Monday, July 03, 2017

INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL KEITH: Author of 'Slow Transit' with Susan Tepper

with Susan Tepper

 Michael C. Keith is the author of several dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction. His latest in the former category are Slow Transit and Perspective Drifts Like a Log on a River. He recently retired from the faculty of Boston College and is currently at work on a new story collection.

Susan Tepper: Your new story collection ‘Slow Transit’ is a visual delight from the moment the book cover is viewed. It reminded me of the last scene in the film Remains of the Day. So incredibly evocative. As are the stories you’ve written for this collection. You open with a knock-out flash/prologue titled ‘The Start to Mabel’s Day.’ Was there an incident that stirred up this story for you?

Michael Keith: I do recall an elderly woman who lived alone in the rooming house I occupied with my father. She was a sweet lady, who would often speak to me as I played out on the building’s steps and sidewalk. I didn’t get to really know her, because my father and I were back on the road (re: The Next Better Place) after a few weeks. I always felt a little sorry for her because she never seemed to have any visitors. She’s remained in my memories all these decades later. I think it’s a tough fate to be left alone when you’re old.

ST: How interesting that she stayed in your memory and you had the chance to immortalize her in this fiction. Your title story ‘Slow Transit’ is funny and surreal but not necessarily unbelievable. A man planting his garden comes across a hard object while digging, only to discover it’s a door. This story is quite short yet looms large.

MK: It’s another piece of bizarre-ism that makes a connection to actual experience. I love to twist the so-called hard and fast, warp it up. There’s a few things going on with this one. You have the guy tending his garden in a suburb of London. Bucolic enough. Then he encounters a mystery of sorts.

ST: I’ll say!

MK: Something in the ground that keeps him digging even though he may be wise to leave it as is. Humans are a curious lot, often to their detriment. Finally, a portal appears, and rather than take a few steps back to contemplate the ramifications of pulling on the door handle, he just goes ahead, and then out pops a gentleman from another century complaining about slow mass transit (a very now thing as well). What changes, really? I like to play with absurdities . . . relatable absurdities. Every day is loaded with them.

ST: Another flash I loved is ‘The Substance of Nothing’ in which two characters discuss the after-life. This is another story that seems to back up your book’s hook. How would you define the gestalt of this collection?

MK: I had to go back and reread this story to answer your question. After nearly 600 short pieces of fiction in eight years, it’s hard to recall everything. I guess I’m saying there are just some things that can’t be answered . . . logically. So when the child claims that “nothingness” is something, it’s hard to argue that. What the girl is stating (naively, perhaps . . . perhaps not?) is really axiomatic. We cannot not exist in some form. Does the idea give us hope for immortality? That’s another question that might be gleaned from the piece?

ST: An exploration of the metaphysical plane.

MK: Yes. And can we take solace in the prospect of a continuing presence, even if not cognizant of that presence? I’m pretty much obsessed with the subject of dying and death . . . perhaps to my emotional detriment. But it does fuel much of my imagination.

ST: It also fascinates me in a macabre way and does seem to be the driving underbelly of much of your fiction. Another story‘Hair Today’ continues on the theme of life and aging and the afterlife. Even the afterlife of hair! You write: “I look in the mirror and see a somewhat older guy with a decent head of hair… And then a friend calls me baldy.”

Do you think as we age we obsess over relatively minor things like our hair, rather than be happy we are still alive and moving pretty damned well? Do you think about the approaching dark tunnel? You are tremendously prolific as a writer. Does the idea of the tunnel keep you going as a writer? It does for me. I worry I will never live long enough to complete all the writing projects in my mind.

MK: I think the aging process is a design glitch by God or nature––whoever or whatever put us here. It’s a nasty thing (maybe a bad joke), no matter how you look at it. I see little upside of physical and mental deterioration. It makes me mad (and sad) . . . and that is often evident in what I write. I lash out in words at what I find reprehensible. Death is reprehensible. I’ve not seen any defense of it that makes a gram of sense to me. I will not go gentle into the last night––to paraphrase Dylan Thomas badly. I’d like to mellow out on all of this, but I find it hard. So I’ll assault the letters on my keyboard to stave off my dread and lodge my complaint about an impossible situation.

ST: I hear you. Loud and clear. This is a terrific collection. These same stories, from the pen of a cockeyed optimist, wouldn’t ring with the same intense clarity.

 ****Susan Tepper, an award-winning writer, has been at it for twenty years. Six books of her fiction and poetry have been published, with a seventh book, a novella, forthcoming in the fall of 2017. FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, is sporadically ongoing these past nine years.

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