Boise Weekly recently sat down with local writer Michael A. FitzGerald to talk about his influences, how he got where he is and the publication of his first novel Radiant Days, the story of a love triangle during the waning days of the Balkan war.
Boise Weekly: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Michael FitzGerald: Yes. Yeah, I did. I read a lot when I was a kid. I'm pretty dyslexic. My family has dyslexia in it. My brother is severely dyslexic. My uncle. I always knew writing was a difficult thing. I didn't think I had a bunch of books in me, I just thought I had weird stuff to say. I took a writing class freshman year in college with a writer named Randi Davenport. I was totally inspired by her. She is still my mentor. She is still the person I would turn to. I didn't read before that. I mean, I read books that my father left in my room, but he didn't talk to me about them. She turned me onto books that were about contemporary America, and it changed my life.
You spent some time in eastern Europe in the 1990s, where Radiant Days is set. What role does truth play in your fiction?
[Radiant Days] isn't true. It happens in a different time. I've never dated an international orphan dealer. I never watched someone die with his blood splattered across my windshield. Do I know those people? Sort of. The books I love are books that feel truer than the truth. In the priority of how I grade good literature, A) It needs to be entertaining, B) It needs to feel hard-earned and C) It needs to feel truer than the truth.
Author Charles Baxter once told me, "Write what scares you."
Yeah, you should write stories you don't want to tell anyone.
Why is that?
Because that's the thing we're really interested in. The stories you tell everyone, those are the same stories that everyone tells. At some point, all we are are stories.
There are a few sections of Radiant Days that are didactic and a little in your face.
I wanted the book to be about something bigger than Americans fucking up abroad. [Readers] like learning. I just got a little trigger happy and was like, I'll tell them the whole history of the Balkans while Marsh is having a cigarette. I was less artful than I should have been.
This is a pretty scathing indictment of America and Americans.
It comments on contemporary culture. It's not going to veer away from possibly saying what something is. So many books today are about scenery and people doing stuff, feeling lonely. It's just kind of quirky and weird. If they write the sentence a hundred thousand times, and it's beautiful, then it's going to be OK. No one ever gets up and says, "This is what I think this society is." We don't have anybody--I mean Pynchon and Roth, those people go after it--but few say, "Contemporary culture, I'm gonna say something about it." And that's kind of why the novel is dying as a popular art form. Maybe we're not writing about things that matter?
Protagonists are so often exceptional. Anthony [the protagonist] is exceptional in his averageness.
Yeah. "I can speak one-and-a-half languages" [quoting Anthony in Radiant Days]. I know my shortcomings. I know my IQ. I know I can't imagine other people's lives with real rigor or purity. So what do I have to present? I can say what it feels like to be average. And that's a huge message, and everyone wants to hear that.
One of your reviewers says that you "flawlessly and astutely mirror the ennui and confusion of a generation."
I think Anthony's answer would be, "What does ennui mean?"
How do you react to that kind of review?
I'm incredibly grateful. I didn't set out to do anything. I set out to be a writer and write every day and write as honestly as I could. And that's really all we can do. I worked on it for years without really "knowing" what I was doing. I was learning. And, I think, things did eventually start to come together. I began to learn. Drive into traffic. When in doubt, drive into traffic. When in doubt, say things bigger than you think you can. Get in trouble. Make it messy. And then try to write your way out of it. But, also, I was groggy. I wrote most of it before 7 a.m. I think that shows up in the language.
Any influences you want to mention?
[Frederick Exley's] A Fan's Notes, all Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Denis Johnson's Jesus Son, which has single sentences saying transcendental things. The book was a huge, huge influence. As was Kent Anderson's [Boise author] Sympathy for the Devil, one of the best war novels ever written.
Ten years is long time to spend writing a book. What made you persevere?
Whenever I felt like it was impossible, I'd get a weird little pat on the back. I heard over and over again, "You can't write. You have no vocabulary. You're a C student. But what you can do is you can be both inside and outside yourself at the same time." I heard that very early. That's the hardest thing to do--be both in the action and be cognitive of the action and be able to recycle that and write about it later. That's luck.
A novel about distractions and land use and contemporary America. It's hopefully a different kind of book. Bigger-hearted, and in the third person. It takes place over the course of one day in Idaho Falls in the very near future. Anthony shows up as a secondary character. Thanks for asking.
FitzGerald will be reading on Thursday, February 22, 7 pm. at The Cabin, 801 S. Capitol Blvd., 208-331-8000.