Author Interviews,  Issue 5

Q&A with Author Michael Chin

Our EIC, Renee Firer, had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of author Michael Chin’s upcoming collection Circus Folk. In this collection, you’ll meet a lion tamer, a clown, a strong man, conjoined twins, and many more. Each story can stand on their own, but when put together, they paint detailed portraits of the lives of circus performers and the people they left behind.

Renee had a chance to ask Michael some questions!

Renee Firer: I have to begin by asking how did the idea for this collection come to you?

Michael Chin:The first story I drafted for this collection was “Clown Faces.” I used to work in an office where we had a committee to plan monthly birthday parties, and for lack of better theme ideas, we tried an experiment of combining a randomly drawn noun with a randomly drawn event-type. We drew, but did not end up using the “clown prom,” and it gave me the idea for a story set at a clown college that took the concept 100 percent seriously, like a more traditional four-year college. The climactic prom scene I originally imagined for the story ultimately fell out, but I nonetheless loved the quirky, surreal world that I’d started to develop.

I was a few drafts in when Arabullonia–to oversimplify, the evil clown character–ran off to join a rogue circus, and I became enamored with that circus itself. So it was that the clown college became a relatively small thing–just one story, though Arabullonia does recur a bit more–and circus came to the fore as the thread to link stories about unusual characters and how they came to their unusual lives in a traveling show.

RF: This may very well be connected to the previous question, and if so, I apologize: regarding the circus and the world they live in, did you have to research the life of someone in a traveling circus or did you already know much about the lifestyle?

MC: It’s a great question, while I’d ordinarily advocate for research, in this case the story was rooted much more in fully imagining as much as I could about this absurdist context and immersing myself in it than real-world research or any kind of first-hand experience.

Prior to writing, I had read Kathleen Dunn’s Geek Love and watched the series Carnivale; in between drafts, I did read Monica Drake’s Clown Girl, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, and I think a handful of stories that are escaping me now. It’s hard to call any of them direct influences, though I think they all contribute to shaping some of my circus considerations and ideas for some of the more speculative elements that pervade a number of the stories. 

RF: Why write the collection as a series of interconnected stories? What made you decide to tell these stories in that way rather than from the perspective of one character or a more “conventional” novel format possibly written in third person omniscient?

MC:After “Clown Faces,” the next story that came to me was “Forever,” which of course happens in the same world, with the same circus. Once I had these two stories drafted, the “formula” was sort of there, and while I’d always hoped it would one day be a book, I was a long way from there (bearing in mind that I first drafted about 75 percent of this collection five-to-six years ago). I was starting to publish short stories and recognized some value in having a dozen or so stories I could submit, regardless of whether my vision of a book ever came to fruition.

RF: Now, speaking of these characters! So distinct from one another. How much fun did you have writing them and their backstories? What was your inspiration for these characters? How did you manage to keep all the voices separate?

MC:Thank you for the compliment! Once I got rolling on writing these stories, a part of the “game” of it was simply brainstorming different circus acts and then imagining how someone with that set of skills or in that condition might come to work for a circus. I think that the degree to which the voices feel separate is by virtue of trying to fully inhabit each character, though there is a folksy over-arching narrative voice that comes in and out–particularly at the beginnings and ends of stories–that aims to bind the stories here and there.

A number of the stories deal with heartbreak and loss on some level. I’d be remiss not to make mention that I did a lot of the original drafting in an awkward and sad space of having ended one committed relationship with hopes of pursuing another, only for the latter never to get off the ground. There was a lot of raw heartache in those early drafts that I think offered a bit of a thread through some seemingly disparate stories, though I also buffed a lot of that out in the revision process.

RF: Tackling a collection like this can be difficult. You did a wonderful job of starting with Verne and Penelope and bring it back to them at the end. Some of the characters even pop up in other stories. What was your writing process like? How did you decide how to organize the stories?

MC:I think that one of the great challenges to successfully writing fiction is needing for everything to ring true, and to not settle for minor/background characters being types, but rather their own nuanced selves that the author has limited space to hint at. One of the benefits of a linked story model like this was that I got to know these characters very well, and so a major character from one story was already at my disposal to play a bit part in another.

That can go too far. There’s a lengthy story that did not go into the final version of the manuscript that featured the seamster and a bearded lady–each lead characters in their own stories–coming together for sort of an adventurous romp. There can be a fine-line between having fun with characters crossing over and, in so doing, enriching each other’s stories, and making it feel like more of a contrivance and that was something I had to battle against. A lot of times, the more organic intersections came up in the revision process as I saw opportunities for characters to fill small roles in satisfying ways in other stories.

The Verne and Penelope story came to me relatively whole swathe–in there case, it was less a question of whether they’d come back then when to split off and when to come back to them.

RF: What writers are you most drawn to? Have you found that any writers in particular find a way into your writing style?

MC:I read pretty widely and like to think that I’ve derived different elements from different writers I admire. John Irving was probably the first writer I truly loved and read exhaustively. In retrospect, I find a fair bit of his work problematic, but his instinct toward expansive storytelling and weaving characters in and out of each other’s lives definitely left an impression. I love Jeanette Winterson’s voice, and go back to her books The Passion and Written on the Body a good bit on a prose level. Maggie Nelson is a recent favorite, whose collage approach to narrative from books like Bluets and The Argonauts I’ve emulated in a number of pieces. I’m really just scratching the surface here, but those are some that come to mind.

RF: What advice would you give writers who are experimenting with a project that is similar?

MC:There are some real advantages that serve the writer when working on a series of linked stories. There is, in a sense, less world building and starting from the ground up than writing totally separate stories; there’s a certain joy to lingering in a setting, in a set of circumstances and fully exploring every nook and cranny of it before you leave it behind.

I think the linked story model is also less intimidating than, say, writing a traditional novel for having these stand alone pieces to start and finish, and for having the opportunity to let one draft settle and work on the next story, then come back to it without leaving behind the project on the whole.

More broadly, if your lifestyle can support it, I strongly advocate for writing every day (or just about every day). I realize that between outside work, family situations, and writing style, that doesn’t or can’t work for everybody. I often look back, though, at the nine years in between finishing my undergrad and going back to full-time study for my MFA (including five years crawling through an MA at a one-class-per-semester clip) as some of the most important to my development as a writer for helping me learn how to carve out and make the most of small pockets of time–as a little fifteen-to-twenty minutes a day–to keep moving forward in creative pursuits and draft projects including this book.

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Michael Chin‘s first full-length collection You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue is available for preorder on Amazon and will release on September 15, 2019 through Duke Lake Books – watch the trailer now! Circus Folk will be published through Hoot ‘n’ Waddle Press and will be released in November 2019.

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