I think one of the most important and most satisfying parts of the act of writing is the sense of discovery that comes with thinking on the page.
Coffin Bell: Introduce yourself / short bio / photo.
Michael Chin: My name is Michael Chin. I was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently live in Georgia with his wife and son. I’ve got hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, available from Gimmick Press and he has previously published work with journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. I teach writing at the collegiate level, write and edit on a freelance basis, and work as a contributing editor for Moss, a literary journal focused on the Pacific Northwest.
CB: What got you started writing?
MC: I started writing back in elementary school and have never stopped. My very first attempts at story writing were my own extensions of video games I liked at the time, because there wasn’t enough story there yet to satisfy. I think that was the beginning of living by the CS Lewis adage that “If they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.”
CB: What is the most rewarding aspect of writing?
MC: For me, writing is not only a part of how I express myself, but how I think and understand the world. So I think the most rewarding part is when I walk away from a writing session having realized, or at least articulated something I hadn’t prior to that point.
CB: Do you have a designated space for writing? Tell us about it.
MC: No. I think it’s great when writers can, and I do have my pet spaces that I revisit often, but I learned long ago that, especially when working full-time, and all the more so now that I’m a new father, it’s important to be able to write whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself rather than waiting for perfect circumstances. I tend to prefer either spaces that are quiet (lately, my strategy has been to get up in the early morning, before my wife and son, and go to the junk room in my house where I can close doors and work undistracted for an hour or so), or ones with non-distracting ambient noise, ranging from a coffee shop to less traditional spaces. During my MFA program, for example, my favorite place to work was on an upper floor of the fitness center overlooking the basketball courts, where there was a regular noise of balls bouncing and sneakers squeaking against the hard wood, but little dialogue or music or the like to pose distractions.
CB: Are you a planner or a pantser? Tell us a bit about your writing practices.
MC: I’m definitely still more on the planner end of the spectrum—I have a hard time writing anything of substance without having at least thought about it for a bit and taken some preliminary notes. I have tried to plan a little less in recent years, though. As I alluded to earlier, I think one of the most important and most satisfying parts of the act of writing is the sense of discovery that comes with thinking on the page. So, to strain a metaphor, I might say I went from someone who used a map to navigate through a story to someone who uses a compass to point me in the general direction, while I figure out the roads as I go.
CB: What advice to new and emerging writers could you give?
MC: I think the primary difference between someone who is a writer and someone who just wants to be one, or thinks about being one is actually doing the work of writing. Sometimes that means actually crafting words on a page, but there are a lot of other component pieces, too, like reading other good work, note taking, revising, editing, and even submitting work. I write pretty much every day—I’d estimate at least 300 days out of a year, but I’m actually pretty resistant to the idea that every writer needs to or even should do that. Everyone’s life situation, time, and work style is different, so I think a more useful way of thinking about being a writer is to be doing something in service to your writing ambitions on as regular a basis as you can. If you ask yourself what you’ve done to work toward your goals or further your ambitions in the last month (or whatever time marker makes sense for your life), and honestly can’t think of a single thing, that’s a problem. The other advice I’d offer is that a writing life is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s foolhardy to get off your couch and, with no preparation, try to run twenty-six miles. The work to get there is incremental, gradual, and hard. Think of reading as your stretching and the drafting stages as practice runs during which you improve your form, get faster, build endurance. To see the metaphor through, sending out work for publication is race day. Everyone wants the glory of crossing the finish line, but for most of us there’s no reasonable way to get there without the prep work that no one will see.
CB: Who are your influences?
MC: Some of my more recent influences would include Maggie Nelson (whose collage style very much informed the piece “Sister”), and Joe Hill who I think tends to get overlooked as a pop genre writer, but his short stories in particular demonstrate a real literary sensibility.
CB: Physical books or e-readers?
MC: Physical books. I actually aspire to get more into e-readers to be more environmentally friendly and lessen the amount of space needed for all of my books, but I nonetheless have a harder time focusing for as long on an e-reader, and still have quite the to-read pile of physical books waiting in a milk crate for me to get through them.
CB: If you could give a PSA to journal editors, what would it be?
MC: I’d suggest my favorite journal editors to work with are those who seem to care about not just the work, but the author. For some of my favorite editors to collaborate with, they’ve helped me promote other work, given me good feedback on the work I sent them, and more generally kept in touch to make the author-editor relationship feel less like a singular transaction than an ongoing relationship.
CB: Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Tell us about your fears.
MC: One of my biggest is eternity. When I was teenager, I got hung up on the idea of being dead forever and how overwhelming it would be to simply enter a space of existing without any end or change. Little better was the idea of living forever—less of a practical concern, but more philosophically, this idea of just going on and on. I’d get paralyzed by these ideas, and still do start to feel a weight on my chest when I really give myself over to thinking about them today.
CB: What draws you to dark fiction?
MC: I think fiction, when it’s clicking on all cylinders, typically comes down to one of two functions. Either it lets the reader escape—experiencing a situation vicariously that is totally divergent from what they know of life—or it gives us tools to understand the world we’re in via the lens of a different world. In my estimation, dark fiction helps the reader tap into fear, or at least disorientation, to disarm some of the preconceptions with which we look at the world and start with a cleaner slate.
CB: How does the darkness in your piece enhance the work?
MC: The narrator for “Sister” is a vampire, but most of what that character discusses about familial connection and memory doesn’t depend on the vampire piece to ring true. I like to think that this darker element to the story underscores estrangement—the sense that the narrator truly lives in a different world now from his sister, an exaggeration of the dynamic many, if not most people with siblings experience when we go from living in the same place with the same people—sharing a life—to living separate lives. There’s a separation there that can be painful or wistful, but I’d argue that the commonalities from those shared experiences we started out with are all the more profound, and return to us in unexpected ways over the course of a life.
CB: Tell us about your book / publication / web site / promotion.
Read Mike Chin’s “Sister” in Issue 1.3 of Coffin Bell Journal!