Michael Parker‘s published works include the novels Hello Down There (1993), Towns Without Rivers (2001), Virginia Lovers (2004), If You Want Me to Stay (2005), and The Watery Part of the World (2011) and the short-story collections The Geographical Cure (1994) and Don’t Make Me Stop Now (2007). His sixth novel, Sweet Ride, will hit bookshelves in 2014. Parker teaches in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s MFA Writing Program and the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. He earned his MFA from the University of Virginia. Parker’s writing has been featured in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, The Oxford American, Runner’s World, and The Washington Post. His debut novel was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize, and The Geographical Cure won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. In 2004, he received fellowships from the NEA and the North Carolina Arts Council; in 2006, he was the recipient of a Hobson Award in Art and Letters and the North Carolina Award for Literature. Parker’s fiction has also been collected in the Pushcart Prize (2002), New Stories from the South (2003), and O. Henry Prize Stories (2005) anthologies.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
I don’t usually hang out in bars where they let in penquins, though I often drink with nuns. I have, over the 20 years during which I have been publishing novels and stories, developed many different answers to this question, none of which are satisfying to me or to the people asking the question. It sounds smug when you say, “Deeply flawed people trying to do the right thing,” but that is mostly what my work is about on the surface. However, if there is a common and less superficial thematic thread, it’s this: the discrepancy between our inner lives and outer reality and the conflicts that arise when we try to reconcile the two.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
My first novel was about a morphine addict in the early part of the 20th century. He gets shipped off to the federal hospital in Lexington, Kentucky (now a white collar prison) where, for years, addicts went to “get cured.” I did some research on this, and on the rather widespread use of morphine pre and post WWII, and some of what I learned was based on my father’s experience working for a drug store in a small southern town, where he delivered to the town’s addicts. Everyone knew they were addicts, but drugs were not yet such a vital part of the culture, and it was seen more as a weakness than a sickness. So I suppose that might be of interest to anyone studying the shifting attitudes toward drug usage in this country.