Michael Griffin has released a novel, Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone (Journalstone, 2017), and a short fiction collection, The Lure of Devouring Light (Word Horde, 2016), and the novella An Ideal Retreat (Dim Shores, 2016). His short stories have appeared in magazines like Apex, Black Static, Lovecraft eZine and Strange Aeons, and the anthologies The Madness of Dr. Caligari, Autumn Cthulhu, the Shirley Jackson Award winner The Grimscribe’s Puppets, The Children of Old Leech and Eternal Frankenstein. He’s an ambient musician and founder of Hypnos Recordings, an ambient record label he operates with his wife in Portland, Oregon. Michael blogs at griffinwords.com. On Twitter, he posts as @mgsoundvisions.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro: You’ve talked about the evolution of your reading--and how it has informed your writing--roughly in terms of starting with comic books, science fiction and fantasy, then focusing on writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Carver, and then returning to "strange and disturbing" stories via folks like Kafka and Ballard. I’m curious if there’s been a parallel development in your movie-watching tastes that followed along these aesthetic tracks, or has that sensibility evolved in its own, different direction? Could you talk a little about the development of your tastes as a film viewer?
Michael Griffin: It does seem (now that you mention it, because I haven’t thought of it before) that my habits with film and television consumption changed along a similar trajectory to my reading. When I was younger, maybe up through high school, I was entirely focused on fun ideas and pure entertainment value. At that stage, I would have said my favorite films were the Star Wars series and Alien and Blade Runner, along with various comedies like Stripes. My favorite books then might have been The Lord of the Rings, Dune and various by Stephen King.
When I went to college, I might have overcompensated and become too serious, or too self-conscious in my tastes. At the same time I switched to reading the kind of stuff a college Literature major normally reads, I also started exploring more serious films, starting with Kubrick and Hitchcock before moving along to Godard, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa and Buñuel. I actually became a double major in Lit and Film, and considered both fiction and the motion picture equally important.
Then, in my post-college years I found a middle ground that feels more natural to me. I’m not entirely focused on entertainment value, or on intellectual seriousness, and I think it’s not only completely acceptable but especially interesting to pursue serious ideas within the boundaries of "genre" material.
AZA: That’s fascinating. I’m particularly intrigued by your comment related to genre boundaries. It makes me think of something I recently read by F. Tennyson Jesse in a collection of mystery stories quoted in a book by Ellery Queen: "the fun of anything consists in its limitations… the framework of rules saying what we can’t do." What are some of your personal, self-imposed limitations when trying to stay within genre boundaries, however loosely defined those might be? Do you sometimes give yourself permission to break these limitations, or maybe redefine them?
MG: This idea of limitations is one I’ve given a lot of thought, in terms of how restriction forces me to change my thinking, and push my work in new directions. Now, genre isn’t terribly restricting, and really seems to mean "your story must include certain elements." But I’ve been thinking of limitation and restriction as regards working within themes, especially when creating stories for themed anthologies. Once I started getting published more, I began receiving invites to submit stories written to specific themes, or in tribute to something or someone.
If you’d asked me 10 years ago what I thought of this idea, I would have said "That can’t be fun, creating within restrictions someone else gives you." But now I enjoy it, within reason. It forces me to think differently, and to come up with ideas slightly outside my comfort zone. I have to change my thinking to come up with an idea when someone gives me a trigger or a set of boundaries, like writing a story inspired by The King in Yellow, or Thomas Ligotti’s work, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Even then, I try to imagine how I can write a story that is definitely me, while paying at least some respect to those limitations.
To get back to the idea of genre, since that’s what you asked about, I find myself not thinking about genre too much, at least while I’m planning or writing a story. In that sense, if I’m treating genre as a limitation, I’m not aware of it consciously. Sometimes after I’m done, I wonder "is this Horror enough?" or "is this Weird enough?" and I’ll probably always have to deal with that. So for me, it’s more about self-recrimination after the fact, I guess!
AZA: Something you mentioned in a recent interview stayed with me. Discussing your short fiction, you said that for some of your stories, even if you removed the horror/supernatural elements, the characters and their relationships would probably be enough to still carry the reader through. Certain science fiction writers and editors have proposed, on the other hand, that science fiction stories ought to have their speculative or what-if ideas so deeply integrated into the story that the ideas couldn’t be removed without making the whole story collapse. I’m curious if you think these different approaches may reflect intrinsic differences between horror and science fiction, or speak maybe more basically to emphasizing character over plot and vice versa? Something else altogether?
MG: I wouldn’t say that you can write a science fiction story that’s just about people, with no science fiction element in it, or a horror story with no horror element either, though I’ve been accused of the latter at least once or twice. I meant to say that in addition to including the elements or the "feel" that makes the story fit the Horror or Weird genre, I try to make the non-genre aspects of the story strong and compelling enough that they could make for an entertaining genre-free story on their own. I suppose I look at this as kind of a bonus, in that the story works on more than one level, but some readers seem to feel that if I’ve placed a heavy emphasis on straightforward relationship stuff or matters of "real life," this necessarily takes away from their preferred focus, which is the real nitty gritty, the horrific elements or weird aspects. That’s not to say those readers are wrong, and in fact I believe readers should read whatever makes them feel most satisfied, and not give extra credit to writers who are offering things the reader was never shopping for in the first place.
As to the differences between science fiction and horror, I really believe that science fiction is more bound by following rules and emulating time-proven models, while horror is overall a bit more forgiving of people trying to do their own thing. These aren’t absolutes, of course, but having written science fiction previously, I came across a lot more advice listing all the things a writer should never try to do, while the Horror and Weird scenes appear to be more flexible about different approaches.
AZA: Since we’re on the subject of advice regarding what writers, or more generally artists, should do: Recently on social media there was some conversation about the film Whiplash and the “great art requires sacrifice” idea. In the context of that discussion I quoted from an interview with the director, and in response noted horror writer Laird Barron commented: “The conflation of fun and satisfaction is a peeve of mine.” Can you talk a bit about where fun and satisfaction occur for you in the creative process? And feel free to share your thoughts on Whiplash too, if you’d like to!
MG: First, I think Whiplash was an amazing film, whose filmmaker seemed to be expressing something I consider true about the drive to improve and succeed at creative processes. That is, the truth about this subject lies somewhere in between two commonly expressed opposite points of view.
On one hand, some say creativity must be entirely for fun, and if it’s not fun, you ought to just lighten up and smile. While I agree that some creative activity ought to be "just fun," I think this approach is too simple, and misses a huge chunk of what creative expression can be. If history’s writers, painters, musicians and filmmakers had stuck to this philosophy of "just keep it fun", our cultural history would be much the poorer.
For me, painting is fun, a kind of easy, expressive release that never requires much thinking or strain. I can achieve a level of satisfaction with painting, without much blood or sweat. But with writing, I’m much more driven. The places I want to visit in my stories require a much higher level of refinement and attention to detail than comes easily. Sometimes a person is driven to do something difficult, requiring disciplined labor and real sacrifice, maybe even suffering, on some level. I often find that writing doesn’t "feel good," even when it’s going extremely well. It’s exhausting and anxiety-provoking, especially when it’s being done with honesty, from the gut.
On the other hand, this idea that any amount of pain and sacrifice is justified in the creative pursuit seems to me over-romanticized nonsense. Yes, by all means, an artist climbing the highest levels of accomplishment might very well sacrifice their health, or domestic peace. Would a book like Moby Dick, or an album like Kind of Blue, be worth a failed marriage, or a bout with alcoholism or loneliness? Probably so. What did Fitzgerald say, "The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies," something like that?
But very few people are operating anywhere near that rarified level. Should a modestly talented writer, or someone in a band that plays local bars, treat their family like shit because any sacrifice is justified in the name of art? I’d say that’s pushing it, and the struggling artist might do better to keep his or her life at least somewhat in balance.
Where I disagree even more strongly with this "art first, art above all!" philosophy is when it comes to the beginner. Yes, the beginner must push beyond certain difficulties before they’ll have a chance of breaking through to any satisfying level of accomplishment. But this idea that everyone must sacrifice 100% of everything in the name of art seems crazy to me. I see new writers on social media say "Sooner die than quit writing!" or hear about beginners quitting their job to stay home and try to write a few words, maybe a story, maybe even a novel. I think that’s completely bizarre. Yes, creativity can be very important, can be meaningful, rewarding, even sublime, once you get good enough to make something you can feel proud of. But people ought to walk a bit before they try to run. Don’t quit your job and trash your relationships just so you can try dabbling. If you work your way up to a certain level of accomplishment, and you know what you’re in for, then by all means, dedicate yourself, work harder, and try to level up.
AZA: Given that film and music play non-trivial roles in your life, I'm interested in how you apportion time to new releases vs. filling in gaps in your historical knowledge or exploring tangents that happen to prove compelling for whatever reason (or even just revisiting personal favorites). Do you try to strike a balance between historically significant works and this week's newest releases, or lean more heavily one way or another? What does this look like for you as a reader?
MG: I tend to alternate modes, sometimes surveying what’s new and interesting, then spending some time looking backward. Not only do I look for important past works that I’ve missed, I always enjoy going back and revisiting old favorites. I used to feel like this was too indulgent, spending time with something familiar when there's so much undiscovered country yet to explore, but I’ve come to feel it’s an important thing. I mean, not only is it worthwhile to enjoy something I’ve already enjoyed, but it’s also instructive to take another look at something from a new point of view. It’s surprising how often a book, a movie or even music might come across in a very different way from how I remember it.
There’s never enough time to read everything worthwhile, but it seems to be much easier to keep up with film and music, probably because of the amount of time it takes to read a book, as compared to watching a movie or listening to an album. I don’t experience that feeling of being terribly, tragically far behind except when it comes to reading.