Laundromats of the Dorito-Dust Bowl: An Interview with Mike Young
mike young is the author of Look! Look! Feathers, a book of stories, and We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough, a book of poems. He edits NOÖ Journal, runs Magic Helicopter Press, and writes for HTMLGIANT. Find him online at http://mikeayoung.blogspot.com.
Front Porch: One thing that’s immediately apparent when reading your short story collection, Look! Look! Feathers, is your attention to the sound of words. There’s a definite musicality at work. Is the sound of a collection of words what spurs a story for you, or do the sonic elements come through during the editing process?
Mike Young: I think it’s pretty relentless at the construction level. Pretty much sound is how I know a sentence is done or not. Sometimes I think this can be a hindrance—like, I can get so caught up in fiddling that I lose momentum. Plus there’s the fact that sound isn’t a static thing. What’s catchy one week is clunky the next. But yeah, maybe it’s all kind of a weird work ethic. The abstraction of making this artifact or performance or whatever of language, the reality of that language’s elusiveness in terms of meaning or evocation—so if I’ve gone as far as I can on that level and still feel frustrated, like I haven’t “worked hard enough,” then stringing sounds up makes for the possibility of a more concrete sonic craftsmanship. Which of course isn’t perfect either: all mouths are shaped different, I can’t pronounce the names of most tennis players, etc. But it’s this gooey, physical-seeming thing that makes me feel like I can wipe sweat off my brain.
FP: I know you write poetry as well, so I’m guessing there’s poetic influence in your work, but are there any musical influences to your writing as well?
MY: Oh, totally. Lyrically and musically. Eminem to Alan Jackson. I wrote about a bunch of songs that sort of jived with LLF for Largehearted Boy. I feel like that sort of serves as a good testament, but also another thing: I was going through an old hard drive and found these songs I wrote the summer I started a lot of the stories in LLF. And I was doing things like frying squash at 4AM and biking past the cannery and reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in a lawn chair next to a new condo getting built where deer would come late at night and nibble at the drying concrete, and really soaking in whatever I was taking in, and I did all these Tom Waits rip-offs with Barbie limousines in them, and I feel like all that shit had to be molding around unwashed in the blender to chug into more clearly-formed stories later on.
FP: The short stories of LLF reuse characters, having the protagonists of some mention the protagonists of others, and while this adds dimension to those characters, it also turns the region they inhabit into a character. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for these stories’ settings?
MY: A weird thing happened to me in Baltimore. I mean, Baltimore is a weird thing that happens to you, so I will be more specific. I was walking by the Chipotle in Charles Village, and this girl stopped me and said “Excuse me, you look really familiar, did you ever live in California?” And I said I grew up in this tiny town with a huge dam called Oroville, and then she said so did she. And it turned out we went to junior high together, and now we inexplicably lived two houses down from each other on one of Baltimore’s painted-lady Victorian row house streets that gets full of pollen and cargo shorts with serious knowhow about mitochondria. And she even had a yearbook from back then, so we got Thai food and looked at the yearbook, and talked about who was on meth and who was in the Air Force. Who drove backhoes, who pole dances in Reno, who fights off-and-on in the UFC. Some of these people we remembered and some we sort of had to fake. I would never move back to Oroville, but I like reading headlines from the local paper, like “Cleanup from 2008 Concow wildfires continues” and “Women plan vintage apron event.” Probably my favorite bits of setting in LLF are the bits about the levee in the story “Mosquito Fog.” Especially the word “catkin.”
FP: Sometimes your stories remind me of action movies. There’s often a quick pace at work. Every word has a movement to it, like the reader’s riding shotgun in your car chase, or maybe you’re giving the reader a piggyback ride while you attempt to beat Tony Hawk’s 900. Is there an energy level you shoot for in your work?
MY: I like a sense of the madcap, and I like a disparity between what an event/situation/place warrants and what spills out. I remember when video games started getting more realistic physics engines, and the level designers went crazy encouraging you to just make a mess out of the most boring shit. Like they would more or less force you to kick around a bunch of cardboard boxes, or when you threw even something boring like a printer cartridge it would rattle and carom and eagerly court verbs like "carom." That’s what I like out of action in stories. Like, I would like to see an action movie set entirely at a laundromat.
FP: What’s with all the food? Every story in LLF features food in some way, whether it creates comfort for characters or signifies change. Are you obsessed with food?
MY: I am absolutely obsessed with food. Food is such a collection, such things made of measurable levels of other things. Food is goal-oriented clutter. The easiest way to trick me is to describe your food with a bunch of amazing words, and I will try it so salaciously, even if those words don’t palette together at all food-wise. Cinnamon hickory cumin-fried swizzle strips. The Arby's in the town where I grew up had these jalapeno poppers with boysenberry dipping sauce, and they were the best, but when I was with a bunch of friends in a car the other month, and I was complaining that Arby’s doesn’t seem to have those anymore, they were like “Because you are the only one in the world who would order those at Arby’s.” Probably my susceptibility to such combos surges and clogs my writing in equal measure.
FP: You seem to have a love/hate relationship with small towns. In LLF, you point out what the boredom and loneliness of small towns does to people, and how there’s also a beauty in that. Maybe I’m reaching a bit on that last part. How do you view small towns?
MY: Oh man, that’s such a big question. I just moved back to a small town after living in a city. It’s nice having four or five places where you know you’ll run into at least somebody who knows somebody you know, but it’s also nice seeing people on a sidewalk and being like “What are you doing in this part of the city? You belong in quadrant six!” I guess you can choose to live however no matter the wherever: you can live between trains or on them; you can carry yourself in your own snow globe but refill it with local water; you can live among or with; a high five can be a don’t-worry-I-see-you or a see-you-later.
Most living probably takes place in even smaller units: the upstairs, the shared bathroom. The living is situated and echoey at the same time. Right now I live on a street with someone everybody in town knows for constantly failing to get elected to city council, and someone nobody knows who stole a NO HORSES PERMITTED ON OFFRAMPS sign and put it on his porch.
FP: Is including things like Facebook and instant messaging important to fiction writing these days (I think so)? How so?
MY: For people who spend time with these things, I think it’s just about that time. Not only the hours we spend “on” things, but the other hours spent referencing or discussing or the hours of consequence from making decisions based on whatever. It’s also like, duh, humans are social. The rest of what I think about this will probably not get better than the way it went down in this post (and the subsequent comment stream discussion) way back in 2010.
FP: You also run your own literary magazine and press. What kind of aesthetic does each have?
MY: The current aesthetic of NOÖ Journal (and maybe Magic Helicopter Press by extension, but I guess it has to be pointed out that NOÖ is black-and-white and MHP’s logo is a giant turquoise and pink helicopter blob) is probably best described by the blurb (and the chaotic accumulation of the blurb’s blurbiness) I came up with to describe NOÖ : “You should read NOÖ  if you like dance-offs, Russian salads, laundromats outside of burnt down malls, people who give you their ADD medication for your birthday, Ivan Lendl nostalgia, Hawaiians with machine guns, fake boyfriends, people who marry houses, confused police, sisters who are boxes of snakes, sisters who threaten you with Ginsu knives, pommel-horsing social compromise, meat screams, oysters collected by widows, letters to jailed Lil Wayne, hearts too full of apples and wind, slut bags, triangle booth sandwiches, fucktrys, lung balloons, the bicycle in the wrong part of the neighborhood, the fast snapping motion of a neck during the fickle stages of a swan-dive, whiskey & chocolate, roller hockey coaches, furniture apocalypses, people who swallow entire friends, and eerie floating underwear.”
FP: What are you up to now, Mr. Young? A poetry collection in the works, or another fiction project? A television series based on LLF (really, any of the stories within could have its own film too)? A Jay-Z collab?
MY: I’m working on a long thing in the form of unsent emails from a fired YouTube employee to a YouTube user whose account is being cancelled because this user watches too much weird stuff. The latest things in this long thing are one of those spinning toothbrush holders and the phenomenon of poor people in other countries wearing championship t-shirts of teams that didn’t end up winning, like a coltan miner in the Congo wearing a UTAH JAZZ 1998 NBA CHAMPIONS shirt. I’m also working on another book of poems that has epigraphs from Archilochos and John Prine, a poem that speculates about whatever happened to every person I’ve ever met, and a lot of potential audience participation, like one place where it would be a good idea to yell/whisper “c’mon” after every line. Here are my two favorite lines, the ones I will stoically groom to be future quarterbacks: “Of all the weather, snow is the one / that least believes in the world.”