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.
What led you to write about drugs in the first place?
I came of age in the 70’s. I inhaled. Drugs went hand-in-hand with music, which is a far larger focus in my work. The drugs are almost incidental to my character’s interest in, or obsession with, music. I’m talking about the music of the 60’s and early 70’s. I don’t think–except in the case of the first novel, Hello Down There, about the morphine addict–I ever make a conscious choice to write about drugs. I’m a novelist, not a pamphleteer, so theme arises out of character, not the other way around.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a story? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
I refer to the answer to question #3. The characters who take drugs do so either because they are bored, or they are trying to be part of a culture that encourages drug usage, or they are prone to addictions of all stripes. But their addictions arise out of larger thematic issues—the nature of obsession, the failure to fully love or engage with another person. Drugs are never, in my work, an “issue.” I don’t really do “issues.”
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
In my last two novels there has been zero drug use. The first because it was set mostly in the 1830’s, the second because the main characters are not even drinkers, really. I did write a novel about narcotraficantes (drug runners) crossing the Mexican border, but I did so because I was living in Far West Texas just 40 miles from the border and used to go for long bike rides on back roads that led to the border and would frequently be questioned by the border patrol. But I don’t speak Spanish and the book was forced and phony and I never published it and never will. I can never answer questions about future projects. I have no idea what I’ll write in the future. I only hope that it’s better than the work I’ve done in the past. Who wants to get worse at the thing they love to do the most?
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that one of your drug-themed books gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your pick, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
Virginia Lovers, a novel I wrote set in the 1970’s, had a great soundtrack. And it is the one book I’ve written that has a sort-of thriller aspect to it, so maybe it would make a great movie. People tell me so, anyway. I think a great credit-rolling song would be Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen,” the only Alice Cooper song I could stomach back in the day, but a great song since the novel is about two teenaged brothers. (I especially like the lyrics “I’m in the middle without any plan/I’m a boy and I’m a man.”) Pretty much sums up where the characters are, at least in the beginning of the novel.