If you’ve been following Iraqi metal (who hasn’t?!) then you’ve just read that article in the Times about Acrassicauda, a refugee metal band living in New Jers and partying it up with Metallica. Well, this post isn’t about that. It’s about the new novel Rock Bottom, which was recently released by Little Brown/Back Bay. I spoke with author and friend Michael Shilling about his characters, his settings, and the badass new novel he’s working on now:
Rock Bottom is set in Amsterdam, and your next one is set in England. Do you consciously prefer writing and creating characters that have to exist outside the US? What is the importance of place in your writing?
I appreciate and enjoy writers such as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, whose work is so wedded to place that it seems to be the main character or organism that the characters must negotiate. For me, though, the matter of place in my own writing is one that has thus far taken a back seat to character. That is, I am consumed with the “place of mind” that the characters are in, which seems to shape their perception of their physical surroundings in ways that transcend the actual tactile realities of those surroundings, ie. Do you really see a tree if you are obsessed with the girl standing next to it? That said, I do pay very close attention to getting the particulars of a setting right. Amsterdam, in November, when Rock Bottom takes place, has a special watery stardust gloom, and I wanted to catch, if just in a phrase or an occasional metaphor, the way that mellow murkiness weaves into the experiences of each character.
Tell us about your fascinating next project.
I am writing an ensemble drama that takes place in England in 1829, which involves a reimagining of characters from Jane Eyre, such as Rochester and Bertha, but also brings in numerous new characters, many of whom are in service at Thornfield Hall. It’s a real gallery of grotesques, connivers, and strivers. The book also involves resurrectionists/grave robbers, the various political and social reforms that were going on at the time, the emancipation of slaves in the Indies, as well as the growing clamor to gives Catholics the right to sit in Parliament. Also there’s opium and mesmerism and various occult fashions. I’m trying to write in the style of that time while carving out a rhythm that adds something to that style, a diamond-sharp baroque. The book, ideally, will owe as much to the fabulism of writers such as Angela Carter as it does to hard-boiled prose in the vein of James Ellroy. Yes I am swinging for the bleachers on this one. Pray for me.
You seem to be attracted to the ensemble novel. Why is that?
So many voices, so many rooms! It’s just more fun, basically, and it’s what I like to read. I really like first person narrative in a short story, but generally speaking, a first person novel becomes constraining. I like a big scope. And of course I’m saying all this because I simply can’t do a first person novel that’s half-decent!
What do you think the Blood Orphans would have done if they’d met the band members of Acrassicauda? (In Amsterdam or not?)
I think if they met Acrassicauda they would want to know where they could find the best Iraqi Vodka.
Michael’s playlist was featured on Papercuts today. Check it out. And buy the book here.