By Mark McNease
I had the pleasure of reading a short story author Michael Craft submitted for an anthology I was co-editing a couple years ago. The story, “Frog Legs”, was an immediate yes, and among the best stories in that collection. As it turns out, it was also the first story in his new book, Inside Dumont, a novel-in-stories that centers on characters in Dumont, Wisconsin, and begins with architect Marson Miles falling in love with his nephew over a dinner that includes frog legs.
With advance praise from Patricia Nell Warren and Michael Nava, Inside Dumont presents the story of Marson Miles in his later life from a variety of viewpoints. Each story connects to the others to make a striking, organic whole. It’s a great pleasure to finally have a chance to ask Michael ‘6 Questions,’ and share his wonderfully detailed answers. Read more about Michael after the interview.
MM: Many readers will be familiar with you from the Mark Manning mystery series. How and why did you decide it was time to move on?
MC: There are seven novels in the Mark Manning series, each with a self-contained plot at the surface level of the whodunit; a new reader could jump in with any book and feel well-grounded in the setup of the series. But for those readers who approach the series as a whole, reading each installment in order, there is the added dimension of an overarching subplot dealing with Manning’s emotional development as a gay man.
His growth goes something like this: Finding Neil and coming out. Resolving the temptation to stray from Neil. “Inheriting” an adolescent foster son, Thad, and forming a family. Getting Thad’s head together and then sending him off to college. Resuming life with Neil as empty-nesters.
Further, at a deeper level, Manning’s personality—his entire mind-set—evolves sharply over the course of the series. In the beginning, Mark is self-confident, heroic, and comfortable with his opinions (to the point of being smug, some would say). In the end, he is far more human, sympathetic, and accepting of life’s gray areas.
In the seventh and last installment, Bitch Slap (which I consider the best of the bunch), Mark is where I want him to be. The series then felt complete. Sure, I could have cranked out a few more volumes featuring the “evolved Mark Manning,” but it would have gotten formulaic, which is not very satisfying for the reader—or the writer.
MM: Your new book, Inside Dumont, consists of linked stories. What attracted you to that format?
MC: I first became acquainted with linked short stories (as a book-length-fiction alternative to the traditional novel) while I was working toward my MFA about ten years ago. I had never been particularly interested in short stories, either as a writer or as a reader, but this hybrid medium really caught my attention and piqued my interest.
I had written my last Mark Manning by then, and I was open to exploring different creative directions—which is why I had gone back to school in my mid-fifties. After completing the degree, however, I floundered about for another five or six years, experimenting with a stage play, a screenplay, and a stand-alone straight murder mystery.
During that period, in 2008, Elizabeth Strout published her wonderful novel-in-stories, Olive Kitteridge, and as fate would have it, I ended up introducing her at a luncheon hosted by a local literary society. In preparation for that, I not only read Olive Kitteridge, but studied it closely, and something clicked. Strout’s book demonstrated the depth and viability of the linked-story medium (it later won a Pulitzer), and I knew I had found a direction I wanted to try.
MM: I’m curious about your creative process for the new book. It begins with the story “Frog Legs.” Did you intend all along to create a series of connected stories? You’ve said the stories were not planned, but grew organically out of each other. How did your vision for this book take shape?
MC: “Frog Legs,” in which Marson Miles falls in love with his wife’s nephew, Brody Norris, was in fact the first story written, and I believe I began drafting it in early 2013. At that point, I had set a general goal of writing a collection of linked stories, but my immediate goal was simply to demonstrate to myself that I could write even one compelling short story—I had never tried it before. So I did not write “Frog Legs” with a whole book in mind. However, once it was finished and polished, I felt encouraged that it could indeed become the “inciting incident” for a complete novel-in-stories.
You may have noticed that the town Dumont is not even mentioned in “Frog Legs.” I didn’t set the locale till I got to the second story, “Just a Gigolo.” Mark Manning fans will probably recognize Dumont, Wisconsin, as the setting for the last five books in that series, where Manning took over as publisher of the local newspaper. Much has now changed; Manning is no longer on the scene and is never mentioned. The only character brought over from the old series is Glee Savage, who still works at the paper.
“Just a Gigolo” introduces new characters, relationships, and interconnections, and from there, the web of events just kept growing—yes, organically—into an overall plot. The book’s title, Inside Dumont, did not occur to me until I was about two-thirds into the project. The book takes its title from the name of a column that Glee Savage writes in the Dumont Daily Register.
Structurally, the book is divided into two “Parts” of six stories each. Part One, of course, begins with “Frog Legs,” and then the next five stories move back and forth along a very fluid timeline, told by different narrators from different viewpoints, filling in the backstory that leads up to “Frog Legs.”
Part Two, on the other hand, is strictly chronological. It sort of resets the clock. The first story of Part Two, “A Familiar Face,” takes place the day before “Frog Legs.” Then the next five stories take us exactly one year through Marson and Brody’s new, shared life.
MM: What were some of the inspirations for the stories in Inside Dumont? It seems one story inspired another, but where did it all start, and how did it flow?
MC: These stories are fiction, of course, so it’s safe to characterize all of them as “products of the author’s imagination.” Still, some of the stories contain kernels of reality from my actual experience that served as jumping-off points for freely embellished plots. A few examples:
“Frog Legs.” About 15 years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I went with friends to dinner at a restaurant that was serving a dolled-up prix-fixe menu, and it included an appetizer course of—you guessed it—frog legs. Though I had never tried them, I was emboldened by cocktails and dug in. Some minutes later, glancing down at the plate of weird bones, I felt suddenly queasy and needed to excuse myself, dashing out to the parking lot.
“Like It Never Happened.” Three years ago, while I was working on the first stories in this book, a sensational amnesia case developed here in Palm Springs, which quickly spread to national news and beyond. A man (a tennis instructor, American) was found unconscious in a local hotel room. When he awoke, he was afflicted with total amnesia—speaking only Swedish. The story played out for months, with a tragic ending. How could this not inspire a writer in search of material?
“The Transit of Venus.” I became interested in this rare astronomical event when one was visible in the United States in 2004; another occurred in 2012. I worked up an idea first as a play, then as a screenplay, both of which sat in a drawer. Then, while working on the collection of stories that became Inside Dumont, inspiration struck. “Transit” was totally reimagined in a different locale, with a new viewpoint character and a much sharper, more dramatic outcome.
“Upstaged.” The inspiration for this one goes back nearly 20 years. My husband (then “partner”) and I were at a Christmas cocktail party in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We were the only gay couple there. While freshening our drinks in the kitchen, a not-very-close acquaintance (the husband of a ladyfriend of the party hostess), took us aside to “talk about something.” His hair and nails were getting long, his shirt was looking blousy, and his shoes weren’t at all mannish. He calmly confided that he was preparing to undergo a sex change. The hostess kept flitting in and out of the kitchen, making small talk over her shoulder. This was eons before Caitlyn Jenner, and we didn’t know how to react.
“Crazy Thoughts.” Two years ago, my husband and I went up to the mountain community of Idyllwild for a few days to escape the summer heat of the desert, renting a small house tucked in among the pines. The whole time we were there, the tranquility was disturbed by a guy renovating a nearby house with an assortment of power tools—including a nail gun. He drove a pickup truck that had a woman’s red brassiere stretched across the front grill. He left at night, but on the last night of our stay, he forgot to switch off the compressor for the nail gun. It cycled on and off all night, keeping me awake. I put that sleepless time to use, however, cooking up the idea for “Crazy Thoughts.”
MM: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what is it, and if not, why not?
MC: If by “writing” you mean pounding out the words of a manuscript, no, that’s not always part of my daily routine. However, if “writing” refers to the whole process of working on my writing, yes, it’s safe to say I spend a good deal of time on it each day, generally in the afternoon.
In addition to the actual writing (perhaps “drafting” is a better word for that phase of the process), there’s a long list of supporting tasks that keep me busy: planning, research, revision, more revision, correspondence, website design and maintenance, various marketing duties, social media, and just plain thinking, such as pondering a plot point or searching for the creative inspiration that will address that always-looming question: What’s next?
When I’m in the heat of actually drafting a book (a process that seems to take me about nine months or so), that period tends to be far more intense and disciplined. I’ll spend the mornings taking care of business and clearing my head, then hunker down in the afternoon for a focused period of two or three hours of honest-to-God writing. I find this type of focused, creative writing to be emotionally draining and physically tiring, so I never sustain it for more than three hours. I won’t write when I’m tired—the process becomes drudgery and the results always suffer.
MM: Outside Dumont, or, What’s next for Michael Craft? And are you a writer who knows what’s next, or do you wait and see?
MC: I’ve learned to wait and see. During the years when I was writing two mystery series, each with yearly installments, I always knew what was next, as I simply couldn’t risk the setback of a stumble, let alone so-called writer’s block. I outlined each book in exacting detail (a method that I still think has some merit in the very plot-driven mystery genre) because it allowed me to write the draft without stopping to wonder, What’s next?
But Inside Dumont was a different sort of project altogether, and it liberated me from what Stephen King has described as “the tiresome tyranny of the outline.” For me, this was not an easy leap of faith—starting out, I felt as if I were flying without a net. But lo and behold, I not only landed safely, but produced a book that I feel displays my most mature writing to date.
Inside Dumont contains a good deal of fertile material (characters, situations) for further development, so to answer your question, yes, I do believe there will be some sort of sequel. And yes, I’ve even toyed with Outside Dumont as a possible title! But that doesn’t quite fit the direction that seems to be taking shape.
I’m currently into the sequel’s fourth story (or chapter), and I still don’t have a clear picture of how everything will fit together in the end, conceptually or structurally—so I’m flying without a net again. And I’m having a ball with it.
For instance, I’ve become fascinated with the “epistolary” technique of telling a story through the characters’ correspondence. I love the humor that can be conveyed by what isn’t said in a particular letter or email, and by letting the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps between the letters. The overall book won’t be told this way, but I’m thinking that significant portions of it will be. To be clear, though: the big picture has not yet crystallized for me. I’m waiting for it to emerge from the writing itself.
So we’ll just have to wait and see. Wish me luck.
Michael Craft is the author of 14 published novels, including the highly acclaimed Mark Manning mystery series, three installments of which were honored as finalists for Lambda Literary Awards. His latest title, Inside Dumont, is a “novel in stories,” a collection of stand-alone narratives that, taken together, tell a book-length story with the scope of a novel. Michael grew up in Illinois and spent his middle years in Wisconsin, which inspired the fictitious small-town setting of his new book. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and now resides in Rancho Mirage, California. Visit the author’s website at www.michaelcraft.com.