Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Michael Howard’s nonfiction piece, The Death of a Cyclist
John: This was certainly a harrowing piece to read. And one of the things I admire about it is how well your writing style matches the content. The combination of short, sharp sentences and longer paragraphs does a really good job of creating a propulsive, obsessive atmosphere in the piece. Did you plan this, or was it just a natural consequence of putting your memories of this period on the page?
Well I’m flattered that you found it harrowing; that means it has a stronger effect than I imagined it would. The writing style you mention was planned, but only in the sense that I wanted to experiment with it. I remember flipping through a copy of Ulysses in a book store and being struck by Joyce’s very abrupt, jagged prose style—which is just one technique he uses in the book, which I haven’t even read—and that’s what I was imitating when I wrote this piece. It has the obvious effect of injecting the story with a sort of frantic energy that, in hindsight, does dovetail nicely with the subject matter. But I have to confess that was an accident.
Early in the piece, you liken your cycling to an addiction, and it certainly has a lot of the hallmarks of that. Is that how you viewed it at the time, or did this realization come after you quit?
It was at best an unhealthy obsession, and it got to the point where I was rather suspicious of anyone who didn’t spend twenty hours a week exercising. If you ate desserts, went out to bars, stayed up past eleven, slept in past eight, you were a total freak to my mind. I suppose that could be interpreted as a sort of psychological defense mechanism—projecting my own abnormality onto everyone else. I was living a very one-dimensional existence, but it was normal, because all my cycling acquaintances were doing pretty much the same thing, and those were the only people I ever spent time with. That said, it certainly never became dangerous the way many real addictions do.
Hollywood Henderson (an ex-Dallas Cowboy who was a fierce coke fiend during his playing days and is now an addiction counselor) has said something like, “When you quit an addiction, all of that addiction energy is going to find something new to do, and it’s really important that you choose what that is.” Was this your experience? You put an enormous amount of time and effort into cycling. What happened when you quit?
That was one thing about the prospect of quitting bike racing that really worried me. For a period of five years, cycling was all I cared about. Nothing else mattered. And yet I knew it was a dead end. You learn pretty quickly whether you have any talent as a bike racer; I had none. So it was a matter of putting aside that reality for as long as possible, because I had no idea what I would do with myself once it was over. Unlike most people, I never approached the sport from a recreational standpoint; it was always all or nothing.
When I quit cycling I started writing; that’s where I redirected most of my energy. I also went back to school and got a bachelor’s in English. The transition away from bike racing wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I thought it would be.
Was it difficult to relive these experiences? Was it helpful? Why did you decide to revisit this episode in your life?
It wasn’t the least bit difficult, because I was sufficiently removed from the events, and the life, I was describing. I had “moved on.” In view of that, writing this piece wasn’t cathartic; there was nothing to discharge. I came at it from a purely aesthetic point of view—using my brain, not my feelings—and that’s probably why it came out as well as it did.
As for why I chose to revisit this particular episode, it’s one of the few remotely interesting things that have happened in my life, which is very nondescript.
Judging from your bio, it seems that this piece (a personal memoir) might be something of a departure for you. Tell us more about your other work.
It is a departure, and it evolved from a “creative nonfiction” writing exercise I was made to do in college. If it weren’t for that assignment I never would have written it, as I have a sort of phobia about writing about myself. I write fiction as a hobby and have had a few short stories published, which is nice. I suppose, like most literary pretenders, there is a vague ambition to one day publish a novel, but for now I’m putting my energy into journalism, since I can actually make a little money that way.
Do you enjoy the process of writing? What do you find rewarding about it? What do you find frustrating?
I do not particularly enjoy it, no. I find it very stressful, which I think stems from my utter lack of confidence in my writing ability. Incidentally, this piece is one of the few that I haven’t come to despise; for whatever reason it holds up. The reward, for me, comes in the form of an acceptance letter (or a check). Otherwise, and this is most of the time, I feel that it was all in vain—a terrible thing to admit.
Read any good books lately? Who are your favorite authors?
I just finished The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, who I’m now convinced is one of the best stylists ever. Also recently finished Rogue State by William Blum, who should be read by anyone wishing to understand the reality of the United States’ role in the world.
If I had to name a favorite author I would probably say Anthony Burgess. Other favorites include Hubert Selby Jr., Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Cormac McCarthy and George Orwell. Shakespeare was pretty good too.