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September 2nd, 2009

An Interview with Mike Allen

(For the third in my ongoing series, I'm pleased to present an interview with [info]time_shark. If you haven't had a chance to read "The Button Bin" yet, it's available in print at Transcriptase, and on podcast at StarShipSofa and Pseudopod.)

Mike Allen wears many hats. The Philadelphia Inquirer has described him as one of the better-known practitioners of speculative poetry. He's the publisher and editor of the poetry journal Mythic Delirium, and the editor of the highly acclaimed Clockwork Phoenix anthologies. He's also a short fiction writer, and his fine story "The Button Bin" was on the final ballot for this year's Nebula Awards. For this interview I'll be focusing on this story and Mike's thoughts on short fiction.

Your story "The Button Bin" is a unique horror piece about a young man trying to find his missing niece, Denise. Soon he encounters Lenahan and bizarre events ensue. What was the inspiration behind this story?

Years ago, I accompanied my wife on a shopping trip to a quaint and charming fabric store in a nearby county. As often happens on trips like these, I got a little bored and my attention started to wander.
In the basement, with the rugs, the store had this enormous bin—as I recall, it was an RC Cola machine with all the drink dispensing mechanisms removed, lying on its back—filled to the brim with this amazing assortment of buttons. I plopped down on a chair beside it and started running my hands through it. It was deep enough that I could put a whole arm in.

And then I wondered, what would happen if I pulled my arm out, and buttons were now attached to it? What if I then unbuttoned them? What would happen?

And, really, the entire story sort of exploded into existence inside my head right then and there. Though it was missing one piece—the plot mechanism by which the narrator learns where his niece is—that I didn't figure out until years after I first had the idea.
I tried to write the story right off the bat, but I didn't yet have the skill to make it work. The idea stayed with me, reminded me repeatedly it needed to be written, until my skills and life experience caught up with it and I could finally do it justice.

While I realize this is a spoiler question, why the choice of the incest aspect between Shaun and Denise? Did you explore this taboo subject so as to increase the reader's uncomfortability since this is a horror story, or because it says something about Shaun's character and aberrant desire?

Congratulations! I've been interviewed several times about this story and you're the first person to ask me this. It's a fair question. The revelation of that event is the lynchpin of "The Button Bin." Based on blog and comment reactions I've seen, some readers find that element really shocking, and at that point either doff their hat in my direction for how I handled it, or get really angry, either at the story or directly at me. Others dismiss it as cliché, which actually bothers me considerably more.
That event, when the narrator is forced to confront this truth about himself that he has compartmentalized away, was always part of the story. It was right there in that first download from the muse in the fabric store. I want you to understand that what I'm about to tell you is Monday morning quarterbacking, because I made no conscious decision to explore the subject. It was embedded in "The Button Bin" from the beginning.

It's truly disturbing, I think, how many women have had experiences similar to what happens to Denise. Both in life, among people I've met over the years, and as a reporter who covered court cases—especially as a reporter covering court cases—I've encountered what's essentially this same scenario, repeated again and again and again, so dishearteningly common, in which an older male ends up in a position of trust over a child, boy or girl, and betrays that trust in the worst way imaginable. And, too, as a reporter covering criminal cases, I have had numerous opportunities to observe up close and personal the amazing mental gyrations of false memory and denial the human mind is capable of, the way a man who has committed a murder or a rape can essentially rewrite their own internal history to convince themselves—and sincerely believe—that they never did the things they've been accused of, could never even be capable of it, even when the forensic evidence proving that they did do this thing is overwhelming.

Those elements, the betrayal of trust and the capacity for denial, are what compelled me most in terms of the narrator's psychological makeup and the fate that befalls him at the end. If you'd like to be even more disturbed, you might consider these things—that though I hope the story brings home the devastating impact of that betrayal, in the eyes of the law the circumstances described, because of the ages involved, would not necessarily warrant a severe criminal punishment. That the circumstances described are, sadly, fairly tame compared to the horrific situations I've encountered covering court cases, stuff that would probably strain credulity if I ever attempted to present any of it as fiction. That the narrator, for all a reader might hate him at the end, has at least taken a step of a sort toward confronting and accepting responsibility for what he's done—many that I've observed never do.
This is why I prefer the outrage to the declaration of cliché, because dismissing such a hideous and recurrent problem as cliché and mere contrivance strikes me as yet another form of denial.

I'd like to ask you about stylistic decisions you made in the "The Button Bin." Employing second person can be a risky narrative voice. Why did you chose this voice? And for those writers out there who haven't tried it, or have had difficulty pulling it off, could you offer some hints and pitfalls to be avoided?

I mentioned that it took several tries over many years before I found an approach that worked. The story didn't gain traction and start laying down rubber until I tried it in second person present tense. 

To elaborate even further, I'd always known more or less how the story would unfold. But when I finally made it work, I wrote the first sentence, exactly as it reads now, and then the final sentence, exactly as it reads now, and then I connected them. I don't think the final line of "The Button Bin" would work if I wrote the story in any way other than second person present tense.

I probably have more practice using second person than many writers because I also write poetry, where the confessional "you" is relatively common. I don't know that I have advice about pitfalls to avoid, but I think if you try writing a story this way you should keep in mind that on becoming accustomed to the style a reader is likely going to be substituting "he" or "she" or "I" in place of the "you" as they follow along. My sense is that my narrator's situation in "The Button Bin" is compelling enough that readers tend to start thinking in terms of "I," which makes the twist that's lying in wait particularly nasty.

Also, why did you chose not to put the dialogue in quotes? Does it really matter or was there a special reason behind this stylistic choice?

Reading a couple Cormac McCarthy novels just prior to writing the first successful draft probably had something to do with it.
I made that choice for the same reason I wrote the story in second person present tense. I imagine the story as an interior monologue in which the narrator is recounting to himself how he wound up inside the trap that has closed over him. 

What advice do you have for aspiring writers trying to develop their craft?

What little advice I have to offer amounts to this: never give up, never lose faith in yourself, never stop submitting your work, but always be open to criticism, be willing to listen, be ready to accept that maybe you're not delivering the goods as well as you could be and need to improve.

There's been much talk about the loss of short fiction markets and decline in interest in short fiction. Only time will tell where we're headed, but I was wondering your thoughts on the present state of the speculative short story. How is it different today than in the past? Any idea where we're headed creatively? 

As someone who writes poetry, and has some sense of how that landscape has settled, I think I know exactly where the short story is headed. I personally believe any attempt to revive the short story as a commercially viable form of expression is a lost cause. I don't mean that no one will ever make any money selling them, but that, as with poetry, the short story has become something created for love, not for money, for an increasingly smaller and perhaps more sophisticated and jaded audience, and this trend will never reverse.

I think what we'll see—what we are seeing—are short stories that are created not just to entertain but to provide an experience for the faithful that can't be easily duplicated in more readily accessible media like movies, television and video games, as well as markets that aim to showcase those sorts of tales. I think it's no coincidence that a number of the stories you see in venues like Strange Horizons or Clarkesworld or Fantasy have a poetic sensibility, because I think it's that element, that direct word-by-word interaction, that can't be duplicated by more modern media. Stories in those media can, however—in terms of both sheer entertainment value and psychological impact—deliver all the thrill of plot and character and suspense and theme without requiring the same level of mental labor—so the short story becomes the exclusive province of those specifically seeking out a printed word experience—a small and elite crowd, for certain.

What are you working on now?

Well, a novel, that is an expansion of a short story published in 2007 called "The Hiker's Tale." It, too, is an idea that's been with me for a long time, that life is teaching me how to express. I'm assembling the 21st issue of Mythic Delirium and the third volume of Clockwork Phoenix. I'm as of this writing doing a final proofread of "Stone Flowers," a short story that will appear in Cabinet des Fées just before this interview comes out, that represents, for me, in a number of ways, a different kind of experiment, though it has some themes in common with "Button Bin." I'm also making editor-requested changes in a new horror story slated to appear in a still secret anthology that should hopefully be in bookstores next year. And, believe it or not, I'm started on a follow-up to "The Button Bin." I don't know when it will be done or where or if it will see daylight, but I don't mind telling you it's emerging out of my thoughts—images, really, quite the cascade of them—as to what might happen if my poor doomed narrator ever returned to his suburban home. And it's called "The Quiltmaker."


Marshall Payne
Marshall Payne

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