Philadelphia’s Conscience Is Still Up For Grabs — An Interview With Michael Deagler
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“Gogarty” by Michael Deagler is featured in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading with an introduction by Recommended Reading’s Editor-in-Chief Halimah Marcus.
Julia Johanne Tolo: I loved reading “Gogarty,” and immediately after reading it I went to the Wikipedia page for Oliver St. John Gogarty, where I learned that he was a well known Irish poet. I’ve noticed references to poetry in other stories of yours that I’ve read as well, such as “Twenty Girls of Various Shades of Yellow Discontent,” where a few lines of poetry slips into Fulvous’ section, and in “Heavens,” which starts off with a quote from Yeats. What’s your relationship to poetry in your writing, and especially Irish poets?
Michael Deagler: I wrote poetry in high school. Poetry was my entry into writing, as it seems to be for a lot of prose writers. Then I let it fluster me in college, and I stopped, and now I don’t write it anymore. I think it’s sort of a first love thing: I found poetry too early, I idolized it too much, and now I basically have to keep away from it for my own well being. So I write fiction. I think I have a much healthier relationship with fiction, in part because I don’t really idolize it at all. But the poetry infrastructure is still in there, and the points of reference. As far as Irish poets, I’ve always had a particular affinity for Irish literature: poetry, prose, drama. I read a lot of it at a formative age and it sort of became my de facto literary standard. Even now, when I write, I have Yeats perched on one shoulder and Joyce on the other. I don’t know which is the angel and which is the devil, but they continue to manipulate me.
JJT: I also noticed a recurring connection to Philadelphia in your work, with descriptions of it’s streets, smells, and neighborhoods. Is writing about Philadelphia motivated by the fact that it’s where you live and what you know, or do you think there is something else that draws you to use the city in your writing?
MD: It’s a specific choice, one that comes from deep-seated regional love and frustration. Philadelphia really slept through the 20th Century in terms of literary output. There are a lot of things that Philadelphia does well and for which it receives no credit, but in the realm of literature we don’t really deserve much credit. We’ve never produced writers the way that New York or LA or Chicago or Boston or San Francisco or even Pittsburgh or St. Louis has. Part of it’s brain drain, part of it’s bad luck. Even so, it’s been over three centuries and we don’t really have a writer or a book that people immediately associate with the city. That’s sort of astounding to me. It’s enough to give literary-minded Philadelphians a crippling inferiority complex. But if there’s a bright side to the situation, it’s that everything, our entire history and geography and regional culture, is still up for grabs. Nothing has really been claimed yet, or given its definitive fictional treatment. So in that respect I feel fortunate. And things are improving, now, finally, in this decade. Mat Johnson, Asali Solomon, and Andrew Ervin all published books this year to acclaim. Ayana Mathis and Sean Ennis had great books within the past couple years. At some point something will stick. Philadelphia deserves to have literature written about it, even if that literature will inevitably be critical and unflattering to a certain degree. To paraphrase Joyce, it’s the job of the writer to forge within his soul the uncreated conscience of his city. Philadelphia’s conscience is still up for grabs.
JJT: What I really enjoyed about reading “Gogarty” is this expectancy of violence that you set up with your character, you start off with him shooting at his “containermate,” and once he gets a hold of the knives, I definitely expected something awful to happen. Then the story ended up surprising me. On a similar note, in the stories of yours I mentioned in my first question (“Heavens,” “Gogarty,” and “Twenty Girls of Various Shades of Yellow Discontent”), you have characters operating with fake names. Do you enjoy playing around with identity and the reader’s expectations in your fiction? And where do you think this comes from?
MD: Manipulating your identity — concealing it, or trying on a different one — is one of the few forms of agency available to nearly everyone, regardless of wealth, education, etc. Especially changing your name. A name is completely intangible: it’s linguistic, it doesn’t exist in the real world. And yet it has so much psychological weight, anchoring you to your lot in life. Or your previous life. The characters you mentioned (Gogarty; Jim Thorpe in “Heavens”; Amber and Tawny in “Twenty Girls…”) are, respectively, a squatter, a heroin addict, and a pair of street walkers. They live fairly exposed lives. So to be able to protect their inner identities from the people they encounter, even from the reader, is an important form of defense. It allows them to operate a little more freely, because they’re shielded from the judgement that comes from having a lot of information about a person. And maybe all of this is just an embarrassing Freudian admission on my part. As a writer, I don’t know anything about the reader, and yet I’m essentially offering the reader a tour of my thoughts: of what I think is interesting or literary or scary or sexy or funny. So I have to protect myself by inventing these characters and using them as a buffer between you and me. I want to connect with you but I can’t fully reveal myself to you, because who knows what could happen then?
And, really, short fiction is all about artifice, and deception, and subverting the expectations for the reader. So having a character who won’t tell you his “true” identity just adds another layer on top of the many layers obscuring or accentuating whatever truth you’re trying to get at. You could tell a story, and say, “I’m Dan and I’m a mailman.” But I think it’s more interesting to say, “I’m just a guy, don’t worry about my real name. Today I’m calling myself Dan, and today I’m delivering mail, but that could all change at any time.” It’s a more dynamic scenario to inhabit. And it’s fairly true to life, I find. Every time you meet somebody, you’re presenting an improvised version of yourself (one of the many possible versions) based on how you want the other person to perceive you. They’re doing the same thing. Human interaction is a weird chess match. A small war between suspicious participants. Short fiction is the medium that best replicates that confrontation, and I like to remind the reader that the ground they’re standing on is just made of words that I strung together. It can change at any moment.
JJT: I read that you write both fiction and criticism, how do you experience the connection between writing about the works of other writers, and being one yourself?
MD: Criticism is probably too grand a word. I write a lot of book reviews. But you can learn a lot about writing by approaching it from the other side. Reviewing forces you to articulate your thoughts about what you’ve read, which leads to deeper levels of analysis, which can sometimes lead to greater appreciation of a book and sometimes to the realization that a book isn’t actually very good. From a craft level, it’s useful to be able to figure out why something worked or didn’t work: how the shape of a narrative got you to your ultimate emotional state, and whether or not that state was the intended destination. Even reviewing bad books can be pretty informative. Nothing confirms the need to kill your darlings like having to sort through the work of someone who refused to kill theirs. But mostly what I’ve realized is how much interpretation is involved in reading. The reader is half of the partnership, and what they bring to the table has significant bearing on the final outcome. An experienced reader can get a lot out of a fairly vague book. An inexperienced reader can fail to appreciate a subtle book. So you have to think about your audience, when writing: how much are you asking of them, and how much are they likely to give? The books we deem successful are generally those that can get the most readers, including inexperienced readers, to an interesting emotional place by the end.
JJT: Halimah Marcus mentions in her introduction to your story how excellent your dialogue is. Is that something you’ve worked on a lot, or does it come naturally to you? Do you ever draw from real life conversations when writing dialogue?
MD: When I started writing fiction, dialogue was the thing that came easiest, and my stories were mostly dialogue. They read almost like plays: just dialogue and stage directions. Then I learned to do everything else, and now I actually find dialogue to be the most difficult part of a story. It’s the riskiest thing to write, because the reader hears real dialogue every day and has a highly sensitive ear for it. Nothing can knock a reader out of the world of your story like mishandled dialogue. You want it to be memorable but not ridiculous. Original but not overly clever. Naturalistic but not boring. Productive but not expositional. It’s a difficult needle to thread. I try to err on the side of a kind of theatricality, just because that’s an aesthetic that I enjoy. I like big characters making big proclamations. But even that only works for me maybe half the time. I haven’t come up with a unified field theory yet.
A friend of mine who has a background in theater told me that a playwright uses dialogue only as a last resort: that dialogue should be used to communicate only those things that cannot be communicated through movement, or body language, or a look, or a pause. I think that’s a compelling idea. But if you applied that logic to prose, it would be pretty easy to write stories with no dialogue at all. And a lot of prose writers do that, basically. A lot of literary fiction has very sparse dialogue. But life, as I’ve experienced it, is full of language. Everyone is talking all the time. Most of it is inconsequential and not worth sharing, but it feels dishonest to populate fiction with stoic characters that barely say anything. On the other hand, if the characters talk too much, the scaffolding starts to reveal itself. They may all start sounding similar to each other, and they may just start sounding like different versions of the writer, and that’s also a problem.
JJT: What are you working on right now?
MD: My main project right now is a linked story collection set mostly in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, which “Gogarty” and “Heavens” and “Twenty Girls…” are all a part of. I’m still trying to place a few of the stories, and I’m still tweaking them here and there, but my hope is that the collection can exist as a book in the not too distant future.
Michael Deagler lives in Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, New England Review, Slice, and elsewhere. Links to his writing may be found at michaeldeagler.com.