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Anachronism and Collage in Magical Tales
Micah Dean Hicks is like a Southern oracle, spouting true and fantastic magic, with the spirit of the place rumbling through his voice. Electricity and Other Dreams, his debut book of short stories, has been lauded by Publisher’s Weekly and fellow authors Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Benjamin Percy, Bob Shacohis, and others. He’s been called magical realist and Southern Gothic, and in truth, I don’t know what to call him, but I know that in his stories the magic is real but it will not save you. It wouldn’t insult you like that. Magic is not an escape from life and it’s not confined by such reductive confines as ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ It’s not a trick to make you look away; instead, it forces you to look deeper at things you thought you understood until now. His stories read like fairy tales with bodies—the writing is exquisite and vernacular, sophisticated and clear as water, the characters are utterly complex people, whether or not they are human. And unlike classic fairy tales, the “ever afters” leave you wondering if you ever knew the world you live in, or the difference between the real and the unreal, and yet, you feel you’ve learned something about the human condition. You want to live with your eyes wide open, for hope or fear, or both. This wild dream that the author built for you from electricity and oil cans has gotten into your blood stream. You just accept that those chickens you bought will live their own lives, they will get tattoos, and they will use the knives on their feet for what they see fit because they were born that way and God just isn’t paying attention. Sometimes you sacrifice everything for the chickens you love.
Perhaps the thing that I appreciate most about this gorgeously crafted book is that I’m reminded of the dualistic nature of the universe. Down here, Terrible and Wonderful are conjoined twins and I’m meeting them for dinner tonight at 7, BYOB.
Recently, Hicks read from Electricity and Other Dreams, as well as a new story called “Crow Boys,” at the Florida State University Warehouse Reading Series in Tallahassee alongside fellow FSU writer Geoff Bouvier. Keep an eye on WarehouseReadingSeries.Tumblr.com/ for a recording. And if after reading the interview below you still can’t get enough of Hicks, you can purchase his book from wherever books are sold and visit his website at MicahDeanHicks.com.
What inspired your collection of short stories Electricity & Other Dreams?
It grew out of my love for fantasy, fairy tales, and Latin American magical realism. I had just finished writing a short collection of Southern Gothic stories for my undergrad senior project, but I've always been a fantasy writer at heart. So I knew when I started my master's in fiction, I wanted to do something more magical. I really love how García Márquez takes rural people and places and saturates them with magic, and I wanted to do a similar sort of thing with the South. Before my first day in the master's program, I knew I wanted to have a book like this when I came out on the other side. So I worked for two years on these kinds of stories.
You weave magical realism, fantasy, and science fiction into your own unique blend of fiction. What is it that attracts you to these genres? Do you distinguish them in your own work?
I'm attracted to a sense of wonder, when a story makes me feel that the ordinary world is vast and amazing and more beautiful than I had realized before reading it. Everything yawns open and feels new. Not necessarily happy, because most of my stories aren't, but unfathomable and large. Fantasy, SciFi, and Magical Realism do that for me, and that's what I want to do in my work. I don't distinguish them too much. I like mixing and blending, anachronism and collage. Give me a samurai with a cellphone, a lion selling encyclopedias door-to-door, a bartender trapped by a witch in the top floor of a hotel. Something that unsettles categories and boundaries. I rarely try to write hard SciFi, because I'm just not good at it. My science always ends up feeling like magic.
How do your stories relate to the "real world"?
I like to take real world elements and mythologize them. Make them exaggerated and epic. It's the same impulse at the heart of the tall tale: you catch a big fish, then tell people you caught the biggest fish. Or, if you're my girlfriend, brag that your car has the best turning radius of any car in the world. How many people think of themselves as national champions in Scooby Doo trivia, hula hooping, or playing Mario Kart? We all like to see ourselves as larger than life.
I do this with states a lot. Texas and Arizona and other places become kingdoms. Reality is different in those lands. And anyone living in Texas (or Florida or Mississippi) probably feels this way most of the time.
How does your work in folklore affect your writing?
The style of the folktale is something that penetrates my work pretty heavily. Characterization through occupation (but plumbers and electricians rather than huntsmen), normalized magic, a sense of timelessness. Max Lüthi has a great book on fairy tale style called The European Folktale: Form and Nature, and then there is the Kate Bernheimer essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale.”
It can be a problem sometimes, though. The fairy tale is a form that doesn't care about character very much. People just act. There isn't really motive. Sometimes I would neglect complicating the characters in my fiction because I was aspiring to write tales like the ones I loved, and it tripped me up. But I gradually moved to more of a fusion between the two forms.
I’ve heard that many of your stories begin with a single conceit. How do you find that first idea and how does it grow?
This goes back to mythologizing the real world, but I constantly play this story-making game in my head. Trudging up stairs to get to class, I wonder, what if this staircase were to never end? Or I see a bartender being hassled by a crowd of people wanting drinks, and I think, what if she's stuck there? What if people never stop coming and she's trapped forever, like Rapunzel in her tower? Most of these don't end up becoming stories, but some do. For “Cleaning the Fleaboy,” there was a summer when my apartment in Mississippi got overrun by fleas (I think there was a platoon of possums living under the house). There was a day where I wondered, what if I never get rid of these things? What would my new, flea-covered life be like? Obviously, I'd have to make the best of it. So that's what led to that story. Or a less extreme example: I left my soda can alone for a moment, and when I came back I wondered, what if a bug crawled in there when I was out of the room? Or what if something even stranger got in there? Like a severed finger? Which led to “Dessa and the Can Hermit.”
What is your writing process like?
I do a lot of outlining and sketching beforehand, writing down scene ideas, images, things important to who the character is. When I have it pretty well formed in my head, I sit down and write it out. You'll read a lot of advice from people who say that outlining is somehow not creative, that it keeps you from being inspired and letting the story go unexpected places. That's ridiculous. Having the outline keeps me from getting stuck and staring at a blank page, and helps me in every scene to be aiming toward that final moment. But I always break away from the outline when I'm writing and a new idea hits me. The sketching feels just as creative as the actual writing. There is no difference in terms of how my mind is working.
Also, I care about the sound of things, so when I'm working on a sentence, I'll read it aloud, or mumble to myself as I go. Revising, I like to read the whole thing out loud, even if it's a novel. Which means I usually write at home rather than going somewhere to work.
How has your writing process changed in the last few years?
I'm a lot harder on my work than I used to be. It's very easy to be excited about a story and pleased with it too early. I would have the nagging feeling that something was wrong with a scene, but have no idea what, so I'd just send it out anyway. Now I force myself to read that scene over and over until I figure out what's bothering me. And I'm much more willing to rewrite a story whole if I feel like it didn't turn out right the first time. I'm going to be doing that with a novel this fall.
Place, particularly the South, is so strong in your writing that it feels like a character. How do you see the South in your work?
Growing up, my experience of the South was a place where wilderness and civilization blend into each other. My grandma used to toss chunks lettuce to the wild rabbits in her yard. Once, a chicken snake came down out of the air vents. My grandpa told me about getting up in the mornings and seeing deer grazing alongside his cattle, all of them mixed together, no separation between woods and farm.
And the thing that comes out strongest in my work is the rural South as a kind of color palette. All that cracked brick, rusted tin, rotting wood, overgrown fences, the benign natural decay that is beautiful to me. Even when I write about urban places, that decay works its way in.
The lines between people, animals, and machines are fluid, blurred, and redrawn in your stories-what is their relationship to one another?
I like what John Gardner says about how everything in a story is a person. A greedy, evil banker is no different than a greedy, evil dragon. We aren't just surprised when we turn the key and the car doesn't start, we feel personally betrayed. Today of all days you do this? After I took you to the car wash?
Or the herd of goats who ate my grandma's prettiest irises. She'd chased them out of her yard the day before, and she said that they were staring at her the whole time they ate her flowers. She swore they did it out of spite.
It's a beautiful quirk of humanity that we interact with the universe like it's us. I wouldn't have it any other way.
I’m impressed by the way your stories can be so funny and so poignant at the same time—how do you use humor to write about difficult or dark topics?
I think this comes from your observation about the beginning conceit of my stories. Plot needs to escalate. If you start with something magical and crazy, things can only get more absurd from there, which usually ends up being funny. The story must work to top itself as it goes. It can't get less interesting as it progresses. George Saunders does this incredibly well in “Civilwarland in Bad Decline.” So I think the humor comes out this way, because of the structure.
As far as difficult, I don't really write about things that are personally difficult. I like to separate myself from my stories as much as I can. I'm more interested in other people's pain. This is the great thing about all fiction, being able to inhabit people different from you and sympathize with them. Which is why we like those fairy tale stories about orphans, beggars, thieves, and unloved daughters so much. It's a commonplace to say that fairy tales are about the everyman, but that's not true. They're about the least of us: the most poor, the most alone, the youngest, hungriest, most foolish, least capable (Sinyavsky talks about this in his book, Ivan the Fool). Some of us really are those people. But the rest of us need to be reminded that those people are there and that they matter.
What are you working on now?
I'm revising a story about a Spanish galleon that shipwrecks in the suburbs, and this little girl and her weird friends who explore it.
I'm writing something called The Marriage of Heaven and Earth, a forty-page collection of related shorts. I really like Calvino's Invisible Cities, Eagleman's Sum, and Lightman's Einstein's Dreams. So I'm trying to do something like that. A prince and a princess from warring kingdoms are arranged to be wed, but they hate each other. So in the weeks of celebration that lead up to the wedding and a new peace, the prince and princess send their hundreds of servants into the city and villages to tell the people how horrible their betrothed is. How she chews with her mouth open, how he can't appreciate music, how she has an ugly temper, how he only cares about shallow things. And then over the course of centuries, their words become legends, philosophies, and finally religions, causing problems between a world of people who've forgotten who the prince and princess were. I'm having a lot of fun with it, and hoping to finish by next month.
I'm working with my agent to sell a novel, so I imagine there will be some revising of that this spring and summer.
Aside from all that, I take my Ph.D. exams at the end of March, so I'm doing my best to read all the books in the world. I recently finished The Master and Margarita and Wuthering Heights, and loved both. Looking forward to Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day.
Micah Dean Hicks is an author of magical realism, modern fairy tales, and other fabulist stories. His work has appeared in places like New Letters, Indiana Review, and New Orleans Review. His story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams, is available wherever books are sold.
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