Five Questions is a new feature on BMR’s blog. Every few weeks we’ll post a new interview with one of our very talented Creative Writing faculty members. The questions are the same. The answers will be very different. First up is our own Director of Creative Writing, Dan Mueller.
Blue Mesa Review: What book or books made you realize you wanted to write?
Dan Mueller: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was the first, when I was in second grade. After I finished it, I was playing the card game “Authors” with my sister Karen on her bed in the room we shared. In case you aren’t old enough to remember “Authors,” it was exactly like “Go Fish” but with a special deck of cards adorned with the portraits of famous writers, the idea being you’d try to collect four Poes, four Longfellows, four Tennysons, and so forth. Anyway, I remember looking at the portrait of Louisa May Alcott, the only female author in the deck, with her flouncy collar and hair pinned back in a bun, and thinking, “I want to be like her.”
Other books I read as a kid that made writing fiction seem so cool I couldn’t imagine anyone not trying their hand at it: James Dickey’s Deliverance, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and Revenge of the Lawn, Hemingway’s In Our Time, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which took me the whole summer between my junior and senior years to read. I was also drawn to the mystical literature popular in the 70’s: Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Demian, Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, Richard Bach’s Illusions. Once, while I was reading The Teachings of Don Juan on my parents’ deck in the Minneapolis suburb where I grew up, a chipmunk put its nose to my bare toe and nearly blew my mind. I had a strong belief in pantheism and still do. After my second year of college, I dropped out of school, hitchhiked from Minneapolis to Alaska, and from Alaska down the west coast to the Yucatan Peninsula, during which time I read W. Somerset Maugham, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Herman Melville, Jane Austin, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and Charles Dickens—not all of everything each had written, but enough of each to feel that I knew him or her.
When I went back to college, having given up my half-hearted dream to become an obstetrician-gynecologist like my dad—this would’ve been 1983—I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop. In it, I was introduced to Raymond Carver, not through his stories directly but through copies of them written by my classmates. Back then, if your stories weren’t like Raymond Carver’s, you simply weren’t writing. After the workshop was over, I read Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and fell under the spell of Carver’s voice as well, its gorgeously minimalist and deceptively simple syntax and diction, and wrote one terrible story after another. Not only that, I inflicted them on my friends, distributing mimeographed copies of them at parties or, worse, after a few beers, reading them aloud. A few years later my writing professor, Steve Polansky, whose books now include Dating Miss Universe and The Bradbury Report, told me about Stanley Elkin, who would be giving a reading at the College of Saint Catherine in Saint Paul that weekend, and encouraged me to attend. As it turned out, Steve Polansky was Stanley Elkin’s warm-up reader on that occasion, and after he finished, Twin Cities novelist Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People, recently optioned by Hollywood and soon to be made into a film under the direction of Robert Redford, told the audience about driving around Minneapolis-St. Paul all that day with the famous actor, showing him landmarks from her novel in case he wanted to shoot scenes at them. While interesting, nothing she said seemed to have anything to do with Stanley Elkin, whom the audience was ostensibly there to hear, until she finished her introduction by telling us simply that Stanley Elkin would be reading to us from his new novel The Magic Kingdom. Stanley Elkin, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was wheeled onto the stage by his wife Joan, and a microphone was lowered to his chin. He cleared his throat and said, “More is more,” and began to read some of the longest, strangest, darkest, saddest, funniest sentences I had ever heard.
To this day, I love the works of Stanley Elkin, return to them again and again, and am grateful to Steve Polansky for being such a good teacher to me when I didn’t have a clue.
BMR: What trends in contemporary fiction/poetry/creative nonfiction do you see that you enjoy or admire?
DM: Because I’m primarily a short fiction writer, I love that collections of short stories seem to be making a resurgence, even if they’re being mostly published by smaller independent and university presses rather than the big New York City publishing houses. Outpost 19 Books (http://outpost19.com), which in March will publish my second collection of stories, Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey, is such a press. So is Press 53, which published my friend Pinckney Benedict’s brilliant collection of stories, Miracle Boy, a couple years ago, and Dzanc, and Milkweed Editions, and Graywolf, and Hawthorne Press, which published Greg Martin’s latest memoir Stories for Boys this past year, Storylandia, which published Michelle Brooks’ novella Dead Girl, Live Boy and will release her first collection of stories later this year, and the list goes on and on, growing almost by the day. Most of the collections of stories I read last year and loved were published by independent or university presses: Charles McLeod’s National Treasures, Robert Boswell’s The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, Laura Kasischke’s If a Stranger Approaches You, L. Annette Binder’s Rise, Molly McNett’s One Dog Happy, and Chad Simpson’s Tell Everyone I Said Hi. Though I hear again and again that the short story as a literary form is dead, I don’t believe it, and for those like me who love reading them, indy and university presses promise to keep us well stocked.
Faux online customer reviews of products, the more worthless the better, is another literary trend that many writers I know have become obsessed with, myself included. If you’re inclined to doubt the appeal of this seemingly new literary form, check out the fictional testimonials for the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer (http://www.amazon.com/Hutzler-5717-571-Banana-Slicer/dp/B0047E0EII) or read Ari Brouillette’s hilarious faux review of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A3R7PU67SRMD1E/ref=cm_aya_bb_pdp) and note how many people found the reviews “helpful.” How many writers publishing their work in literary magazines can claim to have reached 32,769 readers, or that of them 32,500 found their poem, story, or essay “helpful”? Few.
BMR: What trends do you see that are problematic?
DM: I see no problematic trends. The rules governing publishing are changing and changing rapidly, but I’m of the opinion that readers will find what they’re looking for one way or another, whether on a blog, in a book or an ebook, or in an amazon.com product review and that a challenge for writers in the future will be finding those often surprising, hidden venues where avid, unwitting readers gather. We’re told, as well, that today’s reader has a short attention span, which may or may not be true. But if it is true, then it’s incumbent upon long short story writers like myself to find ways to compress their narratives. Reading poetry has helped me with that. So has reading my wife’s stories and essays.
BMR: What craft element do you pay the most attention to when you read a book/story/poem/essay?
DM: I’m interested most in sentences. I can read without flagging works of a thousand pages if the language is interesting but will tire before finishing a work of a thousand words if it isn’t.
BMR: Name a few criminally under-appreciated authors you think should be on everyone’s reading list?
DM: Writing that seems effortless usually wasn’t, and writers who make it look easy have typically worked their asses off. We live in an age, I’ll contend, in which labored, convoluted writing is often more appreciated than brilliant, accessible writing is. Why, I’m not sure. But the writers I admire most are those who make it look effortless, the George Garretts, John Caseys, Larry McMurtrys, Stanley Elkinses, Jim Harrisons, Alice Munros, Elizabeth Strouts, Lynn Tillmans, James Salters, Chris Offutts, Peter Ho Davieses, Paul Hardings, Richard Bausches, Raymond Carvers, John Herseys, James Alan McPhersons, Breece D’J Pancakes, Ann Beatties, Richard Fords, Tim O’Briens, Philip Roths, Joseph Hellers, Stuart Dybeks, Marilyn Robinsons, Salmon Rushdies, Paul Austers, Francine Proses, Lewis Nordans, Truman Capotes, Italo Calvinos, Harold Brodkeys, Mary Gaitskills, Yukio Mishimas, John Updikes, William Styrons, Frederick Exleys, Denis Johnsons, John Cheevers, T. Coraghessan Boyles, Deborah Eisenbergs, Ward Justs, Lauren Groffs, Barry Hannahs, Barry Unsworths, Louis Begleys, Ian McEwans, and Haruki Murakamis. Obviously, there are many, many others, but as well known as all of these writers are, none are, in my opinion, appreciated enough.
Daniel Mueller is the author of two collections of stories, How Animals Mate (Overlook 1999), which won the Sewanee Fiction Prize, and Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey, forthcoming from Outpost 19 Books March 2013. His work has appeared in Joyland, Joyland Retro, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, CutBank, Gargoyle, Surreal South, The Cincinnati Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Story Quarterly, Story, The Mississippi Review, Playboy, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Henfield Foundation, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He teaches on the faculty of the Low-Residency MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte and directs the creative writing program at the University of New Mexico.