Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Michael Peck’s fiction piece, By the River


John: I’m always interested in how writers arrive at their stories. In “By the River,” I love all of the mysteries in this story—the wallet, the red-haired boy, the trout. All of these unexplained things really work to give the story an eerie, unearthly feel, even though the events described are all realistic. Is this the effect you set out to achieve, or an accident that happened as you were telling the story?

Michael: The mood of the piece definitely came first. I was living in Missoula at the time, and often visited a friend who lived between the river and the train tracks. Across the banks, I’d sometimes see indistinct people walking around, occasionally a flashlight beam pinging around in the dark. It creeped me out terribly, and the piece came about, I think, from that feeling.

Your novel sounds fascinating. Tell us about it.

The Last Orchard in America is what my publisher calls a “meta-noir.” It’s very much situated in the hardboiled tradition of Chandler and Hammett, and is a sort of commentary on the genre while (I hope!) being a decent mystery on it’s own footing. An illustrator friend of mine, Vinson Milligan, produced 9 charcoal drawings to accompany the text, and they are exceptionally dark and just plain exceptional. My favorite part of the novel, really.

It seems that you work a lot with surrealism, or as in the case of this story, events that seem to hover right at the edge of standard, material reality. Is this true, and if so, what attracts you to this style?

I love obliquity. Strangeness, conundrums, of reality being a little “off” and not following line A to B. Surrealism in some form is something I strive for in all my work, to try to create an atmosphere of dreaming. In a De Chirico kind of way: misplaced shadows, weird angles, that sort of thing.

Do you consider yourself more naturally a short story writer or a novelist? Or do you not see a distinction? What do you find most challenging in each discipline?

Ideally, I’d say I’m a novella-ist, as that’s the form I’ve been working in the most lately. I tend to recycle through pieces, cobbling together bits of dialog, plots or characters from set-aside pieces that aren’t working on their own. I’m constantly reworking “finished” stories and essays. For me, writing is really just persistent, careful editing. It’s kind of an evolutionary approach, I suppose, weeding out the good parts and tossing away what’s unessential.

This might be a bit too inside baseball, but I think that many of our readers are writers themselves, so I’ll ask. It looks like you published your novel using a combination of Kickstarter and self-publishing. Is that correct? And how did you arrive at this method, and how is it working out?

The novel was published by THE2NDHAND, and my publisher, Todd Dills, started the Kickstarter campaign. It was a very neat experience all around. Besides writing, I deal in rare books, so contributors were given vintage paperbacks for their kindness. Before that, The Last Orchard was serialized in that self-same magazine. And before that, it was a 2000-word short story. Which goes back to my Darwinian theory above.

What do you find most difficult about writing? What is most pleasurable for you?

Most difficult, I think, is the ability to know when a piece has wings, or I’m just digging futilely in the sand. T.S. Eliot made the distinction of a good writer knowing what to write, and a great one knowing when to stop writing.

What are you reading now? Who are your favorite authors?

At the moment, Annihilation, the last in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy; Moldoror, this completely nuts stream-of-conscious novel from the late 19th century, by Lautreamont; a history of Astoria, Oregon; and the essays of Wayne Koestenbaum.

Favorites seem to change by the month. Right now, they would have to include Flannery O’Connor, John Fowles, Celine, George Saunders, Ali Smith.