Coffin Bell: Introduce yourself.
Michael Carter: I’m a short fiction and creative nonfiction writer. To pay the bills, I write full-time as a lawyer. Most importantly, however, I’m a husband and father.
CB: What got you started writing?
MC: For all things reading and writing, the seminal point in my life was reading Frank Herbert’s Dune in the fourth grade. Although many of the concepts were over my head at the time, it opened my mind to what can be accomplished by imagination and words. I started writing very short stories after that. I included many of them in a makeshift magazine I put together accompanied by cross-word puzzles, word searches, drawings, and pictorial stories similar to comic strips. I copied the magazines and handed them out in my neighborhood. That was the beginning of a lifetime of reading and writing.
CB: What is the most rewarding aspect of writing?
MC: I love reaching the “Aha!” point when I feel I’ve made a story click. It’s not frequent, but when that happens the story usually turns out well enough to get published, and it receives a favorable reception. Sometimes I have that feeling in advance of writing the first word. Sometimes it comes while drafting. Other times it comes much later, while I’m letting the story marinate, or even after it has received a couple of rejections and I’ve modified and sent it back out there. Sometimes it never comes. Those latter stories may still end up published, but it’s rare.
CB: Do you have a designated space for writing? Tell us about it
MC: I do virtually all my writing, legal and creative, in a home office that has sitting and standing desks, a recliner, shelves of books, cacti and a spider plant, dog and dog bed, photos of my family, bison and Russian boar skulls, and some of my favorite artwork on the walls. I have a view out the window of acreage with a beautiful mountain range in the background. When I get stuck with my work or creative writing, I take a moment to gaze outside and collect myself. I’ve always been fascinated by wide-open spaces and wilderness areas, and the tranquility they can provide.
CB: Are you a planner or a pantser? Tell us a bit about your writing practices.
MC: For creative writing, I try not to plan too much. Once an idea pops into my mind, I usually start by jotting down the first or last line, or both, and then a preliminary title. When I’m writing flash, I’ll often draft straight through to the end while it’s fresh. The result usually is not pretty, but I have something to work with. Other times, if I have a tricky plot or details I don’t want to forget, I’ll jot down keywords, like bullet points, to guide me through writing the story. Ultimately, however, I try not to plan too much because I believe that squelches creativity and flow. Planning also makes me feel like I’m at work doing overly organized legal writing,
CB: What advice to new and emerging writers could you give?
MC: Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to write stories that aren’t up to snuff. Some of them might even be published, and you’ll look back at them and cringe. Don’t sweat it too much. I like to remind myself of Cheever’s preface to his short story collection The Stories of John Cheever. He talks about how he dropped only his “most embarrassingly immature pieces” from the collection and that, from time to time, he still found embarrassment in the pieces he did include. But, he writes, “this embarrassment is redeemed for me by the memories the stories hold for me of the women and men I have loved and the rooms and corridors and beaches where the stories were written.” The guy won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection, and he still doubts what he wrote. It’s OK if your story isn’t perfect. It’s OK if you later wish you had changed something. It’s OK if someone doesn’t like it, or even if they write a terrible review or post a negative comment about it. The story still holds value in some fashion to yourself and others. I’m not advocating handing in rough drafts. You should always put forth your best effort. But once it’s out there, try to let go. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Have fun.
CB: Who are your influences?
MC: This is difficult for me to answer because there are so many authors and poets who have influenced me in many ways. If I had to narrow it to three who influenced my writing, they are Frank Herbert, Fydor Dostoevsky, and Stephen King. In terms of shaping my thinking and outlook on life, the list ranges far and wide, including Douglas Adams, Ray Carver, Cheever, Philip K. Dick, Isak Dinesen, Ivan Doig, S. E. Hinton, Louis L’Amour, Patrick F. McManus, C. S. Lewis, Gabriel García Márquez, Richard Matheson, Vladimir Nabokov, Boris Pasternak, Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Virgil, and Richard Yates, to name a few.
CB: Physical books or e-readers?
MC: I like the feel and self-contained universe of a physical book. I like worn book covers, dog-eared pages, bookmarks, and the physical presence of books on bookshelves in my house, bookstores, libraries, coffee shops, antique stores, and other places.
CB: If you could give a PSA to journal editors, what would it be?
MC: I echo the comments T. L. Sherwood made in her interview with you. We appreciate the time and difficult decisions editors have to make. I think writers often get caught up in the “look at my story” hysteria, especially on social media, and they often neglect to thank or acknowledge the people behind the scenes (editors, artists, photographers, publishers, tech people, etc.) who played a huge part in getting their story out there.
CB: Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Tell us about your fears.
MC: I’ve always felt that I would die in a plane crash. I fly when I have to, and I don’t have panic attacks or anything like that. But I don’t like the idea of being trapped in a confined metal tube with no control over what happens, speeding hundreds of miles per hour through freezing, low-oxygen, inhospitable conditions. I mean, at 20,000 feet, a gremlin might creep around on the wing and mess with the engine. You never know.
CB: What draws you to dark fiction?
MC: Stephen King answered this question in his forward to Night Shift, which he also included in Secret Windows, his companion book to On Writing. In the forward, he examines fear and horror writing, along with the question of Why do people read that stuff? If I answered what draws me to dark fiction, it would be a regurgitation of what Mr. King said. So, I urge dark-fiction fans to take a look at the forward. It’s a great read.
Regarding what draws me to writing dark fiction, the answer is simple. It’s what I know, and it’s what stuck. When I returned to creative writing after a long hiatus, the last thing I thought I would write was dark fiction. This was because I had lived the previous twenty years in the very dark world of criminal law. I thought to myself, I spend eight to ten hours a day reading and writing about the darkest of human behavior, why would I want to spend my little free time writing about more darkness? So I wrote happy-go-lucky pieces with positive messages, but very few journals seemed interested in publishing them. When I turned the dark side, however, my stories starting getting picked up. Write what you know, I guess?
CB: How does the darkness in your piece enhance the work?
MC: The piece the savvy editors at Coffin Bell selected for issue 1.2 is an excellent example of the darkness of my real-life experience of dealing with criminals. The story is fiction and should read like fiction, but there’s more truth in there than most people might like to believe. It’s a snapshot of the dark world of inmates and crime, which most people, in their everyday lives, tend to ignore or pretend does not exist. But it’s a very real part of society, especially in countries like the United States with high crime and incarceration rates.
CB: Tell us where we can find more of your work.
MC: I have a rudimentary website that includes links to many of my publications: www.michaelcarter.ink. It also has a “Reading List” of books that have influenced my life in some significant way. If you have a favorite read that’s not on my list that you think I’m missing out on, or you just want to say hello, please drop me a note at email@example.com or @mcmichaelcarter.
Read Michael Carter’s “Monster Inside Me” in issue 1.2 of Coffin Bell!