For this issue, Liz and I switched it up. I’m highlighting a fiction writer–granted, a fiction writer heavily influenced by poetry–and Liz is highlighting a poet.
This fiction writer’s work both intrigued me and made me think about the line between fiction and poetry. Stay tuned for the whole interview because we’ve published an additional piece of fiction at the bottom of the interview!
I’m so happy to present to NEAT readers:
Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois
When did you first start writing? What was your first story about?
I started writing in the fourth grade. I fell under the influence of Mrs. Charlotte Sirota, who was the sponsor for the school newspaper, and later my sixth grade teacher. Mrs. Sirota had a certain mystery to her, because she only had one-half of a lung.
My first published story was about a mad scientist who could change himself into anything, like a piece of paper that could slide under a door so he could steal a bunch of stuff. After my father died, I was going through his papers and found it. I read it to my mother and uncle, and they were delighted. “Very creative,” said my uncle.
Like all great teachers one connects with, Mrs. Sirota irrevocably changed my life.
Overall, where do you draw your inspiration? Specific poetry, specific fiction, paintings, films, etc.?
I don’t think in terms of inspiration. I think maybe inspiration is something important to the novice writer, but I’ve been writing now for half a century. The way I normally work is that something will capture my attention (it could be a line from a poem, a facebook post, a painting, a stray thought of my own) and a line or phrase will occur to me. I set that down, like a prompt, and my creative process takes over. It’s a kind of “automatic writing.” My relationship between my conscious mind and my subconscious is very supple and unfettered. Everything I know about telling a story provides the channel or form for the material. After that, of course, there’s some editing, but not nearly as much with poetry and flash fiction as with longer, more cumbersome forms.
Do you have any strange writing habits?
No. I sit at a laptop in a room with four walls.
How strongly is your work influenced by poetry? Who are the poets who inspire you?
Poetry is the foundation of any literary fiction, because the focus is on the immediacy and color and quality of the language itself. What’s important is how the writer says something, not just what the writer says. The point is not to get from point A to point B—it’s the road traveled between the two points. I wrote poetry for many years before I wrote any fiction as an adult. I played with language, and rewrote single lines or stanzas for hours. In the early years, I recall being inspired by James Wright, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens. I never read any of Bukowski’s poetry until I was nearly sixty. I find his honesty and directness inspiring. Like Bukowski, neither my poetry nor my prose contains much elevated language or abstract material. I enjoy being “down to earth.”
“Complexion” is a work of fiction, correct? What inspired this particular piece?
As in much of my work, “Complexion” contains autobiographical and fictional elements. I really can’t recall what “inspired” this piece. But you know, when you work with unconscious material, sometimes the process is unrecoverable. Sometimes in analytical psychotherapy, a patient will have an important breakthrough, bringing up long repressed unconscious material, but the next session he or she is not able to remember what occurred in the previous session. The important material that came up may be remembered in a very fuzzy way. Trying to analyze the writing process can be like that. Anyway, what’s the point of trying to analyze it? People talk too much about writing. People talk too much in general.
Is the wife’s complexion a metaphor for something larger, or am I reading too much into the piece?
I don’t think in those terms. You know, the current model for the writer is someone who has earned an MFA, who writes and is also a scholar of writing, who can pick apart and discuss writing intellectually. I belong to an earlier model. I have no English degree. I’ve taken maybe two creative writing classes in my life, and a few week-long workshops. I’m not very knowledgeable about poetry or prose, and don’t really care to be. I’m not comfortable hanging out with writers or talking about writing. Why would I want to pick a part my own writing? For me, in this piece I was thinking about a real woman. I had a relationship with her, but didn’t marry her. I suppose the “something larger” can be the sum total of all the differences that act as barriers, that keep people a part.
Do you write under a penname? Have you always connected your full name to your work?
At a certain point I decided to honor my grandmother by incorporating her maiden name, Krockmalnik. Some time after I decided that, I found a photograph of her as a young woman reclining on a tree limb, playing the Russian version of a ukulele.
What literary character is most like you?
I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience of reading a novel and thinking that the character is a lot like me. I’ve identified with many characters, but never thought of any as a stand-in for me.
Mitchell’s poems and fictions have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He is a regular contributor to The Prague Revue, and has been thrice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for 99 cents from Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition.
Is the Universe friendly, asked Einstein. Does the silence seethe with rage and roil with violence, or does compassion hold its breath, like my grandfather’s ghost in the upstairs bedroom of our farmhouse, the one he shared with my grandmother, who saved my life?
I sometimes think of Einstein after making love with my wife, all the things he knew, and the few things I know that he didn’t. My wife was born with a skin disease that makes her look like a monster. When strangers see her they gasp, then turn red with embarrassment. But when I first met her, all I saw were her startling blue eyes. I was deeply in love before I noticed her scarred skin.
My parents refused to attend the wedding. Their meanness focused down on her as if she were a microscope slide loaded with botulism. Her condition was neither heritable nor contagious, but my parents decided it was both, and fixated on the idea that we would be a family of monsters. The only monster was the one inside me, the one they’d put there, that I held captive with powerful bonds.