At the center of Michael Wehunt’s fiction is a vibrant emotional core enclosed in a skin of rich, musical language instantly recognizable to the ear. It’s these qualities that have allowed Wehunt to grace the pages of such esteemed publications as Cemetery Dance, Shadows and Tall Trees, The Dark, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. Michael took a few moments to sit and talk with us about the release of his first collection (reviewed a few days ago on this site), the travails of writing about (and in) the darkness, and the quiet ecstasy of lobster rolls.
• Thanks for boarding the Haunted Omnibus today, Michael. How’s life been treating you lately?
Thank you for having me. You might want to have the brakes checked, as this thing is traveling at a frightening speed. (Insert rimshot here.) Life is treating me well. My pup and my partner and I enjoy ourselves, and my debut collection, Greener Pastures, has been doing even better than it did in my pre-release daydreams, keeping in mind that I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s no 50 Shades of Green, but I’m very happy.
• You’ve mentioned before that you were approached with the prospect of compiling a collection prior to signing on with Shock Totem, stating that at the time you didn’t feel ready to issue a publication at that point in your career. What shift in your work did you see between those two points that lead you to say, “Yes, I think I’m ready now”?
It was mainly just the boring fact that six months or so passed between the first publisher and Shock Totem. And it just so happened that I had a rare prolific outburst in between and found myself with three new stories that I liked a very great deal. (Two of those would end up being original to the collection.) Prior to that, there just weren’t enough stories that I felt would 100% stand the test of being in a collection, both by my own standards and what I felt the readers’ standards would be. I knew I wanted to collect only those stories I was most proud of and had seen a strong reaction to in their original publications. Crucially, I had to step back and think very hard, because I was deeply worried that I was “rushing” out of eagerness.
But not only was that spring prolific—it felt like a turning point as well, like I was crawling even deeper into my material and exploring more. It signified where I was going as well as where I had been, which is what I think a collection of short fiction should do if it can. Most importantly, I started to feel as though I had a group of stories that shared a thematic and tonal kinship while also carrying enough variety to not simply echo each other. So after a lot of deliberation, I went for it, trusting in whatever wisdom and perspective I could scrape together. You only get one debut, and do my fingers ever ache from crossing them these past several months.
• Many of the stories in Greener Pastures are viewed through a wealth of diverse perspectives, from the anguish of an abused girl to the regrets of a closeted elderly man. Do you find yourself consciously striving to portray a variety of characters in your fiction, or has the majority of your stories organically given rise to them, i.e. “This story could only naturally be told by X”?
Both, I think. My background is rich in some ways but very bland in most significant ways. It’s shaded by a straight, white, American male privilege I never recognized until later because I grew up in relative rural poverty, so I thought I had it rough. I really didn’t have it rough, I would come to understand. This has led me to an interest in other perspectives, in an attempt to personally reconcile the good and bad from my sheltered childhood and look at the world in ways I never did growing up. (I want to emphasize, though, that my parents did a wonderful job raising four children as best they could, but we come from a region with a questionable history, like much of the country. Not only was the small world around us white, but Google “Fort Buffington” and know that I grew up within a mile of where that fort stood in the 1800s.)
And sometimes a story does form around that half-subconscious desire to cast a wider net within my own self. “A Discreet Music” could have easily involved straitlaced heterosexuality, but I wouldn’t have been interested in hearing what it had to tell me, partly because it would have been missing a crucial layer of human complexity. I can’t possibly imagine—physiologically or culturally—what Gillian or Mr. Elling have been through in “The Devil Under the Maison Blue,” which is why it exists.
• Was there ever a character that proved especially challenging to capture or, for that matter, one story that proved harder to hit the notes you wanted it to compared to others?
I could choose any of the three characters from the previous answer, but Alejandro from my story “A Thousand Hundred Years” was the most challenging to write. He is desperately trying to find his missing four-year-old daughter but also living under the threat, as an undocumented immigrant, of being deported back to Mexico. Both of those aspects were far beyond my small scope of experience. I have no children, so that’s a simple difficulty. But more than that, being a stranger in a now-familiar land, so to speak, was very hard to convey. Jandro’s mother is dying thousands of miles away back home in Puebla, Mexico, so two powerful magnets are pulling at his heart. His hope, his emotional faith, the fabric of his whole world have thinned to the breaking point. Writing it, I could only hope I was not doing him—and all those like him in the US—an injustice. This story doesn’t really have a lot of notes to hit, all that aside, but as a controlled chaos forced by circumstances and desperation to be held within a linear narrative, it was a challenge to hit the beats. I had to keep telling it, “No, you’re actually a pretty simple story about a father clinging to hope.”
• Religious icons and allusions make frequent guest spots in the collection. Why do you think those images resurface in your work? Do you suppose those are similar to the reasons that religion, particularly Catholicism and its various cousins, arise repeatedly in other works of the genre?
I grew up going to a Southern Baptist church in a Southern Baptist world. If you had asked me when I was a little kid, I might have told you that every church on Earth was like mine. Pair that with my first experience of horror film being THE EXORCIST, first watched when I was seven years old, and a lifetime of religious fascination was inevitable.
The South is a region of an angry God, an old-school glowering God of pestilence and punishment and hard life mixed in with the magnitude of love and forgiveness. It’s a difficult, almost exotic balance. There’s a reason Flannery O’Connor lived her life in Georgia and wrote what she did. O’Connor provided me with a sentimental doorway into Southern Gothic literature, and I was enraptured in a way not so different from worshipers at a tent revival in a humid North Georgia field with locusts screaming in the trees. I was caught up in the spirit. She was deeply interested in religious iconography (albeit more Catholic) and the degrees of zealotry, that ugly, dusty biblical power, and I was powerfully drawn to that. I find myself writing about religious elements, sure, but they also slip through in subtle ways, maybe as only a brief wash of imagery, coloring things that were until that moment unrelated.
At the same time, I could say that, yes, the reasons religious icons and modes appear regularly in my work aren’t so different than others in the genre. It’s a rich, fertile soil that naturally sprouts horrific things as often as angelic.
• A great deal of your stories take place in your native Georgia or close along the range of the Appalachians. Do you ever have concerns about being classified as a “regional author,” or do you see it as a mark of your fiction having a distinct tone? What impressions do you hope to impart to the audience about a place that is so close to your own heart?
I used to worry quite a lot about being pigeonholed as a “regional author,” as you put it. For a while I made an effort to mildly throw people off the scent by setting stories or parts of stories in New England (particularly Vermont, for which I have an almost preternatural love for), Delaware, Kansas, and, most importantly, Southern states that were not Georgia. But I realized that I was always pulled back here, even when I thought I wasn’t. I believe the real reason I had concerns about being classified this way is that I’ve always lived in the South, and if part of me finds that boring and lacking in culture, readers would, too.
But I’ve grown to love my roots, in the kind of way you might push your parents away in your teens, become distant from them in your twenties, then cherish them and nurture your connection with them when you get a little wisdom in your head. My roots are my roots, and I embrace them. I only hope to keep pushing myself outward enough to maintain a healthy creative balance.
I can’t say that I have any specific impressions I hope to give the reader about the South, but there is the wildness of the nature, the humidity and how it gets on you and sinks in, the insects of a subtropical climate, the beauty of fall and the mildness of winter, the profound age of the Appalachians and how it’s worn them down to a less awe-inspiring majesty…I hope readers might pick up on how everything has fewer frills here, how everything is a little more atavistic.
• Tragedy serves as the narrative lynchpin throughout Greener Pastures. Does this stem from your passion for realist fiction where so much of the story is dictated by inner struggle? What do you think the benefits are of introducing the supernatural and the Weird to the human drama?
Yes, it certainly does stem from that passion for realism. Pretty much right away I found myself grounded in that. I hesitate to puff out my chest, put on a blazer with suede elbow patches, and start gesticulating about how I love Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Lydia Davis, Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, and many other masters of the literary short story, but I do love them and read them for many years before I suddenly swerved back into horror and discovered that there was contemporary literary merit there, too. “Contemporary literary merit”…did I just type that out?
But I have a passion for horror and the weird, too, equally deep and abiding, and I wouldn’t think of hiding it or even implying that I want it to play second fiddle. I just try to pick at the seam at the perfect middle point between those two worlds. The seam might be thicker or thinner, or in a slightly different place, or much harder to locate, in any given story or even paragraph, but I believe the two worlds aren’t at all mutually exclusive. Literary is often dark, and horror is often steeped in human drama. Each informs the other, and they can even be indistinguishable at times. Let others say, “Oh my, that woman is part-bee! We shan’t allow this to be called a literary work!”
Perhaps most interesting to me is the way that the weird and/or horror can inform that human drama. Sometimes when a dark, unnatural intrusion enters an otherwise “normal” construct, it’s as simple as a literary device to drive the story forward. Sometimes the “normal” is simply there to give relatable credence to the supernatural. But that’s often not very compelling for me or for a reader. I at least try to avoid a more one-dimensional approach by commenting on the weird and on the un-weird as they come into contact with each other. The relationship or cause or effect might be ambiguous, unattainable, but a stirring has been accomplished. Sometimes I think it’s silly to wonder how a cosmic horror incident would affect a marriage—there are larger consequences at stake, right? But I do think about those things. My story “Dancers” takes place within a quiet marriage in a quiet Kansas town, and in the lens of the story, the intrusion into the natural world never leaves the street they live on. Perhaps the apocalypse happens across cities after the last page, and the sky grows dark with the eyes of the Elder Gods, but “Dancers” is just looking at Mae and Ellis and how they fit together. Humans are weird, and life is weird—twisting them into a supernatural bent isn’t as strange as it sounds, and it opens so many possibilities into the profound, just as many as into the profane. What if you were broken and turned to Jesus, only to find that you could turn to Him in a more tangible way than you had thought?
The root of your question involved tragedy as a narrative lynchpin, but I only touched on it in a slightly oblique way. I mentioned this in the notes for “Bookends,” the last story in Greener Pastures: “I believe I will always write about loss. Is there a greater fear? Thus far I have escaped the deepest of losses, but I know this fortune will one day have to end. And then I will write about it from the well of experience.” Grief and loss tied most of the collection’s stories together, and while I certainly hope to never tread water there, it’s an aspect that binds me, and so it bound them. Perhaps I’m simply fortifying myself against these things.
• In a short blog post on your site dating back two years, you said that you go into most of your stories essentially blind, without too much of a clear notion as to how you’ll eventually find your way “out of the catacombs.” First off, would you say this is the same process you still use now? Secondly, have you ever written a tale with most of the dramatic beats already mapped out? Are there advantages to doing it one way or the other for you?
I still write that way but to a lesser extent. In the early days, I would be struck by a title. It could be a song title, such as “Onanon” or “Greener Pastures” (both by the band Growing), and I would write a sentence, then another sentence, and have no idea what was going to happen. I often will let the story name itself these days rather than the other way around. And I generally spend more time mulling over a story in my mind, however abstractly, before I start writing it, but there’s still a good deal of I-have-no-idea-ness to it.
My first novella started off blindly, but for the last two-thirds of it, I had to come the closest (so far) to writing an actual outline. It was getting too unwieldy by being able to breathe entirely on its own. It ended up being 24,000 words, easily the longest thing I’ve written, and I’m not sure what the case would have been had I not wrestled it into behaving. But there’s a chance it might not have deserved to be 24,000 words. It was a great learning experience, though. While I’ve always felt that it takes me out of the story when I know everything that’s going to happen, knowing all the details about the novella as I entered the final eight thousand or so words wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. I was still able to find little paths into insights I hadn’t foreseen.
“Pantsing,” as some call writing without an outline or predetermined plot points, is really difficult in general as a writing tool. I recommend it for exploring and for experiencing the joy of discovery. It’s like being a reader as well as a writer because you’re telling a story to yourself. But so many people outline for a reason, I think. It makes things more practical. Now if I could just learn to love it.
• You’re sipping on a flask of bloody Mountain Dew under the crawlspace of your favorite lobster roll restaurant when a cat-eyed demon slithers over to offer you the chance to fulfill one of your ultimate dream projects. What is it?
It would be hard not to wish for all the lobster rolls above me, but…at this stage, my “ultimate dream project” is predictably simple. I just want to write a novel that people will appreciate. Something that might be taken seriously in more than one circle and confidently make one more step toward unraveling that seam between genre and non-genre. Something that, in a perfect world, would have a blurb from Laird Barron sitting right next to a blurb from David Mitchell. Or since the word “dream” is being employed here, blurbs from Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy, who probably blurbs almost no one.
(And that one perfectly timed lobster roll picture from Readercon will forever haunt me, I fear. I don’t make it up to New England much, so I get a little excited! Might as well embrace it. Maybe I’ll put the photograph on the About page on my website and memorialize the embarrassing ecstasy.)
• After trekking through the woodsmoky wilderness where the trees follow your every move, you settle in with a comforting meal and a favorite film. What are they?
A giant platter of sushi, with lots of eel, and a Japanese beer (although normally I’d go for a creamy stout). And Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE, because the visuals center me and regenerate any little pieces of me that seem to have died.
• On your website you say that at one point you hope to return to “art writing, pop culture journalism, and, of course, writing about others’ writings.” As a fellow critiquer, I’m interested to know what kinds of subjects you enjoy covering most. Do you approach writing reviews and essays the same way as writing fiction?
When I write “hope to return,” part of that is wishful thinking. I’ve called off virtually all freelance writing. Between the day job’s demands, trying to write for an hour every weeknight, and life with my happy little two-human-one-pup family, there’s simply no time left over. Ideally, I’ll review books and the occasional film on my blog, but I usually end up simply doing that on Amazon and Goodreads, where I can keep it short enough to serve the purpose better.
I really appreciate writing about art. I wrote all the copy for a sculptor for a while. His style was very postmodern, and it was interesting to find naturalistic imagery to apply to his large and often unnatural style. I reviewed records for over four years, typically covering the more experimental end of the spectrum: drone, ambient, post-rock, modern classical. I quickly got to the point where I would often make them little short stories or pretend scenes just so that I had the desire to do them. The monotony of record reviews—two or three a week every week—got to me. But still, yes, for the most part I approach writing reviews and essays in a similar way as fiction. I might never put nearly the amount of myself into the former, but I still look for the beauty inside the subject and try to bring it into the light in my own way.
• What hobbies and interests do you have outside of pecking at the keyboard?
Years ago I dabbled in making music for a while, then I dabbled in performing stand-up comedy. But those last two were really just ways to create while putting off what I was actually good at and thus feared. In other words, that music and those amateur stand-up performances will remain hidden away.
I love nature walks. I avoid the word “hiking” because it’s more about just being in the woods for me and less about being physically fit (although I could use that, too). I’ve discovered an interest in…photo manipulation, you might call it, having decided this spring to have some fun with promotion for Greener Pastures.
And this will come as a huge shock, but I love to read. Reading has always been my true love. Perhaps the worst part of being an author is all the reading I don’t have time to do. I plan to periodically take a week or two off from writing and just let myself read what other people have written. My shelves have so many books that give me a little jolt of anticipatory excitement as I walk through our little library, but it’s always followed by a low-grade panic as I think of how long I’ve owned this book and that book and when am I going to read them? Meanwhile, two new books are at this very moment en route to my house and where am I going to even put them? (Insert refreshing nap here.)
• Where might we be able to find more work from you in the future?
The novella I alluded to earlier, “The Tired Sounds, A Wake,” is coming out as a limited-edition chapbook from Dim Shores at the end of the year. I have stories coming soon in Darker Companions: Celebrating 50 Years of Ramsey Campbell, Shadows Over Main Street 2, and another anthology I can’t mention yet. Other than that, it’s been quiet lately. I’m beginning to sink into Novel Land and silently building toward the inevitable second collection.
• Appreciate you stopping by again, Michael!
It was my pleasure. Thank you for such insightful questions and for allowing me the space to try to answer them at the risk of summoning Overly Earnest Pontificating Wehunt, as I like to call my inner child.