An Interview with Michael White
Sarah Feldman, Straw Dog Literary Correspondent
Michael White is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories. A two-time finalist for the Connecticut Book Award, he has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and the National Magazine Award. His novel, A Brother’s Blood, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book. He’s written both contemporary and historically-rooted novels, including Garden of Martyrs, about a real life murder trial held in Northampton in 1805; as well as the self-described “ roman à clef” stories of Marked Men.
Michael balances his writing career with full-time teaching as Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Fairfield University. He has also held jobs in fields ranging from house painting to social work. His advice to writers trying to juggle work commitments and writing? “Give your best time to your writing. Give your second-best time to your job.”
Sarah: How do you go about using research to create a believable world in your novels?
Michael: I try to get a feel for the landscape of the time and place. What did they eat, what did they wear, how did they talk. I find a dictionary from that era; period maps of [the setting]. I get to know street names; locate pictures from the period; learn what the houses looked like.
I do field research – getting out, visiting people, talking to people. When I was working on Garden of Martyrs, I had an idea that I might set a scene in the first Catholic cemetery in Boston. So I drove up to Boston on a frigid January day to visit the cemetery, and when I got there, it was locked. There was a high gate all around extending for about half a city block, and a massive padlock that looked like something from a prison. I went up to the church to ask if I could be let in, and was told the priest was having his lunch. So I asked the housekeeper. She and I went back and forth, and finally I had to give her the keys to my car in exchange for the keys to the cemetery. I looked around the cemetery for awhile, taking some pictures, and I came on a little chapel. When I saw that chapel, I knew the last chapter of the novel needed to be set there.
Sarah: Are there uses for research even when a writer isn’t dealing with an unfamiliar time, place or milieu? What about for the writer of more autobiographical fiction, or of memoir?
Michael: I think they’re all important to do research for. Even memoir. There’s a line at the start of Tobias Wolff’s famous memoir, This Boy’s Life: “There’s a dog in this book that I remember as being very ugly and my mother remembers as being very beautiful.” See, memory isn’t static, and as a memoirist, you’re not just recording what happened. If you think back, and you wonder was it a 1930 Ford your father drove or a 1936, then you go back and find out what kind of car it was, see what it looked like,you might pick up discrepancies in your memory. So by going back and doing research you can get closer to the truth.
Sarah: Why do you think a writer might resist doing research?
Michael: A lot of writers think of writing as creative and research as something academics do. But you’re not just checking the facts. You’re not just finding out whether it was a 1930 Ford or a 1936 Ford. You’re getting a feel for the landscape of the story. You’re finding out about what it’s like for the characters. There’s this story about a famous director who was filming a movie set in the 1920’s. He had one shot that showed people looking out a window on a street. That’s all the audience saw – the view out the window on a tiny part of the street. But the way he set it up, the street outside was lined on both sides with period automobiles. It was very costly and very time-consuming. The audience wasn’t going to see any of this. But it was for the actors, so they could feel like they were in the world of the movie. You need to be able to get a feel for the world of your story so that you can evoke it for the reader.
For more information on Michael White, visit his website here.
Michael’s talk, “Fact into Fiction,” hosted by Straw Dog Writer’s Guild at the Northampton Friends Meetinghouse on March 15 from 10:30 AM-12:30 PM, will offer tips on techniques for researching fiction, using that research to ground a story, and creating fully realized characters.
Sarah Feldman’s work has appeared in The Villager, Chelsea Now, The Antigonish Review and The Fiddlehead. Some of her poems were anthologized in “Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry”.