Publisher: Xyno Books Publishing
Genre: Literary Fiction
"A painful, sometimes heartbreaking, exploration of "what went wrong, how did things get this way" - a middle-aged rumination on life in the tradition of Denis Johnson or Jim Harrison, told as the sometimes outrageously picaresque tale of a boy-man stumbling towards some measure of redemption. It's a road trip, it's a Midwestern childhood revisited with delicate attention to the details children find important, and subtly, a novel about identity and how we work it out." Amazon Review
Michael Backus’ work has appeared in One Story, The Portland Review, The Sycamore Review, Exquisite Corpse, Verb, Storyhead, The High Hat, The Writer, and Hanging Loose. Double is his debut novel. He teaches creative writing, composition, and film studies classes at Marymount Manhattan College and fiction writing at Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York City. He has an MFA from Columbia College in Chicago.
1. Your protagonist, Henry Dolan, has made some poor choices that have derailed him. Yet learning that his twin was tragically killed in a childhood accident makes the reader sympathetic to him. How much, do you think, can tragic experiences explain or excuse the choices we make in life?
Henry is someone who at an early age is forced to deal with what to him was the most horrific thing possible, the death of his twin brother Sammy, and he dealt with it by deciding he believed in reincarnation, imagining that his brother would be born again and that at some point, they’d come back together, and until then, he simply wouldn’t think about it. It’s how he managed to survive his brother’s death (and significantly, it’s something his parents never managed and they never really recovered from their son’s death), by compartmentalizing his life.
As a writer, I’m mostly interested in making the connections between elements in a story as a way of illuminating some larger reality that hopefully people can relate to. I’m not really interested in excusing the choices Henry makes though obviously everything in the book in some way explains them.
2. Henry is in desperate need of a second chance at life. Do you think it is in our nature to freely give second chances?
Absolutely. Americans in particular love second chances, though it’s quite easy to be cynical about it. It’s become kind of a codified narrative in this country that seems as much a product of our publicity machines as anything else. A generic Hollywood star becomes addicted to drugs, abuses people, wrecks cars and marriages and loses all his money; hits bottom, finds God or AA or the Betty Ford Clinic or the love of a good woman/man, and resurrects their life wherein the recovery stories kick in and we get a whole new PR cycle about this guy’s second chance. It actually doesn’t much matter whether it’s true or not, life rarely fits into prescribed boxes, but it’s a set narrative that we play out over and over again. And because of that, there’s a feeling in the air that no matter how badly we screw up, we can find our way out of it.
3. Henry has been estranged from his 10-year-old daughter for most of her life, due to divorce and long distance. Do you think he would go to such desperate measures to improve his life if it wasn't for his love for his daughter?
Henry isn’t thinking about his daughter when he begins the journey that comprises the book. Basically he loses his job and decides without too much thought to head back to the Midwest where he grew up. Circumstances lead him to Santa Fe and he resists them at first because all he can see is pain and recrimination in Santa Fe. He has gotten through the last 8 years by not thinking about his daughter, by compartmentalizing his life to the point where when his cousin Aaron even mentions his daughter, he reacts with outrage that anyone would dare bring up such a painful subject.
Henry struggles with self-interest throughout the book. But he also finds Cadence a genuine marvel and the pain of what he did to her and to himself is something that’s deeply embedded in him.
4. Did you have the end of your novel planned before you started writing, or did it evolve with the story?
Actually not planned, it definitely evolved. It is not the story I set out to write, but one of the things I always stress in my teaching is the notion of writing as an act of discovery. That one approach is to just write and figure out as you go where the story is going and who the people in the story are. Honestly, doing it that way in a novel-length piece is problematic and it lead to a lot of structural problems that I spent months and months fixing. But it also lead me to new ideas.
5. Given the temptation to edit and amend indefinitely, how did you know when your manuscript was truly finished?
Very tough for me. Believe it or not, at one point, this book was 700 pages long. I looked at it and just didn’t think there were enough ideas or action for such a long book and in the end, I cut it in half in less than two weeks, which was a sign to me that it was meant to be. If all that material really belonged, it wouldn’t have been so easy to cut so much. But it still took a long time to get to a place where I was happy with the final product. Supposedly the Irish writer Frank O’Connor kept re-writing his stories, even ones that had been already published and while that’s a bit extreme, I understand the urge.
6. As the author, you would have spent time thinking about Henry's worldview to know what he believes and how he would act or respond in any given situation. Do you think Henry would consider he lived consistently with his beliefs, or would he consider himself a hypocrite?
Henry is an odd combination. On one level he’s relentlessly introspective and prides himself on his ability to be honest about himself – who he is and what he’s done. It’s part of why at some point, he has to face up to the reality that he abandoned his daughter and owed it to her to try and do the only thing left to do in that situation, get to know her and let her get to know him. And he thinks of himself as honest and vows that he’ll always been honest with Cadence. But if you put the question to him, are you a hypocrite, he’d say yes, absolutely, not so much because he believes he is, but because he believes the only moral answer to that question is yes. After all, in his mind, only a hypocrite would answer the question, “Are you a hypocrite?” with a no.
7. In terms of worldview, what do you believe?
What a difficult, open-ended question. I’d say I’m not a religious person in any way and would likely be called an atheist by most people (if pressed, I might argue that our religious conceptions of God are all metaphorical attempts to define what I think of as nature, which is a large amorphous meaningless term that takes in all of the natural world), but I’ve always thought that the Golden Rule was a wonderful thing and as good a life philosophy as there is. Don’t do something to another person that you wouldn’t want done to you.
8. What do you doubt?
That the US political system has any hope of ever being functional. It’s a process that’s so broken, so dysfunctional, it almost seems perversely designed to make sure we get the least qualified people running our country.
9. What's in your "too hard" basket?
Losing weight. Very difficult, especially as I get older. I’ve played pickup basketball for 30 years, often three or even four times a week, and am often in good shape in terms of wind and heart and such, but find it almost impossible to get myself to a place that I’d think of as thin.
10. Michael's Favourite:
Book: Best book I’ve read in the past two years? A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. (But I could go on and on... Robert Stone (A Flag for Sunrise, Dog Soldiers, Outerbridge Reach), Denis Johnson (Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Gilead, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina,...)
Music: Anything loud and fast. I came of age in the punk movement of the late '70s and am still drawn to that music, though increasingly, I like alt country (think Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Lucinda Williams) and the new breed of low-key singer-songwriters like Bonnie Prince Billy, Cat Power, etc. I also love afro-pop, a term so large, it’s meaningless, but performers like Baaba Mal, Orchestre Baobob, D’Gary, Boubacar Traore, Ali Farka Toure, etc.
Film: Impossible for me to say, but if I had to pick one, I’d say “Badlands” by Terrence Malick. Honorable mention to Howard Hawk’s “Rio Bravo,” John Ford’s “The Searchers,” Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” “In a Lonely Place” by Nicholas Ray, “Mauvais Sang” by Leos Carax, etc.
Motto: Nothing human is strange to me. Not sure if it’s really my motto, but I do like the sound of it and the idea of it. I think it’s an excellent general guide for a writer.
Charity: Not sure I’d call it a charity, but the social justice issue that gets me steamed more than any other in this country is the inequities of the criminal justice system and how we see time and again people without any sort of financial resources being railroaded into prison and even onto death row because of repeated prosecutorial malfeasance. There’s such a blood lust in this country that it’s seen as radical to even raise nuanced issues about how we treat people of color, people without means, etc, in our criminal justice system. It’s ultimately always a political decision and no politician wants to be seen as coddling criminals. Right now, we’re only beginning to understand the ways poor legal representation, prosecutorial misconduct and just plain incompetence can put someone in prison for life or even put to death.
Michael is a writer brimming with ideas. His book will give interested readers a good insight into the worldview of reincarnation and consolidates my idea that worldviews are presuppositions that help us to make sense of the sorrows and joys of life.
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