- A Conversation with Michael Byers
Michael Byers's first book, The Coast of Good Intentions, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and garnered a Whiting Writer's Award. Long for This World won the annual fiction prize from Friends of American Writers and was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Both were New York Times Notable Books.
Byers's fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards; his nonfiction has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Best American Travel Writing and elsewhere. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, he teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan. [End Page 135]
Your first published story, "Settled on the Cranberry Coast," appeared in The Missouri Review in 1994. Has your approach to writing stories changed since then?
I'd have to figure out what my approach was then. My approach then was desperately trying to figure out if I could piece together a narrative that made any sense. I'm still doing that as a short-story writer. What hasn't changed also is the sense that the best stories—stories that people react to most strongly and that matter most to me as a writer—are the ones that inadvertently or painfully touch on some emotional core I'm uncomfortable with presenting. My acknowledgment and my recognition of those facts is more apparent. I can see that the stories that matter most to me, and most to people who read them, are those I would rather not tell.
In a way, writing stories becomes more of a challenge and more of a gut check, and with the stories I'm working on now, to the extent that I can, I work to make them difficult. Because one can write a story. It's possible. At this point one can write a story that's relatively readable and publishable and that will do its thing—that is, it will assert its purpose as moving from my computer to some printed page. But for all the effort that takes, I like to think that the stories I would invest in are those that are the hardest.
As a young writer—you wrote the stories in your first book, The Coast of Good Intentions, in your twenties—your central characters were often middle-aged men. What attracted you to writing about older characters?
I remember a number of reviewers commented on the number of older-than-I-was narrators or characters in those stories. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now, actually—why wouldn't a writer want to, and try to, write about all different kinds of people at all different parts of their lives? People who have lived longer than I know more about things than I do, and that was more true then, when I was younger. It also helped that I wasn't that keen to write about my own life, finding it sort of boring.
About The Coast of Good Intentions, reviewers commented on the optimism of the collection, the sense of hope in the stories, amidst loneliness and loss. What is the bleakest story you've ever written?
The bleakest stories haven't found their ways into print, which might suggest that my talent lies somewhere in the neighborhood of channeling or describing a kind of delight in the world. [End Page 136]
I especially admire the dialogue in your stories. It feels very natural and efficient, revealing of character without ever being heavy-handed. Is dialogue something you've worked at a lot, or does it come pretty easily?
Thank you. I have a hard time with a lot of things, but for whatever reason dialogue does come pretty easily. I don't talk much myself, maybe because I don't want to be overheard.
In "Shipmates Down Under," a story in the collection, a father introduces a book he loves to his nine-year-old son. You wrote this story before...