Michael Libling, Writer

Writer Michael Libling

Montreal writer Michael Libling’s field is mostly speculative fiction. His work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, On Spec, Amazing Stories and anthologies that include Destination Unknown and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Libling has worked as a radio host, humorist, advertising copywriter, and is co-owner, with his wife Pat, of a successful 
enterprise, PatsyPie, which has nothing whatsoever to do with writing or the arts, to his great relief.

“You don’t get it, man. Once they know you’re into genre, you’re toast.” This is what you quote a writer at Bread Loaf saying to you. Can you talk about that a little? Aside from the broader question of what constitutes commercial hackery versus literary excellence, the statement tells us that the literary market is unjust and unforgiving. A well-written story is not enough. Your statement seems to suggest that literary editors and writers are petty-minded and snobbish at times. Is that what you meant?

Yeah. It’s what I meant. It’s not a revelation. In fact, I think you reveal traces of this exact snobbery in your question—your reference to commercial hackery versus literary excellence. Genre can go either way, as can literary fiction. There are just as many literary hacks as genre hacks. The literary community condemns a lot of good and readable stories to the junkyard of hackery because they lack the so-called literary cachet. But fact is, I’d rather tackle a good genre story with likeable characters and a solid plot than wade through some impenetrable, self-indulgent and go-nowhere literary exercise that reeks of gimmickry. As I stated in a recent essay in CNQ Magazine (Issue #81), “there’s not much difference between literary fiction and porn; plot is secondary to both. Most of all, we do not measure the quality of our writing by the extent of its inaccessibility.” Some commentators have even pointed to certain Giller Prize nominees as examples of writers who haven’t put together a good story, but still get critical praise.

My experience at Bread Loaf demonstrated that many in the literary community are clueless when it comes to genre fiction. They have preconceived notions as to its content and merit. They criticize or look down upon a field they have never read or seriously considered. My workshop leader at Bread Loaf, a well-published writer of literary fiction, failed to grasp even the structure of genre. She felt my story started too quickly (in the heat of the action) and suggested ways to interrupt the dialogue with superfluous exposition. My goal was to tell a good story, while hers was to have me demonstrate my writing skills. As I stressed to her, I was doing both.

Her assistant was even worse. She disliked me before she met me, based on the subject matter of my submission. Her antipathy towards me became a running gag among the other workshop participants. She reminded me of a substitute English teacher I’d been saddled with in tenth grade. Our class assignment had been to write a story about a fire. I wrote about a forest fire. During the course of the action, a panicked wolf broke into a cabin, knocked over a kerosene lamp and set itself on fire. The teacher gave me a C and, ignoring all else, wrote: “This has all the earmarks of someone who enjoys inflicting cruelty upon animals.” Likewise, the teaching assistant at Bread Loaf must have assumed I had a hankering for murder.

While most of the genre writers I know have read literary works, I’m not sure the same holds true for the literary writers I’ve encountered.

I met one writer at Bread Loaf who claimed he could guess the MFA program the attendee had graduated from, based on the style of his or her writing. Time and again, he was right on the mark. It was funny as hell.

The thing is, genre fiction can be literary. Read any issue of  The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction from the last 10 or 15 years. Literary excellence abounds. Commercial hackery is nowhere to be found.

What is the state of Canadian literature today from your point of view as a writer?

To be honest, I don’t read enough of it to comment with any authority. The most recent books I’ve read from cover to cover that might fit the category are Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac (a remarkable short story collection that reads like a novel), Richler’s Barney’s Version (after several false starts), Linwood Barclay’s Never Look Away (pure genre with no pretensions) and Charles Foran’s biography of Mordecai Richler (compelling and brilliant).

What about Canadian speculative fiction? Are there decent markets in Canada for writers of speculative fiction and fantasy?

On Spec is the best of them in Canada. A sharp editorial board. There are also a few online magazines. As shamed as I am to admit it, I no longer keep on top of what’s happening in the field in Canada. Early on, I could not break into the Canadian market. My first sale was to an anthology in the UK, followed by successive sales to various magazines in the US. Aside from one appearance in On Spec (PUCE BOY), fiction sales have been restricted to the US over the years. (I should note that the Canadian-published PUCE BOY was later selected by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling for The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.) I pretty much gave up on Canada after MY FATHER’S CLUB was rejected for an anthology of Montreal SF and fantasy writers. Shortly thereafter, SciFiction (now defunct, but then part of the US Science Fiction channel’s website) bought it.

There’s no single reason for this; it simply comes down to the tastes and needs of the editor(s). I guess my stuff appeals more to those south of the border.

Your stories for THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, AMAZING STORIES, REALMS OF FANTASY, as examples, tread the ground between fantasy and speculative fiction. To me, they’re hybrids. They can function as magical realism in many cases. How conscious are you of the market when you write a story? Do you first write a story and then see where it will fit or do you tailor a story for a market right from the beginning?

You should throw horror into the mix too.

Story always come first. The seed of most stories I write is a first sentence that pops into my head. The sentence may or may not suggest science fiction, fantasy or horror, but since I started selling to these markets, the rest of the story tends to take form along these lines. I have favourite editors and publications, but I can’t say I’m necessarily thinking of either as the story evolves. My first objective is to write a solid story, eliminating the holes, ensuring suspension of disbelief. While I may not have specifics in mind, I do admit I am aware I am writing for a specific market and maintain the style and pace accordingly. Some may find the approach limiting; I find it exhilarating, as it forces me to focus.

Above all, I read the publications I send my stories to. It surprises me how often I speak to writers who fail to do this. Makes no sense to me.

I haven’t been quite so disciplined when it comes to novels. I have been told that much of what I write falls somewhere between literary and genre fiction. Circa 2000, I had an “epic” novel rejected by my agent because he didn’t know what to do with it. He asked me point blank, “What were you thinking?” It wasn’t literary and it wasn’t genre. He couldn’t figure out where to place it. I had another agent tell me it was the best novel he had ever turned down, again for the same reason. The thing sits on a shelf, never having seen a publisher. I blame only me.

Some writers are able to bridge the gap between literary and genre fiction. In an earlier generation, it would have been Ursula Leguin, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut, Angela Carter. Today, we have Kevin Brockmeier, Michael Chabon, Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser, William Gibson, among others.  Even with your experience in mind about how hard it is, is it getting easier for writers to cross the “border” and return safely? In other words, is there hope for young writers who want to roam?

Again, you ask me a question I do not feel particularly qualified to answer. Publishing is undergoing a major shakeup. I’m not sure how this will net out for young writers or us older wannabes. While the Internet offers plenty of opportunity for exposure, allowing writers to skip the long-established agent and/or publisher routes, it also eliminates the filters that distinguish the good from the bad. The result may make it more difficult for worthy voices to be heard. I also read recently that e-publishing will make it even tougher for new writers to make a living strictly from their craft. Then again, I can’t imagine how it can be any tougher than it has always been.

Just realized I didn’t answer your question. Hmm… Yeah, I think it may be easier today for a writer to avoid being pigeonholed than it was in the past. I suspect, however, that you may need to break in as a mainstream author before you can cross over to genre. I have my doubts that it’s as easy the other way, which may be attributed to the literary preconceptions discussed earlier. You just have to hope that no matter the genre or literary pursuit, the good stories will continue to reach an audience, whether or not the author has dared to cross some literary line. Then again, for some, such as Margaret Atwood who has denied that she writes science fiction, despite the fact she does, there appears to exist a fear of being ghettoized among the genre riffraff.

You also work as an advertising copywriter. Famous novelists who’ve worked as copywriters include Don DeLillo, Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Joseph Heller, Russell Hoban, Elmore Leonard, Salman Rushdie, Fay Weldon, and Thom Jones. The general public think of copywriters as suffering stressful lives, enslaved by market-driven forces, at the whim of “What have you done for me lately?” clients. But also copywriters meet move stars and superathletes, attend amazing parties and get flown to cool places. What’s the truth and what don’t we know about the life of a copywriter?

When I got my first job in advertising, the copy chief who hired me warned me that copywriting is 40% boring, 40% frustrating and 20% fun. I think that’s about right. As for the stress, it depends on the market one writes for, the agency one works for, or if one is freelancing. Yeah, it can be stressful. But generally, it’s an ebb -and-flow kind of job, with long stretches of nonstop work, followed by periods of not much at all. On the glamour front, I guess I’ve been hanging out with the wrong agencies and clients.

Is there anything from the copywriting profession that has helped you in your work as a fiction writer?

Yes. It’s filled my head with tons of odd facts and bits of information I might never have obtained otherwise. It has also taught me to be a much better self-editor.

What writer inspires you today?

I’ll waffle on the answer. But pretty much everything I read (and enjoy) inspires me, be it fiction or non-fiction.

Who did you read when you were in university?

Vonnegut. Poe. Faulkner. Roth. Kesey. Coover. Pynchon. Friedman. National Lampoon. MAD Magazine.

You studied fiction writing with Clark Blaise at Sir George Williams University back in the day. Your writing shows a similar attention to careful word choice and to the importance of the right beginning. Comment?

Stylistically, I think Clark and I are worlds apart, but I learned an enormous amount about writing from him, especially in terms of examining and judging one’s own work. You asked earlier if anyone inspired me today. Clark inspired me at the start and continues to do so to this day. As corny as this may sound, I still strive to make him proud, even after all these years.

Careful word choice? Heck, I would hope that’s standard operating procedure for every writer.

The beginning of a story is crucial. I try to hook the reader without delay, immersing him mid-action/mid-plot if the telling merits it. I may backtrack and allow the reader to catch his or her reading breath, but the beginning must have momentum. Again, that’s one of the things that drove me crazy at Bread Loaf. Most writers seemed to take forever to get into their story, if ever. I can’t tell you how many times I attended readings where the stories began with a description of the sun glinting off the autumn leaves or variation thereof. A story is not a still-life painting. The opening sentence is key to all that follows for me. I feel the same about a novel, though I may loosen the requirement to cover the first paragraph. Just don’t tell me about the frigging autumn leaves and sunshine, unless there’s something intriguing hanging in that tree or dripping from those branches. Genre or literary, boring the reader is unforgivable.

You have a natural inclination to comedy, and I wonder if that is difficult for you to rein in at times. In some ways I see similarities between your work and the work of Bruce Jay Friedman (e.g., STERN; A MOTHER’S KISSES). His work is very funny, but has a dark edge to it.  Like you, he is exacting with word choice and will stop reading a novel if the writer has chosen the wrong word more than once. In your story “My Father’s Club” I see wonderful detail, humor, good pacing, and something that reminds me of Gogol—an acceptance that life is suffering. Some other stories “The Gospel of Nate” and “Why that Crazy Old Lady Goes Up the Mountain” are equally well crafted, but quirkier. They flirt with mysticism and the supernatural, Bradbury-like almost, but all along I get the feeling I’m going to have the rug pulled out from under my feet in a joking way. That tension between comedy and drama perhaps. I know this is long, but can you comment on any of it?

I rarely set out to write comedy. Again, I have a story to tell. Any comedy that may emerge depends on the voice and point of view I’ve adopted to tell the tale. It’s easy to find humour, dark and otherwise, in almost everything, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to use a funny line or thought just for the sake of humour. If it doesn’t work in the context of the scene and character, I will not use it. It’s a matter of discipline, never losing sight of what I’m writing and the market I’m writing for.

The nicest compliment I’ve ever had about my writing came from an agent: “I love the way you put a breezy spin on horrible things.”

What would you say to young writers who complain about life conditions getting in the way of writing regularly?

Hey! I’m the last person to preach about this to others. I’ve struggled with enough of my own problems in this regard. It’s all about priorities. My advice: Write as much as you possibly can as early as you can, before all the responsibilities kick in. If you can juggle family and writing and succeed at both, please tell me how you managed it.

Do you write slowly? How important is revision to your work? Some writers have commented that it is only when they revise that they know what they truly want to say.

I’m a fast ad writer, but a slow fiction writer. I have a difficult time moving on until I’m satisfied with a sentence, paragraph, chapter—in that order. The older I’ve gotten, the worse it’s become. At times, this attention to detail can paralyze me, manifesting itself as a form of writer’s block. I envy writers who can dash through a complete draft and clean up in the revision stage. I need to see the story taking shape before me, making sure all the pieces fit as I go along. I don’t recommend the approach. Better to get the whole story down and then worry about the details, I think.

Is there any writer you feel an aspiring novelist should read?

I won’t get into specific novels or authors. Read what you like. Write what you like. (Jeez! Can my words of wisdom be any hoarier?) But for genre writers writing about writing, I recommend Stephen King’s ON WRITING and David Morrell’s LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING.
If you’re looking for a kick in the butt to get started, consider THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield.

Can you tell us anything about what you are working on at the moment?

I’m working on a mystery/horror hybrid, cutting an original 135,000 word manuscript down to 80,000 words. Now that’s painful. Several pieces of short fiction are also in varying stages of completion and decay.

Thank you, Michael.
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