Between the Sacred and the Profane: A Conversation with Michael Bible

Michael Bible is a Carolina kid who went to school and spent years in Oxford, MS, home to the great Faulkner, Hannah, and Brown. He followed that with a quick sojourn working with the genius David Milch in the California dry heat. Now he makes his home in brick-and-glass, high-rise New York. Zip code aside, Bible tells tales that feel rooted in the wild, idiom-riddled language and hyperbolic dimensions of traditional Southern storytelling, while using form and juxtaposition that feels as space age as whatever will make Daft Punk’s grandchildren’s heads bob. His latest, Sophia, due out December 1st from Melville House, is a slim novel that tells the ribald tale of a drugged out priest, Revered Maloney, who accompanies his chess whiz pal, Eli, across country trying to scheme and squander while being chased by a blind lawdog named Jack Cataract. Along the way, Maloney falls in and out of love, hatches a raid on a compound to save Eli using a hot air balloon and a horse named Forever, and tries to fly a helicopter to Lady Liberty. The novel has been described as a “gonzo Speedboat>” and as being “about the profane and the spiritual, all of it drenched in sweat, sex, and booze.” Southern traditions of hoodoo and soothsaying notwithstanding, it doesn’t take the mojo of a fortuneteller under a lit-up-neon-eye-sign to see that Bible is in line to be one of the Next Great Ones.

Gene Kwak: First off, is this meant to be a genuine sequel to Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City? There are nods to Forever the horse, and there’s a moment where Maloney hints at the events in Electric City. If so, what made you want to return to Maloney’s story? Was there something regarding the character that made you want to touch base? And (without spoiling the ending) Sophia ends in way that could be seen as a gateway into a whole new adventure. Have you considered continuing Maloney’s story?

Michael Bible: Sophia is the middle book of a loose triptych of short novels. I say triptych and not trilogy because they don’t follow a linear story but they are in dialogue with each other. The novel I am finishing now is an expansion of CMEC (narrated by young Maloney). I’m about to start a third book that will likely be narrated by Sophia. They are in no way meant to link in a continuous storyline, but they exist in the same universe.

GK: So you’re folding CMEC into a larger work that will basically take its place in the triptych? And if so, what was it about the younger Maloney that made you want to revisit that voice?

MB: Yes, CMEC has been folded into a new, longer work. I keep returning to Maloney because he’s a daydreamer. His mind is moving when he’s standing still and that’s a fun character to live in. After I wrote Sophia I wanted to know more about his youth.

GK: Can you talk about the decision to make Maloney a priest? I feel like I should put quotations around priest. Was it tied to language/hyperbolic storytelling/Biblical traditions or was it more of a it’d-be-a-real-kick-if-this-madman-decided-to-be-a-cheerleader-for-God? Little bit of both?

MB: I thought of the priesthood at one point in my life but couldn’t be further from that now. I have a love/hate relationship with religion. Sophia is about that. I just read an interview with Justin Bieber where he said about Christianity: “If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.” That’s complete nonsense but that’s kind of how I feel.

GK: Let’s talk about voice and sentences. Your sentences in both CMEC and Sophia have such a matter of fact, declarative sense to them that they flatten things, so to speak. Not in exuberance or rhythm but in believability. It allows you (or Maloney, I should say) to regale the reader with the minor specifics regarding the availability of white wine in a dining car or a full-blown, Oceans 11-level heist with the same sense of confidence and authenticity. Did issues of verisimilitude ever arise? Or did the voice feel like it could make up for it? The bravado could carry the day?

MB: I write in states of half-sleep or just after coming out of deep meditations or when heavily medicated. Maloney’s voice is born out of those hypnagogic states and he recites his life like that to me. I think of Sophia as his manic prayer to a sleepy god. It’s with that reverence and urgency that Maloney speaks. I just kind of sink into him and start writing.

GK: Can we also talk about paragraphs. You’ve got such an interesting move that you do so well. You have these riffs where the logic is progressing and then you’ll end the paragraph with these almost non-sequitur punchlines that juxtapose the order of the previous sentences but in a way that works within the context of the voice/world you’ve created. Ending lines like, “Gremlins, says the dying man. Was a very important movie.” Or: “My belly is full and the green farms go on forever.” Was this a juke you were aware of? If you were aware of it, how often did you allow yourself to use it? Did you pull back a few times? Did you just let it run?

MB: I like to break paragraphs like that; it lets those last lines echo. I don’t think I was exactly aware I was doing what you describe, but I do see what you mean now. I play with those last lines of paragraphs a lot. You can take the reader on a journey—then just when they think they can see where you’re going, you jerk them out of that reality. If you end a paragraph with dissonance it can color what’s come before in an interesting way.

GK: Names are always important in your stories. I also take a fancy to giving characters interesting names. Is there a particular naming process you go through? Do you find them and set them aside or do you just conjure them up as you’re crafting the sentences/characters? Have you named a character and then written a few sentences/paragraphs about him/her only to find that the name didn’t fit? Or has it always been a once the hat fits, let’s get the rodeo started deal?

MB: I agree. You remember people with strange names. You remember characters like Scout or Joe Christmas or Fuck Head. I was watching a Nic Cage movie last night and his name was Frank Cadillac. I don’t know. Sometimes characters will change and then I’ll change their names to fit their new personality. I like nicknames and self-made monikers too. Flannery just calls a guy The Misfit. I love that.

GK: Lastly, let’s touch on influences. Any good Barry stories you haven’t yet given up? Can you talk a little bit about what that workshop environment was like? And are there any non-lit influences that helped shape who you are as a writer?

MB: There are two Barry Hannah documentaries out there. Someone should do a Kickstarter or something—one of them has footage of Barry in action. He just kind of preached about life each week and I tried to shut up and listen.

David Markson is really big for me. His last four novels kind of changed what I thought was possible in fiction. I love every Brautigan I’ve read and the short Beckett novels. Frank Stanford has been a towering figure since I first read him in Mississippi. Before they finally published the collected works, my friends and I used to trade his stuff. I still have all these photocopied Frank Stanford books from back then. Reading him was a revelation. Completely unbridled. I, of course, love Barry and Padgett Powell, too. And Mary Robison and Selah Saterstrom. There’s a tradition of experimental writers in the South. Faulkner being the first. The Sound and the Fury was a turning point for me. It’s like this dream of the past from different points of view. I also love the writers they don’t teach in school. The stuff that was so urgent from your peers. The under the table stuff. Dude you got to read so-and-so. Dirty books. Marquis de Sade to Burroughs to Bukowski. Also, William Blake and the King James Bible. My taste tends to oscillate between the sacred and profane.

I listen to Philip Glass and Steve Reich when I write. I like how they have structures that are informed by both Eastern and Western music that creates spaces for improvisation. I try and do that in my writing. Lately I’ve gotten back into the Surrealists filmmakers in a serious way. Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert is a perfect movie to me. Alexandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, too. The Surrealist writers interest me deeply as well. I love the idea of writing games. Taking the author out of the equation. I wrote a short book a few years ago called Simple Machines that explores that and I’ll likely do more of that in the future.  

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