One question interview

A one question interview: from Alex Boyd’s blog.

Michael Bryson has published a number of short story collections over the years, most recently The Lizard (2009) and new this year, the self-published How Many Girlfriends?

What made you consider self-publishing your new book?

Alex, I was going to begin with a wind-up about the evils of multinational corporations and the need for a rigid defense of creative individualism, but the truth is much simpler. I had a book-length worth of material on my hard drive, and it pleases me to get it out in the world in this form.

Why this form? Didn’t any publisher want it? I actually didn’t give anyone the chance to say no. I wanted to take this one straight to readers. There’s almost twenty years of work in this manuscript, a wide range of material. In the author’s note, I compare it to Bob Dylan’s Bootleg series. I’m no Dylan, but the comparison is apt. This is a book of stories that didn’t make it into other books. There’s even one “alternate version” and hopefully some “lost masterpieces.” It’s quite a personal book, and I’m glad to be able to present it to readers without going through the filter of a publisher.

As you know, most publishers see short story collections more as risk than opportunity. As does just about everyone else, it seems sometimes, except … creative writing programs. I’ve been lucky to have found publishers for my three previous books – but I think each of them have measured sales totals in the dozens of copies. I hope I don’t sound pompous if I say that when I started writing, I’d hoped for something more than that.

I published two books of short stories a decade ago, then spent eight years writing and trying to put a new book together. I put a number of different books together. The manuscript kept changing. Eventually, it became The Lizard (Chaudiere, 2009). Which is a slim and focused book. It includes stories that have won contests and appeared in anthologies, including Best Canadian Stories (2005).

Not sure if you saw Jason Epstein’s essay, “Publishing: The Revolutionary Future” (NY Review of Books, March 11, 2010). Here’s a quote from it:

… retailers, unable to stock a deep backlist, now demanded high turnover, often of ephemeral titles. Best-selling authors whose loyalty to their publishers had previously been the norm were now chips in a high-stakes casino: a boon for authors and agents with their nonrecoverable overguarantees and a nightmare for publishers who bear all the risk and are lucky if they break even. Meanwhile, the backlist continued to decline. The smaller houses, unable to take those risks, merged with larger ones, and the larger ones eventually fell into the arms of today’s conglomerates.

So maybe it’s about evil multinationals, after all. And I’m simply counter-cultural.

We live in interesting times. The internet initially promised a democratization of information and the potential for a culture based on true individual demand. My self-published book is, on the one hand, a culmination of this promise. Readers can order a book from the internet that comes direct from me to them.

On the other hand, what’s more often true is what Epstein calls “high turnover … ephemeral titles.” The internet hasn’t democratized us. It has instead enabled greater manipulation of consumer demand and artificial choice. It has raised our social anxieties to new levels.

What made me consider self-publishing this new book (of old work) was experimenting with a new model. When I thought about it, I felt good. It seemed, though it may not be, a more authentic way to present my work to the world. In any case, I hope readers find this book and like it. I do.

Only a Lower Paradise

My second short story collection. Published in 2000 by Boheme Press (ISBN 1-894498-15-1). This book is  officially out of print. Boheme Press is out of business. The only way to obtain a copy of this book is from the author.

Reviews:

  • Quill & Quire (11/00)
  • Front & Centre (Spring 2001)
  • Word (08/01)

“It’s not often a short story collection makes you want to reread William Blake, but Michael Bryson’s Only a Lower Paradise does just that. While Blake presides over the entire work, it is in the longer title story that Bryson’s imaginative use of the great poet’s work reaps high dividends. … Throughout, as in the title story, Bryson shows a knack for combining emotional complexity with quirky workaday detail.” – Quill & Quire

“The book’s prose is succinct, Bryson’s imagination is loosey-goosey, and his insights on human behaviour are varied, apt, intelligent but never sanctimonious. Bryson is a writer confidently finding his stride; a new voice with much poise and promise. … The back cover blurb compares the story [in the title novella] to Vonnegut and Pynchon but I was thinking more of the absurd humour of Richard Brautigan and Beckett’s bleak sense of despairing humanity after reading this one.” – Front & Centre Magazine

“Highly influenced by the works of William Blake, Kurt Vonnegut and Northrop Frye, Bryson makes literary and pop cultural references throughout the collection. Mixing them up like a well-educated bartender, the mythology of our origins is served up with Beatles’ songs.” – Word

Advance praise: “Bryson’s fiction explores the point of high voltage that exists between electrodes of positive and negative, good and evil, joy and sorrow. With a wicked imagination which draws references from every corner of our culture, he elevates the reader into that unique, energized state where laughter and tears are equally appropriate reactions.” – Brian Panhuyzen, author of The Death of the Moon

Table of contents

Only a Lower Paradise
Gerry
Boarder Guard
Waiting for a Miracle
Something Strange
Once Upon a Time
American Beauty
Watching the Lions
Crow Teaches City Boy a Few Tricks

Thirteen Shades of Black and White

My first short story collection. Published in 1999 by Turnstone Press (ISBN 0-88801-236-5).

Order from Amazon.

Reviews:

  • Imprint (11/19/99)
  • Globe and Mail (12/04/99)
  • Quill & Quire (01/00)
  • Word (03/00)
  • Broken Pencil (Spring 2000)
  • Front & Centre (Summer 2000)

“From page one Bryson’s prose had me scribbling words of praise: ‘clean,’ ‘spare,’ ‘pure,’ ‘enters the mind like thought.'” – The Globe and Mail

“Thirteen Shades of Black and White showcases Bryson’s disparate reach and contemporary voice.” – Quill & Quire

“Michael Bryson offers lovers of Canadian fiction [a] superlative collection of short stories…. This book is a must-read for any fan of the Canadian small-press scene.” – Chapters.ca

“This inaugural collection of bitterly hopeful short stories succeeds in illuminating our collective malaise without acceding to it.” – Broken Pencil

“Existence in these stories is inexplicable and aimless; the characters purposeless and alienated – physically and mentally – from those they love. Yet, at the same time, there is a sense of quiet optimism and possibility.” – Word

Table of Contents (Stories Originally published in)

At Least One Good Thing (Urban Graffiti)
Beginning & Endings (Event)
Running with that Indian
Day Two, Saskatchewan
Something in the Water (Backwater Review)
Light & Silver (paperplates)
Parents (The New Quarterly)
The Lowest Branch (The New Quarterly)
Drew Barrymore’s Breasts (The New Quarterly)
Flying Truck Wheels
Gerry’s Sister (Mercy in the Night) (Queen St. Quarterly)
Twelve Days of Unemployment (Ink)
Lionel’s Kid (The Antigonish Review)
Alchemy
Boys and Girls, Girls and Boys
A Witness
Dorian
Watching Parking Meters (The Quality Lit Game)
Working It Out (Pottersfield Portfolio)
Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Black Cat #115)
The Last Man on Earth (Broken Pencil)
A True Classless Future

The New Book: What’s In It?

The following is the author’s note from How Many Girlfriends (2010).

The earliest story in this book was written in 1992. The most recent dates from 2009. Most were written in the late-1990s and the first years of the 2000s. They were written, that is, at the same time as other stories that ended up in my earlier books: Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone Press, 1999), Only A Lower Paradise (Boheme Press, 2000) and The Lizard (Chaudiere Books, 2009).

This book is my version of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg series. These stories are the outtakes and lost tracks. They offer a glimpse of what might have been. I have done no new editing, but I have corrected for grammar and copy edited for consistency.

Why self-publish? Why not? I don’t expect these stories to find a wide audience (my other books haven’t). It’s just that their time has come. They remain alert and vibrant. World, here they come.

I will now offer short comments on each of the stories.

*

How Many Girlfriends. Published in The New Quarterly (2001). In 1996, Jane Urquhart was the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toronto. I gave her some of my stories that later became Thirteen Shades of Black and White. She noted that a number of them were “narrative monologues.” Not really stories. This piece is from a slightly later period. It’s a narrative monologue. One of my many stories about a sensitive male protagonist yearning for female attention and connection. Also highlights that life is fundamentally absurd.

Yes, I Wanted To Say. First published online (Word Riot, 2006: http://www.wordriot.org/template.php?ID=865). Similar theme to the story above.

The Scarf. Previously unpublished. Written 2003/2004. Part of a larger piece that might have evolved into a novel(la), but it didn’t. Same theme as previous stories.

Money, Sex, Power. Published in The Fiddlehead (Autumn 2006) as No One Wants to Be Next and also as Hit in The Lizard. This version contains elements of the initial story (The Hit), a five-hundred word story written in 1995 at the same time as Drew Barrymore’s Breasts, The Lowest Branch, Parents and Parked Cars, all published in Thirteen Shades of Black and White. This is one of my many “buddy” stories. The sensitive protagonist tries to make sense of his forlorn friend.

Try A Little Tenderness. Unpublished. Written around 1995 in the style of Roddy Doyle. Female protagonist. About the instability of relationship and general chaos of life. One of many stories that explore attempts to find stability in unstable world. Love is source of both pain and hope. An Otis Redding song.

Love Laughs. Published online in 2000 as This is My Place in paperplates #13 (http://www.paperplates.org/pp13.pdf). Title and story influence by Milan Kundera’s short story collection, Laughable Loves. Theme same as previous story.

Girl From the North Country. Unpublished. Title taken from a Bob Dylan song. One of my favorite stories ever. Female protagonist. Unwanted pregnancy. Written 1997/1998. This should have gone into Thirteen Shades of Black and White. Somehow it didn’t.

Daddy and the Girl. Published in NAFM (1995), a short-lived publication in Kitchener-Waterloo. This story could be seen as an early template of many stories with similar themes to come. Sensitive boy, troubled girl, hints of (male) malevolence undermining ability to secure meaning.

A Gang Member?Unpublished. Written 1996/1997. Not really a story. I showed it to Matt Cohen when he was Writer-in-Residence with Toronto Public Library. He hated it and asked me what it was supposed to be about. If it works, it stuns the reader with a series of images.

Dialogue. Published in Acta Victoria (Fall 1996). The story was written as an exercise for Barbara Gowdy in a week-long course I took in 1992. The assignment was to have one character confess to an infidelity without actually confessing to the infidelity.

Four Dimes Past Midnight. Published as a broadside and online by Mercutio Press (2003) (http://www.mercutiopress.com/Dimes.html). This story introduces the character “Girl Dynamo,” who features in Isn’t It Pretty To Think So, the final story in The Lizard. I’ve also written an unpublished novel, titled Four Quarters Past Midnight. The story has no connection to the novel.

I Didn’t Want to Wake You. Unpublished. Written 1995-1996. Can you say Raymond Carver?

John Lennon in Toronto. Unpublished. Written 1996-1997.

The Day After the Vote, 1995. Unpublished. Written 1996-1997. I was in graduate school when the second Quebec referendum was held. It was surreal. I was reading so intensely in at least four previous centuries that it was hard to grapple with what was happening in real time.

This story grapples with those events though the eyes of my typical characters.

Cymbeline. Unpublished. Written 2004/2005. After my first two books, I was trying to find a way to write new kinds of stories. Stories that didn’t end on a down note, unresolved and with a general tone of sadness. In this new mission, this story didn’t succeed.

The Coming Anarchy. Published online in 2001 in a now defunct publication, called simply &. This is a crazy, Less Than Zero-type story, featuring a couple named Scott and Zelda. (Yes, I know.) The story is full of millennial angst, and I still like the ending (though not much else). The blindfolding incident was imagined after I saw a couple in a bar much like the situation described in the story.

Domestic Virgins. Published in lichen (Spring/Summer 2007). Might have gone into The Lizard, but I cut it at the eleventh hour. This version is one of the earlier drafts of this story. I kept fiddling with it, trying to make it better, but could never make it what I wanted it to be. Another sensitive male protagonist, but by this point they’re getting older and let’s hope wiser.

Niagara. Unpublished. Influenced by a vacation I took alone to Niagara Falls in early 2004 or 2005. I was single at the time. Also influenced by Douglas Glover’s story, The Indonesian Client from 16 Categories of Desire. I wanted to write a story about the workplace. In the end, though, the story turns on the hint of sex. Strange echoes of Kafka in this story also. It includes the phrase “uneasy dreams.”

My Life In Television. Unpublished. Written 2001-2003. One of my show business satires. Others include Once Upon a Time in Only a Lower Paradise and Watching Parking Meters (The Quality Lit Game) in Thirteen Shades of Black and White. My attempt to get in the game with Terry Southern, Martin Amis, Mordecai Richler and Saul Bellow.

Like a Brand Spread Thin Across the Surface of the Earth. Unpublished. Written 2000. A show business satire. A female protagonist. Loosely based (though highly imagined) on someone you might recognize. Written in less than a week. I don’t think I ever submitted it anywhere. Reading it ten years later, I find much in it to like. At the time, I felt deeply uncertain about it.

They Know About Revolutions in France. Unpublished. Written late-1990s. A buddy story.

Three Spirits. Published Draft Reading Series, 5.2 (April 2010). Written late-1990s. A strange little bit of magic realism.

Sweet Smell of Death. Published online 2009 (http://revengelit.blogspot.com/2009/05/sweet-smell-of-death.html). Written same year for fun. Entered in online contest held to promote Terry Grigg’s book, Thought You Were Dead, which revolves around a murder of a literary critic.

Urban Myth. Unpublished. Written mid-1990s.

Planet Toronto. Unpublished. Written early-2000s. The potential pilot for a series of children’s books!

Happiness, The Pursuit Of. The Life of the Poet. The New Age. Unpublished. Written 1999/2000. These three stories were imagined to be part of a cycle of seven stories, making up a complete manuscript. The characters in the stories were meant to be interconnected, and the stories were meant to examine the issues and themes raised from a variety of angles. These are the only stories of this cycle that were written. Arguably, they are incomplete. Ripe with ambition, they nonetheless fail. Still, they close this book of bootlegs, reminders of paths not taken. Writers often write themselves into dead ends, then need to get out. These three stories represent a return to dead ends. There’s still some intensity there.