Sing the Thing You Wish to Say: An Interview with Michael Parker

by Evan Fackler

Few contemporary writers are gifted with Michael Parker’s keen ear for the rhythms and textures of his characters’ language, and few go to such consistent lengths to capture that music on the page. Prairie Fever, Parker’s latest novel, is full of such music. Beginning in 1917 and spanning twenty-three years, the novel contains three point-of-view characters: sisters Elise and Lorena Stewart of Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, and Gus McQueen, the school teacher who falls in love with both of them. By shrewdly combining two of the nineteenth-century’s most prolific literary genres—the epistolary novel and the Bildungsroman—Prairie Fever, Parker’s seventh novel, is a work at turn honest, haunting, and utterly contemporary. The writing is deeply attuned to the complexities, the nuances, the surprises, and the tenderness of sibling relationships, as well as to the striking beauty of one of America’s most iconic landscapes.

Most Tuesdays and Thursdays you can find Parker in his office in UNC Greensboro’s MFA department. Unless he’s working with a student on the latest draft of a story they’ve brought to him to read, I’ll stop in to chat about writing or to mention a book I’ve read recently or a band I’ve discovered several years late. I know not to ask him about swimming (I lack buoyancy and I’m worried he’ll invite me to the pool for corrective lessons at some ungodly early hour), but that if I need a new running route in town he’ll invariably have a suggestion, delivered in the liquid twang of the Piedmont and accompanied by an entertaining story about, for instance, the time he found a wasp nest in his running shoe.

That office sits at the intersection of two hallways, or at least it will until May when Parker retires from the program he has helped shape for over a quarter century.

EVAN FACKLER: First of all, congratulations on Prairie Fever. It’s a colossal novel. This is your last novel to be published while teaching in the MFA program at UNC Greensboro, and actually your last to be published while you’re a resident of North Carolina! First, maybe, could you talk a little about how your involvement with the MFA program at UNCG has interacted with or informed your writing over the past 27 years?

MICHAEL PARKER: I consider myself ridiculously fortunate to have held onto the same job for 27 years, and especially fortunate for it to have been at UNCG. Though we’re one of the oldest programs, and certainly one of the most respected, we’ve never trafficked in the kind of star-making glitziness of other programs, who make up a class based on who’s most likely to get a publishing contract. We’ve always looked for writers who had great potential and wanted to spend a couple of years practicing their craft. Working with all these writers led to much practice, on my part, of my craft.

I think teaching courses like the Structure of Fiction—where I was given leeway to teach whatever I wanted, so long as it was illustrative of “technique as discovery,” to quote Mark Schorer—has made me, if not a better writer, one more conscious of the choices I make on the page. I’m a slow learner, and I learned—now I can admit this!—on the job. I had no idea what I was doing when I started out. And the more I taught, the less I was sure of, and the more comfortable I became with the uncertainty and nuance that is both the subject of fiction and the impulse behind its creation.

EF: Second, North Carolina has provided the backdrop for a lot of your fiction, but interestingly not your last two novels (All I Have in This World was set in Texas, and Prairie Fever is set in Oklahoma, Wyoming, and east Texas). Is this indicative of a larger affective shift in your life? Have you been consciously or subconsciously trying to get out of North Carolina for a while?

MP: My friend and former teacher Lee Smith told me she thought I was going the way of Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy was born in Rhode Island but he moved at a young age to Knoxville, Tennessee, and his first four novels—including Suttree, my favorite of his books—are set in East Tennessee. Then he moved west and never wrote about Tennessee again. I don’t know if McCarthy felt he had exhausted the place where he was raised or if he was just excited by the landscape he found himself in—in his case, El Paso, far west Texas, the desert. I had tried setting All I Have in This World in North Carolina, but I was out in the West Texas desert when I was writing it, and the landscape was so overwhelming to me that it just kind of took over. That novel was atypical in that the landscape, which is everything to me, was not coming from some repository of memory, but from what I saw out the window. I would go for rides with my friend Bridget, who had lived there for a while, and point at a plant and ask her the name of it (it was always either a cactus or creosote, but there are lots of different kinds of cacti) and the next day that plant would appear in the novel.

The new novel is set in Oklahoma (and Wyoming and Texas) because it’s based on an anecdote I grew up hearing about my grandmother, who was from Lone Wolf, Oklahoma. I’d driven, a couple times, from Austin to my sister’s place in Livingston, Montana and I’d spent many hours on back roads of western Kansas and Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. The prairie fascinated me. I did not find it tedious or ugly or even repetitive. I did get a speeding ticket in Nebraska once, which seems impossible to me now, as I feel like I was always driving so slow, checking out every grain silo, every corn field, every farm house. Obviously the cop had faulty equipment.

EF: An early working title for Prairie Fever is actually the title of a short-short story from your collection, Everything, Then and Since, called “Only the Horse Knew the Way.” That story is similarly about two sisters who travel to school on the back of a horse, pinned under a blanket to protect them from the cold, and who eventually become estranged. When you finished “Only the Horse Knew the Way” for the collection, did you know you weren’t done with it?

MP: This one’s fairly easy: I had two people say to me, in the same week, “that story about the horse and the blanket and the sisters seems like part of something longer.” One person I can ignore, but two? That’s critical mass.

EF: Your novels and short stories almost function like landscape paintings in that they seem intimately, sensually grounded in a sense of place. InPrairie Fever you write about the “grand contradiction of the prairie.” What is that contradiction? What do you mean there?

MP: It’s kind of scary how quickly you forget a book you wrote, and what’s in it. I’d have to look back at the quote to know for sure, but I’m going to give it a guess instead. I think—as I said somewhere above—that people think of the prairie (and to some extent, the entire middle of the country) as uniform, flat, tedious. We’re quick to generalize, both about the uniformity of the prairie and the people who live there. Elise—who is a likely candidate for speaking about the “grand contradiction” of the prairie, though it may have been Gus—sees beyond received ideas. She sees things that aren’t there sometimes, but she’s also a bit of a visionary, and where the prairie is concerned, instead of a flat, lifeless, boring stretch of grass, she sees a landscape thriving with wildlife, stories, legend, even ideas, which she lives to make fun of.

EF: Speaking of making fun, you’re rightfully often asked about lyricism and landscape in interviews, (as I have indeed just done) but with the result, I think, that if someone hasn’t read your work they might be surprised to find that you can be so funny. I want to ask about that humor because it’s one of the pleasures of your work, I think. Where does it come from?

MP: I’m so glad to hear you found this novel funny. My friend Dominic read it in manuscript and we don’t really talk about our work much before we trade drafts, but he did ask me what it was about and I told him it was a comedy with typhoid. I think to be funny on the page requires syntactical control as much as a highly developed sense of, say, the absurdity of life. Comedians are not funny to me because of their jokes, but because of their timing. Same with writers. Most “funny” writing I find unreadable. (I should say that what I want from books, and songs and movies is to be unsettled if not flat-out broken, but you’re just as likely to break my heart through high stakes humor than you are with starkness or gravity.) The last movie that broke me was “Roma,” and I found a lot of it funny, and the humor often came from the tone as much as the dialogue.

EF: You’ve said elsewhere that you try to find language that makes your characters seem “truly, brutally alive.” I want to ask you a question about language’s relationship to time, place, and character. Prairie Fever takes place in the inter-war period between 1917 and 1940, yet everything about the language of the novel, the way the characters talk and express themselves, resists becoming imitative of, you know, a more stilted, old-fashioned historical prose. Is this something you thought about while writing? How to imbue the past with contemporaneity and freshness?

MP: I do want my characters to seem real and alive in a way that hurts a little. As to the style of this novel, to continue the above discussion about tone, I was trying to suggest, via syntax, the characters and their desire. I’m not a fan of the type of historical fiction that attempts to recreate the period through—as you so aptly describe it—“stilted, old-fashioned” prose. There are quite a few recent books set in the 19tth and early 20th centuries that avoid the stilted prose route. I’m thinking of Pete Dexter’s Deadwood (and David Milch’s show of the same name), Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, Laird Hunt’s Neverhome. The Sisters Brothers. Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First. Obviously the prototype for an historical novel which doesn’t fall into the ponderous-attempt-to-recreate-the-period-via-leaden-sentences trap is True Grit.

All but one of the newspaper articles quoted in the novel are actually articles found in papers from the time and place. I confess I borrowed more than a little from the syntax of those articles, which were playful and lively and sly. Newspapers used to be written instead of typed. I had a blast reading those newspapers, but then, my father was a reporter, so it’s in the blood.

EF: Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is another novel that comes to my mind. Your 2011 novel The Watery Part of the World included sections set in the early nineteenth-century as well as the mid-twentieth. As I was reading Prairie Fever, it seemed to me to be borrowing structural elements from both the epistolary novel and the Bildungsroman, genres more heavily associated with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries than with the twenty-first. Does the literature of the nineteenth-century hold a particular fascination for you?

MP: I loved how Carey, in that novel, substituted the word “adjectival” for curse words. There were all these lines like “Get your adjectival horse out of my adjectival way.”

I’m not sure the Bildungsroman will ever fall out of fashion, but you’re right about the epistolary novel. Occasionally I’ll read about an epistolary novel written in emails or text messages. Though I believe that form should reflect, in its rhythms, the fabric of culture and society—and how that fabric affects interiority—I’m not sure I want to read a novel composed of emails.

When I first arrived at UNCG, I was kind of appalled to find that the students were not required—as I was in my MFA program—to take courses in pre-1800 literature. I studied Shakespeare in grad school, and the 18th century—but I’d already read some Shakespeare (badly) and I’ve always loved Defoe and Addison and Steele and Boswell and Johnson. I learned from Dickens. I learned most everything I know from Madame Bovary and from the Russians—Chekhov of course but also Babel, Turgenev, Gogol, Tolstoy. It took me a long time to learn how to read Henry James but now I think there are few things finer than his short novels and some of those longer stories. I would not have written “The Watery Part of the World” obviously without Melville, but also without reading Virginia Woolf. You asked about 18th and 19th century writers but there are lots of 20th century writers I grew up with who are just not read anymore.

I think it’s important to know where certain technical things we take for granted as having always been available came from. I believe in journeying back to the source—in the case of what is now known as “free indirect discourse,” Flaubert—and charting the ways that element has adapted to the culture, to experience. The biggest change in my lifetime is the biggest change in my parents’ lifetime: technology. It alters the rhythm of narrative. But what was narrative like before the telephone, much less the smart phone? I guess I’ve always been interested in the trajectory of narrative. I’m not uninterested in its future. But the older work, the pre-twenty-first century work, has certainly shaped my sensibility.

EF: You’re fond of saying, in fiction workshop, that narrative is the effect of time on character (shame on me if I’m not getting that right.) This novel spans twenty-three years in just over 300-pages. Was it clear, when you started, that these characters’ stories were going to require that much time travel?

MP: No shame on you at all, but what I think I said—or meant to say—was that all “novels” are about the effect of time on character, as opposed to stories, which focus on a moment of implosion, an isolated but meaningful shift in the character’s psyche.

Having said that: nothing was clear to me when I started this novel. I had the image of the two sisters on the back of a horse, pinned with blankets, set off to school in the snow. I set them off and then I made the rest of it up as I went along. I had no idea Elise was going to get lost in that storm until the day I wrote that scene. I did have some notion of what might happen to Lorena, as my real great aunt when to Wyoming to teach school, married a rancher, and stayed out there the rest of her life—she came to visit her sister, my grandmother, in Western North Carolina once but left early because she felt hemmed in by all the trees. But I could have just as easily sent her off to Maine. I know next to nothing about my grandmother, who died before I was born, and my mother didn’t talk so much about her grandparents or her aunt, so I did not feel constrained by what happened to them. (Not that I ever have, or will, when writing about a real person.) I did use one detail my mother told me about her grandfather: she told me he had lots of “big ideas,” and when I asked my father later what she meant by that he said, “that’s just your mother’s way of saying he was lazy.”

The time thing in novels—I’m no good at it. The copy editor—bless her heart, she saved me. I thanked her in the acknowledgements but I ought to pay for her vacation. To, like, Bali. My math skills are nonexistent, and time in novels feels like math to me, so I had the father dead on one page and alive 100 pages later. I’ve worked with this copy editor before, and she had to clean up my math then also, so I have this feeling she’ll say, next time they approach her to copyedit one of my novels, “Only if it’s confined to a twenty-four-hour time frame.”

You would think someone who goes around talking about novels being all about the effect of time would be more careful with the clock. But I get carried away describing the wind, the light, a river. Maybe when I retire, I’ll learn how to count.

EF: Speaking of fiction workshop, you assigned Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel to your last graduate workshop at UNCG, and I see some trace of Muller’s influence on Prairie Fever, particularly in the voice of Elise Stewart, one of the sisters at the heart of the novel. I don’t think there’s an obvious or straightforward link there, but was the concrete poetry of Müller’s writing on your mind while draftingPrairie Fever? Were there any moments when you had to pull back from that? And were there any other writers who helped you discover the voices or landscapes you render with such clarity in this novel?

MP: I think Müller is a genius, which is why I teach her every chance I get. Just before I wrote the book I was working on a lecture that discussed one of Müller’s novels, and I read every thing she’s written, except her essays.

Obviously there is no comparison between the bleak Totalitarian regime that dominates Müller’s work and the hardships the characters in this novel experience. But there’s pain, and longing, and Elise, like many of the characters in Müller’s work, copes with the things she lacks by losing herself in an imaginative, border-straddling space. Müller is a surrealist but there are moments of wondrous magic that make her books so delightful to read, despite the harshness of the political landscape. And her sentences do exactly what sentences ought to do, always, which is sing the thing they wish to say. I’ve read all her fiction and in each book there is a distinctive syntactical and stylistic pattern. Maybe my respect for her has to do with my inability to figure out just how she manages to enchant—as Nabokov said novelists must do—while asking such profound questions about politics and culture. It’s the rare novelist who can manage wonder and life under a tyrannical dictator at once.

Elise’s poetry is of a different sort, and it’s hard to chart your influences, but if I had to list the writers whose shadow appears over this book, Müller would certainly top the list. Obviously her sensibility, or what I took away from it, shows up in this novel. Also, Willa Cather, and the woefully underappreciated Wright Morris, whose novel The Works of Love I am more than a little obsessed with. The last two are well known as poets of the prairie states, but I don’t think I was consciously reading them to better understand the landscape I was writing about. I was reading them because they’re terrific. And inexhaustible. I’ve read both My Antonio and The Works of Love a half dozen times.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention the music of Will Johnson and the band Knife in the Water, both of whom I was listening to constantly when I wrote this book. I could never articulate how either artist turned up in the music of this novel, but I can say that they are there, somewhere.

EVAN FACKLER is an MFA candidate at UNCG. He has served as editor-in-chief of Oxford Magazine and as a fiction editor at The Greensboro Review. His reviews and interviews can be found online at Entropy Magazine and storySouth