Street Talk

Michael Nye

Michael Nye’s debut story collection is Strategies Against Extinction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Kenyon Review, and New South, among many others. He works as the managing editor of The Missouri Review.

Reaching for Something Real: An interview with Michael Nye


Braddock Avenue Books: You begin your story collection, Strategies Against Extinction, with an epilogue from Joyce Carol Oates that is a meditation on realism that says, “to be a realist (in art or life) is to acknowledge that all things might be other than what they are.” In many ways, the moral compass of your stories seems to demonstrate this idea. In fact, even the title of the opening story, “The Re-Creationist,” seems to announce this project.

Michael Nye: The epigraph is, to borrow a phrase from my old mentor Lee K. Abbott, a stout stake, a declaration of what kind of book the reader is about to experience. Right now, realism gets a bad rap compared to, say, metamodernism or disaffected realism or some other term I’m not entirely sure how to label. But I think good realism rejects all typing and cataloging already: Oates’s quote claims this much better than I can paraphrase it, but in essence, realism is inherently thrilling and unpredictable.

“The Re-Creationist” poses a question that is relevant in any time period: what happens when what I do and what I’m good at is no longer valued by the world? In contemporary America, this comes up in any discussion of the state of manufacturing and skilled labor. This happens throughout civilization when technology and innovation effectively eliminate certain jobs. The main character, Don, has made a career of broadcasting sporting events without actually being there. His imagination is what made him a great broadcaster; it’s also the reason he’s losing his job and his family. This conflict between our dreams and our reality—what we dream of and what is expected of us—shows up in several other stories in the collection, too.

BAB: So many of the stories in the collection develop from the circumstances of place, in this case Ohio—what many people think of as a solidly Midwestern place. Almost always, regardless of whether the specific setting is urban or rural, the characters find themselves trapped in, deformed by, or hoping to escape from this geography.

Nye: Over the last fifteen years, I’ve moved a couple of times: Columbus; Burlington, Vermont; Boston; St. Louis; and now Columbia (the small college town in Missouri, not the country). Each time, I gained a new appreciation for how much where I am shapes who I am, whether I like it or not. Uprooting your job, your family, leaving your friends, no longer knowing where the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants are, all of it, can be enormously stressful.

For most of the characters in Strategies Against Extinction, rather than leaving, they feel rooted. Some want to be, some don’t. But what they want or what they had isn’t there anymore. Small town Ohio, if it ever was real in the way we’re told it was, is gone. The home bought and furnished with a husband is gone; it’s just a house now. The store your brother helped you run is haunted now that he’s dead. The feeling of being trapped is all self-inflicted, seeing the world the way they want it to be rather than the way it is in the here and now. Many of us live our lives this way—thinking we’re trapped because we don’t yet understand the choices we made, the choices we still have—and the stories (I hope) demonstrate this in a dramatic and moving way.

BAB: There is often a tension (and perhaps this is in some way related to the question about geography) between your characters who believe that there is virtue in “normalcy” and those who feel dissatisfied with those things, those situations, that we so often say bring us happiness. Kyle’s wife in “A Fully Imagined Life” is a good example. When Kyle complains about feeling directionless, she has no sympathy: “. . . whatever existential crisis you’re going through needs to stop.  Right now . . . Come inside when you’re ready to start acting normal.”

Nye: It’s much harder to break away from norms than people realize. Trying to explain “I don’t want this” to someone you love is terrible when you can’t explain what it is you do want. Kyle has this problem. He got a good job as an attorney, got married, had children, has a home, all the things that Americans are supposed to value. And then he loses the job, his marriage is brittle, he’s not crazy about being a father, and his mind is in the past rather than the present.

Molly, Kyle’s wife, sees this change as being his fault. My feeling toward her is sympathy. In the second half of that story, she does her best to be empathetic and understanding and Kyle resists her; naturally, she fires back at him. They’re human after all, and I hope despite their flaws, their nastiness, their refusals, readers sympathize with these two people, battered in their own way, trying to understand how they got to this place in their marriage.

BAB: The collection is anchored by a novella, “Keep.” We found the characters in this piece to be richly drawn and the development of the action subtle and beautifully satisfying. It brought to mind, again, the strange status that novellas continue to have.  Could you talk for a bit about the form and its possibilities?

Nye: My writing students always want to publish, almost as soon as they realize there is a thing called “publishing.” This never really goes away—established writers too want an audience, respect, and a readership. Choosing the novella pretty much throws publishing out the window. There is something very freeing about that, especially after the first stories or poems or books have been published, and as a writer, you feel a pressure (even if you’re the one applying it) to do The Next Thing with your writing. Since novellas have no really organic outlet, other than a handful of literary magazines and a select innovative series of digital solos/singles, there’s a tremendous amount of artistic freedom.

“Keep” was originally a short story. I think the first draft was around 7500 words. Next draft, shorter. Next draft, longer. At some point around draft four or five, when it was clear that I could not get everything into this story that I wanted to in under ten thousand words, I thought, okay novella!

I love reading novellas because they take an entire day, but not two weeks. I’m required to read it all in one long, comfortable sitting, while a novel will naturally take a couple of days, a short story an hour or so. There is an easing into the novella that I really love and admire. It’s definitely my favorite of the narrative forms.

BAB: This collection follows a rich tradition of literary realism, would you describe writers whom you feel may have influenced Strategies Against Extinction?

Nye: This would be a very long list. Writers that I’m fairly positive had a direct influence on me include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Lee K. Abbott, Melanie Rae Thon, and Charles Baxter. I’m sure I’m leaving out a dozen other writers, but, hey, this interview can’t go on forever, right?