An Interview with Michael Chin
[This is part of a series of interviews with GASHER reading interns. In this installment, intern, Daniel Garcia, chats with author of Circus Folk, Michael Chin]
Daniel Garcia (DG): What are you currently reading?
Michael Chin (MC): I'm currently reading Steven Lee Moore's The Longer We Were There, which is a pretty brilliant non-fiction meditation on the author's life and the ways in which enlisting with the National Guard has fundamentally shaped it. I love it in part for how thoroughly it resists cliche and captures subtly absurdities like grappling with securing Internet access while stationed in Afghanistan and rendering how he passed the time in scenarios far removed from any traditional war scene as literature and other media tend to render it.
DG: What are the top three literary mags and writers that everyone should be reading?
MC: This is a tough one, so I'm going to resist over-thinking and run with a few off the top of my head. I enjoy Passages North, The Normal School, and Barrelhouse for similar reasons not only featuring consistently outstanding literature— often as not including emerging writers— but also often taking chances with more speculative content and experimental form.
For writers, I'll go with Carmen Maria Machado, Maggie Nelson, and Adam Nemett.
DG: What do you look for in a story? What is it that holds your attention throughout? What makes a good story a good story?
MC: I think a sense of completeness is key. I find myself most satisfied with stories for which the form in someway reflects the function and I ultimately can't imagine the story being told in a more successful way. For a few examples of favorites, Joe Hill's Pop Art is brilliant for its "commitment to the bit"— the degree to which the author resists the urge to get cute or too overtly say it is or is not a metaphor that the title character is an inflatable boy in an otherwise realist world; Nathan Englander's "Free Fruit For Young Widows" works in no small part because its recursive pattern of repeating and elaborating upon the same base story says so much about the way stories or told and how worldviews are shaped; Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person" so apologetically leans into a contemporary culture of how text messages can shape a personal relationship. I think the stock wisdom about characters driving a story, concision, and focus on scene over exposition are all quite true in the overwhelming majority of cases, too, but more and more a sense of wholeness and a story staying true to itself seem important to stories and my appreciation of them.
DG: For folks interested in your work, what’s your new book about?
MC: Circus Folk is a collection of linked stories centered on a traveling circus— often looking at what led people to become a part of the circus life. There are ways in which it could be read as a novel as characters do recur throughout the book and certain elements of the narrative advance as the book goes on, but I like to think it's all the sort of collection that you could sit down and open to any story for a good stand-alone reading experience.
DG: A line from your story, "Lion Taming: An Introduction" in the Spring 2018 issue of GASHER stood out to me:
“He’d affected the identity of a Chinese man who spoke only broken English, and had since struggled to decide which words to omit, which grammar to flub to not only play his part, but convince an audience of this identity.”
As a person of color myself, I was really struck both Lucille and The Ringmasters as characters playing off each other, particularly with the foregoing line, as well as the scene where The Ringmaster is throwing Lucille the bits of fish—it felt like such a metaphor for the treatment of people of color in this country, receiving a little bit of representation here, a little bit of progress there, etc., though never anything truly substantial. Was that deliberate? Can you say more about the ways race and ethnicity inform your work, if it does?
MC: One of my central concerns for the Circus Folk project on the whole was the idea of performance as identity and performance as work and how these lines might blur. I'm half-Chinese myself and grew up in a pretty homogeneously white community where there were times I felt I alternately performed or consciously resisted performing Asian stereotypes. The Ringmaster's very conscious "playing Chinese" is in some regards inspired by that, and this character is very clearly playing to the lowest common denominator. In the pieces on lion taming, there's certainly an element of considering animals as performers. Lucille, literally, is part of the show, but it is in part a stand-in for how people look at every one and every thing as a kind of performer or prop in the lives they present to the world— for example, posting a picture of your pet cat on social media as if to portray the cat as lazy or deranged or studious or whatever other characterization that the animal probably doesn't play much conscious role in. I'll be honest that likening Lucille to a minority in contemporary America wasn't something I was consciously trying to do, though I do think that making that link works to an extent, and may well say something about how, even subconsciously, we're all playing certain parts or objectifying other people/animals/things.
DG: Follow up question: in the foregoing issue of GASHER, "Lion Taming" is one larger piece with "Approach #4" and "Approach #14" appearing together in that story. Yet, in the book, they’re their own separate chapters. Was that deliberate? What was the reasoning behind that decision?
MC: All of the lion taming pieces were essentially intended as stand-alone flash pieces. I think the reader gets more out of them with the context of having read them all— and especially having read the whole book and having the full context around the lion tamer— but they're scattered throughout the book to revisit this element of the over-arching story and give each piece room to breathe and see how the relationship between the Ringmaster and the lion grows (or gets stunted in some cases).
I actually drafted these pieces last of anything included in the book, in part as a way of revisiting characters who had more fully realized stories elsewhere and getting a look at them performing well outside their element. There was also an element of fun and play to the choice. The second story in the collection, "Clown Faces," references the Ringmaster being "a self-trained lion tamer" and includes a scene featuring Lucille. In rereading the stories and compiling the overarching manuscript I couldn't help thinking that it was a huge missed opportunity not to actually see the at-times-resourceful, at-times-hapless Ringmaster tackle the lion taming project.
DG: What new work for you is on the horizon? Possibly a sequel with some of the other characters, like Ellie and Susan (I loved them as characters in "Bearded") or maybe even Claude?
MC: There actually is an unpublished story— never submitted anywhere, not included in the book— that revisits Ellie most of all, and a few other characters in their hunt to recapture Lucille after she gets loose. In revisiting the manuscript, this story rang hollow to me and I think it's for my own succumbing to sequel culture— I loved the characters, too, and wanted to see them again, but the story felt far less true to who they were and choices they were organically make than wedging the familiar players into a contrived situation. I'd never say never to coming back to these characters, but for now they're at rest in mind.
I have new book coming out this spring which is a fairly sprawling compilation of mostly flash fiction about the world of professional wrestling (titled The Long Way Home, on its way from Cowboy Jamboree Press). There's significant overlap in thematic concerns to Circus Folk in the consideration of performance vs. reality and how life on the road, in lieu of a stable setting, can become its own character.
DG: Where can people find you on the internet?
MC: My main website is located at miketchin.com and I try to maintain some presence on Twitter over at @miketchin.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He is the author of two full-length short story collections: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books and Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle; his third collection, The Long Way Home is forthcoming in 2020 from Cowboy Jamboree Press. Chin won the 2017-2018 Jean Leiby Chapbook Award from The Florida Review and Bayou Magazine’s 2014 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
Daniel Garcia's work appears or is forthcoming in SLICE, Denver Quarterly, The Offing, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. A semifinalist for The Southampton Review Nonfiction Prize (formerly the Frank McCourt Memoir Prize), Daniel is also a recipient of the Myong Cha Son Haiku Award, the 1st Place Personal Essay Award at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, winner of the Bat City Review Short Prose Contest, and a recent notable in The Best American Essays. Daniel serves as a reader for GASHER Journal and Split Lip Magazine.