My guest today is a fellow author and a man whose acquaintance I made through a friend on Facebook, and I am very pleased to have done so. An interesting man who has a lot of tales to tell, his writing is guaranteed to be setting bookshelves ablaze in the years to come. A dedicated father who knows what is important in life. It is my pleasure to be able to introduce you all to Mr. Court Merrigan.
To start the ball rolling, I always like to throw in a nice warm up question. So please, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m from Wyobraska, a region so geographically obscure that I am appending a map:
After growing up on a farm near Scottsbluff (unofficial “capital” of Wyobraska), I did the college thing, then headed abroad, living in Japan & Thailand for 10 years, with traveling stints all over Asia & the USA & the edge of Europe.
Most children grow up saying… I want to be a fireman, an astronaut, a rock star. Many writers I speak to grew up knowing they wanted to be writers from an early age – thus allowing them to be all of the above, and much more. How old where you when you realized where your future lay?
I wrote my first short story when I was five. It was called “The Ants.” It was about the ant piles outside our farmhouse.
That makes me sound like some sort of child prodigy until you consider that it took 31 years after that to get a book deal.
Can you remember the first piece you ever sold?
If by “sold” you mean “received money, that would be very recently, my story “The Gleaner’s Union” that appeared in Thuglit #1, I think.
Can you tell us a little about it?
It’s a piece of rural noir based on a story my grandpa told me from the time when he homesteaded on a chunk of hardscrabble ground in Wyoming in the 50’s. I hugely embellished the telling and set it during the Great Depression. My grandpa, RIP, also used to tell stories about growing up during that time, and I’ve taken a lot of them to heart.
You have written a lot of short fiction, what is it about this length of piece that you enjoy so much?
I think it was the fact that you can look at a short story and say, hey, I can finish this in a week, or two. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Novels require so much longer a commitment and until *very* recently, my novel manuscripts weren’t seeing the light of day. Whereas with a short story, there are enough mags out there that you know if you are persistent enough, it’ll get picked up someplace.
I have a short story coming out in Menacing Hedge in April that was rejected more than 50 times before getting an acceptance.
Are you contemplating writing any novels?
Funny you should ask! I very recently got picked up by an agent, the wonderful Adriann Ranta of WolfLit, and she’s shopping my postapocalyptic Western to publishers all and sundry as we speak. And just yesterday, in fact, I completed the first draft of a country noir / crime novel, which I’ll be sending along to Adriann as soon as it’s polished.
Do you think you could turn any of your short stories into the backdrop of a novel?
You know, I’ve never had much luck with that. You’d think that the background would be there for a larger exploration of some of the happenings in short stories, but for me, at least, a short story tends to be a contained unit, with a series of limited dilemmas that don’t necessarily translate well to a larger venue. Whereas the plots of novels are big to begin with, and so you’ve got more room to maneuver.
Who is your favorite character that you have written?
So speaking of short stories I’d *like* to turn into a novel, the character Axel Dacono / Frank Johnson (he has an alias, you see), who shows up in my stories “Dogs At The Door” and “Our Mutual Friend” in my collection MOONDOG OVER THE MEKONG, is a personal favorite. He’s a survivor, you know, and he doesn’t fuck around in the mucky middle of anything. He’s on full-bore all the time, like the people I most admire.
Axel Dacono deserves more breathing room, but it’s hard to say if he’ll get it.
Moondog Over the Mekong is your only curreny published work, excluding magazines and anthologies. Can you tell us a little about it?
Yep, it’s the only one. More in the works, soon, I hope, maybe after I get a novel out there into the world.
It’s a collection of stories I’ve been working on over the years, set in Thailand, Japan, and the rural Mountain West of the USA. They’re crime stories, for the most part, with a hard literary edge and some splashes of science fiction and fantasy. It it out on Amazon, waiting for you, even as we speak. You can find all of the links you will need at the end of this interview.
On your website you maintain a list of ‘Failures’. This is a rare yet very honest approach, and shows that perseverance is crucial to getting ahead in this business. What made you decide to post this list?
Because I was getting rejected left, right, and center, and feeling … ashamed about it. So following in the example of my friend Roxane Gay and a couple of others, I decided I wasn’t going to hide in the shadows with those rejections, but instead be totally forthcoming about them. Catharsis, right? And you know what, it totally worked. I’d post up a rejection and never think about it again. I couldn’t even tell you what’s on that list anymore. I never look at it. And haven’t felt the need to update it in quite some time, either.
When it comes to writing, do you have a set process you follow?
I’ve got two small children so, no. I’ve also got a full-time day job so, basically, I write when I’m not at work and the kids are unconscious. Which means early morning and late nights and those rare, blissful weekend occasions when their mother has taken them out of the house somewhere.
Would you say that you have any typical (or non-typical) ‘writerly’ idiosyncrasies at all?
Nah, I suspect I’m pretty typical. I like bourbon, I like coffee, I like words.
I do do all my first-draft writing using a program called DarkRoom, that resembles those green monitors of personal computing’s beginnings, where all the type is green and you can’t do anything but write. No spell check, no formatting, nothing. I don’t know if that’s an idiosyncrasy, exactly, though.
Do you plan out your pieces step by step or have a basic outline just there to keep you within sound much wider boundaries?
I’ve never been a good outliner. When writing a novel manuscript, I sometimes plan out a few chapters in advance but basically I just write as the story dictates. And then go back and fix the cracks and the holes later.
If you had to describe your writing in just three words, what would they be?
Ohhh, tough question. Maybe: hard-working grit.
Do you try to write with a message or theme, or simply with the point being entertainment?
No message or theme. What’s more boring than pedantic literature that has some supposed Great Meaning? Might as well be putting a PowerPoint up in cornflower-blue. I write strictly for the story, so, yeah, for the entertainment.
You have two young children right? How do you find writing with children around? I have four myself, and can attest to it being an interesting process. I became quite adept at typing while bottle feeding a baby.
Wow, you’re better at it than me. I never picked up that skill. Would have come in handy, had I known, though. And – four kids? And you still write? You, sir, deserve a medal. And a good bottle of bourbon.
My dad was a workaholic, and I always told myself that if I had kids, I’d put them first. So, when my kids come in the study, I power the computer down and hang out with them – most of the time. I’ll admit there are times I shoo them away, but for the most part, I try to commit to hanging with them while they’re around. The writing I get done, gets done when they’re asleep.
You clearly make sure that your children come first, and that is an admirable quality. Do you ever think about trying your hand at writing something for children?
Ha! I don’t think I have the stuff for that. There are so many wonderful children’s books out there, which my kids devour in great quantities, and I’m looking forward to introducing them to the vast selection of fantastic YA books, when they’re older, and adult books soon enough after that. I’m not sure what contribution I could make, actually.
I am keen to tell my kids they can become or do anything… what makes them happy. How would you react if your children were to come to you and say that want to become a writer/artist, over a job with a steady income and corporate hierarchy?
Of course, in theory I’d tell them to follow their bliss. But I spent a lot of years working unsatisfying jobs because I had a useless university degree (philosophy) and was pretty bad at picking out a career path. If I had it to do over again, I think I’d probably tell my 18-year old self to ditch the Nietzsche and Aquinas and pick up a useful trade. I don’t know, engineering or something.
Anyway, I’m going to encourage my kids to have a useful skill, anything from welding or carpentry to lab chemistry or whatever, which they can use to fend off the pecuniary demons while still pursuing their creative impulses (if they have them, which I suppose they will – this stuff is genetic, ain’t it?). So, while I wouldn’t necessarily encourage them to go corporate (I was miserable during my brief stint in the corporate world), I wouldn’t discourage them from thinking practically, either. The world doesn’t owe them or me a living, and there’s little sense in racking up $100,000 in student loans learning to imitate other poets, so you spend the next decade living in my basement and a further decade paying off that massive loan.
A lot of parents I know would scoff at such ideas and admonish me as being irresponsible. Would you agree that we are slowly losing sight of the important things in life in the name of materialism?
Oh, I don’t know. What is life, that isn’t material? I’m not particularly idealistic about much of anything these days, having burned all that out of me my 20’s; these days I’m a pragmatist. I think you have to find a balance between making your way in the dirty world as it is while maintaining your own inner sense of equilibrium.
About the only thing practical I got out of my study of philosophy is a long-term admiration of the ancient Stoics, and their commitment to equanimity in the face of all things. Unless you were born into the aristocracy of Heian Japan, the world has never been a particularly friendly place for those with a creative bent. Seems to me the sooner you make your peace with that, the smoother things will go.
Ok, that got a little serious there, let’s bring it back to writing.
What writer has inspired you the most until now?
Oh, God, I couldn’t narrow it to one. Living? Dead? There are just so many fantastic writers out there, living and dead, that any attempt to construct a list would only result in me leaving lots of them off.
Would you ever co-author a book? If so with whom would you most like to work with?
I’ve never thought about that. I don’t know if I could do that – to quote Tom Waits, I’m pretty selfish about my privacy. Writing’s a very intimate thing and I don’t know if I could snuggle up to another writer that close, you know?
Having said that, I’d sure think about it if the possibility came along.
I am currently interviewing two writers that walked away from the world of traditional publishing to follow the independent route. Where do you stand on the Indie VS NY Big Six debate? Would you go corporate or are you indie for life?
Well, considering that I just recently signed with an agent who’s trying to get me a traditional book deal (go Adriann, go!), I guess you’d have to say I’ve sided with the Big Six. But that would be a touch disingenuous – in reality, I’ve got a foot in both worlds. I’ll never forget that an indie publisher – Snubnose Press – published my first short story collection, and all the indie mags I’ve been fortunate enough to have my stuff published in. Plus, I’m an editor at Out of the Gutter Online, and also an acquiring Editor at the newly-reopened Gutter Books, and we’re indie as fuck.
I think every writer has to find a path that works for him or her. For some that will be the traditional path, squeezing past the gatekeepers and getting a traditional publishing deal. For others that will mean sticking with the indie presses and possibly going the academia route. And others will self-publish, which I think is as legit as any of the others. There’s no “better” or “worse” way, as far as I’m concerned, just ways that work.
As Court mentioned, his collection of short stories Moondog Over the Mekong is available on Amazon and can purchased here
You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter or via his website.
3 thoughts on “Too Much Grit to Keep Hiding in the Shadows – Alex Laybourne Interviews Author Court Merrigan”
Lovely interview. Although I am going to call a little bullshit on the “no theme” in your work, Court. There have been in every story of yours I’ve read. The caveat is that they don’t whack you over the head, and sometimes these themes/messages aren’t pleasant. Like “Cloud Factory,” there IS a theme. Opportunism. Isolation from our fellow man. Violence, perseverance, which is weaved effortlessly into the narrative. (PS. I just passed Tom Waits on the highway last week. Fucker drives an Audi, I shit you not.)
Thanks a lot for dropping by Joe. I am glad you liked the interview. I have Meekon loaded on my kindle and have it next up to read.