Saturday, July 20, 2013

Interview Sessions: Volume 2.2

Nicholas Daniel Michelis: "A Curveball Sort of Year." 

If you've ever been to The Only Cafe outside of a Ruckus Reading, you may well already be familiar with Nicholas Daniel Michelis. It's not unlikely that he was there, under the sun on the patio with a beer in his hand, or maybe quietly typing away at one of the tables, a steaming americano close by. In fact, of all the writers and musicians who have submitted to read for us thus far, Nicholas is unique in that he's the only one to show up to the venue several years early. 

A thoughtful and often reserved man, the depth and labyrinthine turns of his writing can easily take a reader by surprise  like the writer himself, there is more to his stories than a first glance can possibly prepare you for. 

In the fall of 2012, Nicholas' life was on track and humming along nicely. Having graduated the previous year from Ryerson University with a Bachelor's of Fine Arts in Film Studies, he planned to pursue a growing passion for the written word. He had just been accepted to the University of New Brunswick for an MA in creative writing on the strength of his stories "The Bad Word" and "Grazers," and was, he remembers, "so ready for the move." Everything was moving according to plan.

But by Halloween night of that year, plans changed.

Nicholas describes the past twelve months as "a curveball sort of year." Shortly after arriving in Fredericton, he began to experience debilitating panic attacks and severe anxiety. In his own words: "Silence became noise. Gentle morning light, a searing blaze. I began to push further and further away from my goals. Making food to eat became difficult. Some days I would need to hold myself between a doorway just to feel the stability of a solid structure."

At the end of October, he made the difficult choice to return home to Toronto. 

"I hated to leave," he says. "I am so grateful to everyone I met at UNB."

Looking back, it seems strange that the Christmas that followed passed with relative ease. He slipped back into his job as a video editor for a satellite television, but began to feel increasingly alone and apart from his life and his identity. 

"I procrastinated my way through days," he recalls. "Sleeping until 3 or 4pm. Working from 8pm 'til 3am. I was clearly depressed but it wasn't clear to me or anyone around what was going on."

Then, in January of this year, Nicholas and his family suffered a crushing blow: without warning, in the middle of the night, his father suffered a fatal heart attack. 

"I still remember the opalescent blue of his skin as I held his hand on what would become, in my memory, his deathbed," he tells us. "He wore a Team USA hockey t-shirt the night he passed away. He ate pizza before going to bed. These are the kind of mundane things that clutter my mind when I try to remember that dark time."

"As humans, it's only natural that we try to figure out, whether it be through a way of speaking, writing, dressing, etc., how we want to be remembered by those we love and will eventually leave behind in our lives. We attempt, sometimes, to provide them with a packet of our best self in 140 characters, give them our best opening line, pick out a thoughtful birthday card from the shelf. In the end, the defining packet my father left for me was not anything he mulled over, shaped or distorted. The final image of my father that I carry with me is of a balding, sweaty, slightly overweight man helping me carry a couch down two flights of stairs and out of a Fredericton apartment. And by no means do I consider that to be an intentionally unflattering depiction of the man; that just happens to be exactly who he was in the moment I finally realized how much I needed him in my life. Months later, without saying goodbye, without any warning, he was gone."

After the passing of his father, Nicholas quit his job. Soon thereafter, he began to seek help for what would eventually be diagnosed as clinical depression. The battle is ongoing, but through work with a cognitive behaviour therapist and anti-depressant medication, Nicholas feels like he is starting to make progress.

"My sleep schedule is still mostly erratic but I beat myself up less about it. I drink less. I don't use alcohol to self-medicate any more. I can walk through malls without feeling like I am going to explode. I feel about level again like that shaky feeling in your knees just before you regain your balance."

Now, Nicholas is working with the experience in an attempt to reconcile the turmoil into a short story. Though the emotional turmoil caused by his father's death had severely altered Nicholas' writing habits, he finds himself returning to story writing, slowly but surely  and the future of his work is starting to look a little brighter.

"Receiving the opportunity to read at Ruckus has given me the confidence to revisit [my] work," he says. "And I hope for more good things to come."

Above all else, one thing is clear: Nicholas' future work will be writing to watch out for. Drawing inspiration from the elaborate complexity of David Foster Wallace and the explosive, manic prose of Mark Anthony Jarman, Nicholas' stories are so solid that they often bear more of a resemblance to architecture than to writing. He isn't one to just dash things off, either  for "The Bad Word" and "Grazers," the aforementioned stories which procured admittance to UNB, he tells us that the process took around two years. Unsurprisingly, the time he's taken shows. 

"The Bad Word" starts as the story of a strange schoolyard game, but quickly begins to capture the fear and confusion of an era that many readers will be all too familiar with. Right from the first few intriguing sentences, the story begins to function on a dizzying number of levels, each closer to the reader's heart, until the final collapse of the story's close sums up what it was like to live through the events of September 11th, 2001. "Grazers" is a David Foster Wallace-esque journey down the rabbit hole of events that have shaped and defined the narrator's life, as told to a colleague. Equally darkly hilarious and unrelentingly complex, the story is as unbelievable as it is believable; a memory cribbed directly from almost-reality. Theft, Charlie Brown, and a man choking on a fine cut of steak all play a prominent role in a story that refuses to let you put it down until all threads have been accounted for. 

When Nicholas' books start coming out, and everyone keeps telling you how great they are, you're going to feel pretty dumb that you passed up the opportunity to see him read live before he was a household name. Why take that chance? Head out to RUCKUS READINGS VOL. II, JULY 28th, 7 PM, at THE ONLY CAFE (972 Danforth). Heck, maybe if you buy him a pint or an americano, he may even have a chat with you  and that alone would be worth your while. 

If you want a little taste of exactly what you're in for next Sunday, the following interview should whet your appetite for more. Consider this fair warning, though: if for whatever reason you aren't planning on attending, reading the interview is going to make it pretty hard to stay away. 

1) To give people who have never experienced your work before an idea of what they’re getting themselves into (and in the cinematic spirit of ‘famous sequels’), riddle me this: If your body of work was a Hollywood movie, what would it be about, what genre of film would it be, and who would star?

Somewhere on the G.I. axis of all stories, teetering on the fine line that separates good fortune (wealth, boisterous good health) and ill fortune (sickness, poverty), a little below average happiness, we find a young teen living in Toronto. Having recently lost his father to a sudden heart attack, his mother has remarried an aggressive, foul-mouthed alcoholic with equally nasty twin boys. The boy succumbs to depression, hiding out in east-end hipster bars eating take-out dim sum, stealing smart phones and sucking down as 
many Americanos as his weakened heart can handle. Then there’s a New Year’s Eve party at Nathan Philips Square with a special performance from the world’s most talented and admired pop star, Carly Rae Jepsen. The boy can’t go. He helps everyone prepare but has to stay home and watch his stepfather’s pit-bull chew through his Magic the Gathering card collection. But does he give up? No. He is a rugged young man, optimistic and brimming with hope and desire. Then Oona, Queen of the Fae shows up. Gives him vintage Air Jordans, gives him a cherry red Lambo, gives him pubic hair, gives him another four inches in every direction. He goes to the New Year’s Eve party, dances with Carly Rae on stage. Midnight strikes. His faerie gifts disappear. Does he sink back to the same level of sadness? Of course not! He has the memory of his dance with Carly Rae and the kiss that almost was. He will remember that dance for the rest of his life. Then he craps along for a bit hustling stolen cell phones, sucking down Intelligentsia, playing Magic cards. Carly Rae and her entourage find the boy’s missing Air Jordans. The shoes fit. He achieves infinite happiness. Starring: Carly Rae Jepsen as herself; Jessica Chastain as the mother; Sean Penn as the stepfather; Cate Blanchett as Oona; and Chris Colfer as the boy.

2) And (most importantly), what would its 80s-action-blockbuster style tagline be?

“Things are about to get a little faerie…”

3) Can you identify when it was that you really began to write (seriously or otherwise)? Was there anyone or anything that inspired you to start writing?

Seriously? May 2010. That was the beginning of a blistering three-month fever dream where all I did, it seemed, was drink coffee and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Hal Incandenza’s Bildungsroman, Don Gately’s metamorphosis story, the quest for the master copy of Infinite Jest…each narrative fractal captured my imagination and commanded my attention unlike any other piece of fiction I had read before.

Wallace’s novel taught me that the reader changes the fiction as much as the reader is changed by the fiction. The repetitive motion of flipping the weighty tome from footnote to chaining footnote, into the notes and errata section and back again, made me feel like I was toying with a delicate, insane machine designed to read like tricked-out hybrid of Mosby’s Medical Dictionary and Thomas Pynchon. I wanted to give writing a serious try shortly after completing Jest to see if I could recreate that clicking, electric high. I’m still trying.

4) Now that you’ve gotten a little older, are there any themes or images you find yourself coming back to? If so, what are they, and why do you think resonate with you?

I’m still trying to figure out 9/11, whatever that means. In 2001, my mother was pregnant with my baby brother, Matthew. She would give birth to him ten days after the event. There are only two memories I have of that year. In the first memory, I am holding my brother in my palms and examining his translucent, pink flesh, smelling that new baby smell. In the second memory, I am watching the twin pillars of flame pancake to the ground over, and over, and over again on the television for about a year. To help me cope 
with the latter memory, a former high school teacher of mine recommended I hunt down Jean Baudrillard’s essay, The Spirit of Terrorism. I found it at Circus Music and Books on the Danforth last month. Baudrillard writes, 

“We would forgive them [the terrorists] any massacre if it had a meaning, if it could be interpreted as historical violence – this is the moral axiom of good violence. We would pardon them any violence if it were not given media exposure (‘terrorism would be nothing without the media’). But this is all illusion. There is no ‘good’ use of the media; the media are part of the event, they are part of the terror, and they work in both directions.”

In a way, I think part of anyone who witnessed that event play out is still parked in front of the television of the mind watching the world burn for his or her entertainment.
5) In the works of other authors, are there any particular subjects or styles you are drawn towards? For that matter, are there any writers who you specifically admire?

A List of Authors, Subjects and Styles Nicholas Daniel Michelis is Drawn Toward: 

David Foster Wallace for Infinite Jest, Consider the Lobster (understanding television and the internet in relation to contemporary fiction writing, long multi-clause sentences); 

Mark Anthony Jarman for Salvage King, Ya!, 19 Knives (kinetic prose, drinking stories, hockey, Canadian freaks, writing the way you’d like to talk, cougars)

Mary Gaitskill for Bad Behaviour (longing, desire, angst, apartment living); 

Denis Johnson for Jesus’ Son (petty crime, drug use, murder, extra-sensory perception, rural America); 

Alain de Botton for Status Anxiety, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (the anxiety of being, understanding of the beauty and horror of work).

6) Moving away from written work for a moment: what sorts of things do you do when 
you’re not writing?

When I am not writing I am often thinking about not writing, thinking about why I am not writing and blaming myself for not writing more. Slowly but surely, I’m learning that it’s not totally necessary to be writing all the time. I bully myself into writing and, often, my work seems pushed and bullied. Life writes itself whether we step out of the way or not. I am currently coping with the death of my father and hope to work my story and recovery from depression into words soon. I am also an avid reader and Magic the Gathering trading card player. When I’m not flipping cardboard or pages, I am completing a Teaching English as a Foreign Language certificate online through O.I.S.E. at the University of Toronto. My life goal is to teach English abroad and become a primary school teacher at home. I’ve listened to Kanye West’s Yeezus about 25 times since it was released. I’m not sure why yet… It might have something to do with this verse: “Bitch, I’m back out my coma/ Waking up on your sofa/ When I park my Range Rover/ Slightly scratch your Corolla/ OK, I smash your Corolla…” Pretty funny.

7) In the booze-friendly spirit of Ruckus, give us a pairing: one of your favourite works/authors and one of your favourite beverages (alcoholic or not). Why do they go together? How do they complement one another?

Mark Anthony Jarman’s 19 Knives is one of my favourite Canadian short story collections. Pair it McAuslan’s St. Amboise Oatmeal Stout. Dark malt and roasted barley, sweet espresso and dark, bitter chocolate snuggled under a long-lasting, mocha-coloured head. A stormy night in a pint glass. Intense, focused and darkly funny, 19 Knives is the perfect complement to this beer.

8) Can you give us a little written trailer of what you’re going to be reading on July 28th?

Depends on what Ruckus wants me to read! I submitted two stories and haven’t heard back about which one the jury has chosen. I’ll either be reading about little children trying to blow each other up with a word, or about a man choking to death on a piece of filet mignon.

9) Last question: give us a short (less than 75 words) third-person bio blurb about yourself which covers any awards/distinctions you're proud of and what you're tackling right now.

Nicholas Daniel Michelis is currently tackling cognitive behaviour therapy, a new short story about a Greek Orthodox funeral food and leftover coq au vin.

If you enjoyed this interview, you can get more of your Nicholas Daniel Michelis fix by following him on Twitter under the handle @tenitemsorless. Alternately, leave a fresh coffee under a box propped up with a stick on the Only's back patio 
 he'll find it. You just need to make sure you yank the stick away in time. 

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