Interview with Michael Greco

From Rick:

One of the joys of being an editor is that I often get to read some great books and stories sometimes before anyone else has seen them.

It’s even more exciting when I get to read work from unpublished writers trying to make their way into the writing world. I might be editing the only book that author will ever write, or I could be seeing the start of the career of someone destined to become famous. Regardless of who the writer is, and whether it’s a new writer or one who’s published before, it’s a rewarding job helping writers to present their work in the best possible light.

From time to time I interview the authors I work with and help them to show off their work. I’ve edited several of Michael Greco’s novels, and I find them interesting because… well… I’ll let Michael tell you about his writing.

To date, my favorite of his is Moon Dogg. It reminded me of one of my favorite authors, Christopher Moore, who writes offbeat, humorous novels that also have a serious side to them.

With that introduction, here’s Michael Greco…

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(1) Michael, tell us about yourself and what inspired you to become a writer.

I started writing late, in my fifties. I wasn’t ready when younger, wandering, writing half-baked essays, dillydallying in Los Angeles, attempting to make it as a screenwriter, unable to express myself through prose in any meaningful way.

I had a few screenplays that just sat unread on agency desks, but the structure of the craft didn’t fit me well at all. I wanted to write about what characters were processing in their minds, their introspection as events happened.

“Too much brain farting,” my collaborator, another screenwriter used to chide me. Screenplays are all about what the audience sees, not what the character thinks. I wanted to write novels.

I’m from Orange County, California, but I prefer Japan. Sometimes I’ll take the family back to Orange County for a year or so, but that kind of trans-Pacific move is getting harder to do. After the birth of my daughter in 2008 in Yokohama, we were at a shrine, and a priest was blessing the baby. It was there, at that seminal moment (for some weird reason) that I committed myself to being a writer, and I’ve stuck with it.

Not that I knew what I was doing in the early years. There was no voilà—my first novel! I went round and round in confusion, adding, subtracting, smoothing, polishing, throwing out, killing darlings, tossing in new scenes that had suddenly come to me while standing in line for the train, or when teaching in university. Ideas just come when they feel like it. You have to be ready for them. It took many years to understand the writing process, and I feel that I can write a novel now without wasting a year of weak characters or dead-end story lines.

I write now because I can’t not write. Just ask my family: If I’m not plugging away at something, I’m not much fun to be around. I try to give myself the time to write. Usually, it’s in the morning.

(2) How many novels have you published so far?

I have published seven as of the spring of 2019, counting the Assunta trilogy as three novels. I will hopefully complete my eighth novel in the fall of this year, 2020.

I can’t really speak of their birth order. The way I wrote was to revise one, then switch to another. The stories slowly, over the years, got tighter. I had a professor at UC Irvine in the ’80s once tell me that in order to be considered merely knowledgeable on any given topic, one should have read a minimum of fifteen sources on that topic. That’s my go-to number: 15. I revise fifteen times—in his honor. Then I feel my story is ready for an editor. It’s lugubrious work. It’s not painting—you don’t get it done in a night. If someone tells me they’ve written a book, I ask them, “How many times?”

I would do a rewrite of, say, The Cuckoo Colloquium for a month, get thoroughly sick of it, switch to Project Purple for a month, get sick of it, switch to Assunta, etc. This is the way I progressed for many years, all the while learning how to write, how to revise a sentence so that it contained more punch, how to go deeper into a character, how to pull out the guts of a story.

(3) Give us a brief synopsis or summary of each.

The Assunta trilogy is about a man who comes to believe in the divine. It’s a physical and spiritual journey from the gates of Hell to the highest portion of Heaven. It’s an account of spiritual enlightenment, built on a framework of references to the great poem The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. There are three books: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. I recently put them together in one large volume, but I still count them as three novels.

The Cuckoo Colloquium is about a group of young people lost in the rain forest of Borneo. They’re up against an uncaring jungle, with flying snakes, abusive primates, and marauding jungle life. The teens are lost on the inside, and they have to find themselves in a metaphorical sense before they can be found on the outside.

Moon Dogg is about a small-time documentary filmmaker who is killed, and then reincarnates into the body of the subject of his work, a fundamentalist teenager. It uses a diary-like, first-person POV, and the narrative is fractured to highlight the chaos that is going on as the protagonist tries to remember who he was in his previous life. The story has a strong spiritual component to it, and it draws on the legends of the Tohono O’odham Nation of the Sonora Desert, where all the craziness takes place.

Plum Rains on Happy House is a story set in an old guesthouse in Japan. An American resident of the house tries to turn the place into a flourishing English school, but he’s thwarted by a creature that lives under the floorboards called the Crat (cat meets rat). It’s a bawdy, absurdist tale, rife with comic references to culture shock and dealing with getting by in Japan for the non-Japanese.

Project Purple is about thirteen Americans who recreate the lives of the early colonials for a worldwide online audience. They don’t know their ordeal has been gradually brutally altered by their organizers, and a genuine struggle for food, shelter, and survival turns deadly as an Arctic winter approaches. The story is about finding one’s primal survivor within, and it features my first female protagonist.

(4) Where did you get the inspiration for your novels?

I don’t really have ideas as much as I “see” characters and scenes and then construct the adversity they have to face. Sometimes these problems just grow from the characters themselves, and this is how they grow. It’s what makes them interesting.

I want to write about characters and stories that captivate me. Usually, they come from some amalgam of people or events that have impacted my world: people I’ve envied, mishaps I’ve condoled. I don’t polish my characters; they’re flawed. I subject them to the limits. They’re usually up against something they have to change—externally or internally—and this is the hardest thing in the world for them to do.

Readers don’t need to like, or even sympathize with, my characters. But by the end, they should feel some compassion for these characters—no matter how flawed the characters may be—and in this way readers invest themselves in how it all turns out.

Inspiration often comes down to something like “jungles are cool.” I wanna write about them, about the primordial mystery of them, the dark unknowing. The danger… so many ways to never be seen again.

The Cuckoo Colloquium is about six teens lost in the rain forest of Sarawak. The story is all jungle. It’s like: Oh my God—have I put in too much? Have I gone jungle mad? Is it malaria of the keyboard? Who’s going to want to read forty chapters of endless stumps and vines and creepy crawlies, and quicksand? Readers will look away from the book and see green walls! Then again, sometimes I think: Damn, I need just one more trek into the rain forest to get these scenes just right.

Moon Dogg started with a phone call from my brother, who’d had a dream about a guy who is killed and gets reincarnated as someone else, yet with the memories of his past life. He wondered if it would make a good screenplay? I made it a novel. My sister had just moved to Tucson, Arizona, and after several visits there, I knew I had the backdrop for my story.

The nutshell of Project Purple came about from watching the PBS series Colonial House back in 2003. It emerged from a conjoining of two mediums—the first being Colonial House, and the second being an extraordinary novel about the harrowing saga of the Donner party called The Indifferent Stars Above.”

Somehow, the ordeals of these people from different centuries fused. I think Project Purple seeks to understand what it takes to draw on one’s inner survivor. I just started thinking: What could a writer do to give this story more adversity and more gas?

Plum Rains on Happy House is a result of personal experiences of living in Tokyo and not having any money. If you’re broke, you often live in a guest house, or “Gaijin House.” I’ve lived in a few, though none were as interesting as the one in Kawasaki, which is the basis for the novel. I lived there in 2005, thinking the whole time somebody has got to write a story about this insanity!

The Assunta series came from my own fascination with Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I wondered if I could create some kind of modern version of it. The answer is NO. FLAT OUT NO. It isn’t possible.

So I got started.

But any kind of adaptation does the masterpiece of the early 1300s a grave injustice. It’s an extraordinary poem, a great work of world literature, and I have simply borrowed the worlds of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, then thrown a 21st century character into our present understandings are of what Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven might be—if restricted to our earthly plane.

I also plundered plenty of quotations and character names and sprinkled them liberally throughout the story, often by way of anagrams. What I ended up with was a 21st century story built upon a framework of references to that great work of Dante Alighieri.

(5) Authors sometimes have a favorite book that they’ve written, one that’s special to them for some reason. Do you have a favorite? If so, why?

No, I don’t have a favorite. It’s like saying, which is your favorite child? I’ve birthed them all. How can I say that one is better than the other? They’re all different. I like to say that my stories start out as ordinary beans. I don’t know what I have, but I’m compelled to water these beans. Shoots then grow into stems, and my beanstalk matures.

Sometimes the stems die; the story loses life. Then I travel along my beanstalk and find new stems to explore. Eventually, new leaves grow, there’s a flowering as the organism that is my story comes to life, and the characters take shape. I can see them and hear their voices.

Then they grow up and go off and do things I haven’t planned. The nerve! That’s how I know I’m getting somewhere.

Of course, sometimes the beans turn out to be real duds, no matter how much watering and stalk exploring you do. Nothing flowers. The story must be killed with two slugs in the back of the head as you ask it to watch the rabbits.

I remember a Saul Bellow quote that says, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”

Maybe for him. For me, what got me up at 3 a.m. was the need to urinate. That’s no epiphany; it’s an ageing bladder. But you write that stuff down anyway, and under the cold light of the next day, you sigh, and then tell it to look at the rabbits.

(6) Having read several of your novels, I can attest to how different they are from one another. If someone were to ask you what type of novels you write (and I sure more than one someone has), how would you respond?

“I forgot my mantra.” Does everyone know this 1976 Jeff Goldblum confession in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”?

For the longest time, I felt like that guy standing alone in the middle of a party, fretting that he didn’t belong anywhere. I had no genre I could call my own. I was in the cracks, absent any discernable category. But after my third novel, Plum Rains on Happy House, I saw patterns. All the books shared elements of absurdist fiction and black comedy. But when I searched the rules for participation in these distinct genres, my writing still didn’t fit.

I’ve settled on comic fantasy. Humor with thoughtful undertones. Visionary. Metaphysical. A little childish. My sub-genre might be weird fiction. But Amazon has yet to make a category for that.

I have no marketing strategy for an audience (big mistake, of course). I write for myself, not for a market. I have no idea what will sell, but as long as I’m happy with a story, I will show it.

Joke: The snow is nearly waist high and it’s still falling. My wife has done nothing but look through the kitchen window. If it gets worse, I may have to let her in.

Nasty and funny. In my writing, the characters take a beating; they earn their end goals. But I see myself as the wife. I’m the one standing outside in the rising snowfall. I’m the one looking inside at characters that are tearing up the rooms of the house.

Comic fantasy meets weird fiction—I guess I’ve found my genre.

(7) You’ve self-published all of your novels, correct? I firmly believe that’s the best approach for writers today, but when and why did you decide to go that route? Did you ever think about going the more traditional route?

I haven’t tried approaching a publisher. Actually, from the other writers I’ve talked to, the traditional path just doesn’t seem to be feasible. I will, however, try a publisher this year for one of my books, which is specifically about Japan. I’ll see how that goes. Might as well try all routes.

But I’m happy having all this control over my own stuff. I don’t know if I’m going to make any money doing this, but I don’t write to get rich. I do it for another, deeper satisfaction. I also write for the person I know best: myself.

I’ve never taken a prose writing class. I wouldn’t know a support group from an AA meeting. I don’t know what a writers’ retreat is (though it sounds restful). I write alone. With a cat named Howard. I have friends that will read stuff for me, and I have an editor (usually Rick) who will lend me his professional eyes. I often use Fiverr.com for book covers and for formatting. No self-publishing workshops for me (even though the half-day sessions are only $79—and what a great way to get yourself out there. What’s wrong with me?).

(8) What do you have planned to write in the future?

I’m writing a story now about teenagers on the autism spectrum who discover time travel in their little Los Angeles school. The trouble begins when the adults join in and the time continuum tears. Then all sorts of craziness comes tumbling into the present from the past. It’s comic fantasy to a tee. I’m calling it Hollyweird Needs.

(9) Anything you’d like to add?

I believe that memorable characters make memorable tales. Samuel Becket shows us lunatics in trashcans, or characters who set themselves on fire. He has great insights into what is true, and he makes it funny. I think that’s my job, my goal—to write characters and stories that are absurd, violent, childish, but that resonate with truth.

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Thanks for visiting with us, Michael, and for sharing your stories and writing process. I hope readers will check out your work. You certainly have written on a variety of subjects. And I hope that some writers out there will find some takeaways that will help with their own writing.

–Rick

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