MICHIGAN CITY — Discussing his success as an author, Michael Poore – known for his novels "Up Jumps the Devil" and "Reincarnation Blues" – said he got his professional writing start in fifth grade.
And it nearly got him beat up.
"My teacher, John Gibbons, taught Creative Writing every other Friday," Poore said. "In November, he asked us to write a story about Thanksgiving … from a turkey’s point-of-view. I wrote about a rebellious (and somewhat panicky) bird named Art C. Turk, who freed all the farm turkeys in Vermont, and established a utopian community on an island."
The story, “The Great Vermont Turkey Revolution,” was sold to a local newspaper, which printed it in two installments, paying Poore $5.
"I received a lot of compliments on my story, but this was also my first encounter with literary criticism," he said. "It seems that every sixth-grade teacher in town, across six elementary schools, made their kids write essays about my story.
"The next year, when all those students went to junior high together, they hadn’t forgotten. I managed to avoid getting beaten up, but spent the first month or so of seventh grade known as ‘the nerd who wrote that *#$@& story.’"
Poore will be sharing more stories when he speaks at 7:30 p.m. Saturday during the Michigan City Public Library's Writing Out Loud series at The Nest, 803 Franklin St. The event is free and open to the public.
Recently Poore spoke to The La Porte County Herald-Argus about his career in writing and the themes behind his work.
H-A: What inspired “Up Jumps the Devil,” and what were you hoping to accomplish with this story, whose narrative stretches across time?
MP: "Up Jumps the Devil" was inspired by Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which took the devil of old dreams and myths, and made an American of him. I have always enjoyed characters with something giant inside them, that allowed me to step out of the ordinary human experience, and take other characters and readers someplace that jarred them. Well, here was a character as old as the mythical Creation, whose life-battle is with God, but he’s got girlfriend problems, and loves heroin and rock-n-roll. He’s eternal and relatable at the same time.
But to answer your question, what I was trying to accomplish was actually pretty simple: I was trying to convince a lot of readers that we’re not doing a very good job being human beings. That we should be making more compassionate, intelligent decisions, and instead we wind up behaving like animals so much of the time. Biting at each other. Losing ourselves in the nearest comfort, pleasure, or illusion. Man, I was pissed off when I wrote that book.
H-A: What led you to write “Reincarnation Blues,” a story of 10,000 deaths?
MP: Drugs! I wanted to write a story about creative types who had done a lot of damage to themselves in search of transcendence, who knew they were fading, and wanted to do it creatively. So there was going to be this book about looking for a way to die with their artistic boots on, and Death himself / herself was going to get into the act. And over a few months, I kept asking, "What if?" enough times that it became a book about going through death and finding something on the other side, and then going through that and finding something on the other side.
In the end, I wanted to paint a picture of the multiplicity of human life. How much we see and how many different ways we live. How there’s no such thing as normal, and if there is, it’s not what you think. And it’s an angry book, too … about how the people making most of the decisions are greedy little short-sighted punks with all the long-term vision of a pouting sweet potato.
H-A: There’s a lot of elements of fantasy and mythology in your work. Where does this come from?
MP: From being a nerd, I guess. And the fact that I’ve always been bored to tears with regular life. Mow the lawn. Replace the carpet. Listen to people discuss insurance. We all have gods and monsters and heroes and wild sexual stuff in the basements of our minds, and we have to talk about that. Have to imagine ourselves in big, thundering ways. We can’t just be mad about how the grill doesn’t work right or worried about underwear sizes all the time.
Here’s a story, to illustrate. We were supposed to get together with my writer friend Ted Kosmatka this past weekend, and he had to cancel because he caught pink eye. He sent a picture, with one eye all gross and messed up. I toyed with the picture, and texted back that one side of his face appeared normal, and the other side was the face of his homicidal fantasy identity, "Cryin’ Jack." Ted answered, “I’ve always wanted a homicidal fantasy identity." His text had a wistful quality, as if he might just be serious.
So that’s where I go with my writing. Not so much because the dark and the devil is in me, but because it’s in you. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
H-A: What’s your focus with short fiction? You’ve had stories published in Asimov’s and received recognition for “The Street of the House of the Sun.” How do you feel about these accomplishments?
MP: I haven’t written a short story for a long while. At the same time, "Up Jumps the Devil" and "Reincarnation Blues" are very episodic. Some readers have even called them books of stories, rather than novels. I’m fine with that. Names and forms can be limiting.
“The Street of the House of the Sun” was included in “The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012,” which I have been especially proud of because it’s selected by high school students. All writers enjoy it when people like their work, but there’s something very lucky-feeling and humbling when those readers are young. As a 16-year-old environmental advocate showed world leaders, they’re the ones who still have their eye on the ball. So it thrilled me half to death that they liked my story.
“Blood Dauber,” the SF story I co-wrote with Ted Kosmatka, has been anthologized and reprinted a hundred times, which is fun. That story was the first time I ever saw my name and work in a foreign language and alphabet. Maybe it wasn’t my name; I can’t be sure. And they could have printed a story about singing buffalo cats, for all I know. It would serve me right for being monolingual.
H-A: Tell us about your upcoming books, “Two Girls, A Clock” and “A Crooked House”
MP: That’s actually one book: "Two Girls, a Clock, and a Crooked House." But it’s funny you thought it was two titles. We had one heck of a time coming up with a title, and some excellent folks at Random House came up with that. I like it, but it is a mouthful.
I wrote that book for my daughter, Jianna. She was 10 when the idea got rolling, and is now 14. She hasn’t said whether she likes it or not. She and my wife, Janine, are reading it aloud together, one chapter per night. Last night Jianna came downstairs to tell me it had too many cow patties in it.
It wasn’t my idea to write a book for kids, though, to be honest. I’m a teacher, and have always thought of writing as the adult-centered part of my day, and my life. But my agent said, basically, “Mike, if you take the sex, drugs, and swear words out of your work, you have a great voice for young readers.”
I still didn’t want to do it, and then about a year later, she ran into Janine at a conference, and laid on this huge guilt trip, saying, “I know Mike doesn’t want to do a kids’ book, and it makes me sad. Sad for the children, because there’s this beautiful story that they’ll never get to read…” and so forth. So not long after that, I had what seemed like an actual good idea, and went ahead with writing. I’m so glad I did. “Two Girls” has only been out for a month or so now, so I’m waiting to see if the kids like it.
H-A: What should audiences expect when you come on Oct. 12?
MP: I don’t know what they should expect, because I’m not completely sure what’s going to happen. It should be relatively safe, and I hope there are a ton of questions. Last year I gave a talk dressed, unconvincingly, as Emily Dickson. I will not be wearing a dress for this event, I don’t think. I will warn people that, to quote Chekhov, “I’m smarter when I write.” Not necessarily so when I open my big mouth. But I enjoy telling stories, and I’ve got some good ones.