Interview with Michael Garriga
Michael Garriga is the author of The Book of Duels, a collection of flash fiction released March 2014 by Milkweed Editions. Garriga comes from a long line of Creole outlaws and storytellers. He has worked as a shrimp picker, a bartender, and a sound man in a blues bar. Currently he teaches writing at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and two sons.
CP. First off, how would you, personally, classify this body of work and why? It's marketed as fiction but I couldn't help feeling like I was reading a collection of prose poems...
MG. I have published duels as both fiction and poetry. I think they’re really complete, multiple perspective short stories, each composed of three dramatic monologues, one of the oldest forms of poetry. So, yeah, they’re mash ups, hybrids. But I use the term “flash fictions” to describe these works because of the layers of association: the flash of a fired pistol (as in many of the stories); a flash in the pan (referring to something that disappoints, specifically a flintlock pistol misfire, but also to those people who are quickly forgotten); flash forward and flash backward (two narrative strategies that engage the reader at the emotional level); the speed and brevity of these monologues (all under 600 words except Satan, who goes on and on); and the flash of recognition, like a flash bulb going off. That is, flash fiction, to me, connotes a moment when a character’s desire for self-knowledge and -awareness meets an epiphany of who she truly is. If I do my job right, in one intense moment, who a character is, at the deepest level, is revealed to either the character herself or to the readers, and sometimes, when I gnaw to the marrow of the character’s bones, to both simultaneously.
CP. How did you land on this format? I've never seen anything quite like it and wonder if it came about organically as the stories compounded or if it was a conscious decision before-hand?
MG. I am an enormous fan of Robert Olen Butler’s work, especially Severance and Intercourse. These are both works of flash fiction. He was my dissertation director at Florida State University and to whom the book is dedicated. I wanted to impress him by trying to write flash fiction similar to his, but I was just kicking the gong. Then I read a book that described, in a footnote, the last duel fought legally in MS in 1866. It claimed they fought (and one man was killed) over a cow. No way, I thought, do you kill a man over one cow. The old clichéd light bulb flashed in my head: tell both men’s side of the story, at the same time, because both men had to think they were right in the course of their actions. I wrote those two flash fictions and sent them to Butler, and he said, “You’ve got something real here.” So, I started reading all about duels, and I learned that for a duel to be legal, no matter what country or context, you had to have a witness; otherwise, it’s just murder. Hence, the third point of view character was born. I sent the three to Butler, “Pistols at Twenty Paces,” and he said, “Now you’re pushing the genre.” So, I dug in and set to work on others. Plus, I love the idea of the triptych, the holy three. There’s a vein of religion running throughout the book. I think of the whole book as a type of rosary chain.
(PS. One reviewer said, in a derogatory tone, “The Book of Duels concerns itself only with death, sex, religion, food, and violence.” And I thought, “Yeah, you get it.”)
CP. Staying on the topic of form, I really dig how the parts of each section are written as three individual, stream of consciousness driven, monologues. With three speakers in every section (minus one) that makes 98 speakers. Did you find this task difficult - Inhabiting the minds of so many individuals, many of which are long since dead and gone? Tell me about this process.
MG. The process. I read more nonfiction preparing for this book than in the whole rest of my life combined. I learned great sweeping arcs of history I should have learned in high school, but more pleasingly, I learned little things like how in the 14th century French Court they would put perfume in the manes of their horses or that the Mann Act was passed to prosecute one man, Jack Johnson (the first African-American heavy weight boxing champ) and was ret-roactively applied to him for an act he committed before it was even illegal (bringing a sex worker across state lines, a woman who would become his wife). Or that Jack Johnson, while in exile, hung out for a time with Rasputin. Or that Andrew Jackson lived his life and died with dueling balls buried in his body. There were tons of these little amazing moments that opened up history to me and sparked my imagination. And unlike school, I could just luxuri-ate over the historical readings for as long as I wanted, go as deep into one aspect as I wanted; I wasn't worried about pop quizzes or grades.
So, I would get an idea for a duel I wanted to pursue—Burr vs Hamilton or Don Quixote vs The Windmill—and I'd already know the basic plot of the thing, because most of these stories are primarily based on historical or literary facts. I'd start reading about that time, those charac-ters; then I'd read things written during that time period—just to get at the vernacular, the ideology, the details of the day. I'd take notes on interesting phrases or foods or trees that were unique to that place and time. I went to sleep thinking of a particular duel, and in the morning, I'd stay in bed for a half hour or so, lingering over the last dream images, and little jags of prose would pop in my mind. I’d get something to hold on to (like for Custer, it was the line, “my twin bulldog pistols come barking mad in my hands”) and later, in my writing room, I’d try to inhabit their minds and bodies (a practice I’ve only half-jokingly called method writ-ing), pacing, repeating the one or two lines, and speaking like I thought they might. I wanted to become Custer or Johnson or whoever I was writing about. I understand this process is a bit dippy, but my belief was this: If I could actively put myself in a trance state, I would allow my subconscious an avenue to my conscious mind. No music, no news, no emails, no nothing. Finally, I’d have a decent draft and then I'd be at the desk writing, printing, revising off the hardcopy, typing again, etc. This work went on for days at a time—long walks and talking to myself. My wife teased that I was losing my mind, but I swear, I’ve never been more in touch with myself or others.
CP. How did you choose your subject matter/subjects and why? Did your Creole background play any part in these choices? What kind of research went into each section once the specific duels were chosen? Is this subject matter that you have always been drawn to or something you stumbled across and decided to roll with?
MG. I grew up in a really rough and tumble family. My granddad was in prison when my dad was born. They were moonshiners and, later, nightclub owners, pawnshop owners, bookies, etc. They lived in a violent world. They did a fine job of keeping me from their world, urging me to go to school (though none of them finished high school). And they told the greatest sto-ries about fights and trickery and blatantly sticking it to the Man. One uncle didn’t pay his electric bill on time, so they cut his power in the middle of the night. His response? He went down to the power company and stabbed the tires of every single service trucks. So, yeah, I suppose revenge and violence have always intrigued me.
After I’d written the first couple of duels, I came across an article that claimed in one year there were roughly 1400 duels in New Orleans, the capital city of American dueling. I found another article that claimed only 1 in 14 people were mortally wounded in duels. So, that means 100 people died in duels in one city in one year. This would have been in the 1840s. Then I learned that once Louisiana banned dueling, the duelists would often board trains along with witnesses, doctors, picnickers, etc. and cross the state line into the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where I’m from. They’d fight a duel and re-board the train and go back home. That blew my mind. It seems so archaic, yet we're only talking about 150 years ago.
CP. One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the syntax deployed within it—primarily the incredibly long sentence. I was wondering why you went this route, why you de-cided to make it so consistent from speaker to speaker, and how you decided when and where to digress from it?
MG. Well, these narratives are all interior monologues, and I don’t know about other people, but I don’t think in terms of full, complete sentences. They generally come to me in phrases, jarring details, images. And even if some people do think in sentences (like the lawyer in the Chelsea Tammy duel), I’m trying to imitate the mind at work under extreme pressure. The duende leaps are compressed and the associative connections are firing on all cylinders. There’s very little room for complete thought or punctuation here. I use commas to keep the thoughts cohesive for the reader and dashes for some of the wilder leaps. I also took out any unnecessary words, added puns, and stripped the monologues down to only the most neces-sary punctuation to keep the thoughts clear and to illustrate how easy and cleanly our minds move from one association to another.
I’m trying in this book to get at the root impulse of these people’s actions—what has led them to this moment, what core things have driven their whole lives, what were their hopes, fears, and desires.