Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Interview: Michael Williams, Author of Trajan's Arch

Over the past 25 years, Michael Williams has written a number of strange novels, from the early Weasel’s Luck and Galen Beknighted in the best-selling Dragonlance series to the more recent lyrical and experimental Arcady, singled out for praise by Locus and Asimov’s magazines. In Trajan’s Arch, his eleventh novel, stories fold into stories and a boy grows up with ghostly mentors, and the recently published Vine mingles Greek tragedy and urban legend, as a local dramatic production in a small city goes humorously, then horrifically, awry.
Trajan’s Arch and Vine are two of the books in Williams’s highly anticipated City Quartet, to be joined in 2018 by Dominic’s Ghosts and Tattered Men.
Williams was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and spent much of his childhood in the south central part of the state, the red-dirt gothic home of Appalachian foothills and stories of Confederate guerrillas. Through good luck and a roundabout journey he made his way through through New England, New York, Wisconsin, Britain and Ireland, and ended up less than thirty miles from where he began. He has a Ph.D. in Humanities, and teaches at the University of Louisville, where he focuses on the he Modern Fantastic in fiction and film. He is married, and has two grown sons.

What made you decide to start writing your own stories?
I think most every kid is in love with hearing and telling stories.  It's hard-wired in how we understand things and how we learn.  The big transition for a few people, though, comes at the moment when they say to themselves that they'd like to make storytelling a lifelong pursuit.
For me, that happened at 13 or 14 when I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for the first time. In chapter 3 of The Fellowship, there is a moment when the hobbits get off the road at the approach of someone—someone who turns out to be one of the Dark Riders of Mordor, who attempts to sniff out (literally) our heroes in the undergrowth.  I remember lifting my eyes from the page and realizing I had been immersed in Tolkien's world—completely there—for almost half an hour.  From that experience and a number that followed, I decided that creating that effect was something I wanted to do forever.

Which authors influenced your writing?
Obviously Tolkien, when it came to world-building and the use of myth and legend to inform and underlie the way my stories worked.  Several of the great magical realist writers—Garcia Marquez and Borges come to mine—for the way they wed the everyday with the wondrous.  My old mentor John Gardner (author of Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues) taught me invaluable things, and there are half a dozen or so poets (among them Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and Ted Hughes) who were very formative for me around the time I really became serious about writing.

I'm a bit of a tyro in the humanities. What is the Modern Fantastic?
I'm thinking this question stems from your reading that I teach courses in the Modern Fantastic at the University of Louisville.
It's pretty much what it sounds like: fantastic fiction, film, and art from the middle of the 19th century to the present day.  The late 19th century, for me, is that time in history when we began to look at fantastic worlds as mental or psychological landscape, when these stories help establish the theory and vocabulary of thinkers like Freud and Jung.  Just think “fantasy from the 1880s to the present.”

Tell us about the City Quartet. Which cities are involved, and can you tell us a little about each story?
One city—Louisville, Kentucky, in both an historical and an imagined version.  These are four novels (you can enter the world of the books through any one of them—there's no designated reading order, no idea of linear “sequence” or “series”).  The stories of the books interweave, so that a principal scene in one novel might be glimpsed in passing in another, a principal character in one might make a cameo appearance in another.  In short, the books speak to the connections that bind us all in location and in history, and one of their major areas of meaning is in how our lives intertwine, how we depend and rely on each other.

  • Trajan's Arch: Gabriel Rackett stands at the threshold of middle age. He lives north of Chicago and teaches at a small community college. He has written one novel and has no prospects of writing another, his powers stagnated by drink and loss. Into his possession comes a manuscript, written by a childhood friend and neighbor, which ignites his memory and takes him back to his mysterious mentor and the ghosts that haunted his own coming of age. Now, at the ebb of his resources, Gabriel returns to his old haunts through a series of fantastic stories spilling dangerously off the page–tales that will preoccupy and pursue him back to their dark and secret sources. 
  • Vine: An Urban Legend: Amateur theatre director Stephen Thorne plots a sensational production of a Greek tragedy in order to ruffle feathers in the small city where he lives. Accompanied by an eccentric and fly-by-night cast and crew, he prepares for opening night, unaware that as he unleashes the play, he has drawn the attention of ancient and powerful forces.
  • Dominic's Ghosts: A mythic novel set in the contemporary Midwest. Returning to the home town of his missing father on a search for his own origins, Dominic Rackett is swept up in a murky conspiracy involving a suspicious scholar, a Himalayan legend, and subliminal clues from a silent film festival. As those around him fall prey to rising fear and shrill fanaticism, he follows the branching trails of cinema monsters and figures from a very real past, as phantoms invade the streets of his once-familiar city and one of them, glimpsed in distorted shadows of alleys and urban parks, begins to look uncannily familiar.
  • Tattered Men (to be released in September: When a body washes ashore downstream from the city, the discovery saddens the small neighborhood south of Broadway.  A homeless man, T. Tommy Briscoe,  whose life had intertwined with a bookstore, a bar, and the city’s outdoor theater had touched many lives at an angle.  One was that of Mickey Walsh, a fly-by-night academic and historian, who becomes fascinated with the circumstances surrounding the drowning. From the beginning there seems to be foul play regarding Briscoe’s death, and, goaded on by his own curiosity and the urging of two old friends, Walsh begins to examine the case when the police give it up.  His journey will take him into the long biography of a man who might have turned out otherwise and glorious, but instead fell into and through the underside of history, finding harsh magic and an even harsher world.  Despite the story of Tommy’s sad and shortened life, Walsh begins to discover curious patterns, ancient and mythic, in its events—patterns that lead him to secrets surrounding the life and death of Tommy Briscoe, and reveal his own mysteries in the searching. 

How did you get from a triumphal arch in Italy to modern-day Louisville?
Sheer imagination, metaphorically and literally. The triumphal arch is present  only in an article Gabriel reads during his initial fascination and curiosity with Trajan. The real “arch” is the series of stories Trajan Bell has written, inserted in the novel and over-arched, you might say, by the novel itself.  There's another arch late in the book, but to say much more would be letting spoilers slip.

Is there a new author or book out there that you think we should be reading, and why?
I'm interested right now in more “world fiction”--magical realist stories from outside the Anglo-American world (and, for that matter, non-European writing).  Two women writers, strikingly different from each other, I've been reading with some pleasure.
Karen Lord is a writer from Barbados, with roots in Senegal.  Her Redemption in Indigo is a darkly funny mythic journey, a retelling of the folktales centering on the West African legendary figures of Anansi the Spider and Ansige Karamba the Glutton.
Lesley Nneka Arimah is a Nigerian writer who mingles magical realism and speculative fiction with the very realistic treatments of the harsh political realities in her native country. Her What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is a stunning collection of short fiction.
Recommending the work of both these writers is my gift to you, my thanks for giving me space to talk about my own work.

Many thanks! Trajan's Arch is now available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Friday, August 02, 2019


Ah, August. A time when my email boxes overflow... Strangely Funny submissions are pouring into the MAHLLC coffers, and my personal email has become a FEMA flood zone of politicians pleading for money. Volunteering is the gift that keeps on giving...
An update on the past few months:

  • I began temping in a call center in April, mere days after posting how discouraged I felt. In July, the center hired me away from Randstad. I'm happy to be wanted, but I can't figure out why. My father was a great salesman of school textbooks, and all I picked up was a love of reading. This belligerent introvert is learning new skills.
  • My ebullient sister-in-law is moving to Tampa Bay in the next few weeks. It will be good to have more family here, and I may develop a social life despite myself.
  • Gwen and I have finished Murder at the Million Dollar Pier, the sequel to Murder on the Mullet Express. It's the second book in the Three Snowbirds series, and we'll be doing a cover reveal in the near future.

I'm glad that my life is coming back together. We'll see what these changes bring.