocked, curved, bent, overrun by wave and current, subject to storm and constant wind, feels to me like not only another country, but another reality. I am sure the locals would argue that it is in fact a real place with its own reality. But I am essentially a tourist. And I’m also a fiction writer.
There were slaves on the banks, brought there to lighter ships -- to unload cargo and transfer it to other boats so that the ships could make it through the channels -- but it was not an agrarian society at all. Nothing much grows there but sea oat and live oak. And, as far as I know, there was no aristocracy. There might be now, but it has to do with Real Estate.
I did find myself thinking of Irish literature while reading the new novel, particularly the short J. M. Synge play Riders to the Sea. In that play, a mother has lost a husband, a father-in-law, and five sons to the ocean in what I think were seven separate incidents, and the play depicts a certain fatalism we also see in Woodrow, Maggie, Miss Whaley, and Theodosia. Readers can decide for themselves whether the isolation of your characters, emotional and geographical, is chosen or imposed. But I want to ask if you see the fatalism in these characters as strength or weakness.
I see it as a consequence of the choices they make, which have to do less with the idea of “place,” as we so quaintly refer to it, but the opposite: the feeling, rather than the thinking, that they belong to that island and will be taken away from it, or cling to it, in whatever way the island dictates.
Bear with me as I make a lame transition: One could look at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill as an island in literary publishing. It’s been said of Algonquin that they don’t buy books they can market, but rather find ways to market the books they love. And they’ve been successful with that seemingly simple formula, publishing recent bestsellers like Water for Elephants, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, A Friend of the Family, and most recently Pictures of You. You’ve published your last three books with Algonquin, and several books before that with larger houses. What have the biggest differences been for you as a writer?
Algonquin publishes me and writers like me because they believe in giving writers who have not managed to break big and bad yet another chance. They are rare, they are consistent, and every writer I know who has left them for bigger houses wants, sooner or later, to come back home. As for the people who work there, I can’t sing their praises high or loud enough.
It’s increasingly rare for writers and editors to work together for multiple books, but you’ve worked with Algonquin’s Kathy Pories, who’s also the series editor of New Stories from the South, on each of your last three books. How, if at all, has your writer-editor relationship evolved since you began working together?
I think you’d have to ask Kathy that. When we first started working together I made her run a marathon. Now she’s the one training me. I dedicated The Watery Part of the World to her because without her encouragement and her patience -- and she has enduring patience, she really could teach middle school, it’s amazing, her patience and her generosity -- the book would not have been. Twice I have done this strange and somewhat nutty thing to her: sold her one book and, when it came time to turn it in, given her a completely new book. Both times, she was like, okay, yeah, no problem, right, I’ll get back to you. Had it been me, I would have said: Hold up, Say what?
Music figures prominently in several of my favorite works of yours, If You Want Me to Stay, “Golden Hour,” and the indelibly titled “Hidden Meanings, Treatment of Time, Supreme Irony, and Life Experiences in the Song ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More No Big Fat Woman’.” What relationship does music have to your writing?
Walter Pater said it best, and first: “All art aspires to the condition of music.” I grew up in a very small town. My only escape, for years and years, was music. And that is true today. Everything I do -- running, writing, grocery shopping -- is informed by music. I don’t know how to turn it off. I don’t know why I would ever want to.
Someone once asked you why so much of your work was set in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, and you said it was because you didn’t yet understand the present. Let me try and ask this without quoting Faulkner… what specifically, as a writer, do you find preferable about the past?
I suffer under the delusion that I understand it. I have no idea what it is like to live in the present. I’ve never tried it. As for the future, good God, I would not know the future if it crawled in bed with me.
Before my last question, I’m always curious what writers are reading. What is the last book you reread that wasn’t for a class you were teaching?
The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes.
Your own former teacher, the late George Garrett, used to say the single biggest difference between writers who make it and writers who don’t is simple perseverance. What advice do you offer young writers?
I adhere, here and elsewhere, to George’s advice. I would only add that writing well is a delicate balance of faith and doubt. Doubt keeps you honest. Faith gets the pages in the mail. Don’t scrimp on either, but, as the evil psychiatrist says in Mrs. Dalloway: it’s all a matter of proportion.
James Tate Hill is a writer living in Greensboro, North Carolina. His fiction appears in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, The Texas Review, and elsewhere.