When one of the nation’s most noteworthy authors tells you in an interview “Actually, my nightstand collapsed the other night because there’s so many books on it,” you know what your next question has got to be:
What are you reading these days?
I have been reading Patrick Modiano, who is a Frenchman who won the Nobel Prize a few years ago. I’ve been sort of plowing through his novels. And then over the summer, Herta Müller, Romanian. She’s living in Germany. I read all of her novels. I tend to kind of get into one writer and then if I love them I’ll read their entire corpus. Peter Orner, who was just here, he’s a short story writer and novelist. He’s maybe one of the most talented contemporary writers around. Actually, my nightstand collapsed the other night because there’s so many books on it. It’s just crazy. … Also, I’m reading Liza Wieland’s new book, which is about Elizabeth Bishop. It’s called “Paris 7 a.m.”
What was your favorite book, as a young person? “I wasn’t a very literary type when I was in high school. I was more into music. But I did read, and I read mostly Kerouac, Ginsberg, the Beats – and that was sort of the influence of my older brother who was reading that kind of stuff at the time. I also remember one summer I went to a summer program at St. Andrew’s College over in Laurinburg, and I had a guy who taught a Faulkner seminar, and I read Faulkner – I read “As I Lay Dying.” I think I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but I think reading “As I Lay Dying” at maybe age 15 or 16 and trying to figure out what the hell was going on, but also being really seduced by the rhythm of the prose and by the mastery of the structure of the novel, and understanding without being able to articulate that something really masterful and powerful was going on. Something very moving. And having a desire to want to do that, but also to be able to figure out what it was that he was doing. I mean, I was really, really, extremely taken by that, even though, I have to say, I don’t sit around and read Faulkner all the time now and I haven’t really read him in years. I still teach “As I Lay Dying” every chance I get.”
(The conversation went from Hemingway to Ann Beattie, Mary Robinson, Elizabeth Tallent, Raymond Carver.) “I decided, for every contemporary book I read, I would read a book published before 1900 or, say, 1920 or something, from another culture or from another country. And that way I read all of Flaubert; the Russians, who I still love; Chekhov; Turgenev; and, you know, magical realism and the Latin American writers.”
What stands out in your mind as the most influential book that you read during all of that period?
“‘Madame Bovary,’ that’s the book for me. That’s the book that tells you what you need to do to be a fiction writer. Because Flaubert sort of invented all the stuff like free and direct discourse, and close third-person. All the stuff that we just take for granted now, he was the first one to do it. So if you read that book and you sort of forget that it’s about a woman who commits adultery, and you look at all the technical things that he’s doing, you can learn so much from a technical standpoint from reading that novel. Also it’s really funny.”
It’s obvious from your fiction that you love music. What bands are you listening to right now?
“I’ve been listening to Eric Bachmann’s solo work. He used to be in Archers of Loaf, and also Crooked Fingers. Particularly the last two solo albums. And I’ve actually had this album since 1972, but I just saw the Aretha Franklin documentary ‘Amazing Grace,’ where she was filmed two nights in a church in LA in the early 70s, and my (album) copy is so scratched because I’ve listened to it so many times. I never knew they filmed it – it’s tremendous. So I’ve been listening to that. I’ve also been listening to this Swedish band called The Amazing, and a lot of Swedish music in general. A lot of it is very sort of 70s. Very country rock-ish, which is interesting.”
Final question: What’s the most memorable piece of writing advice you ever received?
“I was really lucky to study with the novelist Lee Smith, and she was really the first creative writing teacher I ever had. … One time, I said, ‘I’m serious, I really want to do this! Is there any advice that you can offer.’
And she said, ‘Yeah, write every day for ten years.’
“I said, ‘Ten years? Every day for ten years?’ She said, ‘Yeah,’ and she said it like, “Oh, that’s just what one does.’ And so I did. I wrote every day for ten years. I wrote on the day that my daughter was born, I wrote on the morning that I got married. I wrote when I was deathly ill. I wrote when I had terrible hangovers. …
“Years later I ran into her and I said, ‘You know, I can’t thank you enough for giving me that advice. I feel like it made such a difference in my discipline.’
And she said, “Oh, you didn’t. I was just kidding. You didn’t believe me, did you?”
On Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m. in the UNCG Alumni House, Michael Parker will read from his latest novel, “Prairie Fever.” The event will be followed be a reception and champagne toast honoring Parker, who is retiring from UNCG after 27 years. The event is free and open to the public.
Interviewed by Mike Harris.
Photograph by Martin W. Kane