Monday, 10 September 2012

Author interview: Michael T. Fournier

My thanks to Michael for being my featured author this week and allowing me to interview him. Read on to learn more about Michael.

What is your name (or pen name) and where do you live now?
Michael T. Fournier here.  I just got back to Belchertown, Massachusetts after working in Maine for the summer. 

Did you always want to be a writer? If not what did you want to be?
I remember wanting to be a scientist when I was really little, but the reality of my situation sank in around middle school: I had no aptitude for it, or for numbers.  Then I wanted to be the starting third baseman (and later, catcher) for the Boston Red Sox. (I still do.)

By the time I was a senior in high school I had the idea that I could write. At about age thirty I started to Get Serious and keep regular hours.  

Before that I had some phases: I did the whole writer-who-doesn’t-write thing for a while because my confidence was shaken by my early, clunky attempts at short stories (which were inevitably true stories in which I changed real people’s names and hair colors and sometimes genders and called the result fiction); I did freelance; I did (and still do) rock criticism. What I have wanted to do since high school is write novels – it just took me a while to get here. 

What is the name of your latest book, and if you had to summarise it what would you say?
My latest book is called “Hidden Wheel,” released by Three Rooms Press, New York City.
Rhonda Barrett is the main character – she was a child chess prodigy.  The world champ was beaten by a computer when she was working her way up the ranks.  She became afraid of her obsolescence, and the Singularity, and began painting her life, sixty words a day, on these huge canvases, right around the same time she started working as a dominatrix. 

Ben Wilfork moved to her town intent on making money off artists – he opened an art gallery named Hidden Wheel and started buying artwork from Max Caughin, a guy who pretends to (but does not ) write graffiti. Max painted cityscapes on CD cases, which Ben and his friend Lara Fox-Turner, who ruran a magazine called ArtScene, hyped as critical discussions on the nature of obsolete media. Max’s artwork (along with photo of Rhonda’s one completed canvas) was featured in an issue of the magazine, he got big for a few months, and by the time the next issue comes out the art world has already moved on (and he’s blown all his money). 

Bernie Reese, the drummer of a two-piece noise band called Stonecipher, started taking notes on all this -- his band played the Hidden Wheel gallery opening -- as well as his band’s ill-fated first tour. The notes are found four hundred years later, and a scholar named William Molyneux tries to reconstruct what happened based on the notes – by then, all digital media has been lost in a solar flare. 

So: the book is about the nature of criticism, profiting from a system designed to fail, and obsolescence. And punk rock.

How long does it usually take you to write a book, from the original idea to finishing writing it?
I wrote a first draft of Hidden Wheel in 2008, and had a finished product by May 2010 – about two years. I wrote a book on the Minutemen’s 1984 album “Double Nickels On The Dime” for the 33 1/3 series, which took nine months from start to finish. I had a tight deadline and a shorter word count, so it worked out okay.

Do you have plans for a new book?
I’ve been working on my new book for about two years, and finally feel like I’m making headway. It takes place in a fictional New Hampshire mill town and concerns itself with game shows, veterans, mind control and fireworks.

I am starting to get my ideas together for the one after that, which is another rock book.

What genre would you place your books into?
My Minutemen book is rock criticism. “Hidden Wheel” is dystopian literary fiction (though I think it’s funny dystopia).  It’s also punk rock fiction.

What made you decide to write that genre of book?
I wrote the kind of book I would want to read: tons of backstory about the town of Freedom Springs and the bands and artists living there, interconnected plot threads, multiple narrative viewpoints. The funny punk dystopia came from all that.

I’ve been in and around the punk scene for twenty years. I’d like to think that I’m giving back to a scene which nurtured me and gave me confidence. It was because of punk that I began writing: bands like the Minutemen, Black Flag and Fugazi showed me, with their music and the way they operated, that punk was a free space in which to create whatever I wanted. When I was younger, writers seemed like they lived on a different planet than I did. But punks were everywhere, you know? They did zines and wrote stories, so I could, too!

Do you have a favourite out of the books you have written? If so why is it your favourite?
I’m really fond of them both. 

With that said, I wish I had asked for a longer deadline on the Minutemen book: since I had never written a book before, I lowballed my estimate on how long it would take. With more time, I could have interviewed more people and done more research. In all, though, I think I did a good job.

“Hidden Wheel” stands up to my having read the whole thing out loud –I am releasing an audiobook sometime soon. Seriously, try reading anything you’ve written out loud without being embarrassed at some point. There were surprisingly few cringe-inducing passages, even after finishing the book a few years ago. That’s a good sign, right?

Do you have a favourite character from your books? Why are they your favourite?
Max Caughin is my favourite: in addition to painting CD covers, he’s a guy whose job is running a ‘PR firm’ ( actually a system of fifty interconnected blogs maintained to look as if they’re all run by different people) and selling paper-corrupting viruses to college students. He doesn’t write graffiti but writes about his alter egos ( the current one, as well as the one he killed off) writing about graffiti on messageboards. He’s the first guy in town to wear fisherman gear as fashion (after burning through Velcro, rave and gas station gear), and the first guy to sport a black eye for the same reason. Plus he drinks so much coffee that he speaks in page-long sentences.

Where do you get your book plot ideas from? What/Who is your inspiration?
I usually have a bunch of different ideas, and in early drafts throw them all together to see what sticks. In the book I’m working on now, for example, I had a few ideas and characters I was excited to include which didn’t work – if I had kept them they would have been forced, and clunky. I’m getting better at heeding my inner voice: the first rumblings of ‘this is a bad idea’ are usually right. 

A lot of ideas come from moments where I’m trying to imagine someone’s motivations, or ways in which scenarios might play out.  In the case of Max wearing fisherman gear, I was hanging out in my old Boston neighborhood of Allston one day when I saw a guy walking with a tacklebox and fishing pole. I couldn’t figure out where he was going to fish – Allston is miles from water! – so I thought maybe the guy was carrying the gear around to be fashionable. I ran with the idea from there. 

Do you have a certain routine you have for writing? ie You listen to music, sit in a certain chair?
I write first thing in the morning on days where I don’t teach, and right when I get home on days when I do. No music – I need something resembling quiet. 

Do you choose a title first, or write the book then choose the title?
The title usually comes at some point during the writing process.

How do you come up with characters names and place names in your books?
A lot of the names come from this drinking game me and my friends have invented and played over the years, called Fagen – it’s a ridiculously baroque idea generator in which people vote on band names, say, or song titles. I keep a notebook for Fagen trascriptions. 

Do you decide on character traits (ie shy, quiet, tomboy girl) before writing the whole book or as you go along?

I usually have some dim idea at the start, but the characters develop (and sometimes change entirely) over the course of several drafts. In my current book, for example, there was a fairly standard bully who has evolved into a more complex girl bully. 

Have you ever suffered from a "writer's block"? What did you do to get past the "block"?
I don’t put pressure on myself to produce, so I don’t buy into writer’s block. I keep hours and grind through tough patches.

Is there a certain author that influenced you in writing?
Oh, tons. When I was first starting to write fiction it was Douglas Coupland and Kurt Vonnegut. Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” was an early mind-blower because of its fractured chronology. Carson McCullers, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor. Don DeLillo. David Foster Wallace. I’m probably forgetting some, too.
In the punk world, it was/is Lester Bangs, Byron Coley, Rev. Norb, Keith Werwa, Aaron Cometbus and Al Burian.

What is your favourite book and why?  Have you read it more than once?
“Infinite Jest” is my favorite—I first read it when I moved to Boston, so I learned how to navigate the city partially through reading it. Wallace used to live one street away from one of the group houses I lived in, and wrote about my old Allston neighborhood.

I’ve read it twice. The second time was even more rewarding – I had a sense of what was happening, and how, so I was able to pick up more of the jokes than the first time through.  Part of the book which I picked up on the second time is that Infinite Jest is so dense that a reader can’t possibly pick up all the gags and plotlines the first few times through. Multiple reads are demanded, just as in the book there’s a videotape so addictive that viewers literally cannot stop watching it once they begin.  

Do you think books transfer to movies well? Which is you favourite/worst  book to movie transfer?
Sometimes they do – Stephen King’s non-horror stuff (okay, and The Shining) tends to work well. I know it wasn’t well-reviewed, but I still think the film adaptation of Watchmen was great.

What are you currently reading? Are you enjoying it? What format is it?(ebook, hardback or paperback)
I just finished John Irving’s “In One Person” a few hours ago, in hardback – I thought it was a bit better than some of his recent stuff. Next is John Fante’s Bandini Quartet, in paperback, and Richard Ford’s new one.

Do you think ebooks will ever totally replace printed books?
Not totally, no. I can see advantages to having stuff on eBook –especially on moving day, or if there’s bonus material included – but I think people still dig the nostalgia of having a book given to them by a friend, say, or reading the same book passed down by a relative.

What piece of advice would you give to a new writer?
Keep hours. Read voraciously.  Learn whose opinions you trust regarding your own work. Haters gonna hate.

Michael T. Fournier’s debut novel, “Hidden Wheel,” uses his punk rock background to reflect on the financial crisis, forced obsolescence, and nature of criticism. The nice folks at Three Rooms Press published the novel in October 2011, Fournier is also the author of a book-length discussion of the Minutemen’s 1984 album “Double Nickels On The Dime,”  the 45th instalment of Continuum Press’s “33 1/3” series. He has taught literature and punk rock history at Emerson College, Tufts University, University of Maine, and beyond. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife and their cat, where he edits the Cabildo Quarterly.

You can purchase the Hidden Wheel from Three Rooms Press and Double Nickels on the Dime is available here. Find out more about Michael on his website.

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