Friday, October 21, 2011

Get to know Court Merrigan *UPDATED*

I'm just now getting to know Court Merrigan. He joined a writers' critique group that I'm part of so I've read some of his fiction. But I didn't know anything about the man other than he's a fantastic writer. Read some of his stuff here. Then, when you're done reading his fiction come back and read the answers to the questions I've sent him. We talk short fiction. It's good stuff. And after reading this you're going to follow him on Twitter. Click here to do that.

First, tell us a little about you in under 200 words. How'd you get started writing?

There's a picture of me, 5 years old, writing my first little story.  My mom used to put together little books with cardboard covers and yellow-paper pages, sewn together and everything.  I remember from the very first stories I was able to read, wanting to write my own.

I wrote off and on for a long time, through high school, college, wandering around Asia; but I didn't get really serious about it until about 2004.  And I didn't start getting really serious - e.g., getting up at 4 o'clock to write - until 2005-ish.  

I recently read about some 16-year old girl who has a chapbook or something coming out and has already started college and wants to be in an MFA program before she can legally drink.  God, I would have broken my hands punching walls if I had tried to chain (as is necessary) myself to a desk any time before age 26.  

You said 'wandering around Asia.' What took you there? What kept you there? And what brought you back?

What took me to Asia was 22 years in Nebraska.  I was done with college and I just wanted out into the world.  Got a job teaching English in Japan and went about as far away from my homeland as I could go without starting to come back again.

What brought me back was my daughter.  We were living in a village in Thailand and I knew I couldn't send her to school in the Third World.  Someday she (and my son, who was born later, in the US), may choose to go cross the pond and live for a while on that side of their heritage, and that'd be wonderful.  But I felt it was my responsibility to bring them up here so they'll have that choice to make someday.  For lots of reasons, going from the US to Thailand is far, far easier than the reverse.
And what are you doing when you aren't writing?

At the day job at a community college.  Playing with my kids.  On FB and Twitter and the blog more than I should be, probably.  During the fall, watching the Cornhuskers on Saturdays.  Exercising. 
 Writers require a lot of endorphins and dopamine and you can't get it all from bourbon.  Exercise helps keep those flowing and you feel better the next morning.

I gallivanted around in my younger years, but I'm a pretty staid family man these days.  Mortgage and everything.  In bed by 10 at the latest.

Does your time in Asia affect your writing? If so, how?

Absolutely.  When I'm not writing about my rural homeland, I'm writing about Asia.  The experiences I had over there gave me an inexhaustible trove of material to work with.  (Not that you need to go to Asia or anywhere, really, for that.  Wasn't it Flannery O'Connor who said that anyone who's survived childhood has enough stories to last for life?)

I'm working on some stuff these days that mixes the two.  Imagining characters who look like my kids will twenty years from now, and then having bad things happen to them. 

What attracts you to short fiction?

The rush of finishing, I think.  The fact that when you start there's always a glaring light at the end of the tunnel.  

A novel can be such a slog.  I've written 3 of them.  (Want to see?)  Gearing up to write another, but I keep getting sucked into the gratification of keeping it short.

We swapped some messages on Twitter and you said you are moving from literary fiction to crime and pulp fiction. Why?

You know what Nabokov said: "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."

The older I get, the more I like stories.  Plot.  Forward progression.  Something besides beautiful sentences to keep me flicking through the pages.   Don't get me wrong. I like artful sentences strung together one after another.  I just want them to tell me a story.

I feel likewise in my own writing.  I want to tell a story.  To quote Brad Green in his intro to the PANK Crime Issue, "Whereas the literary story is often concerned with how characters react to a given situation, the [pulp story] is obsessed with showing us how we behave during the situation itself."  I agree with this wholeheartedly.  

I would say, though, that there's a difference between good pulp fiction and the formulaic potboilers put out by the James Patterson and Nora Robertsons or whoever of the world.  A story's no good if it's wrapped in turgid prose.  The sentences still have to sing.

What I'm writing now is story.  If it doesn't contribute to the forward narrative of said story, I delete it.  No subtext.  No symbolism.  Just story.  

Which is easier to write? I assume that many people would hear you're switching to pulp/crime fiction and they'd think it's because it's easier to write.

I don't think any good writing comes easily.  Emphasis on the good.  For me, it's all about mutilated drafts, dozens of them.  The process hasn't gotten any easier; it's just that the categories are different.  In some respects, writing pulp is a lot harder, because you can't hide limp-wristed character development and hackneyed plot lines behind pretty sentences.  

Literary fiction at its best moves you to a state of aesthetic bliss; pulp at its best keeps you riveted to the story.  Both are rare.

When you finish a piece of mediocre literary fiction, you're thinking, "So what?"  Finishing is like eating a whole bowl of cold oatmeal because you don't want to waste anything on account of the kids starving in Africa.  (Which may have something to do with why so few non-writers start such stories in the first place.)  

A mediocre piece of pulp, you're not likely to ever finish.  You'll start yawning and find a better way to spend your time.  All perfectly guilt-free.  Pulp that doesn't keep you entertained isn't doing its job, and that's how it should be.

Maintaining the fictive dream in the reader is a hard job to pull off in any genre, but it seems to me that it's harder when the reader has no qualms about looking away.  

I looked at your blog and your current acceptance rate is roughly 10 percent. I think someone who doesn't write would look at that number and say, "What's the point?" So, what is the point? How do you keep from getting discouraged?

An unknown writer like myself is paid in the currency of hope.  It only takes one after all, right?  The right magazine, the right editor, the right agent, the right Twitter contact, the right amalgam in the marketplace, the right google algorithm. 

The amount of luck required is outrageous.  

But thanks to the internet, we're living in a world where the supply of fiction vastly outweighs the demand.  Them's the facts.  I don't think you do yourself any favors by ignoring reality.  

I don't keep from getting discouraged.  I'm discouraged all the time. All the time.  Especially now that I've been writing a lot for a number of years, and success remains elusive.  Every time another rejection arrives from one of those prestigious, super-cool mags I lust to see my name in.  Every irretrievable day passing by that didn't see me get any worthwhile writing done.  

I always feel like I'm on the outside looking in.  Like all the real, successful writers are enjoying solitary parties in vast mansions of acclaim and prestige and money up on the hill, and I'm in my jackshack in the valley, one naked light bulb strung from the ceiling, that distant music tinkling through the warped tin roof.

Possibly I suffer under the delusion of the sunk cost fallacy.  But then that dionysian demon Hope raises her ravishingly hideous face, and it's back to the page I go.

What makes a good piece of short fiction?

If you read it all the way through in one setting.

How about flash fiction? It has so many different definitions, but, in general, what are your feelings on it? I know that, for me, if it gets too short I find it a little too sparse and the stories hard to follow.

I really like the form, myself.  But, like any other form, it has to be done well.  A thousand words or less is an excellent length to explore one incident or impression, maybe two.  Sort of like the Iambic tetrameter or tanka poetry, it enforces a certain discipline, an insistence that every word be pared down to its maximum meaning.  

It's a mystery to me why, in this Twittified and Facebooked era, flash fiction has not achieved more prominence outside writerly circles.  I suspect it's because we're all doing it wrong, somehow.  

Usually I ask for three essential books, but since we are talking short fiction here can you give us three essential pieces of short fiction. Pieces that either shaped who you are as a writer or just stuff you thought was really cool.

"Atomic Supernova", by Scott Wolven
"The Need," by Frank Bill
"Escape From Spiderhead," by George Saunders
"The Peony Garden," Nagai Kafu

What about some writers you think are underappreciated. Who's out there that more people should know about?

Writers who aren't nearly well-known enough:

Scott Wolven is my nomination for best unknown out there.  Why this guy isn't famous, Hollywood directors flocking to his door, editors stepping over dead bodies to get to him, is beyond me.  I wrote more about him here.

The British writer Danny Hogan wrote a cracking good novella called Jailbait Justice.

David Cranmer, editor of Beat To A Pulp, is single-handedly transforming the Western into a noir showpiece with his Cash Laramie & Miles Gideon series.

Google Matthew C. Funk and you can't go wrong.  Everything that guy writes crackles like a live wire.  

My friend Brad Green can elevate a sentence to Elysium in a single comma splice.  

Marc Horne wrote my favorite indie novel of all time, Tokyo Zero.  

Glenn Gray is also a doctor and therefore knows how to induce delicious willies.

Roxane Gay has a following among the internet literati, but on the strength of her writing she deserves more.  I think she's going to get it in due time.

What's up next for you? Anything coming up that we should look for?

I've got stories coming out next year in All Due Respect, Yellow MamaFlywheel, and Necessary Fiction.  I'm also going to be in the Off The Record anthology put together by Luca Veste, and the upcoming inaugural Dirty Noir quarterly.

I'm also going to be editing a special Pulp Issue for PANK  that will come out next spring.  Subs are going to open next month, so send your best stories my way. 


  1. Excellent interview, gentlemen. And I love the list of authors you mention, Court. I'm looking forward to reading all of you stories next year.

  2. Thanks, Sabrina - I'm looking forward to hearing what you think of them.

  3. Sort of like talking with you over a beer in Boulder.