By Frank Pizzoli
When I met up with Michael Carroll in his Chelsea/NYC flat to interview him, his energy matched the verve of his short storiesright there, to the point, ready to go. In 12 tales, some connected, Carroll, 49, draws easily recognizable characters. There is humor. Human flaws are laid out but not judged. There's room between the words for readers to fill in their own thoughts.
Carroll is a good storyteller, which may reflect his colorful life. He was born in Memphis, grew up in northern Florida and lives in New York. He's been a Peace Corps volunteer, a waiter, a janitor, a writer's assistant and a college instructor. His work has appeared in Boulevard, Ontario Review, Southwest Review, The Yale Review, Open City and Animal Shelter, as well as in such anthologies as The New Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories ( which David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell edited ).
He collaborated with his husband, Edmund White ( A Boy's Own Story ), on the suspense story "Excavation" for Joyce Carol Oates' New Jersey Noir. His interviews with Ann Beattie and Wells Tower were included in the recently revamped Chattahoochee Review, where his first story was published, and where he is New York Editor. Little Reef and Other Stories is his first collection published this month ( June ) by the University of Wisconsin Press.
Windy City Times: How did Little Reef happen for you?
Michael Carroll: I wanted to accomplish a couple of different things with the stories. I wanted stories that were shorter rather than longer. Today's reading habits have moved toward shorter pieces. Shorter stories are better for public readings too.
WCT: Did you accomplish your goal?
MC: Yes, I think I have. And to accomplish my goal I had to change my writing style. These stories are different from my previous work which has appeared in literary journals ( Boulevard, Ontario Review, Southwest Review, The Yale Review ) or The New Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories. I now write in shorter sentences, nothing ornate or imposing. Simple and direct is my new way of proceeding when I write.
WCT: Does your cleaner writing style reflect you as an individual?
MC: Well, I'm not big on existential questions as an individual or as a writer. My characters are there in their situations, moving along. I present my characters. I don't manipulate them per se. I'm not big on motive.
WCT: Your story openings are inviting. Your first sentence pulls a reader into the story.
MC: The first sentence of a story is the impulse or thought that starts the creative process for me. Then I develop a story. I may write only the first sentence and then it sit for a while. When my next thought comes I'm back into the story. I do not rely on a classical structure of beginning, middle, end. In fact, I never have an ending in mind. My endings happen as I write.
WCT: Your stories, your characters, they cover a lot of territory, younger couples, older couples, intergenerational exchanges. Are your characters drawn from real people?
MC: In some instances yes, others no. I rely on my memory but then fill in where needed or in ways that make the basic story more interesting.
WCT: Werewolf opens with: "After a while, I got so tired of going back to Florida not because I didn't miss it but because each time I returned I got more and more disappointed by my life, and by myself." You were born in Memphis and raised in Florida. Is Werewolf about your life?
MC: What I did was come up with that first sentence and probably simultaneously, or by the second or third line, I knew that the narrator would be talking about a friend based on my friend from high school. More than half the time I work almost straight from real life, fictionalizing by changing names, collapsing the time into something dramatically condensed, and creating a fictional situation that brings the characters together or back together. In this case, I worked from my friend's real past with drugs and overdoing it, which in high school and college I was very judgmental about. I wanted to push myself to imagine his ultimate illness and what that would look like dramatically, so I gave him liver disease.
WCT: Stories like Werewolf, in general, develop quickly for you?
MC: I wrote the story very quickly, the first eight pages in an evening ( I'd abandoned a crappier never-to-be-finished story earlier that day and out of that frustration come up with something new; I hate not working, and I was trying to finish this sequence of stories that became Little Reef ).
Oddly, after the book was accepted and this story was twice anthologized, I got word that my friend had died. Almost a year later, but suddenly and in his sleep. And I felt weird about it. I've written about him in much earlier stories, in a different style. This was more direct. And then I wrote a little two-minute thing about him for the radio back home. One's personal life, rather than constricting the writer part of you, suggests itself in many different ways. It doesn't bring Tom back, but it did when I first wrote it, because I wanted to remember him when he was still alive. Now I can just go back to being sad. But other people have liked it a lot.
WCT: Your writer's vice has a real sense of humor. Are you funny in real life or only when you write?
MC: I find humor in daily life and say funny things now and then. I really like making my characters say funny things or have humorous observations or reactions to situations.
WCT: You see your characters with the hawk eye of a committed voyeur. Not in a transgressive way, but your scenes as they are told reflect your characters flaws, redeeming qualities, foibles. Are you a people-watcher?
MC: I write in a bar in NYC's Chelsea District, the Barracuda, and a story in there is named for the place that gave me a refuge during happy hour and wine and inspiration. I fictionalize to some degree or another. In the eponymous story set at Barracuda, I asked myself what was the deal with these girls who hang out with gay boys?
Then I came up with a first line and gave her a lower-level job in PR, a past life, and two drunk gay-boy pals. At other times, particularly in the second half of the book, it's all of it, but I mean almost all of it, straight from real life, only the names have been changed. Mostly. Except for when Perry goes home with an organic goat farmer and cheese maker in Maine in the next to last story, and some of the sex and the very ending of the final story.
WCT: Your short stories read like opening chapters of novellas or full-length novels. Have any of your stories grabbed you that way, maybe the beginning of a novel?
MC: I intended the stories to be separate pieces even though they are linked. That is, even though they add up to a larger story of intertwined lives I didn't want to give them an overall novelistic arc. I was asked by one of the earlier readers reviewing my book at the press if I didn't want to reconfigure them as a novel, but no. I wanted them to read separately and wholly. And in any event only half of them are related.
The other half are completely separate and could only be part of a novel with considerable pain and annoyance ( and I wanted to move on and write a novel, which I've since done ). I also wanted some of them to be short enough for public readings. But some are too long to be read in their entirety. Maybe I'll read this or that part of a longer one from time to time.
WCT: I wanted to ask about your husband, Edmund White, whom you married Nov. 8 after being together since 1995.
MC: We're going on 20 years together. I've said in interviews about my writing and this book that I've needed, and always had, Ed's support and encouragement as I developed my writing. I did not attend a high-powered writing program. When I thought I needed criticism, Ed provided encouragement.