Michael Griffin's latest collection, The Lure of Devouring Light, has garnered a great deal of attention and deserved accolades from readers and critics alike, as well as from well-known authors such as Laird Barron and Michael Cisco.
As Laird puts it he
“…skillfully works the rich seams of quiet horror and contemporary weird”.
And as it turns out, “skillfully” is an understatement. “Brilliantly” might be more apt. You can read my review of it over at Shotgun Logic. But before you head over there please read the interview between myself and Michael here on Ginger Nuts of Horror
For starters, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
I live in Portland, Oregon, with my most excellent wife Lena and our giant cat… and that's probably already more personal information than anyone wants to know. As for my work, I'm mostly known for strange stories, which have been published in magazines like Black Static, Strange Aeons, Lovecraft eZine and Apex, and also books like Autumn Cthulhu, the Laird Barron tribute The Children of Old Leech, Cthulhu Fhtagn! and the Thomas Ligotti tribute The Grimscribe's Puppets, which won the Shirley Jackson Award for 2013.
The aspect of my work most people are talking about lately is my debut collection The Lure of Devouring Light, which came out a few months ago from Word Horde.
When did you decide you wanted to be a professional writer?
Well, I consider the term "professional writer" to signify someone who makes their living writing, and that's not the case with me. I've had the same full-time day job for a long time.
A better answer to the question requires me to more loosely define "professional writer" to mean someone who gets paid for things they've written. That's something I first wanted in my mid-teens when I started writing short stories and convinced my mom to buy me a typewriter. I think at that age I was at least as interested in being a comic book artist, but the ambitions of teenagers tend to be pretty variable. I think I can honestly say, though, that writing and being published is something I have wanted to do longer and more fervently than any other thing I've wished for in my life. Having spent long stretches of my earlier life writing but not being published, it's particularly gratifying that I've stuck with it this time, worked harder and persisted longer, until I've begun to find people who want to read my work.
What draws you to horror, particularly the weird and cosmic aspects of it?
I think almost everybody who enjoys stories is fascinated by scary, weird or supernatural tales. Gather a bunch of kids around a fire in a dark forest and everyone understands that our relationship to things unseen in the dark is primal and compelling. Not everyone becomes a fan of genre horror, but I've always loved the strange, the mind-bending.
The Science Fiction I like best is the kind that addresses concepts like the true nature of reality, or quantum effects, or time paradoxes. The murder mysteries or Thrillers I most enjoy are the stories about the distortion of memory or the slippage of sanity. Even when I'm looking outside this genre, I seem to be seeking its effects. The Horror genre gives the writer an enormous variety of opportunities to work with subject that I find of interest. There's a lot of possibility within the realms of the supernatural, the bizarre, the insane and the cruel.
GNoH: What are some of your major influences as a writer?
My development took so many zigzags, roughly following changes in my interests as a reader. Early influences were comic books, science fiction and fantasy, and the Twilight Zone. In college I became convinced that straight, character-focused fiction like the work of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, and later Raymond Carver, was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to read and write. It could be argued that this remains the strongest foundation in my writing, and that the matters of interpersonal conflict and emotion are the core of my work.
But I also, in the past decade or so, found my way back (via Kafka, Ballard, Burroughs and the like) to stories that are strange and disturbing. When I stumbled upon the work being done in the modern Weird and Horror scene by writers like Laird Barron, Caitlin Kiernan, Thomas Ligotti and Kelly Link, I thought I had found the perfect balance of strange concepts, emotional impact and beautifully crafted writing. Then, I was actually very late to discover Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx, two writers I now consider among my major influences.
You’re the first author I’ve interviewed who lives here in the Pacific Northwest, so I want to talk about that a bit. Does your geographical location have any bearings on your writing?
The places I've been, especially those that are most important to me, figure in significant ways into many of my stories. It's not an accident that my two favorite places to go, Mt. Hood and the Oregon Coast, are the settings for most of my recent stories. Others are based on places I've been, certain parks or vacation spots, which have stuck in my mind, like Diamond Lake when it's frozen solid in winter, or the hills outside of Roseburg, or McIver Park or Oxbow Park.
Because I've lived here almost my entire life, it's difficult to say how my writing would be different if I lived, say, in Portland, Maine rather than Portland, Oregon. Maybe the stories would be similar but the settings would be mountains and beaches in the Northeast instead of the Northwest. But I can't help thinking these things have imprinted upon me and led me in directions I might not otherwise have pursued. This is especially true of Mt. Hood National Forest and the vicinity of Government Camp, where Lena and I have spent so much important, meaningful time. That area figures importantly into the two big novellas in my collection
Do you find that locations you’re familiar with leak into your writing, intentionally or otherwise?
I may have already answered this, but yes, in fact, it's often intentional. While I was writing The Black Vein Runs Deep, we went up to the mountain almost every weekend, hiked around and took pictures. I was very conscious at times of absorbing specific details, like the way a certain landscape fell away from a ridge, or the ankle-breaking quality of loose rocks on a certain steep, rutted trail, or even just something like a large building that dominates the center of the main strip in a small town. Sometimes I describe what I see and it becomes part of the story directly, but more likely some details are captured and transmuted or combined with other elements to become something new -- not exactly what I saw, but something that wouldn't have come into existence had I not seen what I did.
If I want to describe something I haven’t seen, I might have to look at pictures or do research for inspiration. But when I’m describing something I've seen and studied, I have no trouble calling forth details that help evoke for the reader the atmosphere I'm trying to get them to envision.
In addition to writing you have another quite interesting profession. Can you talk a little about ambient music and what it means to be an electronic ambient musician?
Making electronic music began with experimentation more than twenty years ago. At first I didn’t make only ambient music, but more rhythmic and structured music. I was influenced by Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, and also by more rhythmic 1990s electronica like Aphex Twin, Orbital, Autechre and Ken Ishii. I kept playing and exploring until I found I was most comfortable working in a minimalist style inspired by Brian Eno, Robert Rich, and Lustmord.
This was also a time when technology changed to allow professional-quality home recording with affordable gear, and a whole lot of other musicians rose up with relatively similar influences and sounds. The last half of the nineties was an amazing time of community and cross-fertilization, and cool indie labels rising up out of bedrooms and garages. It reminds me of what's happening right now in the Horror and Weird fiction scenes, with a lot of writers feeding off one another's energy, and small presses keeping everything churning.
Tell us about Hypnos Recordings. Is that a fairly successful endeavor, or a labor of love, or both?
Things have changed a lot in the past 10-15 years for everyone who sells music. Hypnos was pretty successful at first. For a while, I made more money from Hypnos than from my day job, sales doubled every year, and Hypnos was releasing music by my favorite recording artists, like Robert Rich, Jeff Pearce, Vidna Obmana, Saul Stokes and many others. By 2005, many independent labels in the community had shut down, and by now, most labels that have survived report their sales are down 90% from the peak, around 2000. I suppose Hypnos is lucky in that our sales are down only 80%. You don’t see a lot of new record labels starting up. At this point, it's something I'm glad I started, something I intend to continue, but I can't help feeling disappointed about the degree to which the bottom dropped out from the music business.
Okay, let’s talk some about your writing. Your recent collection from Word Horde, The Lure of Devouring Light, is receiving quite a few accolades from some of the best talents in weird fiction, including Laird Barron and Michael Cisco. Please tell us a bit about that book.
I think any writer, once they start publishing a few short stories, starts thinking it might be nice to eventually release a collection. I've always read lots of collections and anthologies for enjoyment, but in the past few years I've read single author collections with an eye for what works and what doesn't. Many writers are in a hurry to release a first selection of stories as soon as they've written enough words to fill a book, but the books with the greatest impact are those with the qualities of coherence and consistency. The stories need to be of uniformly high quality, no room for beginner stuff. Not only should all the work be of top quality, but it should hold together in terms of theme or at least "feel," so that the stories hold together.
All the above explains my philosophical approach to assembling a first collection, but how it actually went down was pretty simple. In the summer of 2013, I had four stories appear one after another in venues that earned me some attention: Black Static, Apex, Lovecraft eZine and The Grimscribe's Puppets. At that summer's H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, Scott Nicolay had just signed a contract to release his debut, Ana Kai Tangata. Both Scott and Joe Pulver told me that it was already time to start planning ahead for a collection of my own, as a goal for a couple years down the road. At the time, this seemed to me premature, but they were right.
Over the next year, Joe kept reminding me this was a goal to keep in mind, and that every time I wrote a new story it wasn't just a self-contained thing, but also a piece of the collection I was already building. This encouraged me to think of this future book as a concept to hold in mind with every new story I worked on. How would it fit next to the others? I think this constant mindfulness about the connection between all the past stories and whatever I happened to be working on the moment served to strengthen that quality of coherence. Joe Pulver really deserves special mention for having guided and mentored me through the process, even before I had written most of what ended up in the book.
Speaking of Word Horde, what’s it like working with Ross Lockhart and company?
First of all, Ross is a really fantastic guy, somebody I like and enjoy and feel comfortable with, so that's a huge bonus. Even if that weren't the case, Word Horde is a rarity: a press small and rebellious enough to do weird, cool stuff, but also mature and serious enough to operate like a real business, in terms of contracts, payments, promotions, brand identity, social media presence, and consistency. When Ross and I first met to discuss the possibility of doing something together, Word Horde hadn't released a lot of books, was already clearly off to a great start.
Our deal took a while to come together. This might have frustrated some writers, but I took it as a sign that Ross was not one to commit to something until he was sure he could do it, and do it properly. By the time my book came out, Word Horde had added more great writers to the roster, and still more since. It's a press I enjoy as a reader, and one that does right by my work, not just with The Lure of Devouring Light, but also my stories which have appeared in Word Horde anthologies. Another proof that Word Horde is a great publisher for a writer to work with is the feeling I get from so many fellow writers that it's a press they'd love to be published if they had the chance. That's the kind of "publisher envy" writers generally reserve for those who land themselves with the big New York presses.
You’ve had short fiction published all over the place, with—good news for readers—seemingly no end in sight. Do you have any plans for long form fiction in the future?
The truth is, I enjoy writing longer more than writing shorter. I've felt myself coming into my most comfortable style just as I've allowed myself to stretch out in length. It's only in the four longest things I've written -- "Far From Streets" and "The Black Vein Runs Deep" from the collection, "An Ideal Retreat" which is coming from Dim Shores, and my recently finished novel -- that I feel the language has an unhurried, natural flow, and the mind of the story unfolds without this imposed need for brevity. I mean, there's something beautiful about a short story that accomplishes a powerful impact in 5,000 words, but I feel happiest and most energized when I can stretch my legs and really run with my full, natural stride.
In addition to finding a publisher for the novel just mentioned, I also intend to write a new, full-length novel later this summer. I see myself devoting more energy in the future to novels and novellas, and maybe just mix in five or six short stories every year, if I continue to receive anthology invites I can't resist.
Any other exciting projects you want to tell us about?
I'd love to say more about the completed novel, but because it's on submission I'll just say that it's something I love, and I hope people get to see it next year. The next major piece of work that will be released is a novella coming from Dim Shores in September or October. It's called "An Ideal Retreat," and I described it to Sam Cowan as "the too-perfect material idealism of Architectural Digest and Dwell magazines, seen through the distorting mirror of a marriage poisoned by madness, alcoholism and drug abuse."
I also have short stories in several upcoming anthologies and magazines, including the next Lovecraft eZine, the second installment of Nightscript edited by CM Muller, Ross Lockhart's Eternal Frankenstein, and three edited by Joe Pulver: the Ramsey Campbell tribute from PS Publishing, Leaves of a Necronomicon from Chaosium and The Madness of Dr. Caligari from Fedogan & Bremer.
Where do you hope to be as a writer and musician five years from now? Any specific goals?
The overall goal is to publish more books. Though I really have loved having my work appear in books and magazines with other people's names on the cover, I consider the ultimate authorial mode of expression to be a book written by one person alone. Five years from now, I hope I'll have three collections and three novels published, something like that.
The above, though, is more about publishing than writing. I try to remind myself to make my goals about writing, and not just publishing. My writing goals are less specific and simpler. I'd like to have enough time and space to write a few of the novel and novella ideas that I've been planning. I'd love to live within those worlds for a while, explore each fully and discover aspects that I hadn't anticipated in the planning.
As for my role as a musician, I've neglected that side of myself so much lately, I'd be happy to simply get back in touch with it -- start recording a bit, maybe release a CD here and there. I really love working with sound, building structures that shift the state of mind. Though I'm primarily motivated to work on my writing lately, I still want to work on recording, too.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us before we wrap this up?
I've already mentioned my collection at length. That's the main thing on my mind this past few months, and I hope more people will have a chance to check it out. Other than that, I'll just say it's a great time for the writing of strange, uncompromising stories. Lots of readers seem to be interested, a surprising number of very talented writers doing somewhat connected work seem to have formed a wonderful and mutually supportive community, and there are several good publishers getting the words published. The scene appears to be in great health, and sometimes I pause to wonder if we'll look back twenty years from now and refer to this as a kind of golden age in the evolution of fiction of the horrific, weird and uncanny.
GNoH: Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to talk to us today.
Thank you very much. I've enjoyed myself, and I appreciate you giving me the time.