MICHAEL WEHUNT JUST WROTE HIS FIRST NOVEL AND I PESTERED HIM ABOUT IT!
Michael Wehunt‘s first collection, GREENER PASTURES, is as strong a debut as any I can think of. It’s full of great stories with lots of creativity and thematic depth, and never once forgets to bring the creepy. If you haven’t read it yet, you are in for a treat.
Turns out, this young fella spent much of the last year writing his first novel, which is exciting news for us fans. He was kind enough to answer some questions about it…
You have been posting here and there on Facebook for the past several months about something exciting: the writing of your first novel! How did you decide to pull the trigger on this project? Was the idea for it somehow noticeably different in scope from your shorter work? Is it something that you’ve had in the back of your head for awhile, or was it brand new when you started?
[MW] Once my collection Greener Pastures had been out a few months and the awe of having a first book that people were actually reading wore off a bit, I figured collection #2 would do well to wait a good while. Meanwhile, I’d written a couple of novelettes, then a novella for Dim Shores (who publish gorgeous limited-edition chapbooks paired with different artists), the latter of which particularly felt like muscles being stretched. So the decision of a novel felt imminent…ish. But then I was approached by an agent, and suddenly a novel felt far more immediate. Faith had been placed in me, this writer without a novel. Since novels are the king of the fiction world (I won’t grumble about that here except to say that I wish short stories weren’t seen so often as little more than an author’s springboards to a novel), it makes a lot of sense to, you know, actually write one. In the end, the decision was as simple as “Whoa, I have an agent now,” but a novel was already wanting to slot into my timeline.
The idea for the novel had occurred to me as a nagging little question a few years before: What if a child were groomed to be the Antichrist, but they grew up to be just a regular person? This struck me as so mundane yet fascinating. It always felt like something far longer than a short story, with far more moving parts than I’d ever worked with, so I would push the idea away. But last fall, that question naturally stepped forward to ask itself again, and I felt I was ready to explore not only what the answer might be but also the question itself.
The big question, now that the first draft is finished: what was the process of writing your first book-length piece like? I imagine it must have been markedly different than short story writing, but what were the specific differences for you?
The process started off remarkably the same. It can be a little embarrassing to admit, but I wanted to go in almost entirely blind like I do with short fiction. Just a thought or two, an image, a tone of feeling…whatever posts gleam out in the dark for me to walk toward, the cheap flashlight of my brain cutting into more of the story as I creep along. Almost right away the story and its world expanded ahead of me, though, and I realized the protagonist was going to be the secondary character. A woman wanting to make a film about him showed me the story was really about her….
I could say that, yes, it was a very different process. In many ways it was. But the core of it was seeded in the way that a short story nearly always is for me, and the first half was written with that flashlight. Sometimes its batteries would give and the light would flicker. But as the book got bigger, wider, I did ultimately realize I was in uncharted territory. There was just so much story, and I had to approach it differently the rest of the way. I had to figure out how to hold the entire story in my mind and see all its cogs and levers, which had never been difficult with short fiction. Looking back, I’m pretty pleased with how the two methodologies blended together and informed one another.
Needless to say, everything has more room to breathe and feel and think in a novel. You can be more organic and show the details. You can linger more. I sometimes thought of the novel I wanted to write as a Terrence Malick film. But I was very surprised to learn that while I could do those things, I could not spread out in the sun as much as I’d assumed. Finding that balance—between the tissue of the story getting all the light it deserves and the need to keep the story moving forward in a way that doesn’t cheat the reader—was challenging and rewarding.
What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way (if you didn’t already cover these in the last question)?
The biggest challenge was the simple fact of it being a novel. Starting it. That intimidation. I didn’t want to write a story that was only a novel due to all those extra words and characters and plot points (all that extra breathing). I wanted it to be more of an experience for the reader. So being intimidated by that, I knew I had to find a routine and stick to it, something that would be productive but also not burn me out. (Life balance is very important to me. My dog Frida, for example, ensures that I’ll never churn out huge amounts of fiction.) I’ve mostly been a haphazard writer in the past—a session here, a session there—but for the novel I decided on 500 words a day with Sundays off. 3,000 words a week isn’t much, but it really does add up. And I found that I started hitting 500 during my lunch hour at work, then 700, then occasionally 1,000 when I found higher gears, so I would take the rest of the day off. It let me refill the well and keep my mind fresh and sane.
Dorky question: did you do detailed outlining for the book? What about character sketches or other kinds of support work? How did that go?
I mentioned having to approach the book differently once I waded in as far as the middle third, and that’s when outlining reared its head. I remember having around 40,000 words written and realizing that for the first time, I couldn’t magically bring forth all the plot points and nuances that lay behind me. I’d never outlined anything before. So I decided to start by summarizing everything I’d written so far, so it would be in a document that I could reference but also so that it would strengthen it all in my mind.
So I wrote an outline in paragraph form, and when I caught up with myself, I kept summarizing, even though the word summarize didn’t really apply anymore since I was essentially creating in shorthand. I was shocked when I “summarized” the rest of the book, and l sat there, asking myself what the hell had happened to my writer brain. It was very interesting to go back to the middle and start officially writing my way forward now that I knew the majority of everything that would happen. I missed that beautiful sense of discovery I get along the way, but the process was rewarding in spite of its absence.
My character sketches and research are nothing to write home about, but I made sure I felt as much of Clair Fuentes’s pain and decisions as I could hope to, and I thought about Wyman Louth a great deal, keeping him at arm’s length so that I couldn’t see inside him too clearly. I tried to mirror the novel’s dynamic within my own awareness.
And I bought the word processing program Scrivener. I didn’t use more than a small percentage of its capabilities, but I’d recommend it to writers simply for its ability to display all your notes, comments, thoughts, links, images, etc., all in one visible window, with your beautiful story right in the middle. That was a big help.
Can you talk about the plot or anything? (Obviously, it’s totally cool if you’d rather not).
I can give a glimpse. Its working title is The Lighted Hand, and I expect that to stick.
Grieving mother Clair Fuentes moves back home to north Georgia to be near her father, the only family she has left. She meets his new friend at his nursing home, a man named Wyman Louth, who was the central figure of a failed Appalachian doomsday cult back in the 1950s and 60s. Lost in mourning and painkillers and struggling to connect with her father, she becomes fixated on Wyman and convinces him to tell his story. She knows this will give her something to focus her energy on, which is like a godsend to her broken heart. But as she spends more time with Wyman, she is surprised to find a strange comfort in his past…along with disturbing echoes of her own. Do weird things start happening in the present day, too? I’m not telling.
(Okay, yes, they do.)
It’s told in an epistolary, found-materials style. Yes, there is some found footage, but I’ll be coy and not reveal the context of it. I wanted to play with that structure, hopefully with something new brought to it. It also gives a nod to my short story “October Film Haunt: Under the House,” which was fun.
I’m not sure what terms I’d use as labels. Weird fiction, horror, literary, upmarket thriller…sure, all those things are there. In my secret heart I see myself as a mishmash of all this stuff, with everything getting an equal share, and so of course I want the novel to be, too. There is great beauty in the dark and the ordinary alike, and that fuels most of what I do.
Based on your posts about the extreme lack of swearing in the book, I can only assume it’s about preschool teachers or something. What the eff do you have against swearing, man?!
Hahaha. No, it’s just that…I don’t swear all that much in real life. And while I’m aware that many people do, I often find that people swear more in fiction than is realistic. Granted, if this novel were about rougher people, that would be a different story (in both senses). I’m sure there’s an unwritten story in me that features a couple of potty mouths. But generally, when I drop the F-bomb, there’s a reason. When I swear in my work, I want to feel it in my character, and I want the reader to feel its weight. It’s just how I look at it. Now get off my effing back!
For all of us developing writers out there, do you have any advice you’ve gleaned from writing the novel? Any pitfalls you ran into that you’d care to share?
Number one would be the routine I mentioned earlier. Everyone has their own unique writing system in place, and yours might work beautifully. But if you feel a novel is intimidating, just remember that other authors are intimidated, too. You can do this thing. Find a routine that works but isn’t too stressful, then start watching the words add up. As I also mentioned before, if you have a word-count goal and you hit it early in the day, don’t be afraid to turn the computer off and go outside. It’s important to remember that it’s not a race. I feel that giving your non-writing life equal billing keeps you grounded and fresh.
Don’t be afraid to hit a wall, either. I wrote this novel over nine months, which was neither particularly slow nor fast. But I wrote nothing during one of those months because the novel had stalled. I tried to stay calm about it, think around the wall, change those flashlight batteries, and finally I found a door. (This, unsurprisingly, was when I started going back and “summarizing” everything I’d written. It brought the story back to me.) Whether it’s thinking about your character’s motivations or just figuring out what dramatic thing is going to befall them, give it the time it’s asking for.
Perhaps most of all, write a novel you would want to read. It’s a cliché for a reason. The whole process will be far more enjoyable and enriching. You’ll feel that magic and that buzz in your head. And if you wouldn’t accept less than high quality from a book you purchased to read, how can you expect anyone to buy yours?
Do you have any update on what’s happening with this project, that you’d care to share?
It’s in a brief limbo right now. Once my agent has finished it, I’m sure we’ll discuss edits, and hopefully within a couple of months we’ll be ready to see if there’s any interest in it.
Besides the novel, do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
I have new short stories in the anthologies Looming Low, Shadows Over Main Street Volume 2, and Darker Companions: Celebrating 50 Years of Ramsey Campbell, all of which have been published very recently. The charity anthology Walk on the Weird Side features a short and very, very weird collaboration between me and artist Michael Bukowski, who did the cover for Greener Pastures. Other than single-story publications, I’m getting close to compiling the material for my next collection. I have more than enough stories to choose from, but of course I want to narrow them down to the very best, both in terms of quality and togetherness, for a single volume.
*BONUS HALLOWEEN-ORIENTED QUESTION*
What, for you, would be the PERFECT story(ies) to read at midnight on a stormy October 31st?
Choosing a story for a stormy Halloween night is a delicate matter. All the variables of horror fandom have aligned themselves. Samhain dictates that the veil between the living and the dead has grown to its thinnest point. Many stories come to mind that capture the season and the spirit of the holiday wonderfully, with the spooks and the creatures in the dark. There are a handful of stories that masterfully establish a sense of dread and build it to a skin-crawling pitch. But I’m going to choose Reggie Oliver’s “Flowers of the Sea.” One of my favorite stories in any style of fiction, it is one that on its surface is perhaps better suited to the gray of winter. But you don’t have to look too closely to see that it is a story about the fading of things, and the freshness of death. It is a story of change. I’m not stretching here to make it fit Halloween, though. Halloween is for being frightened and horrified, and “Flowers of the Sea” does it in a way few stories can, quietly and disturbingly, all in a way you can’t predict beforehand. I still think about it often and reread it at least once a year. It creeps me out.
Bonus answer: In the novel category, I’d choose Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark. Campbell is at his absolute best here, using sensory imagery and atmosphere to create a fever of dread. Nearly every single one of the 400 or so pages features something creepy. It is relentless, and before long you’ll feel like Tubby Thackeray is pursuing you, the reader. It’s a feeling I haven’t quite experienced in any other novel. What’s more Halloween than that?
Thank you, Michael Wehunt!!!