By Mark McNease
I recently had the pleasure of asking author Michael Graves ‘6 Questions.’ Michael is the author of Dirty One, a collection of short stories that was both a Lambda Literary Award Finalist and an American Library Association Honoree. His new novel, Parade, is set for release by Chelsea Station Editions October 1. Described as “a tour-de-force, comic tale of religion and government,” the book tells the story of Reggie Lauderdale in the midst of his crisis of faith. His cousin, Elmer Mott, dreams of becoming their hometown mayor. Both boys are doing their best to be adults in suburbia, but have yet to learn to be fully themselves.
Read on for Michael’s answers, some advance praise for Parade, and stay tuned – he’ll be a guest soon on the Live Mic Podcast in early October.
MG: I live in Leominster, Massachusetts. It’s the birthplace of Johnny Appleseed. It was once the plastics capital of the United States. Leominster proudly produced pens, sunglasses and combs. When it was time for yearly school photos and they handed you a small black comb to tidy up your hair…that comb came from Leominster. I’ve lived in Boston and Los Angeles, but, somehow, I always made it back here. My family resides here. So, I do as well. I write, teach, and try to be a good house husband in Leominster. Leominster is also the setting for my collection, Dirty One.
MM: Your fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of anthologies and publications, and your short story “Seahorse” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Is writing something you’ve always done? Is it the path you saw for yourself early in life?
MG: Yes! When I was a child, my father and I used to sit in his recliner and he taught me to form letters. I always remember this as being profound. As soon as I could, I began crafting short stories. Horrible short stories! They always seemed to be holiday-themed. They were always highly dramatic. I continued to write, write, write. At eleven, I began submitting pieces for publication, but that didn’t turn out well. When I was nineteen, I began publishing myself. I created a zine, Boy Blunder. This included poetry, short fiction, strange coupons, interesting obituaries I had found. I left copies in libraries, bars, arcades, wherever. For some reason, I just kept going. I felt as though I had something to say and I felt as though life and people are beautiful and weird and interesting.
MM: Short stories are a challenging format. What is it about the short form that attracts you, and what would you tell other writers considering short fiction about its demands?
MG: For me, the short story format offers boundaries and rules. You can compartmentalize and streamline a tale, a message, a character. Personally, it appeals to my constant need for order. On the other hand, I am not, in any manner, speaking about limitations. I believe that short stories can be a liberating form. I’ve met fellow writers that despise short stories. I’ve met others who feel similarly about novels. My only advice to others is to explore the form that makes the most sense to you. Ask yourself, what feels most natural and organic?
MM: You’ve published non-fiction as well (Lambda Book Report, Edge Boston, and the collection, Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered). What subjects do you write non-fiction about?
MG: Non-fiction ventures are such a joy for me. Every opportunity is a blessing. Most recently, I’ve been concentrating on author interviews or pieces that prompt writers to become more personal. What compels them? For instance, I compiled a piece for Lambda Literary, titled, “Virgins No More.” This centered on authors discussing the first time they inscribed their first book. I was astounded by how eclectic and emotional and telling each entry was. Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers offered slaying poetics. David Pratt revealed a heartfelt chunk of New York City gay history. Brian Centrone detailed his boyish, bashful nature. These memories were all gems. And I loved that it made readers feel just a bit closer to them on the couch of life. Like your were scooting over just an inch or so more. All in all, I’m very interested in writing more non-fiction pieces. I’m nothing, but grateful to the outlets and organizations that give me some space for this.
MM: Your short story collection, Dirty One, tells various stories of “a pack of adolescent characters who live in the acid-drenched, suburban town known as Leominster, Massachusetts).” Can you say more about the collection, its inspiration and impetus? (The first lines of the first story hooked me, by the way.)
MG: Thank you! Well, I was certainly inspired by my hometown. It always felt spooky and interesting to me as a child. Suburbia can be quiet or veiled and that only compounds the drama. I was also driven by 1980s pop culture. The music, the politics, the Smurfs. In my teens, I began writing about my experience. OCD. Gay life. My unrelenting curly hair. And all this was synthesized via my fiction. I wouldn’t say these stories are autobiographical, but there is a lot of me on those pages. In “From Kissing,” a boy explores his irrational fears about AIDS. In “This Whole Galaxy,” two brothers cope with a wildly abusive mother, ADHD and first love. In “Seahorse,” a delusional boy believes he can truly become pregnant and start his own family. This collection was a joy to write and it’s very close to my heart. Does that sound cheesy? Well, I don’t care because it’s true.
MM: Let’s hear about Parade, your upcoming novel (October 1). Why the jump to novel writing, where did the story idea(s) come from, and what are you hoping readers will take away from the book?
MG: I’m incredibly proud of Parade. I love the hell out of this book. Writing a novel just seemed like the next logical step. I think we spend our whole lives trying to make sense of…our own lives. I had been keeping notes, for years and years, about two cousins trying to do the same. And religion has always been a fascination for me. I wasn’t raised in any certain religion. It was always a complete mystery. I remember begging my parents to send me to catholic school. Also, I was jealous of other children who went to catechism. Every Monday night, my schoolmates would grouse about having to attend, but I desperately wanted to go. I felt like there was a secret about life that no one was telling me. And I thought, maybe I’m not special enough to know this secret? Anyhow, in college I began studying all kinds of religion, Eastern and Western. It was an amazing time for me as a student. I attended Baptist Sunday services, went to temple on Rosh Hashanah and meditated with monks. I learned so very much. But I never felt wholly connected to one set of ideas. And this was the catalyst for Parade. Why not make your own religion? This is what the main characters do…make their own religion. They accidentally burn down a church, cope with rape and flee to Jupiter, Florida. They meet a retired TV evangelist, write their own bible and become local celebrities. Truly, these boys are trying to be good people. They are trying to make sense of their own manhood. It’s a complete journey. It involves high heels, Christmas trees and cocaine. Again, I’m really proud of this book. I hope people read and enjoy it! And who doesn’t love a parade?
Coming October 1: Parade by Michael Graves
Chelsea Station Editions
Available in print and e-book October 1, 2015
Advance praise for Parade
“Parade is one jigger Capote’s Answered Prayers, a jigger of Tennessee Williams’s story ‘Two on a Party,’ and a generous pour of Michael Graves’s tenderly transgressive yet never abrasive tonic of satire and sweetness, all of it going down bracingly, not bitter. It is a story of callow youth contrasted with the tough and ultimately ruefully true choices that adulthood tries to force us into. In the author’s hands the narrative of rite of passage and religious hypocrisy goes down unsettlingly, which is the mark of the mixer’s skillful hand.”
—Michael Carroll, author of Little Reef and Other Stories
“With boyish exuberance and sparkling dialogue, Michael Graves delivers a deliciously queer tale that’s part coming of age and part buddy flick. Elmer’s and Reggie’s adventures in their search for home are full of surprises.”
—Christopher Castellani, author of All This Talk of Love