Posted by Katherine Jerabeck, Fiction reader for issue 4.2
Are you an English major, or aspiring writer, sick of future accountants telling you that you will never get a job? Fear not, Geneseo alumni and accomplished writer, Michael Sheehan, is here to prove that you can do what you love and make a living. Michael Sheehan graduated from Geneseo with an English (creative writing) degree, and is the author of Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned and editor-in-chief of REAL literary journal. I spoke with Michael to find out some of his background on how he made his way from Geneseo to where he is now.
Gandy Dancer: Can you share anything about your experiences after Geneseo and further education (specifically your time at Wisconsin)?
Michael Sheehan: So, after Geneseo, I drove across the country to read the Great Books at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. I felt, as I got to the end of my time at Geneseo, that I hadn’t read all that I wanted to and would need to in order to be the writer I wanted to be. (This feeling was partially born of a great class that combined Dante and mathematics, co-taught by Ron Herzman and Gary Towsley.) This was an important experience, but I will add that I read a lot of other things around this time, too, mostly postmodern and contemporary fiction, which were hugely formative. So, I was getting a broad view of Western thought and also a very focused view on the type of writing that most informed what I wanted to do as a writer.
I got my MFA at the University of Arizona, which was a great experience, both inside the classroom and out. After that, I had the great good fortune to spend a year in Madison as a fiction fellow. I was just in Madison, visiting friends, and thought back to the phone call I got in the final weeks of my time at UA. It was a pretty stunning experience, a short call, but one whose effect lingered long after I hung up. The year I spent as a fellow was great—I mean, it is hard to put into words what a gift that fellowship was and how grateful I am to have had it. I used that time mainly to draft a novel, which I started the first month of the fellowship and worked on throughout what was the most productive and consistent writing routine I’ve ever had. I wrote five pages a day, five days a week, which left plenty of time for teaching and reading and taking my dog to the park. Madison has one of the greatest writing communities I know of, with MFAs and faculty and fellows and alumni all connecting. Feeling connected to the writing community, having friendships with other writers, gaining readers for my work and getting to know writers whose work I really admire, these are some of the most important things I got through my experiences in Tucson and Madison in particular.
GD: How have your experiences in Western New York influenced your writing? Have they at all?
MS: It’s weird—I was going to say not much, that they haven’t influenced my writing and that I don’t much write about WNY. But that’s not true. I actually have on a couple occasions invented cities or towns only to change them in revision back to the real cities and towns I know in WNY. Plus I’ve got one story I’m working on at present that is set in WNY. But I also think a lot of things—people, places, stories, events—filter through into my fiction. So, my work tends to seem to me a bit distant from my own real life experiences, yet I know there are transmuted pieces of WNY in all I write. I should say, too, that my experiences in WNY have to a very great extent made me who I am, so in that way WNY is directly influential in my writing and in everything I do.
GD: Where do you find inspiration for your fiction?
MS: Pretty much all over. For a long time, as I said, I didn’t really write about my life or about things I’d experienced—at least not directly. But sometimes a story will come from a setting or a sighting: while I was at Geneseo I wrote one story based on the then-shuttered-now-reopened Riviera and another where the character came from seeing someone crossing a street near campus. One day, on a drive in Tucson, I saw a thin white contrail rising near-vertically and imagined a story where a line sort of scrolled down out of the sky as a mysterious backdrop to a couple’s argument. One of my favorite stories came about from at least three initial inspirations: sitting at a visiting writer salon at UA, I suddenly thought of the line “Jean takes a moment to respond” and thought it would be a cool title, though the notes I took at first were for a very different story than the one I ultimately wrote. That final version came about from an idea I had about a story in which nothing really happens but where something significant occurs just off screen, a blur in the background of an otherwise mundane event. Then, while researching something that occurred in 1980 I stumbled across the details of a serial killer whose crimes so haunted me they found their way into the story as the event happening on the periphery. The stories I’ve been working on most recently come from two different sources, reflecting two different styles of story for me. One is based on an experience a friend had, sort of, back when I was living in Santa Fe, although I’ve incorporated experiences of my own and other purely fictional details, too. The other story is a kind of literary science fiction piece in which the sci-fi elements come from articles I’ve read and talks I’ve heard about architecture, ecology, and communication, among other things.
GD: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
MS: Be patient. I tend to be a very impatient person, with myself and with my own writing, and often have to work against this. (This relates to a piece of advice Rachel Hall gave me while I was at Geneseo, which was to take some time to develop as a writer before pursuing an MFA. Though this was sage advice, I kind of ignored it at first, applying to MFA programs pretty much right out of undergrad. I ended up following it, though, by accident: I entered my MFA program a couple years after leaving Geneseo, after I’d written a novel draft and several stories and had a much better idea of myself as a writer and what I wanted out of an MFA. It was good advice, and I now give it to my own students.) It takes time to develop a voice, time to learn what your aesthetic is, time to discover the writers you most admire and with whom your work fits, time to discover the best literary journals for what you like to write and read. Chekhov said, “Talent is a slow practice,” and I think that’s an important note for aspiring writers. Good writing involves work and knowledge of craft, but don’t get discouraged if good things aren’t happening immediately. Keep working, and good things will happen eventually.
GD: What was the process behind your first publication?
MS: I don’t really remember the exact process for the earliest couple publications, though I can say it was kind of an inadvisable throwing-darts method, sending out to journals that I didn’t know or read and that I got into via pure luck or accident. (I acknowledge that throwing darts might be a poor analogy for anyone who can throw a dart on target; for me, it pretty well describes the submission of stories without much foreknowledge: hoping for a bulls-eye, happy to hit the dartboard at all.) But the first real publication I got, after my MFA, was a different story and reflective of a much better process. For that publication, I discovered the journal by looking up where a writer whose work I loved had been published. I then subscribed to it and read multiple issues and found more writing I loved. Then they announced a theme issue, and I happened to have a story I felt was ready to be sent out that also exactly fit that theme. So, I knew the journal’s aesthetic well and had readied my own work for publication and also managed to send them what I knew they were looking for, in terms of theme. And it worked. So, in my experience—and I think it is good advice in general—publication works a lot better when you send to the literary magazines publishing the work you love and admire and that fits what you’re writing—which is to say, again, it is most important to read the journals in advance. When I was sending out anywhere—throwing darts—I had very little success; when I sent to the places I’d gotten to know and most respected, my results improved.
GD: How does your involvement with literary magazines such as REAL change your perspective as a writer? Does it? Has it changed your views on editing, rejection/acceptance?
MS: The big thing is not so much about my writing, but about the joy I take from the writing community. I’ve found that established writers often tend to be very generous and to be, basically, real human people. They’re nice. They’ll agree to an interview, maybe, or to judge a contest, or just will email you back. One of the things I took away from my time at UW Madison was the importance not only of belonging to the writing community but also being a good member of it, being a good steward. It’s important to me to publish writers whose work I admire, whether I have read it before or am encountering it for the first time.
I will also say it has definitely changed my views on rejection and acceptance, if in no other way than that process is no longer a mystery. I understand now that even the most monolithic and mighty literary magazine is staffed by people, and they are readers and editors, and they look at the work submitted with care and whatever subjective elements might be with them that day—your Western might be among a whole stack of Westerns, or they might not have had their coffee, or they might enjoy a story that is not the type you enjoy or like to write, etc. It’s probably obvious, but it can be good to be reminded that the names on the masthead are not faceless arbiters of good and bad; they’re individuals doing their best work to ensure the writing they believe in finds an audience.